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

In this post I’m assuming that you know the basic outlines of what happened with the recent prisoner exchange between the Malian government and the jihadist organization Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). If not, you may want to read part one, which deals with the negotiations and particularly with the role of the main ex-rebel bloc in northern Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

JNIM is a jihadist coalition that was formed in March 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations and units that had already been working together for years. One can see that history come into play with the recent hostage releases; one of the four hostages JNIM released, French aid worker Sophie Pétronin, was kidnapped in 2016, in other words before JNIM was formed. JNIM belongs to al-Qaida’s hierarchy and theoretically sits below not just al-Qaida central but also al-Qaida’s regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in that hierarchy. The deaths of several key Algerian AQIM leaders in recent years, though, have reinforced my sense that it is JNIM’s leader, Malian national Iyad ag Ghali, who really sets the organization’s tone. This does not mean that JNIM is a purely “local” outfit – clearly it has regional ambitions and draws on global jihadist imaginaries (if I can use an overused academic term) in its propaganda. But I have repeatedly gotten the sense, over the years, that ag Ghali is more independent-minded than the leader of your average al-Qaida affiliate. There is a big although perhaps unresolvable debate to be had about what ag Ghali really wants, how cynical he is vis-a-vis jihadist ideology, and so forth.

The question of what ag Ghali wants comes into play with the prisoner exchange. JNIM is much bigger than ag Ghali and some reports indicated that many of those released back to JNIM had never met him, which makes sense. Yet the JNIM leader seemed to deliberately make the final exchange into a kind of “ag Ghali show,” appearing at what was essentially a big party and allowing himself to be photographed. His appearance raises all kinds of questions, as noted in this perceptive thread, about why he was so confident that he could reveal himself, and about what messages he was trying to send what audiences through such an appearance.

The photos also fuel speculation about whether ag Ghali has a kind of de facto immunity against French raids, or arrest, and if so what that says about his relationships with governments in the region – all that is either conspiracy theory or above my pay grade, depending on my mood on any given day. In either case I don’t want to touch it.

Turning back to the photos, obviously the black flags are there, and one should not forget the jihadist character of JNIM as an organization or the specifically ideological framings JNIM has applied to this exchange (more on this below). But to me, these photos scan on a few levels with a few different messages. One of those levels is that here we see ag Ghali as “the big man of the north.” I don’t like that phrase, “big man,” but somehow using it feels unavoidable here.

The argument I try to make here, in terms of treating jihadist leaders as politicians, is not that jihadists are morally or strategically equivalent to other types of politicians, or that jihadist ideology doesn’t matter, or that jihadists don’t have blood on their hands. Rather, it’s that jihadist leaders often maintain and cultivate political relationships with actors outside their own organizations, and that such political relationships can have many dynamics that are distinct from, though obviously become intertwined with, jihadist ideology.

To take a concrete example, it is appalling and vicious to kidnap a woman in her 70s and then keep her in captivity, in very harsh conditions, for nearly four years – and it is not just people outside northern Mali who feel that way. To reiterate a point I raised in part one, I was struck by the detail mentioned here, namely that local leaders from throughout the Gao Region, where Sophie Pétronin was kidnapped, had been sending ag Ghali letters for years asking him to release her.

What is the nature, then, of the relationships represented by such correspondence – which seems to have actually reached the JNIM leader? On the one hand, we could say that ultimately ag Ghali released her and the others for men and cash, for tangible resources that directly benefited the jihadist project. On the other hand, it’s worth asking (speculating, I suppose) about what the participants in such correspondence are thinking. Were these leaders from the Gao Region thinking “I am writing a letter to an al-Qaida leader” or were they thinking “I am writing to Iyad ag Ghali, key northern power broker”? And what kinds of channels allowed the correspondence to reach him – on what bases are the people along those channels connected to one another? I would guess it’s not all ideological relationships. And then, receiving the letters, what did ag Ghali think? Obviously the letters did not move him to release her immediately, but I would be surprised if he received the correspondence and thought, “Oh, these people I consider murtaddin [apostates] in Gao are complaining, I don’t care what they think.” There is a story I heard about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably apocryphal, that if you drew any line across a map of the United States, FDR could tell you in detail about the political situation in every county through which that line passed. Not that FDR and ag Ghali are equivalent, but I wonder if ag Ghali has a similar mental map of northern Malian politics. Whatever he wants, he cannot afford – it seems to me – to completely antagonize local leaders in the north.

Another phrase that leaps out to me in looking at the photos, then, is “power broker.” This is a vague term and I am not sure what ag Ghali wants to do with his political power, or that he even knows what he wants to do, precisely – but I am convinced that he wants political power that goes beyond his role as JNIM leader. This relates to another crucial point that Wassim Nasr has made, namely that the “suspected jihadists” released (206, by most counts I see now, including from JNIM) appear to include a number of “non-jihadist fighters.” As Nasr points out, this is politics. Here, too, RFI reports that while some hardened jihadists who had participated in major attacks are rumored to have been released, the “majority…are not important members of jihadist groups.” According to RFI’s reporting and others, JNIM does seem to have asked for specific people to be released, though, in three separate lists of people. It is tempting (likely?) to imagine a process whereby JNIM and ag Ghali canvassed various constituencies, again including constituencies outside of JNIM, to determine which names they should ask for. And if ag Ghali is getting back people who were, say, swept up in security crackdowns but who weren’t part of JNIM, that could (a) reinforce his popularity in the north in general, (b) strengthen his ties to specific local leaders regardless of where those leaders are ideologically, and (c) amplify the impact of JNIM’s anti-French propaganda not just for jihadist sympathizers and audiences but for other northern audiences. Where and when ag Ghali is seen as the champion of north, as “un grand et un vrai chef,” that again reinforces his status as a power broker in ways that both strengthen the jihadist project and go beyond it.

One also, I think, should keep in mind the fluidity of membership in political-military blocs in northern Mali, a fluidity that extends to jihadist ranks. Thus you have the (reported) effort, early in the negotiations, by an ex-jihadist initiating negotiations with JNIM with the blessing of then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and then-Prime Minister Boubou Cissé – and even traveling with an active-duty colonel who was an advisor to the Prime Minister. Sometimes who someone is, the networks they have access to, may matter just as much or more than their particular organizational affiliation at any given moment. And that dynamic can even hold true sometimes for ag Ghali himself.

But there is a lot going on in JNIM’s messaging. Is there a hint of defensiveness, an unspoken attempt to anticipate and parry the condemnations that are likely to come from JNIM’s rivals in the Islamic State, who publicly reject negotiations with the Malian government root and branch? The text overlaying the two photos below (text I can barely make out in places, because of the font) emphasizes themes of justice and injustice, solidarity and oppression, and so forth. The message is expressed in a jihadist idiom, and there is no shortage of contempt for the “Malian regime” and its “prisons of injustice and enmity.” Yet parts of the text could be taken as, again, an effort to justify making a deal with an enemy government.

Here, too, a JNIM-adjacent statement frames the prisoner swap as an extraordinary victory for the jihadists and as a type of “blessed operations that gladden the Muslims everywhere,” and that JNIM “urges our brothers in [other] jihadist groups” to emulate and replicate. This is a kind of boast, obviously, yet could also be seen as a pre-emptive rhetorical defense against potential Islamic State criticisms.

Two more issues, and then I should wrap up, as this is getting long. First is the issue of the actual hardened individuals and serious operatives who (may) have been released. There is debate over whether certain specific individuals, particularly Mimi Ould Baba Ould Cheikh, were actually released – Ould Cheikh, son of a northern politician, is a suspected organizer of major attacks in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. It appears the United States government blocked his inclusion on the list of those freed, which may have slowed the overall exchange and also resulted in an increase to the ransom sum paid to JNIM. Another name being cited is Fawaz Ould Ahmed, reportedly a key operative within al-Murabitun, an AQIM offshoot and one of the groups that fed into the JNIM coalition. Another name mentioned (and confirmed in photos from the release party) is Aliou Mahamane Touré, an official within the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), part of which fed into al-Murabitun and thus eventually into JNIM. If the precise list of those freed is still unclear, there appears to be little debate that the list ultimately includes some very dangerous people. All this has prompted some soul-searching on the French side about what their forces are ultimately actually doing in Mali. To say the least, this deal involved some very bitter compromises for the governments of Mali and France.

The second and final issue is that of money. How much was paid to JNIM? 2.5 million euros? 10 million euros? These are sums in line with those paid at the height of the Saharan kidnapping economy circa 2013. Are we going back to those days? On the one hand, there would seem to be fewer targets of opportunity, especially in terms of Western tourists, than there were before the Malian rebellion of 2012 – and the kidnapping economy in some ways worked against itself by eliciting stronger and stronger travel warnings from Western governments, and effectively killing off tourism in northern Mali. On the other hand, JNIM has every incentive now to kidnap more people.

Where does the money go? I think sometimes commentators assume it all goes straight into operations. I doubt that. Some of those involved in the negotiations may take cuts of the money, and then ag Ghali may distribute some of the money for, again, political impact and relationship-strengthening (for those freed and perhaps even for families of those who were not freed). That kind of largesse could arguably be more dangerous than direct funding of operations, because ag Ghali’s and JNIM’s generosity could augment the popularity they seem to be deriving, in some quarters, from this deal.

It all makes my head spin, to say the least. I guess the final takeaway is that JNIM got a lot out of this deal, and then has amplified its material gains with (a) relatively skillful propaganda and (b) what seems to be continued relationship-building and relationship management across the north.

The Jihadist Merger in Mali and the Sahara

In early March, three jihadist groups in Mali and the Sahara released a video announcing that they have merged into a new group called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The jihadist groups involved are:

  • the northern Malian Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith or, if you prefer, Supporters of Religion),
  • the central Malian Masina Liberation Front (where Masina refers to an early nineteenth-century Muslim polity whose theological outlook has little in common with contemporary jihadism),
  • and the Saharan “emirate” of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including al-Murabitun Battalion.

The leader of the new group is Iyad Ag Ghali (b. mid-1950s), a Malian national and leader of Ansar al-Din. Ag Ghali’s career has been extremely complex, but one might summarize it crudely in two phases: a career as a relatively mainstream rebel (albeit with growing jihadist ties) until early 2012, and then a career in open jihadism since 2012. Other jihadist commanders appearing in the video are, from the viewer’s left to right:

  • Amadou Kouffa, a Malian national who is leader of the Masina Liberation Front and a long-time associate of Ag Ghali
  • Yahya Abu al-Hammam/Djamel Okacha, an Algerian national who has been emir of AQIM’s Saharan battalions since 2012
  • Al-Hasan al-Ansari, deputy leader of al-Murabitun, AQIM’s most prominent battalion
  • and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, the “judge” of AQIM’s Saharan emirate

Many of the most important points about the video have already been made by Yvan Gichaoua here (French). Key points include the video’s emphasis on global jihadist (rather than local political) themes, and its strong message placing these Saharan groups under Al-Qaida’s banner, with specific pledges of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQIM’s overall emir Abd al-Malik Droukdal, and the Taliban’s Mullah Hibatullah. Gichaoua also points to the important fact that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous commander of al-Murabitun, is not in the video, perhaps because he is either dead or incapacitated. Gichaoua also remarks that the physical assemblage of these other leaders is striking in and of itself, given that the point of ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region is to disperse and weaken jihadist groups.

I would add three things:

  1. First, I see this as an administrative reorganization first and foremost. The move does not, it seems, either increase or decrease the number of jihadist fighters in the region. In other words, the groups are not necessarily greater now than the sum of their parts. So I would be skeptical of analyses proclaiming that this “changes the game.” After all, such administrative reorganizations are not new in the Sahara: AQIM has regularly promoted and demoted leaders, battalions have repeatedly broken off and rejoined, etc. Al-Murabitun has been involved in many such reorganizations: it originated as the merger of two breakaway AQIM units, which then subsequently rejoined AQIM. Moreover, Droukdal has had trouble – for years – imposing his will on the Sahara, and this reshuffle will not necessarily change that.
  2. Second, the anti-Islamic State message is not explicit, but neither is it hard to detect in the video. The video opens with the first part of Qur’an 3:103, “Hold firmly to God’s rope together and do not become divided.” That verse has been a key part of the Islamic State’s messaging to jihadis, as the Islamic State proclaims the need for unity. Jihadis pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, including breakaway units of AQIM, have invoked the verse to justify their decision to rally to the Islamic State’s banner. AQIM and its new (old) Saharan leader is making the same argument, except to say that al-Qaida should be the focal point of intra-jihadist unity. In that sense, the video may be aimed partly at defectors from AQIM to Islamic State, with the implication that they should rejoin the fold. That fits with prior AQIM statements, such as a 2016 interview with Abu al-Hammam (dead link, so I won’t post it) which frame the al-Qaida/Islamic State conflict as a kind of family dispute.
  3. Even if the video didn’t concentrate on local politics, the new group undoubtedly will continue attempting to insert itself and its violence in local northern Malian politics. Al-Sanhaji (Arabic) recently released an audio statement threatening the new “joint patrols” in northern Mali. The joint patrols, which I wrote about here, were the target of a major suicide bombing in January. The patrols are an important element of the slow, painful implementation of a 2015 peace accord. Ag Ghali and his allies want peace to fail.

Mali: More Details on the January 18 Gao Suicide Bombing

On January 18, suicide bombers attacked the Operational Coordination Mechanism in Gao, northern Mali – the camp for forces preparing to undertake mixed patrols (rebels, pro-government militias, government forces) in the city. The casualty count, initially reported at around forty, has steadily risen, with RFI (French) putting it now at 77.

The attack was soon claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a group affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who may or may not be dead. Al-Murabitun said,

We warn all those who have been seduced by France…that we will not accept barracks, bases, patrols, or convoys of the French colonizer who fights the mujahidin.

International media coverage of the statement understandably focused on its anti-French language and the fact that French President Francois Hollande visited Gao just a few days before the attack. But I read the statement more as an anti-peace proclamation, and the attack not as primarily anti-French but as anti-peace. The mixed patrols in Gao represent a small step toward peace in northern Mali (a peace supported by France, no doubt, but also brokered by Algeria and supported to different degrees by the Malian government and other non-jihadist actors in the north), and the achievement of that peace would further marginalize al-Murabitun.

Another noteworthy detail is that al-Murabitun identified the bomber as Abd al-Hadi al-Fulani. Although this is likely a pseudonym, it seems al-Murabitun wished to stress that the bomber was from the Fulani/Peul ethnic group, which is prominent in central and northern Mali and throughout the western Sahel and into northern Nigeria (on central Mali, International Crisis Group’s report from last year is worth reading). The Fulani have come under heavy, and to my mind completely unfair, suspicion as a group over the past few years. Al-Murabitun may be both trying to trumpet whatever Fulani support it has and hoping that identifying the bomber as Fulani will exacerbate collective punishment and suspicion of the Fulani – a scenario that could benefit al-Murabitun, of course.

For its part, the Malian government has swung into action, with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visiting Gao (French) and declaring three days of national mourning. But RFI (French) has questions about how easily the bomber (or bombers? there may have been up to five) penetrated the camp in Gao. Malian voices have joined in the critical questioning, with one commentator (French) denouncing the “irresponsibility of the Malian state its partners.” The critics, I think, have a point. If the mixed patrols in Gao are to bring greater security to the north, they must themselves enjoy a basic level of security.

 

Partial List of Recent Jihadist Attacks in Southern and Central Mali

This is my effort to catalogue jihadist attacks in southern and central Mali during 2015. I’ve deliberately left off attacks by northern rebels such as the Coordination for the Movements of the Azawad, because I consider those attacks categorically different, although the lines can get blurry. Please let me know if I’ve left any jihadist attacks off the list, and I’ll update it accordingly.

[Update: Ansar al-Din has claimed responsibility for the June 27 and 28 attacks, and commenter Aurélien has listed numerous other attacks, which I’ve incorporated below.]

  • June 28, Fakola, Sikasso Region: Gunmen briefly seized the village; Malian security sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with the Masina Liberation Front, but Ansar al-Din claimed the attack.
  • June 27, near Nara, Koulikoro Region: Gunmen killed three soldiers at a military camp; Malian intelligence sources attributed the attack to Peul fighters associated with Ansar al-Din, which claimed the attack.
  • June 14, Djenné, Mopti Region: Gunmen attack a gendarmerie post.
  • June 10, Misséni, Sikasso Region: An estimated thirty gunmen killed a gendarme and burned down the police station; Malian sources did not identify the attackers, but a Malian journalist (French) attributed the attack to Ansar al-Din.
  • June 2, Dogofri, Ségou Region: Four gunmen kill a gendarme; Malian security sources blame the Masina Liberation Front.
  • April 12, between Niono and Diabaly, Ségou Region: A roadside bomb kills two Malian soldiers.
  • April 3, Boni, Mopti Region: Gunmen kill two civilians.
  • April 1, Boulkessi, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a Malian military base.
  • March 7, Bamako: Attackers with a machine gun and grenades kill five people at a bar; later claimed by al-Murabitun.
  • January 8 and 16, Ténenkou, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked soldiers in the village; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.
  • January 6, Dioura, Mopti Region: Gunmen attacked a military outpost.
  • January 5, Nampala, Ségou Region: Gunmen attacked Malian soldiers, killing as many as seven; the Malian press (French) attributed the attack to the Masina Liberation Front.

Al-Murabitun and the Islamic State

Yesterday, Mauritania’s Al Akhbar reported (French, and a slightly different version in Arabic)* that al-Murabitun, a Sahelian jihadist group that takes its name from an eleventh-century Northwest African dynasty, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The audio statement (Arabic) was a short and straightforward pledge of allegiance read by someone who gave his name at the end as ‘Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi. Al-Sahrawi was a leader in the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), one of two groups that came together to form al-Murabitun in 2013. The other group was Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulaththamun, or “the Masked Men.” Both groups are splinters from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Sahrawi is (may be?) the emir of al-Murabitun. If genuine, the message from al-Sahrawi would represent a further diminution of al-Qa’ida’s influence in North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel.

I don’t go much for the kind of over-analyzing of jihadist media statements that can lead to making mountains out of molehills, but it is striking that al-Sahrawi’s (purported) statement was not nearly as formal or extensive as other, formulaic pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State. Compare the pledge (Arabic) by Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, which included a number of formal elements (such as Khutbat al-Haja, “The Sermon of Necessity,” an oft-used Salafi doxology) not present in al-Sahrawi’s audio pledge.

One of al-Murabitun’s recent attacks was an April 15 suicide attack on United Nations peacekeepers in Ansongo, Mali. That attack was claimed by Belmokhtar.

*h/t Rukmini Callimachi and Andrew Lebovich, whose commentary on this is worth reading.