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.

Conclusion

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.

Mali: Roundup on the Reported Death of Amadou Kouffa

In November, media outlets reported that French and Malian forces had killed Amadou/Hamadoun Kouffa, the foremost jihadist in central Mali, on 23 November. A few days later, French Minister of the Armies Florence Parly confirmed Kouffa’s death (see also her initial statements on the raid). An official statement from France’s counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane, can be found here. The operation seems to have taken place in the Mopti region of Mali, near the Malian-Mauritanian border.

The organization Kouffa belonged to – Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), a part of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – has not yet issued a eulogy. The Mauritanian journalist Muhammad Mahmud Abu al-Ma’ali has said that a source within JNIM denied Kouffa’s death and proclaimed him to be in good health. (See also here.)

I have never seen a really definitive biography of Kouffa, but some profiles can be found here and here.

There is a lot to say about Kouffa, but I want to start with a roundup of the coverage of his reported death:

  • The Malian journalist Adam Thiam makes a number of excellent points here, including how one might know whether Kouffa is dead in the absence of a eulogy (e.g., if Kouffa’s wives go into formal mourning, or if he does not surface soon on WhatsApp messages, or if a successor is named). Thiam goes on to say, “It will be difficult to find a natural successor with the stature of the late preacher. But the bleeding will not necessarily stop.” Thiam notes that various root causes of the insurgency in the center are still in place, ranging from Malian army abuses to ethnic and resource conflicts to the continued influence of Iyad ag Ghali, JNIM’s leader. Thiam also notes, sagely, that Kouffa’s death may have unanticipated consequences.
  • An in-depth report at Le Monde surveys Kouffa’s life and career and discusses the potential impact of his death.
  • Also at Le Monde, Thomas Hofnung warns – in a similar vein to Thiam – that by killing Kouffa, France/Mali struck at the top of the pyramid while failing to halt the expansion of that pyramid’s base. Hofnung emphasizes the issue of governance in the center and preventing “a war of all against all.”
  • On Twitter, MENASTREAM wrote a thread giving important details and context about the raid and its significance, including the very important point that Kouffa had recently appeared in a video, and that there seems to be something of a trend where jihadist leaders who expose themselves by making videos can end up quickly targeted and killed by counterterrorism forces. See MENASTREAM’s thread on that video here, and the video itself is here.
  • Both MENASTREAM and Aurelien Tobie, in a separate thread, note another important detail about the raid: as many as thirty JNIM/Kouffa fighters, including other officials of the group, were reportedly killed alongside Kouffa. So the group’s losses may extend well beyond just their regional leader.
  • Arabic-language Mauritanian media outlets such as Sahara Medias have also covered the raid in some depth, but have not, in my view, added many distinctive details.

New Paper: “Political Settlements with Jihadists in Algeria and the Sahel”

I have a new paper out today with the West African Papers Series of the OECD. The series is part of a partnership between the OECD’s Sahel and West Africa Club and the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group. The paper is entitled “Political Settlements with Jihadists in Algeria and the Sahel.” It looks at past experiences in the region and argues that settlements with jihadists can be either stabilizing or destabilizing depending on their parameters. The paper goes on to argue, in keeping with arguments I’ve explored here on the blog, that dialogue with jihadists in Mali is worth attempting.

Notes on the New JNIM/AQIM Video

The jihadist formation in the Sahara-Sahel region, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), recently put out a new video called “The Battle Continues.” JNIM is a subsidiary of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MENASTREAM, as always, has a good rundown of some key moments, personalities, and images.

The video is heavily branded as an al-Qaida effort. It returns repeatedly to images of Usama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures. The video presents the jihadist fight in Mali as both (a) a replay of medieval battles between Muslims and Crusaders, and (b) a part of a global struggle that extends to Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. Surveying the contemporary global scene, the video emphasizes images of Muslim civilians being killed and repressed by security forces. The video also displays images of numerous dead jihadist leaders, ranging from Yemen’s Nasir al-Wuhayshi to AQIM’s Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd to Ansar al-Sharia Libya’s Muhammad al-Zawahi. In other words, the video wants the viewer to think something along the lines of “Muslims are being unfairly attacked around the world and al-Qaida leaders are giving their lives to defend them.”

But to just take the video as an expression of transnational jihadist ties would be to miss some of its politics. So much analysis of jihadist videos, in fact, focuses on the visual symbolism to a degree where the actual content of what jihadists are saying goes under-analyzed. And this video, albeit not very original, is trying to stake out some political ground vis-a-vis both France and toward interpretations of the Mali conflict that JNIM does not want to become dominant.

In one sequence starting around 8:35, the video pivots to France, showing television clips of Western analysts asserting that France’s fight in Mali is motivated by ambitions to control resources in the Sahel. But then the video cuts to a clip from RT, where the announcer asks whether France’s intervention in Mali was in fact part of a war on Islam. JNIM cleric Abd al-Hakim al-Muhajir makes that case emphatically, arguing that “it is not an economic or interest-based war in the first degree…Rather, it is a war of creeds between faith and unbelief, Islam and polytheism, between the sovereignty of man, which France wants, and the sovereignty of God alone, for the sake of which the mujahidin are struggling (Bal hiya harb ‘aqadiyya bayn al-iman wa-l-kufr, wa-l-islam wa-l-shirk, bayn hakimiyyat al-bashar, kama turiduha Faransa wa bayn hakimiyyat Allah wahdahu, kama yujahid min ajliha al-mujahidun).” Al-Muhajir argues that economic interests are at stake, but as a secondary matter in this broader combat he sees between belief and unbelief. The video then includes two clips of French philosopher Michel Onfray arguing that France has double standards for when it invokes human rights justifications in foreign affairs.

To me, this was the most interesting argument the film made – ironically, both France and JNIM/AQIM now work to combat the perception that this is a conflict over untapped resources in the Malian Sahara. One wonders whether JNIM is not also, indirectly, trying to combat the perception that it too is a product of a conspiracy involving great powers. Interestingly enough, JNIM may lose ground in the information war if what it considers the wrong kind of conspiracy theories gain too much traction – JNIM wants audiences to understand the conflict as black and white, and that requires arguing that France is explicit about its “Crusader” ambitions, rather than arguing that France has hidden agendas.

Another part of the video’s message revolves around the romanticization of jihadist life. This comes across to some extent in the military sequences, which includes both JNIM’s own training footage and then news footage of the aftermath of JNIM’s June 2018 attack on a G5 Sahel Joint Force base in Sévaré, central Mali. Later, the video shows jihadists impersonating a United Nations convoy as they prepare for and execute their April 2018 attack on a MINUSMA base in Timbuktu.

But the romanticization comes across most strongly in sequences highlighting ordinary fighters. This section emphasizes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the fighters, who are presented as joyful, pious, and disciplined youth. If this is in part a recruitment video, the pitch is based largely on the idea that recruits will enjoy a pure life and a vibrant camaraderie. The segments featuring JNIM/AQIM’s Yahya Abu al-Hammam and an audio message from JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghali are relatively unremarkable; the young fighters come across as more three-dimensional, and that may be intentional on JNIM’s part.

To me this read as a demonstration of strength and a reminder that JNIM is digging in for the long haul (hence the title). The video did not break any new ground, ideologically speaking. There was not as much emphasis on building popular support as I might have expected; but again, perhaps the theme of camaraderie stood in for a more explicit pitch.