In early April, Mali’s Conference of National Understanding recommended that the government negotiate with the jihadists in the north, or at least with Malian nationals Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. At the time, I wrote a bit about the idea here on the blog. Yesterday I did a follow-up of sorts for Global Observatory, looking at how Malian politicians and commentators are debating the proposal – and at how the debate has continued even after France and Malian President Keita expressed their opposition to the idea.
Call me crazy, but even though al-Qaida is supposedly the quintessential “Salafi-jihadi” group, I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.
A good example of one al-Qaida leader’s disinterest in Salafism appears in an interview (Arabic, .pdf, p. 4) that Malian national Iyad Ag Ghali recently gave to an al-Qaida publication. Just last month, Ag Ghali publicly and formally became head of a new jihadist formation in the Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The new group is formally part of al-Qaida and the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the interview, Ag Ghali nonchalantly discusses two issues that would give doctrinaire Salafis considerable pause: his career as a nationalist rebel leader in the 1990s (which involved negotiations with the Malian government), and his long relationship with the global Muslim missionary organization Jama’at al-Tabligh.
Both issues arise in Ag Ghali’s answer to the interviewer’s request for his biography. Ag Ghali divides his life into stages, and among them is: “the stage of negotiations with the Bamako regime in 1991, which produced the first agreement with the Malian government.” Ag Ghali describes the agreement, and the resulting situation “between war and peace” in the 1990s, dispassionately. He voices no regret over what many theologically-minded jihadis would view as a real problem: his willingness to enter into agreements with various regimes that hardline jihadis would consider infidels, and his prioritization of a nationalist struggle over a religious one at that time. It is true that al-Qaida has repeatedly considered and perhaps pursued agreements or truces with different governments, including possibly those in Mauritania and Yemen, but Ag Ghali doesn’t even attempt to frame his past behavior as something that advanced the cause of jihad. There is no indication that he repents for his nationalist past. His attitude is in real tension with the frequently invoked jihadi doctrine of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, or exclusive loyalty toward Muslims and complete disavowal of those considered non-Muslims.
The second issue is one he describes enthusiastically. Speaking of the period in his life from 1998-2011, he says,
God inspired us – to Him be praise and thanks – to join the Society for Preaching and Spreading the Message [Jama’at al-Da’wa wa-l-Tabligh]. This was a beneficial phase in which God Most High facilitated [my] completion of the memorization of the Holy Qur’an, and [my] visits to God’s Muslims and [my] acquaintance with many of them in many places, such as [Saud Arabia], the Gulf, Mauritania, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, and Benin. [I] even [visited] Muslim communities in the West, in France and other countries.
Now, Jama’at al-Tabligh has been roundly condemned by the senior Salafi scholars of the twentieth century. Such scholars viewed Tabligh as a group that did a little bit of good, by urging people to be more pious, but that did a lot of harm, due to its Sufi roots (most Salafis abhor Sufism). The Salafi scholars also felt that Tabligh’s rather generic preaching was a distraction from what Salafis consider the core issue, namely instilling an understanding of Salafi theology and doctrine in lay Muslims. Those Salafi scholars are not respected by al-Qaida when it comes to politics, but the theological concerns they raised about Sufism and Salafism are theoretically still relevant to al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida’s attitude toward Tabligh may be quietly flexible. There have been long-standing accusations that al-Qaida has used Tabligh for recruits and for forms of cover. My admittedly limited understanding of these issues is that Tabligh itself is not usually understood as culpable in such interactions; rather, al-Qaida may have taken advantage of Tabligh’s sprawling membership to pursue its own activities.
But that is a far cry from speaking fondly of one’s membership in Tabligh. Ag Ghali describes an overlapping period in his life – 2003-2009 – as “the stage of getting to know the mujahideen,” suggesting he saw no contradiction between membership in Tabligh and his emerging jihadi identity. And again, he voices no regret over his time with Tabligh – he says nothing like, “And then I saw that they were Sufi heretics and I repented.”
A lot has been made of Ag Ghali’s “chameleon-like” identity, and sometimes I think that’s overblown, but this interview definitely furnishes another piece of evidence for that view of him. In fact, the sense I got from the interview was: “This is a true politician.” The interviewer is often critical (perhaps to help Ag Ghali anticipate and deflect others’ criticisms of him), and at each juncture Ag Ghali responds like a politician, sometimes with quite vague answers. As a politician, Ag Ghali has committed to jihadism, but it is far from clear that he has committed to Salafism. (All of this, by the way, recalls Thomas Hegghammer’s argument that “Salafi-jihadi” is a deeply problematic category because of the difficulty assessing people’s theological commitments. Hegghammer recommends classifying people by how they actually behave. In the case of Ag Ghali his argument definitely applies.)
This discussion takes us back to yesterday’s post. Could the Malian government fruitfully engage Ag Ghali in negotiations? I’m still not sure, although I reiterate that I think it’s worth a try. His flexibility could be taken as either a hopeful or a doubtful sign – on the one hand, there is hope that one could find points of discussion with someone who’s ideologically flexible, but on the other hand, someone so flexible might make a very unreliable negotiating partner.
Mali’s Conference of National Understanding ran from March 27 to April 2. One of the major recommendations by participants was for the Malian government to open negotiations with two jihadist leaders and their factions: Iyad Ag Ghali and his Ansar al-Din, and Amadou Kouffa and his Macina Liberation Front. Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa are Malian nationals. See a bit more on that recommendation, and others, here (French).
The recommendation is worth a try. The past two years have seen the slow and painful implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, which is meant to bring peace to Mali after its 2012-2013 civil war. As various provisions of the accord are finally implemented, jihadists have repeatedly acted as spoilers. Ag Ghali has strong connections among the Tuareg elite in northern Mali, connections (paywalled) that go beyond jihadist circles and extend into other armed groups that are, and must be, major players in any durable peace. During the negotiations that led to the 2015 accord, informed observers in Mali and France strongly suspected that Ag Ghali was, through intermediaries, casting his “shadow” (French) over the process. If the recent past is any indication, a peace process that makes no room for Ag Ghali is one that will be disrupted, perhaps fatally, by regular jihadist attacks. That’s not to say that the Malian government could magically find common ground with Ag Ghali, but it is to say that opening a channel of dialogue could bear fruit. Dialogue with Ag Ghali might also create more space for dialogue with Kouffa, to whom Ag Ghali is close.
Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa, however, are also key figures in the new Saharan jihadist “super-group” Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), whose creation was announced in March. Ag Ghali, in fact, is the group’s leader, and the group is formally a part of al-Qaida. The United States government made Ag Ghali a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2013. From Washington’s perspective, there might be insurmountable legal and political obstacles to including Ag Ghali in any negotiations, or to giving him the kind of immunity that he is rumored to want. Indeed, perhaps Ag Ghali’s choice to formalize his role in al-Qaida represents his abandonment of that desire for immunity.
It’s worth noting the gap between American and Malian views on the question of talking to jihadists. The conference attendees presumably do not see the new “super group” as so solid or scary a structure that Ag Ghali might not be induced to leave it or dismantle it.
Where does all this leave the Malian government? One option, of course, would be for them to quietly open a channel to Ag Ghali and Kouffa, using intermediaries from among the non-jihadist rebels. Perhaps such a channel already exists. If so, that leads to questions about what concrete next steps the conference attendees envision. Would an indirect channel be used to open a direct one? Would that lead to a formal meeting? Formal discussions about a peace-for-immunity deal? If so, how would Washington and Paris react? The government of Mali, in other words, has some tough choices to make and various unknowns to think through.
This week, Mali is holding its “Conférence d’Entente Nationale,” which might be translated as “Conference of National Understanding” or “Conference of National Harmony.” It began on March 27 in the capital Bamako. The conference is meant to fulfill one condition of the 2015 Algiers Accord (French, .pdf, p. 4), the agreement that is supposed to bring peace between the government of Mali and various non-jihadist armed groups in the northern part of that country. The conference is meant to “allow a thorough debate between the elements of the Malian nation regarding the underlying causes of the conflict.”
Like other provisions of the accord, such as joint patrols in northern cities and the installation of interim authorities there, the conference is being held long after the architects of the accord intended. Nevertheless, some experts see the problem as haste rather than delay. In a piece (French) well worth reading, Kamissa Camara and Mahamadou Konaté argue that the conference is unlikely to succeed in its aims, and that the conference isn’t taken seriously by many political actors in Mali, making it likely that the debates there will be superficial. Further skepticism about the conference can be found here (French).
Like other provisions of the 2015 accord, the conference has faced political questions about its representativeness and fairness. Notably, the past few days have seen first a boycott, and then the renewed participation (Arabic), of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the most prominent body representing former non-jihadist rebels in the north. The CMA wanted a longer conference, so as to allow for more discussion, and Malian government representatives reportedly secured the CMA’s participation by agreeing (French) to extend the “first round” of discussions to April 2.
In terms of themes emerging from the discussions at the conference, one central argument (French) many participants are making is the need for reconciliation between the CMA and the “Platform,” a cluster of pro-government militias in the north. There have been numerous attempts at ceasefires and agreements between the two sides before, but that doesn’t mean conference attendees are wrong when they point to the necessity for intra-north understanding as a precondition to national understanding, security, and peace.
In late February, different factions in Mali agreed on a timetable for the installation of “interim authorities” in the three northern regions, Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. The interim authorities are mentioned in the 2015 peace accord (.pdf, French, p. 18). Per the accord, the authorities should have been installed three months after the signing of the accord, or around September 2015.
Given that the different factions were not even prepared to install the interim authorities until now, one can see how serious the obstacles to a durable political settlement are in northern Mali. The problems with the interim authorities closely parallel the problems surrounding “joint patrols,” which I wrote about for Global Observatory in January. The joint patrols are another important provision of the 2015 agreement. The problems for both the interim authorities and the patrols include continued disputes even after so-called agreements, as well as the threat of major violence against the actors attempting to implement those agreements (the joint patrols became the target of Mali’s deadliest-ever suicide bombing in Gao in January).
Regarding the interim authorities, “The government statement said…that the interim authorities would be instated in Kidal on Feb. 28 followed by Gao on March 2 and Timbuktu on March 3.”
The authorities arrived in Kidal, Gao and Menaka as scheduled (over some objections in Gao), but armed groups are already preventing the interim authorities from undertaking their functions in Timbuktu:
Armed groups took over parts of Timbuktu on Monday to prevent Malian interim authorities from being installed there under a peace pact meant to end years of lawlessness, the defense ministry said.
Residents reported sporadic gunfire across Timbuktu on Monday. Banks, schools and shops were shuttered up.
The main Tuareg faction involved in the resistance was the Council for Justice in Azawad, as Tuaregs call the Sahara desert that is their traditional homeland.
The Council itself was only formed in October 2016 (French), reflecting a key obstacle to peace: the proliferation of armed groups. The Council reportedly (French) represents the Kel Ansar, one the Tuareg confederations in Mali. Led by a former cabinet minister, the Council decries (French) what it sees as the Kel Ansar’s exclusion from the peace process. As with other armed groups, the Council can act – and now is acting – as a spoiler.
Other problems are not hard to foresee. If the joint patrols are a precedent, the interim authorities will themselves be targets for violence before too long. I say this not to advocate pessimism about the ultimate prospects for peace (after all, the first joint patrol recently did occur), but just to point out that the situation is very difficult and tense.
On January 18, suicide bombers attacked the Operational Coordination Mechanism in Gao, northern Mali – the camp for forces preparing to undertake mixed patrols (rebels, pro-government militias, government forces) in the city. The casualty count, initially reported at around forty, has steadily risen, with RFI (French) putting it now at 77.
The attack was soon claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a group affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who may or may not be dead. Al-Murabitun said,
We warn all those who have been seduced by France…that we will not accept barracks, bases, patrols, or convoys of the French colonizer who fights the mujahidin.
International media coverage of the statement understandably focused on its anti-French language and the fact that French President Francois Hollande visited Gao just a few days before the attack. But I read the statement more as an anti-peace proclamation, and the attack not as primarily anti-French but as anti-peace. The mixed patrols in Gao represent a small step toward peace in northern Mali (a peace supported by France, no doubt, but also brokered by Algeria and supported to different degrees by the Malian government and other non-jihadist actors in the north), and the achievement of that peace would further marginalize al-Murabitun.
Another noteworthy detail is that al-Murabitun identified the bomber as Abd al-Hadi al-Fulani. Although this is likely a pseudonym, it seems al-Murabitun wished to stress that the bomber was from the Fulani/Peul ethnic group, which is prominent in central and northern Mali and throughout the western Sahel and into northern Nigeria (on central Mali, International Crisis Group’s report from last year is worth reading). The Fulani have come under heavy, and to my mind completely unfair, suspicion as a group over the past few years. Al-Murabitun may be both trying to trumpet whatever Fulani support it has and hoping that identifying the bomber as Fulani will exacerbate collective punishment and suspicion of the Fulani – a scenario that could benefit al-Murabitun, of course.
For its part, the Malian government has swung into action, with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visiting Gao (French) and declaring three days of national mourning. But RFI (French) has questions about how easily the bomber (or bombers? there may have been up to five) penetrated the camp in Gao. Malian voices have joined in the critical questioning, with one commentator (French) denouncing the “irresponsibility of the Malian state its partners.” The critics, I think, have a point. If the mixed patrols in Gao are to bring greater security to the north, they must themselves enjoy a basic level of security.
Yesterday saw a tragic suicide bombing – the deadliest in Mali’s history – in the northern city of Gao. The bombing targeted a camp housing forces in Gao’s new mixed patrols. I analyze the patrols and their significance in this piece for Global Observatory. An excerpt:
The violence targeted a base that 200 former rebels had recently entered in preparation for mixed patrols with the Malian military and pro-government militias. These patrols are intended to fulfill a key condition of the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, which has faced a rocky path to implementation. The new violence shows the serious and persistent level of opposition that has made peace so difficult to achieve in the country.
The patrols comprise three main groups: 200 former separatist rebels (CMA), 200 pro-government militia members (Platform), and 200 government soldiers. Here is one reported death toll from yesterday:
The suicide bombing in Gao has been claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a unit affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The incident shows how jihadists retain the ability to act as spoilers. In this case, they have chosen a highly symbolic target, striking at a core vehicle for attempting to build unity and peace in northern Mali.