Mali: Jihadist Wives

Read the news out of Mali and you will hear almost exclusively about men. That’s one reason I was struck by this (ultimately somewhat thin) article from France 24. Another is the issue of how Islamist groups interacted with local communities in northern Mali. An excerpt:

FRANCE 24 met with the wife of a jihadist leader from the Gao region.

Mariam moved back to her mother’s house in this peaceful village near Gao, in northern Mali, when her husband left the area.

She won’t say her husband’s name, but everyone in town knows he is Abu Dardar, one of the most brutal and feared jihadist leaders in the region.

He saw Mariam in the market one day and decided he was going to marry her. He liked the way she was dressed. He hated women who wore shirts or dresses but she was veiled and already a devout Muslim. Mariam had become a radical when she married her first husband, whom she had three children with, before he abandoned her.

Slippery terms like “radical” hinder analysis more than they help in this case – what does it mean that she “became a radical”? – but the story gives a glimpse into how the Islamist coalition in northern Mali was partly localized.

I do not have much on Abu (also spelled Abou) Dardar. One Malian source (French) states that he is Algerian, as many senior leaders in the Islamist coalition are/were. After the Islamist coalition – Ansar al Din, Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – gained control of northern Mali in the spring of last year, Abou Dardar appeared frequently in the press as a spokesman. Usually news sources identified him as a MUJWA leader, but sometimes as a leader of one of the other groups (this trend, which has appeared with press coverage of other leaders, suggests either fluidity of membership between these groups, or confusion in the media, or both). We find Abou Dardar speaking to the press after reported clashes between MUJWA and the separatist northern group the MNLA in November, after Islamists’ destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in December, after the French intervention began in January, and during continued combat in the far north in February.

If Abou Dardar is indeed Algerian, his marriage to this Malian woman may fit part of a broader pattern mentioned in sources like this 2010 analysis (French) by Le Figaro of how AQIM developed local ties in northern Mali. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the former AQIM commander reportedly killed this month, was one AQIM leader who allegedly married a Malian woman (from Timbuktu, in this case). A Malian source quoted by Le Figaro called such marriages “a true social intermingling [which] offers real protection.”

The marriages also make defining “local” difficult in the context of the crisis in northern Mali. Some observers are quick to depict AQIM and MUJWA as “foreign” to Mali. But the ties these groups have developed in northern Malian communities, and the fact that some members of these groups are Malian nationals, points to a more complicated reality.

3 thoughts on “Mali: Jihadist Wives

  1. Thanks for pointing this out — really important angle. Abu Daradar is an important guy: was in charge of various things in Douentza (according to interviews done by Al Aan TV reporter Jenan Moussa in January), Ansongo, Gao, Tomobouctou (still haven’t figured out what’s behind his identification as “patron de la radio Bouctou” in Tombouctou).

    Dollars to doughnuts that “peaceful village near Gao” is the Ansar Al-Sunna folks at Kandji/”Derelsalam” or one of it’s satellites. Problem being many of the folks in that community are migrants or children of migrants, and all have quite deliberately removed themselves from wider family ties. The Ronald Niezen writing about that group recaptures a lot of the otherwise missing women’s agency in these communities. But I still would argue they are an exceptional group.

    That said, there’s much evidence of purposeful marriage of Algerian and other “foreign” jihadis into specific Arab families who have relations across the region. That surely accelerated during the occupation.

    But leading Mujao folks are not only “local” to Gao, they’re local to Ansongo, Tarkint, El Kahli, Bordj, Mauritania and farther afield: many all simultaneously. So “Algerian” means not a whole lot for some of these guys. If Abu Dardar is one such, that complicates the already complicated picture.

    • Great points, especially about simultaneous locality. I’ve been reading Niezen’s pieces – any recommendations on more recent writing on Ansar al Sunna?

  2. This follows the same pattern used in Afghanistan/Pakistan and one that Al Qaeda in Iraq attempted to use (which, along with other things, backfired horribly and instead convinced many Sunnis that Al Qaeda was a problem).

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