Mali: Amadou Kouffa’s Opening Bid for Negotiations

Mali’s “Conference of National Understanding,” which concluded in April, recommended that the Malian government open negotiations with two prominent Malian jihadists, Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. Both men are part of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), which is formally part of al-Qaida. After the conference floated the suggestion to negotiate, the French and Malian governments quickly rejected the idea. The suggestion, however, continues to evoke debate in Mali.

Apparently the jihadists are, at least theoretically, willing to consider the idea of negotiating. Recently, two emissaries from Kouffa (who is ethnically Fulani/Peul) approached (French) a prominent Peul politician, Alioune Nouhoum Diallo. Kouffa’s men outlined three preconditions for negotiations:

  1. The withdrawal from Mali of France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane;
  2. The withdrawal from Mali of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA
  3. The appointment of Diallo as mediator.

Needless to say, the first two preconditions are extremely unlikely to happen. Neither the government of France, nor the government of Mali, would agree – indeed, many would see those demands as a trap that the jihadists are attempting to lay.

But the very fact that Kouffa’s people approached Diallo bespeaks a willingness to negotiate, I think. Moreover, I think it bespeaks willingness not only on Kouffa’s part but on Iyad Ag Ghali’s, who is reportedly very close to Kouffa and who is, in a formal sense, Kouffa’s superior in the jihadist hierarchy.

Is there anything that could be negotiated? At the level of ideals, no – Mali will not become an Islamic state, Mali will not formally allow the creation of an autonomous jihadist emirate within its territory, Mali will not expel the international community, etc. But more pragmatically, perhaps Ag Ghali and Kouffa could be swayed by the offer of a path back to normalcy: a deal whereby they renounce al-Qaida in return for a seat at the main negotiating table, or whereby they could enjoy a comfortable exile somewhere far away from Mali (exile beats dying in the desert).

To me, the reason to start talking is to allow some room for creativity – the talking itself, I think, could uncover an area where genuine negotiations are possible. You can’t necessarily determine in advance exactly how the talks would go, or what the areas of compromise would be. You have to hear at least a little bit of what the other side thinks.

The counter-arguments to negotiations are, of course, serious and compelling. Some observers and players justifiably worry that opening negotiations could empower the jihadists politically or even militarily. But I don’t see negotiations and military pressure as mutually exclusive. You can still hunt these people even as you talk to them through intermediaries.

Finally, a bit on Diallo: he is a major figure, both within the Peul community (where he heads an umbrella body of Peul associations) and nationally. He was president of Mali’s National Assembly from 1992-2002, i.e. during the first decade of Malian democracy.

Last month, he gave a fascinating interview (French) where he discussed, among other things, the roots of Kouffa’s appeal – in Diallo’s view, Kouffa has benefited from his own eloquence, but also from broader socioeconomic problems such as unemployment among people educated in Arabic, rather than in French. In that interview, Diallo explained why he favors negotiations with jihadists:

Every time that the State really put itself forward, the State succeeded in halting the rebellions. So I think that a State that decides to talk straight, to speak the truth to all who are rebelling, and to speak with them, cards on the table, and to only commit itself to doing what it can do, that State can totally recover authority in central Mali, in eastern Mali. And that’s why you heard that heartfelt cry from hundreds of participants at the Conference of National Understanding who are sorry that the Peace Accord is not able to stop the bloodshed.

So, let’s talk with those who are presumed to be responsible for the bloodshed today. Let’s talk with Iyad Ag Ghali, let’s talk with Amadou Kouffa. Let’s try to know what’s necessary to do, without losing sight of the fact that the former president of the National Assembly, which I am, can only wish for a secular State, a democratic State, a State that will commit to the path of being just, being upright.

 

On Mali’s Internal Debates About Negotiating with Jihadists

In early April, Mali’s Conference of National Understanding recommended that the government negotiate with the jihadists in the north, or at least with Malian nationals Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. At the time, I wrote a bit about the idea here on the blog. Yesterday I did a follow-up of sorts for Global Observatory, looking at how Malian politicians and commentators are debating the proposal – and at how the debate has continued even after France and Malian President Keita expressed their opposition to the idea.

Mali: Talking to Jihadists?

Mali’s Conference of National Understanding ran from March 27 to April 2. One of the major recommendations by participants was for the Malian government to open negotiations with two jihadist leaders and their factions: Iyad Ag Ghali and his Ansar al-Din, and Amadou Kouffa and his Macina Liberation Front. Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa are Malian nationals. See a bit more on that recommendation, and others, here (French).

The recommendation is worth a try. The past two years have seen the slow and painful implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, which is meant to bring peace to Mali after its 2012-2013 civil war. As various provisions of the accord are finally implemented, jihadists have repeatedly acted as spoilers. Ag Ghali has strong connections among the Tuareg elite in northern Mali, connections (paywalled) that go beyond jihadist circles and extend into other armed groups that are, and must be, major players in any durable peace. During the negotiations that led to the 2015 accord, informed observers in Mali and France strongly suspected that Ag Ghali was, through intermediaries, casting his “shadow” (French) over the process. If the recent past is any indication, a peace process that makes no room for Ag Ghali is one that will be disrupted, perhaps fatally, by regular jihadist attacks. That’s not to say that the Malian government could magically find common ground with Ag Ghali, but it is to say that opening a channel of dialogue could bear fruit. Dialogue with Ag Ghali might also create more space for dialogue with Kouffa, to whom Ag Ghali is close.

Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa, however, are also key figures in the new Saharan jihadist “super-group” Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), whose creation was announced in March. Ag Ghali, in fact, is the group’s leader, and the group is formally a part of al-Qaida. The United States government made Ag Ghali a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2013. From Washington’s perspective, there might be insurmountable legal and political obstacles to including Ag Ghali in any negotiations, or to giving him the kind of immunity that he is rumored to want. Indeed, perhaps Ag Ghali’s choice to formalize his role in al-Qaida represents his abandonment of that desire for immunity.

It’s worth noting the gap between American and Malian views on the question of talking to jihadists. The conference attendees presumably do not see the new “super group” as so solid or scary a structure that Ag Ghali might not be induced to leave it or dismantle it.

 

Where does all this leave the Malian government? One option, of course, would be for them to quietly open a channel to Ag Ghali and Kouffa, using intermediaries from among the non-jihadist rebels. Perhaps such a channel already exists. If so, that leads to questions about what concrete next steps the conference attendees envision. Would an indirect channel be used to open a direct one? Would that lead to a formal meeting? Formal discussions about a peace-for-immunity deal? If so, how would Washington and Paris react? The government of Mali, in other words, has some tough choices to make and various unknowns to think through.

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.