Roundup on Conflict Issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (12/2/2020)

There’s a lot of news and reports coming out that probably each deserve their own post, but given end-of-the-semester stress, it’s wiser for me to just do a roundup today. A few things that have caught my eye recently:

  • Dan Eizenga and Wendy Williams, “The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, December 1. An excerpt: “JNIM’s structure functions as a business association on behalf of its membership, giving the impression that it is omnipresent and inexorably expanding its reach. The characterization of JNIM as a single operational entity, however, feeds the inaccurate perception of a unified command and control structure.”
  • Danielle Paquette and Henry Wilkins, “An American moved to Burkina Faso for ‘a better life.’ He was shot dead outside a military base,” Washington Post, December 1. This is a very sad story, and some of the saddest parts actually relate more to the United States than to Burkina Faso.
  • AFP reports (December 1, French) on a tenuous peace initiative in Ménaka, Mali.
  • France24 has a roughly 16-minute video report (November 27, French) by the journalist Cyril Payen, who embedded with Nigerien special forces.
  • This is a good interview (November 24) with Guillaume Soto-Mayor about Sahelian security issues.

Quick Notes on Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi’s Interview with al-Naba’

In the latest issue (#260) of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, there is an interview with Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). As MENASTREAM points out, the appearance of the interview temporarily settles the question of whether his deputy Abd al-Hakim al-Sahrawi is now in charge.

The interview is two pages (pp. 10-11) and as I commented on Twitter yesterday, over three-quarters of it concerns the deep background to current events. Prompted by the interviewer, al-Sahrawi gives his version/narration of the history of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism from just after the formation of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC) in the late 1990s until the formation of the al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) in 2017. Only in the last quarter of the interview or so does al-Sahrawi turn to discussing the recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which has received recurring coverage in al-Naba’ (see here for my annotated translation of a June 2020 al-Naba’ article on that topic).

Al-Sahrawi’s narration of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism emphasizes the infighting among the Saharan battalion commanders of the GSPC (which was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM in 2007). Al-Sahrawi points to the failure of various efforts to reconcile these battalion commanders (notably Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom al-Sahrawi names several times, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, whom al-Sahrawi indirectly names by referring to Abu Zayd’s Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion). Al-Sahrawi also emphasizes that the Saharan battalion commanders were very difficult for AQIM’s Algeria-based leadership to control. “The organization, in reality, was an image with no reality to it. What existed on the ground was a number of battalions with different orientations and multiple loyalties, all of them linked with the leadership of al-Qaida in Algeria.” Notably, while Belmokhtar is often portrayed as the recalcitrant one in other accounts of these internal GSPC/AQIM spats, in al-Sahrawi’s telling, it was Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion (i.e., Abu Zayd) that was resistant to at least one major unity initiative, the effort by central leadership to impose Nabil Abu Alqama as the central leadership’s unquestioned deputy in the Sahara.

Al-Sahrawi goes on to review developments between 2011 and 2013 in detail, starting with the Libyan revolution and its impact (in his view) on the northern Malian rebellion of 2012; then discussing the relationships among AQIM, the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM’s ally Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA); then discussing the impact of the French-led military intervention in Mali in 2013. The thought of going over all those events here on the blog for the millionth time kind of fatigues me, to be honest, so I would suggest reading a summary of those developments if you’re not familiar.

One point of interest here concerns the relationship between AQIM and the Malian-led Ansar al-Din. Those who consider Ansar al-Din a front group for AQIM will find support for their argument in part of what al-Sahrawi says, to wit: “The al-Qaida organization [here meaning AQIM], in its different groupings, entered into that framework [of Ansar al-Din’s vision of an Islamic state in Mali], even though its leadership [the pronoun “its” goes to AQIM, if my reading is correct] remained independent of it [the pronoun “it” goes to Ansar al-Din’s framework, if my reading is correct].” Later he talks about AQIM “working under cover of [Ansar al-Din].” Yet those, like me, who find the “front group” description simplistic will find support in al-Sahrawi’s descriptions of Ansar al-Din circa 2012 as a collection of opponents to the MNLA’s separatist vision, opponents motivated “either by ethnic, racial reasons or by creedal, religious reasons.” Al-Sahrawi later briefly mentions the 2013 split among Ansar al-Din’s leadership that remains, I think, fundamental to understanding the hybridity of the movement itself during 2012. Anyways, it’s a long discussion; YMMV.

Moving on, when discussing his unit’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, al-Sahrawi is conspicuously silent on Belmokhtar. He has no shortage of criticisms for the AQIM leadership in general, accusing them of a criminal level of self-interest and self-preservation in the face of what he sees as a groundswell of interest in the Islamic State project from the among AQIM’s own rank-and-file. He repeatedly slams AQIM leaders for their approach to the 2012 rebellion, to the MNLA, etc. Yet al-Sahrawi does not name any names here, nor does he criticize Belmokhtar – who, when he and al-Sahrawi were both part of the then-estranged AQIM unit al-Murabitun in 2015, publicly rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, a pledge al-Sahrawi made in the name of al-Murabitun. It makes me wonder whether there is a vestigial admiration for Belmokhtar among Islamic State audiences (despite the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere having publicly called for Belmokhtar’s death at points). Belmokhtar did, after all, cut a larger-than-life figure in the Sahara and even in Libya for a time, and perhaps al-Sahrawi is shying away here from directly taking on that legacy. Belmokhtar, as a reminder, has been either dead or at least publicly absent from the Saharan scene since 2016. In any event, al-Sahrawi presents JNIM’s formation in 2017 as a response to the formation and growth of ISGS.

Al-Sahrawi then turns to the ISGS-JNIM conflict, saying that for a time, ISGS focused on fighting “crusaders and apostates” while making outreach to JNIM’s cadres. According to al-Sahrawi, this outreach attracted a lot of fighters from Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), a northern Burkina Faso-based jihadist outfit that was/is in JNIM’s orbit, as well as from JNIM units in what he refers to as “Konna,” “Macina,” and “Nampala” (localities in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of central Mali). Al-Sahrawi then quickly runs through a complicated series of events that, in his telling, involved JNIM fighters from Nampala (but not physically in Nampala at the time) pledging allegiance to ISGS/Islamic State, then JNIM leaders giving orders for that pro-ISGS unit to be blocked from returning to Nampala, then fighters in Macina refusing to carry out the orders and instead pledging allegiance to ISGS/IS themselves, then the leader of the ISGS-aligned group from Nampala, Miqdad al-Ansari, being killed in a “crusader air raid…under obscure circumstances!” I have not yet had time to triangulate between this and other accounts. As in other al-Naba’ articles, al-Sahrawi argues that JNIM leadership coordinates with non-jihadists. He then presents JNIM’s negotiations with successive Malian authorities as the culmination of a process where the group has de facto lost its jihadist credentials – and, of course, he refers to them as “apostates” throughout the article.

Big takeaways? I’m not sure. The desire to shape perceptions of history stands out – it’s not just scholars and analysts who are still chewing over the events of 2011-2013 in Mali. And the sense of the JNIM-ISGS conflict as a competition for the loyalties of discrete units of fighters in Mali is also notable. The account of how a dispute over Nampala escalated into a wider conflict will be worth revisiting. Another point is that, at least on this first reading, I saw no references to Nigeria, Boko Haram, ISWAP (in the sense of a specific organization based around Lake Chad), etc. Finally, I can’t help but sigh at the Islamic State’s ascription of the title “Al-Shaykh” to al-Sahrawi – not everybody has to be a shaykh, guys. Pretty clear that al-Sahrawi’s not, even by jihadi standards.

Roundup on Recent(ish) Insecurity-Related Events in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of Mali

I think my blogging this week will be mostly roundups, at least until the dust settles with the U.S. elections and my (and readers’, perhaps) mental acuity returns to something like normal.

The Mopti Region of Mali deserves its own regular roundup – it is the most violent region in the entire Sahel, with myriad tragedies affecting the region’s residents and with major ramifications for other parts of Mali and the Sahel. The adjacent Ségou Region is also a site of significant insecurity.

I don’t think I’ll attempt a regular roundup, but here are a few pieces that have caught my eye recently. I list them in chronological order. All are in French but I have translated the titles:

  • Olivier Dubois, Jeune Afrique, October 4: “In the Mopti Region, a Precarious ‘Peace’ with the Jihadists.” The article focuses on a July 27 peace agreement signed in the Koro district/cercle. The deal contained many striking provisions, including compromises from the jihadist side – such as allowing “republican schools” to continue function, with the provision that Arabic-language schools be prioritized. Then, too, the jihadists said that disputes over stolen animals should be dropped, so as not to elicit further conflict. Precarious indeed.
  • On October 28-29, the United Nations’ peacekeeping force MINUSMA launched seven new projects in the Mopti Region aimed at reducing inter communal violence and promoting reintegration.
  • Célian Macé, Libération, November 1: “The Malian Army Accused of Summary Executions in a Peul Village.” The Peul are a major ethnic group in Mali and West Africa more broadly, and their role in the current conflict is extraordinarily complex – I refer you to Modibo Ghaly Cissé’s paper here. The village in question here is Liebé, in the Bankass district/cercle of Mopti, near the border with Burkina Faso.
  • RFI, November 2: “A Soldier Killed in an Attack at Farabougou.” Farabougou, in the Niono district/cercle in Ségou (map), was the site of a jihadist siege beginning in early October. Breaking the siege required Malian military intervention, including the physical presence of Colonel Assimi Goïta, head of the junta that ruled Mali from late August until early October, and current vice president of the transitional government. The attackers are presumed to belong to Katibat Macina (Macina Battalion), part of the al-Qaida-affiliated JNIM coalition. As you can see from the RFI story, the situation remains tense in and around Farabougou.
  • Le Monde, November 3: “France Announces Major Antijihadist Operations in Mali.” The article reports on French claims that operations in the vicinity of Boulkessi, in the Douentza district/cercle of Mopti, killed some 60 jihadists affiliated to Ansaroul Islam last week between approximately October 28-30.

Roundup of Recent Writing on Jihadism in the Sahel, and Comments on ICG’s New ISWAP Report [Updated]

Héni Nsaibia and RIda Lyammouri, “Digital Dunes and Shrublands: A Comparative Introduction to the Sahelian Jihadi Propaganda Ecosystem,” Global Network on Extremism and Technology, October 27. You cannot ask for a better duo of authors for this topic. An excerpt:

The Sahelian propaganda ecosystem could be divided into two spheres: the global and the local. The global sphere includes the propaganda intended for the international community broadly, and consists primarily of ‘official’ public messaging in the form of claims of responsibility for military operations, videos, and audio-visual statements. Media products are communicated in world languages: Arabic, French, and English. The local sphere encompasses propaganda for local consumption and is disseminated in local languages: Hassaniya Arabic, Tamashek (or Tuareg language), Fulfulde (or Fulani language), Bambara, Songhai, Zarma, and other local languages and dialects. Locally-oriented items often come out as low-quality videos and audio diffused via closed local WhatsApp groups, including community-focused platforms, and as printed statements handed out to residents. The linguistic barriers and limited accessibility to locally-distributed items represents a gap that should not be neglected in terms of our understanding of these groups.

Luca Raineri, “Explaining the Rise of Jihadism in Africa: The Crucial Case of the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara,” Terrorism and Political Violence, published online October 22. The abstract:

While jihadism appears to be on the rise in Africa, the explanations of violent extremist groups’ capacity to foment jihadi insurgencies and mobilize recruits remain poorly understood. Recent studies have challenged the assumption that the rise of jihadism in Africa is the result of poor governance in areas of limited state reach, highlighting instead the significance of the (perception of) abuses perpetrated by state authorities. Looking at collective action and its structural determinants, it is rather state action—and not the lack thereof—that best explains the capacity of mobilization of jihadi insurgencies in African borderlands. In order to test this theory in a least-likely case, the article explores the genealogy and evolution of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), mobilizing extensive qualitative evidence. Borrowing the analytical framework from civil war studies, it argues that the contentious political dynamics observed in Niger’s borderlands amount to a case of symmetric non-conventional warfare, where abuses perpetrated by state proxies trigger an escalation of homegrown terrorism. It therefore supplies a further specification of the theories investigating the complex interplay between the processes of jihadi mobilization/rebel governance and the practices of counter-terrorism in weak states.

I like that approach.

[UPDATE – November 2, 2020]: Because it fits so well with this roundup, I’m adding Anouar Boukhars’ new article “The Logic of Violence in Africa’s Jihadist Insurgencies,” out at Perspectives on Terrorism. An excerpt (p. 119):

Two implications can be drawn from the relative target preferences of IS affiliates in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. First, if insurgent groups are dependent on support from local populations, they may exercise restraint in their violence against civilians. Second, in multi-actor conflict environments, locations marked by intense in-group–out-group divides—a dynamic that comes about because of pre-conflict tensions and tensions endogenous to the conflict—tend to be places of violent attacks against civilians, as out-group members are suspected of being sympathizers of VE groups or collaborators with the government and allied ethnic militias.

For RFI, Kaourou Magassa reports from Bamako, Mali on the trial of Fawaz Ould Ahmed or “Ibrahim 10,” a Mauritanian who killed five people at a Bamako bar in March 2015. He also helped plan the even more infamous attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako later in 2015. He and a co-defendant have now been sentenced to death. He was initially reported in some accounts to have been among those prisoners released earlier this month in Mali – but, obviously, he wasn’t, and perhaps the timing of the trial (pure speculation on my part!) is meant to make that very clear.

Finally, International Crisis Group has an important new report out on the relationship between Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram, the Islamic State, and what became the breakaway Boko Haram faction now known as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). [Note that the report sometimes uses ISWAP to refer to Boko Haram during the period between Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015 and the split within Boko Haram in August 2016, so the meaning of ISWAP within the report can depend on where in the chronology you are. This usage accurately reflects how the name ISWAP was applied both pre-August 2016 and post, but can be confusing for the reader.] The report is based on interviews with sixteen defectors, the last of whom left the group in 2018 – and so the report mostly only transmits other analysts’ perspectives when discussing post-2018 Islamic Stat influence on ISWAP.

I found the report pretty balanced in how it assesses the relationship and the evidence. On the one hand, the report contains major findings pointing to substantial Islamic State influence, such as the reported presence of a group of Islamic State trainers in Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest who arrived after Shekau’s pledge. Here though it is important to underline that the report’s account adds weight to something that I have argued before, namely that the decisive factor in the timing of Shekau’s pledge was the military pressure Boko Haram was under in early 2015. Note then that the Islamic State, as the relationship is described in the report, does not appear to have played any significant role in Boko Haram’s conquest of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014 or even early 2015. And even the most bullish accounts of Shekau’s relationship with al-Qaida tend now to acknowledge that his relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had frayed well before 2014. So at its peak, Boko Haram was more or less independent.

The report also details what are, to my mind, surprisingly complex financial processes: “Assistance [this is 2015 and perhaps early 2016, if I’m reading correctly] came at least every two weeks in amounts varying from $10,000 to $100,000 via occasional transfers to associated individuals or companies in Nigeria or deliveries by Nigerian couriers who would visit Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to collect the cash on ISWAP’s behalf.” There are a lot of explosive claims here, and whereas the account of the trainers I can accept without pause, the description of the transfers – if it rests solely on the testimony of defectors, even if they corroborate each other’s accounts – would need to be corroborated by some other source, in my view. This is not because of the amounts involved,* but not so much that I doubt them; it is more the asserted mechanisms that give me a bit of pause.

There, then, are some of the report’s most serious details concerning the Islamic State’s impact. On the other hand, the report points out some serious instances of parochialism and idiosyncrasy on Boko Haram’s part that made it hard for the organization to maximize and sometimes sustain what the Islamic State had to offer. Weak internet connections, inconsistent application of the trainers’ teachings, Shekau’s resistance to directives and his suspicion of the on-site trainers, etc.

Speaking of parochialism, one detail that surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have, was that Shekau submitted the 2009 manifesto of the late Muhammad Yusuf as part of the vetting process for the Islamic State; the 2009 manifesto is certainly a crypto-jihadist document, but it was written under far different circumstances, still in the context of an above-ground movement rather than an underground, full-blown insurgency. It points to Shekau’s and Boko Haram’s sloppiness that in the roughly six years between the writing of that manifesto and the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, the group could generate no fresher manifesto. Shekau killing some of the top clerics within the group circa 2011-2012 didn’t help with ideological production, obviously, but still, the group seems to have suffered from a lack of talent in that department.

More importantly for the purposes of assessing Islamic State influence, we see that the most fundamental decisions, even among Shekau’s internal rivals, were taken locally: “The breakaway group [now known as ISWAP] only informed ISIS [sic] of its decision once the split [announced in August 2016, but undertaken months earlier] was a fait accompli.” The Islamic State central leadership apparently bowed only reluctantly to realities on the ground in northeastern Nigeria, trying to reconcile the two factions before eventually backing the breakaway group.

Given its own findings, moreover, the report’s framing that “ISWAP [i.e., post-split] has continued to progress in adopting the global movement’s doctrines on governance and other matters” is too simplistic. The idea that ISWAP’s efforts at administrative sophistication and military professionalism reflect Islamic State influence makes a lot of sense; the report is less persuasive when it suggests that Islamic State guidance spurred ISWAP’s overall efforts “to mend fences with Muslim civilians in the areas under its influence.” If concerns with Shekau’s bloodthirstiness, capriciousness, predatoriness, etc. were what prompted a split that was a “fait accompli” before the Islamic State was informed, then it stands to reason that ISWAP’s political orientation towards Muslim civilians largely reflects the core impetus for the split in the first place. And again, according to the report that impetus came out of facts on the ground first and foremost. If you break with your emir because he kills everyone who disagrees with him and hoards money, and if you’re eating leaves and bark in the forest after getting routed by multiple armies and South African mercenaries, you don’t need some guy in Syria to tell you it’s time to try something new. But you would probably take their money and their tips on administration.

So, in short, a very mixed picture of Islamic State influence over ISWAP emerges – stronger than I would have thought in many dimensions, but even I, a perennial skeptic about global jihadist influence in West Africa, was equally surprised by some of Boko Haram’s parochialism as described in the report, as well as by the ways the Islamic State was either ignored or rebuffed at key moments in this history. My main critique would be that I wish the author/s would have more systematically compared the account from defectors to the account in ISWAP’s book Removing the Tumor; I will have to compare at some point myself, but if memory serves there are some interesting parallels, as well as some key details mentioned in this report that are not mentioned at all in Removing the Tumor (the trainers and the money, for example, if memory serves), and then perhaps some instances of contradictions. Anyways, the Crisis Group report is worth reading in full, as are the other pieces mentioned above.

*Is the amount of money described here large or small? At first it sounded huge to me – a steady flow of sizable chunks of money. But if you do the math over a year, it actually starts to sound smaller. Assume for example that we take an estimate toward the high end of the numbers and frequency described above, and we say that $100,000 arrived every two weeks for a year, or $200,000 a month: that’s $2.4 million in the first year. But on the sending end, this seems to have represented a tiny portion of the Islamic State’s wealth and income circa 2015-2016, and on the receiving end, I wonder how far the money went. Just a few years earlier, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was collecting that kind of sum per hostage in some of its biggest ransoms, and yet such cash infusions only went so far – and AQIM had fewer fighters than Boko Haram at their respective peaks, most likely. How far does $2.4 million go in terms of paying fighters and buying loyalty? I’ll have to think about it more. Not saying the money doesn’t matter, but even the high end estimate may be relatively modest even in the context of African jihadist groups’ budgets. Or one could say the money had a much greater impact because of the tough circumstances Boko Haram was in when the money started flowing. Or one could say the money’s impact was less than it might have been, because Shekau may have hoarded some of it…etc. The point is, it’s easier to argue that ties between jihadist groups occurred than it is to say exactly what those ties meant.

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.

Recent Analyses of the Sahel Conflict(s) and Relevant Themes

Clionadh Raleigh,  Héni Nsaibia, and Caitriona Dowd, “Briefing: The Sahel Crisis Since 2012.” African Affairs, August 26, 2020. This will now be the first piece I recommend to anyone new to following the region. There are a lot of rich details in this briefing about the composition, strategies, and expansion patterns of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Here is one very apt observation from the introduction: “The critical lesson of this briefing is that this tsunami of conflict did not initially manifest as overtly Islamist or even ideologically coherent, but grew from opportunism. Populist rhetoric, displays of weakened state authority, a brutal—or absent—security sector, the militarization of neighbors, livelihoods and communities each constitute viable ways that the Sahel violence can metastasize through the wider region.”

Edoardo Baldaro, “Rashomon in the Sahel: Conflict Dynamics of Security Regionalism.” Security Dialogue, August 27, 2020. From the abstract: “The African Sahel is a region whose geopolitical dimensions are constantly changing and evolving as a result of new intersections of international, regional and local security dynamics. In this context, various actors have initiated different regional projects in an attempt to reframe the area according to their interests and specific interpretations of security and to impose the form of order that best fits with their goals. The discursive, normative and material struggle about the definition of the region is having obvious effects on security and conflict, furthering regional instability. This article disentangles the different region-building initiatives at work in the area by identifying the four groups of actors advancing a specific project around the Sahel, namely: (1) international security deliverers, (2) jihadist insurgent groups, (3) regional governmental elites, and (4) local communities and populations. In so doing, it explores how the different spatial and security imaginaries advanced by these four collective agents struggle and interact, and shows that the Sahel can be considered the unintended result of a competitive process that is furthering conflict and violence in a shifting regional security system.” This is the kind of analysis I really want to read. The Rashomon metaphor is on a lot of folks’ minds – Yvan Guichaoua also used it in a thread this summer.

Two pieces on Sahelian jihadists and humanitarian groups/workers:

  • Yida Diall translated by Luca Raineri, “Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Sahel, Inhuman with Humanitarians?” Security Praxis, September 3, 2020. Some striking details: “Yet the rise of the Islamic State has challenged the influence of the Katibat Macina in central Mali. Perhaps in an attempt to be seen as more radical challengers of the status quo, IS adherents display a much more intransigent attitude vis-à-vis humanitarian agencies and workers. Abu Mahmoud, formerly one of Kouffa’s lieutenants who has defected to the Islamic State, launched his challenge to the atibat Macina in late 2019 by raiding with his men a humanitarian convoy who had already received Kouffa’s green light to access the region of Ségou, in central Mali. According to a whatsapp audio message released soon thereafter, Abu Mahmud claimed that humanitarian action is inherently non-Muslim, and therefore its agents should be treated as non-believers: they are legitimate war targets, and their goods should be considered war spoils that can be lawfully looted. Similarly, in the Mopti region, IS fighters have pillaged village clinics, water tanks and food dispensaries because they were built and supplied by humanitarian actors, although in partnership with local authorities. Reportedly, IS-linked jihadists in the region justified their actions by claiming that humanitarians are non-believers spearheading the advance of the West and that there can be no room for their projects and belongings in the dar al-Islam.”
  • Tatiana Smirnova, Anne Roussel, and Yvan Guichaoua, “Humanitaires dans les zones de conflit: ni héros ni espions [Humanitarians in Conflict Zones: Neither Heroes Nor Spies].” Ideas 4 Development, August 31, 2020. An excerpt: “Humanitarians are endowed with a ‘noble’ mission (helping vulnerable populations), framed by transcendant principles that are, a priori, consensual. But nothing is self-evident in the space they put themselves into. The information that they can glean is piecemeal and can be manipulated; the resources they distribute are the focus of competition; populations are not merely victims, they are also politically active and pursue their own strategies. Finally, humanitarians stand in front of armed actors in a strongly asymmetric relationship: the first have no weapons, the second do. And the latter can be, alternatively, a source of protection or of danger.”

Christopher Blair, Michael Horowitz, and Philip Potter, “Leadership Targeting and Militant Alliance Breakdown,” forthcoming in the Journal of Politics. From p. 2: “Militant leaders are critical for cultivating capabilities, controlling behavior, and sustaining the trust that undergirds alliances. Leadership removal, especially via decapitation, can reduce capabilities or collapse groups and undermine inter-organizational trust, triggering splits. By eliminating leaders who play a central role in alliance management, decapitation strategies drive militant alliance termination.” YMMV – I think there’s a lot of evidence, including from the Sahel, that decapitation does not work, including in terms of terminating alliances.

Nathaniel Mathews, ” ‘Arab-Islamic Slavery’: A Problematic Term for a Complex Reality.” Research Africa Reviews 4:2 (August 2020). From p. 6: “[The term ‘Arab-Islamic slavery,’ AIS] muddles religion and ethnicity into a polemical concept that does ideological work, (often inadvertently) re-dividing Africa across the Saharan boundary. In the resulting matrix, Arabs are non-African, North Africans are non-black, sub-Saharan Africans are non-Muslim, and ‘blackness is a stable [and global] category referring to a historically coherent people whose experiences of violence are necessarily tied by a common ethnicity.’ This is not to deny the existence in the canons of Arabic, of damaging and prejudicial stereotypes about dark-skinned people from Africa, nor of the need to confront them forthrightly. But the AIS term not only allows the perpetrators of enslavement to stand outside the boundaries of ethnic, linguistic and religious community, it also elides important voices of critique that emerged from within the ‘Arab-Islamic’ milieu. Al-Jahiz, Ibn al-Jawzi, Al-Suyuti, Ahmad Baba, Musa Kamara and other Muslim writers who refuted black inferiority from within a framework, whether for better or for worse, of a shared linguistic, legal and intellectual culture that spanned Sudanic Africa, the Maghrib and beyond.”

Burkina Faso: A Major Kidnapping in the North

In my post about the latest United Nations report on human rights in Mali, I noted that there is a significant trend of fairly localized kidnapping in Mali. This trend appears in other parts of the Sahel as well, notably in Burkina Faso and Niger. It is true that Westerners still get kidnapped, but the situation is far different now than it was in the late 2000s and especially the early 2010s, when al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms for Europeans. These days, victims are often nationals of the countries where they are seized, and the primary motivations sometimes appear political or reprisal-based, with ransoms sometimes seeming to be a secondary motivation or even not a motivation at all, given that a disquieting number of the captives are eventually executed. It is not always clear, moreover, who the perpetrators are – jihadists appear to be behind many, but not all, of the kidnappings.

An important kidnapping occurred on August 11 in Burkina Faso. The victim is the Grand Imam of Djibo (map), Souaibou* Cissé. Djibo is the capital of the Soum Province, which is a conflict hotspot and the birthplace of the Burkinabè jihadist movement Ansar al-Islam or Ansaroul Islam (Defenders of Islam) – a movement in the orbit of the Mali-centric al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). According to Jeune Afrique, the imam was seized while returning from Burkina Faso’s capital to Djibo – more precisely, he was kidnapped on the road between Namsiguia (spellings vary) and Gaskindé (map). The road from Namsiguia to Djibo is so dangerous that it was the subject of an in-depth report by the Burkinabè journalist Tiga Cheick Sawadogo (see my writeup on his report here). The deputy mayor of Djibo, Oumarou Dicko, was killed in an ambush near Gaskindé on November 3, 2019 while traveling the same road.

Continuing with Jeune Afrique‘s account, unidentified gunmen stopped the car the imam was riding in, searched the passengers and checked their identities, took the imam, and let the others go. The imam has been threatened before, and a jihadist blockade of Djibo and environs reportedly involves searching vehicles going in and out of Djibo. To me, this reads as a premeditated and targeted kidnapping of the imam, rather than a crime of opportunity.

Radio Omega adds other details: gunmen fired at the imam’s house in a 2017 incident that killed a retired policeman; he received a series of telephone threats after that; and Burkinabè security forces were guarding his house until February 2020, when they were withdrawn without explanation. Radio Omega is not a source I know well.

If it was Ansaroul Islam that kidnapped Imam Souaibou Cissé, some context helps to explain why there may be personal bad blood beyond the wider context of jihadists not liking clerics who oppose them. Here is Crisis Group in its 2017 report on northern Burkina Faso (p. 4):

At the beginning of 2016, the emir of Djibo and the grand imam, whose daughter Malam [Ibrahim Dicko, Ansaroul Islam’s founder, who reportedly died in 2017] married, disowned him. He then repudiated his wife and took to the bush, losing most of his followers in the process. Only a close circle of loyal supporters followed him to Mali for training. From there, he tried to eliminate his former comrades. Ansarul Islam has a strong tendency toward settling accounts, which led one locally elected representatives to fear that a “cycle of vengeance” would be established in the long term. The attack on the Nassoumbou military base on 16 December 2016, reportedly led by Ansarul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) cost the lives of twelve Burkina soldiers and made Ansarul Islam’s existence official.

Dicko and Cissé had a war of words as well, with Cissé taking to the radio in an attempt to counter Dicko’s messaging and reduce local recruitment to Dicko’s Ansaroul Islam.

Threatening, kidnapping, or even killing Muslim clerics has been a tactic of jihadists in central Mali and elsewhere, so this incident fits into a larger trend. Still, this is one of the most prominent figures in the region to be kidnapped or harmed.

*For the Prophet Shu’ayb.

Mali: Notes on MINUSMA’s Latest Human Rights Report

The United Nations’ Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) deployed in 2013 and has over 15,000 personnel. More about its mandate and history can be found at its official website.

MINUSMA’s Human Rights and Protection Division recently released a report (French) on the human rights situation in Mali, covering the period April-June 2020. The report is important not just for understanding the human rights picture, but also for thinking about trends in insecurity and politics.

I want to highlight some points, roughly in order of how they appear in the document:

  • As one would expect, the report discusses topics that should be familiar to anyone who follows the day-to-day reporting out of Mali and the Sahel. These topics include jihadist attacks in the north and center of Mali, fighting between the two major jihadist groups Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara), and Malian security force abuses against civilians. Yet the report also briefly highlights various underreported stories. One is episodic violence in southern Mali. In paragraph 9 on page 4, the authors mention that JNIM’s attacks on police and gendarmerie posts are degrading the security situation in the southern regions of Kayes, Koulikoro, and Sikasso (see a map of Mali’s regions here).
  • During the reporting period, MINUSMA counted 458 security incidents in Mali, broken down by region as follows (paragraph 11, p. 4):
    • 214 in Mopti (center);
    • 81 in Gao (north);
    • 70 in Timbuktu (north);
    • 39 in Ménaka (north);
    • 25 in Bamako (south);
    • 12 in Ségou (center);
    • 8 in Kidal (north);
    • 6 in Sikasso (south); and
    • 3 in Kayes (south).
  • These figures align with the broader trends of violence that I highlighted here, building off of work by José Luengo-Cabrera and others. In what is becoming something of a refrain here on the blog, I want to highlight that despite Kidal being ground zero for the northern Malian rebellion of 2012 and being the homeland of JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali, Kidal is remarkably free of reported attacks (though not, as discussed below, free of reported abuses). Meanwhile, the categories of “north,” “center,” and “south” can be both useful and misleading – for example, I would guess that much of the reported violence for Timbuktu is in southern parts of Timbuktu that are near Mopti. Finally, the violence in the south is worth noting but one shouldn’t get carried away extrapolating trendlines – we’re still talking about a handful of incidents over a three-month period. The “south,” meanwhile, is smaller than the north in terms of land mass but is still vast – by road, for example, the regional capital of Kayes is about 250 kilometers from the important religious center of Nioro du Sahel, which is still within the Kayes Region.
  • On p. 5, paragraph 12, one finds a breakdown of who, according to MINUSMA’s reporting, committed how many of the 632 total human rights violations compiled during the reporting period. Here is the list:
    • 232 violations by self-defense groups:
    • 126 by the Malian security forces;
    • 123 by jihadist groups;
    • 63 by armed groups that are signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord, a peace deal covering the north;
    • 50 by the Burkinabè security forces; and
    • 38 by unidentified armed groups.
  • Here, too, I will pick up on points analysts have been making a lot: the self-defense groups or ethnic militias or whatever one wants to call them are the leading perpetrators of abuses, followed the security forces, and only then followed by the jihadists. That’s not to minimize the violence perpetrated by the jihadists, but it is to say that civilians may actually be more frightened of other actors – and a climate of fear can, among other impacts, (1) drive further formation of self-defense groups, (2) undercut civilian cooperation with the security forces, (3) trigger more security force abuses, and (4) boost recruitment to jihadist groups. One might add that civilians would not necessarily categorize actors and events the way MINUSMA does; in particular, civilians on the receiving end of violence may not consider signatory armed groups to belong to a fundamentally different category than the self-defense groups.
  • I think the actor that comes out looking the worst here, in terms of the numbers, is the Malian security forces, because the categories “self-defense groups” and “jihadists” (or “extremists,” in the language of the report) are baskets for a multitude of actors, while the Malian security forces can be viewed as more unitary. I don’t mean to erase differences between soldiers, gendarmes, and police, but the security forces still represent a corporate entity under (theoretically) centralized control in a way that “self-defense groups” do not.
  • The number of abuses reportedly perpetrated by Burkinabè security forces on Malian soil is also striking. There are a few details in paragraph 40 on p. 10 – the reported abuses occurred over the period May 26-28, mostly around Boulkessi. Even if this is a burst of abuses rather than a sustained trend, it’s still very concerning – Burkinabè security force abuses on their own territory are horrific and counterproductive, but to me there is something even more destructive and destabilizing when one country’s army kills another country’s civilians. And “hatting” various Sahelien militaries as part of a singular regional force does not necessarily mean that civilians will see things that way.
  • On p. 6, paragraph 16, I was struck by the number of kidnappings jihadists perpetrated – 25 – during the reporting period. Without going through all the incidents to confirm, my impression is that many of these kidnappings are of locally prominent figures, and that the motivation can be financial but can often be political. Captives quite often turn up dead, these days (see one example here). The Saharan kidnapping economy, in terms of targeting Western tourists for huge ransoms, peaked around 2011-2013, but localized, targeted kidnapping remains prolific in northern and central Mali.
  • On pp. 6-7, the discussion of the signatory armed groups’ abuses gets very complicated, politically speaking. There are 63 abuses attributed to the two main non-government signatory blocs, the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA, ex-rebels) and the Platform (anti-CMA armed groups, or in some cases ex-CMA groups). The report notes (paragraph 24, p. 7) that the CMA functions as a de facto state in the Kidal Region but that it has no legal authority, under international law or under Malian law, to detain people – so any detentions the CMA undertakes are counted as illegal detentions and therefore as human rights abuses. I mention this not to exonerate the CMA but to underline that the category of human rights violations in the report is very broad, and ranges from illegal detention to rape, kidnapping, and murder. The report does not elaborate on the kinds of conditions that prisoners in Kidal face. I would not want to be on the CMA’s bad side but the report can also help outsiders to understand, I think, why the CMA may look better to some civilians that other armed groups do – would you rather live in CMA-controlled Kidal and try to toe the line there, or in eastern Mopti where control is fragmented and violence is endemic?
  • On p. 9, paragraph 34, the report begins to detail what it describes as the most representative incidents of Malian security force abuses against civilians. These incidents occurred in three central Malian towns (Yangassadiou, Mopti Region, June 3; Binedama, Mopti Region, June 5; and Massabougou, Segou Region, June 6). All three incidents involved summary, extrajudicial executions or indiscriminate firing at civilians.
  • The report also discusses abuses during protests, but the reporting period stopped before the infamous weekend of violence July 10-12 that followed the third mass rally by the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP), which is calling for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to step down.

What to say in conclusion? These are grim figures and trends. I will re-emphasize that I think it’s important for the policymakers and analysts who are not directly threatened on a day-to-day level by this violence to try to imagine themselves into the lives of those who are threatened and affected. My impression is that in the worst hotspots for violence – eastern Mopti Region, for example – the ordinary civilian might feel under threat from all sides, and would be more likely than not to view any armed outsider as, at best, someone to be placated; and at worst, as a mortal foe. In the south, meanwhile, I wonder how large the sporadic acts of violence loom in ordinary people’s minds – is there a sense that there is another shoe about to drop, or are these incidents isolated interruptions? Such acts of imagination can become presumptuous, of course, and ultimately I don’t really know what it’s like to live in Koro or Gao or Niafunké or Sikasso right now – but I think that some imagination is necessary to grasp the conflict dynamics as three-dimensional realities. In any case, the report is a relatively fast read at less than 14 pages, and I recommend reading it in its entirety if you have further interest.