On Mali’s Internal Debates About Negotiating with Jihadists

In early April, Mali’s Conference of National Understanding recommended that the government negotiate with the jihadists in the north, or at least with Malian nationals Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. At the time, I wrote a bit about the idea here on the blog. Yesterday I did a follow-up of sorts for Global Observatory, looking at how Malian politicians and commentators are debating the proposal – and at how the debate has continued even after France and Malian President Keita expressed their opposition to the idea.

Mali: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Loose Relationship with Salafism

Call me crazy, but even though al-Qaida is supposedly the quintessential “Salafi-jihadi” group, I think that a lot of people in the al-Qaida fold, even fairly prominent leaders, don’t really care about Salafi theology. That is, they’re either unaware or uninterested in the kinds of purity tests that doctrinaire Salafis, and theologically-minded jihadis, put to other Muslims.

A good example of one al-Qaida leader’s disinterest in Salafism appears in an interview (Arabic, .pdf, p. 4) that Malian national Iyad Ag Ghali recently gave to an al-Qaida publication. Just last month, Ag Ghali publicly and formally became head of a new jihadist formation in the Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The new group is formally part of al-Qaida and the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In the interview, Ag Ghali nonchalantly discusses two issues that would give doctrinaire Salafis considerable pause: his career as a nationalist rebel leader in the 1990s (which involved negotiations with the Malian government), and his long relationship with the global Muslim missionary organization Jama’at al-Tabligh.

Both issues arise in Ag Ghali’s answer to the interviewer’s request for his biography. Ag Ghali divides his life into stages, and among them is: “the stage of negotiations with the Bamako regime in 1991, which produced the first agreement with the Malian government.” Ag Ghali describes the agreement, and the resulting situation “between war and peace” in the 1990s, dispassionately. He voices no regret over what many theologically-minded jihadis would view as a real problem: his willingness to enter into agreements with various regimes that hardline jihadis would consider infidels, and his prioritization of a nationalist struggle over a religious one at that time. It is true that al-Qaida has repeatedly considered and perhaps pursued agreements or truces with different governments, including possibly those in Mauritania and Yemen, but Ag Ghali doesn’t even attempt to frame his past behavior as something that advanced the cause of jihad. There is no indication that he repents for his nationalist past. His attitude is in real tension with the frequently invoked jihadi doctrine of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’, or exclusive loyalty toward Muslims and complete disavowal of those considered non-Muslims.

The second issue is one he describes enthusiastically. Speaking of the period in his life from 1998-2011, he says,

God inspired us – to Him be praise and thanks – to join the Society for Preaching and Spreading the Message [Jama’at al-Da’wa wa-l-Tabligh]. This was a beneficial phase in which God Most High facilitated [my] completion of the memorization of the Holy Qur’an, and [my] visits to God’s Muslims and [my] acquaintance with many of them in many places, such as [Saud Arabia], the Gulf, Mauritania, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, and Benin. [I] even [visited] Muslim communities in the West, in France and other countries.

Now, Jama’at al-Tabligh has been roundly condemned by the senior Salafi scholars of the twentieth century. Such scholars viewed Tabligh as a group that did a little bit of good, by urging people to be more pious, but that did a lot of harm, due to its Sufi roots (most Salafis abhor Sufism). The Salafi scholars also felt that Tabligh’s rather generic preaching was a distraction from what Salafis consider the core issue, namely instilling an understanding of Salafi theology and doctrine in lay Muslims. Those Salafi scholars are not respected by al-Qaida when it comes to politics, but the theological concerns they raised about Sufism and Salafism are theoretically still relevant to al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida’s attitude toward Tabligh may be quietly flexible. There have been long-standing accusations that al-Qaida has used Tabligh for recruits and for forms of cover. My admittedly limited understanding of these issues is that Tabligh itself is not usually understood as culpable in such interactions; rather, al-Qaida may have taken advantage of Tabligh’s sprawling membership to pursue its own activities.

But that is a far cry from speaking fondly of one’s membership in Tabligh. Ag Ghali describes an overlapping period in his life – 2003-2009 – as “the stage of getting to know the mujahideen,” suggesting he saw no contradiction between membership in Tabligh and his emerging jihadi identity. And again, he voices no regret over his time with Tabligh – he says nothing like, “And then I saw that they were Sufi heretics and I repented.”

A lot has been made of Ag Ghali’s “chameleon-like” identity, and sometimes I think that’s overblown, but this interview definitely furnishes another piece of evidence for that view of him. In fact, the sense I got from the interview was: “This is a true politician.” The interviewer is often critical (perhaps to help Ag Ghali anticipate and deflect others’ criticisms of him), and at each juncture Ag Ghali responds like a politician, sometimes with quite vague answers. As a politician, Ag Ghali has committed to jihadism, but it is far from clear that he has committed to Salafism. (All of this, by the way, recalls Thomas Hegghammer’s argument that “Salafi-jihadi” is a deeply problematic category because of the difficulty assessing people’s theological commitments. Hegghammer recommends classifying people by how they actually behave. In the case of Ag Ghali his argument definitely applies.)

This discussion takes us back to yesterday’s post. Could the Malian government fruitfully engage Ag Ghali in negotiations? I’m still not sure, although I reiterate that I think it’s worth a try. His flexibility could be taken as either a hopeful or a doubtful sign – on the one hand, there is hope that one could find points of discussion with someone who’s ideologically flexible, but on the other hand, someone so flexible might make a very unreliable negotiating partner.

Mali: Talking to Jihadists?

Mali’s Conference of National Understanding ran from March 27 to April 2. One of the major recommendations by participants was for the Malian government to open negotiations with two jihadist leaders and their factions: Iyad Ag Ghali and his Ansar al-Din, and Amadou Kouffa and his Macina Liberation Front. Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa are Malian nationals. See a bit more on that recommendation, and others, here (French).

The recommendation is worth a try. The past two years have seen the slow and painful implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord, which is meant to bring peace to Mali after its 2012-2013 civil war. As various provisions of the accord are finally implemented, jihadists have repeatedly acted as spoilers. Ag Ghali has strong connections among the Tuareg elite in northern Mali, connections (paywalled) that go beyond jihadist circles and extend into other armed groups that are, and must be, major players in any durable peace. During the negotiations that led to the 2015 accord, informed observers in Mali and France strongly suspected that Ag Ghali was, through intermediaries, casting his “shadow” (French) over the process. If the recent past is any indication, a peace process that makes no room for Ag Ghali is one that will be disrupted, perhaps fatally, by regular jihadist attacks. That’s not to say that the Malian government could magically find common ground with Ag Ghali, but it is to say that opening a channel of dialogue could bear fruit. Dialogue with Ag Ghali might also create more space for dialogue with Kouffa, to whom Ag Ghali is close.

Both Ag Ghali and Kouffa, however, are also key figures in the new Saharan jihadist “super-group” Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), whose creation was announced in March. Ag Ghali, in fact, is the group’s leader, and the group is formally a part of al-Qaida. The United States government made Ag Ghali a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2013. From Washington’s perspective, there might be insurmountable legal and political obstacles to including Ag Ghali in any negotiations, or to giving him the kind of immunity that he is rumored to want. Indeed, perhaps Ag Ghali’s choice to formalize his role in al-Qaida represents his abandonment of that desire for immunity.

It’s worth noting the gap between American and Malian views on the question of talking to jihadists. The conference attendees presumably do not see the new “super group” as so solid or scary a structure that Ag Ghali might not be induced to leave it or dismantle it.

 

Where does all this leave the Malian government? One option, of course, would be for them to quietly open a channel to Ag Ghali and Kouffa, using intermediaries from among the non-jihadist rebels. Perhaps such a channel already exists. If so, that leads to questions about what concrete next steps the conference attendees envision. Would an indirect channel be used to open a direct one? Would that lead to a formal meeting? Formal discussions about a peace-for-immunity deal? If so, how would Washington and Paris react? The government of Mali, in other words, has some tough choices to make and various unknowns to think through.

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?