Notes on International Crisis Group’s Report on Drug Trafficking in Northern Mali

Last month, International Crisis Group put out a report called “Drug Trafficking, Violence and Politics in Northern Mali” (full report here).

Here is an excerpt from their summary:

Drug trafficking in northern Mali is generating a level of violence that is unparalleled in the subregion. The Malian state’s inability to bring the area under control has spawned particularly fierce conflicts among traffickers. Weapons circulating after the rebellions of the past two decades have exacerbated the progressive militarisation of trafficking networks, whose rivalries fuel political and inter-communal tensions. Smuggling narcotics is not only a means by which armed groups gain funds but a source of conflict in itself. Thus far, policies against drug trafficking have proven ineffectual; indeed, it is unrealistic to expect the problem to be eradicated any time soon. But Malian authorities and their international partners could take steps to at least demilitarise trafficking and reduce violence. These include backing regional stability pacts that informally regulate smuggling, redoubling efforts to rid all armed groups who signed the 2015 peace agreement, including those working with traffickers, of heavy weaponry, and using coercive measures (notably targeted sanctions) against those who refuse to disarm.

And here are my notes:

  • If you have past familiarity with this topic, p. 6 is a good place to start. Here is where the report begins to discuss some of the major changes in the past fifteen years or so, including the diversification of smuggling routes since 2012 and the shifting composition of trafficking networks since the mid-2000s. In terms of trade routes, the report points to the importance of Tabankort, Ber, and Lerneb. In terms of networks, this passage mentions the “democratization” of the drug trade away from the previous Arab (Berabiche and Lamhar) “quasi-monopoly.” pp. 8-9 further discuss how the drug trade seems to be contributing to the emergence of new “sub-fractions” within tribes, and particularly Arab tribes, as prominent traffickers assert wider societal influence.
  • pp. 9-10 go on to discuss how the drug trade exacerbates pre-existing inter-communal tensions, as “vassals” flex muscles against “nobles” – for example, within the Tuareg, the Imghad against the Ifoghas; and within the Arabs, vassal tribes against the Kunta. There are cross-ethnic tensions, too, though, for example as Idnan Tuareg challenge Lamhar Arabs for control of trade and territory. pp. 17-19 extend this theme further.
  • One of the big points in the report is that the supposed “nexus” between drug traffickers and jihadists is less substantial than many assume. There is a good discussion of this on pp. 13-15, including how it was the French military intervention of 2013 that paradoxically brought jihadists and traffickers closer together.
  • pp. 15-17 discuss how the drug traffic is both a resource and a headache for the major signatory groups to the 2015 Algiers Accord. For example, the Coordination of Awazad Movements (French acronym CMA) can draw material support from traffickers but also has to worry about how the drug trade can cause conflict within their own coalition.
  • The last third of the report (pp. 21-30) deals with anti-trafficking measures and recommendations.
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Burkina Faso: Reading Through Wikileaks Cables on Blaise Compaoré and AQIM

As the jihadist insurgency in Burkina Faso grows, recurring questions have surfaced about whether and how much complicity existed between the previous administration of Blaise Compaoré (1987-2014) and al-Qaida in the islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and whether Compaoré’s presidential guard is involved in the current violence. One of the most comprehensive investigations of these issues comes from Joe Penney. His piece must be read in full to be understood, but here is a brief excerpt:

Under Compaoré, Tuareg rebel groups who had allied with Al Qaeda were able to come in and out of Burkina while the country hosted peace talks between them and the Malian government, giving way to rumors that Compaoré had a tacit agreement to allow their presence in exchange for no attacks. The new government made a conscious decision to cut off their access to the country.

Burkina Faso’s current president, Roch Kaboré, has also mentioned “collusions” between Compaoré’s regime and AQIM.

One obvious and additional step toward shedding light on this issue involves searching through leaked State Department cables to see what American diplomats wrote about Compaoré and AQIM during some of the years when the regional kidnapping economy was at its peak (those years would be 2008-2012 for the kidnapping economy, but the cables cut off in 2010) . I tried various searches (Compaore AQIM, Burkina AQIM, Compaore Qaeda, Compaore GSPC, etc.), which yielded five cables that had what I consider substantive and relevant content for this post’s topic. Most of these cables date from 2009, and this is important partly because Penney refers above to events in 2012.

There are no bombshells in the cables, and most of the mentions of AQIM were vague and brief, although of course it is possible that more sensitive information and analysis was transmitted in more highly classified documents and in meetings and discussions not captured by the cablegate archive. It is also possible that more explosive information is contained in later cables.

Overall, the five cables I found suggest that (a) Burkinabé officials were worried about AQIM infiltration in northern Burkina Faso by 2009; (b) U.S. and French officials were somewhat worried about the possibility of AQIM expansion into Burkina, but in the context of worrying about a broader expansion of AQIM from Senegal to northern Nigeria; and (c) U.S. officials seemed to like Compaoré, consider him and his government worthy of further investment as a security partner in the Sahel, and to have relatively few concerns about whether Compaoré’s role in hostage negotiations implicated him in any nefarious way. The cables do not give evidence of any non-aggression pact between Compaoré and AQIM, but they do suggest that Compaoré’s government lacked a strategy (and possibly lacked the will) to deal with what officials considered AQIM infiltration. None of this undermines Penney’s arguments (again, the cables date from an earlier period than the one he is discussing in the excerpt above); but neither does it necessarily confirm them.

Here are the cables I found, with pertinent excerpts. The first two digits of each number refer to the year the cable was sent.

  • 09OUAGADOUGOU1136, “MOD DISCUSSES WIDE RANGE OF REGIONAL SECURITY ISSUES WITH CDA.” This is by far the most important cable and deserves to be read in full. The abbreviations in the title refer to the (Burkinabé) Minister of Defense Yero Boly and the (American) Chargé d’Affairs. The most relevant lines are these: “Noting the recent AQIM kidnappings in Mali and Mauritania, Charge asked whether the Burkinabe armed forces were increasing their security measures. Boly responded that Burkina Faso’s intelligence services have been monitoring the Burkina/Niger/Mali border and collecting important information. Despite these efforts, the country remains vulnerable from a security standpoint. The MOD mused about how to properly exploit the intelligence information and leads they had obtained thus far. The Minister of Defense explained that the northern cities of Markoy (and its market), Gorom-Gorom, and Deou are of particular interest as they are ‘infiltrated’ and ‘Islamicized’. Burkinabe intelligence sources have uncovered Nigerian trained Nigerien nationals (particularly former students of Koranic school in Nigeria) who are operating in that region in a believed liaison with AQIM. The GOBF [Government of Burkina Faso] has their names, they know who they are, but don’t know how to move forward and properly exploit that information. Boly noted that small cells of the type AQIM are know to dispatch currently have a relatively high chance of circulating undetected by Burkinabe security forces…Boly recognized that Burkina Faso has probably only been lucky up to now that AQIM has not focused activities here.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU135, “PRESIDENTIAL FAREWELL WITH AMBASSADOR.” This is a readout of a meeting between Compaoré and the outgoing U.S. ambassador in February 2009 (though the cable was filed in March). Some important lines: “In something of a new twist, Compaore raised concerns about regional security in the Sahel region. He said that he was worried that ‘Salafists’ had ‘installed themselves’ in Northern Mali. Specifically he said that he was concerned because they had seized hostages and that there might be further instability stemming from these activities. Without providing further details, he indicated that Burkina Faso would soon be approaching the US with certain concrete proposals on how to combat instability in the Sahel region.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU298, “REQUEST FOR ESTABLISHMENT OF A DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE POSITION IN OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO.” As the title suggests, this cable deals with the embassy’s request for more DOD personnel in light of the exponential increase in U.S. military activities in Burkina Faso. For this post’s purposes, the most relevant lines are these: “Geographically, Burkina Faso occupies a key strategic location in West Africa. It borders states with known AQIM activity and may serve as a safe haven or transit point. At present, intelligence on this critical terrorist and security-related threat is absent.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU569, “A REGIONAL APPROACH TOWARDS AQIM.” Key excerpt: “Although Burkina Faso is a somewhat peripheral actor in these events, it has functioned in a mediating capacity in both conflict resolution and hostage issues. It would certainly play a secondary role in any regional solution, but nonetheless we would like to propose some thoughts on what a regional solution might look like and suggest some steps as to how we might get there.”
  • 10ADDISABABA288, “AU SUMMIT – A/S FOR AFRICAN AFFAIRS CARSON MEETS FRENCH COUNTERPART.” This cable, from February 2010, describes a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and a senior French official. Key lines: “Gompertz thinks the security situation in the Sahel remains fairly unchanged from the Paris meetings on Sahel counter-terrorism (CT) issues six months ago. He said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) is expanding into northern Burkina Faso and recruiting in Senegal. The DGSE [French intelligence] believes AQIM will find weakness in northern Nigeria.”

If readers find any cables I missed, please let me know.

Mali: PM Maiga in Timbuktu, and Reinforcements Promised

The violence in northern Mali is made up of multiple interrelated sub-conflicts, which makes the situation there extremely difficult to understand (including for me). I am increasingly interested in trying to better understand the conflict in Timbuktu (city and region), and am working on a longer piece about it. Timbuktu has been the site of some major attacks, including one targeting the United Nations’ Multi-Dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in April 2018.

In light of Timbuktu’s importance, I was interested to see that Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga visited the city on December 14-15. Back in Bamako after the trip, he announced that the government will deploy an additional 350 security personnel to Timbuktu in early 2019 – not just to fight jihadists, but also to try to respond to pervasive banditry (see also here).

Maïga also announced that “the military region of Taoudenit will also be created in 2019,” a reference to the (to my mind, very confusing) plan to carve new regions out of the existing ones. Taoudenit in particular, which used to be part of Timbuktu Region, seems to exist in some kind of quantum state where it is always simultaneously already created and yet to be born. The other day a colleague tried to track down a map of its administrative boundaries, and only found a few rough approximations.

Below are a few tweets from Maïga about the Timbuktu trip. Note that the optics include not just displays of solidarity with the soldiers and displays of the state providing public services, but also public displays of religiosity (in a gesture toward Timbuktu’s religious status).

VOA also has a good report on the trip here.

Co-Authored Piece on Religious Exchanges Between Mauritania and Saudi Arabia

I’m up at the Berkley Center with a piece I co-authored with Mike Farquhar (read his book!). Our post looks at religious contacts between Mauritania and Saudi Arabia; this is part of a larger project, led by Peter Mandaville, on the “Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power.”

Here’s an excerpt from our piece:

It was certainly not the case, however, that such Saudi influence overwhelmed the Mauritanian religious sphere. For many scholars, the dominant religious references remained the classical paradigm of northwest Africa—the Ash‘ari creed, the Maliki school of jurisprudence, and membership in a Sufi order. All of these, especially Ash‘arism and Sufism, are rejected by Salafis/Wahhabis and are officially frowned upon in Saudi Arabia. Yet the classical paradigm of northwest Africa holds continued sway, even hegemony, in many of Mauritania’s Islamic schools or mahadir (singular mahdara). Moreover, scholars with classical or neo-classical outlooks served prominently as ministers of Islamic affairs or as heads of religious associations throughout the post-colonial period and up to the present.

Even Mauritanian scholars whose outlook is much closer to the Saudi Arabian religious establishment’s take care to show their independence. Among an older generation, now largely deceased or aging, Buddah Ould al-Busayri (1920-2009) came to have significant overlap with Salafis in terms of creed and legal methodology. As imam of the “Saudi mosque,” as the quasi-official (though stubbornly non-salaried) “mufti of Mauritania,” and as the mentor to several generations of Islamist and Salafi activists, al-Busayri wielded significant influence. He enjoyed warm relations with Saudi Arabian scholars, particularly ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz (1910-1999), a prominent pro-government scholar who eventually became Grand Mufti. Yet al-Busayri remained committed, at least nominally, to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, and there is some evidence that he returned to Sufism at the end of his life.

On the Nigerian Military Expelling UNICEF from the Northeast [Updated]

Reuters, today:

The Nigerian military on Friday accused United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) staff of spying for Islamist militants in northeast Nigeria, and suspended the agency’s activities there.

Sahara Reporters has more. They quote Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu, Deputy Director of Public Relations, Theatre Command:

It is baffling to note that some of these organizations have been playing the terrorists’ script with the aim to continue demoralizing the troops who are doing so much to protect the lives of victims of Boko Haram Terrorism and safe guard them from wanton destruction of property and means the of livelihood. The Theatre Command considers the actions of these organizations as a direct assault and insult on the sensibilities of Nigerians, as they tend to benefit more from expanding the reign of terror on our people.

[…]

“This has become inevitable since the organization has abdicated its primary duty of catering for the wellbeing of children and the vulnerable through humanitarian activities and now engaged in training selected persons for clandestine activities to continue sabotaging the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of troops through spurious and unconfirmed allegations bothering on alleged violations of human rights by the military.

The move is not surprising, given the military’s repeated expressions of open contempt for other international humanitarian and human rights organizations, particularly Amnesty International. The military is highly, and it seems increasingly, sensitive to outsiders’ criticisms of its human rights abuses.

My main comment on all this is that the military is playing politics here in a big way. The military is obviously well aware of allegations, by its own soldiers as well by journalists and other critics, that the fight against Boko Haram is not going well. The problems include not just brutality against civilians, but also lack of proper equipment for frontline soldiers. The military is likely aware, moreover, that even among many civilians there is a strain of suspicion toward Western NGOs, the United Nations, foreign development and humanitarian agencies, and so forth. The politics of this announcement, then, in my view includes an effort to cater to this strain of suspicion while deflecting attention away from the military’s own serious problems.

Or, as Brandon Kendhammer puts it:

[Update, December 17]: I tweeted this out when it happened, but I want to link to it here as well. Late on Friday, the Nigerian military reversed itself and canceled the expulsion of UNICEF from the northeast. See their statement here.

Now, of course, they’re back to going after Amnesty.

 

Global Observatory Post with Takeaways from My Recent Mali Report

I have a piece at the Global Observatory summarizing the takeaways from my recent report on Mali for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Here’s an excerpt from the GO piece:

The violence, moreover, constitutes a “wartime political order” that these leaders find navigable. This is not to say that they prefer violence, but they can cope with it and even thrive amid it. The 2018 presidential election offers one example of how this works. In general, President Keïta and the northern ex-rebel bloc the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) have major tensions concerning the implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, a key peace agreement. But Keïta and the CMA reached common ground concerning the elections, with the CMA helping to secure the vote and with northern regions—partly, it seems, under the CMA’s influence—voting massively to re-elect the president. In other words, Keïta and the CMA may disagree on a lot of things, but they can agree to help each other maintain position and power.

Comments on WaPo Article about Deradicalization of Boko Haram Members in Niger

I’m still catching up on important reporting that came out last month and throughout the fall. One such report is the Washington Post‘s November 20 article about deradicalization efforts for former Boko Haram members in Niger. The article, which is very good, focuses especially on the State Department’s role in shaping and possibly, soon, funding the program (see some official background here).

I’m enthusiastic about such programs, not because they’re perfect but because (a) these fighters or ex-fighters are human beings, and maybe they can be redeemed, and (b) concrete non-violent solutions seem more promising to me than just straight counterinsurgency paired with vague talk of socioeconomic reconstruction. If the fighters in the bush hear that they have choices beyond continued combat or unconditional surrender, perhaps more of them will turn themselves in.

No one says this is easy, though. The following excerpt was, for me, the core of the article:

“It was in D.C. that I realized the Americans might suffocate this program, even with good intentions,” [former Diffa Region Governor Dan Dano] Lawaly said. “They would say, ‘These defectors of yours may have committed war crimes, so we have to get the legal framework sorted out.’ And I’d say, ‘They’re abused kids, for God’s sake.’ ”

A legal framework would, however, codify the program, ensuring its survival beyond Lawaly’s tenure. And as it happened, Lawaly was sacked earlier this year when his party pulled out of Niger’s ruling coalition.

“It can’t be a one-man show if this is going to be sustainable,” said [Neal] Kringel, the State Department official. “We have to have a process that categorizes and then deals with each defector appropriately.”

I lean more toward Lawaly’s perspective, but you definitely don’t want hardened offenders slipping through the cracks or taking advantage of the program.

Yet as the article’s anecdotes suggest (and as Sarah Topol’s amazing reporting also suggests), much of Boko Haram’s recruiting was circumstantial and partly coerced. Such recruits came to do horrendous things, but I believe there is a road back for them, albeit one that might fade if authorities (American or Nigerien) place too much emphasis on retributive and punitive justice. That’s a grim thing to say – who wants to choose between justice and peace? This is not my choice to make when it comes to Niger, of course, but I would say that the State Department should heed the voices who prioritize peace.

The other voices who matter, though, include the communities affected by Boko Haram’s violence. This theme comes up in the article, and it came up on my trip to Nigeria last month. It is eminently understandable that survivors and victims may not forgive. In Kano, including in conversations with people from northeastern Nigeria, I heard very different perspectives on what might be done with “rehabilitated” Boko Haram fighters. Some very smart people said that it was impossible for such fighters to go home, given the level of anger and even violence they may face from victims and survivors. Other Nigerians I spoke with even doubted that rehabilitated fighters could successfully integrate in big cities, given that they might somehow stand out and raise questions even in neighborhoods in Kano or Lagos or other cities outside the epicenter of the conflict. But some folks I met did think that big cities might afford a degree of anonymity that would facilitate a new start for the genuinely repentant. In any case, I’m not sure anyone has really worked out a promising solution for the long-term dilemmas about how ex-fighters can lead successful lives – or what compensation the affected communities deserve (a lot) and what they might realistically get (probably much less than what they deserve).