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.

Where in the Chain of Command Do Security Force Abuses Originate?

Recently, two pieces that touch on security force abuses in the Sahel caught my eye.

One is Héni Nsaibia’s excellent piece for ACLED, “State Atrocities in the Sahel: The Impetus for Counterinsurgency Results Is Fueling Government Attacks on Civilians.” An excerpt:

Ahead of the end of the rainy season in August 2019, ISGS [the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara] and JNIM [Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims] – in tandem – launched an offensive in the tri-state border area, also known as the Liptako-Gourma. It was a campaign in which military outposts were overrun like dominoes, forcing government troops to tactically withdraw from the border areas and leave previously contested territory under militant control. These developments underscored the lack of cooperation and coordination between the constituents of the struggling regional G5-Sahel force, for years promoted as an effective coalition to address the jihadi threat (Ouest-France, 2018). Amid mounting popular discontent in Mali over the presence of foreign forces as Malian soldiers were killed in scores (RFI, 2020), French president Emmanuel Macron summoned the leaders from the G5-Sahel countries to clarify their positions on France’s role in the Sahel. During the summit convened on 13 January 2020 in the French town of Pau, a roadmap was outlined to counter the jihadi onslaught (The Conversation, 2020). France decided to deploy 600 supplemental troops to its Barkhane mission (Le Monde, 2020), ensued by the official launch of ‘Takuba’, a task force gathering special forces from several European countries aimed at shoring up Barkhane and Malian forces in the fight against jihadi groups (Ouest-France, 2020). The primary focus of the counter-offensive was to be ISGS, now the ‘Greater Sahara’ faction of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Although the group carried out some of the deadliest attacks targeting security forces to date, this announcement largely neglected the comparable threat posed by its Al Qaeda counterpart, JNIM (Liberation, 2019; DW, 2020).

In the wake of the Pau meeting, state violence targeting civilians increased in all three countries as local and foreign forces stepped up their operations. If the Pau Summit did not encourage civilian targeting, it evidently appears to be a direct consequence.

The other piece that struck me was Judd Devermont and Leanne Erdberg Steadman’s “Defending the U.S. Military Presence in Africa for Reasons Beyond Counterterrorism,” published at Lawfare. Obviously, from the title, their article is only partly about security force abuses, but here is what they said on that score:

In places like Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia, U.S. forces and partner militaries can support longer term efforts to prevent violent extremism from taking hold in the first place. The United States can help partners set up joint operations centers where, in real time, the U.S. military can showcase how intelligence-driven operations reduce accidents, lower civilian casualties, and foster information sharing (including with gendarmes and police) that saves lives. And it can do more to promoteopen dialogues with communities on threats and prevention strategies.


If the United States wants to reduce the threat of terrorism in Africa, partnerships need to mean much more than just limited counterterrorism objectives. In too many African contexts, terrorists easily step in to establish themselves as a viable alternative to the government when those in power are corrupt, venal, and direct security forces to kill and abuse civilians for political gain. [Emphasis mine – Alex.] In those cases, the U.S. military’s most effective intervention is assisting partner nations to improve their behavior and rebuild trust. Because when U.S. forces support efforts to repair the broken bonds of governance and positively impact the behavior of African security forces, it reinforces the idea that the state’s job is to protect people, instead of going after them. And that might end up being the most potent type of counterterrorism the United States can ever help with.

These posts got me thinking: Where exactly do security force abuses originate within the chain of command? I am definitely open to the argument that they are top-down. Nsaibia builds a strong, if circumstantial, case for the effect of the Pau summit. But I find Devermont and Steadman’s characterization too strong – I don’t think security force abuses are necessarily directed from the top, and I don’t think that when civilian leaders order or tolerate abuses, it is necessarily because they see political advantage in them. Sometimes leaders may be cognizant that an abuse-laden strategy of collective punishment is a poor approach – they may even realize that is counterproductive – but then acquiesce to it or order it anyways, perceiving themselves to have no alternative. None of this is to exculpate the Sahel’s leaders – but I am not sure that individual-level venality, or even the venality of different countries’ political classes as a whole, has that much explanatory power.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any academic literature on these questions in my initial searches on Google Scholar (that doesn’t mean it’s not out there!).* If any readers know of relevant work, please point it out.

Here are a few points that occurred to me. As a provisional framework, it made sense to me to think about five levels where the decision to commit abuses might originate: the individual soldier, the unit, the theater/campaign, the top military leadership, and the civilian leadership. Building on Nsaibia’s piece, one could add a sixth level – the foreign patron government – if one wants to be cynical about who takes orders from whom, or at least who responds to pressure from whom.

1: There Is a Difference Between Top-Down Systems of Abuse and Systems of Impunity; But Impunity for Major Abuses Runs, By Definition, All the Way Up the Chain.

The analyst cannot always be sure where abuses originate within the chain of command; the data are often limited and hard to confirm, and the workings of any given military chain of command and military culture can be opaque to outsiders. It is worth it, though, to make an analytical distinction between “systems of abuse” and “systems of impunity,” because they might look roughly the same from a distance but have very different internal mechanisms and very different policy ramifications (more on this below). Just because abuse is widespread does not necessarily mean there is a top-down, centrally-directed system of abuse; not everyone in the chain of command is automatically implicated in the abuse itself. Yet impunity for abuses does implicate everyone, by definition, because even if the top military leadership or the civilian authorities are not ordering abuses, their acquiescence is needed to create a system of impunity. Consider three possibilities:

  1. Civilian authorities create a system of abuse and a system of impunity;
  2. Abuses originate down the chain, so there is not necessarily a system of abuse, but civilian authorities provide a system of impunity in response or by default;
  3. Abuses originate down the chain and civilian authorities punish abusers.

2: Widespread Individual-Level Abuses Point to a System of Impunity

This is an extension of the previous point. Even if, for the sake or argument, all abuses in a given country were generated at the individual level (for example, the soldier pressuring a woman for sex in an IDP camp), I think that if such abuses are widespread it indicates that a system of impunity, by design or by default, is in place – otherwise most individuals would not continue to abuse. In other words, the “bad apples” argument cannot be sustained if a lot of individuals are committing abuses.

3: Unit-Level Abuses Can Be Self-Generated or Directed from Above

When a particular unit becomes infamous for committing abuses, that in and of itself does not necessarily tell us whether there is a wider system of abuse in place. On the one hand, the unit could be a “rotten egg” whose abuses are known and deplored, but which is also provided impunity by superiors (military or civilian) in the chain of command. Perhaps the unit is particularly feared, or the costs of disciplining it are perceived as too great, and so superiors do not act. On the other hand, an abuse-prone unit may in and of itself constitute a top-down system of abuse if superiors deliberately leverage that unit for a particular purpose, “letting it off the leash” while keeping other units restrained – or attempting to play “good cop, bad cop.”

4: Theater-Level Abuses Would Be Difficult to Sustain Without Buy-In from the Top Military Brass

As discussed above, if one finds a single unit regularly committing abuses, it’s plausible under certain circumstances that the unit itself is generating those abuses without orders from above. But a pattern of abuses throughout an entire theater of operations – say, northeastern Nigeria – is very unlikely to persist without approval and probably direction from the top military brass. That is, in a context where multiple units are committing abuses within the same theater, and where the pattern persists despite rotations in theater commanders and other key personnel, then a real system of abuse very likely exists all the way up and down the chain of command.

5: Theater-Level or Military-Wide Abuses Can Be Generated by Commanders or by Pressure from Civilian Leaders; If the Former, Civilian Leaders Are Likely Cowed

If an entire theater, or an entire military, is characterized by abuses, this automatically implicates the civilian leadership in a system of impunity, but it does not mean that civilian leaders are directing the abuses. Civilian leaders could, conceivably, be deploring the abuses but feel powerless to stop them – perhaps out of fear of a coup, or through more subtle forms of intimidation that militaries can bring to bear against civilian leaders (strategic leaks of government deliberations, for example).

6: Civilian Leaders Can Encourage/Order Abuses Enthusiastically or Reluctantly

Now we are discussing situations where the system of abuse is truly systemic, and runs not only up and down the military chain of command but includes the civilian leaders as well. Even in such situations, however, there are still multiple variants. Consider a scenario like that suggested by Devermont and Steadman above: Civilian leaders enthusiastically order abuses in the pursuit of perceived political gain, punishing political opponents and intimidating the population writ large. But other scenarios are possible: civilian leaders, particularly in states with few resources and where the central state’s knowledge of restive peripheries is thin, might feel that they have no real option other than to “crack a few heads.” Civilian leaders may be influenced by select interlocutors from the conflict zones, who promote harsh approaches, demonize particular communities, and sell the central authorities on a strategy of deliberate abuse. And then there is the scenario that Nsaibia suggests – pressure from above, in other words from a major foreign power.

7: The Net Effects of Unit-Generated Abuses Combined with Systems of Impunity, Versus Top-Down Systems of Abuse, May Appear Similar – But the Policy Responses May Have to Be Different

This takes us back to the discussion in points 1 and 3 – it is not always easy to tell how deliberately or systematically the civilian leaders are promoting abuses. The net effects of different scenarios may look the same: in other words, widespread abuses and suffering. If widespread abuses are encouraged up and down the chain, then the policy response by international actors may need to involve substantial pressure on the actors at the top of the chain to make them cut off the flow of orders promoting abuses. But if one concludes that civilian leaders are only reluctantly allowing impunity for abuses, that civilians are hostages to the military leadership on this issue, or that the top military brass’ role in the abuses is ambivalent because of fear of a particular unit or of backlash from the rank-and-file generally, then the policy focus may need to shift elsewhere – to creating conditions that would give space to civilian leaders to discipline those abuse-prone units, etc.

*There is, obviously, a wide literature on civil-military relations. My superficial sense is that much of the literature on civil-military relations in Africa concerns coups. Then there is the massive NGO literature on incidents of abuse, and I am implicitly drawing on some of that here, but I have not seen an NGO report present a systematic typology of where and how abuses occur; impressionistically, many reports seem to describe abuses at what I am calling the unit and theater levels.