On a Mauritanian Fatwa Against Operation Serval – at The Maydan

Today’s post is outsourced to The Maydan, which is a publication of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. I discuss a 2013 fatwa that a group of Mauritanian scholars released. The fatwa argued against Mauritanian participation in the French-led Operation Serval, which sought to disperse jihadists in northern Mali and restore Mali’s territorial integrity. From the piece:

In the eyes of the Fatwā’s authors, supporting a Western-led (i.e., infidel-led) military intervention in northern Mali would violate the unity that is essential to the preservation of Islam. In this context, the Fatwā referenced the doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ (“loyalty to the believers and disavowal of the unbelievers”), which emphasizes loyalty to the Muslim community in exclusive preference to partnerships with non-Muslims. The doctrine of al-walā’ wa al-barā’ is often a core theme within jihadist circles.

The Fatwā did not address the Mauritanian government or make formal recommendations concerning its foreign policy; rather, the text asserted obligations and responsibilities that Muslims have toward other Muslims. Nevertheless, the authors spoke as Mauritanians. At several points, the text stated that Mauritanian Muslims have a special duty, given their proximity to Mali, to show solidarity with the Muslims of Mali. Invoking the idea of Islamic solidarity implied that the government of Mauritania, officially an “Islamic Republic,” should not endorse or participate in any Western-led military operation that might harm Muslims in northern Mali. The Fatwā, appearing just days after Operation Serval began, seemed aimed in part at the government. In this sense, the text fits within a broader context of Islamic discourses in Mauritania that have attempted to influence the government’s foreign policy.

If you read the piece, I welcome any comments you may have.

Francois Hollande in Mali: Media and Civil Society Reflect on His Africa Legacy

Today and tomorrow (January 13-14), Mali is hosting the “Africa-France Summit,” which French President Francois Hollande is attending. The event is occasioning reflections in the French, European, and African media regarding Hollande’s Africa policy and legacy as a whole. Many of the reflections are quite critical.

Deutsche Welle:

It will be an opportunity for Hollande to bid farewell to his African counterparts as this will be his last Africa-France summit. The French leader steps down later in the year; he will not seek a second term at the presidential elections in the spring.

[…]

[Whereas some analysts give Hollande’s Africa policy positive marks,] Other analysts are rather more critical. Roland Marchal from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) finds it “disconcerting” that French foreign policy under Hollande placed so much emphasis on military intervention. “Nobody questions whether these military operations are justified,” he said. “In the case of Mali, we see that it hasn’t worked.” The standard of governance is worse than mediocre and the president is facing corruption allegations.

Other commentators argue (French) that Mali is a poor choice for the summit’s location, lauding Hollande’s 2013 decision to intervene militarily in Mali but deploring the lack of political progress there in the intervening years. Another commentator places the blame (French) for the lack of political progress on Mali’s leaders, rather than on “the absence of political vision on the part of France,” but goes on to urge Hollande to publicly call on African publics to hold their leaders accountable.

Whether or not Hollande heeds that advice, African civil society groups have decided to hold a counter-summit (French) during the official summit, in order to hold critical discussions about the policies of African leaders and the international community.

It will be interesting to see what comes of these events – the summit and the counter-summit – and to hear what Hollande says.

 

Recent News from Gao, Mali: Mixed Patrols, A Kidnapping, and A Shooting

Gao, one of northern Mali’s key cities, has witnessed several notable developments recently.

  • On December 24, unknown kidnappers seized a longtime French resident and aid worker affiliated with the small NGO Aide Gao. A search (French) was immediately mounted by Malian forces, French forces, and UN peacekeepers. Jeune Afrique (French) summarizes what is known of the kidnapping itself, the victim, and the search.
  • On January 4, a local Red Cross employee was shot and killed. “A resident of Gao said the worker had been shot by two men on a motorcycle late at night.”
  • On January 5, mixed patrols began in Gao involving former rebels from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (French acronym CMA), pro-government militia forces, and Malian government forces. The full force is expected to comprise 200 fighters from each of the three categories. The mixed patrols are meant to fulfill one condition from a 2015 peace deal. Until early January, the pro-government armed groups had opposed (French) the CMA’s desire to enter the city, but international and governmental mediation (French) appears to have resolved the dispute for the moment.

A Malian Anti-Corruption Agenda

Corruption was a major problem in Mali before the crisis of 2012-2013, and it has remained a major problem since. So I was interested to see a piece on Malijet entitled “Ten Proposals for Effectively Fighting Corruption in Mali” (French). The entire piece is worth reading, but here a few highlights:

#2: “Creating a High Court for Fighting Corruption”

#4: “Putting in Place a System for Denouncing Corruption”

#7: “Declaration of Assets of Elected Officials and State Functionaries”

#10: “Stopping Financial Aid [Packages] and Re-Orienting Economic Co-Development Toward Communities”

Some of the proposals may be controversial, some even naive – with #4, such systems can sometimes be more show than substance – but the list as a whole is, I think, quite well thought out.

On the Freeing of 21 Chibok Girls and the Question of Negotiating with Jihadists

On October 13, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram released twenty-one of the 276 schoolgirls who were originally kidnapped in April 2014 in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok. There are an estimated 197 girls still in captivity or otherwise missing.

The release was an extraordinary event for Nigeria and, in several senses, for the world. For Nigeria, the release occasioned widespread celebration and has become one of the brightest spots in the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, who faces broad and mounting criticism at home, especially over economic issues.

For the world, the release is a reminder that negotiation, at least in limited areas, is possible with jihadist groups. That reminder comes at an important time, amid the looming recapture of Mosul, Iraq, and the dogged effort to complete the reconquest of Sirte, Libya. Both efforts, and the effort to defeat the Islamic State in general, are haunted by the question of what comes after reconquest, especially in terms of political settlements, humanitarian concerns, and economic reinvigoration. That question also haunts the effort against Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, where the sect has been pushed back but not completely defeated.

The details of the negotiations with Boko Haram for the Chibok girls are not known, but it is reported that the Swiss government and the ICRC acted as intermediaries between the sect and the government. Despite the Nigerian government’s denials, it is likely that the incentives offered to Boko Haram involved a ransom payment, prisoner releases, or both.

Of course, it is well known that negotiating with jihadists over hostages is possible, including in West Africa. European governments have paid millions of dollars in ransoms to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Malian government of Amadou Toumani Toure (served 2002-2012) allowed exchanges of imprisoned jihadists for hostages. Reactions to these decisions, whether from the United States, from Western journalists, or from Mali’s neighbors, has been overwhelmingly negative.

There are also precedents for negotiating with Boko Haram over hostages. This is not even the first time that Boko Haram has (likely) received a ransom: it appeared likely in 2013 and 2014 that the Cameroonian government (and in the first instance, the French government as well) had paid Boko Haram to release prisoners. The release of the Chibok girls, then, followed a familiar script; it just had a higher profile than the previous instances.

If it’s well known that one can sometimes negotiate with jihadists, then why isn’t the possibility discussed more in policy circles? The most obvious answer is that many people oppose such negotiations. For example, in response to the Chibok girls’ release, Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation reiterated his argument from 2014 that negotiations are inadvisable. At the time, Meservey wrote, “A payment or prisoner release will perpetuate the cycle by encouraging further kidnappings and enabling more of Boko Haram’s rampages when the government’s first priority should be to protect its citizens.” Meservey’s view aligns with current U.S. policy, which is not to pay ransoms when citizens are kidnapped. Many people, moreover, oppose negotiations on moral grounds, believing that to negotiate with jihadists implies some tacit legitimation of their demands.

Regarding the consequences of ransom payments and prisoner exchanges, I think that context matters a lot. The kind of cycle that Meservey describes is most likely to play out when jihadists do not face major military pressure. A good example of this might be the policies of the Malian government under Toure, when Malian prisoner exchanges with AQIM elicited disgust (and the withdrawal of ambassadors) from Mali’s neighbors Mauritania and Algeria. In addition, many experts believe that there was some collusion between Toure’s government and various bad actors in northern Mali.

Under those circumstances, the payment of ransoms (by European governments) and the exchange of prisoners (by Mali’s government) were bad policies. But they were bad policies because of the lack of military and political pressure on AQIM within Mali. With Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbors, the cycle Meservey describes was indeed playing out in 2013-2014. But now, with Boko Haram under tremendous military pressure, exchanges and payments will not necessarily empower the group over the long term. If a government pays ransoms in order to save lives, then that government should follow up the ransom payment will an increase in pressure on the kidnappers.

But there is more at stake than just whether to pay ransoms or not. The possibility of negotiating with jihadists is also seldom floated, I think, because it goes counter to many people’s assumption that the only serious way to fight jihadism is through war. There are, of course, “Countering Violent Extremism” programs that attempt to de-radicalize prisoners or to prevent people from becoming jihadists in the first place, but CVE programs are not political solutions per se. Most CVE programs do not primarily target active combatants, partly because those combatants are beyond the physical reach of program implementers. The combatants, then, are often treated as a purely military problem. Even when policymakers say that they do not intend to kill all of the combatants, their actions often suggest otherwise, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Nigeria. Pragmatically, I think such strategies are short-sighted and are likely to generate future conflicts.

I have long favored negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, both because I believe limited negotiations can save lives (a stance that I think is vindicated in the case of the recent release) and because I believe it would be wrong, morally and pragmatically, to try to kill all the members of Boko Haram. And if the Nigerian government and its neighbors are not going to kill all of them, then perhaps there is much to talk about. Some leaders and members of the group might never surrender or abandon their goals. But if the door to negotiations is left open, perhaps there are possibilities even beyond prisoner exchanges – the possibility, for example, of offering an option where members could turn themselves in, stand trial, and serve finite prison terms, but where they would not be executed. For fighters starving in the countryside, such an option might eventually prove attractive. The more fighters who accepted it, the more lives might be saved. As I have said in the past, I believe that the Nigerian government should keep reaching out to Boko Haram, no matter how many times it is rebuffed or how many times attempted dialogue ends in failure.

This position – the idea that it is worth trying to open some channel of communication with jihadists – puts me in a minority among analysts, but I am not completely alone. Reuters (h/t Eleanor Beevor) recently reported that the ICRC is attempting to contact the Islamic State in Mosul in order to discuss “the basic rules of war.” Here is the ICRC’s Robert Mardini:

We need to keep hope, and maybe the situation in Mosul is a point in time when also all parties to the conflict, including the Islamic State group, will see the benefits of having the basic rules of war and the basic rules of dignity prevailing in the battle because it gives guarantees for humane treatment of all.

Do I think that the Islamic State will be keen to answer the ICRC’s phone calls? No. But I do think that the effort of reaching out is worthwhile. Let me offer a last reason: you never know who is watching, and how such outreach might overturn their assumptions about the West, about the inevitability and desirability of violence, and about the prospects for peace.

The Attack on Tazalit, Niger and an Insight into Nigerien Perspectives on Northern Mali

On October 6 (yesterday), gunmen attacked the Tazalit refugee hosting center in western Niger. The attackers killed twenty-two Nigerien soldiers, although none of the center’s approximately 4,000 refugees were wounded or killed. UNHCR describes the attack:

The armed assailants are reported to have arrived at the site in two pick up trucks. Witnesses say that following the attack, the assailants stayed in the area for up to 2 hours, and looted the health centre, stealing vital medical stocks. They also burned a UNHCR ambulance. No UNHCR staff or partners were present when the attack took place. The attackers then stole a military vehicle and fled, before support arrived.

This is not the first attack against security forces guarding Malian refugee camps in Niger. On the 10th of September, armed assailants attacked a security post at the camp of Tabareybarey in the region of Tillabery, which also borders Mali and is home to almost 10,000 refugees. A young Malian refugee woman of 18 years was killed, as well as a 5 year old refugee boy. Five others were shot and wounded.

The refugees, as UNHCR points out, are primarily Malians. These refugees were displaced during and after Mali’s 2012-2013 civil war – Tazalit itself was established in 2013 (.pdf). Part of the context for this attack is that Mali’s conflict is in many senses ongoing, including through continued displacement and attacks such as these. In a May 2016 update (.pdf), UNHCR estimated that there are 134,262 Malian refugees currently living in Mali’s neighbors. Of these, over 60,000 are in Niger. Throughout the region, many refugees remain reluctant to go back to Mali.

Who were the attackers? Nigerien authorities (French) and international voices have been quick to call the incident a terrorist attack, but few details have emerged yet about the identity of the attackers. They stole some military equipment, but as Philippe Frowd points out, their “motive can’t have been simply material.”

Niger’s Defense Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou has pointed to “narco-terrorists” as the responsible party. His statement was a highly interesting take on how Nigerien authorities view conflict dynamics in present-day Mali (French):

This attack was perpetrated by narco-terrorists coming from northern Mali, probably from the zone of Kidal and Tin Zaouaten…The armed groups of northern Mali, it’s a continuum between terrorist groups and the armed groups who participate sometimes in the Algiers [peace] process and the groups of traffickers, narco-traffickers. So, there not a distinction between these different groups: Ansar Dine, [Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb], [the High Council for the Unity of Azawad], narco-traffickers. In reality, they go from one position to the other. We have pursued them, [but] they entered Malian territory.

The statement says two things to me. First, the Nigerien authorities do not know which group was responsible. Second, the Nigerien authorities have a cynical (though not completely unfair!) perspective regarding the armed groups in northern Mali. Essentially, Massaoudou said that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between groups there. (There is significant evidence to show that he’s partially right, although I think he is over-simplifying the situation.) The implication, though, is that the Malian authorities and the international community have maintained some rather arbitrary, or at least problematic, definitions concerning who is mainstream and who should be able to participate in politics and peace deals (the High Council), and who is anathema and should be excluded from politics and peace deals (Ansar Dine, AQIM, etc).

It will be interesting to see which group, if any, claims responsibility.

The Islamic State in Libya and Sahelian Recruitment

In late May, the Islamic State’s Wilayat Tarabulus (Tripolitania Province, i.e. northwestern Libya) released a video aimed at recruiting West African Muslims. Entitled “From Humiliation to Glory,” the video’s core argument is that Muslims will face damnation if they do not journey to what the Islamic State considers the land of true Islam.

The titular “humiliation” refers to the idea that West African Muslims live in societies marked by unbelief – societies where Islam has been stripped of “jihad, shari’a, and the Caliphate.” The opening sequence of the video shows pictures of Muslim heads of state like Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, and Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, and denounces these rulers as puppets of “Crusaders” (i.e., the West – Jammeh, for example, is shown standing next to U.S. President Barack Obama). Western African Muslims, the video argues, should leave the land of de facto unbelief for the Islamic State’s territory in Libya, depicted as a land of both military glory and material prosperity and security.

Scripturally, this argument rests on verses such as Qur’an 9:38-39 – verses that the Islamic State reads, without applying any historical context, as speaking directly to West African Muslim today. The video repeatedly invokes the idea of punishment in Hell for allegedly lax Muslims.

The bulk of the video features five West African speakers – a Malian, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, a Senegalese, and an English-speaking “immigrant” with no identified nationality. The video makes liberal use of West African languages: Hausa from the Nigerian and Wolof from the Senegalese, and two other languages I can’t identify (readers, feel free to comment if you can identify these languages). The Nigerian and the Ghanaian also speak in English. Interestingly, the video makes little use of French.

Will the video be effective at recruitment? Perhaps, in the hands of the right recruiter and the right combination of circumstances and social networks. The video is slickly produced, and the young speakers seem charming, calm, and dedicated. Perhaps some young men (and women) could be lured by the religious argument, the overall vibe, the appeal of participating in a revolutionary lifestyle, and/or the negative characterization of leaders like Issoufou and Jammeh. Certainly there is some discontent in West Africa with such leaders, especially with an autocrat such as Jammeh, and there is also some discontent with secularism itself.

At the same time, however, the video’s argument about damnation will not be new to many listeners. There are many Muslim clerics across West Africa working hard to rebut that argument, and to insist that conducting moral reform at home is better than fighting for a dubious cause abroad. Moreover, the levels of political discontent and identity crisis also seem to be far lower in much of West Africa than in, say, Tunisia, which has supplied a strikingly high number of fighters for the Islamic State.

In a way, it was most jarring to see the Senegalese speaker. I’ve grown a bit cynical about Senegalese exceptionalism – the idea that Senegal’s history, religious landscape, and/or national character make it immune to “extremism” – but I’m not immune to the pull of that notion. Seeing a Wolof speaker promoting the Islamic State seemed bizarre. (Even though I should have been prepared for it; there have already been reports of isolated Senegalese heading to Libya.)

Will facts on the ground undermine the video’s appeal? Quite possibly. Presumably any aspiring jihadist in West Africa, especially one with access to radio or television, would conclude that now is a bad time to head to the Libyan city of Sirte, which was until recently the Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya and is now under heavy attack by forces loyal to Libya’s unity government. The speakers in the video were keen to contradict “Western media” portrayals of Libya, but June’s events are making May’s propaganda seem far-fetched.

Implications for Boko Haram?

It is telling that the video made no reference to Boko Haram. The Nigerian speaker urges West African Muslims to come to Sirte – and not to Nigeria, or to other countries around Lake Chad. How should one interpret this silence? On the one hand, the video’s message provides more evidence of the mobility and adaptability of jihadists in the region; if Boko Haram’s fortunes flag in Nigeria, jihadists can shift their attention and their rhetoric to Libya. On the other hand, the video’s silence about Boko Haram suggests a kind of competition between the Islamic State’s Libyan and West African affiliates. If, as I suspect, there is a fairly limited pool of West African Muslims ready to participate in armed jihad far from their homes, then the competition becomes almost zero-sum: fighters cannot go to both Libya and Nigeria.

Interestingly, the video appeared as a debate is playing out in the media about Boko Haram and its relationship with the Islamic State. This debate seems to reflect an analytical disagreement within the United States government: we hear some U.S. officials saying that cooperation between Boko Haram and the Islamic State (especially its Libyan affiliate) is growing,  and others saying that “there is no meaningful connection between [the Islamic State] and Boko [Haram].” The tone and message of Tripolitania Province’s video gives support to the latter view. Although Boko Haram is a formal “province” of the Islam State, the leaders in Libya appear to writing Boko Haram off – to the extent that the video features a Nigerian asking Nigerians to come to Libya.

No doubt the terror-ologists will insist that this is all evidence of Boko Haram’s master plan to take over Africa, and/or that Boko Haram will cleverly regroup inside Libya before re-emerging later. I think that kind of perspective ignores how logistically difficult much of this kind of movement and fighting must be. For West Africans to cross the Sahara, find their way to whatever (southern?) Libyan holdout the Islamic State is groping for now, and then to spend months or possibly years on the run, has got to be an unpleasant and dangerous undertaking. Even the jihadists who have unusual tenacity and luck at the game of strike-and-run in northwest Africa, such as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are (a) rare and (b) probably more often hiding and running than actively attacking or even plotting. How many West African Muslims are really going to sign up for that life? I don’t think Boko Haram should be written off (witness the recent attacks in southeastern Niger), but neither do I think that fears of African jihadist super-groups, or some kind of trans-Saharan empire connecting Libya to Nigeria, are well-founded.

The video, for all that it is slickly produced, could even be read as evincing a kind of desperation on the Islamic State’s part – which makes sense. For now, at least, the Islamic State in Libya seems to be on the decline. Attracting a small Libyan support base, an (admittedly sizable) contingent of Tunisians, and a (much smaller) number of sub-Saharan African fighters was enough to allow the Islamic State to cause severe disruption in Libya, but it was not enough to build an enduring political and territorial unit in the face of better-armed and better-funded competitors. If the Islamic State can regroup in southern Libya or elsewhere, perhaps the recruitment of West Africans will continue apace or even increase; but such a regrouping would presumably take months, and would inevitably run into the same problems the Islamic State faced in Sirte (and before that, Derna).

So it will be interesting to see how the Islamic State’s recruitment of West Africans fares now that Sirte seems to be falling. And it will also be consequential how West African governments respond to those fighters who do go, and then return; even if I am right and the flow is just a trickle, how that trickle is handled will matter a great deal (see Afghanistan, aftermath of).