France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly in Chad

Yesterday French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly visited Chad. She met President Idriss Deby and Defense Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah, and she visited military bases connected with the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multi-National Joint Task Force.

The visited seems meant as a vote of French confidence in Chad and as a further demonstration of French support for these two African-led regional counterterrorism forces. It is hard not to think that the visit is also at least partly in response to recent flickers of insecurity in Chad, including the CCMSR rebellion in the north and a recent Boko Haram attack near Lake Chad. RFI predicted that issues of financing and strengthening the G5 Sahel Joint Force “will be at the center of the discussions.” RFI adds that French President Emmanuel Macron may visit Chad around Christmas to see French troops there.

Finally, a quick note on Djadallah – he’s something of a fixture in the defense ministry, having been in his current role since August 2016 (making him something of a survivor amid repeated cabinet reshuffles) and he previously served in the role in 2008.

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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.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s Remarks on the Sahel and Libya

Yesterday, 27 August, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed (French) an official conference of ambassadors in France. He devoted a fair amount of time to discussing the Sahel and Libya. I’ve translated a portion of his remarks:

In the Sahel, we have maintained our military engagement through Operation Barkhane. Here I want to salute all our soldiers who, since 2013, have been courageously engaged in this difficult operating theater. It is this presence and that of MINUSMA that have avoid the worst in the region and have, in particular, allowed elections to be held this month in Mali. In this region, we have obtained important victories in recent months against the terrorist presence, but this action must be pursued with the same intensity, but in complementing the presence of the Barkhane Force will multiple approaches begun in July 2017.

First, we have supported and accelerated the creation of the joint forces of the G5 Sahel. I am convinced that our military action will actually be still more effective if it works together better with the implication of the five concerned Sahel countries. We have raised funds, encouraged the first operations of the forces. Several times, I have traveled to observe these advances, and with all of the heads of state and government involved, we have improved our organization.

This organization is the only one that, in the long term, will allow stability because it fully involves the five concerned countries of the Sahel in their own security. We have to watch over its implementation and in the coming weeks and the coming months, we will have to conduct new joint operations with the forces of the G5. We also have to reinforce our cooperation with Algeria, which is exposed to the same terrorist risk, as well as with Nigeria and Cameroon, which are engaged against Boko Haram.

Second, we have encouraged the empowerment of the Africa Union. That is what I spoke in favor of last July at the Nouakchott Summit before the African Union. It is what I will have the chance to bring up in the near future with President Trump and President Kagame, current chairperson of the African Union. We must work to create credible African peace operations and ensure stable and predictable financing for them, in particular between the United Nations, the African Union, and the sub-regional organizations.

Third, we have complemented our military action with the reinforcement and simplification of our action in the field of development, by creating the Alliance for the Sahel together with Germany and many other international donors. These are the complementary “3Ds” that I mentioned last year: Diplomacy, Development, and Defense. We have begun to deploy the first operations in the field of education, agriculture, or economically more widely, in many countries of the region. Each time the ground is taken back from the enemy, it must be accompanied by new projects which will let us give economic and educational perspectives, life perspectives to the populations which, at a given moment, could have been seduced. Here I want to salute the action and the results obtained in Mauritania, Niger, and Chad. In the coming months, we have to bring all our help to the stability and the reconquest of certain regions in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Fourth, the question of the Sahel will not be truly solved so long as the stability of Libya is not assured. The chaos that has reigned in Libya since 2011 has led to the creation of routes organized for the trafficking of drugs, human beings, and arms. The entire Sahelo-Saharan band has always been a region of commerce and traffic, but today these routes are ones of misery and terrorism. So long as we have not stabilized Libya, it will be impossible to enduringly stabilize the Sahel.

A few thoughts:

  • I do not think the G5 joint force will live up to Macron’s hopes for it.
  • The language around development is strikingly militarized. I shouldn’t be surprised, after seeing the Bush and Obama administrations adopt similar language (right down to the three, or four, or five Ds, or however many it’s up to now), but it still stands out: the idea of development “operations,” etc.
  • The idea of Nigerien, Mauritanian, and Chadian successes as contrasted with Malian and Burkinabé failures suggests perhaps a bit too much faith in the current “good guys” of the Sahel.

The New Mauritanian G5 Joint Force Commander and His Chadian Deputy

Late last week French and Mauritanian media that the new G5 Sahel Joint Force commander will be Mauritanian General Hanena Ould Sidi. He replaces Malian General Didier Dacko, whose removal was one outcome of the 2 July meeting of Sahelian and French heads of state in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Ould Sidi is Mauritania’s Vice Chief of Army Staff. He is mentioned in a few brief news items at the Mauritanian Army’s website (example), but other than that I can’t find much information about him, either in French or in Arabic (here is the Arabic spelling of his name, for those curious).

La Tribune reports that at the G5 Sahel Joint Force, Ould Sidi’s deputy will be Chadian General Oumar Bikimo Jean, whose French-language Wikipedia page (which is pretty well sourced) is here.

Sahelian Governments’ Readouts of the 2 July Nouakchott Meeting on the G5 Sahel

On 2 July, amid the African Union summit in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott, the presidents of France and five Sahelian countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad) met to discuss Sahelian security generally and the G5 Sahel Joint Force specifically. One outcome of the meeting was the sack of the Joint Force’s commander, Malian General Didier Dacko.

For French speakers, though, I thought it would be useful to round up all the official readouts of the meeting I could find. The Chadian presidency and the Nigerien presidency released official statements, while Mali’s president did a wide-ranging interview with France24 on the margins of the summit and (so far as I could tell) Burkina Faso’s president did not release a readout, just two comments on Twitter. As for Mauritania, the official Agence Mauritanienne d’Information released a readout here. Finally, the French president’s remarks to the press can be found here.

To me the most interesting readout was the Nigerien version, which had a few highlights (other than the main theme of the meeting, which seems to have been “let’s get this thing going a lot more”):

  • The G5 countries will now move to rebuild the damaged force headquarters in Sévaré, Mali;
  • They will continue to pursue a United Nations Chapter Seven mandate for the force (more backstory here), which might help resolve some of its financial problems; and
  • The regional governments will meet again in Nouakchott on 6 December.

On the G5 Sahel Joint Force’s Change of Command

On 29 June, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, a Saharan jihadist formation that is part of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb) attacked the headquarters of the G5 Sahel Joint Force in Sévaré, central Mali. JNIM has claimed responsibility for several other recent attacks as well.

On 2 July, at the African Union summit in Mali’s neighbor Nouakchott, Sahelian heads of state, in consultation with French President Emmanuel Macron, decided to remove (French) the commander of the G5 joint force (see the readout of the meeting here). That commander was Malian General Didier Dacko.

You can read a bit of background on Dacko here (French). Dacko had long experience fighting jihadists and rebels in central and northern Mali, although with a mixed record. The French newspaper L’Express has also written (French) that he had ties to the northern pro-government militia leader El Hajj Ag Gamou, and that his ties to Ag Gamou enmeshed him in a web of northern contacts that includes some pretty shady people. (Arguably, this is true of many northern Malian elites and other senior military officers). In any case, Dacko headed the G5 Sahel Joint Force for a little over a year.

According to multiple sources, Dacko will be replaced by a yet-to-be-named officer from Mauritania, while Dacko’s Burkinabé deputy will be replaced by an officer from Chad. One prominent French blogger concludes, “One thing seems certain. The French army prefers to count on the much more seasoned armies of Chad and Mauritania than on their Malian partner.”

Finally, one might point out that the G5 Joint Force’s problems run quite deep – deeper than one commander.