I have a new paper out today with the West African Papers Series of the OECD. The series is part of a partnership between the OECD’s Sahel and West Africa Club and the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group. The paper is entitled “Political Settlements with Jihadists in Algeria and the Sahel.” It looks at past experiences in the region and argues that settlements with jihadists can be either stabilizing or destabilizing depending on their parameters. The paper goes on to argue, in keeping with arguments I’ve explored here on the blog, that dialogue with jihadists in Mali is worth attempting.
The jihadist formation in the Sahara-Sahel region, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), recently put out a new video called “The Battle Continues.” JNIM is a subsidiary of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MENASTREAM, as always, has a good rundown of some key moments, personalities, and images.
The video is heavily branded as an al-Qaida effort. It returns repeatedly to images of Usama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures. The video presents the jihadist fight in Mali as both (a) a replay of medieval battles between Muslims and Crusaders, and (b) a part of a global struggle that extends to Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. Surveying the contemporary global scene, the video emphasizes images of Muslim civilians being killed and repressed by security forces. The video also displays images of numerous dead jihadist leaders, ranging from Yemen’s Nasir al-Wuhayshi to AQIM’s Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd to Ansar al-Sharia Libya’s Muhammad al-Zawahi. In other words, the video wants the viewer to think something along the lines of “Muslims are being unfairly attacked around the world and al-Qaida leaders are giving their lives to defend them.”
But to just take the video as an expression of transnational jihadist ties would be to miss some of its politics. So much analysis of jihadist videos, in fact, focuses on the visual symbolism to a degree where the actual content of what jihadists are saying goes under-analyzed. And this video, albeit not very original, is trying to stake out some political ground vis-a-vis both France and toward interpretations of the Mali conflict that JNIM does not want to become dominant.
In one sequence starting around 8:35, the video pivots to France, showing television clips of Western analysts asserting that France’s fight in Mali is motivated by ambitions to control resources in the Sahel. But then the video cuts to a clip from RT, where the announcer asks whether France’s intervention in Mali was in fact part of a war on Islam. JNIM cleric Abd al-Hakim al-Muhajir makes that case emphatically, arguing that “it is not an economic or interest-based war in the first degree…Rather, it is a war of creeds between faith and unbelief, Islam and polytheism, between the sovereignty of man, which France wants, and the sovereignty of God alone, for the sake of which the mujahidin are struggling (Bal hiya harb ‘aqadiyya bayn al-iman wa-l-kufr, wa-l-islam wa-l-shirk, bayn hakimiyyat al-bashar, kama turiduha Faransa wa bayn hakimiyyat Allah wahdahu, kama yujahid min ajliha al-mujahidun).” Al-Muhajir argues that economic interests are at stake, but as a secondary matter in this broader combat he sees between belief and unbelief. The video then includes two clips of French philosopher Michel Onfray arguing that France has double standards for when it invokes human rights justifications in foreign affairs.
To me, this was the most interesting argument the film made – ironically, both France and JNIM/AQIM now work to combat the perception that this is a conflict over untapped resources in the Malian Sahara. One wonders whether JNIM is not also, indirectly, trying to combat the perception that it too is a product of a conspiracy involving great powers. Interestingly enough, JNIM may lose ground in the information war if what it considers the wrong kind of conspiracy theories gain too much traction – JNIM wants audiences to understand the conflict as black and white, and that requires arguing that France is explicit about its “Crusader” ambitions, rather than arguing that France has hidden agendas.
Another part of the video’s message revolves around the romanticization of jihadist life. This comes across to some extent in the military sequences, which includes both JNIM’s own training footage and then news footage of the aftermath of JNIM’s June 2018 attack on a G5 Sahel Joint Force base in Sévaré, central Mali. Later, the video shows jihadists impersonating a United Nations convoy as they prepare for and execute their April 2018 attack on a MINUSMA base in Timbuktu.
But the romanticization comes across most strongly in sequences highlighting ordinary fighters. This section emphasizes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the fighters, who are presented as joyful, pious, and disciplined youth. If this is in part a recruitment video, the pitch is based largely on the idea that recruits will enjoy a pure life and a vibrant camaraderie. The segments featuring JNIM/AQIM’s Yahya Abu al-Hammam and an audio message from JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghali are relatively unremarkable; the young fighters come across as more three-dimensional, and that may be intentional on JNIM’s part.
To me this read as a demonstration of strength and a reminder that JNIM is digging in for the long haul (hence the title). The video did not break any new ground, ideologically speaking. There was not as much emphasis on building popular support as I might have expected; but again, perhaps the theme of camaraderie stood in for a more explicit pitch.
In lieu of a post today, I’m linking to this piece I published on Friday with the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. The piece discusses patterns in jihadist violence during Mali’s July-August presidential elections.
Your feedback is welcome as always!
This week, the latest report from the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Mali came out. The big headline coming out of the report has been allegations that some signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord are implicated in terrorism and drug trafficking.
I learned a ton from the report and I salute the panel for what must have been an extremely intense amount of labor and travel.
Here are some of the passages that stood out to me from the report:
p. 2, “Antiterrorist operations conducted by the Malian army in northern and central Mali, as well as by ‘compliant’ armed groups — those who are part of the Plateforme or CMA or have declared that they will observe the Agreement — have led to civilian killings and amplified intercommunal violence.” This is Mali’s core challenge, now, I would say – to find a way out of the violence that does not lead to more violence.
p. 4, “The Panel began its work on 1 February 2018. During the reporting period (February to June 2018) the Panel visited Mali on four occasions and travelled to the northern regions of Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu and Ménaka and the central region of Mopti…In addition to its visits to Mali, the Panel also visited Belgium, Burkina Faso, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands and the Niger. Visits proposed by the Panel to Algeria in April and June were not accommodated.” I’ll just leave that there.
p. 6, “The current Malian conflict started in January 2012…” I don’t blame the panel for this phrasing and this is probably the most comprehensible way to put things. But on another level, the current conflict started in 1990, in the sense that many of the same faces from the early 1990s are still key actors today: Iyad ag Ghali, El Hadj ag Gamou, etc. Experts would do well to remind the lay audience that the roots of this conflict are deep indeed.
p. 7, “Regional and local elections that would have replaced interim measures were scheduled for December 2017 and April 2018, but both were postponed. A revised road map of actions adopted by signatory parties on 22 March 2018 has not provided a date for those elections but rather puts them after a revision of the decentralization legislation, which is to take place in 2019. Though it confirms the extension of the interim period until sometime in 2019, or even beyond, international mediation team members have generally welcomed the March road map. Several of them mentioned to the Panel that the engaged role of the Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, as well as the start of the work of the independent observer and the Mali sanctions regime — both mechanisms envisaged in, respectively, articles 63 and 64 and article 54 of the Agreement — have given new impetus to the Agreement.” The role of Maïga remains crucial and fascinating, as always. I am thinking about a post that would try to look at him in some kind of structural sense, rather than just as an individual (one often discussed as hyper-competent). But in any case he is clearly a key link between the administration and the politicians in the north.
p. 14, “The single priority action under the economic development component of the Agreement concerns the creation of a development zone for the northern regions. According to the Agreement, the development zone is based on a development strategy and financed through the sustainable development fund. A concept note for the development zone has been drafted by the Government and transmitted to the signatory armed groups, but at the time of a meeting of a subcommittee of the Agreement Monitoring Committee on 21 June a formal response was still pending. A legislative text is foreseen by November 2018, as indicated in the March road map.” It will be worth keeping an eye on this, although I will not be holding my breath for November.
p. 17, A whole section on Ménaka, the Daoussak, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (referred to by its French acronym EIGS throughout the report), and the Kidal elite begins here. It is probably too complicated to summarize, but it makes for an important case study of how many fault lines cut through different communities and how those can play out in terms of who fights whom. Here is one key quote from p. 18: “The main political actors in the newly created region of Ménaka are: the aménokal (traditional leader) of the Oulemiden (Iwllemmeden) and Member of Parliament Bajan Ag Hamatou, traditionally close to the fraction Idoguiritane of the Daoussaks; the Governor, Daouda Maïga, who originates from Tidermene and was instrumental in the constitution of the GATIA/MSA-D alliance and the return of GATIA in Ménaka on 27 October 2017 (Daouda Maïga is reportedly close to GATIA General Gamou, also born in Tidermene); and Abdoul Wahab Ag Ahmed Mohamed, President of the interim authority, known to be close to Moussa Ag Acharatoumane of MSA-D.”
p. 22, Getting deeper into the question of who is coordinating with whom, there is a fascinating but inconclusive section dealing with a visit by Alghabass ag Intalla, one of the most prominent politicians in Kidal and the secretary-general of the CMA, the umbrella group for ex-rebels who signed the 2015 Algiers accord, to Menaka. A relevant quote: “Despite allegations that a shared strategy was being implemented following Alghabass’s visit to the Ménaka region in December 2017 and reported meetings with members of terrorist armed groups, the Panel found no evidence documenting a connection between CMA and terrorist armed groups in the Ménaka and Gao regions.”
p. 25 and 27-30, Here is where some of the most explosive assertions about the participation of certain armed factions in terrorist/jihadist activities appear. Since it has been covered a lot in the press, I won’t get into it here.
p. 33, Here are further allegations that the major government-aligned militia GATIA (Self-Defense Group for Imghad Tuareg and Allies) is involved in smuggling illicit drugs, as well as further data on how conflict over drugs fuels clashes between armed groups: “In Mali, the Panel obtained further information about the role of GATIA associates in securing drug (cannabis) convoys. Malian authorities, a diplomatic source and an armed group representative referred to Ahmoudou Ag Asriw of GATIA as having led a convoy transporting cannabis resin in April 2018, together with a member of MAA-Plateforme. The convoy was heading from Tabankort to the Tamesna desert, presumably on its way to the Niger. On 13 April 2018, near Amassin, south of Kidal, it came under attack from MNLA and unidentified armed elements from the Niger. The assailants were reported to have taken part of or the entire 4-ton shipment of cannabis resin north to cross into Algeria at Tinzawaten. The confrontation reportedly claimed three victims.” And from further down the same page, a key quote: “The legitimacy of both the Plateforme and CMA as signatory armed groups has motivated drug traffickers to seek protection from their members rather than members of terrorist armed groups in order to be less exposed.” on p. 35, there is some discussion of GATIA, the CMA (namely one of its components, the HCUA) and migrant smuggling.
p. 43, There is some good detail here on operations by the G5 Sahel Joint Force.
p. 46, The recommendations begin here. They lead with this: “Proceed without delay to consider the designation for targeted measures of individuals and entities engaging in or providing support for actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability of Mali.” I certainly understand the logic, but I don’t think I would take this path unless you are confident that you can really squeeze these actors in changing their behavior – if you can’t accomplish that, though, then “targeted measures” might simply alienate people whose participation will be key to any eventual (hopeful) political solution.
The main body of the report ends on p. 47, but sixteen annexes follow, including social media posts from armed/political groups, official documents, correspondence, and other interesting sources.
Mali’s “Conference of National Understanding,” which concluded in April, recommended that the Malian government open negotiations with two prominent Malian jihadists, Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. Both men are part of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), which is formally part of al-Qaida. After the conference floated the suggestion to negotiate, the French and Malian governments quickly rejected the idea. The suggestion, however, continues to evoke debate in Mali.
Apparently the jihadists are, at least theoretically, willing to consider the idea of negotiating. Recently, two emissaries from Kouffa (who is ethnically Fulani/Peul) approached (French) a prominent Peul politician, Alioune Nouhoum Diallo. Kouffa’s men outlined three preconditions for negotiations:
- The withdrawal from Mali of France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane;
- The withdrawal from Mali of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA
- The appointment of Diallo as mediator.
Needless to say, the first two preconditions are extremely unlikely to happen. Neither the government of France, nor the government of Mali, would agree – indeed, many would see those demands as a trap that the jihadists are attempting to lay.
But the very fact that Kouffa’s people approached Diallo bespeaks a willingness to negotiate, I think. Moreover, I think it bespeaks willingness not only on Kouffa’s part but on Iyad Ag Ghali’s, who is reportedly very close to Kouffa and who is, in a formal sense, Kouffa’s superior in the jihadist hierarchy.
Is there anything that could be negotiated? At the level of ideals, no – Mali will not become an Islamic state, Mali will not formally allow the creation of an autonomous jihadist emirate within its territory, Mali will not expel the international community, etc. But more pragmatically, perhaps Ag Ghali and Kouffa could be swayed by the offer of a path back to normalcy: a deal whereby they renounce al-Qaida in return for a seat at the main negotiating table, or whereby they could enjoy a comfortable exile somewhere far away from Mali (exile beats dying in the desert).
To me, the reason to start talking is to allow some room for creativity – the talking itself, I think, could uncover an area where genuine negotiations are possible. You can’t necessarily determine in advance exactly how the talks would go, or what the areas of compromise would be. You have to hear at least a little bit of what the other side thinks.
The counter-arguments to negotiations are, of course, serious and compelling. Some observers and players justifiably worry that opening negotiations could empower the jihadists politically or even militarily. But I don’t see negotiations and military pressure as mutually exclusive. You can still hunt these people even as you talk to them through intermediaries.
Finally, a bit on Diallo: he is a major figure, both within the Peul community (where he heads an umbrella body of Peul associations) and nationally. He was president of Mali’s National Assembly from 1992-2002, i.e. during the first decade of Malian democracy.
Last month, he gave a fascinating interview (French) where he discussed, among other things, the roots of Kouffa’s appeal – in Diallo’s view, Kouffa has benefited from his own eloquence, but also from broader socioeconomic problems such as unemployment among people educated in Arabic, rather than in French. In that interview, Diallo explained why he favors negotiations with jihadists:
Every time that the State really put itself forward, the State succeeded in halting the rebellions. So I think that a State that decides to talk straight, to speak the truth to all who are rebelling, and to speak with them, cards on the table, and to only commit itself to doing what it can do, that State can totally recover authority in central Mali, in eastern Mali. And that’s why you heard that heartfelt cry from hundreds of participants at the Conference of National Understanding who are sorry that the Peace Accord is not able to stop the bloodshed.
So, let’s talk with those who are presumed to be responsible for the bloodshed today. Let’s talk with Iyad Ag Ghali, let’s talk with Amadou Kouffa. Let’s try to know what’s necessary to do, without losing sight of the fact that the former president of the National Assembly, which I am, can only wish for a secular State, a democratic State, a State that will commit to the path of being just, being upright.
On Sunday, June 18, an estimated nine gunmen attacked the Kangaba tourist resort in Dougourakoro, which is east of Mali’s capital Bamako (map). The resort is popular with expatriates. According to Reuters, four of the attackers were killed, five were arrested, and at least five guests at the resort were killed (“a French-Malian, a French-Gabonese, a Chinese, a Portuguese and a Malian soldier”). The attack ended when Malian, French, and United Nations forces mounted a hostage rescue – and in contrast to previous incidents, this time there was praise from various quarters for the speedy response by authorities. (Read more on the response here, in French.)
A claim of responsibility (Arabic) soon came from Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). JNIM, an umbrella group for Malian and Saharan jihadists, formed in March of this year. It is part of al-Qaida’s northwest African affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. JNIM’s statement emphasizes the idea that the attack targeted “the Crusaders occupying our homes and violating our security and our identity.” JNIM added that the attack was meant “to announce…once again to the Crusaders that there is no safety for them on our land.” Not much subtlety there: JNIM wants to weaken the will of Western expatriates to live in Mali, work with the Malian government, train Mali’s armed forces, etc. The attack is in keeping with the strategy laid out this spring by JNIM’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who hopes in part “to exhaust the enemy by targeting him in every place in which he is present.”
Several analysts have also pointed out that JNIM identified three of its fighters and explicitly identified them as part of the Fulani/Peul, a widespread ethnic group in the Sahel. One key component of JNIM is the central Malian jihadist group the Macina Liberation Front, which is Fulani-led and heavily Fulani in composition. (Read some background on central Malian jihadism here.) The statement’s ethnic emphasis also hearkens backs to Ag Ghali’s articulated strategy, where he speaks of the necessity of building popular support.
Finally, in related news, the United Nations Security Council is expected to approve the deployment of a “G-5” (Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania) counter-terrorism force in the Sahel. The United States and France have reached an agreement that softened the original text of the resolution as proposed by France.
In April, I translated a few excerpts from an interview (.pdf, p. 4) given by Malian jihadist leader/politician Iyad Ag Ghali. In the earlier post I focused on the question of Ag Ghali’s religious views, to the extent that it is possible to assess them; here I translate another passage related to his military strategy for Mali, where the new jihadist formation he leads – Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, a part of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM) – has committed numerous attacks in recent months. Even though the interview is now two months old, I believe it has enduring relevance and I hope to translate another section or two some time this summer.
Here is the passage on military strategy:
Interviewer: You are active in a major way in Mali – how do you assess the forces of the French enemy and his agents, and what is your general policy in military action?
Ag Ghali: Among the most important elements we should mention about our general military strategy are:
- spreading over the largest geographical terrain possible;
- seeking to exhaust the enemy by targeting him in every place in which he is present, and inciting the people in that [effort] and mobilizing them for it;
- striving to earn popular support, strengthening relations with [the public] and defending it;
- employing the principle of guerrilla warfare in military action while using the style of organized warfare sometimes, in other words a combination of showing up or hiding, according to the circumstances.
God the Blessed and Exalted has granted success and has blessed this policy, and we ask Him for more of His Grace. And it’s possible to say – and God knows best – that the military situation is semi-stable, although the French enemy and those with him are centered in the largest cities with some land and air movements and sweeps. [They are] trying to exploit information and recruit spies and agents.
Three things stand out to me: the emphasis on “exhaustion,” the mention of “popular support,” and the general tone of confidence. All three themes point to a willingness on Ag Ghali’s part, and AQIM’s, to settle in for a long fight in Mali – or rather, to continue the long fight they have already begun. Militarily, I’m not sure how it can be anything but a stalemate in the short term; I do not believe Ag Ghali and AQIM will be able to recapture northern cities, let alone control all of Mali, but I also do not believe that the French and their allies will be able to completely root out the jihadist forces.