Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

  • Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
  • Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
  • AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
  • France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
  • This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.

Malian Labor Threatens a General Strike, and Seeks a Different Kind of State

On November 23, the National Union of Malian Workers (French acronym UNTM) sent a 6-page letter to the Minister of Employment and Civil Service threatening a general strike from December 14-18. The letter lays out an immense range of demands. Rather than trying to summarize them all, I’ll just evoke a few that caught my eye:

  • “…the implementation of measures and structures appropriate for relaunching the railroad, the Post Office, and for evaluating privatizations, contracts, and the mining code, in addition to the exploitation of gold, to put Mali back in its rights…”
  • “…compensation of workers who have been victims of the crisis in Mali since 2012…”
  • “…immediate measures for reducing the high cost of living…”

Whether or not the strike happens, and regardless of what it achieves or doesn’t achieve, the letter is a reminder that for many Malians, the country’s crisis goes beyond insecurity and beyond questions of coups and elections – the letter evokes a sense of a citizenry experiencing a socioeconomic crisis that the union leaders, at least, understand as a result of both short-term “political inertia” in 2020 and long-term consequences of privatization and the hollowing-out of the state. There is a short paragraph on the first page summarizing the UNTM’s role in Malian history since 1960 and I don’t think that’s idle; the letter’s authors suggest that the problems they are responding to are deeply embedded in the entire arc of Malian history. I also got the sense that the letter’s authors see almost total continuity between Mali’s pre-coup problems and post-coup problems; if there was a honeymoon for the junta or for the transitional government, that honeymoon definitely seems to be over now in the eyes of the UNTM – and the UNTM sees the transitional government as being fully on the hook for past, unfulfilled agreements with labor made in 2019 and earlier. With the phrases I highlighted above, the letter seems to be calling not just for a resolution of labor’s demands but also for a much more muscular and assertive Malian state.

Quick Notes on Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi’s Interview with al-Naba’

In the latest issue (#260) of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, there is an interview with Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). As MENASTREAM points out, the appearance of the interview temporarily settles the question of whether his deputy Abd al-Hakim al-Sahrawi is now in charge.

The interview is two pages (pp. 10-11) and as I commented on Twitter yesterday, over three-quarters of it concerns the deep background to current events. Prompted by the interviewer, al-Sahrawi gives his version/narration of the history of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism from just after the formation of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC) in the late 1990s until the formation of the al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) in 2017. Only in the last quarter of the interview or so does al-Sahrawi turn to discussing the recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which has received recurring coverage in al-Naba’ (see here for my annotated translation of a June 2020 al-Naba’ article on that topic).

Al-Sahrawi’s narration of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism emphasizes the infighting among the Saharan battalion commanders of the GSPC (which was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM in 2007). Al-Sahrawi points to the failure of various efforts to reconcile these battalion commanders (notably Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom al-Sahrawi names several times, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, whom al-Sahrawi indirectly names by referring to Abu Zayd’s Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion). Al-Sahrawi also emphasizes that the Saharan battalion commanders were very difficult for AQIM’s Algeria-based leadership to control. “The organization, in reality, was an image with no reality to it. What existed on the ground was a number of battalions with different orientations and multiple loyalties, all of them linked with the leadership of al-Qaida in Algeria.” Notably, while Belmokhtar is often portrayed as the recalcitrant one in other accounts of these internal GSPC/AQIM spats, in al-Sahrawi’s telling, it was Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion (i.e., Abu Zayd) that was resistant to at least one major unity initiative, the effort by central leadership to impose Nabil Abu Alqama as the central leadership’s unquestioned deputy in the Sahara.

Al-Sahrawi goes on to review developments between 2011 and 2013 in detail, starting with the Libyan revolution and its impact (in his view) on the northern Malian rebellion of 2012; then discussing the relationships among AQIM, the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM’s ally Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA); then discussing the impact of the French-led military intervention in Mali in 2013. The thought of going over all those events here on the blog for the millionth time kind of fatigues me, to be honest, so I would suggest reading a summary of those developments if you’re not familiar.

One point of interest here concerns the relationship between AQIM and the Malian-led Ansar al-Din. Those who consider Ansar al-Din a front group for AQIM will find support for their argument in part of what al-Sahrawi says, to wit: “The al-Qaida organization [here meaning AQIM], in its different groupings, entered into that framework [of Ansar al-Din’s vision of an Islamic state in Mali], even though its leadership [the pronoun “its” goes to AQIM, if my reading is correct] remained independent of it [the pronoun “it” goes to Ansar al-Din’s framework, if my reading is correct].” Later he talks about AQIM “working under cover of [Ansar al-Din].” Yet those, like me, who find the “front group” description simplistic will find support in al-Sahrawi’s descriptions of Ansar al-Din circa 2012 as a collection of opponents to the MNLA’s separatist vision, opponents motivated “either by ethnic, racial reasons or by creedal, religious reasons.” Al-Sahrawi later briefly mentions the 2013 split among Ansar al-Din’s leadership that remains, I think, fundamental to understanding the hybridity of the movement itself during 2012. Anyways, it’s a long discussion; YMMV.

Moving on, when discussing his unit’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, al-Sahrawi is conspicuously silent on Belmokhtar. He has no shortage of criticisms for the AQIM leadership in general, accusing them of a criminal level of self-interest and self-preservation in the face of what he sees as a groundswell of interest in the Islamic State project from the among AQIM’s own rank-and-file. He repeatedly slams AQIM leaders for their approach to the 2012 rebellion, to the MNLA, etc. Yet al-Sahrawi does not name any names here, nor does he criticize Belmokhtar – who, when he and al-Sahrawi were both part of the then-estranged AQIM unit al-Murabitun in 2015, publicly rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, a pledge al-Sahrawi made in the name of al-Murabitun. It makes me wonder whether there is a vestigial admiration for Belmokhtar among Islamic State audiences (despite the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere having publicly called for Belmokhtar’s death at points). Belmokhtar did, after all, cut a larger-than-life figure in the Sahara and even in Libya for a time, and perhaps al-Sahrawi is shying away here from directly taking on that legacy. Belmokhtar, as a reminder, has been either dead or at least publicly absent from the Saharan scene since 2016. In any event, al-Sahrawi presents JNIM’s formation in 2017 as a response to the formation and growth of ISGS.

Al-Sahrawi then turns to the ISGS-JNIM conflict, saying that for a time, ISGS focused on fighting “crusaders and apostates” while making outreach to JNIM’s cadres. According to al-Sahrawi, this outreach attracted a lot of fighters from Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), a northern Burkina Faso-based jihadist outfit that was/is in JNIM’s orbit, as well as from JNIM units in what he refers to as “Konna,” “Macina,” and “Nampala” (localities in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of central Mali). Al-Sahrawi then quickly runs through a complicated series of events that, in his telling, involved JNIM fighters from Nampala (but not physically in Nampala at the time) pledging allegiance to ISGS/Islamic State, then JNIM leaders giving orders for that pro-ISGS unit to be blocked from returning to Nampala, then fighters in Macina refusing to carry out the orders and instead pledging allegiance to ISGS/IS themselves, then the leader of the ISGS-aligned group from Nampala, Miqdad al-Ansari, being killed in a “crusader air raid…under obscure circumstances!” I have not yet had time to triangulate between this and other accounts. As in other al-Naba’ articles, al-Sahrawi argues that JNIM leadership coordinates with non-jihadists. He then presents JNIM’s negotiations with successive Malian authorities as the culmination of a process where the group has de facto lost its jihadist credentials – and, of course, he refers to them as “apostates” throughout the article.

Big takeaways? I’m not sure. The desire to shape perceptions of history stands out – it’s not just scholars and analysts who are still chewing over the events of 2011-2013 in Mali. And the sense of the JNIM-ISGS conflict as a competition for the loyalties of discrete units of fighters in Mali is also notable. The account of how a dispute over Nampala escalated into a wider conflict will be worth revisiting. Another point is that, at least on this first reading, I saw no references to Nigeria, Boko Haram, ISWAP (in the sense of a specific organization based around Lake Chad), etc. Finally, I can’t help but sigh at the Islamic State’s ascription of the title “Al-Shaykh” to al-Sahrawi – not everybody has to be a shaykh, guys. Pretty clear that al-Sahrawi’s not, even by jihadi standards.

A Few Stray Quotes Regarding the Reported Jihadist Presence in Mali’s Wagadou Forest

August 2011:

The return of [al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM] in the zone [after a June 2011 Mauritanian-Malian military operation] can be explained by several causes. The most evident is that the forest is strategic: it serves as natural air and ground cover. Satellites or drones cannot spot the elements of AQIM and access by the land route is difficult there.

May 2019:

The forest is a nearly uninhabited zone, frequented by nomads. The vegetation is dense and it is dominated by thorny bushes. The trees, larger in the eastern part of the forest, make the forest darker…The forest is traversed by the road which leaves Dioura for Toladji and Nampala, and also the road that links Diabaly to Nampala. Due to its density and its size, Wagadou offers an ideal refuge for malefactors escaping satellite surveillance and the airstrikes of conventional armies.

October 2020:

The village of Farabougou owes its misfortunes to its reputation as a locality home to intrepid warriors. Situated at the edge of the forest of Wagadou, Farabougou has always fiercely resisted razzias [raids], very frequent in the zone before the pacification imposed by colonization.

October 2020:

Cheick Oumar Sissoko of Espoir Mali Koura, part of the M5-RFP protest movement: “But where do all these motorbikes come from? All these people with transport who circulate as they like? Who come to attack as they like, at 5 o’clock in the morning, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, where do they come from and where do they go afterwards? Where do they resupply themselves with gas, with food? It’s true that today at Dogofry and Farabougou, they took all the animals, the cows, the goats, but where do they come from and where do they go in this border zone with Mauritania? Or it seems that some can be in the forest of Wagadou. Do they not fall back to Mauritania?

Negotiations with Jihadists Are Already Occurring in Multiple Places in Mali

My brain is fried, so I’ll let a few data points speak mostly for themselves.

Le Drian, October 26:

Koro cercle, Mopti Region, July 2020:

In July, a new meeting was organized between the representatives of Mono Bemou and the jihadists, somewhere in a corner of the brush between the villages of Dinangourou and Dioungani. The jihadists set their conditions, extensive and onerous, to say the least: “They told us that no one, except them, could carry weapons. And that they only used these weapons for targeting the State. They also demanded that they be able to deliver sermons wherever it seemed good to them, and they forbade the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes…They did not forbid the republican school, but they demanded that the madrasas and instruction in Arabic be put in the forefront.” The last demand of the jihadists: “That no one revisit the question of who stole whose animals” in order to not “create other problems.”

Farabougou, Ségou Region, November 2020:

Many days ago, discussions were initiated with the jihadists. This mediation, conducted by local notables with the support of the army and the authorities, moved forward considerably at first. In particular, the intercommunal tensions preceding the jihadists’ actions had been resolved. But blockages appeared last week. Many sources within the mediation explain that at present, the jihadists demand, for lifting the siege, to collect the weapons of Farabougou’s traditional Dozo hunters. They also demand that sharia, as they conceive it, be applied. The discussions are thus more difficult, but they continue.

Not saying the dialogues/negotiations always work, or work at all. But they are happening, sometimes from the bottom up, sometimes from the top down, in different places in Mali. How could it be otherwise? What France wants, or says, only matters to some extent. And these are only some of the negotiations that are reported – imagine what goes unreported.

Roundup on Recent(ish) Insecurity-Related Events in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of Mali

I think my blogging this week will be mostly roundups, at least until the dust settles with the U.S. elections and my (and readers’, perhaps) mental acuity returns to something like normal.

The Mopti Region of Mali deserves its own regular roundup – it is the most violent region in the entire Sahel, with myriad tragedies affecting the region’s residents and with major ramifications for other parts of Mali and the Sahel. The adjacent Ségou Region is also a site of significant insecurity.

I don’t think I’ll attempt a regular roundup, but here are a few pieces that have caught my eye recently. I list them in chronological order. All are in French but I have translated the titles:

  • Olivier Dubois, Jeune Afrique, October 4: “In the Mopti Region, a Precarious ‘Peace’ with the Jihadists.” The article focuses on a July 27 peace agreement signed in the Koro district/cercle. The deal contained many striking provisions, including compromises from the jihadist side – such as allowing “republican schools” to continue function, with the provision that Arabic-language schools be prioritized. Then, too, the jihadists said that disputes over stolen animals should be dropped, so as not to elicit further conflict. Precarious indeed.
  • On October 28-29, the United Nations’ peacekeeping force MINUSMA launched seven new projects in the Mopti Region aimed at reducing inter communal violence and promoting reintegration.
  • Célian Macé, Libération, November 1: “The Malian Army Accused of Summary Executions in a Peul Village.” The Peul are a major ethnic group in Mali and West Africa more broadly, and their role in the current conflict is extraordinarily complex – I refer you to Modibo Ghaly Cissé’s paper here. The village in question here is Liebé, in the Bankass district/cercle of Mopti, near the border with Burkina Faso.
  • RFI, November 2: “A Soldier Killed in an Attack at Farabougou.” Farabougou, in the Niono district/cercle in Ségou (map), was the site of a jihadist siege beginning in early October. Breaking the siege required Malian military intervention, including the physical presence of Colonel Assimi Goïta, head of the junta that ruled Mali from late August until early October, and current vice president of the transitional government. The attackers are presumed to belong to Katibat Macina (Macina Battalion), part of the al-Qaida-affiliated JNIM coalition. As you can see from the RFI story, the situation remains tense in and around Farabougou.
  • Le Monde, November 3: “France Announces Major Antijihadist Operations in Mali.” The article reports on French claims that operations in the vicinity of Boulkessi, in the Douentza district/cercle of Mopti, killed some 60 jihadists affiliated to Ansaroul Islam last week between approximately October 28-30.

What Is Politics, Anyways? France’s Dead End in the Sahel

RAND’s Michael Shurkin has a new article out in the Texas National Security Review‘s Winter 2020/20201 issue called “France’s War in the Sahel and the Evolution of Counter-Insurgency Doctrine.” I strongly advise you read it in full – it’s excellent.

At the meta level, for a wild-eyed anti-intervention leftie like me to express skepticism about France’s Operation Barkhane is…not news. But when someone as even-handed and sober-minded as Shurkin is expressing doubts about Barkhane’s long-term prospects, I hope policymakers in Paris and Washington will really listen.

Shurkin writes,

The success of France’s operations depends on political changes that it refuses to impose itself, and frequently, its actions serve to perpetuate a political dispensation that is a principle driver of conflict. While aspiring to be apolitical and declining to meddle in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, France is, wittingly or not, profoundly affecting the political landscape. Moreover, when France does meddle, it risks undermining the host nation’s legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Every French army officer and Foreign Affairs Ministry official will say that military action can lead to nothing outside of an appropriate political framework, and that security operations may be necessary but are never sufficient to foster an enduring peace. However, they do not know how to act politically without being political.

Here I want to build on what Shurkin writes – what is politics, anyways?

This is not just a problem for political theorists (or for academics scratching their heads over how to respond to Reviewer 2). Defining the sphere of the political and whether and how to act within it is a problem for anyone (everyone) who says, “This conflict has no purely military solution” (and everyone says that about every conflict nowadays, even people who secretly think there is a purely military solution). Once one starts grappling with these questions, you have problems on multiple levels right away, many of which Shurkin gets at directly and indirectly in the excerpt I quoted above. Here are a few problems, for starters:

  1. A foreign military intervention is, inherently, a political act, and the foreign presence constitutes a political actor whether or not the foreigners want it to be;
  2. The foreign presence affects and distorts the political field around it;
  3. Attempting to stay out of the sphere of “formal politics” (elections, and here we might even add coups, transitions, etc.) is itself a political act, and will be perceived and misperceived by plural audiences in diverse ways;
  4. As Shurkin writes elsewhere in the piece, “COIN, per French doctrine past and present, requires some form of political transformation to occur within the host nation, with the understanding that the status quo ante is what engendered the insurrection in the first place. However, post-colonial interventions have tended to restore the status quo ante and relieve problematic regimes from pressure to reform.”

That last quote from Shurkin gets to the problem of how external actors define the desired political end-state. For me, I think 21st-century Western policymakers often imagine political end-states in shockingly unrealistic and vague terms, anticipating not just the military defeat but also the political neutralization of insurgencies that clearly have remarkably staying power. I also think (and here Shurkin and many others may disagree with me) that Western policymakers talk a good game about democracy as a desired political end-state or even as a vehicle for reaching that end-state, but that in practice Western policymakers often consciously or unconsciously want to hand off responsibility to a strongman, an authoritarian. Although then at the same time it seems Western policymakers often want someone biddable and relatively weak-willed, which either leads to them selecting someone too weak to fulfill the strongman role, or someone who turns out to be much different than what they expected and then sows the seeds of renewed (or new) conflict. The most vivid depiction of that latter process I’ve read is Dexter FIlkins’ narration of the CIA’s and Zalmay Khalilzad’s selection of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister in 2006. That worked out poorly.

From what I understand of Malian politics, I don’t think France has tried to impose a strongman on Mali, and I don’t think France imposed Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta on Mali or saw Keïta as a potential strongman. The French are wise to avoid that blatant kind of political intervention. But I do think that it’s hard for these military interventions and counterinsurgencies to break with earlier models of doing politics in other people’s countries. Shurkin points out how the colonial model haunts contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine and practice – and you can’t really take doctrines applied in a context of anticipated long-term possession and occupation and translate them into a different context, I think. I would add that the Cold War model (“let’s find ‘our son of a bitch’ and put him in there for as long as possible”*) no longer seems viable in many places either, because of local pressures and international norms militating for some level of democracy. So, oftentimes, you can’t impose a strongman (nor do I think you should!!) – but if you don’t impose a strongman, what is the alternative?

I don’t know; maybe if the French could, they would clone Idriss Deby and put the clones in charge of Mali and Burkina Faso. But even if they could, you can’t just manufacture a Deby-like figure out of thin air and impose him – Deby has roots, networks, constituencies. So if you can’t possess the place, and if (as Shurkin points out repeatedly) you constantly signal that your presence is temporary, then the colonial model is out. And if you can’t or won’t impose a strongman (or if imposing a strongman is essentially rolling the dice, a la Maliki), then the Cold War template is out too.

And I don’t know that there really is a post-Cold War template. Because again, it’s still an exercise in trying to shape someone else’s politics. But now that effort at manipulation is so abstract and indirect that I think Western policymakers are sometimes in denial about the fact that they really are still attempting serious forms of manipulation, not all of which can be inherently and completely benevolent. So you’re left trying to provide security to give space for elections, for example, but the elections can’t be truly representative amid conflict, and the main contestants are mostly familiar faces with very limited popularity and appeal, many of whom are architects of the same status quo ante that Shurkin aptly points out is a cause of the conflict itself. Or you’re left in this very awkward dual role of killing the bad guys on the one hand and trying to act as the country’s coach on the other hand, saying, “This is how you run an army! This is how you try not to kill civilians! This is how you run a ministry!” But it doesn’t really work, and when it doesn’t work the Western policymakers and implementers let themselves off the hook by turning the concept of “governance” into a moral critique of African leaders and bureaucrats, and telling themselves the Africans “just don’t want it [peace] badly enough.” Again, I don’t think Shurkin will necessarily agree with my reasoning or my crude phrasing, but these are the implications I take from his piece and from the broader patterns that I see.

In short, maybe France can’t articulate a serious political strategy in Mali and the Sahel because there really isn’t one to be articulated. So you’re left saying “the return of the state” or “security-development nexus” for like 20 years, and then one day you go home.

*Yes, I know the possibly apocryphal quote was uttered in a pre-Cold War context, but still.

Recent Reporting on Insecurity-Related School Closures in the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

The violent conflicts in the Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin have been causing schools to close, on and off, for years. Bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack have issued reports on this subject this year (in May and September, respectively). Jihadists are key perpetrators of attacks on schools, obviously, targeting them for ideological reasons specific to education (objections to the curricula, for example), but also as symbols and institutions of the state. Schools can also be caught in the crossfire, literal or political, amid extended conflicts; for example, Human Rights Watch points out above that when militaries use schools, it can contribute to making those schools into targets.

Several journalistic reports on school closures have come out just in the past few days:

  • Voice of America (October 19) reports on school closures in northern Cameroon due to attacks by Boko Haram. A Cameroonian official says: “Sixty-two schools have been closed. The children have to be either scholarized [educated] in other schools very far from their own villages or to abandon schools. Thirty-four-thousand-and-fifty-four students have been registered as IDPs. We have the students of the host communities; we have even refugee students.”
  • Le Point (October 21) gives some grim statistics: in Mali, 926 schools out of 8,421 are closed. In the central region of Mopti, the most violent region in the entire Sahel, 127 schools out of 218 are closed.
  • RFI (October 21) gives even worse statistics for Burkina Faso: 2,100 schools closed, although that estimate is actually lower than 2,512, the number of schools closed due to insecurity on the eve of COVID-19, according to Human Rights Watch’s count in its May 2020 report.
  • RFI (October 21) has a short piece on the education crisis in Mali, including a striking micro-portrait of a teacher who was wounded in Kidal, in the far northeast, during an ill-fated visit by the then-Prime Minister there in 2014, which triggered clashes with ex-rebels. The teacher, now in Bamako, says he/she cannot go back because of the state’s absence in Kidal and the security forces’ inability to provide security there.

In some areas, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say, insecurity is locking parts of entire generations out of their chance at an education. And teachers like the one mentioned above can also have their lives and careers thrown into chaos. Even if the violence stopped tomorrow in all these conflict zones, the effects will be felt over lifetimes.

Sahel: Smail Chergui and Antonio Guterres Open to Idea of Supporting Dialogue with Jihadists

On October 14, the African Union’s Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui, an Algerian diplomat, published an op-ed in Le Temps. He argued that strategies for the Sahel – he and others put the current count at more than 17 – need to be revisited and harmonized. As part of that argument, Chergui includes a section on “dialogue with extremists.” Chergui does not mention any specific groups, but he writes that “any innovative idea is welcome” when it comes to making peace, and that the February 2020 accord with the Taliban “can inspire our member states to explore dialogue with extremists and encourage them to lay down arms, particularly those who were recruited by force.”

Chergui’s remarks received coverage in Le Monde and elsewhere – Le Monde, appropriately, places the issue in the wider context of the debate in Mali about negotiations, a debate that dates back a long time but that gained some momentum after the Conference of National Understanding in 2017. That conference generated a recommendation to engage two key Malian nationals, Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa, in dialogue; ag Ghali and Kouffa were then, and are now even more so, the major leaders of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), a jihadist coalition that is part of al-Qaida’s hierarchy. More recently, the context for Chergui’s remarks include the hostage/prisoner exchange earlier this month before Mali’s transitional government and JNIM, events that I wrote about here and here.

On October 19, Le Monde published an interview with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in which he, too, expresses openness to the idea of dialogue with certain jihadists. He ruled out dialogue with the Islamic State’s affiliates, which would seem to leave JNIM. Guterres’ suggestion that certain jihadists “have an interest in engaging in this dialogue in order to become political actors in the future” is a really interesting one: this, of course, brings us back to the perennial question of what JNIM, and especially ag Ghali, might actually want in a political sense. Guterres’ comments were covered in the international Anglophone media as well as in Malian and Mauritanian outlets. People in the Sahel are definitely paying attention to what these major regional and international actors are saying on this topic.

My general take, as regular readers likely know, is that talking with jihadists is well worth doing, especially if negotiations can produce what I call “stabilizing settlements.”

What Do We Learn About the CMA and JNIM from the Negotiations over Soumaïla Cissé? Part Two – JNIM

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.