Monkey Cage Post on Mali’s Elections and Jihadist Violence

In lieu of a post today, I’m linking to this piece I published on Friday with the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. The piece discusses patterns in jihadist violence during Mali’s July-August presidential elections.

Your feedback is welcome as always!

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Four Recent Reports/Translations on Boko Haram

So far this month, two important new reports on Boko Haram have caught my eye, as well as two important new translations.

The first report is Fulan Nasrullah‘s “Strategic Thinking Behind Ongoing Insurgent Offensive Operations In Northeast Nigeria- An Analysis.” Here is an excerpt, describing the period after August 2016, when Boko Haram split into two factions led respectively by Abubakar Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi (who became head of the official “Islamic State West Africa Province” or ISWAP):

At that point in time, with high tempers on both sides of the divided insurgency, there was a fear within ISWAP that Shekau would either deflect pressure from his group (which was weakened by the split and was solely bearing the heat of pressure from the Nigerian and other regional militaries), by negotiating a deal  with the Nigerian authorities to provide them with intelligence to wipe out ISWAP and get Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi/Mamman Nuur(there were extant suspicions and accusations that Ansarul-Muslimeena Fee Bilaadis-Sudan’s urban operations networks and Cameroonian camps had been wiped out by Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities as part of a deal Shekau had made with them), or, he would launch an all out fratricidal war on the nascent group he was regularly denouncing as deviants.

Although spontaneous clashes would erupt between individual units along a very much undefined mix of territory with no clear front line demarcating them, all out war was prevented by ISWAP’s leadership seeking for and holding deconfliction meetings with the Shekau group[6]. While Abubakar Shekau himself was inclined to disregard attempts to deconflict the situation, his Shuraa (the decision making body, or what was left of it after the split) impressed on him the need to avoid intra-insurgent conflict for religious and operational reasons[7].

The whole piece is fascinating. The weakness, as with other writing by Nasrullah, is in the sourcing. Nearly every endnote says something like “conversations had with people with knowledge of these events at the time they occurred, and recently to confirm the details before writing this paper” (that’s the text of endnote 7). So one’s assessment of the report’s credibility essentially comes down to your assessment of Nasrullah’s credibility. You can attempt to fact-check him by comparing his assertions with other sources and accounts, but you cannot fact-check him by accessing and assessing his own sources. When I cited some of Nasrullah’s writing in my book, particularly when it came to discussing Boko Haram’s fight for Damboa, Borno in summer 2014, I tried to deal with this difficulty by saying things like, “According to [Nasrullah]…” In other words I would treat this as a valuable account but I wouldn’t regard it as confirmed.

The second report is from International Crisis Group, entitled “Cameroon’s Far North: A New Chapter in the Fight Against Boko Haram.” An excerpt:

Since 2014, vigilantes, numbering some 14,000 in the Far North, have played an essential role against Boko Haram. They provide critical intelligence to Cameroonian forces, act as scouts and guides, and sometimes confront jihadists directly and protect their villages, especially against suicide attacks. The authorities offer them little support, however. Some have become disillusioned and abandoned the struggle. Vigilante groups also have come in for criticism. Some members were previously cattle thieves, smugglers or bandits, others have been arrested for collaboration with Boko Haram and some are suspected of human rights abuses against captured Boko Haram suspects. As the conflict quietens, plans for their future will become ever more urgent. The absence of such plans could lead groups to fragment, with some vigilantes turning back to crime.

Two important translations have also appeared this month, both from Aymenn al-Tamimi.

One is the account of Tunisian member of Ansar al-Sharia who helped Boko Haram with communications, perhaps some time in 2014-2015, during the period leading up to Boko Haram’s/Abubakar Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015. Vincent Foucher has a short Twitter thread with some analysis here. One passage from the translated text stood out to me, just because it underscores the remoteness even of Boko Haram’s media people, let alone its fighters:

In order [for the Tunisian author’s Nigerian interlocutor] to upload one of the group’s releases, he had to travel to a place some 300 km away from his village, as mobile phone network coverage would be available to upload a release of poor quality on an upload site, and the time for uploading this release, whose size did not exceed 50 MBs, took 9 whole hours. Then he would give me the link to re-upload it on a number of sites with the help of some of the brothers specialized in Rapidleech. Then we would publish it in the forums and on the page of Ifriqiya lil-‘Ilam.

The Tunisian author also claims to have been the key intermediary between Boko Haram’s media people and the Islamic State’s:

Subsequently we tried to establish connection between our brother and our media guy brothers in the beloved Islamic State and the groups supporting it in Africa, and praise be to God, the desired coordination arose months later, and the blessed Mu’assasat al-Urwa al-Wuthqa was established, and a special transmission was achieved in the quality of the releases. May God bless all who facilitated that and strove for that from near and afar. And that was a key to refute the doubts that some of the hyenas and crows strove to publish in the field of West Africa- they got to the point of sending an envoy from them to there in an attempt to convince the group not to give allegiance to the Caliph at all as they did in the Caucasus, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia. And despite that, and by the grace of God the Exalted and Almighty, the group’s leadership, represented in Sheikh Abu Bakr Shekau, decided to give allegiance to the Caliph in order for ranks to be united, the force to be strengthened, and in order for the enemies of God to become enraged.

This makes it sound like the pledge was orchestrated remotely, rather than through any face-to-face negotiations between Islamic State emissaries and Boko Haram. In any case, read Vincent’s thread, as it makes the important point that the Tunisian author manages to both wax enthusiastic about Shekau and the Islamic State, and simultaneously imply that it was Shekau who held back the pledge to the Islamic State for some time. That’s a pretty self-contradictory position to try to hold onto.

The other translation by al-Tamimi is the full version of the text I discussed here and here, namely the anti-Shekau polemic released in June by “Islamic State West Africa” and authored by the “two sons” of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf.

I am very glad that al-Tamimi has made the full translation available. It is a fantastic resource for understanding (at least from its authors’ perspective) the history of Boko Haram. I do, however, disagree with some of the analysis al-Tamimi has appended to the text. One point al-Tamimi makes is this:

It has been claimed that Shekau’s group and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province represent two rival factions professing loyalty to Baghdadi and competing for recognition as the Islamic State’s wing in the West Africa. In fact, this claim is incorrect. Shekau clearly does not recognize the Islamic State as a legitimate authority whatsoever, and on multiple occasions his group has actually fought the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, which deems Shekau and his followers to be Khawarij.

Based on both evidence and logic, this doesn’t quite add up. In terms of evidence, there have been a few communications from Shekau to the leadership of the Islamic State where he appeals to them against al-Barnawi/ISWAP. If ISWAP calls Shekau a Khariji, Shekau calls ISWAP murji’is – in other words, each faction tries to delegitimize the other on theological grounds. Perhaps Shekau’s attitude toward the Islamic State central leadership has changed in recent months, but for quite some time he maintained that he was simply misunderstood and that al-Barnawi’s people had lied about him to the central leadership. Logically, too, it doesn’t follow that if Shekau attacks al-Barnawi’s group, that means he has completely rejected the authority of the central leadership – it just means that he has rejected al-Barnawi’s authority. Also, who is the intended audience of this (Arabic-language) book? It seems to me that part of the intended audience might be any waverers, including waverers abroad, who are still sympathetic to Shekau and who may not be completely convinced that deposing him as Islamic State “governor” was the right move. Otherwise why write it?

Another point from al-Tamimi is his assertion that one of the book’s most important parts is its

Discussion of the nature of relations between al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ‘Boko Haram’ after Muhammad Yusuf’s death. It should be noted that ‘Boko Haram’ never became a formal affiliate of al-Qa’ida in the manner of AQIM or al-Shabaab in Somalia, but there were very much concrete links and correspondence between AQIM and ‘Boko Haram’.

This idea of “concrete links and correspondence” is not at all new – indeed, the entire book can be seen as a recapitulation and extension of al-Barnawi’s 2016 interview with al-Naba’, available in translation here, where he also briefly discusses these contacts. This issue has now been analyzed to death by Nigeria watchers, including me, and what this new text describes is in line with sources released during 2015-2017, which confirms links and correspondence – the extent and meaning of which can and should be debated, but the existence of which cannot. In fact, other sources, such as this one, are a better bet if you want a detailed portrait of the Boko Haram-AQIM relationship after Muhammad Yusuf’s death.

But from the perspective of this new text’s authors, the relationship with AQIM is a tertiary issue at best, discussed on a handful of pages. This text is above all a theologically-oriented polemic against Shekau, a drama in which the two factions are the central actors, in which the Islamic State is the central love object, and in which AQIM is a minor player.

There are many other interesting passages from the text to highlight, but let’s close with this one. It comes in the context of intra-Boko Haram debates about calling other Muslims unbelievers – when can you call someone an unbeliever? Was someone an unbeliever all along, or did they at some point commit apostasy? This anecdote from the text (and we should bear in mind it is recounted by Shekau’s bitter enemies) is not dated, but perhaps comes from 2015, given remarks a few paragraphs earlier about Shekau forcibly taking concubines and slaves in northeastern Nigerian cities. The discussion is surprising to me in a way because it hints that the election of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 as Nigeria’s president was something that some Boko Haram members had to sort of debate and process, rather than instantly dismissing out of hand. Here is the passage (bracketed additions mine):

One day a brother quarreled with one of the students of al-Sheikawi, regarding the kufr [unbelief] of Muhammadu Buhari- the Taghut [ungodly tyrant] of Nigeria: was he an original disbeliever or a murtadd [apostate]? So the student went to his sheikh and informed him about the dispute that happened between him and the brother, so al-Sheikawi arose raging and thundering, and raised his voice saying: “Disbeliever! Disbeliever! By God a disbeliever! Disbeliever.” So the people gathered around him- of course the people of his centre and we were in attendance- and he began with idle talk and bleating for a period of around two hours, building one and destroying another, making an argument at one moment and then contradicting it in another, until he drew the following result as a conclusion:

That the principle regarding Muhammad Buhari, Ja’afar Mahmoud Adam [the estranged mentor of Muhammad Yusuf, assassinated in 2007] and other noteworthy names of those who claim affiliation to Islam, is that they are original disbelievers. And he said- and the recording of it is available and published: “The one who asserts the apostasy of Bukhari [sic] from Islam is a disbeliever. Yes, asserting that they are apostates is not allowed. They are not apostates but rather original disbelievers.”

This is crazy extreme, obviously. But again, what’s interesting is the extent of debate within Boko Haram – including debate about the events of the outside world.

Finally, it’s worth concluding with a passage from the Tunisian jihadist, which brings us back to the question of audience:

As we know that regrettably most of those who read our long articles are from the disbelievers, apostates and hypocrites, we conclude by challenging to mubahala the disbelievers, apostates, idolaters, secularists, modernists, moderates, adherents of Islam of enlightenment, tolerance, modernism, Qur’anism, America and secularism, the sheikhs of fabrication and falsehood from the ‘ulama of hypocrisy and shoes of authority, those who claim a doctorate, to be thinkers and to be of good understanding and analysis, and imams of damage and preachers of the pulpits of shame.

This is something for us all to keep in mind, I think – here the author himself admits that perhaps he has a bigger readership among his enemies (and among Western analysts?) than among his intended audience. All these texts, then, whether individually or in the aggregate, are only a partial window into what jihadists think and do.

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: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Loose Relationship with Salafism

Call me crazy, but even though al-Qaida is supposedly the quintessential “Salafi-jihadi” group, I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.

A good example of one al-Qaida leader’s disinterest in Salafism appears in an interview (Arabic, .pdf, p. 4) that Malian national Iyad Ag Ghali recently gave to an al-Qaida publication. Just last month, Ag Ghali publicly and formally became head of a new jihadist formation in the Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The new group is formally part of al-Qaida and the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the interview, Ag Ghali nonchalantly discusses two issues that would give doctrinaire Salafis considerable pause: his career as a nationalist rebel leader in the 1990s (which involved negotiations with the Malian government), and his long relationship with the global Muslim missionary organization Jama’at al-Tabligh.

Both issues arise in Ag Ghali’s answer to the interviewer’s request for his biography. Ag Ghali divides his life into stages, and among them is: “the stage of negotiations with the Bamako regime in 1991, which produced the first agreement with the Malian government.” Ag Ghali describes the agreement, and the resulting situation “between war and peace” in the 1990s, dispassionately. He voices no regret over what many theologically-minded jihadis would view as a real problem: his willingness to enter into agreements with various regimes that hardline jihadis would consider infidels, and his prioritization of a nationalist struggle over a religious one at that time. It is true that al-Qaida has repeatedly considered and perhaps pursued agreements or truces with different governments, including possibly those in Mauritania and Yemen, but Ag Ghali doesn’t even attempt to frame his past behavior as something that advanced the cause of jihad. There is no indication that he repents for his nationalist past. His attitude is in real tension with the frequently invoked jihadi doctrine of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, or exclusive loyalty toward Muslims and complete disavowal of those considered non-Muslims.

The second issue is one he describes enthusiastically. Speaking of the period in his life from 1998-2011, he says,

God inspired us – to Him be praise and thanks – to join the Society for Preaching and Spreading the Message [Jama’at al-Da’wa wa-l-Tabligh]. This was a beneficial phase in which God Most High facilitated [my] completion of the memorization of the Holy Qur’an, and [my] visits to God’s Muslims and [my] acquaintance with many of them in many places, such as [Saud Arabia], the Gulf, Mauritania, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, and Benin. [I] even [visited] Muslim communities in the West, in France and other countries.

Now, Jama’at al-Tabligh has been roundly condemned by the senior Salafi scholars of the twentieth century. Such scholars viewed Tabligh as a group that did a little bit of good, by urging people to be more pious, but that did a lot of harm, due to its Sufi roots (most Salafis abhor Sufism). The Salafi scholars also felt that Tabligh’s rather generic preaching was a distraction from what Salafis consider the core issue, namely instilling an understanding of Salafi theology and doctrine in lay Muslims. Those Salafi scholars are not respected by al-Qaida when it comes to politics, but the theological concerns they raised about Sufism and Salafism are theoretically still relevant to al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida’s attitude toward Tabligh may be quietly flexible. There have been long-standing accusations that al-Qaida has used Tabligh for recruits and for forms of cover. My admittedly limited understanding of these issues is that Tabligh itself is not usually understood as culpable in such interactions; rather, al-Qaida may have taken advantage of Tabligh’s sprawling membership to pursue its own activities.

But that is a far cry from speaking fondly of one’s membership in Tabligh. Ag Ghali describes an overlapping period in his life – 2003-2009 – as “the stage of getting to know the mujahideen,” suggesting he saw no contradiction between membership in Tabligh and his emerging jihadi identity. And again, he voices no regret over his time with Tabligh – he says nothing like, “And then I saw that they were Sufi heretics and I repented.”

A lot has been made of Ag Ghali’s “chameleon-like” identity, and sometimes I think that’s overblown, but this interview definitely furnishes another piece of evidence for that view of him. In fact, the sense I got from the interview was: “This is a true politician.” The interviewer is often critical (perhaps to help Ag Ghali anticipate and deflect others’ criticisms of him), and at each juncture Ag Ghali responds like a politician, sometimes with quite vague answers. As a politician, Ag Ghali has committed to jihadism, but it is far from clear that he has committed to Salafism. (All of this, by the way, recalls Thomas Hegghammer’s argument that “Salafi-jihadi” is a deeply problematic category because of the difficulty assessing people’s theological commitments. Hegghammer recommends classifying people by how they actually behave. In the case of Ag Ghali his argument definitely applies.)

This discussion takes us back to yesterday’s post. Could the Malian government fruitfully engage Ag Ghali in negotiations? I’m still not sure, although I reiterate that I think it’s worth a try. His flexibility could be taken as either a hopeful or a doubtful sign – on the one hand, there is hope that one could find points of discussion with someone who’s ideologically flexible, but on the other hand, someone so flexible might make a very unreliable negotiating partner.

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.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Afghanistan Reminiscences

Mokhtar Belmokhtar (b. 1972) is an Algerian jihadist sub-commander within al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He may or may not be dead. As part of a research project, I recently re-read an Arabic-language interview with him from 2006; the original link, which was hosted at the jihadist website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, is defunct, but the interview has been reproduced here. One passage stood out to me from the interview. In it, the interviewer asks Belmokhtar to reminisce about his time in Afghanistan. Belmokhtar was there for a year and half from 1991-1992, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces but during the final push to topple the government of Muhammad Najibullah.

Here is the exchange:

Interviewer: Are there are any beautiful memories, images, or events that have stuck in your mind from lofty Afghanistan?

Belmokhtar: […] The first story is the story of an old man who was our neighbor at one of the fronts. He loved the Arab mujahidin. God decreed that I was struck in my eye with a fragment of a shell. After my return from the hospital, when I had been away from him for a period of time, he saw on my eye the mark of the blow and he embraced me. He wept so intensely that we were concerned about him, and he was saying in his Afghan language, ‘What was the sin of this boy, who came from distant Arab lands to help us, and this has been done to him.’ He called me to accept [it]. That was how the Ansar [Muslims in Medina] were toward the Muhajirin [Muslim emigrants to Medina from Mecca] in the time of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace.

The second story: I remember one day we were close to one of the valleys at the battle lines of Gardez. The battles were on the verge of starting. A car stopped close to us and an old man got out, walking slowly, wearing a white garment, and carrying an English rifle. He came near to us for the sake of doing his prayer. After the prayer we invited him to our post. We sat and talked with him in his Pashtun language. We asked him about his age. He said, ‘My age is about one hundred and one.’  When one of the brothers asked him why he had come to the front, even though he was an old man, he said, ‘I’m a warrior, and I can’t stay in my home hearing about fighting at the front, and not want to do some fighting myself.’

The two stories give us a view of Belmokhtar at an impressionable age, a view that contrasts with later versions of him as a hardened desert fighter-slash-criminal. They provide insight into the emotional aspects of fighting in Afghanistan, and the sense of camaraderie that some jihadists find in their lifestyle. This is a camaraderie that many of the “Afghan Arabs” have been chasing ever since, I suspect – often, I also suspect, without finding it in the same degree as they found it in Afghanistan.

The experience of fighting in Afghanistan left such a deep mark on many “Arab Afghans” that I do not believe contemporary jihadism can be properly understood without some analysis of those experiences. When I contributed some research for a report on “Milestones to Militancy” about a year ago, I was struck by the recurring presence of Afghanistan as a key moment in many jihadists’ life trajectories. Someone (not me) should write a book or a dissertation about what people such as Belmokhtar experienced there, and how it shaped their subsequent actions.