Ansar Dine Was Not a Front Group for AQIM

Ansar Dine or Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith, or Supporters of the Religion) was a jihadist group formed in Mali in either late 2011 or early 2012, depending on which sources you consult. The group played one of the leading roles in the northern Malian rebellion of 2012 and in the jihadist emirate-building project that followed. In 2017, Ansar al-Din united with several other jihadist units to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), the most important jihadist formation in the Sahel today.

From the moment of its creation and even before, Ansar al-Din had a substantial relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), some of whose units are part of JNIM; within al-Qaida’s global hierarchy, AQIM also stands between JNIM and al-Qaida core in the chain of command.

But the relationship was and is multi-faceted. And I’ve been dismayed to see numerous analyses, including a few I’ve read recently, refer to Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM.

Here are five reasons why this is wrong.

Before talking specifically about Ansar al-Din and AQIM, we need a definition of “front group.” Here is one dictionary definition of “front organization”: “an organization that acts as the face of another organization or group, for example a crime group or intelligence agency, in order to conceal the activities of that organization or group.” With that in mind, let’s turn to five facets of the relationship between Ansar al-Din and AQIM:

1. Ansar al-Din and AQIM openly worked together in 2012.

In 2012, virtually all serious reporting and analysis of Ansar al-Din noted that the group was working with AQIM and with AQIM’s offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Here is one example, and here is another. I have read nothing that suggests Ansar al-Din took pains to disguise this cooperation, and former Ansar al-Din leaders I have interviewed (see below) have acknowledged dispassionately that some of them had direct contact with AQIM leaders in 2012.

All of this undercuts the idea that Ansar al-Din was a front group. By definition, the front is meant to minimize or eliminate any perception of closeness between the sponsor and the front. If the mafia opens a restaurant, they do not call it “The Mafia Restaurant.” If the mafia wants a front, they do not create another mafia that works directly with the parent mafia. If an intelligence agency creates an NGO, they do not call it “Spies Doing Propaganda,” and then openly staff the NGO with intelligence agents. Ansar al-Din, particularly at the level of its leader Iyad ag Ghali, left virtually no distance between itself and AQIM by the summer of 2012.

2. The circumstances of Ansar al-Din’s creation suggest that key actors were improvising rather than executing carefully laid plans.

Numerous sources, including key northern Malian politicians I’ve interviewed as well as some of the reporting from 2012 (example) and subsequent analyses (example), point to meetings at Zakak in far northern Mali in October 2011 as a pivotal episode on the road to the rebellion. Although not all sources agree on exactly what happened at Zakak, all serious sources agree that Iyad ag Ghali was present, that Ansar al-Din had not yet been formed at that time, and that ag Ghali tried and failed to get something from the nascent separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA).

The version of events at Zakak that Andy Morgan relates conforms to several other versions I have heard, and represents what I take to be the most accurate narrative:

The story goes that Iyad Ag Ghali came to the meetings at the Zakak base in October, and put himself forward as a candidate for the post of Secretary General of the MNLA. However, his candidacy was rejected, due to his past silences and obscure dealings with the governments of Mali and Algeria. Instead, the post was filled by Bilal Ag Acherif, a cousin of [the influential, recently deceased rebel leader] Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. There was an overwhelming sense that this time round the movement needed fresh thinking at the top, independent of Algerian, Malian or Libyan meddling and that all the half measures of the past, the broken treaties brokered by one or other of the regional powers, the compromises and the stalling had to stop. This time, it was full independence or nothing.

After being turned down the MNLA leadership at Zakak, Iyad Ag Ghali also presented himself to an important meeting of the leaders of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs, in Abeibara north of Kidal. There he proposed that he become the political head of the clan and be allowed to pursue an Islamist vision of an independent Azawad. Once again his candidature was rejected, and instead Alghabass Ag Intallah as chosen as the new political leader of the Ifoghas, in place of his ageing and infirm father.

Only after these two rejections did ag Ghali create Ansar al-Din.

To fully capture the dynamics at play would require delving into ag Ghali’s biography, but suffice it to say that his non-jihadist roles in the 1990 and 2006 rebellions, and the broader arc of his career, greatly complicate any story that positions Ansar al-Din as a front group for AQIM. Even if one believes (and there is good reason to believe, although there are also some plausible counterarguments against it) that ag Ghali became an ideologically committed hardline jihadist over the years between the mid-1990s and 2012, it would still be a stretch to say that ag Ghali was executing a master plan to create a jihadist front group in late 2011. Ansar al-Din’s creation appears to have been a Plan B for him, and some of the powerful support it attracted also appears to have represented the improvisatory reactions of key figures to the creation of MNLA. I suppose one could argue that AQIM seized the opportunity on short notice to create a front group in the form of Ansar al-Din, but I think narratives that foreground ag Ghali’s agency are much more compelling. I think ag Ghali turned to AQIM as an ally, building on his longstanding connections to them through the Saharan kidnapping economy and through family and social ties, rather than AQIM designating ag Ghali as its point man for a front group.

3. In 2012-2013, Ansar al-Din included major northern Malian politicians who knew what they were doing by temporarily joining

Another wrinkle in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a front group is that major northern Malian politicians joined it very early on in 2012 and remained part of it until the French Operation Serval, a military intervention to end jihadist control of the north, began in January 2013. These politicians included:

  • Alghabass ag Intalla – former parliamentary deputy, son of the late aménokal or paramount hereditary ruler of the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation in Mali’s Kidal Region, brother to the current aménokal, and a prominent leader within the Coordination of Azawad Movements or CMA, the ex-rebel bloc that currently controls Kidal and that is a signatory to the 2015 Algiers Accord;
  • Ahmada ag Bibi, a key leader in the 2006 rebellion and current parliamentary deputy for Abeibara, Kidal Region, now also high within the CMA;
  • Mohamed ag Aharib, another veteran of past rebellions and a seasoned negotiator of past peace agreements as well as the 2015 Algiers Accord; and
  • Cheikh ag Aoussa (d. 2016), a major Kidal powerbroker.

My own understanding of Ansar al-Din is that it was a thoroughly hybrid organization, comprising hardened jihadists on the one hand and mainstream (in the context of Kidal) politicians on the other hand. I think the latter camp knew what they were doing when they joined Ansar al-Din – their degree of sympathy for the jihadist project is debatable, but some of them have also said up front (in interviews with me and others) that they joined Ansar al-Din because they felt it was better organized and more militarily effective than the MNLA. Note too that when it became politically toxic for them to be part of Ansar al-Din, namely after Operation Serval began, they got out – and transitioned into helping create the CMA.

This brings us to a core question: If Ansar al-Din was a front group for AQIM, and if the purpose of a front group is to mislead people about the relationship between the front group and the sponsor, who was being misled in 2012? It could not have been the many journalists and analysts mentioned above, who documented Ansar al-Din’s collaboration with AQIM. It could not have been ordinary northern Malians, many of whom experienced first-hand the violence of jihadist rule and witnessed Ansar al-Din working with AQIM – or who voted with their feet by getting out. It could not have been the international community, the Malian government, or regional governments, who negotiated with ag Ghali both directly and through figures such as ag Intalla, and who repeatedly asked ag Ghali to sever his ties to al-Qaida. So was it, then, the northern Malian politicians themselves? Were they duped? I think that’s an impossible argument to sustain, given how adroitly they moved in and then out of Ansar al-Din. Who used whom?

Olivier Walther and Dimitris Christopoulos published a very strong article in 2014 after undertaking a social network analysis of the northern Malian rebellion of 2012. They highlighted ag Ghali’s key role as a “broker” between AQIM and the northern Malian politicians. Yet this should not be taken to mean that there was some kind of wall between AQIM and those politicians. Ag Bibi told me that at a meeting at ag Intalla’s house in Kidal in 2012, the Kidal elite asked AQIM’s Saharan Emir Nabil Abu Alqama (d. 2012) and AQIM to leave Kidal, an order with which Abu Alqama reportedly complied – pointing not just to contact between the politicians and AQIM, but to the former’s relative power over the latter in certain areas and circumstances (although ag Ghali ultimately went in a direction the other northern Malian politicians rejected and regretted). In any case it is clear that figures such ag Intalla and ag Bibi did not approach their roles within Ansar al-Din as though it were an AQIM front group. And any argument that they got played would, again, be undercut by the political success they had before, during,* and after their time in Ansar al-Din.

*They survived the war, physically and politically, and emerged with their positions as key political powers in Kidal intact. That has to count as a kind of success.

4. AQIM’s internal tensions in 2012 precluded any one-to-one, sponsor-to-front group relationship.

I suppose analysts use the idea of “front group” as a kind of shorthand, but there is real danger of falling into what political scientists call the “unitary actor” fallacy – the projection of unity and coherence onto internally divided factions. AQIM was at the height of its internal divisions in 2011-2012 – MUJWA broke away in late 2011, the AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar broke away in late 2012, and in between (and beforehand) there was plenty of infighting and insubordination. The late AQIM Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel’s recovered letter to subordinates in Mali, advising (pleading with?) them to take a softer tack, is relatively famous if you study these events.

So if Ansar al-Din was a front group, who in AQIM was managing it? I suppose the answer might be that it was one of AQIM’s prominent Mali-based field commanders, Abdelhamid Abu Zayd, on behalf of Droukdel and the organization as a whole. Yet the relationship between Abu Zayd and ag Ghali appears to have been one of equals. And if the tensions between Droukdel and Belmokhtar, and between Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar, are the best-known aspects of AQIM’s infighting circa 2012, there also seem to have been points of tension between Abu Zayd and Droukdel – the actions Droukdel advised against in that famous letter are all things that Abu Zayd oversaw. And recall that Ansar al-Din cannot be understood as a unitary actor either. So instead of a sponsor managing a front group, you have two complex, internally divided organizations relating to each other in complicated ways mediated by interpersonal relationships that were never as clear-cut as boss-to-employee. This is not, again, the mafia managing a laundromat.

5. Ansar al-Din’s leader Iyad ag Ghali has benefited just as much from his relationship with AQIM as AQIM has from its relationship with him.

In a sponsor-to-front group relationship it would seem surprising for the front group to eventually begin to displace the sponsor and to reframe even the sponsor’s own agenda. Ag Ghali has now outlived both Abu Zayd (d. 2013) and Droukdel (d. 2020), and there is a fairly widespread feeling among analysts and journalists that JNIM, which ag Ghali leads, is now more prominent and more important than AQIM, which at the moment nobody (publicly) leads. Additionally, JNIM’s pursuit of negotiations with the Malian government, however halting and flawed, is a far cry from AQIM’s original agenda of overthrowing alleged “apostate” regimes across North (and later West) Africa. Do I think ag Ghali will one day renounce jihadism and take up a post in the CMA, or show up in Bamako as a deputy in parliament? No, probably not. But do I think he has been a puppet for AQIM? Again, no. At every point from late 2011 to the present, he seems to have taken his own decisions. You could argue that since he formed Ansar al-Din, AQIM may have been able to hold a sword over his head – once you get in, you can never get out, effectively. But the notion of ag Ghali as AQIM’s subordinate, a notion implicit in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM, is not convincing to me. And recall that other key JNIM leaders, notably Amadou Kouffa in his August 2017 audio message regarding the idea of negotiations, referred to ag Ghali as the real decision maker. Ag Ghali is managing a web of relationships that he knows extremely well on the very turf where he grew up, where he has long fought, and where AQIM’s Algerian leaders (whoever remains of them) are ultimately outsiders.

Conclusion

Why does all this history matter? Because I don’t think it’s very productive to talk about jihadist “front groups” at all. To me, the term is too reductive – it sands away history, it sands away agency, and it leaves the impression of rigid jihadist hierarchies comprised of unitary actors. That picture does not fit with my understanding of the complex histories at play in the Sahel since 2012.

Ten Resources on the Coalition pour le Peuple de l’Azawad (CPA), a Timbuktu-Based Political Faction and Armed Group

The Coalition pour le Peuple de l’Azawad (Coalition for the People of Azawad, CPA)* is a political faction and armed group in northern Mali, with its base in the Timbuktu Region. The CPA does not belong to the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (Coordination of Movements of Azawad, CMA), the main coalition of ex-rebels in northern Mali – and one of three signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord. The CPA has come up in two pieces I’ve written over the last year and a half or so (on jihadists’ political relationships with other actors in Timbuktu, and on the kidnapping of Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, also in Timbuktu). I have not yet delved deeply into understanding the CPA, but since it keeps coming up, here are some key sources on the group, sources that will hopefully prove helpful to any readers who are also interested in the CPA or in wider questions of political-military competition in northern Mali.

  1. The CPA’s Facebook page, where one can read statements and watch videos (for example, here) from key events.
  2. Jeune Afrique‘s March 2014 interview with Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, founder of the CPA, when he broke with the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, MNLA, one of three main movements now in the CMA). See also Jeune Afrique‘s discussion of the CPA’s founding here.
  3. Zeini Moulaye’s 2016 report on security challenges in the Sahel-Sahara, which features a discussion of the CPA’s 2014-2015 history (p. 14), including tensions between Ag Mohamed Assaleh and another key leader, Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune.
  4. Studio Tamani’s November 2017 report on the creation of the Coordination des mouvements de l’entente (Coordination of Movements of Understanding, CME), an umbrella framework for northern armed groups that are not signatories to the Algiers Accord and that are, for the most part, breakaways from signatory groups. The CPA is a leading member of the CME, and the Studio Tamani report features a brief audio commentary by Ag Mohamedoune.
  5. The United Nations Security Council’s December 2018 narrative explanation of its decision to sanction the CPA’s Secretary-General Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune for “his involvement in planning, directing, sponsoring, or conducting attacks against: (i) the various entities referenced in the Agreement, including local, regional and state institutions, joint patrols and the Malian Security and Defence forces; (ii) MINUSMA peacekeepers and other UN and associated personnel, including members of the Panel of experts; (iii) international security presences, including the FC-G5S, European Union Missions and French forces.”
  6. The February 2019 report from the United Nations Panel of Experts on Mali, where pp. 14-15 discuss the CPA, its activities in the Timbuktu Region, and its relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Panel of Experts’ August 2018 report also discusses the CPA, especially on pp. 24-25.
  7. Le Point’s August 2018 interview with Ag Mohamedoune, where he responds to the Panel of Experts’ statements that the CPA coordinates and has relationships with jihadists.
  8. L’Indépendant‘s March 2020 report on leadership struggles within the CPA and certain leaders’ public criticisms of Ag Mohamedoune.
  9. The May 2020 communiqué from the CPA stating that Ag Mohamedoune had been stripped of his post and had no longer represented the CPA since February 2020.
  10. Adib Bencherif’s 2018 article “Le Mali post « Accord d’Alger » : une période intérimaire entre conflits et négociations,” which helps to place the CPA and the CME into their wider context of armed groups’ relationships and competition in northern Mali since 2015.

*Also sometimes rendered as “le Coalition du Peuple pour l’Azawad.”

Logistical Details and (Competing?) Accounts of the Droukdel Strike

On June 3, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, was apparently killed in northern Mali. I have written here about his presumed death, and I gave some background on his career here. In this post I want to discuss some of the emerging conversation about how he was tracked and (again, presumably) killed.

The original announcement of Droukdel’s death, an announcement made on June 5, came from French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, who said merely, “On June 3, the French Armed Forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.”

Press coverage of the operation placed the strike’s location at “the Ourdjane wadi (river bed), two kilometers south of the village of Talhandak, in the immense desert expanse of the great Malian north. Situated 80 kilometers east of Tessalit as the crow flies and 20 kilometers south of the Algerian border, the wadi was the site of ‘a meeting’ between leaders of AQIM, according to a local source interviewed by AFP.”

Details are emerging about the American role, which may have been substantial. In a June 8 statement, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said, “As a partner in this French-led mission, and as an example of our continued cooperation and partnership to counter a common threat, U.S. Africa Command provided intelligence and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance support” for the operation.

The American role may have gone beyond intelligence and surveillance, however. Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot, in a Twitter thread starting here, cites an anonymous diplomat without giving his/her nationality. According to this source, the U.S. identified Droukdel’s voice and located him when Droukdel placed a phone call, and then turned that information over to the French. According to the same source, an American drone fired the first shots at Droukdel’s convoy, lighting the way for French helicopters that then destroyed the convoy. French commandos then collected DNA samples, which were matched (in Paris) with DNA samples from Droukdel’s family collected by the Algerian authorities. (It’s kind of wild to me that Droukdel would talk on the phone – one would have assumed he would know better.)

Malbrunot refers to a convoy – but was there only one vehicle on the ground?

Malbrunot uses the first image as well; perhaps there was only one vehicle, or perhaps the vehicles in the convoy were spread out and the others are simply not visible in that first image. Another question I have is whether these images contradict the idea that the convoy was destroyed from the air.

The role of Algeria has also been a subject of intense discussion. Geoff Porter, who travels frequently to Algeria and has deep connections there, included in his analysis the following blunt sentences:

It is likely that Algeria always knew where Droukdel was and it is equally likely that Algeria allowed Droukdel to travel south from northeastern Algeria across the border into Mali. (This appears to be an extension of a strategy that Algeria embraced in the 2009-2011 timeframe – namely, solving Algeria’s terrorism problem by allowing terrorists to leave the country. You don’t have to quit jihad, but you can’t jihad here.) It was more convenient and more valuable for Algeria to allow France to eliminate Droukdel once he had quit Algerian territory: Algeria accrues ample diplomatic capital in Paris and Washington by delivering Droukdel, but it avoids both having to undertake the mission itself or permit a foreign military to operate within Algerian territory (VERBOTEN!) . It’s a win-win for Algiers: Droukdel is gone, Algerian sovereignty remains uncompromised, and Operation Barkhane and AFRICOM can chalk up an HVT [High Value Target] kill.

The paragraph is unsourced, or to put it differently, Porter is the source. I have long found his analysis extremely compelling and reliable, but obviously these are major claims and various major implications follow from them – your mileage may vary.

Relatedly, the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu offers a series of questions about Droukdel’s seeming ability to traverse Algerian territory, Algerian official silence on his death, and what this may reveal about other jihadists’ relationships with Algeria:

Algerian officials’ silence regarding Droukdel’s death rekindles questions about the protection enjoyed by the Malian Iyad ag Ghali, the Sahel’s most powerful jihadist, leader since 2017 of the coalition “Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims,” itself affiliated to al-Qaida. In a very well-document July 2018 investigation, Le Monde revealed that ag Ghali had sometimes sheltered in Algerian territory,  whether with his family in Tin Zaouatine, or in a hospital in Tamanrasset (where he had, for that matter, escaped a Western attempt at “neutralization”). Such facilities, which are necessarily impossible to admit, relate to a non-aggression pact and have effectively allowed for protecting the Algerian Sahara from jihadist attacks. More broadly, the Algerian authorities, who had failed in 2012 to sponsor an accord between ag Ghali and Bamako, are counting this time on a successful mediation in northern Mali, even if it means legitimizing the jihadist groups.

These, too, are very strong claims about Algeria’s role in all this. I have heard similar perspectives in Bamako, but verifying this is – at least for me – difficult. And the implications sort of boggle the mind, if you play it all out. If you start to assume that the Algerians protect ag Ghali and that France knows that and that France is pursuing a counterterrorism mission in northern Mali that is effectively bounded by rules set by Algeria, and and and…The train of thought can take you to some very dark places, actually, which is maybe why I personally don’t often follow it (or perhaps that’s a cop-out on my part).

Finally, it is striking, or perhaps not so striking, that the key actors discussed in the coverage are all non-Malian: that is, the Malian state appears to have played no appreciable role in the strike, and neither did the vaunted G5 Sahel Joint Force. I have not even read any references so far as to whether the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), the de facto authority in the Kidal Region (where the strike occurred) had any role whatsoever in the raid. When the chips are down and a “high value target” is at stake, it appears clear that Paris (and Washington) regard Bamako as a junior partner.

On the Reported Death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel

On June 5, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced, “On June 3, French forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the Emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.” I would regard this claim as about 90-95% reliable. The French government infamously waxed too confident in late 2018 when claiming to have killed the Malian jihadist leader Amadou Kouffa, who turned up alive in early 2019. However, United States Africa Command or AFRICOM has announced that it has “confirmed Droukdal’s death in an independent assessment.” The journalist Wassim Nasr also reports that an AQIM source confirmed Droukdel’s death. No official eulogy has yet appeared, but again, it seems highly likely that France’s claims are accurate in this instance.

Droukdel (transliterated spellings vary), also known as Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, had been the top leader or emir of AQIM since 2004, when the group was still called the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). Biographies of Droukdel can be found in various places and they should all be treated with a bit of caution. One detailed biography comes from Jeune Afrique (French). According to this and various other sources, Droukdel was born in 1970 in Meftah, Algeria (map). Embracing jihadism around 1994, Droukdel fought in Algeria’s civil war and ultimately landed in the GSPC. He was a longtime associate of one of the GSPC’s architects, Hasan Hattab, who served as the group’s emir from 1998-2003 before being dethroned in an internal coup; Droukdel was also a protege of Nabil al-Sahrawi/Mustafa Abu Ibrahim, whose death at the hands of Algerian security forces led to Droukdel’s succession. Droukdel played a key role in bringing the GSPC into al-Qaida’s formal orbit, especially between 2003 and 2007, the year the GSPC changed its name to AQIM.

In terms of Droukdel’s public pronouncements, Aaron Zelin has painstakingly compiled many of Droukdel’s statements here, covering the period 2005-2020. For an English-language exposition of the jihadist leader’s views, see Droukdel’s 2008 interview with the New York Times. A 2005, Arabic-language interview he did with the jihadist platform Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad also offers substantial insight into his thinking.

Some key events that occurred during Droukdel’s tenure as AQIM emir include the following:

  • The December 2007 suicide bombings targeting the Constitutional Court and two United Nations buildings in Algiers, Algeria;
  • The rise of a kidnapping economy in the Sahara, especially between 2008 and 2013;
  • The circa October 2011 defection of a breakaway jihadist group whose name is usually translated as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA);
  • The 2011 Arab Spring, which saw efforts by AQIM to insert itself more fully into Tunisia and Libya, although with what I would call only modest and fleeting successes;
  • The approximately June 2012-January 2013 jihadist emirate in northern Mali, in which AQIM was a key player; that project and its attempt at southward expansion triggered France’s ongoing military intervention in Mali;
  • The December 2012 breakaway of key Saharan AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, after years of tension with Droukdel and with another Saharan field commander, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, who died in 2013 during the initial French intervention;
  • The 2014-2015 rise of the Islamic State, which brought a fairly unsuccessful breakaway group from AQIM in northern Algeria called Jund al-Khilafa, and a much longer-lived breakaway group from Belmokhtar’s forces (hence a breakaway from a breakaway of AQIM) that defied Belmokhtar, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and came to be known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS;
  • The late 2015 reintegration of Belmokhtar and some of the former MUJWA elements, who by then had formed a joint jihadist unit called al-Murabitun;
  • The 2015-2016 expansion of jihadism into Burkina Faso, with some attacks claimed by AQIM, including the January 2016 attack on the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou;
  • The March 2017 formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) as a coalition of AQIM’s Saharan units, al-Murabitun, and multiple units of the Mali-centric jihadist outfit Ansar al-Din (defenders of the faith).

Specifying the precise role that Droukdel as an individual played in these events, however, is difficult. First of all, common sense would seem to indicate that the higher one rises in a jihadist hierarchy, the more one becomes a target for precisely the kind of manhunt that killed Droukdel; the more of a target one becomes, the more precautions a leader is likely to take; and the more precautions that are taken, the more likely it is that decision-making will  be delegated downward as much as possible. Second, the far-flung geographical nature of AQIM’s project, and even of JNIM’s project, also worked against centralized control on Droukdel’s part. Note that the center of gravity for AQIM shifted to Mali and the Sahara-Sahel by 2012 at the latest and probably by the late 2000s, intermittent high-profile attacks in northern Algeria notwithstanding. Third, Droukdel’s control over what happened in the Sahara appears to have been challenged by his subordinates virtually from the beginning of his tenure. Most prominently, missives sent by Droukdel or on Droukdel’s behalf to his Saharan field commanders during the Malian emirate-building project in 2012 have become famous after the Associated Press recovered them in 2013; to me, the letters indicate that Droukdel could not discipline the perennially independent-minded Belmokhtar, or even the ostensibly more loyal Abu Zayd.

Following the French intervention in Mali in 2013, meanwhile, it seems to me that Ansar al-Din’s founder and JNIM’s current leader, Iyad ag Ghali, has been more important than Droukdel in setting the agenda for jihadist activity in Mali and Burkina Faso, theaters that have become much more important than Algeria for the trajectory of jihadism in northwest Africa. I am far from alone in my assessment of ag Ghali’s importance. If the symbolism of who comes to whom is any indication of relative importance, Droukdel was reportedly in Mali to meet ag Ghali. The analysis here has a few errors (for example, Droukdel succeeded al-Sahrawi as GSPC emir, as noted above, and not Hattab), but nevertheless makes some good points, including the following:

Having lost the battle for northern Algeria, without the support of the population and short on logistical means for pursuing his criminal activities, the terrorist leader resolved, with absolute discretion, to go reach a region acquired by and/or under domination of terrorist groups, the only lair more or less safe for him.

This analysis is, at the very least, plausible – although of course northern Mali did not turn out to be safe for Droukdel. The same piece goes on to say that “an inhabitant of the region, a collaborator of the French forces,” tipped the French off to Droukdel’s presence. Droukdel became vulnerable in part because his own inability to dictate events from afar forced him into the (relative) open. According to this article (French), which also relays the claim that Droukdel was on his way to a meeting, Droukdel was killed eighty kilometers east of Tessalit (map), just outside a village named Talhandak, inside Malian territory but roughly twenty kilometers from the border with Algeria. As Luca Raineri notes in a Twitter thread starting here, meanwhile, the accounts that have come out so far about Droukdel’s death leave a lot of questions – how long was he in Mali? How did he cross the Mali-Algeria border? How did he allow himself to be targeted, apparently unawares, in the deep desert?

Now, who succeeds Droukdel? Some analysts have argued that AQIM will begin to, or continue to, fade: one Algerian paper calls Droukdel “the last of the Algerian terrorist leaders” and describes AQIM as a “hollow shell.” That might be premature, although there are strong arguments that JNIM is now more important than its parent organization, and that with the death of Algerian national and AQIM commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam in February 2019, AQIM’s role even within JNIM has been diminishing. Some analysts have even suggested that AQIM might pledge allegiance to ISIS – I don’t think so, although no one has a crystal ball. More plausibly to me, the BBC’s Mina al-Lami made the case, in a Twitter thread starting here, that top AQIM cleric Yusuf al-Annabi is a likely successor to Droukdel, given his prominence in AQIM messaging over the past few years. My reservation about that line of analysis is that at least in the past, the top GSPC/AQIM leaders came from the ranks of field commanders and people with military/operational roles, rather than from among the group’s clerics. Then again, that pattern is not necessarily relevant now – after all, it has been roughly 16 years since AQIM faced a transition at the top.

France24, meanwhile, notes that the three most prominent jihadists in the Sahel – and, I would say, in northwest Africa as a whole – are now three non-Algerians: ag Ghali (a Malian national), JNIM’s Amadou Kouffa (also a Malian national), and ISGS’ Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi (from Western Sahara/Morocco). Their prominence does not mean that any of them is going to succeed Droukdel as head of AQIM, but it does suggest that Droukdel’s passing symbolizes the reality already mentioned above, namely that the jihadist project inside Algeria has been weak for years now.

In the Sahel, how relevant was Droukdel to events on the ground? The analyst Mathieu Pellerin put it starkly, and well: “You can kill all the jihadist leaders you want, that won’t prevent the children of the hundreds of civilians executed over a year from one day taking up arms to get revenge – be they jihadists, rebels, or others.” The same day that Parly announced Droukdel’s death, there was a massacre in Binédama, Koro District, in the Mopti Region of Mali – and the Malian armed forces stand accused of committing the killings. The incident is a grim reminder that there are drivers in the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and elsewhere that go very far beyond the dictates of Droukdel, or any leader for that matter.

Now, if I wake up tomorrow and see that ag Ghali or Kouffa has been killed, I will say it’s a huge deal; and I’m not saying that Droukdel’s death has no relevance (here I am writing nearly 2,000 words about it). But in the absence of clear evidence that Droukdel was micromanaging the conflicts in the Sahel, I see other actors as more important.

For the sake of self-promotion, I should say that I cover these different phases of the GSPC/AQIM’s career, and of Droukdel’s career, in my forthcoming book. The book covers events through 2019 – and now it’s increasingly looking like I’ll need to write an informal epilogue of sorts, covering all that’s happened (and will continue to happen) in 2020. One part of the book deals with debates among Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel about jihadist strategy – and part of the argument I make is that the jihadist project is ultimately futile (if the aim is to build a long-lasting jihadist state), and that jihadists’ debates with each other often dance around that point. Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel had very different ideas about how to approach the jihadist project – but now they all appear to be dead, providing a graphic illustration of how futile it all was and is for AQIM, however much the group waxes or wanes at any given moment. Droukdel’s main “accomplishment,” ultimately, was longevity – all other “accomplishments” proved fleeting.

Finally, Droukdel’s killing was not Florence Parly’s only announcement last week. MENASTREAM provides details about France’s announcement that it captured an ISGS commander on May 19 [Update – I’ve removed the post from MENASTREAM at his request, as he received new information. I’m replacing with a post from Parly.]

Three Recent(ish) Articles on the Death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam

Last month I wrote about the reported death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam, a key field commander and senior official for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and, at the time of his death, the number two in Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). I wanted to flag three other pieces (all in French) for readers who are particularly interested in this issue:

  • RFI gives a readout of an audio message from Malian national and (ex-?) jihadist Sidan ag Hitta, wherein he says that Abu al-Hammam is indeed dead. A bit of background on ag Hitta can be found here, but the story has many twists and turns. Telling which jihadists are alive and which are dead is trickier than ever, as anyone following Amadou Kouffa’s saga knows.
  • Kibaru, citing anonymous sources, gives interesting if difficult-to-confirm details about the end of Abu al-Hammam’s life. That article goes on to speculate a bit about the future of AQIM and JNIM, and also gives a good overview of Abu al-Hammam’s jihadist career in Mali and Mauritania.
  • Libération puts Abu al-Hammam’s life and death in a wider context of politics, violence, and Mali’s overall trajectory.

Piece on Jihadism and Politics in Timbuktu for War on the Rocks

This is a belated post to promote an article I wrote last week for War on the Rocks, where I looked at whether the jihadist project has a “political ceiling,” so to speak, in Mali or elsewhere. I took the Timbuktu region as a case study. I also appeared on their “WarCast” (subscription required) to discuss the piece and the broader situation in Mali.

I welcome your comments!

Mali: A Wikileaks Nugget on Iyad ag Ghali and AQIM in 2006

In the course of research for a short piece I’m writing on jihadism in northern Mali, I stumbled across a March 2008 Wikileaks cable from U.S. Embassy Bamako. The whole cable is interesting for its analysis of tribal and clan dynamics in northern Mali, but one paragraph jumped out at me about Iyad ag Ghali, today the preeminent jihadist leader in northern Mali but as of 2006 still a mainstream rebel. The paragraph concerned ag Ghali’s interactions with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) amid the 2006 rebellion; the paragraph challenged my own understanding, which is that as of that time ag Ghali’s interactions with were limited to hostage negotiations rather than broader cooperation. Here it is:

Intra-Tuareg tensions also divided the ADC [Democratic Alliance for Change], Mali’s next large-scale Tuareg rebel movement (also led by the Ifogas Iyad ag Ghali) [Ifoghas is a cluster of “noble” clans within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation – AJT]. In late 2006 the ADC engaged with elements of what is now AQIM in northern Mali. ADC members who participated in the AQIM attacks later reported that ag Ghali had quietly directed fellow Ifogas to pull back just as the ADC prepared to attack AQIM. This forced the ADC’s Idnane and Taghat Melet members to face AQIM alone. Afterwards, Ifogas reportedly refused to help fellow Idnanes and Taghat Melets negotiate for the release of prisoners captured by AQIM. One disaffected ADC member, who said he was eventually forced to speak with AQIM leader [Mokhtar] Bel Moctar directly to win the release of a captured relative, described the ADC as weakened to the point of dissolution following this episode.

One could, of course, quite reasonably question the credibility of this report – but even as a rumor it is interesting.

It’s interesting too to note Belmokhtar’s role and how AQIM was negotiating not just the release of high-value European hostages but also Malian fighters. The role of the AQIM field commander extends well beyond military operations and recruitment and extends to managing all kinds of local dynamics that are essentially political.

Burkina Faso: Reading Through Wikileaks Cables on Blaise Compaoré and AQIM

As the jihadist insurgency in Burkina Faso grows, recurring questions have surfaced about whether and how much complicity existed between the previous administration of Blaise Compaoré (1987-2014) and al-Qaida in the islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and whether Compaoré’s presidential guard is involved in the current violence. One of the most comprehensive investigations of these issues comes from Joe Penney. His piece must be read in full to be understood, but here is a brief excerpt:

Under Compaoré, Tuareg rebel groups who had allied with Al Qaeda were able to come in and out of Burkina while the country hosted peace talks between them and the Malian government, giving way to rumors that Compaoré had a tacit agreement to allow their presence in exchange for no attacks. The new government made a conscious decision to cut off their access to the country.

Burkina Faso’s current president, Roch Kaboré, has also mentioned “collusions” between Compaoré’s regime and AQIM.

One obvious and additional step toward shedding light on this issue involves searching through leaked State Department cables to see what American diplomats wrote about Compaoré and AQIM during some of the years when the regional kidnapping economy was at its peak (those years would be 2008-2012 for the kidnapping economy, but the cables cut off in 2010) . I tried various searches (Compaore AQIM, Burkina AQIM, Compaore Qaeda, Compaore GSPC, etc.), which yielded five cables that had what I consider substantive and relevant content for this post’s topic. Most of these cables date from 2009, and this is important partly because Penney refers above to events in 2012.

There are no bombshells in the cables, and most of the mentions of AQIM were vague and brief, although of course it is possible that more sensitive information and analysis was transmitted in more highly classified documents and in meetings and discussions not captured by the cablegate archive. It is also possible that more explosive information is contained in later cables.

Overall, the five cables I found suggest that (a) Burkinabé officials were worried about AQIM infiltration in northern Burkina Faso by 2009; (b) U.S. and French officials were somewhat worried about the possibility of AQIM expansion into Burkina, but in the context of worrying about a broader expansion of AQIM from Senegal to northern Nigeria; and (c) U.S. officials seemed to like Compaoré, consider him and his government worthy of further investment as a security partner in the Sahel, and to have relatively few concerns about whether Compaoré’s role in hostage negotiations implicated him in any nefarious way. The cables do not give evidence of any non-aggression pact between Compaoré and AQIM, but they do suggest that Compaoré’s government lacked a strategy (and possibly lacked the will) to deal with what officials considered AQIM infiltration. None of this undermines Penney’s arguments (again, the cables date from an earlier period than the one he is discussing in the excerpt above); but neither does it necessarily confirm them.

Here are the cables I found, with pertinent excerpts. The first two digits of each number refer to the year the cable was sent.

  • 09OUAGADOUGOU1136, “MOD DISCUSSES WIDE RANGE OF REGIONAL SECURITY ISSUES WITH CDA.” This is by far the most important cable and deserves to be read in full. The abbreviations in the title refer to the (Burkinabé) Minister of Defense Yero Boly and the (American) Chargé d’Affairs. The most relevant lines are these: “Noting the recent AQIM kidnappings in Mali and Mauritania, Charge asked whether the Burkinabe armed forces were increasing their security measures. Boly responded that Burkina Faso’s intelligence services have been monitoring the Burkina/Niger/Mali border and collecting important information. Despite these efforts, the country remains vulnerable from a security standpoint. The MOD mused about how to properly exploit the intelligence information and leads they had obtained thus far. The Minister of Defense explained that the northern cities of Markoy (and its market), Gorom-Gorom, and Deou are of particular interest as they are ‘infiltrated’ and ‘Islamicized’. Burkinabe intelligence sources have uncovered Nigerian trained Nigerien nationals (particularly former students of Koranic school in Nigeria) who are operating in that region in a believed liaison with AQIM. The GOBF [Government of Burkina Faso] has their names, they know who they are, but don’t know how to move forward and properly exploit that information. Boly noted that small cells of the type AQIM are know to dispatch currently have a relatively high chance of circulating undetected by Burkinabe security forces…Boly recognized that Burkina Faso has probably only been lucky up to now that AQIM has not focused activities here.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU135, “PRESIDENTIAL FAREWELL WITH AMBASSADOR.” This is a readout of a meeting between Compaoré and the outgoing U.S. ambassador in February 2009 (though the cable was filed in March). Some important lines: “In something of a new twist, Compaore raised concerns about regional security in the Sahel region. He said that he was worried that ‘Salafists’ had ‘installed themselves’ in Northern Mali. Specifically he said that he was concerned because they had seized hostages and that there might be further instability stemming from these activities. Without providing further details, he indicated that Burkina Faso would soon be approaching the US with certain concrete proposals on how to combat instability in the Sahel region.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU298, “REQUEST FOR ESTABLISHMENT OF A DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE POSITION IN OUAGADOUGOU, BURKINA FASO.” As the title suggests, this cable deals with the embassy’s request for more DOD personnel in light of the exponential increase in U.S. military activities in Burkina Faso. For this post’s purposes, the most relevant lines are these: “Geographically, Burkina Faso occupies a key strategic location in West Africa. It borders states with known AQIM activity and may serve as a safe haven or transit point. At present, intelligence on this critical terrorist and security-related threat is absent.”
  • 09OUAGADOUGOU569, “A REGIONAL APPROACH TOWARDS AQIM.” Key excerpt: “Although Burkina Faso is a somewhat peripheral actor in these events, it has functioned in a mediating capacity in both conflict resolution and hostage issues. It would certainly play a secondary role in any regional solution, but nonetheless we would like to propose some thoughts on what a regional solution might look like and suggest some steps as to how we might get there.”
  • 10ADDISABABA288, “AU SUMMIT – A/S FOR AFRICAN AFFAIRS CARSON MEETS FRENCH COUNTERPART.” This cable, from February 2010, describes a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson and a senior French official. Key lines: “Gompertz thinks the security situation in the Sahel remains fairly unchanged from the Paris meetings on Sahel counter-terrorism (CT) issues six months ago. He said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM) is expanding into northern Burkina Faso and recruiting in Senegal. The DGSE [French intelligence] believes AQIM will find weakness in northern Nigeria.”

If readers find any cables I missed, please let me know.

Mali: Roundup on the Reported Death of Amadou Kouffa

In November, media outlets reported that French and Malian forces had killed Amadou/Hamadoun Kouffa, the foremost jihadist in central Mali, on 23 November. A few days later, French Minister of the Armies Florence Parly confirmed Kouffa’s death (see also her initial statements on the raid). An official statement from France’s counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane, can be found here. The operation seems to have taken place in the Mopti region of Mali, near the Malian-Mauritanian border.

The organization Kouffa belonged to – Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), a part of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – has not yet issued a eulogy. The Mauritanian journalist Muhammad Mahmud Abu al-Ma’ali has said that a source within JNIM denied Kouffa’s death and proclaimed him to be in good health. (See also here.)

I have never seen a really definitive biography of Kouffa, but some profiles can be found here and here.

There is a lot to say about Kouffa, but I want to start with a roundup of the coverage of his reported death:

  • The Malian journalist Adam Thiam makes a number of excellent points here, including how one might know whether Kouffa is dead in the absence of a eulogy (e.g., if Kouffa’s wives go into formal mourning, or if he does not surface soon on WhatsApp messages, or if a successor is named). Thiam goes on to say, “It will be difficult to find a natural successor with the stature of the late preacher. But the bleeding will not necessarily stop.” Thiam notes that various root causes of the insurgency in the center are still in place, ranging from Malian army abuses to ethnic and resource conflicts to the continued influence of Iyad ag Ghali, JNIM’s leader. Thiam also notes, sagely, that Kouffa’s death may have unanticipated consequences.
  • An in-depth report at Le Monde surveys Kouffa’s life and career and discusses the potential impact of his death.
  • Also at Le Monde, Thomas Hofnung warns – in a similar vein to Thiam – that by killing Kouffa, France/Mali struck at the top of the pyramid while failing to halt the expansion of that pyramid’s base. Hofnung emphasizes the issue of governance in the center and preventing “a war of all against all.”
  • On Twitter, MENASTREAM wrote a thread giving important details and context about the raid and its significance, including the very important point that Kouffa had recently appeared in a video, and that there seems to be something of a trend where jihadist leaders who expose themselves by making videos can end up quickly targeted and killed by counterterrorism forces. See MENASTREAM’s thread on that video here, and the video itself is here.
  • Both MENASTREAM and Aurelien Tobie, in a separate thread, note another important detail about the raid: as many as thirty JNIM/Kouffa fighters, including other officials of the group, were reportedly killed alongside Kouffa. So the group’s losses may extend well beyond just their regional leader.
  • Arabic-language Mauritanian media outlets such as Sahara Medias have also covered the raid in some depth, but have not, in my view, added many distinctive details.