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.

Mali: Another Round of Tensions Between the Government and the CMA, with the Reconstituted Army as a Central Issue

On May 27, the Malian government released a communiqué (French). It reads, in part:

The Government of the Republic of Mali notes with indignation that, for some time, the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad (CMA) has usurped sovereign acts of the State in flagrant violation of the terms of the Accord for Peace and National Reconciliation, derived from the Algiers process.

These anti-republican acts range from a so-called pardon given to some prisoners, to the issuance of licenses for movement on gold-mining sites, through the refusal to receive the doctors in charge of the fight against the coronavirus sickness, and numerous obstacles erected against the presence of the reconstituted National Army.

In front of our people, the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (CSA), our development partners, and the entirety of the international community, the Government of Mali condemns these acts which are detrimental to national sovereignty.

There’s a lot going on here, obviously. For context, the CMA is the formal ex-rebel bloc in the north of Mali, comprising three movements that formed, to oversimplify things quite a bit, either amid the 2012 rebellion in the north or in its immediate aftermath. The CMA’s stronghold is the Kidal Region of northeastern Mali, and the city of Kidal and much of the region is under the CMA’s de facto control. The CMA and the Malian state are two of three key signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord, the document referenced in the communiqué above; the third signatory is the Platform, a coalition of non-rebel armed groups in the north.

The implementation of the Accord has been a frustrating and contentious process for the signatories and the international community is increasingly frustrated as well, as one can easily see in the reports of the Carter Center, the formal independent observer for implementation. Here is a quote from the Carter Center’s January 2020 report (.pdf, p. 1):

At the close of 2019, the implementation of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali is at its lowest point since the Independent Observer began its mandate in January 2018.Despite occasional progress, often made following extremely protracted negotiations, the concrete results for the Malian population, whether in the politico-institutional, security, economic, or rule of law domains, are minimal. Compared to 2018, both implementation and popular support for the agreement have stalled and, in many cases, regressed. The lack of significant action by stakeholders or concrete results is even more striking given the escalation of violence during the year.

The blockages in implementation are multiple, at times petty, and perhaps indicative of theparties’ bad faith. Overcoming them absorbs an attention disproportionate to the results achieved. The general result is a bogged-down implementation process that is nevertheless capable of producing, after months of blockages, ad hoc progress.

Judd Devermont and Marielle Harris of the Center for Strategic and International Studies have even argued that “Mali needs a new peace deal.”

One of the most contentious issues in the implementation of the Accord has been the deployment of the “reconstituted” units of the army, which are supposed to draw one-third of their personnel from each signatory’s forces. The Carter Center’s April 2020 report (.pdf, pp. 8-13) goes into detail about this aspect of the process and how it has been going in 2019-2020. It is not surprising that the reconstituted army is a central issue in the Malian government’s recent communiqué.

Serge Daniel of RFI on May 16 published an article on the difficulties the reconstituted units have experienced in deploying to Kidal. In early May, Daniel writes, a unit of 100 men started from Gao to Kidal, but turned back at the behest of the CMA.

The CMA’s decision had to do with negotiating who will command the different reconstituted units throughout the north – and decisions about any one unit can then affect the overall balance of (perceived) power and representation among all the units.

See here (French) for Daniel’s earlier report about a reconstituted unit’s arrival in Kidal in February.

The war of words – and the tug of war over sovereignty – between the CMA and the Malian government is not at all new. I have written in the past that it seems each side regularly and deliberately tests the other’s limits, sometimes disastrously but more often in a way that stops short of blowing up the Accord. The different signatories are wedded to the Accord, at least for the time being, for multiple reasons; the status quo, devastating as it is for many ordinary people, has certain benefits for elites on all sides. Meanwhile, though, the CMA does function as a state in various ways; whether its assumption of sovereign state responsibilities is a good thing or not is an issue for another time, but to my mind it’s undeniable that the CMA does XYZ* various sovereign functions of the state.

*Choose your verb, because they’re all loaded – “take on”? “appropriate”? “usurp”?

Mali: Analyzing the Legislative Results from Kidal

On March 29 and April 19, Mali held legislative elections. Among the results, the outcome in the northern region of Kidal is worth a close look, given Kidal’s centrality to the peace process and the ongoing conflict.

Mali’s National Assembly has 147 seats, and some 22 of those (I’ve seen various counts) were won outright in the first round. That category included the four seats in Kidal, won with what RFI (French) calls “North Korean scores.” Here are the winners and their reported vote totals and percentages (French):

  • Abeïbara: Ahmada ag Bibi, 2,724 votes (91.53%)
  • Kidal: Choghib ag Attaher, 11,592 votes (74.6%)
  • Tessalit: Aicha Belco Maiga, 10,070 votes (87.3%)
  • Tin-Essako: Mohamed ag Intalla, 2,384 votes (97%)

Reported turnout (French) was over 85% in Kidal, in contrast to reported turnout of less than 13% in the capital Bamako.

Here is a map of Kidal’s administrative cercles, which double as electoral constituencies:

These four deputies from Kidal (see here, French) include three incumbents who won re-election – Ahmada ag Bibi of Abeïbara, Mohamed ag Intalla of Tin-Essako, and Aicha Belco Maiga* of Tessalit. The first two figures are particularly well known. In addition to their long careers in electoral politics, they are both prominent hereditary leaders within the Ifoghas clans of the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation; ag Intalla is, in fact, the aménokal or head of the confederation. Such combinations of electoral capital and hereditary capital have been common in the north since the advent of multiparty politics in the 1990s. Both men are also, moreover, senior leaders within the ex-rebel coalition the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA); ag Intalla’s brother Alghabass is the Secretary General of arguably the most important bloc within the CMA, the High Council for Unity of Azawad (HCUA). Both ag Bibi and ag Intalla won massively in the previous elections in 2013 (see here, pp. 46-47).

The only upset this year, then, was in the city of Kidal itself. In 2013 (see previous link, p. 47), the CMA did not yet exist but its components did, and their preferred candidate lost; the winner that year was Ahmoudène ag Iknass, who hails from the Imghad (former “tributary” or “vassals,” considered free but not “noble” within the Kel Adagh) Tuareg. The Imghad likely represent the majority of voters in Kidal, and so ag Iknass’ victory could be interpreted as demographic destiny coming to fruition after years of Ifoghas dominance. Yet the (future) CMA leaders also felt that ag Iknass was installed by their political enemies, namely the antecedents of the movement that since 2014 has been called the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (French acronym GATIA). Ag Iknass has been seen as close to GATIA’s leader El Hajj ag Gamou, who is himself Imghad; for example, ag Iknass was one of two main representatives (French) for the coalition of movements called the Plateforme, of which GATIA is the leading member, in negotiations with the CMA in 2015.

One crude but plausible reading of this year’s election in Kidal is that CMA forces wrested the seat back from GATIA. I have not been able to find much information yet about the incoming deputy, Choghib ag Attaher, but if he is the same man mentioned here (French), he was a Vice President of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA, another key bloc of the CMA) as of 2014. And if he is the same man described in these leaked U.S. Embassy Bamako cables (here and here), then he is a hereditary ruler within one fraction of the Idnane, another prominent Tuareg clan sometimes considered to be nobility. A writeup (French) after his election victory describes him as a tribal chief from a major family, a local RPM official, and “a product of the youth of Kidal.”

Notably, the electoral power struggles in the north do not really play out along party lines – all four of the deputies from Kidal belong to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s Rally for Mali (French acronym RPM) – but ag Iknass, the outgoing deputy from Kidal city, previously did too. This year, however, ag Iknass ran (French, p. 108) on the list of ASMA-CFP (Alliance for Solidarity in Mali-Congress of Patriotic Forces, led by former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga). It seems the real contest was over who would be the RPM candidate for Kidal rather than which party would win. Party affiliations play out differently in different parts of Mali – in contrast to Kidal, the RPM was nearly wiped out in Bamako (French) in these elections.

What does all this mean for the future? For one thing, ag Attaher’s victory would seem to further consolidate the CMA’s position in Kidal, with a corresponding weakening of GATIA’s position. Beyond that, another obvious conclusion is the relative continuity among key actors – the CMA’s deputies will remain key interlocutors with the government in Bamako, and being from the same party has not and does mean that the Kidal elites are always positively disposed toward the government. Finally, the CMA’s seemingly regained ability to dominate the elections in Kidal underscores that the demographic majority will not always buck the preferences of the long-time elite.

*Who is Songhai, for what it’s worth, while the other three are Tuareg. Her Facebook page is here.

Mali: Alghabass ag Intalla’s Comments on the “Sharia in Kidal” Affair

If you’re not familiar with the background about the recent dispute between the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and Malian authorities concerning the CMA’s 30 January declaration of new regulations for Kidal, then start here.

Now that the CMA has (partly?) walked back the regulations, CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla gave an interesting interview to the Malian newspaper 22 Septembre. Three quick points:

  1. Whereas the CMA’s 30 January declaration only implicitly referenced the 2015 Algiers Accord and its provisions concerning the empowerment of Qadis/Cadis/Islamic judges in northern Mali, here ag Intalla explicitly references that part of the Accord. He emphasized that the CMA remains committed to implementing and observing the Accord.
  2. Ag Intalla expresses considerable concern about artisanal gold mining in Kidal and how it brings foreigners (i.e., from West African countries) to the region. Conflicts between authorities and gold miners are now occurring in parts of the Sahel from Mali to Chad, so it’s an important trend to watch. New patterns of human movement connected to gold mining make a lot of people nervous – and/or provide a pretext for authorities and would-be authorities to assert greater control.
  3. Whereas the CMA’s critics see the regulations as undermining and challenging state authority, ag Intalla explains them as a response to the state’s absence. Viewed from a certain vantage point, this starts to look like a chicken and egg problem. On the other hand, one could argue that the state is weak/absent in Kidal in large part because the CMA has blocked and discouraged state efforts to reassert control.

 

 

Mali: Sharia in Kidal?

My title here is intentionally provocative – the reference is to a recent RFI article discussing new regulations handed down by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA, a bloc of ex-rebels) in Kidal, northeastern Mali, on 30 January. As of 19 February, the CMA was “backpedaling” (see below), but the issue remains a live and contentious one.

From the first RFI article, regarding the initial regulations:

The CMA, which has administered the city for many years, is taking charge of new sectors of security and justice, replacing the State. The rules are stricter: the sale and consumption of alcohol are henceforth forbidden, foreigners* must have a local guardian, and as for the role of Qadi or Islamic judge, it appears strengthened. The inability of the State to assume its responsibilities in northern Mali continues to pose a problem.

The full CMA declaration, signed by CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla, can be found here. Notably, a lot of the press coverage focused on the alcohol ban and restrictions on foreigners, but the declaration also devotes substantial attention to traffic issues and, in particular, says that armed motorcyclists and pedestrians will be brought before the Islamic tribunal and have their bikes and weapons destroyed. There is a a debate to be had over how much any Islamization at work here is    actually subordinate to the CMA’s bid for securitization; it might be going too far to say that the CMA is using Islam as a tool for taking greater physical control of Kidal, but at the very least one can say that Islamization/Qadi-fication is only one part of a larger ambition to expand the CMA’s roles in both security and non-security sectors (including health).

The RFI article caused a bit of controversy because it drew heavily on comments by the researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel, who has been criticized by other Mali specialists (Malian and non-Malian) for allegedly being too close to the CMA. For example:

(Translation: “With researchers like this, the CMA doesn’t need spokesmen any more.”)

My view, however, is that of Guichaoua:

The controversy over Bouhlel, I would say, is a microcosm of two larger debates – (a) have the CMA and Malian Tuareg/Arab rebels systematically obtained more favorable media coverage than they deserve? and (b) is the CMA more nefarious than it sometimes appears in the media?

In any case, there are some other dynamics to highlight here. Recently in one of the courses I’m teaching, civil wars, we discussed Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers and Paul Staniland’s “Wartime Political Orders.” To crude simplify things, one point Mampilly makes is that rebels (or ex-rebels?) develop governance models partly through interaction with civilian populations, whose preferences and needs can shape rebels’ decisions. This is what Bouhlel argues – namely, that the CMA is responding to civilian needs for greater security, and that the CMA is drawing on longstanding idioms of governance in the region. One point Staniland makes is that states and rebels (or ex-rebels?) negotiate different arrangements during wartime, including what Staniland terms “spheres of influence.” The CMA and the Malian government are constantly renegotiating their relationship and probing the limits of the other party’s influence (and these are not the only actors in northern Mali or even in Kidal, of course).

Here it’s worth noting that the CMA’s new rules are at least loosely grounded in the 2015 Algiers Accord, which mentions (.pdf, article 46, pp. 12-13) the “reassertion of the value of the role of Cadis [Qadis] in the administration of justice, notably in terms of civil mediation in a way that accounts for cultural, religious, and customary specificities.” Other actors, however, are unpersuaded that the CMA’s rules have any legitimacy – Ahmed Boutache, president of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (French acronym CSA), denounced the CMA’s rules as “a flagrant violation of the accord…and an infringement of the sovereign prerogatives of the government of the Republic of Mali.” I see these competing statements as not just legal disagreements but also, again, as a way that each side is probing the limits of the other’s authority and legitimacy.

This brings us back to the issue of the CMA’s “backpedaling,” with the CMA’s 19 February statement acknowledging the authority of the Malian state at the local level and expressing willingness for a dialogue over how to move forward on security and the role of the Qadis. Both the CMA and the state, I think, are in essence making offers and counteroffers amid an evolving and unstable situation.

One wishes, meanwhile, that one knew more about who exactly the Qadis were/are/will be:

Personnel, as they say, is policy.

A final point to consider, and one mentioned in the first RFI article linked above, is the issue of influence from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM). RFI quoted an anonymous official from Kidal denouncing the CMA’s new rules as a reflection of JNIM’s pernicious influence. The CMA, which includes some former members of Ansar al-Din, one of JNIM’s constituent parts, is regularly accused of maintaining contacts with JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali. But all of this brings us back to the question of what all these actors want – would ag Ghali be content with a “shari’a-compliant,” autonomous Kidal? Or does he want something more? And was the CMA channeling ag Ghali’s influence – or attempting to undercut it? I’ve tried to get at the complexity of “jihadist politics” in Timbuktu, but there is as much, if not more, to think about in terms of local Kidal dynamics as well.

*I think the CMA is referring to non-Malians here, but I wonder if there is a hint that all outsiders (Malian or non-Malian) could be required to have supervision.

Mali: An AQIM/JNIM Assassination in Timbuktu and Its Aftermath

On 9 September, a commander of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (French acronym MOC) was assassinated in Timbuktu, northern Mali, killed in his car. The commander’s name has been transliterated various ways – Salim Ould M’Begui, Salim Ould Nbekhi, Salim Baghi, and Saloum Ould Becki. From the Arabic spellings that have been given (see here), I would transliterate it Salim Imbighi.

In any case, he was a member of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), a coalition of northern Malian armed movements that all played some part in the rebellion of 2012 against the Malian state. The CMA has three major components – the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), the Arab Movement of Azawad (French acronym MAA), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA). M’Begui belonged to the MAA and was further, as we will see below, a member of the Awlad Idris/Oulad Idriss, an Arab tribe in northern Mali.

For further background, the MOC – and the patrols it runs – are a key element of the 2015 Algiers Accord, the peace agreement that aimed to prevent a resumption of war in the north following the 2012 rebellion. There are three signatories to the accord: the Malian government, the CMA, and a cluster of pro-government northern militias called the Plateform. The patrols through the MOC are meant to help these diverse groups work together and, by working together, stabilize the north. The Timbuktu MOC was only set up this May, with only around fifty fighters. The MOC there has yet to start its patrols, and the CMA was earlier accused of dragging its feet regarding patrols in both Timbuktu and Kidal.

Mali’s jihadists are, of course, not part of the accord and they have consistently attempted to sabotage the accord generally and the MOC/patrols specifically. This is key background for understanding M’Begui’s murder. On 17 September, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the assassination in Timbuktu. JNIM tied the Timbuktu assassination to other assaults on MOCs in the north, including the massive suicide bombing on the Gao MOC in January 2017.

JNIM, a Mali-centric jihadist coalition formed in March 2017, is an official branch of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). JNIM’s leadership includes both Malians (its overall leader is Iyad ag Ghali, the infamous Tuareg rebel-turned-jihadist) and non-Malians. JNIM’s largely Malian character contributes to its sophisticated understanding of the political and tribal/ethnic landscape of northern and central Mali. The non-Malian members also have deep experience in the country, though, due to the relationships that some of AQIM’s Saharan commanders and units developed in the years leading up to the 2012 rebellion.

The political dimension of JNIM’s approach helps explain why the claim of responsibility was not a generic public statement but rather a letter to the Awlad Idris. The letter takes pains to soften any outrage on the tribe’s part over the assassination, using three rhetorical techniques:

  1. Religious framing: The letter implicitly asserts that Islam constitutes a common ground of Islam between the tribe and JNIM. More explicitly, the letter argues that M’Begui had apostatized by joining the MOC. The MOC, in JNIM’s framing, targets legitimate “mujahidin” and works with “unbeliever” forces, namely the Malian army, the United Nations’ MINUSMA, and the G5 Sahel’s joint force. The letter presents the assassination as a form of religious justice and even self-defense on the part of the “mujahidin.”
  2. Framing the assassination as a last resort: The letter refers to JNIM’s repeated warnings to “all the sons of the tribes and the Muslims generally” not to join the MOC. The letters also references JNIM’s distribution of “numerous audio, video, and written statements warning about this critical matter.” In other words, the letter suggests that M’Begui had many chances to avoid being killed.
  3. Conveying respect for the tribe: The letter not only addresses the tribe, the author even offers to “arrange a direct meeting” to address any remaining concerns the tribe may have. In general, JNIM is keen to win over northern Malian Muslims (courting “the popular embrace” or al-hadina al-sha’biyya), and some AQIM leaders have long argued that jihadists need to woo the tribes rather than alienating them.

Various commentators noted that the statement was signed not by ag Ghali but by Algerian national and longtime AQIM senior official Yahya Abu al-Hammam. For some commentators, the statement reflected Abu al-Hammam’s ambitions to displace ag Ghali within JNIM (and therefore more an AQIM action than a JNIM one). I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does seem to me that there are various questions to pursue here about (a) internal coalition politics within JNIM and (b) geographical variations in how JNIM operates, not just between northern and central Mali (a theme I explored a bit here), but also within northern Mali. In this case, there are questions to pursue about differences between JNIM’s approach in Timbuktu as compared with its approach in Kidal – although Kidal witnesses its own share of violence, including two even more recent assassinations.

Here it is worth rewinding the tape to 2012-2013, to recall that ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (especially the Tuareg politicians who were part of it at that time) was the dominant force in Kidal during the jihadist occupation of northern Mali, while AQIM was most visible in Timbuktu (though it was present elsewhere, and ag Ghali, who was closer to AQIM than some of the other Ansar al-Din leaders at the time, traveled between northern Mali’s different cities and regions throughout that period). Here it is also worth revisiting Rida Lyammouri’s 2016 post “AQIM Never Really Abandoned Timbuktu, Mali,” which includes some interesting detail on Abu al-Hammam and the Awlad Idris. Adam Sandor’s 2017 report for Centre FrancoPaix is also highly relevant here, particularly pp. 16-17. Variations in the jihadist landscape within northern Mali, in other words, are not at all new.

Moreover, we should note that JNIM’s assassination of a CMA leader is a reminder that amid recurring rumors of behind-the-scenes contact between ag Ghali and the HCUA, the two movements – JNIM and CMA – are sometimes violently opposed. The CMA quickly and strongly denounced the murder in Timbuktu and promised to track down the assassins, and the CMA/MAA’s remarks concerning jihadist “infiltration” in Timbuktu sounded none too friendly.

This and other assassinations, finally, are a reminder that northern Malian politics is not just an intra-elite game in which politicians play with other men’s lives, but also a deadly competition for influence and power in which elites’ own lives are very much at stake. As this incident demonstrates, JNIM walks a fine line by assassinating people – on the one hand, it sends a clear message about the costs of working with the MOC, the peace process, and anti-jihadist forces; on the other hand, JNIM risks antagonizing a wide swath of extremely important northern Malian constituencies, and in that way undercutting its own long-term political strategy.

Notes on the August 2018 UN Panel of Experts on Mali Report

This week, the latest report from the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Mali came out. The big headline coming out of the report has been allegations that some signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord are implicated in terrorism and drug trafficking.

I learned a ton from the report and I salute the panel for what must have been an extremely intense amount of labor and travel.

Here are some of the passages that stood out to me from the report:

p. 2, “Antiterrorist operations conducted by the Malian army in northern and central Mali, as well as by ‘compliant’ armed groups — those who are part of the Plateforme or CMA or have declared that they will observe the Agreement — have led to civilian killings and amplified intercommunal violence.” This is Mali’s core challenge, now, I would say – to find a way out of the violence that does not lead to more violence.

p. 4, “The Panel began its work on 1 February 2018. During the reporting period (February to June 2018) the Panel visited Mali on four occasions and travelled to the northern regions of Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu and Ménaka and the central region of Mopti…In addition to its visits to Mali, the Panel also visited Belgium, Burkina Faso, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands and the Niger. Visits proposed by the Panel to Algeria in April and June were not accommodated.” I’ll just leave that there.

p. 6, “The current Malian conflict started in January 2012…” I don’t blame the panel for this phrasing and this is probably the most comprehensible way to put things. But on another level, the current conflict started in 1990, in the sense that many of the same faces from the early 1990s are still key actors today: Iyad ag Ghali, El Hadj ag Gamou, etc. Experts would do well to remind the lay audience that the roots of this conflict are deep indeed.

p. 7, “Regional and local elections that would have replaced interim measures were scheduled for December 2017 and April 2018, but both were postponed. A revised road map of actions adopted by signatory parties on 22 March 2018 has not provided a date for those elections but rather puts them after a revision of the decentralization legislation, which is to take place in 2019. Though it confirms the extension of the interim period until sometime in 2019, or even beyond, international mediation team members have generally welcomed the March road map. Several of them mentioned to the Panel that the engaged role of the Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, as well as the start of the work of the independent observer and the Mali sanctions regime — both mechanisms envisaged in, respectively, articles 63 and 64 and article 54 of the Agreement — have given new impetus to the Agreement.” The role of Maïga remains crucial and fascinating, as always. I am thinking about a post that would try to look at him in some kind of structural sense, rather than just as an individual (one often discussed as hyper-competent). But in any case he is clearly a key link between the administration and the politicians in the north.

p. 14, “The single priority action under the economic development component of the Agreement concerns the creation of a development zone for the northern regions. According to the Agreement, the development zone is based on a development strategy and financed through the sustainable development fund. A concept note for the development zone has been drafted by the Government and transmitted to the signatory armed groups, but at the time of a meeting of a subcommittee of the Agreement Monitoring Committee on 21 June a formal response was still pending. A legislative text is foreseen by November 2018, as indicated in the March road map.” It will be worth keeping an eye on this, although I will not be holding my breath for November.

p. 17, A whole section on Ménaka, the Daoussak, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (referred to by its French acronym EIGS throughout the report), and the Kidal elite begins here. It is probably too complicated to summarize, but it makes for an important case study of how many fault lines cut through different communities and how those can play out in terms of who fights whom. Here is one key quote from p. 18: “The main political actors in the newly created region of Ménaka are: the aménokal (traditional leader) of the Oulemiden (Iwllemmeden) and Member of Parliament Bajan Ag Hamatou, traditionally close to the fraction Idoguiritane of the Daoussaks; the Governor, Daouda Maïga, who originates from Tidermene and was instrumental in the constitution of the GATIA/MSA-D alliance and the return of GATIA in Ménaka on 27 October 2017 (Daouda Maïga is reportedly close to GATIA General Gamou, also born in Tidermene); and Abdoul Wahab Ag Ahmed Mohamed, President of the interim authority, known to be close to Moussa Ag Acharatoumane of MSA-D.”

p. 22, Getting deeper into the question of who is coordinating with whom, there is a fascinating but inconclusive section dealing with a visit by Alghabass ag Intalla, one of the most prominent politicians in Kidal and the secretary-general of the CMA, the umbrella group for ex-rebels who signed the 2015 Algiers accord, to Menaka. A relevant quote: “Despite allegations that a shared strategy was being implemented following Alghabass’s visit to the Ménaka region in December 2017 and reported meetings with members of terrorist armed groups, the Panel found no evidence documenting a connection between CMA and terrorist armed groups in the Ménaka and Gao regions.”

p. 25 and 27-30, Here is where some of the most explosive assertions about the participation of certain armed factions in terrorist/jihadist activities appear. Since it has been covered a lot in the press, I won’t get into it here.

p. 33, Here are further allegations that the major government-aligned militia GATIA (Self-Defense Group for Imghad Tuareg and Allies) is involved in smuggling illicit drugs, as well as further data on how conflict over drugs fuels clashes between armed groups: “In Mali, the Panel obtained further information about the role of GATIA associates in securing drug (cannabis) convoys. Malian authorities, a diplomatic source and an armed group representative referred to Ahmoudou Ag Asriw of GATIA as having led a convoy transporting cannabis resin in April 2018, together with a member of MAA-Plateforme. The convoy was heading from Tabankort to the Tamesna desert, presumably on its way to the Niger. On 13 April 2018, near Amassin, south of Kidal, it came under attack from MNLA and unidentified armed elements from the Niger. The assailants were reported to have taken part of or the entire 4-ton shipment of cannabis resin north to cross into Algeria at Tinzawaten. The confrontation reportedly claimed three victims.” And from further down the same page, a key quote: “The legitimacy of both the Plateforme and CMA as signatory armed groups has motivated drug traffickers to seek protection from their members rather than members of terrorist armed groups in order to be less exposed.” on p. 35, there is some discussion of GATIA, the CMA (namely one of its components, the HCUA) and migrant smuggling.

p. 43, There is some good detail here on operations by the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

p. 46, The recommendations begin here. They lead with this: “Proceed without delay to consider the designation for targeted measures of individuals and entities engaging in or providing support for actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability of Mali.” I certainly understand the logic, but I don’t think I would take this path unless you are confident that you can really squeeze these actors in changing their behavior – if you can’t accomplish that, though, then “targeted measures” might simply alienate people whose participation will be key to any eventual (hopeful) political solution.

The main body of the report ends on p. 47, but sixteen annexes follow, including social media posts from armed/political groups, official documents, correspondence, and other interesting sources.

 

 

 

 

Mali’s Conference of National Understanding

This week, Mali is holding its “Conférence d’Entente Nationale,” which might be translated as “Conference of National Understanding” or “Conference of National Harmony.” It began on March 27 in the capital Bamako. The conference is meant to fulfill one condition of the 2015 Algiers Accord (French, .pdf, p. 4), the agreement that is supposed to bring peace between the government of Mali and various non-jihadist armed groups in the northern part of that country. The conference is meant to “allow a thorough debate between the elements of the Malian nation regarding the underlying causes of the conflict.”

Like other provisions of the accord, such as joint patrols in northern cities and the installation of interim authorities there, the conference is being held long after the architects of the accord intended. Nevertheless, some experts see the problem as haste rather than delay. In a piece (French) well worth reading, Kamissa Camara and Mahamadou Konaté argue that the conference is unlikely to succeed in its aims, and that the conference isn’t taken seriously by many political actors in Mali, making it likely that the debates there will be superficial. Further skepticism about the conference can be found here (French).

Like other provisions of the 2015 accord, the conference has faced political questions about its representativeness and fairness. Notably, the past few days have seen first a boycott, and then the renewed participation (Arabic), of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the most prominent body representing former non-jihadist rebels in the north. The CMA wanted a longer conference, so as to allow for more discussion, and Malian government representatives reportedly secured the CMA’s participation by agreeing (French) to extend the “first round” of discussions to April 2.

In terms of themes emerging from the discussions at the conference, one central argument (French) many participants are making is the need for reconciliation between the CMA and the “Platform,” a cluster of pro-government militias in the north. There have been numerous attempts at ceasefires and agreements between the two sides before, but that doesn’t mean conference attendees are wrong when they point to the necessity for intra-north understanding as a precondition to national understanding, security, and peace.

 

Recent News from Gao, Mali: Mixed Patrols, A Kidnapping, and A Shooting

Gao, one of northern Mali’s key cities, has witnessed several notable developments recently.

  • On December 24, unknown kidnappers seized a longtime French resident and aid worker affiliated with the small NGO Aide Gao. A search (French) was immediately mounted by Malian forces, French forces, and UN peacekeepers. Jeune Afrique (French) summarizes what is known of the kidnapping itself, the victim, and the search.
  • On January 4, a local Red Cross employee was shot and killed. “A resident of Gao said the worker had been shot by two men on a motorcycle late at night.”
  • On January 5, mixed patrols began in Gao involving former rebels from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), pro-government militia forces, and Malian government forces. The full force is expected to comprise 200 fighters from each of the three categories. The mixed patrols are meant to fulfill one condition from a 2015 peace deal. Until early January, the pro-government armed groups had opposed (French) the CMA’s desire to enter the city, but international and governmental mediation (French) appears to have resolved the dispute for the moment.

Mali: Examining the CMA’s Language on Peace

Today a coalition of northern Malian rebel groups signed a “preliminary peace agreement” with the government, after months of talks in neighboring Algeria. Rebels have said that they will not, however, attend a planned signing ceremony in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday. Yesterday’s statement from the Coordination of the Movements of the Azawad (CMA, where “Azawad” refers to northern Mali) can be found in French here.

Even more important is another statement, issued the day before yesterday and addressed to the Malian people. It contains the CMA’s perspective on the peace talks and the fundamental issues at stake. One key paragraph:

The government of Mali and the CMA today have the heavy responsibility of establishing a true peace that corrects the failures in the political relationship that former governments have maintained up until now with the Azawad for more than half a century, and [a peace] that reorients the management mechanism of the Azawad by the Malian government. The peace for which we sincerely call must be guided by our own convictions and not dictated by anyone else. So now it is necessary to have the emergence of a new social contract between the government of Mali and the Azawad. We remain convinced that any solution to the crisis that ignores the concerns of the people of the Azawad is doomed to failure.

The CMA condemns the creation, arming, and utilization of civilian populations disguised as militias, at the same time that it condemns any illegitimate violence.

There’s a lot to ponder there, and throughout the statement, which contains both moments of frustrating vagueness and elements of pointed grievance – the last sentence of the excerpt above, for example, seems aimed at GATIA, a pro-government militia. Overall, the statement works to project a willingness to make peace, yet it also references serious stumbling blocks that will remain no matter who signs what.

And that, to me, is the main takeaway: the serious and worsening violence on the ground renders the accord ineffective. I won’t say “meaningless,” because these agreements become, if nothing else, elements in a longer narrative of disagreement, but I will say “ineffective,” because I expect that serious violence will continue after this week.