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.