When writing yesterday’s post on the Franco-Sahelien security summit in Nouakchott, I spent some time looking at sources from France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, as part of my attempt to assess what military progress French forces have really made in the Sahel. One item I found was this interview with Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy, Deputy for Operations. I’d like to discuss a few misconceptions – or outright errors, in my view – that appear in Carcy’s responses.
First, Carcy appears to have a somewhat strange understanding of the two main jihadist formations in the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. One odd thing is the translation and acronym for JNIM that Carcy uses. The standard translation, in both English and French, is “the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims.” In French this is usually rendered Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans or Groupe pour le soutien de l’islam et des musulmans (in either case, abbreviated GSIM). Carcy, however, calls JNIM the “Rassemblement pour la victoire de l’Islam et des musulmans (RVIM),” which I would translate as “Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims.” Leaving the issue of “assembly” versus “group” aside, I think that translating the Arabic “nusra” as “support” or “aid” is better than translating it as “victory,” and this nuance can matter for how you understand JNIM’s self-presentation. The translator who supplied this phrase to Carcy may have been working from the Arabic version of JNIM that one sometimes sees, namely Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin, where you could translate “nasr” as “victory” (although you could also translate it as “help/support.” But in official JNIM releases I’ve typically seen “nusra” instead of “nasr.” It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but it’s just an odd note at the beginning of the interview, given how widespread the GSIM acronym and the attendant translation are in Francophone media.
More substantively, Carcy has an understanding of JNIM that is both highly al-Qaida-centric and oddly ethnicized. He says the following:
The face of Al Qaida is manifested through the Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims (RVIM) created March 1st 2017 by Iyad Ag Ghali. It is an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life, fairly close to that of the Tuareg, but also aiming to preserve a space allowing itself to engage in the worst forms of trafficking.
The remark about trafficking captures something of the situation, but Carcy’s casual mention of trafficking obscures wider dynamics. As Crisis Group has written, the implication of drug traffickers in northern Mali is wide-ranging and complex:
Major traffickers maintain relations with both Malian authorities – which the latter denies – and political and military groups in the north; indeed often trafficking networks are embedded in, or overlap with, those groups, who themselves depend on trafficking to finance their operations and to buy weapons. That said, ties between armed groups and traffickers are not trouble-free: they do not always share the same interests. Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.
Meanwhile, Carcy’s remarks about “an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life” are basically wrong, I would say. In my view JNIM is a complex coalition. On one level, JNIM is a vehicle for the political ambitions of Iyad ag Ghali, which are related to the preservation and expansion of his own position within northern Malian politics and the politics of the entire region. Even though ag Ghali hails from a “noble” clan within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation and even though he has frequently shown those aristocratic colors in his political maneuvering, he has also proven repeatedly disruptive to hierarchies and political settlements in northern Mali and beyond. Ag Ghali is not the avatar of tradition against modernity or whatever. On another level, JNIM is the latest focal point for hardline jihadists in the region, who may have substantially affected ag Ghali’s worldview and identity, but are also not themselves fundamentally seeking to “safeguard a way of life” connected to the Tuareg (or the Arabs or the Peul). Finally, as that parenthetical indicates, JNIM is not – in my understanding – a Tuareg ethnic formation even if though is led by a prominent Tuareg politician. Ironically, when and where JNIM is accused of serving an ethnic agenda, it is accused of serving a Peul ethnic agenda in the center of Mali – and that accusation, too, is off base. In central Mali, to compress a lot of research (mostly by others!) into one sentence, JNIM has championed the interests of particular segments of society, including Peul shepherds against both Peul oligarchs and Dogon farmers. But JNIM is not trying to rewind the clock of history or to stave off historical change. Rather, JNIM seeks to be an agent of radical change not just in military facts on the ground but in intra-communal and inter-communal relations in the Mopti Region of Mali and elsewhere.
Carcy’s understanding of ISGS is also off base, I would say. Here is his framing:
ISGS is an internationalist model founded upon a millenarian ideology…Composed of young people who have turned toward jihadism for lack of social prospects, ISGS seeks to extend its zone of predation in order to increase its recruiting ground, as well as its financing through zakat [Islamic tithe].
Why is JNIM an “identitarian model” while ISGS is an “internationalist model”? If JNIM is recruiting down-and-out youth, what’s necessarily “internationalist” about that? And it is true that the Islamic State’s central leadership has been rhetorically millenarian – but is that true for ISGS? I haven’t seen much end-of-the-world talk in their statements. And is it true that most of their financing is through “zakat”? I wonder what kinds of intelligence briefings Carcy and other top Barkhane commanders are getting, and where the underlying information comes from, and how much French officials’ ideological blinders are shaping how they perceive the ideologies and functioning of these jihadist groups.
For another perspective, here it’s worth citing another Crisis Group report (.pdf, p. 1), this one on ISGS in the Tillabéri region of Niger:
In northern Tillabery, as elsewhere in the Sahel, an excessive focus on counterterrorism has however resulted in the overuse of military tools for a conflict that is fundamentally driven by inter- and intra-communal competition over rights and resources, which the Islamic State has exploited. Counter-terrorism strategies seeking to weaken jihadist groups are neither illegitimate nor unfounded, but the way they have been conducted in Niger has often enflamed the situations they seek to calm. These strategies have, for example, accelerated the militarisation of border communities and fuelled the stigmatisation of members of the Peul nomadic group, whom other local communities often regard as the Islamic State’s closest collaborators on the ground. They have also led to killings of civilians who are accused of being or are mistaken for Islamic State elements. As Niamey mounts a new counter-terrorism push in response to the surging violence along the border, local communities in northern Tillabery are already alleging that military operations have caused scores of civilian deaths.
Another strange thing about Carcy’s comments is that his framing concerning jihadist groups seems to shift from answer to answer. In the response I discussed above, JNIM is “identitarian” and ISGS is “millenarian”; in another response, without naming either group, Carcy says that the region’s jihadists were “identitarian” in 2014 when Barkhane began, but now Barkhane “must reduce a franchise that makes no demand, seeking simply to increase its zone of predation against a population already afflicted by poverty.” Which is it? And is it true that JNIM makes no coherent demands? I’m pretty sure it does – one of those demands, of course, is that France leave. Barkhane might not like that, but you can’t say it’s not clear.
Carcy, like other French officials, is also vague on another critical point – the “return of the state” and “development,” the third and fourth pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel and of the outcomes from France’s Pau summit back in January. On the one hand, it makes sense that a military commander would have more to say about the first two pillars of the Coalition, namely counterterrorism and military capacity. But Carcy’s comments toward the end of the interview, about Barkhane’s “support for political efforts for stabilization and development,” are thin. He concludes the interview by saying, “The objective is to prove to the population that there is an alternative to the terrorist system, which is a totalitarian model founded on terror.” And here we’re back to the same contradictions and outright incoherence – if jihadism offers an “identitarian model” that protects ways of life or offers protection and prospects to down-and-out youth, then how can it be a “totalitarian model founded on terror”?
I’m not sure that French officials really have a fleshed-out version of what “the return of the state” really means. Turning from military officials to the civilian side, French President Emmanuel Macron said the following at the Nouakchott summit:
Macron said that “it is the prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges who will permit us to truly turn the situation around.”
This is slightly more detailed than what one hears from Barkhane commanders, of course, but it’s still basically a cliche, and one that gives no sense that France has a theory of change about how exactly these civilian authorities will “return” to the conflict zones. Moreover, French officials seem to not understand the fact that civilian authorities’ behavior (the “rackets” that Adam Thiam and others have written so carefully about) in certain zones – the behavior of those same prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges – was a crucial factor in setting the stage for the present conflict.
Finally, Macron’s remarks about the “return of the state” are effectively undercut, I think, by rhetoric like this:
“We only have one enemy in the Sahel: Islamist terrorism.”
Rida Lyammouri responds better than I could:
And again, you see the problems not just with Macron’s remarks but with Carcy’s – what is France really doing in the Sahel? Fighting “totalitarianism” and “millenarianism,” in other words fanatics? Or trying to maneuver in an extraordinarily complicated political context where ordinary fighters have multi-faceted motivations for aligning themselves with various armed groups? The conceptual framework that Macron, Carcy, and others are using is both simplistic and self-contradictory, and one wonders how any effective policy can be founded upon such a framework.