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.