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.

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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.

Partial List of Recent Attacks in Mali

The past few weeks have seen a number of attacks in Mali, especially in the north. This post provides some brief information on some of these attacks. Key parties include the Malian military, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, the Tuareg rebel alliance the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad (CMA, which include the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or MNLA), the pro-government militia Self-Defense Group of Imghad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA in French), and the pro-government wing of the Arab Movement of the Azawad (MAA in French). The Malian government and the CMA are being pressured to sign a peace agreement in Algiers on May 2015, but the CMA has been delaying and asking for additional provisions relating to Tuareg self-rule in the north, and the UN is starting to seem openly nervous about the prospects for a signature – let alone implementation.

  • May 1: CMA fighters kill one person (apparently a civilian) and take six others hostage in Bintagoungou.
  • April 29: Rebels (apparently CMA) kill nine Malian soldiers, wound six others, and take six more hostage in a fight in Léré.
  • April 29: Unknown gunmen, possibly CMA, kill three (two soldiers and one civilian) in Goundam.
  • April 28: CMA fighters shoot at UN peacekeepers in Timbuktu.
  • April 27: Pro-government GATIA and MAA fighters take Menaka from the CMA.
  • April 20: Unknown gunmen kill a UN driver/peacekeeper in an ambush 30 kilometers west of GAO.
  • April 17: Unknown gunmen kill two civilian drivers during an ambush on a UN convoy outside of Gao.
  • April 15: Suicide bombing by al-Murabitun at a UN base in Ansongo.

Mali: On the CMA’s Refusal to Sign the Algiers Accord

In Algeria, the Malian government and various factions connected to the 2012-2013 rebellion have been negotiating a peace agreement. Today, the northern Malian Tuareg rebel alliance known as the Coordination for the Movements of Azawad (CMA) reiterated its refusal to sign the current version of the agreement. The agreement is due to be “rubber stamped” on May 15 and the United Nations has pressured the CMA to sign.

The CMA’s statement can be found in French here. The statement reaffirmed a commitment to upholding a May 2014 ceasefire, but did not provide much new information about the CMA’s refusal to sign. For more context, see the statements of April 10 and March 16. The latter statement invokes the attitudes of the CMA’s constituents back home and suggests that the accord represents “a good basis for [further] work” but does not “take into account the essential elements of the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Azawad [northern Mali].” Given the difficulty of reconciling the international pressures manifested in Algiers and the domestic pressures found back home, the CMA is in a difficult position. This dynamic helps explain their repeated requests for more time.

What specific provisions does the CMA want added to the accord? One Malian press story says that the demands include “the ‘official recognition of the Azawad as a geographic, political, and legal entity,’ the creation of an inter-regional assembly covering this zone, and a quota of ‘80% Azawad residents’ in the security forces.” I can’t say whether that’s an accurate representation of the CMA’s asks, but it gives some sense of the concrete and symbolic issues at stake in the negotiations.