My Annotated Translation of the Islamic State’s Article “Liptako: Graveyard of Crusaders and Apostates” from Al-Naba 238 (June 2020)

This project has been on the back burner since the summer, and I guess I ended up saving it for a rainy day. Click the link below (or here) for the translation and annotations; my introduction to the translation gives more context and a few thoughts on the conflict between the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM).

Recent Reporting on Insecurity-Related School Closures in the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin

The violent conflicts in the Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin have been causing schools to close, on and off, for years. Bodies such as Human Rights Watch and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack have issued reports on this subject this year (in May and September, respectively). Jihadists are key perpetrators of attacks on schools, obviously, targeting them for ideological reasons specific to education (objections to the curricula, for example), but also as symbols and institutions of the state. Schools can also be caught in the crossfire, literal or political, amid extended conflicts; for example, Human Rights Watch points out above that when militaries use schools, it can contribute to making those schools into targets.

Several journalistic reports on school closures have come out just in the past few days:

  • Voice of America (October 19) reports on school closures in northern Cameroon due to attacks by Boko Haram. A Cameroonian official says: “Sixty-two schools have been closed. The children have to be either scholarized [educated] in other schools very far from their own villages or to abandon schools. Thirty-four-thousand-and-fifty-four students have been registered as IDPs. We have the students of the host communities; we have even refugee students.”
  • Le Point (October 21) gives some grim statistics: in Mali, 926 schools out of 8,421 are closed. In the central region of Mopti, the most violent region in the entire Sahel, 127 schools out of 218 are closed.
  • RFI (October 21) gives even worse statistics for Burkina Faso: 2,100 schools closed, although that estimate is actually lower than 2,512, the number of schools closed due to insecurity on the eve of COVID-19, according to Human Rights Watch’s count in its May 2020 report.
  • RFI (October 21) has a short piece on the education crisis in Mali, including a striking micro-portrait of a teacher who was wounded in Kidal, in the far northeast, during an ill-fated visit by the then-Prime Minister there in 2014, which triggered clashes with ex-rebels. The teacher, now in Bamako, says he/she cannot go back because of the state’s absence in Kidal and the security forces’ inability to provide security there.

In some areas, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say, insecurity is locking parts of entire generations out of their chance at an education. And teachers like the one mentioned above can also have their lives and careers thrown into chaos. Even if the violence stopped tomorrow in all these conflict zones, the effects will be felt over lifetimes.

Links Roundup on the October 20 “High-Level Humanitarian Event on the Central Sahel”

Yesterday, October 20, the government of Denmark co-hosted a “high-level humanitarian event,” or a ministerial roundtable, on humanitarian issues in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The other hosts were the government of Germany, the European Union, and the United Nations. You can watch the recorded livestream, and get other information, here.

A few other links:

  • The co-hosts’ joint press release about the $1.7 billion that was pledged in funding for humanitarian needs. An excerpt: “Twenty-four Governments and institutional donors announced financial support at the virtual conference…Once released, the funds will help some 10 million people for the remainder of 2020 and through 2021 with nutrition and food, health services, water and sanitation, shelter, education and protection, and provide support to survivors of gender-based violence.” 
    • Another point from the press release: “The three affected countries were represented by H.E. Mr. Alpha Barry, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Burkina Faso; H.E. Mr. Zeïni Moulaye, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Mali; and H.E. Ms. Aïchatou Boulama Kané, Minister for Planning, Niger.”
  • The pledge result table is here. If I understand the breakdown of the numbers correctly, the conference raised approximately the target sum ($1 billion) for 2020, as well as $725 million for 2021 and beyond. See the Care statement below for how humanitarian appeals have gone severely underfunded for the Sahel.
  • A transcript of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ video message.
  • A UN News report on the event, and another readout at OCHA.
  • Statement from the German Federal Foreign Office. Germany pledged 100 million Euros for the period 2020-2023.
  • The European Union’s press release. The EU pledged around 43 million Euros.
  • US Special Envoy for the Sahel J. Peter Pham’s remarks.
  • A statement from CARE, the day before the conference, on how underfunding of humanitarian appeals can affect women in particular. One paragraph: “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, women and women’s civil society have been critical frontline responders and leaders in humanitarian response efforts. Yet, the public health emergency has had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and resulted in alarming health and economic impacts for women and increased risk of gender-based violence. Women and girls are pillars of the response in their own communities, but the existence of their organizations is threatened by lack of funding for COVID and the other programs they were implementing.”

Sahel: Smail Chergui and Antonio Guterres Open to Idea of Supporting Dialogue with Jihadists

On October 14, the African Union’s Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui, an Algerian diplomat, published an op-ed in Le Temps. He argued that strategies for the Sahel – he and others put the current count at more than 17 – need to be revisited and harmonized. As part of that argument, Chergui includes a section on “dialogue with extremists.” Chergui does not mention any specific groups, but he writes that “any innovative idea is welcome” when it comes to making peace, and that the February 2020 accord with the Taliban “can inspire our member states to explore dialogue with extremists and encourage them to lay down arms, particularly those who were recruited by force.”

Chergui’s remarks received coverage in Le Monde and elsewhere – Le Monde, appropriately, places the issue in the wider context of the debate in Mali about negotiations, a debate that dates back a long time but that gained some momentum after the Conference of National Understanding in 2017. That conference generated a recommendation to engage two key Malian nationals, Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa, in dialogue; ag Ghali and Kouffa were then, and are now even more so, the major leaders of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), a jihadist coalition that is part of al-Qaida’s hierarchy. More recently, the context for Chergui’s remarks include the hostage/prisoner exchange earlier this month before Mali’s transitional government and JNIM, events that I wrote about here and here.

On October 19, Le Monde published an interview with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in which he, too, expresses openness to the idea of dialogue with certain jihadists. He ruled out dialogue with the Islamic State’s affiliates, which would seem to leave JNIM. Guterres’ suggestion that certain jihadists “have an interest in engaging in this dialogue in order to become political actors in the future” is a really interesting one: this, of course, brings us back to the perennial question of what JNIM, and especially ag Ghali, might actually want in a political sense. Guterres’ comments were covered in the international Anglophone media as well as in Malian and Mauritanian outlets. People in the Sahel are definitely paying attention to what these major regional and international actors are saying on this topic.

My general take, as regular readers likely know, is that talking with jihadists is well worth doing, especially if negotiations can produce what I call “stabilizing settlements.”

Niger: Key Points from President Mahamadou Issoufou’s Recent Interview with France24

On October 12, France 24 published a video interview with Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou. The headline from France 24, echoed in some Sahelian media coverage of the interview (example), was somewhat surprising to me: these headlines focused on Issoufou’s reiteration that he will not be seeking a third term. I had thought that he had made this very clear, including by clearly designating his preferred successor in the person of Mohamed Bazoum (whom I expect to win the elections in December 2020/February 2021); and in the interview itself, as I note below, both he and the interviewer take it for granted that Issoufou is committed to stepping down at the end of his term. So perhaps this is something of a media narrative, a kind of generalized skepticism among headline writers that any African leader would really step down voluntarily.

Here are my notes on the interview:

  • Responding to the first question, about whether Mali’s recent prisoner exchange will ultimately prove destabilizing, Issoufou expressed happiness and congratulations over the release of Soumaïla Cissé and several Europeans. Issoufou argued that there are no “ideal solutions” in such situations and that governments must make compromises. Issoufou’s essentially unqualified support for this deal could be seen as a contrast with some more critical remarks he has made in the past about, for example, the situation in Kidal and what he sees as the Malian state’s unfulfilled responsibilities there.
  • Concerning the second question, about the investigation following the August 9 attack at Kouré, Niger, I didn’t find Issoufou’s answer very specific or substantive.
  • Concerning the third question, on COVID, Issoufou mentions what I think of as the standard (though not necessarily wrong) list of factors explaining Africa’s relatively resilience in the face of the pandemic: past experiences, youthful population, etc. He points to Niger’s strikingly low case and death rate as evidence that the health sector, despite its weakness, has performed very well. And definitely in terms of confirmed official cases, Niger appears to have done quite well – better, in fact, than its neighbor Burkina Faso.
  • Regarding the threat of terrorism and criminality, Issoufou evokes what he sees as a multi-faceted policy response: ideological, economic, security, development, democracy, etc.
  • Asked to summarize his record after nearly ten years in office, Issoufou notes his efforts to assure security and consolidate democracy – and it is here that he mentions that he has kept his promise by not seeking a third term, and he emphasizes that the elections will be transparent and clear. It is a bit out of context for France 24 and others to run with the headline that Issoufou is rejecting a third term, because both the interviewer and Issoufou take that as a given in their exchange. Were I writing the headline, I would have gone with Issoufou’s promise for a “free and transparent” election – that’s the real question now. Issoufou avoids discussing any particular case of third-term-seeking elsewhere in the region, but argues that the Africa-wide trend is against third terms.
  • The last question concerns regional free trade and economic integration, and I didn’t find anything in the answer particularly striking.

What Do We Learn About the CMA and JNIM from the Negotiations over Soumaïla Cissé? Part Two – JNIM

In this post I’m assuming that you know the basic outlines of what happened with the recent prisoner exchange between the Malian government and the jihadist organization Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). If not, you may want to read part one, which deals with the negotiations and particularly with the role of the main ex-rebel bloc in northern Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

JNIM is a jihadist coalition that was formed in March 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations and units that had already been working together for years. One can see that history come into play with the recent hostage releases; one of the four hostages JNIM released, French aid worker Sophie Pétronin, was kidnapped in 2016, in other words before JNIM was formed. JNIM belongs to al-Qaida’s hierarchy and theoretically sits below not just al-Qaida central but also al-Qaida’s regional affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in that hierarchy. The deaths of several key Algerian AQIM leaders in recent years, though, have reinforced my sense that it is JNIM’s leader, Malian national Iyad ag Ghali, who really sets the organization’s tone. This does not mean that JNIM is a purely “local” outfit – clearly it has regional ambitions and draws on global jihadist imaginaries (if I can use an overused academic term) in its propaganda. But I have repeatedly gotten the sense, over the years, that ag Ghali is more independent-minded than the leader of your average al-Qaida affiliate. There is a big although perhaps unresolvable debate to be had about what ag Ghali really wants, how cynical he is vis-a-vis jihadist ideology, and so forth.

The question of what ag Ghali wants comes into play with the prisoner exchange. JNIM is much bigger than ag Ghali and some reports indicated that many of those released back to JNIM had never met him, which makes sense. Yet the JNIM leader seemed to deliberately make the final exchange into a kind of “ag Ghali show,” appearing at what was essentially a big party and allowing himself to be photographed. His appearance raises all kinds of questions, as noted in this perceptive thread, about why he was so confident that he could reveal himself, and about what messages he was trying to send what audiences through such an appearance.

The photos also fuel speculation about whether ag Ghali has a kind of de facto immunity against French raids, or arrest, and if so what that says about his relationships with governments in the region – all that is either conspiracy theory or above my pay grade, depending on my mood on any given day. In either case I don’t want to touch it.

Turning back to the photos, obviously the black flags are there, and one should not forget the jihadist character of JNIM as an organization or the specifically ideological framings JNIM has applied to this exchange (more on this below). But to me, these photos scan on a few levels with a few different messages. One of those levels is that here we see ag Ghali as “the big man of the north.” I don’t like that phrase, “big man,” but somehow using it feels unavoidable here.

The argument I try to make here, in terms of treating jihadist leaders as politicians, is not that jihadists are morally or strategically equivalent to other types of politicians, or that jihadist ideology doesn’t matter, or that jihadists don’t have blood on their hands. Rather, it’s that jihadist leaders often maintain and cultivate political relationships with actors outside their own organizations, and that such political relationships can have many dynamics that are distinct from, though obviously become intertwined with, jihadist ideology.

To take a concrete example, it is appalling and vicious to kidnap a woman in her 70s and then keep her in captivity, in very harsh conditions, for nearly four years – and it is not just people outside northern Mali who feel that way. To reiterate a point I raised in part one, I was struck by the detail mentioned here, namely that local leaders from throughout the Gao Region, where Sophie Pétronin was kidnapped, had been sending ag Ghali letters for years asking him to release her.

What is the nature, then, of the relationships represented by such correspondence – which seems to have actually reached the JNIM leader? On the one hand, we could say that ultimately ag Ghali released her and the others for men and cash, for tangible resources that directly benefited the jihadist project. On the other hand, it’s worth asking (speculating, I suppose) about what the participants in such correspondence are thinking. Were these leaders from the Gao Region thinking “I am writing a letter to an al-Qaida leader” or were they thinking “I am writing to Iyad ag Ghali, key northern power broker”? And what kinds of channels allowed the correspondence to reach him – on what bases are the people along those channels connected to one another? I would guess it’s not all ideological relationships. And then, receiving the letters, what did ag Ghali think? Obviously the letters did not move him to release her immediately, but I would be surprised if he received the correspondence and thought, “Oh, these people I consider murtaddin [apostates] in Gao are complaining, I don’t care what they think.” There is a story I heard about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, probably apocryphal, that if you drew any line across a map of the United States, FDR could tell you in detail about the political situation in every county through which that line passed. Not that FDR and ag Ghali are equivalent, but I wonder if ag Ghali has a similar mental map of northern Malian politics. Whatever he wants, he cannot afford – it seems to me – to completely antagonize local leaders in the north.

Another phrase that leaps out to me in looking at the photos, then, is “power broker.” This is a vague term and I am not sure what ag Ghali wants to do with his political power, or that he even knows what he wants to do, precisely – but I am convinced that he wants political power that goes beyond his role as JNIM leader. This relates to another crucial point that Wassim Nasr has made, namely that the “suspected jihadists” released (206, by most counts I see now, including from JNIM) appear to include a number of “non-jihadist fighters.” As Nasr points out, this is politics. Here, too, RFI reports that while some hardened jihadists who had participated in major attacks are rumored to have been released, the “majority…are not important members of jihadist groups.” According to RFI’s reporting and others, JNIM does seem to have asked for specific people to be released, though, in three separate lists of people. It is tempting (likely?) to imagine a process whereby JNIM and ag Ghali canvassed various constituencies, again including constituencies outside of JNIM, to determine which names they should ask for. And if ag Ghali is getting back people who were, say, swept up in security crackdowns but who weren’t part of JNIM, that could (a) reinforce his popularity in the north in general, (b) strengthen his ties to specific local leaders regardless of where those leaders are ideologically, and (c) amplify the impact of JNIM’s anti-French propaganda not just for jihadist sympathizers and audiences but for other northern audiences. Where and when ag Ghali is seen as the champion of north, as “un grand et un vrai chef,” that again reinforces his status as a power broker in ways that both strengthen the jihadist project and go beyond it.

One also, I think, should keep in mind the fluidity of membership in political-military blocs in northern Mali, a fluidity that extends to jihadist ranks. Thus you have the (reported) effort, early in the negotiations, by an ex-jihadist initiating negotiations with JNIM with the blessing of then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and then-Prime Minister Boubou Cissé – and even traveling with an active-duty colonel who was an advisor to the Prime Minister. Sometimes who someone is, the networks they have access to, may matter just as much or more than their particular organizational affiliation at any given moment. And that dynamic can even hold true sometimes for ag Ghali himself.

But there is a lot going on in JNIM’s messaging. Is there a hint of defensiveness, an unspoken attempt to anticipate and parry the condemnations that are likely to come from JNIM’s rivals in the Islamic State, who publicly reject negotiations with the Malian government root and branch? The text overlaying the two photos below (text I can barely make out in places, because of the font) emphasizes themes of justice and injustice, solidarity and oppression, and so forth. The message is expressed in a jihadist idiom, and there is no shortage of contempt for the “Malian regime” and its “prisons of injustice and enmity.” Yet parts of the text could be taken as, again, an effort to justify making a deal with an enemy government.

Here, too, a JNIM-adjacent statement frames the prisoner swap as an extraordinary victory for the jihadists and as a type of “blessed operations that gladden the Muslims everywhere,” and that JNIM “urges our brothers in [other] jihadist groups” to emulate and replicate. This is a kind of boast, obviously, yet could also be seen as a pre-emptive rhetorical defense against potential Islamic State criticisms.

Two more issues, and then I should wrap up, as this is getting long. First is the issue of the actual hardened individuals and serious operatives who (may) have been released. There is debate over whether certain specific individuals, particularly Mimi Ould Baba Ould Cheikh, were actually released – Ould Cheikh, son of a northern politician, is a suspected organizer of major attacks in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. It appears the United States government blocked his inclusion on the list of those freed, which may have slowed the overall exchange and also resulted in an increase to the ransom sum paid to JNIM. Another name being cited is Fawaz Ould Ahmed, reportedly a key operative within al-Murabitun, an AQIM offshoot and one of the groups that fed into the JNIM coalition. Another name mentioned (and confirmed in photos from the release party) is Aliou Mahamane Touré, an official within the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), part of which fed into al-Murabitun and thus eventually into JNIM. If the precise list of those freed is still unclear, there appears to be little debate that the list ultimately includes some very dangerous people. All this has prompted some soul-searching on the French side about what their forces are ultimately actually doing in Mali. To say the least, this deal involved some very bitter compromises for the governments of Mali and France.

The second and final issue is that of money. How much was paid to JNIM? 2.5 million euros? 10 million euros? These are sums in line with those paid at the height of the Saharan kidnapping economy circa 2013. Are we going back to those days? On the one hand, there would seem to be fewer targets of opportunity, especially in terms of Western tourists, than there were before the Malian rebellion of 2012 – and the kidnapping economy in some ways worked against itself by eliciting stronger and stronger travel warnings from Western governments, and effectively killing off tourism in northern Mali. On the other hand, JNIM has every incentive now to kidnap more people.

Where does the money go? I think sometimes commentators assume it all goes straight into operations. I doubt that. Some of those involved in the negotiations may take cuts of the money, and then ag Ghali may distribute some of the money for, again, political impact and relationship-strengthening (for those freed and perhaps even for families of those who were not freed). That kind of largesse could arguably be more dangerous than direct funding of operations, because ag Ghali’s and JNIM’s generosity could augment the popularity they seem to be deriving, in some quarters, from this deal.

It all makes my head spin, to say the least. I guess the final takeaway is that JNIM got a lot out of this deal, and then has amplified its material gains with (a) relatively skillful propaganda and (b) what seems to be continued relationship-building and relationship management across the north.

What Do We Learn About the CMA and JNIM from the Negotiations over Soumaïla Cissé? Part One – the CMA

The formal head of Mali’s opposition, Soumaïla Cissé, was kidnapped on March 25 of this year and released on October 8. His kidnapping went unclaimed, but it is now completely clear that he was held by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). As Cissé indicates in this interview with Le Monde, he had no doubt about who his kidnappers were.

Cissé, as well as French national Sophie Pétronin and two Italian hostages, were then freed through a prisoner exchange between the Malian government and JNIM. Cissé says in the interview that he was not held together with these others, and it seems the Italians were held separately from Pétronin and that their release was negotiated largely through a separate channel. Meanwhile, Pétronin has said that she overheard JNIM’s execution of a Swiss hostage, Beatrice Stockly, at some point during her captivity.

What do we learn from the negotiations that freed Cissé and the others? Here in part one, I want to look at the main ex-rebel coalition in northern Mali, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA). In part two, I will look at JNIM. (There is a brewing debate over competing claims about the role of France in the negotiations for the hostages generally and Pétronin specifically, but I’ll leave that to others to discuss, unless a burst of inspiration strikes later.)

In terms of the CMA and its role in mediating the prisoner exchange, the media spotlight has come to shine brightly on the politician Ahmada ag Bibi, who holds a variety of important roles in Mali and especially in the north:

  • leading figure within the Ifoghas, a cluster of “noble” clans within the Kel Adagh Tuareg confederation centered in the Kidal Region (northeastern Mali) – ag Bibi belongs to the Kel Afella (Wikileaks/leaked cable), the Ifoghas clan to which the Kel Adagh’s leading political lineage also belongs;
  • (former?) deputy for Abeibara constituency of the Kidal Region, elected in 2007, 2013, and re-elected in 2020 – although with the dissolution of the National Assembly following the August 18 coup, his elected status is in limbo at best;
  • senior leader within the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), the ex-rebel bloc that dominates Kidal and that is a signatory to the 2015 peace agreement for northern Mali, called the Algiers Accord;
  • past senior leader of several key armed movements in northern Mali, including the Democratic Alliance for Change (French acronym ADC), the group that launched the 2006 northern Malian rebellion, and Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith). The latter was a jihadist group that participated in the 2012 northern Malian rebellion and then came to dominate the north, together with allied jihadist groups, during roughly the second half of 2012 and up through the time of the French-led intervention in early 2013.

Ag Bibi’s path has overlapped substantially with that of Iyad ag Ghali, leader of the 1990 and 2006 rebellions, leader of Ansar al-Din, and now leader of JNIM. Since ag Bibi and others formally broke with Ansar al-Din in January 2013 on the eve of the French-led intervention, various voices have asserted that the breakaway faction under its various names and structures (Islamic Movement of Azawad, then High Council for the Unity of Azawad or HCUA, which is now the leading political bloc within the CMA) have continued to represent ag Ghali’s interests – at the negotiating table, in politics more broadly, and even within the military power struggle in Kidal and in the north. Journalists and others have often pointed to ag Bibi specifically as ag Ghali’s most important interlocutor within the CMA.

Those claims now seem even stronger in light of ag Bibi’s central role in negotiating the release of Cissé and the other hostages. According to Le Point, Malian intelligence “activated” the channel between ag Bibi and ag Ghali in July. Then Colonel Ibrahim Sanogo, director of counterterrorism intelligence, participated in the final negotiations (see below).

New profiles of ag Bibi are now appearing in the Francophone press, including this one at L’Opinion. That piece makes some bold claims that are difficult to verify and assess, including the claim that ag Ghali and ag Bibi are regularly seen together at a military hospital in Algeria’s capital Algiers, and that ag Bibi is well-paid for his role as an intermediary between ag Ghali and others, including in these negotiations over hostages. The piece also includes the unfortunate description of ag Bibi as “rather withdrawn, without empathy or apparent sociability.” I think here the author may be witnessing a certain style of carrying oneself, a style I have encountered among other Tuareg leaders (and in other contexts), and then mistaking that for a personality trait. The L’Opinion piece, meanwhile, raises the question of ag Bibi’s relationship with Algeria. The author argues that the Algerian authorities had an interest in facilitating and supervising a prisoner exchange that could ultimately – according to the author – help to calm tensions in the Mali-Algeria borderlands. The claim that ag Bibi is an Algerian agent appears even more strongly in this piece. I always find such claims really hard to assess: on the one hand, Algeria’s role in Malian and northern Malian affairs appears very substantial, and that dates back years to say the least; on the other hand, some analysts appear to go too far in attributing sweeping influence to Algeria.

I have met and interviewed ag Bibi twice. Both times I was significantly outmatched, in terms of shaping the conversation, and I think that’s important to acknowledge. One of the biggest and most bullshit assumptions in political science and even sometimes in anthropology is that from graduate school on, the Western academic is some super-savvy and cynical interviewer who knows how to glean deep truths from interviewees and then construct sophisticated maps of societies and conflicts based on the resulting data. It’s pretty ridiculous to think that I, an academic in my mid-30s, would be able to outmaneuver a career politician (in his 50s?) who has fought in and survived three rebellions, won election after election despite shifting circumstances, and who undertakes God knows what kind of balancing act between rebels, governments, intelligence agencies, constituents, and jihadists. So when you see political scientists saying, “Oh yeah, X and Y factors cause/end civil wars,” take it with a fat grain of salt.

In my interviews with ag Bibi, and particularly in the first one, I could not tell whether I was indirectly hearing ag Ghali’s perspective. Ag Bibi had a central talking point in each of the interviews, and he repeatedly steered each conversation back to that talking point. In the first conversation, the talking point was “Kidal needs a special status within Mali, and until it gets that special status, problems will continue” (my paraphrase). I asked a lot of questions in that interview about ag Ghali, about Ansar al-Din, about the events of 2012-2013, and ag Bibi in each answer emphasized Kidal’s status. So was the centrality of Kidal’s “special status,” in ag Bibi’s responses, an oblique way of hinting at what ag Ghali might ultimately want? I had no conclusive answer then and I do not have one now. The question of what ag Ghali sees as the end state of this conflict, or whether he has any end state in mind, is an open one for me.

The negotiations over the hostages seem to have boosted different actors’ appetites for broader negotiations with JNIM. Cissé, for his part, said in the above-cited interview, “We should not be stubborn. I, for example, have never refused to establish a dialogue with Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa [the other key JNIM leader]. To dialogue is not to approve. And in Mali’s current situation, we have to find alternatives to the dominant thinking.” The prisoner exchange comes in a context where many are wondering about the status of the negotiations or notional negotiations that both now-ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and JNIM alluded to in, respectively, February and March of this year. How have the junta that overthrew Keïta, and now the transitional structure that has replaced/incorporated the junta, handled that particular portfolio? The fate of the broader dialogue remains unclear.

Ag Bibi’s role in the negotiations, meanwhile, revives the issue of what ties exist between the CMA as a whole and JNIM as a whole, beyond just the personal-political relationship between ag Bibi and ag Ghali. One relevant data point is, obviously, the United Nations Security Council sanctions against particular CMA leaders, members, and associates over their alleged collaboration with JNIM. These allegations are further discussed in various UN Panel of Experts reports on Mali. Such sanctions and accounts have reinforced many observers’ views that there is systematic coordination between the CMA and JNIM, but the claim of organizational alignment/partnership is certainly much harder to prove than individual instances of coordination.

Such questions take on additional weight now that CMA members, namely Mohamed Ould Mahmoud and Moussa Ag Attaher, have entered the transitional government as ministers. The portfolios they took – Agriculture and Sports, respectively – are not implicated in questions of negotiations and security. The key portfolios remain in the hands of the (ex-?) junta and the military. Yet the junta and new Prime Minister Moctar Ouane clearly took the CMA into account when assembling the new cabinet and when thinking about the transition more broadly. And the CMA, and ag Bibi specifically, seem to want, or at a minimum seem to accept, some credit for the negotiations around the hostages. Ag Bibi did not, I think, have to allow himself to be photographed or openly identified as the lead negotiator. Nor did Colonel Sanogo of Malian intelligence have to allow himself to be photographed alongside ag Bibi (see the bottom photo, where ag Bibi is second from left, and where Sanogo is, I believe, third from left, between ag Bibi and Cissé):

Various analyses of the prisoner exchange have emphasized how JNIM, and ag Ghali specifically, stand to benefit politically from having secured the liberation of over 200 people. The CMA also stands to benefit, in terms of its image and its support in the north, and not just through the return of suspected jihadists and others, but also through the departure of JNIM’s hostages. Ag Bibi argued, as quoted/paraphrased in Le Point, that Pétronin was widely respected in the Gao Region due to her charitable work there. Many of the region’s notables petitioned ag Ghali to release her – her continued detention in JNIM’s hands, in other words, was seemingly becoming a kind of political liability for JNIM and ag Ghali not just vis-a-vis Bamako or Paris but vis-a-vis Gao, Bourem, Ansongo, and elsewhere. If ag Ghali is now being celebrated in some quarters of the north as a champion for getting his people out of prison, the CMA may also be earning some praise as the intermediary that secured the release of several well-respected figures.

Regarding Cissé, it is true that his electoral performances in the north were relatively weak in 2013 and 2018, when he was runner-up in successive presidential elections; yet electoral tallies may not capture the full extent of his popularity, and he had no trouble getting elected (even from captivity) as a deputy in the Niafunké district of Timbuktu, with more than 60% of the vote in the first round. The CMA has not been shy about getting their picture taken with Cissé since his release:

It’s worth emphasizing, finally, that many of the prisoners released by the government appear not to be senior jihadists, and some are perhaps not even jihadists at all, but rather people swept up in security crackdowns or caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. If ag Ghali derives political capital from securing their release, the CMA would seem to as well.

How to sum up? The CMA’s crucial role in these negotiations confirms that, at a minimum, CMA leaders appear to be the best-positioned figures within Mali when it comes to contacting ag Ghali and delivering concrete outcomes. Negotiating anything broader than a prisoner exchange or ransom payment, however, would be exponentially more complicated. Meanwhile in my view it is pertinent to emphasize/argue that the CMA is not merely a front for ag Ghali and JNIM – they have their own interests, they are themselves internally heterogeneous ethnically and ideologically, and CMA leaders’ broader actions show that they clearly do not want to jeopardize the Algiers Accord, their own ability to win seats in the Malian parliament or in eventual northern regional elections, or their legitimacy within the international arena in terms of being received in Washington, New York, or elsewhere. The CMA and JNIM: close enough to work together on goals, seemingly somewhat or more than somewhat intertwined, but not identical by any means.

Mali: Quick Context on the Two Italian Hostages Released

Yesterday, October 8, the head of Mali’s presidential crisis cell confirmed the secure return of four hostages held by jihadists, specifically by Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

One of these four returned hostages is famous – Soumaïla Cissé, formal head of Mali’s opposition, who was kidnapped while campaigning in the Niafunké district of the Timbuktu Region in March.

And another hostage is a relatively familiar name to Sahel watchers – French national Sophie Pétronin, who was kidnapped in Gao, Mali in 2016.

The other two individuals are less well known. They are two Italian nationals who were kidnapped in separate incidents. One is a priest, Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was kidnapped in September 2018 near Makalondi, Niger (map), very close to the border with Burkina Faso. The village/parish where he was serving, Bomoanga, and the schools associated with his mission, have been targeted in other jihadist attacks as well. The other Italian citizen, Nicola Chiacchio (in some reports and sources, Ciacco), is described in one account as a “tourist who was last known to be cycling from Timbuktu to Douentza,” both in Mali (map of Douentza here). He was kidnapped around February 2019.

The two Italians appeared together in a proof of life video in March 2020. The brief video, and some coverage, are available here; additional coverage is here.

MENASTREAM has a very useful map showing Western hostages held in the Sahel, updated to reflect these four figures’ release:

Reuters provides some details about the lead-up to the hostage releases here.

Unfortunately I can’t do much analysis due to time constraints, but one thing that strikes me is how much the conversation about hostage releases has changed since, say, 2011-2013. Back then I heard a lot more open contempt, at least in the U.S., for the idea of paying ransoms or exchanging prisoners with jihadists. Now the tenor of the public conversation, at least online, appears to run very much in the direction of unreservedly celebrating the return of these hostages and therefore tacitly or explicitly accepting the costs as being worth it. The online conversation has shifted, I think, and the makeup of the voices participating in the online conversation has also changed and expanded significantly, when I step back and think about it. That’s good, I’d say.

Mali Roundup: Transitional Cabinet Meets, ECOWAS Lifts Sanctions, Prisoners Exchanged with JNIM, Malaria Cases Rising

There’s so much news out of Mali this week (every week?) that I will just round some of it up today, rather than attempting to analyze one of the major stories.

The Transitional Government

On September 25, a little more than a month after the August 18 coup, Mali swore in the president and vice president of the transition; they are, respectively, retired Major Colonel Bah Ndaw (spellings vary) and Colonel Assimi Goïta. The latter was head of the brief-serving military junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (French acronym CNSP). On September 27, the interim authorities announced the designation of former Foreign Affairs Minister Moctar Ouane as prime minister and head of the transitional government. With the top three figures in place, authorities turned to assembling the cabinet.

On October 5, authorities announced the cabinet. Much coverage focused, appropriately, on the fact that the military/CNSP was taking key ministries: defense (Col. Sadio Camara), security (Col. Modibo Kone), national reconciliation (Maj. Col. Ismaël Wagué), and territorial administration (Lt. Col. Abdoulaye Maiga). Those first three, along with Goïta and Col. Malick Diaw, were the most visible leaders of the CNSP.

Here is the full list of new government members:

Commentators scrutinized the list, asking which other political actors got which posts, and how many. This exercise is far from simple – for example, here is one leader of the M5-RFP* protest movement denying that his movement has any representatives within the new cabinet. Two key northern political-military blocs, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA) and the Plateforme, were also represented:

Andrew Lebovich has some pertinent analysis:

The danger, rather, is that the military will not relinquish its grip. The fact that both N’Daw and Ouane have no real domestic political constituencies makes it all the more imperative that pressure and attention remain focused on governance reforms as well as creating durable civilian authorities. So far the CNSP appears unwilling to pursue real reform. The choices around the transitional leadership are a case in point, whereby early post-coup promises by the junta of an inclusive process came to nothing: candidates for prime minister from the opposition coalition Mouvement du 5 Juin-Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP) submitted their paperwork at the request of the CNSP, only for Ouane’s appointment to be announced the next day; his appointment under the CNSP’s direction was clearly already in the works. The CNSP also made a number of key security and political appointments before N’Daw’s appointment, and his nominal government continued to name military officers to posts within the presidency and elsewhere, even before the transitional government formalised the junta’s ministerial roles. The CNSP continues particularly to promote the activities of Goïta – hardly a signal of readiness to disband and cede any real authority.

The cabinet met for the first time on October 6.

*June 5 Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces

ECOWAS Sanctions Lifted

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been the key regional actor pressuring the CNSP to step aside, and has been the face of the international response to the coup. ECOWAS’ main lever has been economic sanctions. The CNSP and the transitional government slowly met ECOWAS’ demands during September and now early October, although it sometimes appeared to me that mostly the form, and not necessarily the substance, of the demands was being met.

Following the formation of Ouane’s government, ECOWAS announced on October 5 that it would lift sanctions on Mali:

Prisoner Exchange

On October 4, buzz and reporting began to the effect that Malian authorities had released some 180 prisoners as part of a possible exchange with the jihadist group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM).

Details were still emerging as I was writing this post late on October 6, but the exchange seems to have concerned at least two prominent hostages – Mali’s opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, who was kidnapped in March of this year in the Timbuktu Region, and French national Sophie Petronin. Here is a piece I wrote in June that gives some context on Cissé’s kidnapping. At least anecdotally, from what I could tell, news of Cissé’s likely/imminent release sparked a lot of happiness among Malians and Mali watchers – Cissé is not necessarily super-popular as a candidate, but I think even beyond his core supporters the thought of him in captivity was not only disturbing and upsetting in and of itself, but also came to symbolize the difficult period Mali is traversing.

JNIM, meanwhile, spoke of 206 people being released. I translated a few key phrases from one of their statements here:

There has also been some debate about who exactly might have been released back to JNIM. And the journalist Wassim Nasr makes the excellent point that JNIM may have lobbied for, and secured, the release of some individuals beyond its own members – a “deft political maneuver” that speaks to the group’s sophistication:

Adam Sandor comments, in a parallel vein, that arrests of innocent people can be not just accidental, but instead reflective of what he and a co-author call “security knowledge.” See their brand-new article, comparing Mali and Afghanistan, here.

Aurelien Tobie raises some key questions:

I would also refer readers to my 2018 paper on “political settlements with jihadists,” where I frame some settlements as stabilizing and others as destabilizing. I am concerned that what is happening now in Mali may be more ad hoc than strategic.

Elevated Malaria Case Rates in Kidal and Beyond

I wrote briefly on the topic here, earlier this week. The journalist Ali Ag Mohamed also uploaded some videos showing stagnant water, a major contributor to the high case rate:

Elevated Malaria Case Rates in Northern Mali – A Metric to Watch for the Sahel and Beyond

Sahelien, Le Monde, and others are reporting that case rates for Malaria in Kidal, northern Mali, are approximately double this year what they were at this time last year. Here is Sahelien’s video report (French):

The high case rate has much to do with this year’s high rates of rainfall, which as Le Monde points out have affected even what is normally thought of as the northern Malian desert. Experts are also identifying COVID-19, and its impacts on health systems and health supplies, as another cause. From a relatively early point in the pandemic, there have been fears that COVID-19 would lead to excess deaths from malaria (and HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis).

Public health officials launched a five-day, region-wide malaria prevention campaign for Kidal in the second half of September.

The Ménaka and Gao regions are also affected. One Malian news outlet says there were 4,500 cases in the north during the past few weeks. That report adds another crucial point about the indirect impact of COVID-19 – the pandemic triggers headlines and mobilizes resources, while malaria gets much less attention than it merits.