Ansar Dine or Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith, or Supporters of the Religion) was a jihadist group formed in Mali in either late 2011 or early 2012, depending on which sources you consult. The group played one of the leading roles in the northern Malian rebellion of 2012 and in the jihadist emirate-building project that followed. In 2017, Ansar al-Din united with several other jihadist units to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), the most important jihadist formation in the Sahel today.
From the moment of its creation and even before, Ansar al-Din had a substantial relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), some of whose units are part of JNIM; within al-Qaida’s global hierarchy, AQIM also stands between JNIM and al-Qaida core in the chain of command.
But the relationship was and is multi-faceted. And I’ve been dismayed to see numerous analyses, including a few I’ve read recently, refer to Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM.
Here are five reasons why this is wrong.
Before talking specifically about Ansar al-Din and AQIM, we need a definition of “front group.” Here is one dictionary definition of “front organization”: “an organization that acts as the face of another organization or group, for example a crime group or intelligence agency, in order to conceal the activities of that organization or group.” With that in mind, let’s turn to five facets of the relationship between Ansar al-Din and AQIM:
1. Ansar al-Din and AQIM openly worked together in 2012.
In 2012, virtually all serious reporting and analysis of Ansar al-Din noted that the group was working with AQIM and with AQIM’s offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Here is one example, and here is another. I have read nothing that suggests Ansar al-Din took pains to disguise this cooperation, and former Ansar al-Din leaders I have interviewed (see below) have acknowledged dispassionately that some of them had direct contact with AQIM leaders in 2012.
All of this undercuts the idea that Ansar al-Din was a front group. By definition, the front is meant to minimize or eliminate any perception of closeness between the sponsor and the front. If the mafia opens a restaurant, they do not call it “The Mafia Restaurant.” If the mafia wants a front, they do not create another mafia that works directly with the parent mafia. If an intelligence agency creates an NGO, they do not call it “Spies Doing Propaganda,” and then openly staff the NGO with intelligence agents. Ansar al-Din, particularly at the level of its leader Iyad ag Ghali, left virtually no distance between itself and AQIM by the summer of 2012.
2. The circumstances of Ansar al-Din’s creation suggest that key actors were improvising rather than executing carefully laid plans.
Numerous sources, including key northern Malian politicians I’ve interviewed as well as some of the reporting from 2012 (example) and subsequent analyses (example), point to meetings at Zakak in far northern Mali in October 2011 as a pivotal episode on the road to the rebellion. Although not all sources agree on exactly what happened at Zakak, all serious sources agree that Iyad ag Ghali was present, that Ansar al-Din had not yet been formed at that time, and that ag Ghali tried and failed to get something from the nascent separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA).
The version of events at Zakak that Andy Morgan relates conforms to several other versions I have heard, and represents what I take to be the most accurate narrative:
The story goes that Iyad Ag Ghali came to the meetings at the Zakak base in October, and put himself forward as a candidate for the post of Secretary General of the MNLA. However, his candidacy was rejected, due to his past silences and obscure dealings with the governments of Mali and Algeria. Instead, the post was filled by Bilal Ag Acherif, a cousin of [the influential, recently deceased rebel leader] Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. There was an overwhelming sense that this time round the movement needed fresh thinking at the top, independent of Algerian, Malian or Libyan meddling and that all the half measures of the past, the broken treaties brokered by one or other of the regional powers, the compromises and the stalling had to stop. This time, it was full independence or nothing.
After being turned down the MNLA leadership at Zakak, Iyad Ag Ghali also presented himself to an important meeting of the leaders of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs, in Abeibara north of Kidal. There he proposed that he become the political head of the clan and be allowed to pursue an Islamist vision of an independent Azawad. Once again his candidature was rejected, and instead Alghabass Ag Intallah as chosen as the new political leader of the Ifoghas, in place of his ageing and infirm father.
Only after these two rejections did ag Ghali create Ansar al-Din.
To fully capture the dynamics at play would require delving into ag Ghali’s biography, but suffice it to say that his non-jihadist roles in the 1990 and 2006 rebellions, and the broader arc of his career, greatly complicate any story that positions Ansar al-Din as a front group for AQIM. Even if one believes (and there is good reason to believe, although there are also some plausible counterarguments against it) that ag Ghali became an ideologically committed hardline jihadist over the years between the mid-1990s and 2012, it would still be a stretch to say that ag Ghali was executing a master plan to create a jihadist front group in late 2011. Ansar al-Din’s creation appears to have been a Plan B for him, and some of the powerful support it attracted also appears to have represented the improvisatory reactions of key figures to the creation of MNLA. I suppose one could argue that AQIM seized the opportunity on short notice to create a front group in the form of Ansar al-Din, but I think narratives that foreground ag Ghali’s agency are much more compelling. I think ag Ghali turned to AQIM as an ally, building on his longstanding connections to them through the Saharan kidnapping economy and through family and social ties, rather than AQIM designating ag Ghali as its point man for a front group.
3. In 2012-2013, Ansar al-Din included major northern Malian politicians who knew what they were doing by temporarily joining
Another wrinkle in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a front group is that major northern Malian politicians joined it very early on in 2012 and remained part of it until the French Operation Serval, a military intervention to end jihadist control of the north, began in January 2013. These politicians included:
- Alghabass ag Intalla – former parliamentary deputy, son of the late aménokal or paramount hereditary ruler of the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation in Mali’s Kidal Region, brother to the current aménokal, and a prominent leader within the Coordination of Azawad Movements or CMA, the ex-rebel bloc that currently controls Kidal and that is a signatory to the 2015 Algiers Accord;
- Ahmada ag Bibi, a key leader in the 2006 rebellion and current parliamentary deputy for Abeibara, Kidal Region, now also high within the CMA;
- Mohamed ag Aharib, another veteran of past rebellions and a seasoned negotiator of past peace agreements as well as the 2015 Algiers Accord; and
- Cheikh ag Aoussa (d. 2016), a major Kidal powerbroker.
My own understanding of Ansar al-Din is that it was a thoroughly hybrid organization, comprising hardened jihadists on the one hand and mainstream (in the context of Kidal) politicians on the other hand. I think the latter camp knew what they were doing when they joined Ansar al-Din – their degree of sympathy for the jihadist project is debatable, but some of them have also said up front (in interviews with me and others) that they joined Ansar al-Din because they felt it was better organized and more militarily effective than the MNLA. Note too that when it became politically toxic for them to be part of Ansar al-Din, namely after Operation Serval began, they got out – and transitioned into helping create the CMA.
This brings us to a core question: If Ansar al-Din was a front group for AQIM, and if the purpose of a front group is to mislead people about the relationship between the front group and the sponsor, who was being misled in 2012? It could not have been the many journalists and analysts mentioned above, who documented Ansar al-Din’s collaboration with AQIM. It could not have been ordinary northern Malians, many of whom experienced first-hand the violence of jihadist rule and witnessed Ansar al-Din working with AQIM – or who voted with their feet by getting out. It could not have been the international community, the Malian government, or regional governments, who negotiated with ag Ghali both directly and through figures such as ag Intalla, and who repeatedly asked ag Ghali to sever his ties to al-Qaida. So was it, then, the northern Malian politicians themselves? Were they duped? I think that’s an impossible argument to sustain, given how adroitly they moved in and then out of Ansar al-Din. Who used whom?
Olivier Walther and Dimitris Christopoulos published a very strong article in 2014 after undertaking a social network analysis of the northern Malian rebellion of 2012. They highlighted ag Ghali’s key role as a “broker” between AQIM and the northern Malian politicians. Yet this should not be taken to mean that there was some kind of wall between AQIM and those politicians. Ag Bibi told me that at a meeting at ag Intalla’s house in Kidal in 2012, the Kidal elite asked AQIM’s Saharan Emir Nabil Abu Alqama (d. 2012) and AQIM to leave Kidal, an order with which Abu Alqama reportedly complied – pointing not just to contact between the politicians and AQIM, but to the former’s relative power over the latter in certain areas and circumstances (although ag Ghali ultimately went in a direction the other northern Malian politicians rejected and regretted). In any case it is clear that figures such ag Intalla and ag Bibi did not approach their roles within Ansar al-Din as though it were an AQIM front group. And any argument that they got played would, again, be undercut by the political success they had before, during,* and after their time in Ansar al-Din.
*They survived the war, physically and politically, and emerged with their positions as key political powers in Kidal intact. That has to count as a kind of success.
4. AQIM’s internal tensions in 2012 precluded any one-to-one, sponsor-to-front group relationship.
I suppose analysts use the idea of “front group” as a kind of shorthand, but there is real danger of falling into what political scientists call the “unitary actor” fallacy – the projection of unity and coherence onto internally divided factions. AQIM was at the height of its internal divisions in 2011-2012 – MUJWA broke away in late 2011, the AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar broke away in late 2012, and in between (and beforehand) there was plenty of infighting and insubordination. The late AQIM Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel’s recovered letter to subordinates in Mali, advising (pleading with?) them to take a softer tack, is relatively famous if you study these events.
So if Ansar al-Din was a front group, who in AQIM was managing it? I suppose the answer might be that it was one of AQIM’s prominent Mali-based field commanders, Abdelhamid Abu Zayd, on behalf of Droukdel and the organization as a whole. Yet the relationship between Abu Zayd and ag Ghali appears to have been one of equals. And if the tensions between Droukdel and Belmokhtar, and between Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar, are the best-known aspects of AQIM’s infighting circa 2012, there also seem to have been points of tension between Abu Zayd and Droukdel – the actions Droukdel advised against in that famous letter are all things that Abu Zayd oversaw. And recall that Ansar al-Din cannot be understood as a unitary actor either. So instead of a sponsor managing a front group, you have two complex, internally divided organizations relating to each other in complicated ways mediated by interpersonal relationships that were never as clear-cut as boss-to-employee. This is not, again, the mafia managing a laundromat.
5. Ansar al-Din’s leader Iyad ag Ghali has benefited just as much from his relationship with AQIM as AQIM has from its relationship with him.
In a sponsor-to-front group relationship it would seem surprising for the front group to eventually begin to displace the sponsor and to reframe even the sponsor’s own agenda. Ag Ghali has now outlived both Abu Zayd (d. 2013) and Droukdel (d. 2020), and there is a fairly widespread feeling among analysts and journalists that JNIM, which ag Ghali leads, is now more prominent and more important than AQIM, which at the moment nobody (publicly) leads. Additionally, JNIM’s pursuit of negotiations with the Malian government, however halting and flawed, is a far cry from AQIM’s original agenda of overthrowing alleged “apostate” regimes across North (and later West) Africa. Do I think ag Ghali will one day renounce jihadism and take up a post in the CMA, or show up in Bamako as a deputy in parliament? No, probably not. But do I think he has been a puppet for AQIM? Again, no. At every point from late 2011 to the present, he seems to have taken his own decisions. You could argue that since he formed Ansar al-Din, AQIM may have been able to hold a sword over his head – once you get in, you can never get out, effectively. But the notion of ag Ghali as AQIM’s subordinate, a notion implicit in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM, is not convincing to me. And recall that other key JNIM leaders, notably Amadou Kouffa in his August 2017 audio message regarding the idea of negotiations, referred to ag Ghali as the real decision maker. Ag Ghali is managing a web of relationships that he knows extremely well on the very turf where he grew up, where he has long fought, and where AQIM’s Algerian leaders (whoever remains of them) are ultimately outsiders.
Why does all this history matter? Because I don’t think it’s very productive to talk about jihadist “front groups” at all. To me, the term is too reductive – it sands away history, it sands away agency, and it leaves the impression of rigid jihadist hierarchies comprised of unitary actors. That picture does not fit with my understanding of the complex histories at play in the Sahel since 2012.