Recent Analyses and Articles on Boko Haram

Recently there has been a spate of interesting work on Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) or Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here are some links and excerpts. As always, it can be difficult to verify some journalists’ and analysts’ sources, especially when they claim rare of exclusive access to insiders.

  • The journalist Ahmed Salkida is covering ISWAP’s military endeavors in northeastern Nigeria. See here and here. An excerpt from the former: “Boko Haram/ISWAP policy with respect to physically holding territories changed after the steady losses they suffered in the run up to general elections in Nigeria in 2014. They do not want to physically hold unto territories anymore than they are determined to ensure that the military does not have any sustainable presence in the territories. Furthermore, ISWAP is paying more premium to wooing local communities to feel more secure with them than they could ever be with the military. That is their strategy…ISWAP is no longer showing interest in taking a formidable military base such as was in Baga and staying put there. It doesn’t apparently serve their tactical and strategic interest well. They are more interested in taking over military hardware and ammunition in those bases while instilling fear on the troops and making it extremely difficult for the military to have the comfort to plan and launch attacks.”
  • Babatunde Obamamoye has written an interesting-looking article about negotiating with Boko Haram. From the abstract: “A notable shocking development in the advancement of the Boko Haram terrorist revolt was the abduction of about 276 Chibok girls in April 2014. Shortly afterward, while the terrorists made known their extremist determination to offer the girls for sale, the Nigerian government vowed unconditional rescue of the girls. Notwithstanding the evident opposition of both adversaries to nonviolent engagement, some of the victims were eventually released through negotiations. What then were the rationales that paved the way for negotiations? What are the implications of this approach? This article demystifies the rationales for negotiation between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram terrorist group over the abducted girls. It argues that nonviolent engagement in this context arose out of intersecting interests but, more important, reinforced the “vulnerability” of the “new” religious terrorists to negotiation when violence proved futile in accomplishing some of their vital objectives.”
  • Christian Seignobos has also published a fascinating article (in French) on local dynamics of Boko Haram’s violence and the insurgency’s broader effects in the year 2017. The abstract is available in English: “The 2017 chronicle of events belies the assertions of the concerned governments diagnosing the impending end of the group. In Nigeria and neighbouring countries of Borno State, the bands called Boko Haram are still as active as ever. Fishermen, breeders and traders who want to continue to live of Lake Chad have to live with it, and sometimes take advantage of the chaos to oust their rivals. For its part, Boko Haram had to make choices in its local alliances. The insurgents interests have coincided with those of the Buduma indigenous people: the first wanted to expel the populations who refused to accept to pledge allegiance and pay them taxes, while the latter took the opportunity to try to chase away «foreigners» who had taken over their islands’ lands and pastures. In Cameroon, the «movement» had gradually established itself in the departments of Logone-et-Chari which cover the Kotoko country, and of Mayo-Sava, which includes the former kingdom of Wandala in the foothills of the northern Mandara Mountains. It is currently trying, from its multiple withdrawal sites, to escape the intervention of the army and its auxiliaries.”

Mauritania: Biram Dah Abeid in Parliament

Yesterday marked the first time that Mauritanian activist Biram Dah Abeid (or Ould Abeid), president of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), set foot in parliament as a member of the body. He was arrested last August along with another IRA leader and two journalists, then was elected to the National Assembly in September’s legislative elections. He was released from prison in late December (RFI gives the date as December 31). In the parliamentary elections, he ran on the list of the Baathist Sawab Party, in an alliance that may have more to do with strategic partnership than with ideological affinity. Overall, of course, the ruling Union for the Republic is the largest party in parliament.

Numerous profiles have been written about Abeid over the years. One of the best appeared in the New Yorker in 2014. An excerpt:

When Abeid was eight, his father told him that he had been born to a slave, and was therefore supposed to be a slave, too. But, while his mother was pregnant, her master had fallen ill, and, heeding the Koranic idea that acts of benevolence will be rewarded, had released him from slavery before he was born. As a young man, Abeid’s father crossed the river to work for a time in Senegal, where he felt free from racial discrimination. Back in Mauritania, he met and married a woman who was a slave, and they had two sons. Full of pride, he went to his wife’s master to ask to take his family to Senegal. The master refused. His father went to court, but the judge said, “This is his slave—unless you want to buy her from him.” His father did not have enough money, so he pleaded to at least take his sons, but the judge refused him again. The French colonial governor told Abeid’s father that the dispute fell under Islamic law and that he could not interfere. Defeated, the father left his wife and children and went back to Senegal. Later, a friend introduced him to Abeid’s mother, and they were married.

There is also a wider discussion of race and Islam in Mauritania in Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem’s Prêcher dans le désert.

Mali: A Controversy Around Sex Education

In December, the Malian government announced that it was withdrawing a proposed sexual education textbook for adolescents. The plans for the textbook had evoked opposition from Muslim leaders in Mali, including Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (French acronym HCIM) – Dicko asserted that by including a chapter on sexual orientation, the textbook was promoting homosexuality. In early January, the government announced the abandonment of the initiative. (It’s worth noting that Christian leaders, and Muslim leaders beyond Dicko, were also unhappy with the textbook.)

The incident feels like a replay, in miniature, of the 2009-2011 controversy over reforms to the family code – an episode that also saw Dicko and others successfully pressuring politicians into backtracking. Both the textbook and the family code struggles reveal the power of Muslim clerics and constituencies as lobby groups. The textbook episode also surprises me a bit in that you would think Malian politicians and bureaucrats would have seen the backlash coming given the way the family code debate played out.

There are real limits to the clerics’ political influence, of course. Dicko supported President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta when he ran and won in 2013, but Keïta won re-election in August 2018 despite a public falling out with Dicko and another prominent cleric, the Chérif of Nioro. So clerics don’t necessarily get to choose who gets elected. And it seems highly unlikely that Mali will see a cleric win the presidency, or even seriously try for it, any time soon. (Some of the reason for that has do with continuity in the political elite, a dynamic I discuss here).

Nevertheless, the lobbying power is formidable. And perhaps out of a desire to reinforce that power, Dicko kept going even after the textbook was withdrawn. On December 23, Dicko led – or perhaps eagerly accepted to lead, depending on how you read events – a demonstration in Mali’s capital Bamako. It is worth noting the presence of opposition politicians at the event, but even their attendance does not yet convince me that Dicko will be able to translate lobbying influence into electoral power. In any case, for now it seems the clerics get to draw red lines on key policy issues perceived to affect Islamic morality in Mali.


On the Zarqawi/Anbari Issue: Source Criticism and Subtext in the Analysis of Jihadism

In November, the analyst Hassan Hassan published a provocative piece at The Atlantic. He argued that an Iraqi figure, Abu Ali al-Anbari (1959-2016), was crucial in shaping the ideological trajectory of the Islamic State and its antecedents – and that al-Anbari was more important to that process than even the much more infamous Palestinian-Jordanian jihadist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (1966-2006).

Several analysts responded – Cole Bunzel, Sam Heller, and Aymenn al-Tamimi – with convincing rebuttals. In different ways, these analysts suggest that Hassan’s main primary source (a recently published biography of al-Anbari by al-Anbari’s own son, translated at the link to al-Tamimi’s site above) does not support Hassan’s argument. Bunzel goes on to say that when one considers a wider array of major Islamic State voices, it becomes clear that the movement itself considers al-Zarqawi the central figure in terms of its own early history.

Al-Tamimi also alludes to one issue lurking in the background here, namely whether or not Saddam Hussein’s “Faith Campaign” played a role in the genesis of the Islamic State:

The biography also provides an important corrective to the narrative that the Faith Campaign of Ba’athist Iraq in the 1990s was responsible for the religious trends that gave rise to the Islamic State. In the case of the latter sort of assertions, a certain climate-change denying fraud has an ideological agenda to downplay the role the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had in galvanizing jihadism, both within Iraq and on a wider scale.

Returning to the debate between Hassan and these other analysts, I am not qualified to address the ins and outs of the Anbari/Zarqawi controversy. But I do want to highlight a methodological issue here, one that has to do with sources and source criticism.

The currency of what I call “terrorology” is jihadist primary sources (leaked documents, propaganda videos and statements, eulogies, memoirs, etc.); in fact, I think that a certain kind of approach to such sources is constitutive of terrorology itself. Terrorology imbues jihadist primary sources with an aura of mystery and power, so that the terrorologist can position himself (it is nearly always him) as your guide to these documents and the world they allegedly reveal. Terrorologists seize on new sources, or newly discovered sources, as keys to explaining and re-explaining groups and events. Journalistic and even academic outlets are often only too happy to go along with sensationalized narratives centered on individual source documents. All of this emphasis on jihadist documents, meanwhile, often implicitly de-prioritizes other sources: what ordinary people say, what journalists say, what the counter-sources say, etc. When you look at the amazing work done by someone like Mara Revkin, who combines diverse sources including but not limited to jihadist documents, it becomes clear how flat and problematic terrorology really is.

Terrorology further relies, I would argue, on avoiding any serious source criticism. Here I am not talking about questioning the authenticity of sources (I think nearly all of these primary sources are genuine, in that they were written by who they say they were written by). Rather, I am talking about posing some of the following basic questions about jihadist documents, questions that historians tend to pose about any documents they work with:

  • How does the author’s positionally affect the writing?
  • What are the author’s interests and biases?
  • Does the author ever lie, or have reason to lie?
  • On what issues does the author exaggerate?
  • On what issues is the author strategically silent? Does the author avoid any obvious questions, or fail to give convincing answers to questions that are posed?
  • If one compares source A to other sources, are there irresolvable contradictions? If so, what is one’s method for making sense of the resulting picture?
  • Is there any plagiarism?

Here it is worth recalling that the main source for Hassan’s article is a biography of al-Anbari written by al-Anbari’s own son. The potential for bias, exaggeration, strategic silence, and contradiction should be immediately obvious. But Hassan does not acknowledge this. Instead, a kind of breathless tone takes over:

A month ago, I obtained a 93-page document that chronicles Anbari’s life, as well as the extremist landscape around him in 1990s Iraq. Anbari’s son, Abdullah, wrote the biography for the internal use of the Islamic State, which published parts of it in its weekly Arabic magazine, Al-Naba, in 2016, shortly after Anbari’s killing. Dissidents within ISIS recently spread the full document on social media, which is how I came across it. Abdullah has stated that the biography was based on 16 years of working closely with his father, a diary that Anbari kept, and firsthand accounts of Anbari from fellow ISIS members.

This source is supposed to be a secret, internal document for ISIS, which adds to the sensationalist tone of the Atlantic piece. But there is not necessarily a correlation between how restricted a source’s intended audience is and how important it is.

It is true that Hassan triangulates between the biography and other sources – but somehow it is always the biography that proves more reliable, more accurate, in Hassan’s telling. There is a fetishization of the source, an assumption that the source should get the last word.

When we turn to Bunzel’s rebuttal, we see what happens when an analyst turns even a slightly more critical lens on this source, the biography of al-Anbari. Here is Bunzel:

This biography is an important source for the history of the Islamic State, and Hassan is right to draw our attention to it. It details the hugely important role played by Anbari as a jihadi actor since the early 2000s, and particularly following his release from prison in 2012 when he became one of the Islamic State’s senior leaders. Yet the document says little about Zarqawi, and nothing about Anbari’s influence on him.

In February 2004, when Zarqawi wrote his famous missive to Osama bin Laden outlining a strategy for attacking the Shi‘a in Iraq, it would appear from the document that he had met Anbari once, in Baghdad in 2002. Hassan writes that Zarqawi’s “idea for targeting the Shiites probably came from native Iraqis like Anbari,” which could be true. But the biography does not tell us this; nor does it suggest that one of these Iraqis was “possibly even Anbari himself.” It does not impute ideological influence to Anbari over Zarqawi at all.

Bunzel, in other words, rebuts Hassan’s arguments simply by pointing out that we should not project speculative meanings onto a primary source. One can imagine an even deeper reading of the source that would approach the narrator, al-Anbari’s son, not as a mere vehicle for information but as an actor with political interests that shape his narrative.

Here I would note, then, that even the type of rebuttals provided by Bunzel and al-Tamimi do not go far enough – they still tend to convey the idea that the jihadist sources should get the final word, and that the main question is what the sources say and how we should understand the combined import of the sources. The rebuttals still attach an aura of power and mystery to the jihadist sources. Al-Tamimi, for example, refers to the biography telling us about “the real Anbari” and notes a few grammatical mistakes, but mostly – again, eschewing anything like source criticism – seems disappointed that the biography does not have more details. Absent is any sense that these sources could be problematic, flawed, etc.

I would like to see an approach that cuts these sources down to size. I have tried to do some of this in my own work – pointing out, for example, where I think Muhammad Yusuf plagiarized from Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and trying to think through authors’ unstated motivations when I analyze their texts. Or to take another example, in some work in progress I argue that Ayman al-Zawihiri’s much-vaunted “General Guidelines for Jihadist Action” was more a reflection of choices al-Qaida and its affiliates had already made, rather than a pathbreaking guide to a new strategy.

The inflation of jihadist written/visual/audio sources, I think, is intimately linked with the inflation and distortion of the groups themselves – rather than seeing these groups as being made up of human beings shaped by complex circumstances, the terrorologists tell us that we need to follow obscure and highly ideological “treasure maps” to arrive at the true, inner understanding of jihadism and the ten-foot-tall warrior-masterminds who direct it.

I can understand the excitement generated by something like the al-Anbari biography. But in a deeper sense, it’s sad and disturbing that with the sixteenth anniversary of the Iraq War on the way, and with millions of testimonies and documents out there from millions of Iraqis, anyone could present a single biography as the key to understanding the Islamic State.

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.

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.