Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:

Remarks:

  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.

A Critical Reading of an Interview with Operation Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy

When writing yesterday’s post on the Franco-Sahelien security summit in Nouakchott, I spent some time looking at sources from France’s Sahel-wide counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, as part of my attempt to assess what military progress French forces have really made in the Sahel. One item I found was this interview with Barkhane’s General Cyril Carcy, Deputy for Operations. I’d like to discuss a few misconceptions – or outright errors, in my view – that appear in Carcy’s responses.

First, Carcy appears to have a somewhat strange understanding of the two main jihadist formations in the Sahel, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. One odd thing is the translation and acronym for JNIM that Carcy uses. The standard translation, in both English and French, is “the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims.” In French this is usually rendered Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans or Groupe pour le soutien de l’islam et des musulmans (in either case, abbreviated GSIM). Carcy, however, calls JNIM the “Rassemblement pour la victoire de l’Islam et des musulmans (RVIM),” which I would translate as “Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims.” Leaving the issue of “assembly” versus “group” aside, I think that translating the Arabic “nusra” as “support” or “aid” is better than translating it as “victory,” and this nuance can matter for how you understand JNIM’s self-presentation. The translator who supplied this phrase to Carcy may have been working from the Arabic version of JNIM that one sometimes sees, namely Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin, where you could translate “nasr” as “victory” (although you could also translate it as “help/support.” But in official JNIM releases I’ve typically seen “nusra” instead of “nasr.” It’s not a big deal, I suppose, but it’s just an odd note at the beginning of the interview, given how widespread the GSIM acronym and the attendant translation are in Francophone media.

More substantively, Carcy has an understanding of JNIM that is both highly al-Qaida-centric and oddly ethnicized. He says the following:

The face of Al Qaida is manifested through the Assembly for the Victory of Islam and Muslims (RVIM) created March 1st 2017 by Iyad Ag Ghali. It is an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life, fairly close to that of the Tuareg, but also aiming to preserve a space allowing itself to engage in the worst forms of trafficking.

The remark about trafficking captures something of the situation, but Carcy’s casual mention of trafficking obscures wider dynamics. As Crisis Group has written, the implication of drug traffickers in northern Mali is wide-ranging and complex:

Major traffickers maintain relations with both Malian authorities – which the latter denies – and political and military groups in the north; indeed often trafficking networks are embedded in, or overlap with, those groups, who themselves depend on trafficking to finance their operations and to buy weapons. That said, ties between armed groups and traffickers are not trouble-free: they do not always share the same interests. Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

Meanwhile, Carcy’s remarks about “an identitarian model aiming to safeguard a way of life” are basically wrong, I would say. In my view JNIM is a complex coalition. On one level, JNIM is a vehicle for the political ambitions of Iyad ag Ghali, which are related to the preservation and expansion of his own position within northern Malian politics and the politics of the entire region. Even though ag Ghali hails from a “noble” clan within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation and even though he has frequently shown those aristocratic colors in his political maneuvering, he has also proven repeatedly disruptive to hierarchies and political settlements in northern Mali and beyond. Ag Ghali is not the avatar of tradition against modernity or whatever. On another level, JNIM is the latest focal point for hardline jihadists in the region, who may have substantially affected ag Ghali’s worldview and identity, but are also not themselves fundamentally seeking to “safeguard a way of life” connected to the Tuareg (or the Arabs or the Peul). Finally, as that parenthetical indicates, JNIM is not – in my understanding – a Tuareg ethnic formation even if though is led by a prominent Tuareg politician. Ironically, when and where JNIM is accused of serving an ethnic agenda, it is accused of serving a Peul ethnic agenda in the center of Mali – and that accusation, too, is off base. In central Mali, to compress a lot of research (mostly by others!) into one sentence, JNIM has championed the interests of particular segments of society, including Peul shepherds against both Peul oligarchs and Dogon farmers. But JNIM is not trying to rewind the clock of history or to stave off historical change. Rather, JNIM seeks to be an agent of radical change not just in military facts on the ground but in intra-communal and inter-communal relations in the Mopti Region of Mali and elsewhere.

Carcy’s understanding of ISGS is also off base, I would say. Here is his framing:

ISGS is an internationalist model founded upon a millenarian ideology…Composed of young people who have turned toward jihadism for lack of social prospects, ISGS seeks to extend its zone of predation in order to increase its recruiting ground, as well as its financing through zakat [Islamic tithe].

Why is JNIM an “identitarian model” while ISGS is an “internationalist model”? If JNIM is recruiting down-and-out youth, what’s necessarily “internationalist” about that? And it is true that the Islamic State’s central leadership has been rhetorically millenarian – but is that true for ISGS? I haven’t seen much end-of-the-world talk in their statements. And is it true that most of their financing is through “zakat”? I wonder what kinds of intelligence briefings Carcy and other top Barkhane commanders are getting, and where the underlying information comes from, and how much French officials’ ideological blinders are shaping how they perceive the ideologies and functioning of these jihadist groups.

For another perspective, here it’s worth citing another Crisis Group report (.pdf, p. 1), this one on ISGS in the Tillabéri region of Niger:

In northern Tillabery, as elsewhere in the Sahel, an excessive focus on counterterrorism has however resulted in the overuse of military tools for a conflict that is fundamentally driven by inter- and intra-communal competition over rights and resources, which the Islamic State has exploited. Counter-terrorism strategies seeking to weaken jihadist groups are neither illegitimate nor unfounded, but the way they have been conducted in Niger has often enflamed the situations they seek to calm. These strategies have, for example, accelerated the militarisation of border communities and fuelled the stigmatisation of members of the Peul nomadic group, whom other local communities often regard as the Islamic State’s closest collaborators on the ground. They have also led to killings of civilians who are accused of being or are mistaken for Islamic State elements. As Niamey mounts a new counter-terrorism push in response to the surging violence along the border, local communities in northern Tillabery are already alleging that military operations have caused scores of civilian deaths.

Another strange thing about Carcy’s comments is that his framing concerning jihadist groups seems to shift from answer to answer. In the response I discussed above, JNIM is “identitarian” and ISGS is “millenarian”; in another response, without naming either group, Carcy says that the region’s jihadists were “identitarian” in 2014 when Barkhane began, but now Barkhane “must reduce a franchise that makes no demand, seeking simply to increase its zone of predation against a population already afflicted by poverty.” Which is it? And is it true that JNIM makes no coherent demands? I’m pretty sure it does – one of those demands, of course, is that France leave. Barkhane might not like that, but you can’t say it’s not clear.

Carcy, like other French officials, is also vague on another critical point – the “return of the state” and “development,” the third and fourth pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel and of the outcomes from France’s Pau summit back in January. On the one hand, it makes sense that a military commander would have more to say about the first two pillars of the Coalition, namely counterterrorism and military capacity. But Carcy’s comments toward the end of the interview, about Barkhane’s “support for political efforts for stabilization and development,” are thin. He concludes the interview by saying, “The objective is to prove to the population that there is an alternative to the terrorist system, which is a totalitarian model founded on terror.” And here we’re back to the same contradictions and outright incoherence – if jihadism offers an “identitarian model” that protects ways of life or offers protection and prospects to down-and-out youth, then how can it be a “totalitarian model founded on terror”?

I’m not sure that French officials really have a fleshed-out version of what “the return of the state” really means. Turning from military officials to the civilian side, French President Emmanuel Macron said the following at the Nouakchott summit:

Macron said that “it is the prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges who will permit us to truly turn the situation around.”

This is slightly more detailed than what one hears from Barkhane commanders, of course, but it’s still basically a cliche, and one that gives no sense that France has a theory of change about how exactly these civilian authorities will “return” to the conflict zones. Moreover, French officials seem to not understand the fact that civilian authorities’ behavior (the “rackets” that Adam Thiam and others have written so carefully about) in certain zones – the behavior of those same prefects, magistrates, police officers, and judges – was a crucial factor in setting the stage for the present conflict.

Finally, Macron’s remarks about the “return of the state” are effectively undercut, I think, by rhetoric like this:

“We only have one enemy in the Sahel: Islamist terrorism.”

Rida Lyammouri responds better than I could:

And again, you see the problems not just with Macron’s remarks but with Carcy’s – what is France really doing in the Sahel? Fighting “totalitarianism” and “millenarianism,” in other words fanatics? Or trying to maneuver in an extraordinarily complicated political context where ordinary fighters have multi-faceted motivations for aligning themselves with various armed groups? The conceptual framework that Macron, Carcy, and others are using is both simplistic and self-contradictory, and one wonders how any effective policy can be founded upon such a framework.

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.]

Roundup of Analyses on the JNIM-ISGS Conflict

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are the two most prominent jihadist groups in the Sahel. JNIM, created in 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations, is formally part of al-Qaida’s hierarchy. ISGS, created in 2015, is of course part of the Islamic State, which considers ISGS part of their “West Africa Province.” Analytically, I still don’t think it’s worth conflating ISGS with the West Africa Province, though, given that in common usage Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) refers to the Boko Haram offshoot whose theater of operations is the Lake Chad Basin. Your mileage on that discussion may vary.

Recently, there has been a wave of analyses about what appears to be a fundamentally new stage in the relationship between JNIM and ISGS. For context, JNIM is a coalition that formed in 2017, and ISGS, which formed in 2015, is an offshoot of one of JNIM’s components. Through late 2019, it appeared that JNIM and ISGS had some kind of non-aggression pact and it sometimes appeared that they were cooperating. The two groups are now in open conflict, including in the media arena – one driver for the recent coverage has been not just physical clashes but the publication of an anti-JNIM writeup in the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ 233 (May 7) which can be found here.

Here are three interventions on the JNIM-ISGS conflict that stood out to me:

1. Wassim Nasr, “ISIS in Africa: The End of the ‘Sahel Exception’,” Center for Global Policy, June 2. Two excerpts – here is the first:

The recent statements from [the important JNIM leader Amadou] Kufa suggest that the fear of defections from JNIM to join ISIS was real and justified a fight. His statements also suggest that recruits are receiving ideological teachings focused on building committed and dogmatic fighters. In the same line of efforts, an official audio of Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud), head of AQIM, was issued on March 16. Among many things, he stressed the “duty to avoid harming ordinary Muslims and not to attack civilians among them,” in contradiction to the still dominant local popular perception of ISIS’s extremist attitude toward al-Aama, or “the common Muslim,” though he avoided naming the group.

And the second:

The effect of JNIM’s acceptance of negotiations [with the Malian government] emboldened ISIS as many recruits joined its ranks from the Fulani community in Mali and Niger – a community that had provided JNIM with recruits before. Kufa was forced to seek help from other ethnic JNIM components in fighting in central Mali. This could put ISIS in the Sahel  in a situation similar to the one ISIS faced in Syria in 2013, when the group was uprooted from many areas before it regrouped and seized most of the east and the north. The Fulani ISIS commander in the Sahel, Abdel-Hakim al-Sahrawi, reached out to Kufa with a message, which the author has seen. In the message, he asked for a truce and the respect of rules of engagement and warned Kufa against infighting among the Fulani.

2. Yvan Guichaoua had a thoughtful thread on Twitter, in French, on June 5, responding to some of Nasr’s analysis and discussing how to weight local and global dynamics that affect jihadist movements. The thread starts here:

I’ll translate the sixth and seventh posts in the series:

The two pitfalls to avoid are clearly: i) to bring everything back to the local, ii) to see, in events, only the projection on the terrain of grand scripts written elsewhere. In my eyes, the only way to avoid these pitfalls is to do meticulous, punctilious history, that is to say reconstructing the chains of events and the immediate logics that provoke them.

3. Flore Berger, “Sahel – A New Battlefield between IS and Al-Qaeda?” The Africa Report, June 4. An excerpt:

ISGS has, together with JNIM, been active in the Gourma, on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border, for months. In mid-April, confrontations intensified with the ISGS launching a series of attacks on five consecutive days against JNIM units in the Malian Gourma and then on the Burkinabe side where the group killed 60 JNIM militants and took 40 prisoners.

ISGS thus decided to shift its focus there, but also expanded further north into the Inland Niger Delta. In Dialloubé, for example, they have been travelling to villages announcing their arrival for months, and have started to recruit with the offer of money and motorbikes.

It also promised militants that they could keep the spoils of war — a direct challenge to Kouffa’s centralised system in which he would control the allocation of rewards. Similar unverified reports have been gathered from the other side of the border, for example around Djibo, Burkina Faso. [All emphases are in the original.]

French-language summaries of the conflict can be found in Libération and Médiapart, although both are paywalled.

There is also a bit of background discussion about JNIM and ISGS in Crisis Group’s new report on ISGS in the Tillabéri Region of Niger (see pp. 4-5), but the JNIM-ISGS conflict is not a focus of that report. Note that much of the preceding analysis focuses on clashes in Mali and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, rather than Niger. Of Tillabéri, Crisis Group writes (p. 5):

[Adnan Abu Walid al-] Sahraoui’s Islamic State chapter thus went from being one of several jihadist groups based in the border zone to virtually dominating the entire space. Tactically, its implantation across the zone has also delivered important advantages on the battlefield. Rather than needing to occupy particular towns or villages, the Islamic State can call upon diffuse forces across the border region to mobilise, such that, when a call is issued, dozens of fighters on motorbikes can suddenly appear out of nowhere to swarm a target and then melt back quickly into the bush once they have executed their attack. Fighting in this manner maximises the impact and surprise of Islamic State operations and makes it virtually impossible for the authorities and their international allies to target Islamic State fighters with airstrikes. Though the Islamic State has developed a reputation elsewhere for mass atrocities against heterodox Muslims and non-Muslims, its Sahel affiliate has generally adhered to an approach that appears designed to win the trust and cooperation of northern Tillabery’s Sunni Muslims. The group is known to assassinate those who collaborate with the state, especially local chiefs, but it has for the most part eschewed large-scale targeting of civilians in northern Tillabery.

This snapshot reinforces Guichaoua’s caution about not projecting “grand scripts” onto events on the ground. ISGS is not necessarily always and everywhere harsh and uncompromising.

On a separate note, I’m planning to address the reported death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Abdelmalek Droukdel in a post tomorrow.

Where in the Chain of Command Do Security Force Abuses Originate?

Recently, two pieces that touch on security force abuses in the Sahel caught my eye.

One is Héni Nsaibia’s excellent piece for ACLED, “State Atrocities in the Sahel: The Impetus for Counterinsurgency Results Is Fueling Government Attacks on Civilians.” An excerpt:

Ahead of the end of the rainy season in August 2019, ISGS [the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara] and JNIM [Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims] – in tandem – launched an offensive in the tri-state border area, also known as the Liptako-Gourma. It was a campaign in which military outposts were overrun like dominoes, forcing government troops to tactically withdraw from the border areas and leave previously contested territory under militant control. These developments underscored the lack of cooperation and coordination between the constituents of the struggling regional G5-Sahel force, for years promoted as an effective coalition to address the jihadi threat (Ouest-France, 2018). Amid mounting popular discontent in Mali over the presence of foreign forces as Malian soldiers were killed in scores (RFI, 2020), French president Emmanuel Macron summoned the leaders from the G5-Sahel countries to clarify their positions on France’s role in the Sahel. During the summit convened on 13 January 2020 in the French town of Pau, a roadmap was outlined to counter the jihadi onslaught (The Conversation, 2020). France decided to deploy 600 supplemental troops to its Barkhane mission (Le Monde, 2020), ensued by the official launch of ‘Takuba’, a task force gathering special forces from several European countries aimed at shoring up Barkhane and Malian forces in the fight against jihadi groups (Ouest-France, 2020). The primary focus of the counter-offensive was to be ISGS, now the ‘Greater Sahara’ faction of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Although the group carried out some of the deadliest attacks targeting security forces to date, this announcement largely neglected the comparable threat posed by its Al Qaeda counterpart, JNIM (Liberation, 2019; DW, 2020).

In the wake of the Pau meeting, state violence targeting civilians increased in all three countries as local and foreign forces stepped up their operations. If the Pau Summit did not encourage civilian targeting, it evidently appears to be a direct consequence.

The other piece that struck me was Judd Devermont and Leanne Erdberg Steadman’s “Defending the U.S. Military Presence in Africa for Reasons Beyond Counterterrorism,” published at Lawfare. Obviously, from the title, their article is only partly about security force abuses, but here is what they said on that score:

In places like Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia, U.S. forces and partner militaries can support longer term efforts to prevent violent extremism from taking hold in the first place. The United States can help partners set up joint operations centers where, in real time, the U.S. military can showcase how intelligence-driven operations reduce accidents, lower civilian casualties, and foster information sharing (including with gendarmes and police) that saves lives. And it can do more to promoteopen dialogues with communities on threats and prevention strategies.

 

If the United States wants to reduce the threat of terrorism in Africa, partnerships need to mean much more than just limited counterterrorism objectives. In too many African contexts, terrorists easily step in to establish themselves as a viable alternative to the government when those in power are corrupt, venal, and direct security forces to kill and abuse civilians for political gain. [Emphasis mine – Alex.] In those cases, the U.S. military’s most effective intervention is assisting partner nations to improve their behavior and rebuild trust. Because when U.S. forces support efforts to repair the broken bonds of governance and positively impact the behavior of African security forces, it reinforces the idea that the state’s job is to protect people, instead of going after them. And that might end up being the most potent type of counterterrorism the United States can ever help with.

These posts got me thinking: Where exactly do security force abuses originate within the chain of command? I am definitely open to the argument that they are top-down. Nsaibia builds a strong, if circumstantial, case for the effect of the Pau summit. But I find Devermont and Steadman’s characterization too strong – I don’t think security force abuses are necessarily directed from the top, and I don’t think that when civilian leaders order or tolerate abuses, it is necessarily because they see political advantage in them. Sometimes leaders may be cognizant that an abuse-laden strategy of collective punishment is a poor approach – they may even realize that is counterproductive – but then acquiesce to it or order it anyways, perceiving themselves to have no alternative. None of this is to exculpate the Sahel’s leaders – but I am not sure that individual-level venality, or even the venality of different countries’ political classes as a whole, has that much explanatory power.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any academic literature on these questions in my initial searches on Google Scholar (that doesn’t mean it’s not out there!).* If any readers know of relevant work, please point it out.

Here are a few points that occurred to me. As a provisional framework, it made sense to me to think about five levels where the decision to commit abuses might originate: the individual soldier, the unit, the theater/campaign, the top military leadership, and the civilian leadership. Building on Nsaibia’s piece, one could add a sixth level – the foreign patron government – if one wants to be cynical about who takes orders from whom, or at least who responds to pressure from whom.

1: There Is a Difference Between Top-Down Systems of Abuse and Systems of Impunity; But Impunity for Major Abuses Runs, By Definition, All the Way Up the Chain.

The analyst cannot always be sure where abuses originate within the chain of command; the data are often limited and hard to confirm, and the workings of any given military chain of command and military culture can be opaque to outsiders. It is worth it, though, to make an analytical distinction between “systems of abuse” and “systems of impunity,” because they might look roughly the same from a distance but have very different internal mechanisms and very different policy ramifications (more on this below). Just because abuse is widespread does not necessarily mean there is a top-down, centrally-directed system of abuse; not everyone in the chain of command is automatically implicated in the abuse itself. Yet impunity for abuses does implicate everyone, by definition, because even if the top military leadership or the civilian authorities are not ordering abuses, their acquiescence is needed to create a system of impunity. Consider three possibilities:

  1. Civilian authorities create a system of abuse and a system of impunity;
  2. Abuses originate down the chain, so there is not necessarily a system of abuse, but civilian authorities provide a system of impunity in response or by default;
  3. Abuses originate down the chain and civilian authorities punish abusers.

2: Widespread Individual-Level Abuses Point to a System of Impunity

This is an extension of the previous point. Even if, for the sake or argument, all abuses in a given country were generated at the individual level (for example, the soldier pressuring a woman for sex in an IDP camp), I think that if such abuses are widespread it indicates that a system of impunity, by design or by default, is in place – otherwise most individuals would not continue to abuse. In other words, the “bad apples” argument cannot be sustained if a lot of individuals are committing abuses.

3: Unit-Level Abuses Can Be Self-Generated or Directed from Above

When a particular unit becomes infamous for committing abuses, that in and of itself does not necessarily tell us whether there is a wider system of abuse in place. On the one hand, the unit could be a “rotten egg” whose abuses are known and deplored, but which is also provided impunity by superiors (military or civilian) in the chain of command. Perhaps the unit is particularly feared, or the costs of disciplining it are perceived as too great, and so superiors do not act. On the other hand, an abuse-prone unit may in and of itself constitute a top-down system of abuse if superiors deliberately leverage that unit for a particular purpose, “letting it off the leash” while keeping other units restrained – or attempting to play “good cop, bad cop.”

4: Theater-Level Abuses Would Be Difficult to Sustain Without Buy-In from the Top Military Brass

As discussed above, if one finds a single unit regularly committing abuses, it’s plausible under certain circumstances that the unit itself is generating those abuses without orders from above. But a pattern of abuses throughout an entire theater of operations – say, northeastern Nigeria – is very unlikely to persist without approval and probably direction from the top military brass. That is, in a context where multiple units are committing abuses within the same theater, and where the pattern persists despite rotations in theater commanders and other key personnel, then a real system of abuse very likely exists all the way up and down the chain of command.

5: Theater-Level or Military-Wide Abuses Can Be Generated by Commanders or by Pressure from Civilian Leaders; If the Former, Civilian Leaders Are Likely Cowed

If an entire theater, or an entire military, is characterized by abuses, this automatically implicates the civilian leadership in a system of impunity, but it does not mean that civilian leaders are directing the abuses. Civilian leaders could, conceivably, be deploring the abuses but feel powerless to stop them – perhaps out of fear of a coup, or through more subtle forms of intimidation that militaries can bring to bear against civilian leaders (strategic leaks of government deliberations, for example).

6: Civilian Leaders Can Encourage/Order Abuses Enthusiastically or Reluctantly

Now we are discussing situations where the system of abuse is truly systemic, and runs not only up and down the military chain of command but includes the civilian leaders as well. Even in such situations, however, there are still multiple variants. Consider a scenario like that suggested by Devermont and Steadman above: Civilian leaders enthusiastically order abuses in the pursuit of perceived political gain, punishing political opponents and intimidating the population writ large. But other scenarios are possible: civilian leaders, particularly in states with few resources and where the central state’s knowledge of restive peripheries is thin, might feel that they have no real option other than to “crack a few heads.” Civilian leaders may be influenced by select interlocutors from the conflict zones, who promote harsh approaches, demonize particular communities, and sell the central authorities on a strategy of deliberate abuse. And then there is the scenario that Nsaibia suggests – pressure from above, in other words from a major foreign power.

7: The Net Effects of Unit-Generated Abuses Combined with Systems of Impunity, Versus Top-Down Systems of Abuse, May Appear Similar – But the Policy Responses May Have to Be Different

This takes us back to the discussion in points 1 and 3 – it is not always easy to tell how deliberately or systematically the civilian leaders are promoting abuses. The net effects of different scenarios may look the same: in other words, widespread abuses and suffering. If widespread abuses are encouraged up and down the chain, then the policy response by international actors may need to involve substantial pressure on the actors at the top of the chain to make them cut off the flow of orders promoting abuses. But if one concludes that civilian leaders are only reluctantly allowing impunity for abuses, that civilians are hostages to the military leadership on this issue, or that the top military brass’ role in the abuses is ambivalent because of fear of a particular unit or of backlash from the rank-and-file generally, then the policy focus may need to shift elsewhere – to creating conditions that would give space to civilian leaders to discipline those abuse-prone units, etc.

*There is, obviously, a wide literature on civil-military relations. My superficial sense is that much of the literature on civil-military relations in Africa concerns coups. Then there is the massive NGO literature on incidents of abuse, and I am implicitly drawing on some of that here, but I have not seen an NGO report present a systematic typology of where and how abuses occur; impressionistically, many reports seem to describe abuses at what I am calling the unit and theater levels.

COVID-19 and Jihadists, Part Two

See part one here, where I lay out a few reasons to be skeptical of the now widespread media/think tank narrative saying COVID-19 benefits jihadists. I’m going to revisit this as necessary because I think the narrative is still very flawed. It’s still too soon to tell.

For example, last week saw a piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The piece opens with a seemingly strong argument, seemingly backed by data:

Sub-Saharan African extremist groups are poised to make strategic gains during the Covid-19 outbreak, outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, and groups have begun to release pandemic-related propaganda. Meanwhile, African states—like governments worldwide—are shifting military resources to the pandemic response, potentially undercutting counterterrorism operations.

On closer examination, though, there are problems:

  1. The individual attacks and incidents discussed in the piece don’t fit the supposed pattern. In one paragraph, the authors cite three incidents: the March 19 attack on a Malian army base; the March 25 kidnapping of Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé; and the March 22-23 attack by Boko Haram on Chad. At the time of all of these incidents, however, confirmed case counts in Mali, Nigeria, and Chad were very low. Mali didn’t even confirm its first two cases under March 25; Nigeria’s first confirmed case was reported on February 27, but Nigeria only reported its first COVID death on March 23; and Chad’s first official case was on March 19. One could make the argument that the global pandemic and/or the response to it was already emboldening jihadists and constraining security responses in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin by mid-March, but I think even that is a tough sell. When we look at the kidnapping of Cissé, moreover, it could arguably be blamed not on jihadists being emboldened by the pandemic but on Malian authorities’ decision to press ahead with legislative elections despite the pandemic – Cissé was kidnapped while campaigning in the ultra-dangerous southern Timbuktu Region. And the reality may be even murkier than that; one account (French) says that Cissé had actually brokered a deal with local jihadists to campaign in their area, but was then kidnapped by a rival jihadist group. Assessing the causal role of COVID-19 in any of these incidents is pretty difficult, to say the least, and there are a lot of grounds for blaming other factors.
  2. The trend lines were already bad. The ACLED numbers quoted by the authors sound bad, but they do not unpack them – and they do not contextualize them. 2017-2019 were already very bad and worsening years for Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency in northeastern Nigeria/Lake Chad has been quite bad for some time as well. A 37% jump in violent attacks sounds bad (and again, the authors don’t unpack this – attacks by whom?), but consider that Burkina Faso had a 25% jump in displacements from January to February 2020, or that there was a roughly 57% increase between December 2019 and January 2020 in what the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker calls “incidents” in the Boko Haram conflict – meaning, to put it less dramatically, that there were 19 incidents in December and 30 in January. So for one thing, the numbers concerning attacks, deaths, and displacements are just bad all around; and for another, there is significant variation in levels of attacks even without a pandemic around. Certainly COVID-19 must be having an impact on these conflict zones, but in complex ways and in combination with other factors.
  3. Jihadist governance can be brittle. I wrote this in the last post, but it’s worth revisiting here. The authors argue that jihadist propaganda and service delivery will win them support while governments stumble. But it is not at all clear that jihadists are skilled at managing humanitarian emergencies – in fact, they often create humanitarian emergencies around them, and many, many people simply flee jihadist control. The authors of the CSIS piece write, “Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments.” But this is not evidence of success, it is only evidence of propaganda; meanwhile, various experts have argued that al-Shabab grossly mismanaged the 2011 famine in Somalia. Here is one quote from a study: “Al-Shabaab has poorly managed the famine crises. The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) has declared that the crisis broke in several southern regions of Somalia. Al-Shabaab had expelled most of the intergovernmental and non-governmental relief organizations. They have also denied that there was a famine in the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek food and shelter in TFG- controlled Mogadishu and neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. To the victims, al-Shabaab was complicit in their suffering” (emphasis added, because that’s a crucial point – jihadists’ propaganda can be clumsy, it’s not always masterful). If jihadists botch their pandemic response through inflexibility, lying, and harsh treatment of civilians, it could be a setback for them in various ways.
  4. African militaries are not necessarily pulling back yet. Here, the authors seem to conflate possibilities with actualities. They write, “A memo from Nigeria’s army headquarters called on soldiers to be on ‘maximum security alert and be ready for deployment’ and suspended leave passages for all personnel.” But suspending leaves doesn’t mean that counterterrorism is slackening (it might be, it might not be!). A glance at the Nigerian Army’s Facebook page shows them heralding supposed counterterrorism successes as recently as April 29. There are a lot of competing claims and counter-claims to sort out when it comes to the Nigerian military’s own propaganda, obviously, but one shouldn’t assume that militaries will pull back. In fact, recently there have been several excellent (and disturbing) Twitter threads (see below) from experts pointing to patterns of severe and persistent security force abuses in the Sahel. Will CSIS write a piece arguing that COVID-19 is emboldening security forces to commit abuses? It seems to me you could make that case just as easily as the case that the pandemic is emboldening jihadists.
  5. International forces are not yet pulling back majorly. The authors even note this themselves, despite the title of the relevant section of their piece – and furthermore, Irish troops coming back from peacekeeping in Mali, and the British suspending a training mission in Kenya, do not add up to a major shift. And as I said in the last piece, it’s way too soon to tell with some of these supposed trends. And one might even wonder whether international forces pulling back a bit – say, if AFRICOM did ease up on drone strikes – might not improve the overall situation a bit in Somalia and elsewhere.
  6. The policy recommendations are thin and predictable. “Enhance civilian outreach,” “uplift religious leaders,” and “exploit insurgent missteps.” None of these ideas are new, and there is a particularly unfortunate line saying “Somali imams and teachers, in collaboration with Somali government ministries, have been broadcasting best practices for staying safe during the pandemic—tying them to Koranic dictates.” The authors act surprised that imams would try to keep people safe (!), and act as though this basic function of religious leaders should be harnessed to some kind of counterterrorism agenda. But most Muslim clerics around the world have been trying to protect their co-religionists (and their societies more broadly) while remaining true to their visions of what authentic Islam is. In fact, it’s probably better to let religious leaders speak for themselves rather than trying to “uplift” them, because there are substantial dangers into trying to fashion clerics into the mouthpieces of some kind of “official Islam” – governments trying to co-opt clerics can even inadvertently undercut them. Finally, one irony in the “exploit insurgent missteps” is that the point the authors are making is both obvious and in some instances already happening. The authors write, “if extremists attempt to launch operations beyond their capabilities and overextend themselves, security forces should retaliate, hitting poorly defended bases and safe havens.” This is effectively what Chad has done, although there are real limits to what Chad’s offensive is likely to accomplish. In any event, it’s odd that if the authors consider the situation so scary, that they didn’t put more effort into the policy recommendations.

Relevant Twitter threads on security force abuses:

War on the Rocks Piece About France, Mali, and JNIM

I have a piece at War on the Rocks today arguing that France should reduce counterterrorism operations and manhunts in Mali in order to give more space to a potential dialogue between the Malian government and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). As always, readers’ comments would be welcome.

Three Recent(ish) Articles on the Death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam

Last month I wrote about the reported death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam, a key field commander and senior official for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and, at the time of his death, the number two in Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). I wanted to flag three other pieces (all in French) for readers who are particularly interested in this issue:

  • RFI gives a readout of an audio message from Malian national and (ex-?) jihadist Sidan ag Hitta, wherein he says that Abu al-Hammam is indeed dead. A bit of background on ag Hitta can be found here, but the story has many twists and turns. Telling which jihadists are alive and which are dead is trickier than ever, as anyone following Amadou Kouffa’s saga knows.
  • Kibaru, citing anonymous sources, gives interesting if difficult-to-confirm details about the end of Abu al-Hammam’s life. That article goes on to speculate a bit about the future of AQIM and JNIM, and also gives a good overview of Abu al-Hammam’s jihadist career in Mali and Mauritania.
  • Libération puts Abu al-Hammam’s life and death in a wider context of politics, violence, and Mali’s overall trajectory.