Partial List of Recent Jihadist Attacks in Southern and Central Mali

This is my effort to catalogue jihadist attacks in southern and central Mali during 2015. I’ve deliberately left off attacks by northern rebels such as the Coordination for the Movements of the Azawad, because I consider those attacks categorically different, although the lines can get blurry. Please let me know if I’ve left any jihadist attacks off the list, and I’ll update it accordingly.

[Update: Ansar al-Din has claimed responsibility for the June 27 and 28 attacks, and commenter Aurélien has listed numerous other attacks, which I’ve incorporated below.]

  • June 28, Fakola, Sikasso Region: Gunmen briefly seized the village; Malian security sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with the Masina Liberation Front, but Ansar al-Din claimed the attack.
  • June 27, near Nara, Koulikoro Region: Gunmen killed three soldiers at a military camp; Malian intelligence sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with Ansar al-Din, which claimed the attack.
  • June 14, Djenné, Mopti Region: Gunmen attack a gendarmerie post.
  • June 10, Misséni, Sikasso Region: An estimated thirty gunmen killed a gendarme and burned down the police station; Malian sources did not identify the attackers, but a Malian journalist (French) attributed the attack to Ansar al-Din.
  • June 2, Dogofri, Ségou Region: Four gunmen kill a gendarme; Malian security sources blame the Masina Liberation Front.
  • April 12, between Niono and Diabaly, Ségou Region: A roadside bomb kills two Malian soldiers.
  • April 3, Boni, Mopti Region: Gunmen kill two civilians.
  • April 1, Boulkessi, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a Malian military base.
  • March 7, Bamako: Attackers with a machine gun and grenades kill five people at a bar; later claimed by al-Murabitun.
  • January 8 and 16, Ténenkou, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked soldiers in the village; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.
  • January 6, Dioura, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a military outpost.
  • January 5, Nampala, Ségou Region: Gunmen attacked Malian soldiers, killing as many as seven; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.

Review of Todd Moss’ The Golden Hour

Last year, Todd Moss published The Golden Hour, a novel about a coup in Mali. Moss served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2007-2008, and he has long been a senior officer at the Center for Global Development, where he wears a number of important hats. You can read his full biography here. The Golden Hour is a work of fiction, but it draws on his work at State and is clearly inspired partly by events in Mali in 2012-2013. Below I review the novel as a piece of writing and as a political statement.

As a Novel

From a literary point of view, I very much enjoyed the book. I found it to be a literal page-turner; I read it in two long sessions, the first of which kept me up much later than I had planned. The novel is engrossing largely because Moss strikes a skillful balance: he includes enough characters and plots twists that the book stays intriguing, but does not bog the writing down with needless complexity. Too many thrillers pack in characters and events until even the most sympathetic reader or viewer becomes lost and frustrated; Moss wisely avoids that.

The idea at the heart of the book is also compelling. Moss’ central character is an academic-turned-diplomat, Judd Ryker, who gets to put his ideas into practice. Ryker’s theory is that a coup can be successfully reversed within approximately one hundred hours. Mali becomes his first real test. I can’t say whether the idea of the “golden hour” in coup-reversal is workable or not; the point is, it’s interesting, and it was part of what kept me reading.

As a side note, I wondered whether the real-life scholar Jay Ufelder (who is not, it should be said, an advocate of anything like a “golden hour”) provided any of the inspiration for Ryker. There are certainly scholars out there doing sophisticated work on understanding coups, so the character of Ryker does not seem crazy.

As a Political Statement (Caution: Spoilers)

Moss was not, I think, primarily trying to make a statement: from what I can tell, The Golden Hour was written as a literary project and as an experiment in thinking through how an idea might play out. Nevertheless, a piece of fiction such as this, taking heavy inspiration from recent and dramatic events, implies some opinions about real-life politics.

The politics of the novel are complicated, which is a good thing: you could not pigeon-hole it as a defense of any particular ideology. I found some elements compelling, and others discomfiting.

One thing I found compelling was Moss’ depiction of an ostensible (and fictional) terrorist group called Ansar al-Sahra, whose violence and crime pushes some United States government officials to support Mali’s coup leader – again, all in the novel. Part of the novel’s resolution involves Ryker’s discovery that Ansar al-Sahra has been manufactured by the coup leader and his soldiers. This discovery helps Ryker unmake the coup and restore the civilian president. That kind of statement from Moss – that the U.S. government is too gullible when it comes to terrorist “threats,” and too tolerant of thugs who claim to be anti-terrorist – is timely and appropriate. The point to me is not that real-life terrorist groups are in reality secret plots, but rather that governments frequently overreact to terrorist groups, especially new and murky ones.

There was one thing that made me uncomfortable: Moss’ inclusion of a successful armed rescue of an American hostage by American special forces. The depiction of a flawless rescue, carried out by badasses, could mislead some readers into thinking that this should always be the approach in a hostage crisis. Some armed rescues work; many others go quite badly.

Finally, there’s a point about which I felt some real ambivalence: Moss’ depiction of the State Department as a place of high drama and high-stakes decision-making. When I worked there for a year in 2013-2014, I found that many officials – even senior officials – saw their time eaten up not by making “tough calls,” but by dealing with bureaucratic pressures, including the constant demands that different U.S. government agencies place on one another. This is exactly the point that Moss is trying to make, I suppose: that true leadership means finding ways to circumvent bureaucracy. His novel is a celebration of the idea of independent, anti-bureaucratic initiative – he opens with a quote from G.R. Berridge, “The advantages of backchannels are secrecy, speed, and the avoidance of internal bureaucratic battles.” But I think Moss overestimates the room that someone like Ryker might have to improvise, to go “backchannel,” to pursue diplomacy as an adventure and a risk.

Judging from my own (albeit limited and junior) experience, I think risk-aversion is so entrenched in American diplomacy right now that Ryker’s actions are almost unthinkable. Of course, The Golden Hour is a novel and it works as a novel – it’s not meant to map onto reality one-to-one. But the question of risk-taking in diplomacy has tremendous relevance right now, and in that sense I have trouble confining to the question of the plot’s plausibility to the text.

I also am not so sure that I want some of our current officials freelancing more – I would rather see systemic changes in how the United States looks at the world and allocates its resources. The scariest thing to me, in fact, is the diplomat who races through twenty-hour days thinking they are Ryker, thinking they are caught up in a whirling drama of high-stakes events – when in fact they are just managing various inputs and outputs within an essentially closed system comprising government officials (ours and theirs). What effect, after all, has the U.S. had on the ground in Mali since 2012? Has the U.S. decisively changed the course of events there at any point? Perhaps that’s because we’re missing a Ryker; or perhaps it’s because the current bureaucratic systems and diplomatic culture prevent the development of creative policies, not just when it comes to reversing coups but also when it comes to thinking imaginatively about Muslim Africa and the wider Muslim world.

Mali: Examining the CMA’s Language on Peace

Today a coalition of northern Malian rebel groups signed a “preliminary peace agreement” with the government, after months of talks in neighboring Algeria. Rebels have said that they will not, however, attend a planned signing ceremony in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday. Yesterday’s statement from the Coordination of the Movements of the Azawad (CMA, where “Azawad” refers to northern Mali) can be found in French here.

Even more important is another statement, issued the day before yesterday and addressed to the Malian people. It contains the CMA’s perspective on the peace talks and the fundamental issues at stake. One key paragraph:

The government of Mali and the CMA today have the heavy responsibility of establishing a true peace that corrects the failures in the political relationship that former governments have maintained up until now with the Azawad for more than half a century, and [a peace] that reorients the management mechanism of the Azawad by the Malian government. The peace for which we sincerely call must be guided by our own convictions and not dictated by anyone else. So now it is necessary to have the emergence of a new social contract between the government of Mali and the Azawad. We remain convinced that any solution to the crisis that ignores the concerns of the people of the Azawad is doomed to failure.

The CMA condemns the creation, arming, and utilization of civilian populations disguised as militias, at the same time that it condemns any illegitimate violence.

There’s a lot to ponder there, and throughout the statement, which contains both moments of frustrating vagueness and elements of pointed grievance – the last sentence of the excerpt above, for example, seems aimed at GATIA, a pro-government militia. Overall, the statement works to project a willingness to make peace, yet it also references serious stumbling blocks that will remain no matter who signs what.

And that, to me, is the main takeaway: the serious and worsening violence on the ground renders the accord ineffective. I won’t say “meaningless,” because these agreements become, if nothing else, elements in a longer narrative of disagreement, but I will say “ineffective,” because I expect that serious violence will continue after this week.

Al-Murabitun and the Islamic State

Yesterday, Mauritania’s Al Akhbar reported (French, and a slightly different version in Arabic)* that al-Murabitun, a Sahelian jihadist group that takes its name from an eleventh-century Northwest African dynasty, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The audio statement (Arabic) was a short and straightforward pledge of allegiance read by someone who gave his name at the end as ‘Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi. Al-Sahrawi was a leader in the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), one of two groups that came together to form al-Murabitun in 2013. The other group was Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulaththamun, or “the Masked Men.” Both groups are splinters from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Sahrawi is (may be?) the emir of al-Murabitun. If genuine, the message from al-Sahrawi would represent a further diminution of al-Qa’ida’s influence in North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel.

I don’t go much for the kind of over-analyzing of jihadist media statements that can lead to making mountains out of molehills, but it is striking that al-Sahrawi’s (purported) statement was not nearly as formal or extensive as other, formulaic pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State. Compare the pledge (Arabic) by Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, which included a number of formal elements (such as Khutbat al-Haja, “The Sermon of Necessity,” an oft-used Salafi doxology) not present in al-Sahrawi’s audio pledge.

One of al-Murabitun’s recent attacks was an April 15 suicide attack on United Nations peacekeepers in Ansongo, Mali. That attack was claimed by Belmokhtar.

*h/t Rukmini Callimachi and Andrew Lebovich, whose commentary on this is worth reading.

On Seku Amadu and the Movement for the Liberation of Masina

On May 3, a group called the Movement for the Liberation of Masina partially destroyed the tomb of Seku Amadu in Hamdallahi, Mali (Hamdallahi is some 37km south of Mopti). The attack came just days before the scheduled ceremonial visitation by the shaykh’s admirers (May 9).

Since 2012, a number of such mausolea have been destroyed in Mali, especially in the context of jihadist rule in northern regions in 2012-2013. Regarding motive, the short answer for why jihadists destroy tombs would be that the jihadists see the tombs as manifestations of polytheism – not as respect for a major Muslim leader or a particularly pious saint, but as dangerous symbols of devotion toward a figure other than God. Another answer might be that destroying tombs is a way to physically and symbolically reshape the political and religious landscape, to project power.

This incident in particular struck me, though, because of the clash it represents between pre-colonial and post-colonial models of jihad in West Africa. Seku Amadu (ca. 1776-1845) was not just known for his piety or scholarship: he was one of the Muslim scholars who led jihads in nineteenth-century West Africa. Around 1818, he built an empire called Masina (or Macina) in present-day Mali, with Hamdallahi as its capital. He originally fought in the name of Shaykh ‘Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), founder of the more famous Sokoto Caliphate located in present-day northern Nigeria and its environs, but Seku Amadu subsequently acted in his own name. Masina fell in 1862 to the armies of another pre-colonial jihad leader, Al-Hajj ‘Umar Tall (ca. 1794-1864).

There are a few things to note about the pre-colonial jihads and how they differ from the kinds of jihads we see now. First, the theological orientation and worldview of these pre-colonial leaders was heavily shaped by Sufism, by the Maliki legal school of Sunni Islam, and by the classical model of Islamic knowledge in northwest Africa – in other words, by all the institutions that today’s jihadists reject. Dan Fodio was a Sufi of the Qadiriyya order, and Seku Amadu had close ties to the Qadiriyya as well; Tall was a Sufi of the Tijaniyya order. Second, the pre-colonial jihad leaders often had considerable learning and scholarly achievements under their belts before they turned to jihad – unlike today’s jihadists, who often lack any significant training in Islamic scholarship. The list might go on, but the point is that the theological and intellectual make-up of today’s jihadists is so different from that of the pre-colonial jihad leaders that the pre-colonial leaders would likely feel almost nothing in common with today’s jihadists.

This stark difference is worth bearing in mind when we assess how today’s jihadists talk about the pre-colonial jihads, or about pre-colonial Muslim polities more generally. For example, when it comes to northern Nigeria, I read a lot of analyses now about how Boko Haram is trying to “resurrect” the Sokoto Caliphate or the Empire of Kanem-Bornu (a polity in the Lake Chad region that was Islamized starting in the eleventh century, and successfully resisted incorporation into Sokoto). Maybe it’s true that Boko Haram seeks to do so, although I am skeptical. But in any case, Boko Haram’s understanding of Sokoto or Kanem-Bornu has been fed through some heavy filters and a good bit of selective re-imagination. Boko Haram didn’t start that process of re-imagination – for forty years and more, Salafis have worked to portray dan Fodio as (strictly) an activist who fought heresy, and to sand away his Sufism and Malikism – but they have taken the process several steps further. In any case, amid this misleading rhetoric, the outsider needs to keep in mind how someone like dan Fodio or Seku Amadu understood himself.

This is critical as one assesses the Movement for the Liberation of Masina, which has reportedly committed multiple acts of violence in central Mali, in a worrying trend that extends northern Mali’s conflict into new areas. If the reports are accurate, then the Movement features many of the same characters who played a role in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012-2013: a preacher named Hamadoun Kouffa (possibly dead) formerly associated with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa or MUJWA; and possibly even Iyad ag Ghali, leader of Ansar al-Din.

Some have read the Movement for the Liberation of Masina as an ethnic movement – specifically Fulani/Peul, and indeed Seku Amadu himself was Fulani. Yet the goals of the Movement seem to be ideological. In the Malian press, we read that the Movement hopes to “restore” the Empire of Masina. When the Movement attacked Tenenkou, Mopti Region in January, they reportedly used similar language, including about bringing back the “old order.” But it is apparent that what they are “restoring” would bear little resemblance to what Seku Amadu built. They, of course, would likely see no irony in their destruction of Seku Amadu’s tomb – they would say that he himself would not have tolerated tombs or visitations to them. But what I see is the contrast between the Sufi-infused, intellectually sophisticated jihads of the nineteenth century, and the anti-Sufi, crudely ideological jihads of the present.


Partial List of Recent Attacks in Mali

The past few weeks have seen a number of attacks in Mali, especially in the north. This post provides some brief information on some of these attacks. Key parties include the Malian military, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, the Tuareg rebel alliance the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad (CMA, which include the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or MNLA), the pro-government militia Self-Defense Group of Imghad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA in French), and the pro-government wing of the Arab Movement of the Azawad (MAA in French). The Malian government and the CMA are being pressured to sign a peace agreement in Algiers on May 2015, but the CMA has been delaying and asking for additional provisions relating to Tuareg self-rule in the north, and the UN is starting to seem openly nervous about the prospects for a signature – let alone implementation.

  • May 1: CMA fighters kill one person (apparently a civilian) and take six others hostage in Bintagoungou.
  • April 29: Rebels (apparently CMA) kill nine Malian soldiers, wound six others, and take six more hostage in a fight in Léré.
  • April 29: Unknown gunmen, possibly CMA, kill three (two soldiers and one civilian) in Goundam.
  • April 28: CMA fighters shoot at UN peacekeepers in Timbuktu.
  • April 27: Pro-government GATIA and MAA fighters take Menaka from the CMA.
  • April 20: Unknown gunmen kill a UN driver/peacekeeper in an ambush 30 kilometers west of GAO.
  • April 17: Unknown gunmen kill two civilian drivers during an ambush on a UN convoy outside of Gao.
  • April 15: Suicide bombing by al-Murabitun at a UN base in Ansongo.

Mali: On the CMA’s Refusal to Sign the Algiers Accord

In Algeria, the Malian government and various factions connected to the 2012-2013 rebellion have been negotiating a peace agreement. Today, the northern Malian Tuareg rebel alliance known as the Coordination for the Movements of Azawad (CMA) reiterated its refusal to sign the current version of the agreement. The agreement is due to be “rubber stamped” on May 15 and the United Nations has pressured the CMA to sign.

The CMA’s statement can be found in French here. The statement reaffirmed a commitment to upholding a May 2014 ceasefire, but did not provide much new information about the CMA’s refusal to sign. For more context, see the statements of April 10 and March 16. The latter statement invokes the attitudes of the CMA’s constituents back home and suggests that the accord represents “a good basis for [further] work” but does not “take into account the essential elements of the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Azawad [northern Mali].” Given the difficulty of reconciling the international pressures manifested in Algiers and the domestic pressures found back home, the CMA is in a difficult position. This dynamic helps explain their repeated requests for more time.

What specific provisions does the CMA want added to the accord? One Malian press story says that the demands include “the ‘official recognition of the Azawad as a geographic, political, and legal entity,’ the creation of an inter-regional assembly covering this zone, and a quota of ‘80% Azawad residents’ in the security forces.” I can’t say whether that’s an accurate representation of the CMA’s asks, but it gives some sense of the concrete and symbolic issues at stake in the negotiations.