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).

Roundup: Recent Assessments of U.S. Government Approaches Toward the Sahel

Here are a few items that I saw recently, all in very different ways assessing and critiquing aspects of how the United States government (or parts of it) has/have interacted with the Sahel:

  •  Loren DeJonge Schulman of the Center for a New American Security, “Working Case Study: Congress’s Oversight of the Tongo Tongo, Niger, Ambush.” I learned a lot from this. It reinforces my impression (and this is me speaking, not even paraphrasing Schulman) that U.S. troops are sometimes effectively on combat missions even if those missions go by highly euphemistic names. And there is not much oversight.
  • Nick Turse for the New York Times, “How One of the Most Stable Nations in West Africa Descended Into Mayhem.” This is a major piece of reporting. If you read it seeking a comprehensive explanation of Burkina Faso’s crises, you may walk away disappointed; if you read it as a critique of the United States government’s approach to Burkina Faso, the piece will probably make more sense.
  • State Department Office of Inspector General, “Audit of the Department of State Bureau of African Affairs Monitoring and Coordination of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Program.” Some pretty harsh assessments in there – but pretty fair, from what I can tell.

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.

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.

Niger: A Divided Opposition in the Lead-Up to Presidential Elections

(Hat tip to the University of Florida’s Sahel Research Group newsletter for the initial sources for this post – if you’re not signed up, you can sign up here.)

In 2016, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou won a smashing re-election victory in the second round, with 92.5% of the vote – all while the runner-up, former speaker of parliament Hama Amadou, was in detention.

Fast forward to 2020, and Issoufou is now term-limited. His party, the Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya), has designated the prominent politician and party heavyweight Mohamed Bazoum as its candidate for the December 27 elections this year (which will go to a second round in February 2021 if necessary). Bazoum has spent much of the past three months or so touring the country to rally support, before the official campaign period begins in December.

How is the opposition to Bazoum and the PNDS-Tarayya shaping up?

First of all, Amadou is a declared candidate, but his legal ability to run again is unclear. At issue is whether Amadou’s conviction in a human trafficking case should disqualify him from running this year. Amadou has consistently denounced the case, which began in 2014, as baseless and politically motivated; the charges came after a falling-out between Issoufou and Amadou, formerly allies. Freed in March of this year under a COVID-related amnesty, Amadou apparently may have to serve several more months of a one-year sentence. Regarding the 2020/2021 elections, Amadou argues that he fulfills the core requirements of the Constitution, namely being born in Niger and having full civil and political rights. The counter-argument, if I understand it correctly, is that the electoral code blocks any would-be candidate who has been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.

Meanwhile, Amadou’s party, the Mouvement démocratique nigérien pour une fédération africain (Democratic Nigerien Movement for an African Federation, MODEN/FA-Lumana), is divided. On September 19, at a party congress in Dosso (map), one wing of the party nominated Amadou as its candidate. Meanwhile, on the same day and in the same city, another wing of the party nominated Noma Oumarou, who been interim president of the party in Amadou’s absence, as its candidate. This power struggle has been going on for some time now; in August, a court declared that Oumarou, rather than the national political bureau of the party, was the sole figure qualified to speak and act on behalf of the party. For more on the intra-party fight, see here.

The Constitutional Court is charged with publishing the final list of candidates by December 1, so more than two months of maneuvering remain. I would not be surprised if Amadou is ultimately blocked from contesting.

Meanwhile, another significant declared candidate is former military ruler Salou Djibo (in power 2010-2011), nominated by his Peace Justice Progress party on June 28. And there are many others – coming like rain, to paraphrase this headline. One other major candidate is former President Mahamane Ousmane (in power 1993-1996).

The disunity of the opposition is often cited as a key factor in incumbent victories in West Africa and beyond. The opposition itself is often blamed for its own divisions, although voices often charge – in ways that are difficult to either confirm or disprove – that such fragmentation is abetted and encouraged by incumbents from behind the scenes.

We’ll see what happens. I’m expecting Bazoum to coast to victory, even in the first round, but I’ve been wrong before.

On the topic of party proliferation in West Africa, Catherine Kelly’s recent book is highly recommended.

Translation and Brief Commentary on the Islamic State’s Claim of Responsibility for the August 9 Attack in Kouré, Niger

Yesterday (September 17), in issue 252 of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter Al-Naba’ (available for registered users at Jihadology), the organization stated that it had perpetrated the August 9 attack that killed six French citizens and two Nigerien citizens in the Kouré giraffe reserve southeast of Niger’s capital Niamey.

From the moment the attack was known, suspicion fixed on the Islamic State and specifically on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates primarily in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso borderlands. As I noted at the time, though, the attack and its aftermath – including the lag between the attack and this claim of responsibility – contributed to a climate of uncertainty and fear in the Sahel and in western Niger specifically. This claim of responsibility will not, I think, alleviate that overall sense of dread, which related somewhat to the question of authorship but was even more connected to the location – Kouré (map) is in a zone that was previously considered safer than other parts of the Tillabéry Region, which encompasses Niamey.

Al-Naba’ is sometimes inaccurate, often short on crucial details, and is obviously quite subjective. I do not see anything glaringly inaccurate in my first reading of the article in Al-Naba’ 252 – but the passage describing the Kouré attack is brief and vague. I urge readers to bear this in mind as Western media and analysts extrapolate from what is ultimately a very skeletal write-up.

In particular, as I wrote on Twitter yesterday, beware the slippage you may see between Islamic State, ISGS, and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP can refer to a territorial concept used by the Islamic State to describe events in both the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, and ISWAP can also refer specifically to a Lake Chad-based organization that originated as a breakaway, majority faction of the (now rump) Boko Haram in 2016. If Islamic State media file ISGS operations as part of activities within “West Africa Province,” that does not mean that ISWAP, in the sense of that Lake Chad-based organization, is directly supervising and participating in ISGS attacks. To repeated what I said on Twitter, note that Al-Naba’ 252 has separate articles for describing recent events in the Lake Chad Basin (p. 7) and the tri-border Sahelian zone of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso (pp. 9-10). The description of the Kouré attack comes in the latter article (p. 9). So although the Islamic State considers it all “West Africa Province,” even they make an implicit separation in some media products between the Lake Chad Basin (including southeastern Niger) and the Sahel (including western Niger, where Kouré is).

For further context, the section on the Kouré attack is sandwiched between two other sections titled, respectively, “Killing of a Leader in the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad” and “Capture and Killing of a Major Spy for the Forces of Barkhane.” These are two of ISGS’ main enemies – the context is, again, Sahelian and specifically the tri-border zone.

Below I’ve translated the relevant excerpt on Kouré. Three further quick points:

  • The authors at Al-Naba’ seem most excited about the media and propaganda benefits they see in the attack – an opportunity, in the authors’ eyes, to undermine French narratives about counterterrorism in the Sahel.
  • There are no real details about the attack beyond what was known already from press reports.
  • The sense I get is that this was perpetrated by a single unit, most likely belonging to ISGS, and did not represent any complex coordination between ISGS and ISWAP as organizational entities.

Killing of 6 French in a Special Operation Near Niamey

That same Sunday [as an ISGS attack near Indelimane, Mali – map] witnessed a special operation by the soldiers of the Caliphate. The source told Al-Naba’ that a security detachment executed a sudden attack with automatic weapons on a number of France’s Crusader citizens in the Kouré area southeast of Niamey, the capital of Niger. This resulted in the killing of 6 of them after they were captured, and two of their apostate companions from Niger.

The apostates and Crusaders have acknowledged this blow. They demonstrated their fear that it would affect the reputation of their military campaign, through which, they claim, they have been able to kill the mujahidin and curtail their capacity to launch operations against them.

This operation also produced a media hubbub, due to the nationality of those killed and the place in which it occurred, at a distance of only an hour from the capital Niamey in a famous tourist area. It has been considered a major security breach for all the apostates’ defenses.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for September 17, 2020

Previous roundup here.

The Emir of Biu Umar Mustapha-Aliyu, an important figure in Borno State’s hierarchy of hereditary Muslim rulers, passed away on September 15 at the age of 80. He had been emir since 1989.

Amnesty:

In this open letter to the President, Amnesty International urges the Nigerian government to ensure all children detained in Giwa Barracks, Kainji military base, Maiduguri Maximum Prison, the Operation Safe Corridor facility outside Gombe, and other detention facilities associated with the conflict in Northeast Nigeria are immediately released, or are only detained as a very last resort and held in humane conditions in a civilian facility. The organization also calls for the immediate release of these children and access for them to education and psychosocial support.

Some of the latest violence:

  • An ISWAP attack at Wasaram, Kaga Local Government Area, killed 8 on September 15. “The insurgents had accused the villagers of alerting troops about their movement on their way to rob traders in the nearby town of Ngamdu…Soldiers intercepted the jihadists and engaged them in a gun battle.” ISWAP also reportedly killed 3 others in Auno, another village.
  • Here is the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker for September 5-11.
  • The Islamic State’s Al-Naba’ 251 (10 September, p. 6, available for registered users at the Jihadology website) briefly describes some attacks in Borno, Yobe, and Chad.

UNHCR has published its August 2020 “North-East Situation Update.” An excerpt:

The volatile security environment in North-East Nigeria continues to hinder the provision of Protection and Multisectoral assistance to the affected population in the States of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe (BAY States). In August, Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG) officially declared humanitarian actors a legitimate target, increasing the risk in the humanitarian delivery programme. In Borno State, indiscriminate attacks against civilian and military targets continued with NSAG mounting illegal vehicle checkpoints to rob, abduct and kill; other incidents have been recorded such as abduction of civilians during daily activities in their farmlands or while fetching firewood in areas outside the safe perimeters in the deepfield locations in Bama, Gwoza, Gubio, Dikwa, and Mungono. In addition, there has been raids on health facilities in Magumeri. In Adamawa and Yobe States several incidents of armed robbery, kidnapping, abduction for ransom, and killing were reported. NSAG attacks and threats of imminent attacks on the communities in North-East is causing widespread fears amongst the civilian population.

Adedigba Adebowale, Premium Times (September 13), “How Boko Haram Insurgency Worsened Malnutrition, Immunisation in Nigeria’s Northeast.”

On September 11, Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum visited refugees in Diffa, Niger and then visited displaced persons in Damasak, Borno. More here about plans to return refugees from Niger to Nigeria.

Niger: A Devastating Report on Summary Executions of Civilians in Tillaberi, and a Hard Denial from the Ministry of Defense

On September 4, Niger’s National Human Rights Commission published its report on the disappearance of 102 civilians in Inates, a commune in the Ayorou Department in Tillabéri/Tillabéry Region; the disappearances in question occurred in incidents between March 27-29 and on April 2, 2020. Here is a map showing Ayorou town – this is western Niger, near the border with Mali. The Tillabéri Region, particularly the border areas, is a major site of operations for the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara – see International Crisis Group’s report on Tillabéri here. As such Tillabéri is also a major zone of counter-jihadist operations. And Niger, which has not had the same level of abuses against civilians as have its neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, is now – tragically – catching up.

In a mission carried out over several periods between May and July, the Commission found six mass graves with a total of at least 71 bodies, and then worked to identify the bodies and match their names to the list of 102 missing persons. The Commission also generated its own, more numerous and specific, list of mission persons from the area.

The Commission argues strongly that the evidence points toward the Nigerien security forces as the authors of these killings. The Commission notes (p. 64) that all of the people they interviewed identified the military as the authors of mass interrogations in the region. And the Commission further reasons (p. 65) that it is “inconceivable and illogical” to think that jihadists dressed in military uniforms would have crisscrossed the region openly and freely, with “more than a dozen vehicles and tanks,” without drawing the attention of the state. The Commission further rules out the idea (p. 75) that these are bodies of civilians killed during airstrikes – rather, the Commission says, these people were victims of summary executions by the Defense and Security Forces (French acronym FDS). As the BBC notes, the Commission “said it was not possible to say whether top levels of the army were responsible” – an issue that hearkens back to the topic of this post.

In a September 11 statement, Niger’s Minister of Defense Issoufou Katambé rejected the Commission’s conclusions, particularly regarding FDS culpability:

RFI (French) has more on the Ministry of Defense’s reaction, including some provocative comments from the analyst Seidik Abba. He argues that political authorities feel they must give unquestioning support to the military because (a) they need they military to keep fighting in the border areas and (b) they can’t risk provoking a mutiny or even a coup. Abba’s comments definitely made me think – I haven’t rated the risk of a coup very high in Niger, but at the very least I share Abba’s sense that the civilian authorities are loath to avoid antagonizing or “demoralizing” the military hierarchy and the soldiers on the front lines.

Given that attitude, then, I don’t expect much accountability to come out of this process – even though the report is one of the more rigorous and thorough human rights investigations that I’ve seen from a Sahelian governmental body.

That cycle – of abuses, outcry, impunity, and backlash – is not just a byproduct of the Sahelian crisis but a constituent part of it. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have been gripped by the cycle, and it has operated at times in southeastern Niger. Now Tillabéry is, and clearly has been for some time now, facing the same cycle.

Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

A Table Comparing Seven 21st-Century Sahelian Coups

CountryYearCoup?Person RemovedOutcome
Mauritania2005YesMaaouya Ould al-Taya, dictator
in power since 1984 coup
20-month transition to a
civilian administration
with an elected president
who had not been a member of the junta
Mauritania2008YesSidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, civilian president elected in 200712-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had been the junta’s leader
Niger2010YesMamadou Tandja, civilian president elected in 1999, but who engineered an extra-constitutional third term in 200914-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Mali2012YesAmadou Toumani Touré, civilian president elected in 20023-week transition to civilian-led transitional government, 17-month transition to elected civilian president
Burkina Faso2014Depends on definitions; came amid a popular revolutionBlaise Compaoré, dictator who came to power in a 1987 coup14-month transition to a civilian administration with an elected president who had not been a member of the junta
Burkina Faso2015YesMichel Kafando and Isaac Zida, who came to power as transitional authorities after 2014 revolution (Note: Zida participated in 2014 possible coup)6-day power struggle and reversal of the coup
Mali2020YesIbrahim Boubacar Keïta, civilian president elected in 2013TBD

I made the above table while working on a separate piece trying to place Mali’s coup, and the international reaction to it, into a wider context. Hopefully the table is relatively self-explanatory, and hopefully it will be useful to those considering historical precedents and contrasts for what is happening now. The one item perhaps not self-explanatory is how to categorize what happened in Burkina Faso in 2014. Clearly there was a popular revolution; the question is whether a military coup occurred in the closing stages of that drama. Here is some contemporaneous reporting about the immediate circumstances and aftermath of Blaise Compaoré’s resignation, and what appeared to be a power struggle between the Army’s General Honoré Traoré and the Presidential Security Regiment’s Colonel Isaac Zida.

We could make the table significantly more complex – adding the ranks of the junta leaders, etc. But I wanted to keep it relatively simple. Perhaps I will revisit it in a future post.