On 23 March, attackers killed over 130 people in the central Malian villages of Ogossagou and Welingara, inhabited by members of the Peul ethnic group. The attackers were reportedly dressed as, and were most likely actual members of, the Dogon hunters’ association/militia Dan Na Ambassagou – although the group’s formal leader has denied his fighters’ involvement.
The massacre has elicited a tremendous amount of commentary, some of which I’ve rounded up here.
ACLED gives wider context about violence in the Sahel, providing key figures on casualties and trends.
Gregory Mann, at Africa Is a Country, explains and laments how the logic of the violence continues to unfold and escalate:
This—the militias, the murders, the indiscriminate score-settling that will be (and has already been) dubbed “ethnic violence”—is exactly what observers feared the most, seven years ago. This form of violence—and the army’s obvious failure to prevent it and potential complicity in it—is exactly the genie that won’t go back in the box. Who will forget the murdered village? It won’t be the end of the story, only the beginning. There will be revenge, and revenge for the revenge. Who wouldn’t, under these circumstances, create a self-defense militia? Why wouldn’t Bamana, Dogon, Minianka, Bwa look to the hunters, the donso? Why wouldn’t the Peuhl arm themselves, as they have done, as will everyone else? Reciting the holy trinity of conflict resolution—disarmament, demobilization, reintegration—sounds like so much whistling in the wind.
Gilles Yabi, at WATHI (French), puts the massacres in the wider context of abuses by both the militaries and community-based militias in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré, at The Conversation (French), reflects on the longer history of Peul-Dogon relations in Mopti.
At Liberation (French), a good interview with Yvan Guichaoua.
To prevent further escalation of violence, [United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama] Dieng urged the Malian Government – with the support of the international community, and the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSMA – to immediately address the current grave upsurge of violence in central Mali and to provide, with no further delay, protection as well as assistance to vulnerable population.
“I call on the Malian government to urgently investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the recent attacks as well as those responsible for serious violations and abuses of human rights.” he said, adding that the authorities and all Malians should “prevent and refrain from stigmatizing entire communities”.
MENASTREAM summarizes things bluntly:
As does Andrew Lebovich:
Aurelien Tobie reflects on the role of research and researchers before and after this tragedy:
Finally, it’s worth noting that protests have occurred over this incident – protests not just in Mali but also in the diaspora. For example, Malians demonstrated in front of the Malian embassy in Mauritania last week (Arabic).
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.
If you’re not familiar with the background about the recent dispute between the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and Malian authorities concerning the CMA’s 30 January declaration of new regulations for Kidal, then start here.
Now that the CMA has (partly?) walked back the regulations, CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla gave an interesting interview to the Malian newspaper 22 Septembre. Three quick points:
- Whereas the CMA’s 30 January declaration only implicitly referenced the 2015 Algiers Accord and its provisions concerning the empowerment of Qadis/Cadis/Islamic judges in northern Mali, here ag Intalla explicitly references that part of the Accord. He emphasized that the CMA remains committed to implementing and observing the Accord.
- Ag Intalla expresses considerable concern about artisanal gold mining in Kidal and how it brings foreigners (i.e., from West African countries) to the region. Conflicts between authorities and gold miners are now occurring in parts of the Sahel from Mali to Chad, so it’s an important trend to watch. New patterns of human movement connected to gold mining make a lot of people nervous – and/or provide a pretext for authorities and would-be authorities to assert greater control.
- Whereas the CMA’s critics see the regulations as undermining and challenging state authority, ag Intalla explains them as a response to the state’s absence. Viewed from a certain vantage point, this starts to look like a chicken and egg problem. On the other hand, one could argue that the state is weak/absent in Kidal in large part because the CMA has blocked and discouraged state efforts to reassert control.
According to the French Ministry of Defense, Operation Barkhane killed Yahya Abu al-Hammam and ten other members of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) on February 21 in the Timbuktu Region of Mali. The death of Abu al-Hammam, as the French noted, follows two other JNIM leaders’ (reported) deaths in roughly the past year: Amadou Kouffa, reportedly killed on the night of November 22-23, 2018 in the Mopti Region; and Abu Hasan al-Ansari, killed on February 14, 2018 in the Kidal Region.
If we look back to JNIM’s announcement video from March 2017, when JNIM formally brought together four (depending on how you count it) jihadist movements/units in the Sahara, we see that of the five men featured in the video, only two remain alive: JNIM’s overall leader Iyad ag Ghali, and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, a judge with JNIM’s parent organization al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).*
On one level, this acceleration in the decapitation of JNIM is a remarkable success for French counterterrorism. On another level, however, we can look at the same images from JNIM’s announcement video and see, vividly, the limits of decapitation. Abu al-Hammam and al-Ansari, after all, were not just deputies in JNIM but were themselves former deputies within individual movements and battalions. In a sense, Abu al-Hammam’s seat at the table might have gone to the AQIM battalion commander ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, had Abu Zayd not been killed by French and Chadian forces in February 2013. Al-Ansari’s seat at the table might have gone to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of al-Murabitun, had Belmokhtar not been killed (or at least forced to go into deep hiding) by a French airstrike in Libya in November 2016. Alternatively, al-Ansari’s seat might have gone to Ahmed al-Tilemsi, had the latter not been killed by French forces in Kidal Region in December 2014.
Last month I wrote a piece at War on the Rocks focusing on Abu al-Hammam’s long career in Timbuktu and analyzing some of the political opportunities and constraints he encountered. So I have some appreciation for the accumulated jihadist capital and expertise that he represented. His death is a major event in the history of jihadism in the Sahara, and it could even be taken as a symbol for the passing of a whole generation. And yet, Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar had formidable accumulated capital as well, in terms of local and translocal networks, local knowledge, symbolic resonance, and military and political experience. Were they irreplaceable?
The situation in Mali has deteriorated, I think, not so much due to personalities as to trends. Each successive stage in the deterioration of the conflict has activated new patterns of violence, as well as new developments in hyper-local politics. In a recent and insightful article, Yvan Guichaoua and Héni Nsaibia call attention to the ways that widely used lenses for viewing jihadist expansion in the Sahel – individual-level radicalization and jihadist exploitation of topography and geography – fail to capture the ways that interactions between communities and jihadists drive expansion. The success or failure of jihadist interactions with communities and groups may depend partly on the savviness of top leaders, but not entirely or even predominantly, especially once you get to village-level dynamics.
Additionally, the conflict has produced jihadist leaders even as jihadist leaders have fed conflict – for example, not to be completely Tolstoy-an in my view of history, but someone like Amadou Kouffa can be viewed as both an agent in and a product of the crisis in Mopti. It takes more than force of will or sharpness of intellect to turn a former itinerant preacher into the face of a mass movement. How many people outside of Mali had heard of Amadou Kouffa before 2015? Before 2012? How many Kouffas are rising through the ranks now, their names not yet infamous?
Were I in Barkhane’s shoes and thinking in military terms, of course I would focus on killing top jihadists. But as Andrew Lebovich has laid out, in a piece that delves into Kouffa’s life and his Janus-faced self-presentation as jihadist leader and would-be ethnic champion, the political opportunities created by decapitation are short-lived and hard to exploit. In the wake of Kouffa’s death, Lebovich urged the Malian government to disarm militias and also urged international actors to not only help the Malian state return to Mopti, but return in a way that elicits ordinary citizens’ buy-in. These are immense challenges and without political progress, Barkhane is likely to continue knocking off top commanders without reversing the wider deterioration. On that note, I have also written about how various actors inside and outside Mali appear relatively comfortable with the overall status quo.
Meanwhile I am, honestly, skeptical whether there is even a net gain from some of these counterterrorism operations. At some point, I think there will have to be dialogue between the Malian government and the jihadists, or at the very least a kind of quiet and tacit agreement to stop fighting. I worry that decapitation will breed fragmentation in jihadist ranks that makes dialogue and peace harder to achieve. And I worry that putting big Xs through photographs of top jihadists will be mistaken for a sign of overall progress. And finally, I think that foreign forces may be exacerbating violence through their very presence. I’m not sure France has much of a plan other than to keep killing jihadists, and that might take a long time to work, if it ever works.
*I assume al-Sanhaji is still alive, and could find no reports of his death – but readers, please correct me if I’m wrong.
On 19 February, the Malian government announced that it had secured the liberation of Makan Doumbia and Issaka Tamboura; the former is the prefect of Tenenkou Cercle, one of the most troubled districts in the central Mopti Region, while the latter is a journalist who was kidnapped in Douentza Cercle, another troubled Mopti area. The two men were seized in separate incidents in Mopti in 2018, and were also liberated on different days.
As RFI details, various theories are circulating as to how the Malian government obtained the releases. RFI casts doubt on the idea that a military rescue operation occurred, suggesting that there is a greater likelihood of a prisoner exchange.
A reporter from Sahelian.com was able to meet Doumbia during his captivity (see this video and report). The kidnappers identified themselves as members of Katibat Macina or Macina Battalion, part of the jihadist coalition the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (Arabic acronym JNIM). It is quite possible that the journalist’s contact with Doumbia was a key step toward his release, although Sahelien has not to my knowledge commented on that aspect of the affair.
Local politicians and government officials have been recurring targets of violence and intimidation, and government authority has unraveled in Mopti partly because of the cumulative and mutually reinforcing effects of assassinations and kidnappings of village heads, sub-prefects, prefects, and so forth. Jihadist kidnappings have also targeted relatively ordinary citizens, such as teachers; such kidnappings appear designed to serve not just as sources of financing but also as techniques of control over local populations. At the same time, one feature of the Mopti crisis is its opacity and murkiness – it is not always clear who is killing whom, or who is kidnapping whom.
In any case, the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was eager to broadcast this bit of good news from Mopti – the two men met not just IBK, but also Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga and four other prominent cabinet ministers in a highly publicized event. The proceedings seem designed to show that the Malian government cares deeply about its citizens.
But as Sahelien and others have pointed out, other hostages have died during captivity in Mopti, while still others remain unaccounted for.
My title here is intentionally provocative – the reference is to a recent RFI article discussing new regulations handed down by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA, a bloc of ex-rebels) in Kidal, northeastern Mali, on 30 January. As of 19 February, the CMA was “backpedaling” (see below), but the issue remains a live and contentious one.
From the first RFI article, regarding the initial regulations:
The CMA, which has administered the city for many years, is taking charge of new sectors of security and justice, replacing the State. The rules are stricter: the sale and consumption of alcohol are henceforth forbidden, foreigners* must have a local guardian, and as for the role of Qadi or Islamic judge, it appears strengthened. The inability of the State to assume its responsibilities in northern Mali continues to pose a problem.
The full CMA declaration, signed by CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla, can be found here. Notably, a lot of the press coverage focused on the alcohol ban and restrictions on foreigners, but the declaration also devotes substantial attention to traffic issues and, in particular, says that armed motorcyclists and pedestrians will be brought before the Islamic tribunal and have their bikes and weapons destroyed. There is a a debate to be had over how much any Islamization at work here is actually subordinate to the CMA’s bid for securitization; it might be going too far to say that the CMA is using Islam as a tool for taking greater physical control of Kidal, but at the very least one can say that Islamization/Qadi-fication is only one part of a larger ambition to expand the CMA’s roles in both security and non-security sectors (including health).
The RFI article caused a bit of controversy because it drew heavily on comments by the researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel, who has been criticized by other Mali specialists (Malian and non-Malian) for allegedly being too close to the CMA. For example:
(Translation: “With researchers like this, the CMA doesn’t need spokesmen any more.”)
My view, however, is that of Guichaoua:
The controversy over Bouhlel, I would say, is a microcosm of two larger debates – (a) have the CMA and Malian Tuareg/Arab rebels systematically obtained more favorable media coverage than they deserve? and (b) is the CMA more nefarious than it sometimes appears in the media?
In any case, there are some other dynamics to highlight here. Recently in one of the courses I’m teaching, civil wars, we discussed Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers and Paul Staniland’s “Wartime Political Orders.” To crude simplify things, one point Mampilly makes is that rebels (or ex-rebels?) develop governance models partly through interaction with civilian populations, whose preferences and needs can shape rebels’ decisions. This is what Bouhlel argues – namely, that the CMA is responding to civilian needs for greater security, and that the CMA is drawing on longstanding idioms of governance in the region. One point Staniland makes is that states and rebels (or ex-rebels?) negotiate different arrangements during wartime, including what Staniland terms “spheres of influence.” The CMA and the Malian government are constantly renegotiating their relationship and probing the limits of the other party’s influence (and these are not the only actors in northern Mali or even in Kidal, of course).
Here it’s worth noting that the CMA’s new rules are at least loosely grounded in the 2015 Algiers Accord, which mentions (.pdf, article 46, pp. 12-13) the “reassertion of the value of the role of Cadis [Qadis] in the administration of justice, notably in terms of civil mediation in a way that accounts for cultural, religious, and customary specificities.” Other actors, however, are unpersuaded that the CMA’s rules have any legitimacy – Ahmed Boutache, president of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (French acronym CSA), denounced the CMA’s rules as “a flagrant violation of the accord…and an infringement of the sovereign prerogatives of the government of the Republic of Mali.” I see these competing statements as not just legal disagreements but also, again, as a way that each side is probing the limits of the other’s authority and legitimacy.
This brings us back to the issue of the CMA’s “backpedaling,” with the CMA’s 19 February statement acknowledging the authority of the Malian state at the local level and expressing willingness for a dialogue over how to move forward on security and the role of the Qadis. Both the CMA and the state, I think, are in essence making offers and counteroffers amid an evolving and unstable situation.
One wishes, meanwhile, that one knew more about who exactly the Qadis were/are/will be:
Personnel, as they say, is policy.
A final point to consider, and one mentioned in the first RFI article linked above, is the issue of influence from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM). RFI quoted an anonymous official from Kidal denouncing the CMA’s new rules as a reflection of JNIM’s pernicious influence. The CMA, which includes some former members of Ansar al-Din, one of JNIM’s constituent parts, is regularly accused of maintaining contacts with JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali. But all of this brings us back to the question of what all these actors want – would ag Ghali be content with a “shari’a-compliant,” autonomous Kidal? Or does he want something more? And was the CMA channeling ag Ghali’s influence – or attempting to undercut it? I’ve tried to get at the complexity of “jihadist politics” in Timbuktu, but there is as much, if not more, to think about in terms of local Kidal dynamics as well.
*I think the CMA is referring to non-Malians here, but I wonder if there is a hint that all outsiders (Malian or non-Malian) could be required to have supervision.