The Jihadist Merger in Mali and the Sahara

In early March, three jihadist groups in Mali and the Sahara released a video announcing that they have merged into a new group called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The jihadist groups involved are:

  • the northern Malian Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith or, if you prefer, Supporters of Religion),
  • the central Malian Masina Liberation Front (where Masina refers to an early nineteenth-century Muslim polity whose theological outlook has little in common with contemporary jihadism),
  • and the Saharan “emirate” of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including al-Murabitun Battalion.

The leader of the new group is Iyad Ag Ghali (b. mid-1950s), a Malian national and leader of Ansar al-Din. Ag Ghali’s career has been extremely complex, but one might summarize it crudely in two phases: a career as a relatively mainstream rebel (albeit with growing jihadist ties) until early 2012, and then a career in open jihadism since 2012. Other jihadist commanders appearing in the video are, from the viewer’s left to right:

  • Amadou Kouffa, a Malian national who is leader of the Masina Liberation Front and a long-time associate of Ag Ghali
  • Yahya Abu al-Hammam/Djamel Okacha, an Algerian national who has been emir of AQIM’s Saharan battalions since 2012
  • Al-Hasan al-Ansari, deputy leader of al-Murabitun, AQIM’s most prominent battalion
  • and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, the “judge” of AQIM’s Saharan emirate

Many of the most important points about the video have already been made by Yvan Gichaoua here (French). Key points include the video’s emphasis on global jihadist (rather than local political) themes, and its strong message placing these Saharan groups under Al-Qaida’s banner, with specific pledges of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQIM’s overall emir Abd al-Malik Droukdal, and the Taliban’s Mullah Hibatullah. Gichaoua also points to the important fact that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous commander of al-Murabitun, is not in the video, perhaps because he is either dead or incapacitated. Gichaoua also remarks that the physical assemblage of these other leaders is striking in and of itself, given that the point of ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region is to disperse and weaken jihadist groups.

I would add three things:

  1. First, I see this as an administrative reorganization first and foremost. The move does not, it seems, either increase or decrease the number of jihadist fighters in the region. In other words, the groups are not necessarily greater now than the sum of their parts. So I would be skeptical of analyses proclaiming that this “changes the game.” After all, such administrative reorganizations are not new in the Sahara: AQIM has regularly promoted and demoted leaders, battalions have repeatedly broken off and rejoined, etc. Al-Murabitun has been involved in many such reorganizations: it originated as the merger of two breakaway AQIM units, which then subsequently rejoined AQIM. Moreover, Droukdal has had trouble – for years – imposing his will on the Sahara, and this reshuffle will not necessarily change that.
  2. Second, the anti-Islamic State message is not explicit, but neither is it hard to detect in the video. The video opens with the first part of Qur’an 3:103, “Hold firmly to God’s rope together and do not become divided.” That verse has been a key part of the Islamic State’s messaging to jihadis, as the Islamic State proclaims the need for unity. Jihadis pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, including breakaway units of AQIM, have invoked the verse to justify their decision to rally to the Islamic State’s banner. AQIM and its new (old) Saharan leader is making the same argument, except to say that al-Qaida should be the focal point of intra-jihadist unity. In that sense, the video may be aimed partly at defectors from AQIM to Islamic State, with the implication that they should rejoin the fold. That fits with prior AQIM statements, such as a 2016 interview with Abu al-Hammam (dead link, so I won’t post it) which frame the al-Qaida/Islamic State conflict as a kind of family dispute.
  3. Even if the video didn’t concentrate on local politics, the new group undoubtedly will continue attempting to insert itself and its violence in local northern Malian politics. Al-Sanhaji (Arabic) recently released an audio statement threatening the new “joint patrols” in northern Mali. The joint patrols, which I wrote about here, were the target of a major suicide bombing in January. The patrols are an important element of the slow, painful implementation of a 2015 peace accord. Ag Ghali and his allies want peace to fail.

Roundup on Mali’s Iyad Ag Ghali

The northern Malian Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali has had a long and complex career. He is currently the head of Ansar al Din (Arabic: “Defenders of the Faith”), part of the Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali and a player in negotiations with the Economic Community of West African States. Throughout 2012, as crises have unfolded in Mali, news organizations, analysts, and other actors have profiled Iyad Ag Ghali with an eye towards attempting to understanding the role he plays in those crises, and the role he might play in Mali’s political future. Here are some key English-language biographical resources on the man and his career:

  • Wikipedia page.
  • At New York University’s The Revealer, Joe McKnight’s four-part series on Iyad Ag Ghali: read part one, part two, part three, and part four.
  • BBC (July 17, 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghaly – Mali’s Islamist Leader.”
  • France24 (June 29, 2012): “Mali’s Whisky-Drinking Rebel Turned Islamist Chief.”
  • AFP (April 5, 2012): “Mali Rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly: Inscrutable Master of the Desert.”
  • Foreign Policy (October 22, 2012): “The Man Who Brought the Black Flag to Timbuktu.”
  • Peter Beaumont (October 27, 2012): “The Man Who Could Determine Whether the West Is Drawn into Mali’s War.”
  • International Crisis Group (July 18 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghali’s Thwarted Personal Ambitions and the Islamist Agenda.” (pp. 12-13 in “Mali: Avoiding Escalation.”)

And a few French-language resources:

  • Slate Afrique (April 6, 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghaly, le Nouveau Maître Islamiste du Nord.”
  • RFI (July 18, 2012): “Au Mali, Iyad Ag Ghali Cherche à Redorer Son Image.”
  • Jeune Afrique (June 7, 2012): “Iyad Ag Ghali, la Charia a Tout Prix.”

What do you make of this man?

Africa News Roundup: Refugees in Darfur, Clinton and Nigeria, Meles Zenawi, Kenya’s Elections, and More

Darfur:

All 25,000 people living in a refugee camp in Sudan’s Darfur region have fled amid fighting between armed militia groups and Sudanese government forces, U.N. officials said Friday.

Many of the refugees have sought shelter in nearby Kutum town or the Zariba area, the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) said, but lack water, food and sanitation.

[…]

A UNAMID statement Monday said the violence began after an incident on August 1, when three armed men carjacked the local district commissioner and his driver and shot them dead.
“Subsequently, on the same day armed men surrounded Kassab, looted the market, burnt down the Sudanese Police post in the camp and reportedly killed four persons (three civilians and one police officer) and injured six others,” the statement said.
Security continued to deteriorate over the following days in Kutum town, Kassab camp and another camp, Fataborno, “including fighting between the armed elements and government forces, as well as looting and displacement of civilians,” it said.

Map of Kutum. And a story from IRIN: “Chad: Darfur’s Forgotten Refugees.”

A New York Times editorial on the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan:

Sooner rather than later, both sides also have to deal with even more fundamental challenges: improving governance, ending human rights violations and eradicating corruption. Sudan and South Sudan are inextricably intertwined. If the two can carry out the [recently announced oil transit] fee deal, they will have a better chance to resolve other critical issues.

AP reports that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Nigerian security officials to  “create an ‘intelligence fusion cell’ that would combine information from the military, spy services, police and other federal, state and local agencies.” The US is apparently ready to enhance its intelligence cooperation with Nigeria.

A video is circulating showing French hostages held by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole traveled to northern Mali this week to meet with Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of the Islamist militia Ansar al Din.

As rumors of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death circulate, the Ethiopian government says Meles will return from his sick leave in September. Think Africa Press asks, “What Might A Post-Meles Era Bring?”

Arrests of journalists in Djibouti.

Kenya:

Kenya needs to improve security to ensure that voters are not deterred by recent grenade and gun attacks and threats by a coastal separatist movement to disrupt the election due next March, the head of the electoral commission said on Friday.

What else is happening today?