Earlier this week, The Guardian published a report on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) based on an interview with a Nigerien soldier whom ISGS held captive for three months. The whole piece is worth reading, but what stood out to me – more than the soldier’s testimonial – was a passage about an exchange between ISGS leader Abu Walid al-Sahrawi and Niger’s Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum:
When Bazoum took the interior minister job, he sent emissaries to ask what [ISGS] wanted.
“I said ‘listen, if you have political claims, or problems with the justice, the administration, the state, then tell me’,” said the imposing Bazoum, sitting on the sofa in his Niamey office. “We are ready to discuss your problem with you and resolve it. Declare that you’re a rebel front with specific claims on the Nigerien state.”
He said he received a handwritten letter from Sahraoui himself, which said: “No, we have no problem with you; we are waging jihad against Mali.”
According to Bazoum, the letter contained a list of Sahraoui’s comrades in Nigerien jails, whom he wanted released. If they were freed, ISGS promised to shield Niger from attack.
“I freed some of them to show my good will, but I couldn’t free all of them because some were on trial,” Bazoum said.
After that, the communication channel broke down and attacks escalated. Some believe the group’s militants could still be offered an olive branch to demobilise and be reintegrated into Nigerien society. But Bazoum is not among them.
If true, this account points to some patterns that American officials and analysts are often unwilling to acknowledge: national governments sometimes communicate with jihadists on a non-hostile basis and cut, or attempt to cut, deals with them. And jihadists are sometimes willing to talk, and even to deal a bit.
I’ve been working on some pieces that touch on how different Nigerien officials’ understanding of Sahelian jihadism is from American officials’ understanding of it; here is yet another instance of that divergence.
Think Bazoum was being naive? The guy’s been around the block more than once. And you might play your cards similarly if you held the hand he does.