Amplifying and Extending Martha Crenshaw’s Recommendation for Peace Talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State

In September, Stanford’s Martha Crenshaw – a longtime expert on terrorism – published an essay in Foreign Policy arguing that the time has come for peace talks with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The idea of talks is not new, but it is important.

Here is a key excerpt:

Given jihadis’ adaptability and diffusion, options to combat them with force are limited. One alternative is to try to solve the root causes of the problem by removing the conditions that make jihad attractive. But even if the multiple political, economic, and social causes of violence could be identified, addressing them is a costly endeavor requiring a good deal of patience and persistence. The current U.S. administration seems to have little of either.

[…]

The bottom line is that a military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and even in Iraq would not mean the end of terrorism and extremism. The Islamic State has vowed to continue its struggle and has called for attacks in the West. And al Qaeda and its network of allies stand to benefit from the downfall of their preeminent rival in the Middle East. Most of the underlying problems that led to the ascendance of jihadi organizations, meanwhile, persist. There is no simple answer to dealing with such a complex, expansive, and volatile threat. But it is worth considering all options, including negotiations with selected parties.

From what I can tell, the piece did not get much attention, but the comments it did get ran strongly in a negative/critical direction (these include comments on the article itself, although these comments are barely worth reading, and comments on Twitter). As someone in broad agreement with Crenshaw, I’d like to respond to some of the criticisms and then flesh out what talks might entail – because my own critique of Crenshaw’s piece is that it does not give enough detail about what talks would look like.

One kind of criticism was faux-shocked dismissiveness. That kind of criticism, I think, is barely worth engaging; seventeen years into the War on Terror, the burden should be on proponents of the status quo to defend it. Unorthodox ideas deserve, at the least, a fair hearing and a reasoned rebuttal.

Another kind of criticism was the argument that talks “would bestow legitimacy on groups that the vast majority of locals abhor” and that it is “far better to address the deep grievances that drive people to join them in the first place.” But Crenshaw has already pointed out – and the evidence is firmly on her side – that “address[ing] deep grievances” is difficult in analytical terms, costly in financial and military terms, and requires patience in terms of timelines, policy continuity, and political will. Crenshaw is talking about policy options predicated on the obvious likelihood that “deep grievances” will not go away any time soon.

The idea of “legitimacy” is also backwards, on multiple levels. If one wants to be a gritty realist, then legitimacy does not matter – what matters is the advancement of core interests. At present, I would argue, the War on Terror is an unsustainable drain on resources and an unsuccessful venture with dim prospects for a turnaround. Severe conflicts around the world have not been remedied through the War on Terror framework, and that framework has in some cases caused and/or exacerbated conflict.

If one wants to talk about legitimacy, though, or about moral standing, then I would actually argue that the United States and other Western powers could increase their legitimacy by displaying a willingness to talk to jihadists. First of all, we would show that we are unafraid of hearing anyone’s perspective, including perspectives that are sharply critical of American/Western foreign policy. We would show that we are confident enough in our own moral stature that we will meet with anyone, any time, and see whether we have any common ground with them.

Second, an offer to talk would go a long ways toward undercutting jihadists’ self-presentation as a revolutionary, anti-systemic force in the contemporary world. Under current policy, by insisting that jihadists are and must be outside of all mainstream politics, the U.S. ends up inadvertently reinforcing jihadists’ image as revolutionary actors, and even inadvertently reinforcing their romantic appeal to some of their recruits. If, instead, we offered to negotiate with them, we could in effect say, “You are no different than other violent actors who have come before you. We see nothing special about you. Whenever you want to talk, we will talk, and until you are ready to make peace we will fight you, whether we are talking or not.”

Another line of criticism toward Crenshaw’s argument came from International Crisis Group’s Sam Heller. In a Twitter thread, Heller fixated on Crenshaw’s skepticism toward military solutions – but Heller ultimately didn’t take a clear position on whether to negotiate or not, and so he just ended up muddying the waters. He concluded, “Military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions. But it seems incorrect to dismiss it totally.” Heller misrepresents Crenshaw’s position here; she does not “dismiss [military force] totally,” but rather says essentially what Heller says about it. Again, Heller’s phrasing is that “military force alone can’t deliver holistic, lasting solutions”; Crenshaw’s phrasing is that “more often than not, moreover, outside intervention ends an immediate crisis but leaves unresolved or even exacerbates the underlying problems that brought it about.” Heller is right, in his thread, to question the high number Crenshaw gives for the Islamic State’s remaining fighters in Iraq, but none of the issues he raises make much of a dent in her core argument.

My own take on Crenshaw’s piece is broad agreement, but also a desire for a more precise articulation of what negotiations might look like. So it’s worth disaggregating the idea of negotiations and offering a few possibilities:

  1. Direct negotiations between the United States and jihadists with the aim of forestalling further attacks on the United States.
  2. U.S. (or European, etc.) rhetorical and logistical support for negotiations between another government and that country’s jihadists.
  3. U.S. (or French, British, etc.) non-interference in efforts by another government to negotiate with that country’s jihadists.
  4. U.S. pressure on another government to turn that government’s secret deals with jihadists into public negotiations/agreements.

Once you disaggregate the proposal, it becomes easier to discuss, evaluate, and implement. So, in terms of #1, I think that it would be a good idea to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy for Non-State Actors (and to proclaim a willingness to talk with anyone, any time). But I actually think the most room for progress right now is with #2 and #3. There are voices out there who favor negotiations between their own governments and jihadists, but whose proposals have been essentially shot down by Western governments (this was the case when France publicly dismissed Malian civil society calls for the Malian government to negotiate with Malian jihadists).

I think too that more explicit Western support for negotiations could help with #4. If we support third-party negotiations or at least don’t stand in the way, that would signal to governments who already deal with jihadists that it’s time to bring those deals out into the open. Openness, in turn, would allow publics to weigh in and would make geopolitics and local politics more transparent.

After all, it’s one thing for analysts to debate “whether we should negotiate with jihadists” – but it’s another thing to really grapple with the policy ramifications of something like the Associated Press article on Yemen from this August. That article asserted the existence of deals between the Saudi and Emirati governments on the one side, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula on the other. The same article asserted that “key participants in the pacts said the U.S. was aware of the arrangements and held off on any drone strikes.” So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the United States and its entirely wholesome partners are locked in a battle of good and evil with jihadists. In the real world, politics is a mess and neither we nor are partners are as wholesome as one would like. In that world, do you prefer secret deals or public deals? I would take the latter.

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Roundup on the High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel at the United Nations General Assembly

On 26 September, a “High-Level Meeting on Mali and the Sahel” took place on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The meeting focused heavily on the issue of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. Here are a few relevant links:

  • The conclusions of the event (English and French). Key quote: “Participants welcomed the progress in operationalizing the Joint Force and condemned the attack of 29 June against its Headquarters in Sévaré. They expressed solidarity with the Joint Force and concerned countries. They welcomed the European Union’s commitment to rebuild the Headquarters. Participants affirmed that mobilizing adequate support for the full operationalization of the Joint Force was critical to its success and called upon Member States to provide the necessary support to the Joint Force as per the recommendations of the Secretary-General contained in his report of 16 October 2017 (S/2017/869) and resolution 2391 (2017). They encouraged the members of the Group of Five for the Sahel to establish a political and strategic framework for the Joint Force. “
  • United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ remarks (French and English). Key quote: “My longstanding position is that the G5-Sahel Joint Force is an important demonstration of regional ownership.  It needs a strong mandate and sustained and predictable funding.”
  • Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s remarks (French). Key quote: “The Malian state has modest resources, which do not allow it to implement all of the engagements accepted in the Accord within the prescribed period. That is why I reiterate my call for the rapid and effective mobilization of the resources promised by our partners.”
  • High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini’s remarks (French). Key quote: “Together, you are stronger. That is why we have decided to invest a lot in the G5 Sahel.”
  • On Twitter, Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry called for “speed in partners’ support to the G5 Sahel so that the joint force becomes operational on the ground.”
  • Here is a brief readout (French) from Mauritanian Foreign Minister Ismaël Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech (French) to the entire General Assembly is also worth reading.

Here are a few relevant tweets:

Mali: An AQIM/JNIM Assassination in Timbuktu and Its Aftermath

On 9 September, a commander of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (French acronym MOC) was assassinated in Timbuktu, northern Mali, killed in his car. The commander’s name has been transliterated various ways – Salim Ould M’Begui, Salim Ould Nbekhi, Salim Baghi, and Saloum Ould Becki. From the Arabic spellings that have been given (see here), I would transliterate it Salim Imbighi.

In any case, he was a member of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA), a coalition of northern Malian armed movements that all played some part in the rebellion of 2012 against the Malian state. The CMA has three major components – the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), the Arab Movement of Azawad (French acronym MAA), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA). M’Begui belonged to the MAA and was further, as we will see below, a member of the Awlad Idris/Oulad Idriss, an Arab tribe in northern Mali.

For further background, the MOC – and the patrols it runs – are a key element of the 2015 Algiers Accord, the peace agreement that aimed to prevent a resumption of war in the north following the 2012 rebellion. There are three signatories to the accord: the Malian government, the CMA, and a cluster of pro-government northern militias called the Plateform. The patrols through the MOC are meant to help these diverse groups work together and, by working together, stabilize the north. The Timbuktu MOC was only set up this May, with only around fifty fighters. The MOC there has yet to start its patrols, and the CMA was earlier accused of dragging its feet regarding patrols in both Timbuktu and Kidal.

Mali’s jihadists are, of course, not part of the accord and they have consistently attempted to sabotage the accord generally and the MOC/patrols specifically. This is key background for understanding M’Begui’s murder. On 17 September, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the assassination in Timbuktu. JNIM tied the Timbuktu assassination to other assaults on MOCs in the north, including the massive suicide bombing on the Gao MOC in January 2017.

JNIM, a Mali-centric jihadist coalition formed in March 2017, is an official branch of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). JNIM’s leadership includes both Malians (its overall leader is Iyad ag Ghali, the infamous Tuareg rebel-turned-jihadist) and non-Malians. JNIM’s largely Malian character contributes to its sophisticated understanding of the political and tribal/ethnic landscape of northern and central Mali. The non-Malian members also have deep experience in the country, though, due to the relationships that some of AQIM’s Saharan commanders and units developed in the years leading up to the 2012 rebellion.

The political dimension of JNIM’s approach helps explain why the claim of responsibility was not a generic public statement but rather a letter to the Awlad Idris. The letter takes pains to soften any outrage on the tribe’s part over the assassination, using three rhetorical techniques:

  1. Religious framing: The letter implicitly asserts that Islam constitutes a common ground of Islam between the tribe and JNIM. More explicitly, the letter argues that M’Begui had apostatized by joining the MOC. The MOC, in JNIM’s framing, targets legitimate “mujahidin” and works with “unbeliever” forces, namely the Malian army, the United Nations’ MINUSMA, and the G5 Sahel’s joint force. The letter presents the assassination as a form of religious justice and even self-defense on the part of the “mujahidin.”
  2. Framing the assassination as a last resort: The letter refers to JNIM’s repeated warnings to “all the sons of the tribes and the Muslims generally” not to join the MOC. The letters also references JNIM’s distribution of “numerous audio, video, and written statements warning about this critical matter.” In other words, the letter suggests that M’Begui had many chances to avoid being killed.
  3. Conveying respect for the tribe: The letter not only addresses the tribe, the author even offers to “arrange a direct meeting” to address any remaining concerns the tribe may have. In general, JNIM is keen to win over northern Malian Muslims (courting “the popular embrace” or al-hadina al-sha’biyya), and some AQIM leaders have long argued that jihadists need to woo the tribes rather than alienating them.

Various commentators noted that the statement was signed not by ag Ghali but by Algerian national and longtime AQIM senior official Yahya Abu al-Hammam. For some commentators, the statement reflected Abu al-Hammam’s ambitions to displace ag Ghali within JNIM (and therefore more an AQIM action than a JNIM one). I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does seem to me that there are various questions to pursue here about (a) internal coalition politics within JNIM and (b) geographical variations in how JNIM operates, not just between northern and central Mali (a theme I explored a bit here), but also within northern Mali. In this case, there are questions to pursue about differences between JNIM’s approach in Timbuktu as compared with its approach in Kidal – although Kidal witnesses its own share of violence, including two even more recent assassinations.

Here it is worth rewinding the tape to 2012-2013, to recall that ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (especially the Tuareg politicians who were part of it at that time) was the dominant force in Kidal during the jihadist occupation of northern Mali, while AQIM was most visible in Timbuktu (though it was present elsewhere, and ag Ghali, who was closer to AQIM than some of the other Ansar al-Din leaders at the time, traveled between northern Mali’s different cities and regions throughout that period). Here it is also worth revisiting Rida Lyammouri’s 2016 post “AQIM Never Really Abandoned Timbuktu, Mali,” which includes some interesting detail on Abu al-Hammam and the Awlad Idris. Adam Sandor’s 2017 report for Centre FrancoPaix is also highly relevant here, particularly pp. 16-17. Variations in the jihadist landscape within northern Mali, in other words, are not at all new.

Moreover, we should note that JNIM’s assassination of a CMA leader is a reminder that amid recurring rumors of behind-the-scenes contact between ag Ghali and the HCUA, the two movements – JNIM and CMA – are sometimes violently opposed. The CMA quickly and strongly denounced the murder in Timbuktu and promised to track down the assassins, and the CMA/MAA’s remarks concerning jihadist “infiltration” in Timbuktu sounded none too friendly.

This and other assassinations, finally, are a reminder that northern Malian politics is not just an intra-elite game in which politicians play with other men’s lives, but also a deadly competition for influence and power in which elites’ own lives are very much at stake. As this incident demonstrates, JNIM walks a fine line by assassinating people – on the one hand, it sends a clear message about the costs of working with the MOC, the peace process, and anti-jihadist forces; on the other hand, JNIM risks antagonizing a wide swath of extremely important northern Malian constituencies, and in that way undercutting its own long-term political strategy.

Mali: Another Look at the Presidential Election Results

The “Les Afriques dans le Monde” project at Sciences Po Bordeaux has posted some useful maps and charts on Mali’s presidential elections.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It’s really striking to see the pie charts that include abstentions. The visuals really underscore the weakness of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s second term mandate.
  • The post highlights that of more than 65,000 new voters added to the rolls for the 12 August runoff, approximately half of them were in Gao and half in the diaspora. These are the kinds of numbers that have raised eyebrows in Mali.
  • The maps showing vote share by region are also extremely useful. The map of the first round highlights how well IBK did in the north (especially Kidal and Gao) and how poorly he did in Mopti (which also had, far and away, the highest number of polling place closures due to violence. Interestingly, as the authors note, IBK’s main rival Soumaïla Cissé had his best score in Timbuktu (20%), and his second-best in Gao, so this is not a story of Cissé doing well in south and IBK doing well in the north – rather, it’s the story of two candidates with significant northern support amid a divided south, where the share of votes going to other candidates was much higher. Cissé had minimal support in the south, actually.
  • The map of the second round reinforces these patterns. IBK dominated Kidal, but Cissé preserved a substantial vote share in Timbuktu (increasing, actually, to 26% there) and Gao. Only in those two regions, moreover, was the share of people voting greater than the share of people not voting. In the south, again, Cissé had relatively little support. Moreover, abstentions reached 70% in Segou, Bamako, and Sikasso.
  • I would reiterate what I’ve said before, namely that IBK is in some sense not really the president of Mopti (and even, one could argue, Segou). The violence was so severe, and the abstentions so high, that I take the outcome there as a rejection of the process itself.

Mali: Poor Relations Between IBK and the Cherif of Nioro Continue

In the lead-up to Mali’s presidential election in July and August, some of the country’s most prominent religious leaders publicly broke with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK). One of these men, arguably the most influential Muslim figure in the country, was the Cherif of Nioro, Mohamed Ould Cheicknè or Bouyé (whose name is transliterated numerous ways, even in the Malian press). In the first round of the elections, the Cherif endorsed Aliou Diallo. In the second round, the Cherif endorsed IBK’s opponent Soumaïla Cissé. As I wrote then, “One takeaway is that key Malian religious leaders appear confident that they can break with IBK and come out okay even if he wins a second term.”

In a recent interview, the Cherif recounted his history with IBK and with Malian politics generally. There are a few notable points:

  • He considered himself apolitical under President Amadou Toumani Touré (in office 2002-2012) until the controversy over the proposed family code (which the Cherif and other leaders saw as harmful to Islam) circa 2009. The family code debate influenced his thinking even after the fall of Touré in the coup of 2012, and the Cherif came to support IBK as someone who had been, in his eyes, wronged by Touré and who could “take the country forward.” Endorsing IBK in 2013 was the first time the Cherif had supported a presidential candidate, he says.
  • The Cherif said that IBK deceived him and the Malian people, and that IBK’s first term revealed an autocratic personality. The Cherif recounted a story about one of his sons being harassed and beaten over a toll, and how the affair escalated into a political confrontation between his family and IBK after it appeared to the Cherif that the harassment had been “a sort of political score-settling” connected with his son’s own political activities.
  • The portion of the interview posted online ends there, from what I could find. But the fact of the interview itself being given and published stood out to me in and of itself. Who knows how the relations between IBK and the country’s Muslim leaders will play out over the next five years, but things are not necessarily off to a great start in the second term.

Mali’s New Cabinet

Following his re-election in August, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) retained Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (SBM), whom I and others have accorded a significant role in IBK’s victory. But the president did reshuffle the cabinet. The list of the thirty-two members can be found here. A good analysis of the new cabinet can be found here (French), but I also want to highlight and amplify a few things:

  • During his first term (2013-2018), IBK regularly reshuffled his cabinets and fired four prime ministers, three of whom spent less than a year in the position. So no one’s job is exactly safe, even SBM’s.
  • There is a great deal of continuity in this cabinet. Only twelve people left the cabinet altogether. Some prominent ministers have been retained, such as Salif Traoré (see a bit of biographical data here) as Minister of Security and Mohamed ag Erlaf as Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (who took a bit of heat during the elections, one should add). Another retention is Nina Wallet Intalou, Minister of Crafts and Tourism and someone associated with the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a rebel movement that played a central role in the 2012 rebellion and its aftermath. Yet another retention is Tierno Amadou Diallo, Minister of Religious Affairs, who (if I am correct) has been one of the few ministers to survive all the cabinet reshuffles since 2013.
  • Another form of continuity is familiar faces coming back, just in new positions. This is the case with Tiéna Coulibaly, now Minister of Justice but previously Minister of Defense. It is also the case with Tiémoko Sangaré, previously Minister of Mines and now Minister of Defense.
  • In terms of new entrants, the appointment of Kamissa Camara as foreign minister has been widely hailed in Mali and abroad, for two reasons: (1) because of her strong reputation, including in Washington, where she worked for the National Endowment for Democracy and other institutions [for full disclosure, I have been in contact with her several times and where she has helped me with my research, although I do not believe she has ever met] and (2) because the appointment of a young woman is seen by many as an exciting development for Mali, for Africa, and for female representation in government generally.
  • In terms of party politics, the above-mentioned analysis notes that of the thirty-two cabinet members, twenty represent political parties. A total of seven parties are represented in the cabinet, and six of those belong to the presidential coalition. Another analysis floats the idea that the prominent party ADEMA-PASJ is something of a loser in this reshuffle, losing two seats and gaining only a symbolic prize with Defense – according to the writer, it is actually IBK who manages that portfolio.,

A readout of the new cabinet’s first meeting can be found here.

Roundup of Recent Reports and Commentary on Jihadism in Central Mali and Burkina Faso

Several in-depth reports have come out recently looking at jihadism in central Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as a much-discussed article that focuses on Peul/Fulani identity in those areas and across West Africa. Here are some excerpts:

Philip Kleinfeld, IRIN, “In Central Mali, Rising Extremism Stirs Inter-Communal Conflict.”

Before the emergence of jihadism, the social fabric in central Mali was already fragile. For decades weak governance and competition over land and water caused lingering conflicts between the Fulani pastoralists, who move their herds across the region, and largely sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai farming communities.

[…]

Convinced the state cannot protect them, traditional Dogon hunters, known as Dozos, have decided to fill the void themselves, forming a new self-defence militia they call Dana Amassagou, which translates roughly as, “hunters in God’s hands”.

The group is responsible for a string of indiscriminate attacks on Fulani civilians and is alleged to have received weapons and training from the Malian government. Fellow Dozos from the Ivory Coast and Niger are also believed to have joined their ranks.

Support from the Dogon community itself is mixed however, with many accounts of Dogon chiefs and civilians protecting their Fulani neighbours against the hunters.

France24: “In Burkina Faso, the Terrorist Threat Is Spreading to the East.”

A forest region bordering Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger, eastern Burkina Faso has long been regarded as a bastion of organised crime. Thanks to the central government’s neglect of the region, self-defence militias known as “koglweogo” have become the guarantors of security for the local population. And thanks to the dense forests and the lack of adequate road networks, the area is practically inaccessible for national security forces. Thus, eastern Burkina Faso is fertile ground for jihadists.

[…]

A response from the Burkinabé government is long overdue. In a memo on the security situation in the east, relayed by local media, the regional police chief Commissioner Karim Drabo warned that “if security forces do not respond vigorously, the attackers will have time to settle and to spread IEDs throughout the areas they have occupied […] and they are gaining ground”.

And, finally, Dougoukolo Alpha Oumar Ba-Konaré of the human rights organization Kisal recently published a commentary piece at The Conversation (French). I’ve translated the first paragraph below.

The Peul are currently attracting attention because some of them are instrumentalized by fundamentalist groups seeking to implant themselves at the local level in the Sahel. The jihadist terror creates social distress among the other communities in the affected zones, making the Peul the scapegoats due to their supposed historical affinities with radical Islam. Peul identity thus appears as a bogeyman symbolizing the jihadist threat. However, this identity is too heterogeneous to create such a simple link.