Quick Notes on Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi’s Interview with al-Naba’

In the latest issue (#260) of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, there is an interview with Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). As MENASTREAM points out, the appearance of the interview temporarily settles the question of whether his deputy Abd al-Hakim al-Sahrawi is now in charge.

The interview is two pages (pp. 10-11) and as I commented on Twitter yesterday, over three-quarters of it concerns the deep background to current events. Prompted by the interviewer, al-Sahrawi gives his version/narration of the history of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism from just after the formation of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC) in the late 1990s until the formation of the al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) in 2017. Only in the last quarter of the interview or so does al-Sahrawi turn to discussing the recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which has received recurring coverage in al-Naba’ (see here for my annotated translation of a June 2020 al-Naba’ article on that topic).

Al-Sahrawi’s narration of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism emphasizes the infighting among the Saharan battalion commanders of the GSPC (which was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM in 2007). Al-Sahrawi points to the failure of various efforts to reconcile these battalion commanders (notably Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom al-Sahrawi names several times, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, whom al-Sahrawi indirectly names by referring to Abu Zayd’s Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion). Al-Sahrawi also emphasizes that the Saharan battalion commanders were very difficult for AQIM’s Algeria-based leadership to control. “The organization, in reality, was an image with no reality to it. What existed on the ground was a number of battalions with different orientations and multiple loyalties, all of them linked with the leadership of al-Qaida in Algeria.” Notably, while Belmokhtar is often portrayed as the recalcitrant one in other accounts of these internal GSPC/AQIM spats, in al-Sahrawi’s telling, it was Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion (i.e., Abu Zayd) that was resistant to at least one major unity initiative, the effort by central leadership to impose Nabil Abu Alqama as the central leadership’s unquestioned deputy in the Sahara.

Al-Sahrawi goes on to review developments between 2011 and 2013 in detail, starting with the Libyan revolution and its impact (in his view) on the northern Malian rebellion of 2012; then discussing the relationships among AQIM, the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM’s ally Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA); then discussing the impact of the French-led military intervention in Mali in 2013. The thought of going over all those events here on the blog for the millionth time kind of fatigues me, to be honest, so I would suggest reading a summary of those developments if you’re not familiar.

One point of interest here concerns the relationship between AQIM and the Malian-led Ansar al-Din. Those who consider Ansar al-Din a front group for AQIM will find support for their argument in part of what al-Sahrawi says, to wit: “The al-Qaida organization [here meaning AQIM], in its different groupings, entered into that framework [of Ansar al-Din’s vision of an Islamic state in Mali], even though its leadership [the pronoun “its” goes to AQIM, if my reading is correct] remained independent of it [the pronoun “it” goes to Ansar al-Din’s framework, if my reading is correct].” Later he talks about AQIM “working under cover of [Ansar al-Din].” Yet those, like me, who find the “front group” description simplistic will find support in al-Sahrawi’s descriptions of Ansar al-Din circa 2012 as a collection of opponents to the MNLA’s separatist vision, opponents motivated “either by ethnic, racial reasons or by creedal, religious reasons.” Al-Sahrawi later briefly mentions the 2013 split among Ansar al-Din’s leadership that remains, I think, fundamental to understanding the hybridity of the movement itself during 2012. Anyways, it’s a long discussion; YMMV.

Moving on, when discussing his unit’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, al-Sahrawi is conspicuously silent on Belmokhtar. He has no shortage of criticisms for the AQIM leadership in general, accusing them of a criminal level of self-interest and self-preservation in the face of what he sees as a groundswell of interest in the Islamic State project from the among AQIM’s own rank-and-file. He repeatedly slams AQIM leaders for their approach to the 2012 rebellion, to the MNLA, etc. Yet al-Sahrawi does not name any names here, nor does he criticize Belmokhtar – who, when he and al-Sahrawi were both part of the then-estranged AQIM unit al-Murabitun in 2015, publicly rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, a pledge al-Sahrawi made in the name of al-Murabitun. It makes me wonder whether there is a vestigial admiration for Belmokhtar among Islamic State audiences (despite the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere having publicly called for Belmokhtar’s death at points). Belmokhtar did, after all, cut a larger-than-life figure in the Sahara and even in Libya for a time, and perhaps al-Sahrawi is shying away here from directly taking on that legacy. Belmokhtar, as a reminder, has been either dead or at least publicly absent from the Saharan scene since 2016. In any event, al-Sahrawi presents JNIM’s formation in 2017 as a response to the formation and growth of ISGS.

Al-Sahrawi then turns to the ISGS-JNIM conflict, saying that for a time, ISGS focused on fighting “crusaders and apostates” while making outreach to JNIM’s cadres. According to al-Sahrawi, this outreach attracted a lot of fighters from Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), a northern Burkina Faso-based jihadist outfit that was/is in JNIM’s orbit, as well as from JNIM units in what he refers to as “Konna,” “Macina,” and “Nampala” (localities in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of central Mali). Al-Sahrawi then quickly runs through a complicated series of events that, in his telling, involved JNIM fighters from Nampala (but not physically in Nampala at the time) pledging allegiance to ISGS/Islamic State, then JNIM leaders giving orders for that pro-ISGS unit to be blocked from returning to Nampala, then fighters in Macina refusing to carry out the orders and instead pledging allegiance to ISGS/IS themselves, then the leader of the ISGS-aligned group from Nampala, Miqdad al-Ansari, being killed in a “crusader air raid…under obscure circumstances!” I have not yet had time to triangulate between this and other accounts. As in other al-Naba’ articles, al-Sahrawi argues that JNIM leadership coordinates with non-jihadists. He then presents JNIM’s negotiations with successive Malian authorities as the culmination of a process where the group has de facto lost its jihadist credentials – and, of course, he refers to them as “apostates” throughout the article.

Big takeaways? I’m not sure. The desire to shape perceptions of history stands out – it’s not just scholars and analysts who are still chewing over the events of 2011-2013 in Mali. And the sense of the JNIM-ISGS conflict as a competition for the loyalties of discrete units of fighters in Mali is also notable. The account of how a dispute over Nampala escalated into a wider conflict will be worth revisiting. Another point is that, at least on this first reading, I saw no references to Nigeria, Boko Haram, ISWAP (in the sense of a specific organization based around Lake Chad), etc. Finally, I can’t help but sigh at the Islamic State’s ascription of the title “Al-Shaykh” to al-Sahrawi – not everybody has to be a shaykh, guys. Pretty clear that al-Sahrawi’s not, even by jihadi standards.

Roundup of Recent Writing on Jihadism in the Sahel, and Comments on ICG’s New ISWAP Report [Updated]

Héni Nsaibia and RIda Lyammouri, “Digital Dunes and Shrublands: A Comparative Introduction to the Sahelian Jihadi Propaganda Ecosystem,” Global Network on Extremism and Technology, October 27. You cannot ask for a better duo of authors for this topic. An excerpt:

The Sahelian propaganda ecosystem could be divided into two spheres: the global and the local. The global sphere includes the propaganda intended for the international community broadly, and consists primarily of ‘official’ public messaging in the form of claims of responsibility for military operations, videos, and audio-visual statements. Media products are communicated in world languages: Arabic, French, and English. The local sphere encompasses propaganda for local consumption and is disseminated in local languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Tamashek (or Tuareg language), Fulfulde (or Fulani language), Bambara, Songhai, Zarma, and other local languages and dialects. Locally-oriented items often come out as low-quality videos and audio diffused via closed local WhatsApp groups, including community-focused platforms, and as printed statements handed out to residents. The linguistic barriers and limited accessibility to locally-distributed items represents a gap that should not be neglected in terms of our understanding of these groups.

Luca Raineri, “Explaining the Rise of Jihadism in Africa: The Crucial Case of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara,” Terrorism and Political Violence, published online October 22. The abstract:

While jihadism appears to be on the rise in Africa, the explanations of violent extremist groups’ capacity to foment jihadi insurgencies and mobilize recruits remain poorly understood. Recent studies have challenged the assumption that the rise of jihadism in Africa is the result of poor governance in areas of limited state reach, highlighting instead the significance of the (perception of) abuses perpetrated by state authorities. Looking at collective action and its structural determinants, it is rather state action—and not the lack thereof—that best explains the capacity of mobilization of jihadi insurgencies in African borderlands. In order to test this theory in a least-likely case, the article explores the genealogy and evolution of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), mobilizing extensive qualitative evidence. Borrowing the analytical framework from civil war studies, it argues that the contentious political dynamics observed in Niger’s borderlands amount to a case of symmetric non-conventional warfare, where abuses perpetrated by state proxies trigger an escalation of homegrown terrorism. It therefore supplies a further specification of the theories investigating the complex interplay between the processes of jihadi mobilization/rebel governance and the practices of counter-terrorism in weak states.

I like that approach.

[UPDATE – November 2, 2020]: Because it fits so well with this roundup, I’m adding Anouar Boukhars’ new article “The Logic of Violence in Africa’s Jihadist Insurgencies,” out at Perspectives on Terrorism. An excerpt (p. 119):

Two implications can be drawn from the relative target preferences of IS affiliates in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. First, if insurgent groups are dependent on support from local populations, they may exercise restraint in their violence against civilians. Second, in multi-actor conflict environments, locations marked by intense in-group–out-group divides—a dynamic that comes about because of pre-conflict tensions and tensions endogenous to the conflict—tend to be places of violent attacks against civilians, as out-group members are suspected of being sympathizers of VE groups or collaborators with the government and allied ethnic militias.

For RFI, Kaourou Magassa reports from Bamako, Mali on the trial of Fawaz Ould Ahmed or “Ibrahim 10,” a Mauritanian who killed five people at a Bamako bar in March 2015. He also helped plan the even more infamous attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako later in 2015. He and a co-defendant have now been sentenced to death. He was initially reported in some accounts to have been among those prisoners released earlier this month in Mali – but, obviously, he wasn’t, and perhaps the timing of the trial (pure speculation on my part!) is meant to make that very clear.

Finally, International Crisis Group has an important new report out on the relationship between Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and what became the breakaway Boko Haram faction now known as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). [Note that the report sometimes uses ISWAP to refer to Boko Haram during the period between Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015 and the split within Boko Haram in August 2016, so the meaning of ISWAP within the report can depend on where in the chronology you are. This usage accurately reflects how the name ISWAP was applied both pre-August 2016 and post, but can be confusing for the reader.] The report is based on interviews with sixteen defectors, the last of whom left the group in 2018 – and so the report mostly only transmits other analysts’ perspectives when discussing post-2018 Islamic Stat influence on ISWAP.

I found the report pretty balanced in how it assesses the relationship and the evidence. On the one hand, the report contains major findings pointing to substantial Islamic State influence, such as the reported presence of a group of Islamic State trainers in Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest who arrived after Shekau’s pledge. Here though it is important to underline that the report’s account adds weight to something that I have argued before, namely that the decisive factor in the timing of Shekau’s pledge was the military pressure Boko Haram was under in early 2015. Note then that the Islamic State, as the relationship is described in the report, does not appear to have played any significant role in Boko Haram’s conquest of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014 or even early 2015. And even the most bullish accounts of Shekau’s relationship with al-Qaida tend now to acknowledge that his relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had frayed well before 2014. So at its peak, Boko Haram was more or less independent.

The report also details what are, to my mind, surprisingly complex financial processes: “Assistance [this is 2015 and perhaps early 2016, if I’m reading correctly] came at least every two weeks in amounts varying from $10,000 to $100,000 via occasional transfers to associated individuals or companies in Nigeria or deliveries by Nigerian couriers who would visit Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to collect the cash on ISWAP’s behalf.” There are a lot of explosive claims here, and whereas the account of the trainers I can accept without pause, the description of the transfers – if it rests solely on the testimony of defectors, even if they corroborate each other’s accounts – would need to be corroborated by some other source, in my view. This is not because of the amounts involved,* but not so much that I doubt them; it is more the asserted mechanisms that give me a bit of pause.

There, then, are some of the report’s most serious details concerning the Islamic State’s impact. On the other hand, the report points out some serious instances of parochialism and idiosyncrasy on Boko Haram’s part that made it hard for the organization to maximize and sometimes sustain what the Islamic State had to offer. Weak internet connections, inconsistent application of the trainers’ teachings, Shekau’s resistance to directives and his suspicion of the on-site trainers, etc.

Speaking of parochialism, one detail that surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have, was that Shekau submitted the 2009 manifesto of the late Muhammad Yusuf as part of the vetting process for the Islamic State; the 2009 manifesto is certainly a crypto-jihadist document, but it was written under far different circumstances, still in the context of an above-ground movement rather than an underground, full-blown insurgency. It points to Shekau’s and Boko Haram’s sloppiness that in the roughly six years between the writing of that manifesto and the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, the group could generate no fresher manifesto. Shekau killing some of the top clerics within the group circa 2011-2012 didn’t help with ideological production, obviously, but still, the group seems to have suffered from a lack of talent in that department.

More importantly for the purposes of assessing Islamic State influence, we see that the most fundamental decisions, even among Shekau’s internal rivals, were taken locally: “The breakaway group [now known as ISWAP] only informed ISIS [sic] of its decision once the split [announced in August 2016, but undertaken months earlier] was a fait accompli.” The Islamic State central leadership apparently bowed only reluctantly to realities on the ground in northeastern Nigeria, trying to reconcile the two factions before eventually backing the breakaway group.

Given its own findings, moreover, the report’s framing that “ISWAP [i.e., post-split] has continued to progress in adopting the global movement’s doctrines on governance and other matters” is too simplistic. The idea that ISWAP’s efforts at administrative sophistication and military professionalism reflect Islamic State influence makes a lot of sense; the report is less persuasive when it suggests that Islamic State guidance spurred ISWAP’s overall efforts “to mend fences with Muslim civilians in the areas under its influence.” If concerns with Shekau’s bloodthirstiness, capriciousness, predatoriness, etc. were what prompted a split that was a “fait accompli” before the Islamic State was informed, then it stands to reason that ISWAP’s political orientation towards Muslim civilians largely reflects the core impetus for the split in the first place. And again, according to the report that impetus came out of facts on the ground first and foremost. If you break with your emir because he kills everyone who disagrees with him and hoards money, and if you’re eating leaves and bark in the forest after getting routed by multiple armies and South African mercenaries, you don’t need some guy in Syria to tell you it’s time to try something new. But you would probably take their money and their tips on administration.

So, in short, a very mixed picture of Islamic State influence over ISWAP emerges – stronger than I would have thought in many dimensions, but even I, a perennial skeptic about global jihadist influence in West Africa, was equally surprised by some of Boko Haram’s parochialism as described in the report, as well as by the ways the Islamic State was either ignored or rebuffed at key moments in this history. My main critique would be that I wish the author/s would have more systematically compared the account from defectors to the account in ISWAP’s book Removing the Tumor; I will have to compare at some point myself, but if memory serves there are some interesting parallels, as well as some key details mentioned in this report that are not mentioned at all in Removing the Tumor (the trainers and the money, for example, if memory serves), and then perhaps some instances of contradictions. Anyways, the Crisis Group report is worth reading in full, as are the other pieces mentioned above.

*Is the amount of money described here large or small? At first it sounded huge to me – a steady flow of sizable chunks of money. But if you do the math over a year, it actually starts to sound smaller. Assume for example that we take an estimate toward the high end of the numbers and frequency described above, and we say that $100,000 arrived every two weeks for a year, or $200,000 a month: that’s $2.4 million in the first year. But on the sending end, this seems to have represented a tiny portion of the Islamic State’s wealth and income circa 2015-2016, and on the receiving end, I wonder how far the money went. Just a few years earlier, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was collecting that kind of sum per hostage in some of its biggest ransoms, and yet such cash infusions only went so far – and AQIM had fewer fighters than Boko Haram at their respective peaks, most likely. How far does $2.4 million go in terms of paying fighters and buying loyalty? I’ll have to think about it more. Not saying the money doesn’t matter, but even the high end estimate may be relatively modest even in the context of African jihadist groups’ budgets. Or one could say the money had a much greater impact because of the tough circumstances Boko Haram was in when the money started flowing. Or one could say the money’s impact was less than it might have been, because Shekau may have hoarded some of it…etc. The point is, it’s easier to argue that ties between jihadist groups occurred than it is to say exactly what those ties meant.

My Annotated Translation of the Islamic State’s Article “Liptako: Graveyard of Crusaders and Apostates” from Al-Naba 238 (June 2020)

This project has been on the back burner since the summer, and I guess I ended up saving it for a rainy day. Click the link below (or here) for the translation and annotations; my introduction to the translation gives more context and a few thoughts on the conflict between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM).

What Do We Learn About the CMA and JNIM from the Negotiations over Soumaïla Cissé? Part Two – JNIM

In this post I’m assuming that you know the basic outlines of what happened with the recent prisoner exchange between the Malian government and the jihadist organization Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). If not, you may want to read part one, which deals with the negotiations and particularly with the role of the main ex-rebel bloc in northern Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

JNIM is a jihadist coalition that was formed in March 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations and units that had already been working together for years. One can see that history come into play with the recent hostage releases; one of the four hostages JNIM released, French aid worker Sophie Pétronin, was kidnapped in 2016, in other words before JNIM was formed. JNIM belongs to al-Qaida’s hierarchy and theoretically sits below not just al-Qaida central but also al-Qaida’s regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in that hierarchy. The deaths of several key Algerian AQIM leaders in recent years, though, have reinforced my sense that it is JNIM’s leader, Malian national Iyad ag Ghali, who really sets the organization’s tone. This does not mean that JNIM is a purely “local” outfit – clearly it has regional ambitions and draws on global jihadist imaginaries (if I can use an overused academic term) in its propaganda. But I have repeatedly gotten the sense, over the years, that ag Ghali is more independent-minded than the leader of your average al-Qaida affiliate. There is a big although perhaps unresolvable debate to be had about what ag Ghali really wants, how cynical he is vis-a-vis jihadist ideology, and so forth.

The question of what ag Ghali wants comes into play with the prisoner exchange. JNIM is much bigger than ag Ghali and some reports indicated that many of those released back to JNIM had never met him, which makes sense. Yet the JNIM leader seemed to deliberately make the final exchange into a kind of “ag Ghali show,” appearing at what was essentially a big party and allowing himself to be photographed. His appearance raises all kinds of questions, as noted in this perceptive thread, about why he was so confident that he could reveal himself, and about what messages he was trying to send what audiences through such an appearance.

The photos also fuel speculation about whether ag Ghali has a kind of de facto immunity against French raids, or arrest, and if so what that says about his relationships with governments in the region – all that is either conspiracy theory or above my pay grade, depending on my mood on any given day. In either case I don’t want to touch it.

Turning back to the photos, obviously the black flags are there, and one should not forget the jihadist character of JNIM as an organization or the specifically ideological framings JNIM has applied to this exchange (more on this below). But to me, these photos scan on a few levels with a few different messages. One of those levels is that here we see ag Ghali as “the big man of the north.” I don’t like that phrase, “big man,” but somehow using it feels unavoidable here.

The argument I try to make here, in terms of treating jihadist leaders as politicians, is not that jihadists are morally or strategically equivalent to other types of politicians, or that jihadist ideology doesn’t matter, or that jihadists don’t have blood on their hands. Rather, it’s that jihadist leaders often maintain and cultivate political relationships with actors outside their own organizations, and that such political relationships can have many dynamics that are distinct from, though obviously become intertwined with, jihadist ideology.

To take a concrete example, it is appalling and vicious to kidnap a woman in her 70s and then keep her in captivity, in very harsh conditions, for nearly four years – and it is not just people outside northern Mali who feel that way. To reiterate a point I raised in part one, I was struck by the detail mentioned here, namely that local leaders from throughout the Gao Region, where Sophie Pétronin was kidnapped, had been sending ag Ghali letters for years asking him to release her.

What is the nature, then, of the relationships represented by such correspondence – which seems to have actually reached the JNIM leader? On the one hand, we could say that ultimately ag Ghali released her and the others for men and cash, for tangible resources that directly benefited the jihadist project. On the other hand, it’s worth asking (speculating, I suppose) about what the participants in such correspondence are thinking. Were these leaders from the Gao Region thinking “I am writing a letter to an al-Qaida leader” or were they thinking “I am writing to Iyad ag Ghali, key northern power broker”? And what kinds of channels allowed the correspondence to reach him – on what bases are the people along those channels connected to one another? I would guess it’s not all ideological relationships. And then, receiving the letters, what did ag Ghali think? Obviously the letters did not move him to release her immediately, but I would be surprised if he received the correspondence and thought, “Oh, these people I consider murtaddin [apostates] in Gao are complaining, I don’t care what they think.” There is a story I heard about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably apocryphal, that if you drew any line across a map of the United States, FDR could tell you in detail about the political situation in every county through which that line passed. Not that FDR and ag Ghali are equivalent, but I wonder if ag Ghali has a similar mental map of northern Malian politics. Whatever he wants, he cannot afford – it seems to me – to completely antagonize local leaders in the north.

Another phrase that leaps out to me in looking at the photos, then, is “power broker.” This is a vague term and I am not sure what ag Ghali wants to do with his political power, or that he even knows what he wants to do, precisely – but I am convinced that he wants political power that goes beyond his role as JNIM leader. This relates to another crucial point that Wassim Nasr has made, namely that the “suspected jihadists” released (206, by most counts I see now, including from JNIM) appear to include a number of “non-jihadist fighters.” As Nasr points out, this is politics. Here, too, RFI reports that while some hardened jihadists who had participated in major attacks are rumored to have been released, the “majority…are not important members of jihadist groups.” According to RFI’s reporting and others, JNIM does seem to have asked for specific people to be released, though, in three separate lists of people. It is tempting (likely?) to imagine a process whereby JNIM and ag Ghali canvassed various constituencies, again including constituencies outside of JNIM, to determine which names they should ask for. And if ag Ghali is getting back people who were, say, swept up in security crackdowns but who weren’t part of JNIM, that could (a) reinforce his popularity in the north in general, (b) strengthen his ties to specific local leaders regardless of where those leaders are ideologically, and (c) amplify the impact of JNIM’s anti-French propaganda not just for jihadist sympathizers and audiences but for other northern audiences. Where and when ag Ghali is seen as the champion of north, as “un grand et un vrai chef,” that again reinforces his status as a power broker in ways that both strengthen the jihadist project and go beyond it.

One also, I think, should keep in mind the fluidity of membership in political-military blocs in northern Mali, a fluidity that extends to jihadist ranks. Thus you have the (reported) effort, early in the negotiations, by an ex-jihadist initiating negotiations with JNIM with the blessing of then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and then-Prime Minister Boubou Cissé – and even traveling with an active-duty colonel who was an advisor to the Prime Minister. Sometimes who someone is, the networks they have access to, may matter just as much or more than their particular organizational affiliation at any given moment. And that dynamic can even hold true sometimes for ag Ghali himself.

But there is a lot going on in JNIM’s messaging. Is there a hint of defensiveness, an unspoken attempt to anticipate and parry the condemnations that are likely to come from JNIM’s rivals in the Islamic State, who publicly reject negotiations with the Malian government root and branch? The text overlaying the two photos below (text I can barely make out in places, because of the font) emphasizes themes of justice and injustice, solidarity and oppression, and so forth. The message is expressed in a jihadist idiom, and there is no shortage of contempt for the “Malian regime” and its “prisons of injustice and enmity.” Yet parts of the text could be taken as, again, an effort to justify making a deal with an enemy government.

Here, too, a JNIM-adjacent statement frames the prisoner swap as an extraordinary victory for the jihadists and as a type of “blessed operations that gladden the Muslims everywhere,” and that JNIM “urges our brothers in [other] jihadist groups” to emulate and replicate. This is a kind of boast, obviously, yet could also be seen as a pre-emptive rhetorical defense against potential Islamic State criticisms.

Two more issues, and then I should wrap up, as this is getting long. First is the issue of the actual hardened individuals and serious operatives who (may) have been released. There is debate over whether certain specific individuals, particularly Mimi Ould Baba Ould Cheikh, were actually released – Ould Cheikh, son of a northern politician, is a suspected organizer of major attacks in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. It appears the United States government blocked his inclusion on the list of those freed, which may have slowed the overall exchange and also resulted in an increase to the ransom sum paid to JNIM. Another name being cited is Fawaz Ould Ahmed, reportedly a key operative within al-Murabitun, an AQIM offshoot and one of the groups that fed into the JNIM coalition. Another name mentioned (and confirmed in photos from the release party) is Aliou Mahamane Touré, an official within the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), part of which fed into al-Murabitun and thus eventually into JNIM. If the precise list of those freed is still unclear, there appears to be little debate that the list ultimately includes some very dangerous people. All this has prompted some soul-searching on the French side about what their forces are ultimately actually doing in Mali. To say the least, this deal involved some very bitter compromises for the governments of Mali and France.

The second and final issue is that of money. How much was paid to JNIM? 2.5 million euros? 10 million euros? These are sums in line with those paid at the height of the Saharan kidnapping economy circa 2013. Are we going back to those days? On the one hand, there would seem to be fewer targets of opportunity, especially in terms of Western tourists, than there were before the Malian rebellion of 2012 – and the kidnapping economy in some ways worked against itself by eliciting stronger and stronger travel warnings from Western governments, and effectively killing off tourism in northern Mali. On the other hand, JNIM has every incentive now to kidnap more people.

Where does the money go? I think sometimes commentators assume it all goes straight into operations. I doubt that. Some of those involved in the negotiations may take cuts of the money, and then ag Ghali may distribute some of the money for, again, political impact and relationship-strengthening (for those freed and perhaps even for families of those who were not freed). That kind of largesse could arguably be more dangerous than direct funding of operations, because ag Ghali’s and JNIM’s generosity could augment the popularity they seem to be deriving, in some quarters, from this deal.

It all makes my head spin, to say the least. I guess the final takeaway is that JNIM got a lot out of this deal, and then has amplified its material gains with (a) relatively skillful propaganda and (b) what seems to be continued relationship-building and relationship management across the north.

Translation and Brief Commentary on the Islamic State’s Claim of Responsibility for the August 9 Attack in Kouré, Niger

Yesterday (September 17), in issue 252 of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter Al-Naba’ (available for registered users at Jihadology), the organization stated that it had perpetrated the August 9 attack that killed six French citizens and two Nigerien citizens in the Kouré giraffe reserve southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey.

From the moment the attack was known, suspicion fixed on the Islamic State and specifically on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates primarily in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso borderlands. As I noted at the time, though, the attack and its aftermath – including the lag between the attack and this claim of responsibility – contributed to a climate of uncertainty and fear in the Sahel and in western Niger specifically. This claim of responsibility will not, I think, alleviate that overall sense of dread, which related somewhat to the question of authorship but was even more connected to the location – Kouré (map) is in a zone that was previously considered safer than other parts of the Tillabéry Region, which encompasses Niamey.

Al-Naba’ is sometimes inaccurate, often short on crucial details, and is obviously quite subjective. I do not see anything glaringly inaccurate in my first reading of the article in Al-Naba’ 252 – but the passage describing the Kouré attack is brief and vague. I urge readers to bear this in mind as Western media and analysts extrapolate from what is ultimately a very skeletal write-up.

In particular, as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, beware the slippage you may see between Islamic State, ISGS, and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP can refer to a territorial concept used by the Islamic State to describe events in both the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and ISWAP can also refer specifically to a Lake Chad-based organization that originated as a breakaway, majority faction of the (now rump) Boko Haram in 2016. If Islamic State media file ISGS operations as part of activities within “West Africa Province,” that does not mean that ISWAP, in the sense of that Lake Chad-based organization, is directly supervising and participating in ISGS attacks. To repeated what I said on Twitter, note that Al-Naba’ 252 has separate articles for describing recent events in the Lake Chad Basin (p. 7) and the tri-border Sahelian zone of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso (pp. 9-10). The description of the Kouré attack comes in the latter article (p. 9). So although the Islamic State considers it all “West Africa Province,” even they make an implicit separation in some media products between the Lake Chad Basin (including southeastern Niger) and the Sahel (including western Niger, where Kouré is).

For further context, the section on the Kouré attack is sandwiched between two other sections titled, respectively, “Killing of a Leader in the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad” and “Capture and Killing of a Major Spy for the Forces of Barkhane.” These are two of ISGS’ main enemies – the context is, again, Sahelian and specifically the tri-border zone.

Below I’ve translated the relevant excerpt on Kouré. Three further quick points:

  • The authors at Al-Naba’ seem most excited about the media and propaganda benefits they see in the attack – an opportunity, in the authors’ eyes, to undermine French narratives about counterterrorism in the Sahel.
  • There are no real details about the attack beyond what was known already from press reports.
  • The sense I get is that this was perpetrated by a single unit, most likely belonging to ISGS, and did not represent any complex coordination between ISGS and ISWAP as organizational entities.

Killing of 6 French in a Special Operation Near Niamey

That same Sunday [as an ISGS attack near Indelimane, Mali – map] witnessed a special operation by the soldiers of the Caliphate. The source told Al-Naba’ that a security detachment executed a sudden attack with automatic weapons on a number of France’s Crusader citizens in the Kouré area southeast of Niamey, the capital of Niger. This resulted in the killing of 6 of them after they were captured, and two of their apostate companions from Niger.

The apostates and Crusaders have acknowledged this blow. They demonstrated their fear that it would affect the reputation of their military campaign, through which, they claim, they have been able to kill the mujahidin and curtail their capacity to launch operations against them.

This operation also produced a media hubbub, due to the nationality of those killed and the place in which it occurred, at a distance of only an hour from the capital Niamey in a famous tourist area. It has been considered a major security breach for all the apostates’ defenses.

Recent Analyses of the Sahel Conflict(s) and Relevant Themes

Clionadh Raleigh,  Héni Nsaibia, and Caitriona Dowd, “Briefing: The Sahel Crisis Since 2012.” African Affairs, August 26, 2020. This will now be the first piece I recommend to anyone new to following the region. There are a lot of rich details in this briefing about the composition, strategies, and expansion patterns of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Here is one very apt observation from the introduction: “The critical lesson of this briefing is that this tsunami of conflict did not initially manifest as overtly Islamist or even ideologically coherent, but grew from opportunism. Populist rhetoric, displays of weakened state authority, a brutal—or absent—security sector, the militarization of neighbors, livelihoods and communities each constitute viable ways that the Sahel violence can metastasize through the wider region.”

Edoardo Baldaro, “Rashomon in the Sahel: Conflict Dynamics of Security Regionalism.” Security Dialogue, August 27, 2020. From the abstract: “The African Sahel is a region whose geopolitical dimensions are constantly changing and evolving as a result of new intersections of international, regional and local security dynamics. In this context, various actors have initiated different regional projects in an attempt to reframe the area according to their interests and specific interpretations of security and to impose the form of order that best fits with their goals. The discursive, normative and material struggle about the definition of the region is having obvious effects on security and conflict, furthering regional instability. This article disentangles the different region-building initiatives at work in the area by identifying the four groups of actors advancing a specific project around the Sahel, namely: (1) international security deliverers, (2) jihadist insurgent groups, (3) regional governmental elites, and (4) local communities and populations. In so doing, it explores how the different spatial and security imaginaries advanced by these four collective agents struggle and interact, and shows that the Sahel can be considered the unintended result of a competitive process that is furthering conflict and violence in a shifting regional security system.” This is the kind of analysis I really want to read. The Rashomon metaphor is on a lot of folks’ minds – Yvan Guichaoua also used it in a thread this summer.

Two pieces on Sahelian jihadists and humanitarian groups/workers:

  • Yida Diall translated by Luca Raineri, “Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Sahel, Inhuman with Humanitarians?” Security Praxis, September 3, 2020. Some striking details: “Yet the rise of the Islamic State has challenged the influence of the Katibat Macina in central Mali. Perhaps in an attempt to be seen as more radical challengers of the status quo, IS adherents display a much more intransigent attitude vis-à-vis humanitarian agencies and workers. Abu Mahmoud, formerly one of Kouffa’s lieutenants who has defected to the Islamic State, launched his challenge to the atibat Macina in late 2019 by raiding with his men a humanitarian convoy who had already received Kouffa’s green light to access the region of Ségou, in central Mali. According to a whatsapp audio message released soon thereafter, Abu Mahmud claimed that humanitarian action is inherently non-Muslim, and therefore its agents should be treated as non-believers: they are legitimate war targets, and their goods should be considered war spoils that can be lawfully looted. Similarly, in the Mopti region, IS fighters have pillaged village clinics, water tanks and food dispensaries because they were built and supplied by humanitarian actors, although in partnership with local authorities. Reportedly, IS-linked jihadists in the region justified their actions by claiming that humanitarians are non-believers spearheading the advance of the West and that there can be no room for their projects and belongings in the dar al-Islam.”
  • Tatiana Smirnova, Anne Roussel, and Yvan Guichaoua, “Humanitaires dans les zones de conflit: ni héros ni espions [Humanitarians in Conflict Zones: Neither Heroes Nor Spies].” Ideas 4 Development, August 31, 2020. An excerpt: “Humanitarians are endowed with a ‘noble’ mission (helping vulnerable populations), framed by transcendant principles that are, a priori, consensual. But nothing is self-evident in the space they put themselves into. The information that they can glean is piecemeal and can be manipulated; the resources they distribute are the focus of competition; populations are not merely victims, they are also politically active and pursue their own strategies. Finally, humanitarians stand in front of armed actors in a strongly asymmetric relationship: the first have no weapons, the second do. And the latter can be, alternatively, a source of protection or of danger.”

Christopher Blair, Michael Horowitz, and Philip Potter, “Leadership Targeting and Militant Alliance Breakdown,” forthcoming in the Journal of Politics. From p. 2: “Militant leaders are critical for cultivating capabilities, controlling behavior, and sustaining the trust that undergirds alliances. Leadership removal, especially via decapitation, can reduce capabilities or collapse groups and undermine inter-organizational trust, triggering splits. By eliminating leaders who play a central role in alliance management, decapitation strategies drive militant alliance termination.” YMMV – I think there’s a lot of evidence, including from the Sahel, that decapitation does not work, including in terms of terminating alliances.

Nathaniel Mathews, ” ‘Arab-Islamic Slavery’: A Problematic Term for a Complex Reality.” Research Africa Reviews 4:2 (August 2020). From p. 6: “[The term ‘Arab-Islamic slavery,’ AIS] muddles religion and ethnicity into a polemical concept that does ideological work, (often inadvertently) re-dividing Africa across the Saharan boundary. In the resulting matrix, Arabs are non-African, North Africans are non-black, sub-Saharan Africans are non-Muslim, and ‘blackness is a stable [and global] category referring to a historically coherent people whose experiences of violence are necessarily tied by a common ethnicity.’ This is not to deny the existence in the canons of Arabic, of damaging and prejudicial stereotypes about dark-skinned people from Africa, nor of the need to confront them forthrightly. But the AIS term not only allows the perpetrators of enslavement to stand outside the boundaries of ethnic, linguistic and religious community, it also elides important voices of critique that emerged from within the ‘Arab-Islamic’ milieu. Al-Jahiz, Ibn al-Jawzi, Al-Suyuti, Ahmad Baba, Musa Kamara and other Muslim writers who refuted black inferiority from within a framework, whether for better or for worse, of a shared linguistic, legal and intellectual culture that spanned Sudanic Africa, the Maghrib and beyond.”

Mali: Notes on MINUSMA’s Latest Human Rights Report

The United Nations’ Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) deployed in 2013 and has over 15,000 personnel. More about its mandate and history can be found at its official website.

MINUSMA’s Human Rights and Protection Division recently released a report (French) on the human rights situation in Mali, covering the period April-June 2020. The report is important not just for understanding the human rights picture, but also for thinking about trends in insecurity and politics.

I want to highlight some points, roughly in order of how they appear in the document:

  • As one would expect, the report discusses topics that should be familiar to anyone who follows the day-to-day reporting out of Mali and the Sahel. These topics include jihadist attacks in the north and center of Mali, fighting between the two major jihadist groups Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara), and Malian security force abuses against civilians. Yet the report also briefly highlights various underreported stories. One is episodic violence in southern Mali. In paragraph 9 on page 4, the authors mention that JNIM’s attacks on police and gendarmerie posts are degrading the security situation in the southern regions of Kayes, Koulikoro, and Sikasso (see a map of Mali’s regions here).
  • During the reporting period, MINUSMA counted 458 security incidents in Mali, broken down by region as follows (paragraph 11, p. 4):
    • 214 in Mopti (center);
    • 81 in Gao (north);
    • 70 in Timbuktu (north);
    • 39 in Ménaka (north);
    • 25 in Bamako (south);
    • 12 in Ségou (center);
    • 8 in Kidal (north);
    • 6 in Sikasso (south); and
    • 3 in Kayes (south).
  • These figures align with the broader trends of violence that I highlighted here, building off of work by José Luengo-Cabrera and others. In what is becoming something of a refrain here on the blog, I want to highlight that despite Kidal being ground zero for the northern Malian rebellion of 2012 and being the homeland of JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali, Kidal is remarkably free of reported attacks (though not, as discussed below, free of reported abuses). Meanwhile, the categories of “north,” “center,” and “south” can be both useful and misleading – for example, I would guess that much of the reported violence for Timbuktu is in southern parts of Timbuktu that are near Mopti. Finally, the violence in the south is worth noting but one shouldn’t get carried away extrapolating trendlines – we’re still talking about a handful of incidents over a three-month period. The “south,” meanwhile, is smaller than the north in terms of land mass but is still vast – by road, for example, the regional capital of Kayes is about 250 kilometers from the important religious center of Nioro du Sahel, which is still within the Kayes Region.
  • On p. 5, paragraph 12, one finds a breakdown of who, according to MINUSMA’s reporting, committed how many of the 632 total human rights violations compiled during the reporting period. Here is the list:
    • 232 violations by self-defense groups:
    • 126 by the Malian security forces;
    • 123 by jihadist groups;
    • 63 by armed groups that are signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord, a peace deal covering the north;
    • 50 by the Burkinabè security forces; and
    • 38 by unidentified armed groups.
  • Here, too, I will pick up on points analysts have been making a lot: the self-defense groups or ethnic militias or whatever one wants to call them are the leading perpetrators of abuses, followed the security forces, and only then followed by the jihadists. That’s not to minimize the violence perpetrated by the jihadists, but it is to say that civilians may actually be more frightened of other actors – and a climate of fear can, among other impacts, (1) drive further formation of self-defense groups, (2) undercut civilian cooperation with the security forces, (3) trigger more security force abuses, and (4) boost recruitment to jihadist groups. One might add that civilians would not necessarily categorize actors and events the way MINUSMA does; in particular, civilians on the receiving end of violence may not consider signatory armed groups to belong to a fundamentally different category than the self-defense groups.
  • I think the actor that comes out looking the worst here, in terms of the numbers, is the Malian security forces, because the categories “self-defense groups” and “jihadists” (or “extremists,” in the language of the report) are baskets for a multitude of actors, while the Malian security forces can be viewed as more unitary. I don’t mean to erase differences between soldiers, gendarmes, and police, but the security forces still represent a corporate entity under (theoretically) centralized control in a way that “self-defense groups” do not.
  • The number of abuses reportedly perpetrated by Burkinabè security forces on Malian soil is also striking. There are a few details in paragraph 40 on p. 10 – the reported abuses occurred over the period May 26-28, mostly around Boulkessi. Even if this is a burst of abuses rather than a sustained trend, it’s still very concerning – Burkinabè security force abuses on their own territory are horrific and counterproductive, but to me there is something even more destructive and destabilizing when one country’s army kills another country’s civilians. And “hatting” various Sahelien militaries as part of a singular regional force does not necessarily mean that civilians will see things that way.
  • On p. 6, paragraph 16, I was struck by the number of kidnappings jihadists perpetrated – 25 – during the reporting period. Without going through all the incidents to confirm, my impression is that many of these kidnappings are of locally prominent figures, and that the motivation can be financial but can often be political. Captives quite often turn up dead, these days (see one example here). The Saharan kidnapping economy, in terms of targeting Western tourists for huge ransoms, peaked around 2011-2013, but localized, targeted kidnapping remains prolific in northern and central Mali.
  • On pp. 6-7, the discussion of the signatory armed groups’ abuses gets very complicated, politically speaking. There are 63 abuses attributed to the two main non-government signatory blocs, the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA, ex-rebels) and the Platform (anti-CMA armed groups, or in some cases ex-CMA groups). The report notes (paragraph 24, p. 7) that the CMA functions as a de facto state in the Kidal Region but that it has no legal authority, under international law or under Malian law, to detain people – so any detentions the CMA undertakes are counted as illegal detentions and therefore as human rights abuses. I mention this not to exonerate the CMA but to underline that the category of human rights violations in the report is very broad, and ranges from illegal detention to rape, kidnapping, and murder. The report does not elaborate on the kinds of conditions that prisoners in Kidal face. I would not want to be on the CMA’s bad side but the report can also help outsiders to understand, I think, why the CMA may look better to some civilians that other armed groups do – would you rather live in CMA-controlled Kidal and try to toe the line there, or in eastern Mopti where control is fragmented and violence is endemic?
  • On p. 9, paragraph 34, the report begins to detail what it describes as the most representative incidents of Malian security force abuses against civilians. These incidents occurred in three central Malian towns (Yangassadiou, Mopti Region, June 3; Binedama, Mopti Region, June 5; and Massabougou, Segou Region, June 6). All three incidents involved summary, extrajudicial executions or indiscriminate firing at civilians.
  • The report also discusses abuses during protests, but the reporting period stopped before the infamous weekend of violence July 10-12 that followed the third mass rally by the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP), which is calling for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to step down.

What to say in conclusion? These are grim figures and trends. I will re-emphasize that I think it’s important for the policymakers and analysts who are not directly threatened on a day-to-day level by this violence to try to imagine themselves into the lives of those who are threatened and affected. My impression is that in the worst hotspots for violence – eastern Mopti Region, for example – the ordinary civilian might feel under threat from all sides, and would be more likely than not to view any armed outsider as, at best, someone to be placated; and at worst, as a mortal foe. In the south, meanwhile, I wonder how large the sporadic acts of violence loom in ordinary people’s minds – is there a sense that there is another shoe about to drop, or are these incidents isolated interruptions? Such acts of imagination can become presumptuous, of course, and ultimately I don’t really know what it’s like to live in Koro or Gao or Niafunké or Sikasso right now – but I think that some imagination is necessary to grasp the conflict dynamics as three-dimensional realities. In any case, the report is a relatively fast read at less than 14 pages, and I recommend reading it in its entirety if you have further interest.

A Critical Reading of an Interview with Operation Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy

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.

Roundup of Analyses on the JNIM-ISGS Conflict

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are the two most prominent jihadist groups in the Sahel. JNIM, created in 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations, is formally part of al-Qaida’s hierarchy. ISGS, created in 2015, is of course part of the Islamic State, which considers ISGS part of their “West Africa Province.” Analytically, I still don’t think it’s worth conflating ISGS with the West Africa Province, though, given that in common usage Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) refers to the Boko Haram offshoot whose theater of operations is the Lake Chad Basin. Your mileage on that discussion may vary.

Recently, there has been a wave of analyses about what appears to be a fundamentally new stage in the relationship between JNIM and ISGS. For context, JNIM is a coalition that formed in 2017, and ISGS, which formed in 2015, is an offshoot of one of JNIM’s components. Through late 2019, it appeared that JNIM and ISGS had some kind of non-aggression pact and it sometimes appeared that they were cooperating. The two groups are now in open conflict, including in the media arena – one driver for the recent coverage has been not just physical clashes but the publication of an anti-JNIM writeup in the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ 233 (May 7) which can be found here.

Here are three interventions on the JNIM-ISGS conflict that stood out to me:

1. Wassim Nasr, “ISIS in Africa: The End of the ‘Sahel Exception’,” Center for Global Policy, June 2. Two excerpts – here is the first:

The recent statements from [the important JNIM leader Amadou] Kufa suggest that the fear of defections from JNIM to join ISIS was real and justified a fight. His statements also suggest that recruits are receiving ideological teachings focused on building committed and dogmatic fighters. In the same line of efforts, an official audio of Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud), head of AQIM, was issued on March 16. Among many things, he stressed the “duty to avoid harming ordinary Muslims and not to attack civilians among them,” in contradiction to the still dominant local popular perception of ISIS’s extremist attitude toward al-Aama, or “the common Muslim,” though he avoided naming the group.

And the second:

The effect of JNIM’s acceptance of negotiations [with the Malian government] emboldened ISIS as many recruits joined its ranks from the Fulani community in Mali and Niger – a community that had provided JNIM with recruits before. Kufa was forced to seek help from other ethnic JNIM components in fighting in central Mali. This could put ISIS in the Sahel  in a situation similar to the one ISIS faced in Syria in 2013, when the group was uprooted from many areas before it regrouped and seized most of the east and the north. The Fulani ISIS commander in the Sahel, Abdel-Hakim al-Sahrawi, reached out to Kufa with a message, which the author has seen. In the message, he asked for a truce and the respect of rules of engagement and warned Kufa against infighting among the Fulani.

2. Yvan Guichaoua had a thoughtful thread on Twitter, in French, on June 5, responding to some of Nasr’s analysis and discussing how to weight local and global dynamics that affect jihadist movements. The thread starts here:

I’ll translate the sixth and seventh posts in the series:

The two pitfalls to avoid are clearly: i) to bring everything back to the local, ii) to see, in events, only the projection on the terrain of grand scripts written elsewhere. In my eyes, the only way to avoid these pitfalls is to do meticulous, punctilious history, that is to say reconstructing the chains of events and the immediate logics that provoke them.

3. Flore Berger, “Sahel – A New Battlefield between IS and Al-Qaeda?” The Africa Report, June 4. An excerpt:

ISGS has, together with JNIM, been active in the Gourma, on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border, for months. In mid-April, confrontations intensified with the ISGS launching a series of attacks on five consecutive days against JNIM units in the Malian Gourma and then on the Burkinabe side where the group killed 60 JNIM militants and took 40 prisoners.

ISGS thus decided to shift its focus there, but also expanded further north into the Inland Niger Delta. In Dialloubé, for example, they have been travelling to villages announcing their arrival for months, and have started to recruit with the offer of money and motorbikes.

It also promised militants that they could keep the spoils of war — a direct challenge to Kouffa’s centralised system in which he would control the allocation of rewards. Similar unverified reports have been gathered from the other side of the border, for example around Djibo, Burkina Faso. [All emphases are in the original.]

French-language summaries of the conflict can be found in Libération and Médiapart, although both are paywalled.

There is also a bit of background discussion about JNIM and ISGS in Crisis Group’s new report on ISGS in the Tillabéri Region of Niger (see pp. 4-5), but the JNIM-ISGS conflict is not a focus of that report. Note that much of the preceding analysis focuses on clashes in Mali and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, rather than Niger. Of Tillabéri, Crisis Group writes (p. 5):

[Adnan Abu Walid al-] Sahraoui’s Islamic State chapter thus went from being one of several jihadist groups based in the border zone to virtually dominating the entire space. Tactically, its implantation across the zone has also delivered important advantages on the battlefield. Rather than needing to occupy particular towns or villages, the Islamic State can call upon diffuse forces across the border region to mobilise, such that, when a call is issued, dozens of fighters on motorbikes can suddenly appear out of nowhere to swarm a target and then melt back quickly into the bush once they have executed their attack. Fighting in this manner maximises the impact and surprise of Islamic State operations and makes it virtually impossible for the authorities and their international allies to target Islamic State fighters with airstrikes. Though the Islamic State has developed a reputation elsewhere for mass atrocities against heterodox Muslims and non-Muslims, its Sahel affiliate has generally adhered to an approach that appears designed to win the trust and cooperation of northern Tillabery’s Sunni Muslims. The group is known to assassinate those who collaborate with the state, especially local chiefs, but it has for the most part eschewed large-scale targeting of civilians in northern Tillabery.

This snapshot reinforces Guichaoua’s caution about not projecting “grand scripts” onto events on the ground. ISGS is not necessarily always and everywhere harsh and uncompromising.

On a separate note, I’m planning to address the reported death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Abdelmalek Droukdel in a post tomorrow.