According to the French Ministry of Defense, Operation Barkhane killed Yahya Abu al-Hammam and ten other members of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) on February 21 in the Timbuktu Region of Mali. The death of Abu al-Hammam, as the French noted, follows two other JNIM leaders’ (reported) deaths in roughly the past year: Amadou Kouffa, reportedly killed on the night of November 22-23, 2018 in the Mopti Region; and Abu Hasan al-Ansari, killed on February 14, 2018 in the Kidal Region.
If we look back to JNIM’s announcement video from March 2017, when JNIM formally brought together four (depending on how you count it) jihadist movements/units in the Sahara, we see that of the five men featured in the video, only two remain alive: JNIM’s overall leader Iyad ag Ghali, and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, a judge with JNIM’s parent organization al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).*
On one level, this acceleration in the decapitation of JNIM is a remarkable success for French counterterrorism. On another level, however, we can look at the same images from JNIM’s announcement video and see, vividly, the limits of decapitation. Abu al-Hammam and al-Ansari, after all, were not just deputies in JNIM but were themselves former deputies within individual movements and battalions. In a sense, Abu al-Hammam’s seat at the table might have gone to the AQIM battalion commander ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, had Abu Zayd not been killed by French and Chadian forces in February 2013. Al-Ansari’s seat at the table might have gone to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of al-Murabitun, had Belmokhtar not been killed (or at least forced to go into deep hiding) by a French airstrike in Libya in November 2016. Alternatively, al-Ansari’s seat might have gone to Ahmed al-Tilemsi, had the latter not been killed by French forces in Kidal Region in December 2014.
Last month I wrote a piece at War on the Rocks focusing on Abu al-Hammam’s long career in Timbuktu and analyzing some of the political opportunities and constraints he encountered. So I have some appreciation for the accumulated jihadist capital and expertise that he represented. His death is a major event in the history of jihadism in the Sahara, and it could even be taken as a symbol for the passing of a whole generation. And yet, Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar had formidable accumulated capital as well, in terms of local and translocal networks, local knowledge, symbolic resonance, and military and political experience. Were they irreplaceable?
The situation in Mali has deteriorated, I think, not so much due to personalities as to trends. Each successive stage in the deterioration of the conflict has activated new patterns of violence, as well as new developments in hyper-local politics. In a recent and insightful article, Yvan Guichaoua and Héni Nsaibia call attention to the ways that widely used lenses for viewing jihadist expansion in the Sahel – individual-level radicalization and jihadist exploitation of topography and geography – fail to capture the ways that interactions between communities and jihadists drive expansion. The success or failure of jihadist interactions with communities and groups may depend partly on the savviness of top leaders, but not entirely or even predominantly, especially once you get to village-level dynamics.
Additionally, the conflict has produced jihadist leaders even as jihadist leaders have fed conflict – for example, not to be completely Tolstoy-an in my view of history, but someone like Amadou Kouffa can be viewed as both an agent in and a product of the crisis in Mopti. It takes more than force of will or sharpness of intellect to turn a former itinerant preacher into the face of a mass movement. How many people outside of Mali had heard of Amadou Kouffa before 2015? Before 2012? How many Kouffas are rising through the ranks now, their names not yet infamous?
Were I in Barkhane’s shoes and thinking in military terms, of course I would focus on killing top jihadists. But as Andrew Lebovich has laid out, in a piece that delves into Kouffa’s life and his Janus-faced self-presentation as jihadist leader and would-be ethnic champion, the political opportunities created by decapitation are short-lived and hard to exploit. In the wake of Kouffa’s death, Lebovich urged the Malian government to disarm militias and also urged international actors to not only help the Malian state return to Mopti, but return in a way that elicits ordinary citizens’ buy-in. These are immense challenges and without political progress, Barkhane is likely to continue knocking off top commanders without reversing the wider deterioration. On that note, I have also written about how various actors inside and outside Mali appear relatively comfortable with the overall status quo.
Meanwhile I am, honestly, skeptical whether there is even a net gain from some of these counterterrorism operations. At some point, I think there will have to be dialogue between the Malian government and the jihadists, or at the very least a kind of quiet and tacit agreement to stop fighting. I worry that decapitation will breed fragmentation in jihadist ranks that makes dialogue and peace harder to achieve. And I worry that putting big Xs through photographs of top jihadists will be mistaken for a sign of overall progress. And finally, I think that foreign forces may be exacerbating violence through their very presence. I’m not sure France has much of a plan other than to keep killing jihadists, and that might take a long time to work, if it ever works.
*I assume al-Sanhaji is still alive, and could find no reports of his death – but readers, please correct me if I’m wrong.