In this post I’m assuming that you know the basic outlines of what happened with the recent prisoner exchange between the Malian government and the jihadist organization Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). If not, you may want to read part one, which deals with the negotiations and particularly with the role of the main ex-rebel bloc in northern Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).
JNIM is a jihadist coalition that was formed in March 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations and units that had already been working together for years. One can see that history come into play with the recent hostage releases; one of the four hostages JNIM released, French aid worker Sophie Pétronin, was kidnapped in 2016, in other words before JNIM was formed. JNIM belongs to al-Qaida’s hierarchy and theoretically sits below not just al-Qaida central but also al-Qaida’s regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in that hierarchy. The deaths of several key Algerian AQIM leaders in recent years, though, have reinforced my sense that it is JNIM’s leader, Malian national Iyad ag Ghali, who really sets the organization’s tone. This does not mean that JNIM is a purely “local” outfit – clearly it has regional ambitions and draws on global jihadist imaginaries (if I can use an overused academic term) in its propaganda. But I have repeatedly gotten the sense, over the years, that ag Ghali is more independent-minded than the leader of your average al-Qaida affiliate. There is a big although perhaps unresolvable debate to be had about what ag Ghali really wants, how cynical he is vis-a-vis jihadist ideology, and so forth.
The question of what ag Ghali wants comes into play with the prisoner exchange. JNIM is much bigger than ag Ghali and some reports indicated that many of those released back to JNIM had never met him, which makes sense. Yet the JNIM leader seemed to deliberately make the final exchange into a kind of “ag Ghali show,” appearing at what was essentially a big party and allowing himself to be photographed. His appearance raises all kinds of questions, as noted in this perceptive thread, about why he was so confident that he could reveal himself, and about what messages he was trying to send what audiences through such an appearance.
The photos also fuel speculation about whether ag Ghali has a kind of de facto immunity against French raids, or arrest, and if so what that says about his relationships with governments in the region – all that is either conspiracy theory or above my pay grade, depending on my mood on any given day. In either case I don’t want to touch it.
Turning back to the photos, obviously the black flags are there, and one should not forget the jihadist character of JNIM as an organization or the specifically ideological framings JNIM has applied to this exchange (more on this below). But to me, these photos scan on a few levels with a few different messages. One of those levels is that here we see ag Ghali as “the big man of the north.” I don’t like that phrase, “big man,” but somehow using it feels unavoidable here.
The argument I try to make here, in terms of treating jihadist leaders as politicians, is not that jihadists are morally or strategically equivalent to other types of politicians, or that jihadist ideology doesn’t matter, or that jihadists don’t have blood on their hands. Rather, it’s that jihadist leaders often maintain and cultivate political relationships with actors outside their own organizations, and that such political relationships can have many dynamics that are distinct from, though obviously become intertwined with, jihadist ideology.
To take a concrete example, it is appalling and vicious to kidnap a woman in her 70s and then keep her in captivity, in very harsh conditions, for nearly four years – and it is not just people outside northern Mali who feel that way. To reiterate a point I raised in part one, I was struck by the detail mentioned here, namely that local leaders from throughout the Gao Region, where Sophie Pétronin was kidnapped, had been sending ag Ghali letters for years asking him to release her.
What is the nature, then, of the relationships represented by such correspondence – which seems to have actually reached the JNIM leader? On the one hand, we could say that ultimately ag Ghali released her and the others for men and cash, for tangible resources that directly benefited the jihadist project. On the other hand, it’s worth asking (speculating, I suppose) about what the participants in such correspondence are thinking. Were these leaders from the Gao Region thinking “I am writing a letter to an al-Qaida leader” or were they thinking “I am writing to Iyad ag Ghali, key northern power broker”? And what kinds of channels allowed the correspondence to reach him – on what bases are the people along those channels connected to one another? I would guess it’s not all ideological relationships. And then, receiving the letters, what did ag Ghali think? Obviously the letters did not move him to release her immediately, but I would be surprised if he received the correspondence and thought, “Oh, these people I consider murtaddin [apostates] in Gao are complaining, I don’t care what they think.” There is a story I heard about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably apocryphal, that if you drew any line across a map of the United States, FDR could tell you in detail about the political situation in every county through which that line passed. Not that FDR and ag Ghali are equivalent, but I wonder if ag Ghali has a similar mental map of northern Malian politics. Whatever he wants, he cannot afford – it seems to me – to completely antagonize local leaders in the north.
Another phrase that leaps out to me in looking at the photos, then, is “power broker.” This is a vague term and I am not sure what ag Ghali wants to do with his political power, or that he even knows what he wants to do, precisely – but I am convinced that he wants political power that goes beyond his role as JNIM leader. This relates to another crucial point that Wassim Nasr has made, namely that the “suspected jihadists” released (206, by most counts I see now, including from JNIM) appear to include a number of “non-jihadist fighters.” As Nasr points out, this is politics. Here, too, RFI reports that while some hardened jihadists who had participated in major attacks are rumored to have been released, the “majority…are not important members of jihadist groups.” According to RFI’s reporting and others, JNIM does seem to have asked for specific people to be released, though, in three separate lists of people. It is tempting (likely?) to imagine a process whereby JNIM and ag Ghali canvassed various constituencies, again including constituencies outside of JNIM, to determine which names they should ask for. And if ag Ghali is getting back people who were, say, swept up in security crackdowns but who weren’t part of JNIM, that could (a) reinforce his popularity in the north in general, (b) strengthen his ties to specific local leaders regardless of where those leaders are ideologically, and (c) amplify the impact of JNIM’s anti-French propaganda not just for jihadist sympathizers and audiences but for other northern audiences. Where and when ag Ghali is seen as the champion of north, as “un grand et un vrai chef,” that again reinforces his status as a power broker in ways that both strengthen the jihadist project and go beyond it.
One also, I think, should keep in mind the fluidity of membership in political-military blocs in northern Mali, a fluidity that extends to jihadist ranks. Thus you have the (reported) effort, early in the negotiations, by an ex-jihadist initiating negotiations with JNIM with the blessing of then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and then-Prime Minister Boubou Cissé – and even traveling with an active-duty colonel who was an advisor to the Prime Minister. Sometimes who someone is, the networks they have access to, may matter just as much or more than their particular organizational affiliation at any given moment. And that dynamic can even hold true sometimes for ag Ghali himself.
But there is a lot going on in JNIM’s messaging. Is there a hint of defensiveness, an unspoken attempt to anticipate and parry the condemnations that are likely to come from JNIM’s rivals in the Islamic State, who publicly reject negotiations with the Malian government root and branch? The text overlaying the two photos below (text I can barely make out in places, because of the font) emphasizes themes of justice and injustice, solidarity and oppression, and so forth. The message is expressed in a jihadist idiom, and there is no shortage of contempt for the “Malian regime” and its “prisons of injustice and enmity.” Yet parts of the text could be taken as, again, an effort to justify making a deal with an enemy government.
Here, too, a JNIM-adjacent statement frames the prisoner swap as an extraordinary victory for the jihadists and as a type of “blessed operations that gladden the Muslims everywhere,” and that JNIM “urges our brothers in [other] jihadist groups” to emulate and replicate. This is a kind of boast, obviously, yet could also be seen as a pre-emptive rhetorical defense against potential Islamic State criticisms.
Two more issues, and then I should wrap up, as this is getting long. First is the issue of the actual hardened individuals and serious operatives who (may) have been released. There is debate over whether certain specific individuals, particularly Mimi Ould Baba Ould Cheikh, were actually released – Ould Cheikh, son of a northern politician, is a suspected organizer of major attacks in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. It appears the United States government blocked his inclusion on the list of those freed, which may have slowed the overall exchange and also resulted in an increase to the ransom sum paid to JNIM. Another name being cited is Fawaz Ould Ahmed, reportedly a key operative within al-Murabitun, an AQIM offshoot and one of the groups that fed into the JNIM coalition. Another name mentioned (and confirmed in photos from the release party) is Aliou Mahamane Touré, an official within the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), part of which fed into al-Murabitun and thus eventually into JNIM. If the precise list of those freed is still unclear, there appears to be little debate that the list ultimately includes some very dangerous people. All this has prompted some soul-searching on the French side about what their forces are ultimately actually doing in Mali. To say the least, this deal involved some very bitter compromises for the governments of Mali and France.
The second and final issue is that of money. How much was paid to JNIM? 2.5 million euros? 10 million euros? These are sums in line with those paid at the height of the Saharan kidnapping economy circa 2013. Are we going back to those days? On the one hand, there would seem to be fewer targets of opportunity, especially in terms of Western tourists, than there were before the Malian rebellion of 2012 – and the kidnapping economy in some ways worked against itself by eliciting stronger and stronger travel warnings from Western governments, and effectively killing off tourism in northern Mali. On the other hand, JNIM has every incentive now to kidnap more people.
Where does the money go? I think sometimes commentators assume it all goes straight into operations. I doubt that. Some of those involved in the negotiations may take cuts of the money, and then ag Ghali may distribute some of the money for, again, political impact and relationship-strengthening (for those freed and perhaps even for families of those who were not freed). That kind of largesse could arguably be more dangerous than direct funding of operations, because ag Ghali’s and JNIM’s generosity could augment the popularity they seem to be deriving, in some quarters, from this deal.
It all makes my head spin, to say the least. I guess the final takeaway is that JNIM got a lot out of this deal, and then has amplified its material gains with (a) relatively skillful propaganda and (b) what seems to be continued relationship-building and relationship management across the north.
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