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

The formal head of Mali’s opposition, Soumaïla Cissé, was kidnapped on March 25 of this year and released on October 8. His kidnapping went unclaimed, but it is now completely clear that he was held by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). As Cissé indicates in this interview with Le Monde, he had no doubt about who his kidnappers were.

Cissé, as well as French national Sophie Pétronin and two Italian hostages, were then freed through a prisoner exchange between the Malian government and JNIM. Cissé says in the interview that he was not held together with these others, and it seems the Italians were held separately from Pétronin and that their release was negotiated largely through a separate channel. Meanwhile, Pétronin has said that she overheard JNIM’s execution of a Swiss hostage, Beatrice Stockly, at some point during her captivity.

What do we learn from the negotiations that freed Cissé and the others? Here in part one, I want to look at the main ex-rebel coalition in northern Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA). In part two, I will look at JNIM. (There is a brewing debate over competing claims about the role of France in the negotiations for the hostages generally and Pétronin specifically, but I’ll leave that to others to discuss, unless a burst of inspiration strikes later.)

In terms of the CMA and its role in mediating the prisoner exchange, the media spotlight has come to shine brightly on the politician Ahmada ag Bibi, who holds a variety of important roles in Mali and especially in the north:

  • leading figure within the Ifoghas, a cluster of “noble” clans within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation centered in the Kidal Region (northeastern Mali) – ag Bibi belongs to the Kel Afella (Wikileaks/leaked cable), the Ifoghas clan to which the Kel Adagh’s leading political lineage also belongs;
  • (former?) deputy for Abeibara constituency of the Kidal Region, elected in 2007, 2013, and re-elected in 2020 – although with the dissolution of the National Assembly following the August 18 coup, his elected status is in limbo at best;
  • senior leader within the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), the ex-rebel bloc that dominates Kidal and that is a signatory to the 2015 peace agreement for northern Mali, called the Algiers Accord;
  • past senior leader of several key armed movements in northern Mali, including the Democratic Alliance for Change (French acronym ADC), the group that launched the 2006 northern Malian rebellion, and Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith). The latter was a jihadist group that participated in the 2012 northern Malian rebellion and then came to dominate the north, together with allied jihadist groups, during roughly the second half of 2012 and up through the time of the French-led intervention in early 2013.

Ag Bibi’s path has overlapped substantially with that of Iyad ag Ghali, leader of the 1990 and 2006 rebellions, leader of Ansar al-Din, and now leader of JNIM. Since ag Bibi and others formally broke with Ansar al-Din in January 2013 on the eve of the French-led intervention, various voices have asserted that the breakaway faction under its various names and structures (Islamic Movement of Azawad, then High Council for the Unity of Azawad or HCUA, which is now the leading political bloc within the CMA) have continued to represent ag Ghali’s interests – at the negotiating table, in politics more broadly, and even within the military power struggle in Kidal and in the north. Journalists and others have often pointed to ag Bibi specifically as ag Ghali’s most important interlocutor within the CMA.

Those claims now seem even stronger in light of ag Bibi’s central role in negotiating the release of Cissé and the other hostages. According to Le Point, Malian intelligence “activated” the channel between ag Bibi and ag Ghali in July. Then Colonel Ibrahim Sanogo, director of counterterrorism intelligence, participated in the final negotiations (see below).

New profiles of ag Bibi are now appearing in the Francophone press, including this one at L’Opinion. That piece makes some bold claims that are difficult to verify and assess, including the claim that ag Ghali and ag Bibi are regularly seen together at a military hospital in Algeria’s capital Algiers, and that ag Bibi is well-paid for his role as an intermediary between ag Ghali and others, including in these negotiations over hostages. The piece also includes the unfortunate description of ag Bibi as “rather withdrawn, without empathy or apparent sociability.” I think here the author may be witnessing a certain style of carrying oneself, a style I have encountered among other Tuareg leaders (and in other contexts), and then mistaking that for a personality trait. The L’Opinion piece, meanwhile, raises the question of ag Bibi’s relationship with Algeria. The author argues that the Algerian authorities had an interest in facilitating and supervising a prisoner exchange that could ultimately – according to the author – help to calm tensions in the Mali-Algeria borderlands. The claim that ag Bibi is an Algerian agent appears even more strongly in this piece. I always find such claims really hard to assess: on the one hand, Algeria’s role in Malian and northern Malian affairs appears very substantial, and that dates back years to say the least; on the other hand, some analysts appear to go too far in attributing sweeping influence to Algeria.

I have met and interviewed ag Bibi twice. Both times I was significantly outmatched, in terms of shaping the conversation, and I think that’s important to acknowledge. One of the biggest and most bullshit assumptions in political science and even sometimes in anthropology is that from graduate school on, the Western academic is some super-savvy and cynical interviewer who knows how to glean deep truths from interviewees and then construct sophisticated maps of societies and conflicts based on the resulting data. It’s pretty ridiculous to think that I, an academic in my mid-30s, would be able to outmaneuver a career politician (in his 50s?) who has fought in and survived three rebellions, won election after election despite shifting circumstances, and who undertakes God knows what kind of balancing act between rebels, governments, intelligence agencies, constituents, and jihadists. So when you see political scientists saying, “Oh yeah, X and Y factors cause/end civil wars,” take it with a fat grain of salt.

In my interviews with ag Bibi, and particularly in the first one, I could not tell whether I was indirectly hearing ag Ghali’s perspective. Ag Bibi had a central talking point in each of the interviews, and he repeatedly steered each conversation back to that talking point. In the first conversation, the talking point was “Kidal needs a special status within Mali, and until it gets that special status, problems will continue” (my paraphrase). I asked a lot of questions in that interview about ag Ghali, about Ansar al-Din, about the events of 2012-2013, and ag Bibi in each answer emphasized Kidal’s status. So was the centrality of Kidal’s “special status,” in ag Bibi’s responses, an oblique way of hinting at what ag Ghali might ultimately want? I had no conclusive answer then and I do not have one now. The question of what ag Ghali sees as the end state of this conflict, or whether he has any end state in mind, is an open one for me.

The negotiations over the hostages seem to have boosted different actors’ appetites for broader negotiations with JNIM. Cissé, for his part, said in the above-cited interview, “We should not be stubborn. I, for example, have never refused to establish a dialogue with Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa [the other key JNIM leader]. To dialogue is not to approve. And in Mali’s current situation, we have to find alternatives to the dominant thinking.” The prisoner exchange comes in a context where many are wondering about the status of the negotiations or notional negotiations that both now-ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and JNIM alluded to in, respectively, February and March of this year. How have the junta that overthrew Keïta, and now the transitional structure that has replaced/incorporated the junta, handled that particular portfolio? The fate of the broader dialogue remains unclear.

Ag Bibi’s role in the negotiations, meanwhile, revives the issue of what ties exist between the CMA as a whole and JNIM as a whole, beyond just the personal-political relationship between ag Bibi and ag Ghali. One relevant data point is, obviously, the United Nations Security Council sanctions against particular CMA leaders, members, and associates over their alleged collaboration with JNIM. These allegations are further discussed in various UN Panel of Experts reports on Mali. Such sanctions and accounts have reinforced many observers’ views that there is systematic coordination between the CMA and JNIM, but the claim of organizational alignment/partnership is certainly much harder to prove than individual instances of coordination.

Such questions take on additional weight now that CMA members, namely Mohamed Ould Mahmoud and Moussa Ag Attaher, have entered the transitional government as ministers. The portfolios they took – Agriculture and Sports, respectively – are not implicated in questions of negotiations and security. The key portfolios remain in the hands of the (ex-?) junta and the military. Yet the junta and new Prime Minister Moctar Ouane clearly took the CMA into account when assembling the new cabinet and when thinking about the transition more broadly. And the CMA, and ag Bibi specifically, seem to want, or at a minimum seem to accept, some credit for the negotiations around the hostages. Ag Bibi did not, I think, have to allow himself to be photographed or openly identified as the lead negotiator. Nor did Colonel Sanogo of Malian intelligence have to allow himself to be photographed alongside ag Bibi (see the bottom photo, where ag Bibi is second from left, and where Sanogo is, I believe, third from left, between ag Bibi and Cissé):

Various analyses of the prisoner exchange have emphasized how JNIM, and ag Ghali specifically, stand to benefit politically from having secured the liberation of over 200 people. The CMA also stands to benefit, in terms of its image and its support in the north, and not just through the return of suspected jihadists and others, but also through the departure of JNIM’s hostages. Ag Bibi argued, as quoted/paraphrased in Le Point, that Pétronin was widely respected in the Gao Region due to her charitable work there. Many of the region’s notables petitioned ag Ghali to release her – her continued detention in JNIM’s hands, in other words, was seemingly becoming a kind of political liability for JNIM and ag Ghali not just vis-a-vis Bamako or Paris but vis-a-vis Gao, Bourem, Ansongo, and elsewhere. If ag Ghali is now being celebrated in some quarters of the north as a champion for getting his people out of prison, the CMA may also be earning some praise as the intermediary that secured the release of several well-respected figures.

Regarding Cissé, it is true that his electoral performances in the north were relatively weak in 2013 and 2018, when he was runner-up in successive presidential elections; yet electoral tallies may not capture the full extent of his popularity, and he had no trouble getting elected (even from captivity) as a deputy in the Niafunké district of Timbuktu, with more than 60% of the vote in the first round. The CMA has not been shy about getting their picture taken with Cissé since his release:

It’s worth emphasizing, finally, that many of the prisoners released by the government appear not to be senior jihadists, and some are perhaps not even jihadists at all, but rather people swept up in security crackdowns or caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. If ag Ghali derives political capital from securing their release, the CMA would seem to as well.

How to sum up? The CMA’s crucial role in these negotiations confirms that, at a minimum, CMA leaders appear to be the best-positioned figures within Mali when it comes to contacting ag Ghali and delivering concrete outcomes. Negotiating anything broader than a prisoner exchange or ransom payment, however, would be exponentially more complicated. Meanwhile in my view it is pertinent to emphasize/argue that the CMA is not merely a front for ag Ghali and JNIM – they have their own interests, they are themselves internally heterogeneous ethnically and ideologically, and CMA leaders’ broader actions show that they clearly do not want to jeopardize the Algiers Accord, their own ability to win seats in the Malian parliament or in eventual northern regional elections, or their legitimacy within the international arena in terms of being received in Washington, New York, or elsewhere. The CMA and JNIM: close enough to work together on goals, seemingly somewhat or more than somewhat intertwined, but not identical by any means.

From the DRC, A Serious Warning for and about Aid Workers Elsewhere

The New Humanitarian last month published the results of their investigation, conducted jointly with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, into a ghastly story involving international aid workers pressuring Congolese women for sex:

In interviews, 51 women – many of whose accounts were backed up by aid agency drivers and local NGO workers – recounted multiple incidents of abuse during the 2018 to 2020 Ebola crisis, mainly by men who said they were international workers.

The majority of the women said numerous men had either propositioned them, forced them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminated their contracts when they refused.

The organizations named in interviews are huge ones: “UNICEF, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, World Vision, ALIMA, and the International Organization for Migration.” The New Humanitarian’s writeup also

The scandal (I am searching for a stronger word, actually – “outrage” comes to mind) reminds me, as it may remind you, of a sexual abuse scandal uncovered (and arguably very poorly handled) involving United Nations Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

The implications for the region this blog covers, the Sahel and Nigeria, should be clear. I talk about jihadism a lot here at the blog, and one way this post could go would be to spin out the implications of this for the counter-jihadism fight and the perceptions of humanitarian workers in conflict zones. But I think that line of argument – while perhaps valid – might be too securitized for my taste (“don’t exploit women, it hurts the counterterrorism fight” is a crude and even offensive argument).

Rather, what I want to really emphasize is that incidents where trust is broken can leave long, long memories. In 1996, Pfizer was accused of killing 11 children and disabling others in Kano, Nigeria through a meningitis drug trial. The aftermath of the incident included widespread suspicion about polio vaccination campaigns in subsequent years. Pfizer paid compensation ($175,000 each to four families) in 2011. People often remember the harm caused by those who came (purportedly) to help. And as seen with the Kano example, one actor’s choices can affect myriad other actors carrying out seemingly unrelated projects.

I guess if someone is so depraved that they would attempt to coerce women living through a public health emergency, then they probably wouldn’t be receptive to these warnings about unanticipated consequences of abuse. But their bosses are a different story. The problems described in the DRC seem systemic, and organizations and supervisors clearly have some real soul-searching to do, if they have the courage to do it:

Aid sector experts blamed the failures on a male-dominated operation with little funding to combat sexual abuse; income and power inequalities that opened the door to abuses; and poor communication with local residents – mirroring problems they said they had seen in numerous other emergency responses.

I hope the branches of these organizations that work in the Sahel and Nigeria are paying attention and are scrutinizing their own accountability mechanisms. There are ongoing investigations – I hope they are substantive.

Mali: Quick Context on the Two Italian Hostages Released

Yesterday, October 8, the head of Mali’s presidential crisis cell confirmed the secure return of four hostages held by jihadists, specifically by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

One of these four returned hostages is famous – Soumaïla Cissé, formal head of Mali’s opposition, who was kidnapped while campaigning in the Niafunké district of the Timbuktu Region in March.

And another hostage is a relatively familiar name to Sahel watchers – French national Sophie Pétronin, who was kidnapped in Gao, Mali in 2016.

The other two individuals are less well known. They are two Italian nationals who were kidnapped in separate incidents. One is a priest, Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was kidnapped in September 2018 near Makalondi, Niger (map), very close to the border with Burkina Faso. The village/parish where he was serving, Bomoanga, and the schools associated with his mission, have been targeted in other jihadist attacks as well. The other Italian citizen, Nicola Chiacchio (in some reports and sources, Ciacco), is described in one account as a “tourist who was last known to be cycling from Timbuktu to Douentza,” both in Mali (map of Douentza here). He was kidnapped around February 2019.

The two Italians appeared together in a proof of life video in March 2020. The brief video, and some coverage, are available here; additional coverage is here.

MENASTREAM has a very useful map showing Western hostages held in the Sahel, updated to reflect these four figures’ release:

Reuters provides some details about the lead-up to the hostage releases here.

Unfortunately I can’t do much analysis due to time constraints, but one thing that strikes me is how much the conversation about hostage releases has changed since, say, 2011-2013. Back then I heard a lot more open contempt, at least in the U.S., for the idea of paying ransoms or exchanging prisoners with jihadists. Now the tenor of the public conversation, at least online, appears to run very much in the direction of unreservedly celebrating the return of these hostages and therefore tacitly or explicitly accepting the costs as being worth it. The online conversation has shifted, I think, and the makeup of the voices participating in the online conversation has also changed and expanded significantly, when I step back and think about it. That’s good, I’d say.

Quoted in Al Jazeera’s Burkina Faso Elections Preview

Burkina Faso holds the first round of its presidential elections on November 22. President Roch Kaboré is seeking re-election and, in my view, is likely to win. I recently looked at some of his leading challengers here.

At Al Jazeera, Henry Wilkins has a really strong article succinctly examining the potential disenfranchisement – de jure and de facto – of thousands of voters. The article draws partly on interviews with a mayor from eastern Burkina Faso (given a pseudonym in the piece for his protection – see some context on the insecurity at the village level in the east here, in French); with Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and me.

Here is one quote of mine:

“I think the government could have done a lot more to avoid being in this situation in the first place,” Alex Thurston…told Al Jazeera. “Curtailing security force abuses would have helped. But, now that the insecurity is so bad, they have limited options vis-a-vis the elections.”

Mali Roundup: Transitional Cabinet Meets, ECOWAS Lifts Sanctions, Prisoners Exchanged with JNIM, Malaria Cases Rising

There’s so much news out of Mali this week (every week?) that I will just round some of it up today, rather than attempting to analyze one of the major stories.

The Transitional Government

On September 25, a little more than a month after the August 18 coup, Mali swore in the president and vice president of the transition; they are, respectively, retired Major Colonel Bah Ndaw (spellings vary) and Colonel Assimi Goïta. The latter was head of the brief-serving military junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (French acronym CNSP). On September 27, the interim authorities announced the designation of former Foreign Affairs Minister Moctar Ouane as prime minister and head of the transitional government. With the top three figures in place, authorities turned to assembling the cabinet.

On October 5, authorities announced the cabinet. Much coverage focused, appropriately, on the fact that the military/CNSP was taking key ministries: defense (Col. Sadio Camara), security (Col. Modibo Kone), national reconciliation (Maj. Col. Ismaël Wagué), and territorial administration (Lt. Col. Abdoulaye Maiga). Those first three, along with Goïta and Col. Malick Diaw, were the most visible leaders of the CNSP.

Here is the full list of new government members:

Commentators scrutinized the list, asking which other political actors got which posts, and how many. This exercise is far from simple – for example, here is one leader of the M5-RFP* protest movement denying that his movement has any representatives within the new cabinet. Two key northern political-military blocs, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA) and the Plateforme, were also represented:

Andrew Lebovich has some pertinent analysis:

The danger, rather, is that the military will not relinquish its grip. The fact that both N’Daw and Ouane have no real domestic political constituencies makes it all the more imperative that pressure and attention remain focused on governance reforms as well as creating durable civilian authorities. So far the CNSP appears unwilling to pursue real reform. The choices around the transitional leadership are a case in point, whereby early post-coup promises by the junta of an inclusive process came to nothing: candidates for prime minister from the opposition coalition Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP) submitted their paperwork at the request of the CNSP, only for Ouane’s appointment to be announced the next day; his appointment under the CNSP’s direction was clearly already in the works. The CNSP also made a number of key security and political appointments before N’Daw’s appointment, and his nominal government continued to name military officers to posts within the presidency and elsewhere, even before the transitional government formalised the junta’s ministerial roles. The CNSP continues particularly to promote the activities of Goïta – hardly a signal of readiness to disband and cede any real authority.

The cabinet met for the first time on October 6.

*June 5 Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces

ECOWAS Sanctions Lifted

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been the key regional actor pressuring the CNSP to step aside, and has been the face of the international response to the coup. ECOWAS’ main lever has been economic sanctions. The CNSP and the transitional government slowly met ECOWAS’ demands during September and now early October, although it sometimes appeared to me that mostly the form, and not necessarily the substance, of the demands was being met.

Following the formation of Ouane’s government, ECOWAS announced on October 5 that it would lift sanctions on Mali:

Prisoner Exchange

On October 4, buzz and reporting began to the effect that Malian authorities had released some 180 prisoners as part of a possible exchange with the jihadist group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

Details were still emerging as I was writing this post late on October 6, but the exchange seems to have concerned at least two prominent hostages – Mali’s opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, who was kidnapped in March of this year in the Timbuktu Region, and French national Sophie Petronin. Here is a piece I wrote in June that gives some context on Cissé’s kidnapping. At least anecdotally, from what I could tell, news of Cissé’s likely/imminent release sparked a lot of happiness among Malians and Mali watchers – Cissé is not necessarily super-popular as a candidate, but I think even beyond his core supporters the thought of him in captivity was not only disturbing and upsetting in and of itself, but also came to symbolize the difficult period Mali is traversing.

JNIM, meanwhile, spoke of 206 people being released. I translated a few key phrases from one of their statements here:

There has also been some debate about who exactly might have been released back to JNIM. And the journalist Wassim Nasr makes the excellent point that JNIM may have lobbied for, and secured, the release of some individuals beyond its own members – a “deft political maneuver” that speaks to the group’s sophistication:

Adam Sandor comments, in a parallel vein, that arrests of innocent people can be not just accidental, but instead reflective of what he and a co-author call “security knowledge.” See their brand-new article, comparing Mali and Afghanistan, here.

Aurelien Tobie raises some key questions:

I would also refer readers to my 2018 paper on “political settlements with jihadists,” where I frame some settlements as stabilizing and others as destabilizing. I am concerned that what is happening now in Mali may be more ad hoc than strategic.

Elevated Malaria Case Rates in Kidal and Beyond

I wrote briefly on the topic here, earlier this week. The journalist Ali Ag Mohamed also uploaded some videos showing stagnant water, a major contributor to the high case rate:

Burkina Faso: A Delicate Atmosphere Around Inter-Religious Coexistence

From the beginning of Burkina Faso’s current wave of insecurity circa 2016, there have been concerns that the violence would undo the country’s longstanding patterns of inter-religious and specifically Muslim-Christian coexistence and harmony. In 2016, International Crisis Group opened a report on the topic by saying:

Burkina Faso’s great religious diversity and tolerance make it an exception in Africa’s sub-Saharan Sahel. Its model of religious coexistence remains solid but could be at risk of being eroded. For several years now, Muslim leaders have complained that Muslims are under-represented in the civil service and that the administration is not always even-handed in its treatment of Christianity and Islam. Meanwhile, the rising tide of religiously motivated violence in West Africa and the Sahel has created a new regional context. As Burkina is recovering from a period of instability following the October 2014 downfall of former President Blaise Compaoré, and faced with a security emergency and strong social pressures, the government could be tempted to ignore these developments.

For further context, Burkina Faso has a clear Muslim majority of perhaps 61%, according to this estimate, and a substantial Christian minority of around 30%.

Amid the ongoing insecurity, there have been tragic and frightening moments where it has seemed religious coexistence might begin to unravel. Specifically, there have been attacks on churches in the conflict zones in 2019 and 2020. Yet, even as exceedingly grim scenarios are coming to pass in terms of displacement, the tenacity of the insurgency, and escalating levels of violence, the country has – at least in my view – so far avoided the worst-case scenarios in terms of specifically Muslim-Christian violence.

That does not mean there are no tensions – including far outside the conflict zones. One news item that caught my eye recently was a visit on October 3 by the president of the National Assembly, Alassane Bala Sakandé, to the Pazani/Pazaani neighborhood of the capital Ouagadougou. He was there following the destruction of a mosque complex – the mosque itself, another building, and six classrooms – connected with a legal dispute over the land the complex was on. Sakandé called for “dialogue, peace, and tolerance.” The visit also got a fair amount of coverage in local and national media. I think all this points to how delicate the atmosphere is – in other circumstances, the destruction of the mosque might have rankled and caused a neighborhood-level conflict, but in the shadow of the insurgency, it takes on much greater potential significance. It’s good that Sankandé made such a public visit to the site.

See some pictures of the visit here:

Elevated Malaria Case Rates in Northern Mali – A Metric to Watch for the Sahel and Beyond

Sahelien, Le Monde, and others are reporting that case rates for Malaria in Kidal, northern Mali, are approximately double this year what they were at this time last year. Here is Sahelien’s video report (French):

The high case rate has much to do with this year’s high rates of rainfall, which as Le Monde points out have affected even what is normally thought of as the northern Malian desert. Experts are also identifying COVID-19, and its impacts on health systems and health supplies, as another cause. From a relatively early point in the pandemic, there have been fears that COVID-19 would lead to excess deaths from malaria (and HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis).

Public health officials launched a five-day, region-wide malaria prevention campaign for Kidal in the second half of September.

The Ménaka and Gao regions are also affected. One Malian news outlet says there were 4,500 cases in the north during the past few weeks. That report adds another crucial point about the indirect impact of COVID-19 – the pandemic triggers headlines and mobilizes resources, while malaria gets much less attention than it merits.

Rukmini Callimachi’s Broken Clock Moment in Timbuktu

I have been torn about whether to write and post this. In the media furor that has broken out recently over the New York Times‘ ISIS reporter Rukmini Callimachi, I have chimed in substantively, once, in a minor way. I am chiming in again now not because of any animus towards her personally, but because I think her trajectory points to fundamental problems in (1) “terrorism reporting” and (2) what I often call “terrorology.” By terrorology, I mean deliberately alarmist and reductive analysis of jihadist movements and “terrorist groups.” I am interested in seeing terrorology as a whole get discredited, rather than caring about one particular reporter’s fate. Yet individual accountability can help with collective accountability – especially if the critics and their audiences keep zooming out to ask what’s at stake beyond a certain individual.

The recent scrutiny of Callimachi’s journalistic and professional record has concentrated on her reporting on ISIS. Most of the controversies are not new at all – rather, many controversies have been revisited following Canadian authorities’ September 25 arrest of Shehroze Chaudhry or “Abu Huzaifa,” a key but extremely problematic and seemingly unreliable (to say the least) source for Callimachi’s “Caliphate” podcast. To get a sense of the criticisms that circulated prior to Chaudhry’s arrest, I would recommend this August 2018 piece by Rafia Zakaria. Here is an excerpt that devastatingly renders the problem when “terrorism reporting” and “terrorology” intersect with each other:

Callimachi the journalist has to get the story, but Callimachi the terror fighter has to identify the terrorist, get into his head, and bring us back gems of insight. Once she does so, she even wonders why Canadian authorities aren’t acting faster, arresting him and charging him. In this approach, it is impossible to tell where journalism ends and where terror fighting begins. Westerners, journalists among them, see themselves as fighting the good war against terror and everyone else occupying the morally inferior positions of victim or supporter. Predation and scavenging of their stories or selves is thus absolved from the immorality—or at least partisanship—that would otherwise be associated with it.

For a sense of the scrutiny Callimachi’s reporting is now facing, I would recommend this story by Lachlan Cartwright and Maxwell Tani as well as this piece by Jacob Silverman. Cartwright and Tani’s piece, in particular, lays out a litany of disturbing episodes and accusations against Callimachi, including shocking ways that Callimachi allegedly spoke to the family of James Foley, executed by ISIS in 2014, as she reported on that story.

Scrutiny of Callimachi is focusing on her tenure at the New York Times, which makes sense given the extraordinary prestige and influence of the paper and given the size of the controversies that have surrounded her reporting for the Times. There are problems in her earlier reporting, however, including on Mali, that have not received adequate attention. In fact, even in Silverman’s piece, her rise through the journalism world’s hierarchy is described as unproblematic:

In a 2016 interview with Wired, in which she was dubbed “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world,” Callimachi described standing in the remains of an office used by Al Qaeda during its rampage through Timbuktu. The floor was littered with documents in Arabic. Suddenly, she realized, some of them might be able to tell a better story of what happened there than any government official’s report. She started scooping up documents and filling trash bags.

Callimachi’s subsequent series of articles earned her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, the first of four. More than that, it catalyzed in her a belief in the power of original documentation to tell stories that otherwise go untold. It also convinced her that jihadist groups were far more sophisticated than she realized.

Some crucial context is missing here – both about Callimachi’s discovery of documents in Timbuktu, and by Callimachi in her own thought process.

Here is how she describes her find in Timbuktu in that Wired article at the link above:

Other than Hurricane Katrina, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many journalists as I did then in Timbuktu. We were all traipsing around the city doing similar stories, so I started asking the local people if they could show me the buildings where the group had been. They took me first to a bank that had acted as the Islamic police center, and they took me to a hotel that had been turned into a Sharia court, and they took me to a tax building that had been the jihadists’ administrative office. In each of these buildings, I noticed dozens and dozens of loose papers on the ground that were written in Arabic—even though Mali is largely a French-speaking country. Because I couldn’t read them, I didn’t think they were very important. The next day, I realized, “Oh my God, that must be the stuff the jihadists left behind.” So I went back with a bunch of trash bags, and I just went building by building, at least 10 in all, and scooped up every single thing that I could find. People were calling me the trash lady of Timbuktu. I started to translate the documents in my hotel with a translator.

We will unpack the problems with her thought process momentarily. First, though, let’s look at a slightly different narration she gave in a different interview, this one with Slate:

And then everything changed for me in January of 2013 when the French went in. I was able to get to Timbuktu three days after they flushed out the jihadis. I got there in the first wave of reporters that arrived. There were so many reporters at my hotel within a couple of days. At first we all went and interviewed residents. What was it like to live under sharia law? We went and looked at the places where they had executed people and the square where they had cut off somebody’s hand. Then residents began taking me to the buildings that had been occupied. Unbelievably, there were thousands of pages of internal documents that the al-Qaida cell had left behind.

Were—

I bet you are going to ask me: How did I know they were al-Qaida documents? In the very first place that I went into, I picked up one of them and went, “This is in Arabic. I can’t read it.” And I dropped it back down. [Laughs.] It took me getting back to my hotel to realize, Oh my God this is Mali. Mali is a French-speaking place. People that went to school here learn French. They don’t learn Arabic. By definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force. I then rushed back to these places with trash bags. I began going building-by-building and just picking up every single thing that I could find and bringing them back to my hotel.

First of all, I want to emphasize that Callimachi does not speak or read Arabic – yet her career has been made on the analysis, and also one might say the fetishization, of Arabic documents (more on this below).

Second, she is describing a real “broken clock” moment here – and unwittingly betraying a breathtaking lack of contextual knowledge about Mali. If someone doesn’t think about Mali or work on Mali, I wouldn’t expect them to know that Mali has a rich history of Arabic-language scholarship, or to know that northern Mali has a significant local population of Arabs. But a journalist working on the conflict in northern Mali in 2012-2013 should really have known both of those things.

Regarding Arabic, Timbuktu became internationally famous all over again in 2012 not just because of executions and amputations, but because of the threat that jihadist occupation posed to the literary heritage of the city, which is a core part of the Islamic literary heritage of northwest Africa as a whole. Not all of the manuscripts in Timbuktu were or are in Arabic, but the vast majority, from everything I’ve ever read, seen, or heard, were either Arabic materials written in Arabic or non-Arabic materials written in Arabic script. At any rate, the struggle to save the manuscripts became famous both as the events of 2012 were unfolding and afterwards. Journalists covered it extensively (example). It has been the subject of at least one book

Regarding Malian Arabs, any journalist covering the conflict in 2012-2013 should have known that there were Malian Arabs. A first-level analysis of the conflict would have described it as one of Tuareg rebels, and then regional and local jihadists, fighting the Malian state. But a journalist should progress to at least a second-level analysis, at which point one would have to become aware of movements such as the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (Arab Movement of Azawad, MAA), which took that name – and, I mean, look at the name – by late 2012/early 2013 (example). Interacting with northern Malians should have also dispelled the notion that Mali was “a French-speaking place”; Mali is quite obviously multi-lingual, and Arabic is one of the key languages in the north. It is not just Arabs, moreover, who can speak and write Arabic there.

So Callimachi’s statement that “by definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force,” in other words the jihadists, is just not true. And so her discovery of these materials has less to do with a flash of insight about a language she does not speak, and more to do with finding jihadist documents in a building jihadists were in. Then, of course, there is the issue of how the translators, fixers, interviewees, and local journalists fade into the background. I wonder how they would narrate the story of these documents’ discovery. Even in the Slate interview, Callimachi (again without much self-awareness) narrates that she couldn’t place the (very well-known, if you follow this stuff) pseudonym of the then-leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and thus couldn’t understand the full context of what she was looking at having translated for her. It was Baba Ahmed, one of the best journaists in Mali, who explained it to her. Tellingly, even though Ahmed was getting bylines in the Associated Press under his own name at that time – in other words, even though he was a fellow reporter – Callimachi refers to him as “my fixer.”

The issue of Arabic and Arabic documents, and the downplaying of translators’ and colleagues’ work, takes us back to Zakaria’s comments above about how Callimachi has made herself the star of much of her own reporting – often with the Arabic language featuring as a kind of talisman or fetish, important to the narrator-hero because Callimachi cannot, or can barely, understand it. Arabic is always out of reach and associated with menace. The journalist Alia Malek puts it well:

Here is another weird way Callimachi talks about Arabic. It is from her major writeup of “the ISIS files,” the hugely controversial cache of ISIS documents that she and others took out of Iraq. She writes, of Mosul, “I learned to read the landscape for clues, starting with باقية — ‘baqiya’ — the first word of the Islamic State slogan.” The journalist’s dominion over her core source, the documents, is proxied by her ability to recognize a single Arabic word. And it’s worth pointing out too that in my view, her and the Times‘ ultimate analysis of jihadist documents was often unexciting. Click through that link, and you will see that the online story is replete with images of documents and of Iraq, particularly Mosul – and yet the conclusions are thin. The core argument seems to be that “the documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.” But by 2018, when the report came out, this was a relatively commonplace and uncontroversial take. The aura of the documents sometimes counted for more than what Callimachi, and the Times as a whole, could really do with them. The story about the handling of the documents is probably more consequential than any stories the Times produced with the documents. (On the ethical issues connected with these documents, by the way, see this sober and careful thread from Mara Revkin, whom I consider the leading American expert on ISIS at this point.)

The thinness of Callimachi’s analysis relates to her connections to the terrorologist world. The fetishization and decontextualization of jihadist documents is central to terrorology, and it is unsurprising that Callimachi has a pattern of outsourcing much of her analysis to terrorologists such as those at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and its spinoffs. To a profound extent, she became a member of a terrorologist club whose outlines are pretty clear, once you start looking at who collaborates with whom.

To wrap this up, for me there are two takeaways from Callimachi’s career as a whole and from the Timbuktu episode in particular:

  1. When jihadist documents become objects of a bizarre kind of reverence and fascination not so much because of what they say but simply because they offer the promise of access into an illicit and forbidding world, there’s a problem. And that problem is magnified when the analysts and gatekeepers who manage those documents are either ignorant of, or actively dismiss, a sense of context. The repeated quest for that moment of scooping jihadist and specifically Arabic-language documents into a trash bag – whether by journalists in Timbuktu and Mosul, or by Navy Seals in Abbottabad – can start to make that moment crowd out the necessity of scrutinizing sources, talking with people who lived through events, etc. The documents can only ever tell part of the story, and the story the documents tell may not be the most compelling or accurate one. That it was a lack of critical self-reflection about a human source that eventually landed Callimachi in trouble is ironic, but her approach toward “Abu Huzaifa” was just an extension of treating the documents as transparent and unproblematic windows into the jihadist world. 
  2. There is something to be said, too, about Africa as a stepping stone in her career – a sense that for her and the New York Times, it was essentially a single experience in Timbuktu that qualified her to analyze jihadism from Orlando to Mosul. Here, too, we see about the one-millionth example of the idea that it is “understanding terrorism” or “understanding jihadism” that qualifies a terrorologist, or a journalist, to speak to widely different contexts. The most dramatic example of this is the various terrorologists who used to focus on jihadism and now bill themselves as specialists on “white nationalism” and “far-right extremism,” or even on Russiagate. Opportunism is central to terrorology. In any case, Timbuktu is still there, and it is still people like Baba Ahmed to whom I look for insights on Mali, that extraordinarily complex country that I, for one, will never fully understand – but whose history is much bigger than what you can fit in a trash bag. 

Very Quick Notes on the September 29 G5 Sahel-MINUSMA-European Union Meeting in Nouakchott

On September 29, the G5 Sahel, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and the European Union (EU) met in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott. This was a coordination meeting for supporting the G5 Sahel’s Joint Force, which draws battalions from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The meeting does not appear to have produced any dramatic news.

I’m a bit buried with work this week, so here are just a few links and notes:

  • The meeting was held in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2531 (available here). Among other things, the resolution (p. 11, paragraph 30) “Requests the Secretary-General to ensure adequate coordination, exchange of information and, when applicable, support, within their respective mandates and through existing mechanisms, between MINUSMA, the MDSF [Malian Defense and Security Forces], the FC-G5S [G5 Sahel Joint Force], the French Forces and the European Union missions in Mali, and further requests MINUSMA to convene regular meetings of the Instance de Coordination au Mali as the main platform for such coordination, exchange of information and support.”
  • Here is MINUSMA’s short press release (French) on the coordination meeting.
  • Here is a longer readout (French) from the G5 Sahel. Again, no major news from what I can see.
  • Brief press coverage from RFI (French).

And a few photographs, via Twitter:

Mauritania: Ex-President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz Under a Police Microscope As Parliament Reconvenes

Mauritania’s former President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in power 2008-2009 as military ruler, and 2009-2019 as civilian president) faces an ongoing investigation into alleged corruption during his time in office. Here at the blog I last checked in on the story when Ould Abdel Aziz had given an interview to France 24 on September 10; in the interview, as in other press engagements, he dismissed the allegations and the investigation itself as baseless and politically motivated.

In August, Ould Abdel Aziz was held by the Economic Crimes Police for questioning for approximately a week, and then a few days later was briefly questioned again. On September 27 (more here, in Arabic), he was summoned once more, although he does not respond to questions in keeping with his legal team’s argument that he continues to benefit from presidential immunity. Meanwhile, his passport was confiscated in August, but he has now been barred from leaving the capital Nouakchott.

One source I missed in this story was this interview (Arabic) from August with the head of the parliamentary commission of inquiry, Habib Ould Brahim Diah. Jeune Afrique profiled Diah back in May, describing his background in the ruling Union for the Republic (French acronym UPR) party under both Ould Abdel Aziz and current President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. The interview is worth a read. In it, Diah argues that there has been a clear separation between the executive and the legislature during the parliamentary corruption inquiry, implicitly rejecting Ould Abdel Aziz’s characterization of the inquiry as a political vendetta.

What comes next? On October 1, a new ordinary session of parliament starts – in a “heated atmosphere,” to loosely translate this headline (Arabic). Directly relevant to the corruption inquiry, and to Ould Abdel Aziz’s ultimate legal fate, is the question of (re-)establishing a high court of justice, the sole body constitutionally empowered to try a former head of state. In July, deputies voted to create such a court, so now comes the implementation.

I have no idea how all this ends. A prison term for Ould Abdel Aziz is certainly possible at this point, I’d say. But I could also see a scenario where he simply leaves the country for good. Or a scenario some former ministers get harsh sentences, but not the ex-president. I’m still a bit surprised that the inquiry got this far, actually. I suppose I’ve gotten used to a Sahelian (and global) norm of former heads of state mostly being beyond the reach of the law – although I should add that multiple things can be true at once: Ould Abdel Aziz almost certainly oversaw major corruption, and the parliamentary inquiry is in my view quite obviously politically motivated. You don’t have to pick between those two interpretations.