Sahel: Smail Chergui and Antonio Guterres Open to Idea of Supporting Dialogue with Jihadists

On October 14, the African Union’s Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui, an Algerian diplomat, published an op-ed in Le Temps. He argued that strategies for the Sahel – he and others put the current count at more than 17 – need to be revisited and harmonized. As part of that argument, Chergui includes a section on “dialogue with extremists.” Chergui does not mention any specific groups, but he writes that “any innovative idea is welcome” when it comes to making peace, and that the February 2020 accord with the Taliban “can inspire our member states to explore dialogue with extremists and encourage them to lay down arms, particularly those who were recruited by force.”

Chergui’s remarks received coverage in Le Monde and elsewhere – Le Monde, appropriately, places the issue in the wider context of the debate in Mali about negotiations, a debate that dates back a long time but that gained some momentum after the Conference of National Understanding in 2017. That conference generated a recommendation to engage two key Malian nationals, Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa, in dialogue; ag Ghali and Kouffa were then, and are now even more so, the major leaders of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), a jihadist coalition that is part of al-Qaida’s hierarchy. More recently, the context for Chergui’s remarks include the hostage/prisoner exchange earlier this month before Mali’s transitional government and JNIM, events that I wrote about here and here.

On October 19, Le Monde published an interview with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in which he, too, expresses openness to the idea of dialogue with certain jihadists. He ruled out dialogue with the Islamic State’s affiliates, which would seem to leave JNIM. Guterres’ suggestion that certain jihadists “have an interest in engaging in this dialogue in order to become political actors in the future” is a really interesting one: this, of course, brings us back to the perennial question of what JNIM, and especially ag Ghali, might actually want in a political sense. Guterres’ comments were covered in the international Anglophone media as well as in Malian and Mauritanian outlets. People in the Sahel are definitely paying attention to what these major regional and international actors are saying on this topic.

My general take, as regular readers likely know, is that talking with jihadists is well worth doing, especially if negotiations can produce what I call “stabilizing settlements.”

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.

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

The formal head of Mali’s opposition, Soumaïla Cissé, was kidnapped on March 25 of this year and released on October 8. His kidnapping went unclaimed, but it is now completely clear that he was held by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). As Cissé indicates in this interview with Le Monde, he had no doubt about who his kidnappers were.

Cissé, as well as French national Sophie Pétronin and two Italian hostages, were then freed through a prisoner exchange between the Malian government and JNIM. Cissé says in the interview that he was not held together with these others, and it seems the Italians were held separately from Pétronin and that their release was negotiated largely through a separate channel. Meanwhile, Pétronin has said that she overheard JNIM’s execution of a Swiss hostage, Beatrice Stockly, at some point during her captivity.

What do we learn from the negotiations that freed Cissé and the others? Here in part one, I want to look at the main ex-rebel coalition in northern Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA). In part two, I will look at JNIM. (There is a brewing debate over competing claims about the role of France in the negotiations for the hostages generally and Pétronin specifically, but I’ll leave that to others to discuss, unless a burst of inspiration strikes later.)

In terms of the CMA and its role in mediating the prisoner exchange, the media spotlight has come to shine brightly on the politician Ahmada ag Bibi, who holds a variety of important roles in Mali and especially in the north:

  • leading figure within the Ifoghas, a cluster of “noble” clans within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation centered in the Kidal Region (northeastern Mali) – ag Bibi belongs to the Kel Afella (Wikileaks/leaked cable), the Ifoghas clan to which the Kel Adagh’s leading political lineage also belongs;
  • (former?) deputy for Abeibara constituency of the Kidal Region, elected in 2007, 2013, and re-elected in 2020 – although with the dissolution of the National Assembly following the August 18 coup, his elected status is in limbo at best;
  • senior leader within the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), the ex-rebel bloc that dominates Kidal and that is a signatory to the 2015 peace agreement for northern Mali, called the Algiers Accord;
  • past senior leader of several key armed movements in northern Mali, including the Democratic Alliance for Change (French acronym ADC), the group that launched the 2006 northern Malian rebellion, and Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith). The latter was a jihadist group that participated in the 2012 northern Malian rebellion and then came to dominate the north, together with allied jihadist groups, during roughly the second half of 2012 and up through the time of the French-led intervention in early 2013.

Ag Bibi’s path has overlapped substantially with that of Iyad ag Ghali, leader of the 1990 and 2006 rebellions, leader of Ansar al-Din, and now leader of JNIM. Since ag Bibi and others formally broke with Ansar al-Din in January 2013 on the eve of the French-led intervention, various voices have asserted that the breakaway faction under its various names and structures (Islamic Movement of Azawad, then High Council for the Unity of Azawad or HCUA, which is now the leading political bloc within the CMA) have continued to represent ag Ghali’s interests – at the negotiating table, in politics more broadly, and even within the military power struggle in Kidal and in the north. Journalists and others have often pointed to ag Bibi specifically as ag Ghali’s most important interlocutor within the CMA.

Those claims now seem even stronger in light of ag Bibi’s central role in negotiating the release of Cissé and the other hostages. According to Le Point, Malian intelligence “activated” the channel between ag Bibi and ag Ghali in July. Then Colonel Ibrahim Sanogo, director of counterterrorism intelligence, participated in the final negotiations (see below).

New profiles of ag Bibi are now appearing in the Francophone press, including this one at L’Opinion. That piece makes some bold claims that are difficult to verify and assess, including the claim that ag Ghali and ag Bibi are regularly seen together at a military hospital in Algeria’s capital Algiers, and that ag Bibi is well-paid for his role as an intermediary between ag Ghali and others, including in these negotiations over hostages. The piece also includes the unfortunate description of ag Bibi as “rather withdrawn, without empathy or apparent sociability.” I think here the author may be witnessing a certain style of carrying oneself, a style I have encountered among other Tuareg leaders (and in other contexts), and then mistaking that for a personality trait. The L’Opinion piece, meanwhile, raises the question of ag Bibi’s relationship with Algeria. The author argues that the Algerian authorities had an interest in facilitating and supervising a prisoner exchange that could ultimately – according to the author – help to calm tensions in the Mali-Algeria borderlands. The claim that ag Bibi is an Algerian agent appears even more strongly in this piece. I always find such claims really hard to assess: on the one hand, Algeria’s role in Malian and northern Malian affairs appears very substantial, and that dates back years to say the least; on the other hand, some analysts appear to go too far in attributing sweeping influence to Algeria.

I have met and interviewed ag Bibi twice. Both times I was significantly outmatched, in terms of shaping the conversation, and I think that’s important to acknowledge. One of the biggest and most bullshit assumptions in political science and even sometimes in anthropology is that from graduate school on, the Western academic is some super-savvy and cynical interviewer who knows how to glean deep truths from interviewees and then construct sophisticated maps of societies and conflicts based on the resulting data. It’s pretty ridiculous to think that I, an academic in my mid-30s, would be able to outmaneuver a career politician (in his 50s?) who has fought in and survived three rebellions, won election after election despite shifting circumstances, and who undertakes God knows what kind of balancing act between rebels, governments, intelligence agencies, constituents, and jihadists. So when you see political scientists saying, “Oh yeah, X and Y factors cause/end civil wars,” take it with a fat grain of salt.

In my interviews with ag Bibi, and particularly in the first one, I could not tell whether I was indirectly hearing ag Ghali’s perspective. Ag Bibi had a central talking point in each of the interviews, and he repeatedly steered each conversation back to that talking point. In the first conversation, the talking point was “Kidal needs a special status within Mali, and until it gets that special status, problems will continue” (my paraphrase). I asked a lot of questions in that interview about ag Ghali, about Ansar al-Din, about the events of 2012-2013, and ag Bibi in each answer emphasized Kidal’s status. So was the centrality of Kidal’s “special status,” in ag Bibi’s responses, an oblique way of hinting at what ag Ghali might ultimately want? I had no conclusive answer then and I do not have one now. The question of what ag Ghali sees as the end state of this conflict, or whether he has any end state in mind, is an open one for me.

The negotiations over the hostages seem to have boosted different actors’ appetites for broader negotiations with JNIM. Cissé, for his part, said in the above-cited interview, “We should not be stubborn. I, for example, have never refused to establish a dialogue with Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa [the other key JNIM leader]. To dialogue is not to approve. And in Mali’s current situation, we have to find alternatives to the dominant thinking.” The prisoner exchange comes in a context where many are wondering about the status of the negotiations or notional negotiations that both now-ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and JNIM alluded to in, respectively, February and March of this year. How have the junta that overthrew Keïta, and now the transitional structure that has replaced/incorporated the junta, handled that particular portfolio? The fate of the broader dialogue remains unclear.

Ag Bibi’s role in the negotiations, meanwhile, revives the issue of what ties exist between the CMA as a whole and JNIM as a whole, beyond just the personal-political relationship between ag Bibi and ag Ghali. One relevant data point is, obviously, the United Nations Security Council sanctions against particular CMA leaders, members, and associates over their alleged collaboration with JNIM. These allegations are further discussed in various UN Panel of Experts reports on Mali. Such sanctions and accounts have reinforced many observers’ views that there is systematic coordination between the CMA and JNIM, but the claim of organizational alignment/partnership is certainly much harder to prove than individual instances of coordination.

Such questions take on additional weight now that CMA members, namely Mohamed Ould Mahmoud and Moussa Ag Attaher, have entered the transitional government as ministers. The portfolios they took – Agriculture and Sports, respectively – are not implicated in questions of negotiations and security. The key portfolios remain in the hands of the (ex-?) junta and the military. Yet the junta and new Prime Minister Moctar Ouane clearly took the CMA into account when assembling the new cabinet and when thinking about the transition more broadly. And the CMA, and ag Bibi specifically, seem to want, or at a minimum seem to accept, some credit for the negotiations around the hostages. Ag Bibi did not, I think, have to allow himself to be photographed or openly identified as the lead negotiator. Nor did Colonel Sanogo of Malian intelligence have to allow himself to be photographed alongside ag Bibi (see the bottom photo, where ag Bibi is second from left, and where Sanogo is, I believe, third from left, between ag Bibi and Cissé):

Various analyses of the prisoner exchange have emphasized how JNIM, and ag Ghali specifically, stand to benefit politically from having secured the liberation of over 200 people. The CMA also stands to benefit, in terms of its image and its support in the north, and not just through the return of suspected jihadists and others, but also through the departure of JNIM’s hostages. Ag Bibi argued, as quoted/paraphrased in Le Point, that Pétronin was widely respected in the Gao Region due to her charitable work there. Many of the region’s notables petitioned ag Ghali to release her – her continued detention in JNIM’s hands, in other words, was seemingly becoming a kind of political liability for JNIM and ag Ghali not just vis-a-vis Bamako or Paris but vis-a-vis Gao, Bourem, Ansongo, and elsewhere. If ag Ghali is now being celebrated in some quarters of the north as a champion for getting his people out of prison, the CMA may also be earning some praise as the intermediary that secured the release of several well-respected figures.

Regarding Cissé, it is true that his electoral performances in the north were relatively weak in 2013 and 2018, when he was runner-up in successive presidential elections; yet electoral tallies may not capture the full extent of his popularity, and he had no trouble getting elected (even from captivity) as a deputy in the Niafunké district of Timbuktu, with more than 60% of the vote in the first round. The CMA has not been shy about getting their picture taken with Cissé since his release:

It’s worth emphasizing, finally, that many of the prisoners released by the government appear not to be senior jihadists, and some are perhaps not even jihadists at all, but rather people swept up in security crackdowns or caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. If ag Ghali derives political capital from securing their release, the CMA would seem to as well.

How to sum up? The CMA’s crucial role in these negotiations confirms that, at a minimum, CMA leaders appear to be the best-positioned figures within Mali when it comes to contacting ag Ghali and delivering concrete outcomes. Negotiating anything broader than a prisoner exchange or ransom payment, however, would be exponentially more complicated. Meanwhile in my view it is pertinent to emphasize/argue that the CMA is not merely a front for ag Ghali and JNIM – they have their own interests, they are themselves internally heterogeneous ethnically and ideologically, and CMA leaders’ broader actions show that they clearly do not want to jeopardize the Algiers Accord, their own ability to win seats in the Malian parliament or in eventual northern regional elections, or their legitimacy within the international arena in terms of being received in Washington, New York, or elsewhere. The CMA and JNIM: close enough to work together on goals, seemingly somewhat or more than somewhat intertwined, but not identical by any means.

Ansar Dine Was Not a Front Group for AQIM

Ansar Dine or Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith, or Supporters of the Religion) was a jihadist group formed in Mali in either late 2011 or early 2012, depending on which sources you consult. The group played one of the leading roles in the northern Malian rebellion of 2012 and in the jihadist emirate-building project that followed. In 2017, Ansar al-Din united with several other jihadist units to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), the most important jihadist formation in the Sahel today.

From the moment of its creation and even before, Ansar al-Din had a substantial relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), some of whose units are part of JNIM; within al-Qaida’s global hierarchy, AQIM also stands between JNIM and al-Qaida core in the chain of command.

But the relationship was and is multi-faceted. And I’ve been dismayed to see numerous analyses, including a few I’ve read recently, refer to Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM.

Here are five reasons why this is wrong.

Before talking specifically about Ansar al-Din and AQIM, we need a definition of “front group.” Here is one dictionary definition of “front organization”: “an organization that acts as the face of another organization or group, for example a crime group or intelligence agency, in order to conceal the activities of that organization or group.” With that in mind, let’s turn to five facets of the relationship between Ansar al-Din and AQIM:

1. Ansar al-Din and AQIM openly worked together in 2012.

In 2012, virtually all serious reporting and analysis of Ansar al-Din noted that the group was working with AQIM and with AQIM’s offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Here is one example, and here is another. I have read nothing that suggests Ansar al-Din took pains to disguise this cooperation, and former Ansar al-Din leaders I have interviewed (see below) have acknowledged dispassionately that some of them had direct contact with AQIM leaders in 2012.

All of this undercuts the idea that Ansar al-Din was a front group. By definition, the front is meant to minimize or eliminate any perception of closeness between the sponsor and the front. If the mafia opens a restaurant, they do not call it “The Mafia Restaurant.” If the mafia wants a front, they do not create another mafia that works directly with the parent mafia. If an intelligence agency creates an NGO, they do not call it “Spies Doing Propaganda,” and then openly staff the NGO with intelligence agents. Ansar al-Din, particularly at the level of its leader Iyad ag Ghali, left virtually no distance between itself and AQIM by the summer of 2012.

2. The circumstances of Ansar al-Din’s creation suggest that key actors were improvising rather than executing carefully laid plans.

Numerous sources, including key northern Malian politicians I’ve interviewed as well as some of the reporting from 2012 (example) and subsequent analyses (example), point to meetings at Zakak in far northern Mali in October 2011 as a pivotal episode on the road to the rebellion. Although not all sources agree on exactly what happened at Zakak, all serious sources agree that Iyad ag Ghali was present, that Ansar al-Din had not yet been formed at that time, and that ag Ghali tried and failed to get something from the nascent separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA).

The version of events at Zakak that Andy Morgan relates conforms to several other versions I have heard, and represents what I take to be the most accurate narrative:

The story goes that Iyad Ag Ghali came to the meetings at the Zakak base in October, and put himself forward as a candidate for the post of Secretary General of the MNLA. However, his candidacy was rejected, due to his past silences and obscure dealings with the governments of Mali and Algeria. Instead, the post was filled by Bilal Ag Acherif, a cousin of [the influential, recently deceased rebel leader] Ibrahim Ag Bahanga. There was an overwhelming sense that this time round the movement needed fresh thinking at the top, independent of Algerian, Malian or Libyan meddling and that all the half measures of the past, the broken treaties brokered by one or other of the regional powers, the compromises and the stalling had to stop. This time, it was full independence or nothing.

After being turned down the MNLA leadership at Zakak, Iyad Ag Ghali also presented himself to an important meeting of the leaders of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs, in Abeibara north of Kidal. There he proposed that he become the political head of the clan and be allowed to pursue an Islamist vision of an independent Azawad. Once again his candidature was rejected, and instead Alghabass Ag Intallah as chosen as the new political leader of the Ifoghas, in place of his ageing and infirm father.

Only after these two rejections did ag Ghali create Ansar al-Din.

To fully capture the dynamics at play would require delving into ag Ghali’s biography, but suffice it to say that his non-jihadist roles in the 1990 and 2006 rebellions, and the broader arc of his career, greatly complicate any story that positions Ansar al-Din as a front group for AQIM. Even if one believes (and there is good reason to believe, although there are also some plausible counterarguments against it) that ag Ghali became an ideologically committed hardline jihadist over the years between the mid-1990s and 2012, it would still be a stretch to say that ag Ghali was executing a master plan to create a jihadist front group in late 2011. Ansar al-Din’s creation appears to have been a Plan B for him, and some of the powerful support it attracted also appears to have represented the improvisatory reactions of key figures to the creation of MNLA. I suppose one could argue that AQIM seized the opportunity on short notice to create a front group in the form of Ansar al-Din, but I think narratives that foreground ag Ghali’s agency are much more compelling. I think ag Ghali turned to AQIM as an ally, building on his longstanding connections to them through the Saharan kidnapping economy and through family and social ties, rather than AQIM designating ag Ghali as its point man for a front group.

3. In 2012-2013, Ansar al-Din included major northern Malian politicians who knew what they were doing by temporarily joining

Another wrinkle in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a front group is that major northern Malian politicians joined it very early on in 2012 and remained part of it until the French Operation Serval, a military intervention to end jihadist control of the north, began in January 2013. These politicians included:

  • Alghabass ag Intalla – former parliamentary deputy, son of the late aménokal or paramount hereditary ruler of the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation in Mali’s Kidal Region, brother to the current aménokal, and a prominent leader within the Coordination of Azawad Movements or CMA, the ex-rebel bloc that currently controls Kidal and that is a signatory to the 2015 Algiers Accord;
  • Ahmada ag Bibi, a key leader in the 2006 rebellion and current parliamentary deputy for Abeibara, Kidal Region, now also high within the CMA;
  • Mohamed ag Aharib, another veteran of past rebellions and a seasoned negotiator of past peace agreements as well as the 2015 Algiers Accord; and
  • Cheikh ag Aoussa (d. 2016), a major Kidal powerbroker.

My own understanding of Ansar al-Din is that it was a thoroughly hybrid organization, comprising hardened jihadists on the one hand and mainstream (in the context of Kidal) politicians on the other hand. I think the latter camp knew what they were doing when they joined Ansar al-Din – their degree of sympathy for the jihadist project is debatable, but some of them have also said up front (in interviews with me and others) that they joined Ansar al-Din because they felt it was better organized and more militarily effective than the MNLA. Note too that when it became politically toxic for them to be part of Ansar al-Din, namely after Operation Serval began, they got out – and transitioned into helping create the CMA.

This brings us to a core question: If Ansar al-Din was a front group for AQIM, and if the purpose of a front group is to mislead people about the relationship between the front group and the sponsor, who was being misled in 2012? It could not have been the many journalists and analysts mentioned above, who documented Ansar al-Din’s collaboration with AQIM. It could not have been ordinary northern Malians, many of whom experienced first-hand the violence of jihadist rule and witnessed Ansar al-Din working with AQIM – or who voted with their feet by getting out. It could not have been the international community, the Malian government, or regional governments, who negotiated with ag Ghali both directly and through figures such as ag Intalla, and who repeatedly asked ag Ghali to sever his ties to al-Qaida. So was it, then, the northern Malian politicians themselves? Were they duped? I think that’s an impossible argument to sustain, given how adroitly they moved in and then out of Ansar al-Din. Who used whom?

Olivier Walther and Dimitris Christopoulos published a very strong article in 2014 after undertaking a social network analysis of the northern Malian rebellion of 2012. They highlighted ag Ghali’s key role as a “broker” between AQIM and the northern Malian politicians. Yet this should not be taken to mean that there was some kind of wall between AQIM and those politicians. Ag Bibi told me that at a meeting at ag Intalla’s house in Kidal in 2012, the Kidal elite asked AQIM’s Saharan Emir Nabil Abu Alqama (d. 2012) and AQIM to leave Kidal, an order with which Abu Alqama reportedly complied – pointing not just to contact between the politicians and AQIM, but to the former’s relative power over the latter in certain areas and circumstances (although ag Ghali ultimately went in a direction the other northern Malian politicians rejected and regretted). In any case it is clear that figures such ag Intalla and ag Bibi did not approach their roles within Ansar al-Din as though it were an AQIM front group. And any argument that they got played would, again, be undercut by the political success they had before, during,* and after their time in Ansar al-Din.

*They survived the war, physically and politically, and emerged with their positions as key political powers in Kidal intact. That has to count as a kind of success.

4. AQIM’s internal tensions in 2012 precluded any one-to-one, sponsor-to-front group relationship.

I suppose analysts use the idea of “front group” as a kind of shorthand, but there is real danger of falling into what political scientists call the “unitary actor” fallacy – the projection of unity and coherence onto internally divided factions. AQIM was at the height of its internal divisions in 2011-2012 – MUJWA broke away in late 2011, the AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar broke away in late 2012, and in between (and beforehand) there was plenty of infighting and insubordination. The late AQIM Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel’s recovered letter to subordinates in Mali, advising (pleading with?) them to take a softer tack, is relatively famous if you study these events.

So if Ansar al-Din was a front group, who in AQIM was managing it? I suppose the answer might be that it was one of AQIM’s prominent Mali-based field commanders, Abdelhamid Abu Zayd, on behalf of Droukdel and the organization as a whole. Yet the relationship between Abu Zayd and ag Ghali appears to have been one of equals. And if the tensions between Droukdel and Belmokhtar, and between Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar, are the best-known aspects of AQIM’s infighting circa 2012, there also seem to have been points of tension between Abu Zayd and Droukdel – the actions Droukdel advised against in that famous letter are all things that Abu Zayd oversaw. And recall that Ansar al-Din cannot be understood as a unitary actor either. So instead of a sponsor managing a front group, you have two complex, internally divided organizations relating to each other in complicated ways mediated by interpersonal relationships that were never as clear-cut as boss-to-employee. This is not, again, the mafia managing a laundromat.

5. Ansar al-Din’s leader Iyad ag Ghali has benefited just as much from his relationship with AQIM as AQIM has from its relationship with him.

In a sponsor-to-front group relationship it would seem surprising for the front group to eventually begin to displace the sponsor and to reframe even the sponsor’s own agenda. Ag Ghali has now outlived both Abu Zayd (d. 2013) and Droukdel (d. 2020), and there is a fairly widespread feeling among analysts and journalists that JNIM, which ag Ghali leads, is now more prominent and more important than AQIM, which at the moment nobody (publicly) leads. Additionally, JNIM’s pursuit of negotiations with the Malian government, however halting and flawed, is a far cry from AQIM’s original agenda of overthrowing alleged “apostate” regimes across North (and later West) Africa. Do I think ag Ghali will one day renounce jihadism and take up a post in the CMA, or show up in Bamako as a deputy in parliament? No, probably not. But do I think he has been a puppet for AQIM? Again, no. At every point from late 2011 to the present, he seems to have taken his own decisions. You could argue that since he formed Ansar al-Din, AQIM may have been able to hold a sword over his head – once you get in, you can never get out, effectively. But the notion of ag Ghali as AQIM’s subordinate, a notion implicit in the idea of Ansar al-Din as a “front group” for AQIM, is not convincing to me. And recall that other key JNIM leaders, notably Amadou Kouffa in his August 2017 audio message regarding the idea of negotiations, referred to ag Ghali as the real decision maker. Ag Ghali is managing a web of relationships that he knows extremely well on the very turf where he grew up, where he has long fought, and where AQIM’s Algerian leaders (whoever remains of them) are ultimately outsiders.


Why does all this history matter? Because I don’t think it’s very productive to talk about jihadist “front groups” at all. To me, the term is too reductive – it sands away history, it sands away agency, and it leaves the impression of rigid jihadist hierarchies comprised of unitary actors. That picture does not fit with my understanding of the complex histories at play in the Sahel since 2012.

Logistical Details and (Competing?) Accounts of the Droukdel Strike

On June 3, the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, was apparently killed in northern Mali. I have written here about his presumed death, and I gave some background on his career here. In this post I want to discuss some of the emerging conversation about how he was tracked and (again, presumably) killed.

The original announcement of Droukdel’s death, an announcement made on June 5, came from French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, who said merely, “On June 3, the French Armed Forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.”

Press coverage of the operation placed the strike’s location at “the Ourdjane wadi (river bed), two kilometers south of the village of Talhandak, in the immense desert expanse of the great Malian north. Situated 80 kilometers east of Tessalit as the crow flies and 20 kilometers south of the Algerian border, the wadi was the site of ‘a meeting’ between leaders of AQIM, according to a local source interviewed by AFP.”

Details are emerging about the American role, which may have been substantial. In a June 8 statement, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said, “As a partner in this French-led mission, and as an example of our continued cooperation and partnership to counter a common threat, U.S. Africa Command provided intelligence and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance support” for the operation.

The American role may have gone beyond intelligence and surveillance, however. Le Figaro‘s Georges Malbrunot, in a Twitter thread starting here, cites an anonymous diplomat without giving his/her nationality. According to this source, the U.S. identified Droukdel’s voice and located him when Droukdel placed a phone call, and then turned that information over to the French. According to the same source, an American drone fired the first shots at Droukdel’s convoy, lighting the way for French helicopters that then destroyed the convoy. French commandos then collected DNA samples, which were matched (in Paris) with DNA samples from Droukdel’s family collected by the Algerian authorities. (It’s kind of wild to me that Droukdel would talk on the phone – one would have assumed he would know better.)

Malbrunot refers to a convoy – but was there only one vehicle on the ground?

Malbrunot uses the first image as well; perhaps there was only one vehicle, or perhaps the vehicles in the convoy were spread out and the others are simply not visible in that first image. Another question I have is whether these images contradict the idea that the convoy was destroyed from the air.

The role of Algeria has also been a subject of intense discussion. Geoff Porter, who travels frequently to Algeria and has deep connections there, included in his analysis the following blunt sentences:

It is likely that Algeria always knew where Droukdel was and it is equally likely that Algeria allowed Droukdel to travel south from northeastern Algeria across the border into Mali. (This appears to be an extension of a strategy that Algeria embraced in the 2009-2011 timeframe – namely, solving Algeria’s terrorism problem by allowing terrorists to leave the country. You don’t have to quit jihad, but you can’t jihad here.) It was more convenient and more valuable for Algeria to allow France to eliminate Droukdel once he had quit Algerian territory: Algeria accrues ample diplomatic capital in Paris and Washington by delivering Droukdel, but it avoids both having to undertake the mission itself or permit a foreign military to operate within Algerian territory (VERBOTEN!) . It’s a win-win for Algiers: Droukdel is gone, Algerian sovereignty remains uncompromised, and Operation Barkhane and AFRICOM can chalk up an HVT [High Value Target] kill.

The paragraph is unsourced, or to put it differently, Porter is the source. I have long found his analysis extremely compelling and reliable, but obviously these are major claims and various major implications follow from them – your mileage may vary.

Relatedly, the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu offers a series of questions about Droukdel’s seeming ability to traverse Algerian territory, Algerian official silence on his death, and what this may reveal about other jihadists’ relationships with Algeria:

Algerian officials’ silence regarding Droukdel’s death rekindles questions about the protection enjoyed by the Malian Iyad ag Ghali, the Sahel’s most powerful jihadist, leader since 2017 of the coalition “Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims,” itself affiliated to al-Qaida. In a very well-document July 2018 investigation, Le Monde revealed that ag Ghali had sometimes sheltered in Algerian territory,  whether with his family in Tin Zaouatine, or in a hospital in Tamanrasset (where he had, for that matter, escaped a Western attempt at “neutralization”). Such facilities, which are necessarily impossible to admit, relate to a non-aggression pact and have effectively allowed for protecting the Algerian Sahara from jihadist attacks. More broadly, the Algerian authorities, who had failed in 2012 to sponsor an accord between ag Ghali and Bamako, are counting this time on a successful mediation in northern Mali, even if it means legitimizing the jihadist groups.

These, too, are very strong claims about Algeria’s role in all this. I have heard similar perspectives in Bamako, but verifying this is – at least for me – difficult. And the implications sort of boggle the mind, if you play it all out. If you start to assume that the Algerians protect ag Ghali and that France knows that and that France is pursuing a counterterrorism mission in northern Mali that is effectively bounded by rules set by Algeria, and and and…The train of thought can take you to some very dark places, actually, which is maybe why I personally don’t often follow it (or perhaps that’s a cop-out on my part).

Finally, it is striking, or perhaps not so striking, that the key actors discussed in the coverage are all non-Malian: that is, the Malian state appears to have played no appreciable role in the strike, and neither did the vaunted G5 Sahel Joint Force. I have not even read any references so far as to whether the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), the de facto authority in the Kidal Region (where the strike occurred) had any role whatsoever in the raid. When the chips are down and a “high value target” is at stake, it appears clear that Paris (and Washington) regard Bamako as a junior partner.

On the Reported Death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel

On June 5, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced, “On June 3, French forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the Emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.” I would regard this claim as about 90-95% reliable. The French government infamously waxed too confident in late 2018 when claiming to have killed the Malian jihadist leader Amadou Kouffa, who turned up alive in early 2019. However, United States Africa Command or AFRICOM has announced that it has “confirmed Droukdal’s death in an independent assessment.” The journalist Wassim Nasr also reports that an AQIM source confirmed Droukdel’s death. No official eulogy has yet appeared, but again, it seems highly likely that France’s claims are accurate in this instance.

Droukdel (transliterated spellings vary), also known as Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, had been the top leader or emir of AQIM since 2004, when the group was still called the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). Biographies of Droukdel can be found in various places and they should all be treated with a bit of caution. One detailed biography comes from Jeune Afrique (French). According to this and various other sources, Droukdel was born in 1970 in Meftah, Algeria (map). Embracing jihadism around 1994, Droukdel fought in Algeria’s civil war and ultimately landed in the GSPC. He was a longtime associate of one of the GSPC’s architects, Hasan Hattab, who served as the group’s emir from 1998-2003 before being dethroned in an internal coup; Droukdel was also a protege of Nabil al-Sahrawi/Mustafa Abu Ibrahim, whose death at the hands of Algerian security forces led to Droukdel’s succession. Droukdel played a key role in bringing the GSPC into al-Qaida’s formal orbit, especially between 2003 and 2007, the year the GSPC changed its name to AQIM.

In terms of Droukdel’s public pronouncements, Aaron Zelin has painstakingly compiled many of Droukdel’s statements here, covering the period 2005-2020. For an English-language exposition of the jihadist leader’s views, see Droukdel’s 2008 interview with the New York Times. A 2005, Arabic-language interview he did with the jihadist platform Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad also offers substantial insight into his thinking.

Some key events that occurred during Droukdel’s tenure as AQIM emir include the following:

  • The December 2007 suicide bombings targeting the Constitutional Court and two United Nations buildings in Algiers, Algeria;
  • The rise of a kidnapping economy in the Sahara, especially between 2008 and 2013;
  • The circa October 2011 defection of a breakaway jihadist group whose name is usually translated as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA);
  • The 2011 Arab Spring, which saw efforts by AQIM to insert itself more fully into Tunisia and Libya, although with what I would call only modest and fleeting successes;
  • The approximately June 2012-January 2013 jihadist emirate in northern Mali, in which AQIM was a key player; that project and its attempt at southward expansion triggered France’s ongoing military intervention in Mali;
  • The December 2012 breakaway of key Saharan AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, after years of tension with Droukdel and with another Saharan field commander, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, who died in 2013 during the initial French intervention;
  • The 2014-2015 rise of the Islamic State, which brought a fairly unsuccessful breakaway group from AQIM in northern Algeria called Jund al-Khilafa, and a much longer-lived breakaway group from Belmokhtar’s forces (hence a breakaway from a breakaway of AQIM) that defied Belmokhtar, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and came to be known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS;
  • The late 2015 reintegration of Belmokhtar and some of the former MUJWA elements, who by then had formed a joint jihadist unit called al-Murabitun;
  • The 2015-2016 expansion of jihadism into Burkina Faso, with some attacks claimed by AQIM, including the January 2016 attack on the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou;
  • The March 2017 formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) as a coalition of AQIM’s Saharan units, al-Murabitun, and multiple units of the Mali-centric jihadist outfit Ansar al-Din (defenders of the faith).

Specifying the precise role that Droukdel as an individual played in these events, however, is difficult. First of all, common sense would seem to indicate that the higher one rises in a jihadist hierarchy, the more one becomes a target for precisely the kind of manhunt that killed Droukdel; the more of a target one becomes, the more precautions a leader is likely to take; and the more precautions that are taken, the more likely it is that decision-making will  be delegated downward as much as possible. Second, the far-flung geographical nature of AQIM’s project, and even of JNIM’s project, also worked against centralized control on Droukdel’s part. Note that the center of gravity for AQIM shifted to Mali and the Sahara-Sahel by 2012 at the latest and probably by the late 2000s, intermittent high-profile attacks in northern Algeria notwithstanding. Third, Droukdel’s control over what happened in the Sahara appears to have been challenged by his subordinates virtually from the beginning of his tenure. Most prominently, missives sent by Droukdel or on Droukdel’s behalf to his Saharan field commanders during the Malian emirate-building project in 2012 have become famous after the Associated Press recovered them in 2013; to me, the letters indicate that Droukdel could not discipline the perennially independent-minded Belmokhtar, or even the ostensibly more loyal Abu Zayd.

Following the French intervention in Mali in 2013, meanwhile, it seems to me that Ansar al-Din’s founder and JNIM’s current leader, Iyad ag Ghali, has been more important than Droukdel in setting the agenda for jihadist activity in Mali and Burkina Faso, theaters that have become much more important than Algeria for the trajectory of jihadism in northwest Africa. I am far from alone in my assessment of ag Ghali’s importance. If the symbolism of who comes to whom is any indication of relative importance, Droukdel was reportedly in Mali to meet ag Ghali. The analysis here has a few errors (for example, Droukdel succeeded al-Sahrawi as GSPC emir, as noted above, and not Hattab), but nevertheless makes some good points, including the following:

Having lost the battle for northern Algeria, without the support of the population and short on logistical means for pursuing his criminal activities, the terrorist leader resolved, with absolute discretion, to go reach a region acquired by and/or under domination of terrorist groups, the only lair more or less safe for him.

This analysis is, at the very least, plausible – although of course northern Mali did not turn out to be safe for Droukdel. The same piece goes on to say that “an inhabitant of the region, a collaborator of the French forces,” tipped the French off to Droukdel’s presence. Droukdel became vulnerable in part because his own inability to dictate events from afar forced him into the (relative) open. According to this article (French), which also relays the claim that Droukdel was on his way to a meeting, Droukdel was killed eighty kilometers east of Tessalit (map), just outside a village named Talhandak, inside Malian territory but roughly twenty kilometers from the border with Algeria. As Luca Raineri notes in a Twitter thread starting here, meanwhile, the accounts that have come out so far about Droukdel’s death leave a lot of questions – how long was he in Mali? How did he cross the Mali-Algeria border? How did he allow himself to be targeted, apparently unawares, in the deep desert?

Now, who succeeds Droukdel? Some analysts have argued that AQIM will begin to, or continue to, fade: one Algerian paper calls Droukdel “the last of the Algerian terrorist leaders” and describes AQIM as a “hollow shell.” That might be premature, although there are strong arguments that JNIM is now more important than its parent organization, and that with the death of Algerian national and AQIM commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam in February 2019, AQIM’s role even within JNIM has been diminishing. Some analysts have even suggested that AQIM might pledge allegiance to ISIS – I don’t think so, although no one has a crystal ball. More plausibly to me, the BBC’s Mina al-Lami made the case, in a Twitter thread starting here, that top AQIM cleric Yusuf al-Annabi is a likely successor to Droukdel, given his prominence in AQIM messaging over the past few years. My reservation about that line of analysis is that at least in the past, the top GSPC/AQIM leaders came from the ranks of field commanders and people with military/operational roles, rather than from among the group’s clerics. Then again, that pattern is not necessarily relevant now – after all, it has been roughly 16 years since AQIM faced a transition at the top.

France24, meanwhile, notes that the three most prominent jihadists in the Sahel – and, I would say, in northwest Africa as a whole – are now three non-Algerians: ag Ghali (a Malian national), JNIM’s Amadou Kouffa (also a Malian national), and ISGS’ Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi (from Western Sahara/Morocco). Their prominence does not mean that any of them is going to succeed Droukdel as head of AQIM, but it does suggest that Droukdel’s passing symbolizes the reality already mentioned above, namely that the jihadist project inside Algeria has been weak for years now.

In the Sahel, how relevant was Droukdel to events on the ground? The analyst Mathieu Pellerin put it starkly, and well: “You can kill all the jihadist leaders you want, that won’t prevent the children of the hundreds of civilians executed over a year from one day taking up arms to get revenge – be they jihadists, rebels, or others.” The same day that Parly announced Droukdel’s death, there was a massacre in Binédama, Koro District, in the Mopti Region of Mali – and the Malian armed forces stand accused of committing the killings. The incident is a grim reminder that there are drivers in the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and elsewhere that go very far beyond the dictates of Droukdel, or any leader for that matter.

Now, if I wake up tomorrow and see that ag Ghali or Kouffa has been killed, I will say it’s a huge deal; and I’m not saying that Droukdel’s death has no relevance (here I am writing nearly 2,000 words about it). But in the absence of clear evidence that Droukdel was micromanaging the conflicts in the Sahel, I see other actors as more important.

For the sake of self-promotion, I should say that I cover these different phases of the GSPC/AQIM’s career, and of Droukdel’s career, in my forthcoming book. The book covers events through 2019 – and now it’s increasingly looking like I’ll need to write an informal epilogue of sorts, covering all that’s happened (and will continue to happen) in 2020. One part of the book deals with debates among Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel about jihadist strategy – and part of the argument I make is that the jihadist project is ultimately futile (if the aim is to build a long-lasting jihadist state), and that jihadists’ debates with each other often dance around that point. Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel had very different ideas about how to approach the jihadist project – but now they all appear to be dead, providing a graphic illustration of how futile it all was and is for AQIM, however much the group waxes or wanes at any given moment. Droukdel’s main “accomplishment,” ultimately, was longevity – all other “accomplishments” proved fleeting.

Finally, Droukdel’s killing was not Florence Parly’s only announcement last week. MENASTREAM provides details about France’s announcement that it captured an ISGS commander on May 19 [Update – I’ve removed the post from MENASTREAM at his request, as he received new information. I’m replacing with a post from Parly.]

Thoughts on the Reported Death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam

According to the French Ministry of Defense, Operation Barkhane killed Yahya Abu al-Hammam and ten other members of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) on February 21 in the Timbuktu Region of Mali. The death of Abu al-Hammam, as the French noted, follows two other JNIM leaders’ (reported) deaths in roughly the past year: Amadou Kouffa, reportedly killed on the night of November 22-23, 2018 in the Mopti Region; and Abu Hasan al-Ansari, killed on February 14, 2018 in the Kidal Region.

If we look back to JNIM’s announcement video from March 2017, when JNIM formally brought together four (depending on how you count it) jihadist movements/units in the Sahara, we see that of the five men featured in the video, only two remain alive: JNIM’s overall leader Iyad ag Ghali, and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, a judge with JNIM’s parent organization al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).*

On one level, this acceleration in the decapitation of JNIM is a remarkable success for French counterterrorism. On another level, however, we can look at the same images from JNIM’s announcement video and see, vividly, the limits of decapitation. Abu al-Hammam and al-Ansari, after all, were not just deputies in JNIM but were themselves former deputies within individual movements and battalions. In a sense, Abu al-Hammam’s seat at the table might have gone to the AQIM battalion commander ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, had Abu Zayd not been killed by French and Chadian forces in February 2013. Al-Ansari’s seat at the table might have gone to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of al-Murabitun, had Belmokhtar not been killed (or at least forced to go into deep hiding) by a French airstrike in Libya in November 2016. Alternatively, al-Ansari’s seat might have gone to Ahmed al-Tilemsi, had the latter not been killed by French forces in Kidal Region in December 2014.

Last month I wrote a piece at War on the Rocks focusing on Abu al-Hammam’s long career in Timbuktu and analyzing some of the political opportunities and constraints he encountered. So I have some appreciation for the accumulated jihadist capital and expertise that he represented. His death is a major event in the history of jihadism in the Sahara, and it could even be taken as a symbol for the passing of a whole generation. And yet, Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar had formidable accumulated capital as well, in terms of local and translocal networks, local knowledge, symbolic resonance, and military and political experience. Were they irreplaceable?

The situation in Mali has deteriorated, I think, not so much due to personalities as to trends. Each successive stage in the deterioration of the conflict has activated new patterns of violence, as well as new developments in hyper-local politics. In a recent and insightful article, Yvan Guichaoua and Héni Nsaibia call attention to the ways that widely used lenses for viewing jihadist expansion in the Sahel – individual-level radicalization and jihadist exploitation of topography and geography – fail to capture the ways that interactions between communities and jihadists drive expansion. The success or failure of jihadist interactions with communities and groups may depend partly on the savviness of top leaders, but not entirely or even predominantly, especially once you get to village-level dynamics.

Additionally, the conflict has produced jihadist leaders even as jihadist leaders have fed conflict – for example, not to be completely Tolstoy-an in my view of history, but someone like Amadou Kouffa can be viewed as both an agent in and a product of the crisis in Mopti. It takes more than force of will or sharpness of intellect to turn a former itinerant preacher into the face of a mass movement. How many people outside of Mali had heard of Amadou Kouffa before 2015? Before 2012? How many Kouffas are rising through the ranks now, their names not yet infamous?

Were I in Barkhane’s shoes and thinking in military terms, of course I would focus on killing top jihadists. But as Andrew Lebovich has laid out, in a piece that delves into Kouffa’s life and his Janus-faced self-presentation as jihadist leader and would-be ethnic champion, the political opportunities created by decapitation are short-lived and hard to exploit. In the wake of Kouffa’s death, Lebovich urged the Malian government to disarm militias and also urged international actors to not only help the Malian state return to Mopti, but return in a way that elicits ordinary citizens’ buy-in. These are immense challenges and without political progress, Barkhane is likely to continue knocking off top commanders without reversing the wider deterioration. On that note, I have also written about how various actors inside and outside Mali appear relatively comfortable with the overall status quo.

Meanwhile I am, honestly, skeptical whether there is even a net gain from some of these counterterrorism operations. At some point, I think there will have to be dialogue between the Malian government and the jihadists, or at the very least a kind of quiet and tacit agreement to stop fighting. I worry that decapitation will breed fragmentation in jihadist ranks that makes dialogue and peace harder to achieve. And I worry that putting big Xs through photographs of top jihadists will be mistaken for a sign of overall progress. And finally, I think that foreign forces may be exacerbating violence through their very presence. I’m not sure France has much of a plan other than to keep killing jihadists, and that might take a long time to work, if it ever works.

*I assume al-Sanhaji is still alive, and could find no reports of his death – but readers, please correct me if I’m wrong.

Mali: Sharia in Kidal?

My title here is intentionally provocative – the reference is to a recent RFI article discussing new regulations handed down by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA, a bloc of ex-rebels) in Kidal, northeastern Mali, on 30 January. As of 19 February, the CMA was “backpedaling” (see below), but the issue remains a live and contentious one.

From the first RFI article, regarding the initial regulations:

The CMA, which has administered the city for many years, is taking charge of new sectors of security and justice, replacing the State. The rules are stricter: the sale and consumption of alcohol are henceforth forbidden, foreigners* must have a local guardian, and as for the role of Qadi or Islamic judge, it appears strengthened. The inability of the State to assume its responsibilities in northern Mali continues to pose a problem.

The full CMA declaration, signed by CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla, can be found here. Notably, a lot of the press coverage focused on the alcohol ban and restrictions on foreigners, but the declaration also devotes substantial attention to traffic issues and, in particular, says that armed motorcyclists and pedestrians will be brought before the Islamic tribunal and have their bikes and weapons destroyed. There is a a debate to be had over how much any Islamization at work here is    actually subordinate to the CMA’s bid for securitization; it might be going too far to say that the CMA is using Islam as a tool for taking greater physical control of Kidal, but at the very least one can say that Islamization/Qadi-fication is only one part of a larger ambition to expand the CMA’s roles in both security and non-security sectors (including health).

The RFI article caused a bit of controversy because it drew heavily on comments by the researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel, who has been criticized by other Mali specialists (Malian and non-Malian) for allegedly being too close to the CMA. For example:

(Translation: “With researchers like this, the CMA doesn’t need spokesmen any more.”)

My view, however, is that of Guichaoua:

The controversy over Bouhlel, I would say, is a microcosm of two larger debates – (a) have the CMA and Malian Tuareg/Arab rebels systematically obtained more favorable media coverage than they deserve? and (b) is the CMA more nefarious than it sometimes appears in the media?

In any case, there are some other dynamics to highlight here. Recently in one of the courses I’m teaching, civil wars, we discussed Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers and Paul Staniland’s “Wartime Political Orders.” To crude simplify things, one point Mampilly makes is that rebels (or ex-rebels?) develop governance models partly through interaction with civilian populations, whose preferences and needs can shape rebels’ decisions. This is what Bouhlel argues – namely, that the CMA is responding to civilian needs for greater security, and that the CMA is drawing on longstanding idioms of governance in the region. One point Staniland makes is that states and rebels (or ex-rebels?) negotiate different arrangements during wartime, including what Staniland terms “spheres of influence.” The CMA and the Malian government are constantly renegotiating their relationship and probing the limits of the other party’s influence (and these are not the only actors in northern Mali or even in Kidal, of course).

Here it’s worth noting that the CMA’s new rules are at least loosely grounded in the 2015 Algiers Accord, which mentions (.pdf, article 46, pp. 12-13) the “reassertion of the value of the role of Cadis [Qadis] in the administration of justice, notably in terms of civil mediation in a way that accounts for cultural, religious, and customary specificities.” Other actors, however, are unpersuaded that the CMA’s rules have any legitimacy – Ahmed Boutache, president of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (French acronym CSA), denounced the CMA’s rules as “a flagrant violation of the accord…and an infringement of the sovereign prerogatives of the government of the Republic of Mali.” I see these competing statements as not just legal disagreements but also, again, as a way that each side is probing the limits of the other’s authority and legitimacy.

This brings us back to the issue of the CMA’s “backpedaling,” with the CMA’s 19 February statement acknowledging the authority of the Malian state at the local level and expressing willingness for a dialogue over how to move forward on security and the role of the Qadis. Both the CMA and the state, I think, are in essence making offers and counteroffers amid an evolving and unstable situation.

One wishes, meanwhile, that one knew more about who exactly the Qadis were/are/will be:

Personnel, as they say, is policy.

A final point to consider, and one mentioned in the first RFI article linked above, is the issue of influence from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM). RFI quoted an anonymous official from Kidal denouncing the CMA’s new rules as a reflection of JNIM’s pernicious influence. The CMA, which includes some former members of Ansar al-Din, one of JNIM’s constituent parts, is regularly accused of maintaining contacts with JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali. But all of this brings us back to the question of what all these actors want – would ag Ghali be content with a “shari’a-compliant,” autonomous Kidal? Or does he want something more? And was the CMA channeling ag Ghali’s influence – or attempting to undercut it? I’ve tried to get at the complexity of “jihadist politics” in Timbuktu, but there is as much, if not more, to think about in terms of local Kidal dynamics as well.

*I think the CMA is referring to non-Malians here, but I wonder if there is a hint that all outsiders (Malian or non-Malian) could be required to have supervision.

Piece on Jihadism and Politics in Timbuktu for War on the Rocks

This is a belated post to promote an article I wrote last week for War on the Rocks, where I looked at whether the jihadist project has a “political ceiling,” so to speak, in Mali or elsewhere. I took the Timbuktu region as a case study. I also appeared on their “WarCast” (subscription required) to discuss the piece and the broader situation in Mali.

I welcome your comments!

Mali: A Wikileaks Nugget on Iyad ag Ghali and AQIM in 2006

In the course of research for a short piece I’m writing on jihadism in northern Mali, I stumbled across a March 2008 Wikileaks cable from U.S. Embassy Bamako. The whole cable is interesting for its analysis of tribal and clan dynamics in northern Mali, but one paragraph jumped out at me about Iyad ag Ghali, today the preeminent jihadist leader in northern Mali but as of 2006 still a mainstream rebel. The paragraph concerned ag Ghali’s interactions with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) amid the 2006 rebellion; the paragraph challenged my own understanding, which is that as of that time ag Ghali’s interactions with were limited to hostage negotiations rather than broader cooperation. Here it is:

Intra-Tuareg tensions also divided the ADC [Democratic Alliance for Change], Mali’s next large-scale Tuareg rebel movement (also led by the Ifogas Iyad ag Ghali) [Ifoghas is a cluster of “noble” clans within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation – AJT]. In late 2006 the ADC engaged with elements of what is now AQIM in northern Mali. ADC members who participated in the AQIM attacks later reported that ag Ghali had quietly directed fellow Ifogas to pull back just as the ADC prepared to attack AQIM. This forced the ADC’s Idnane and Taghat Melet members to face AQIM alone. Afterwards, Ifogas reportedly refused to help fellow Idnanes and Taghat Melets negotiate for the release of prisoners captured by AQIM. One disaffected ADC member, who said he was eventually forced to speak with AQIM leader [Mokhtar] Bel Moctar directly to win the release of a captured relative, described the ADC as weakened to the point of dissolution following this episode.

One could, of course, quite reasonably question the credibility of this report – but even as a rumor it is interesting.

It’s interesting too to note Belmokhtar’s role and how AQIM was negotiating not just the release of high-value European hostages but also Malian fighters. The role of the AQIM field commander extends well beyond military operations and recruitment and extends to managing all kinds of local dynamics that are essentially political.