Two Grim Attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger

Over the weekend, two serious episodes of violence occurred in the Sahel – one in eastern Burkina Faso on Friday (August 7), and one in southwestern Niger on Sunday (August 9). These attacks, and particularly the latter, are being discussed intensely by journalists and analysts, so I will make this post relatively brief.

The August 7 attack targeted a livestock market in Namoungou, a small town in Burkina Faso’s Est (East) Region. The town is approximately 30 kilometers east of Fada N’Gourma, capital of the Est Region. See one map of the approximate location here, and see Héni Nsaibia’s map here. Around 30 gunmen arrived on motorbikes and started firing at civilians, killing some 20 people – all in broad daylight. Strikingly, according to RFI, Namoungou hosted the last functioning livestock market in this part of the Est Region, other than the one in Fada N’Gourma itself. The incident has clear parallels with attacks on livestock markets elsewhere in the east, including at Kompienbiga in May of this year.

The August 9 attack in Niger, meanwhile, killed eight people, including six French aid workers, their Nigerien guide, and their Nigerien driver. At least some, and perhaps all of the French victims worked for the charity ACTED. The attack occurred in or near the Kouré Giraffe Reserve (map), which is some 65 kilometers east-southeast of Niamey, Niger’s capital. Kouré is in the Tillabéri region, which is a hotspot for violence, but Kouré is well away from the main zones of violence within Tillabéri, which are to the northwest of Niamey rather than to the capital’s east and south.

A few thoughts:

  1. Neither attack was immediately claimed, and murkiness surrounding perpetrators and motives is a core feature of the conflict(s) in the Sahel. As Nsaibia noted, survivors from the Namoungou attack pointed fingers not at jihadists but at the country’s volunteer fighters (formally the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland, French acronym VDP). See some background on the VDP here. Regarding the Niger attack, meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) rushed to disavow responsibility. That leaves the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) as the primary suspect, and ISGS does not always claim its attacks immediately. Some attacks never get claimed at all. The point is that in the immediate aftermath of major incidents of violence, there is a lot of confusion, including on the ground. Meanwhile, Sahelien heads of state and senior officials routinely point not just to jihadists when decrying violence but also to “bandits” and “criminals” – see Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s condolence message to Niger and France, where he laments not only “violent extremism” but also the “criminal economy” in the region. Going even further, one might add that the uncertainty over “who kills whom” (to borrow a phrase from Jacob Mundy’s brilliant book on Algeria in the 1990s) is one key factor that generates rumors, conspiracy theories, and fear.
  2. Another feature of the violence in the Sahel is the progressive erosion of a sense of safety in different parts of the region. The Namoungou attack made me think of this excellent piece of reporting by Alassane Neya from March 2019, which vividly portrayed the sense of looming insecurity in eastern Burkina Faso, even in Fada N’Gourma itself. Now, it’s worth stressing that some parts of the Sahel have become much safer in comparison with the not-too-distant past. France24’s Kalidou Sy, reflecting on the Niger killings, evoked the 2007 murder of four French tourists at Aleg, Mauritania – and much of Mauritania is now safer for Westerners than it was in the late 2000s, I’d say (let’s come back to Aleg below, because there is another point to draw out there). And as I discussed here, parts of northern Mali, especially the Kidal Region, are registering remarkably few fatalities, even though the image of Kidal as the conflict’s epicenter persists in some quarters (that may be true in some political sense, but not in the sense of day-to-day violence). With all that said, the eruption of violence into new localities, and the progressive encroachment of insecurity on zones previously at the edges of endemically violent zones, has manifold effects – one of them being the sense of disorientation that such violence inflicts on local and national authorities, and even on foreign governments. That kind of disorientation can in turn reinforce bunker mentalities for governments, militaries, and humanitarians. I’ve been thumbing through Ruben Andersson’s No-Go World, and unfortunately haven’t had time to read it in full yet, but the points he makes – about how a sense of pervasive insecurity leads to all kinds of efforts at remote management of conflict zones, efforts that in turn carry serious liabilities – are highly pertinent to thinking about these two episodes of violence.
  3. What happened in Burkina Faso and in Niger may be part of various actors’ master plans – or it may not. Sy’s reference to Aleg reminded me that much still remains unclear about that attack, including whether it was a well-planned incident or whether it was undertaken by aspiring al-Qaida members eager to prove their bonafides (or even to dispel rumors among more seasoned members that these youths were informants).* Killing a group of aid workers makes a dramatic statement – but was it the intended one? Was it a kidnapping gone wrong? Who gave the orders, and why? According to a source cited by RFI, “The attackers came on motorcycles through the bush and waited for the group’s arrival” – but more details are needed to understand what level of planning and strategy was involved. Similarly, at Namoungou, what dynamics of greed or revenge, strategy or improvisation, came into play? Is it part of a brilliant plan to cripple commerce, free movement, and normal life in the Est Region, or is it the resulting of cascading contingencies and reckless gambits?
  4. The targeting of aid workers is a trend, and a terrible one. Whether it was carefully planned or not, the attack in Niger fits into that trend. Many aid agencies take pains to stress their neutrality – the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Burkina Faso was making that point last week – but they are not always perceived as neutral, and are certainly not perceived as inviolable, by many armed actors in the Sahel and beyond.

Niger: The Release of Blogger Samira Sabou and Wider Issues of Press Freedom in Niger

In Niger, a notable press freedom case concluded (?) on Tuesday, July 28, when authorities freed the blogger and journalist Samira Sabou after a court in the capital Niamey cleared her of defamation charges.

As Amnesty International outlined in its demand for her release, Sabou was arrested on June 10 on charges of “electronic defamation” against President Mahamadou Issoufou’s son Sani, who is also deputy chief of staff to the presidency. According to Amnesty, the younger Issoufou

filed a complaint against Samira Sabou after a Facebook user mentioned on 26 May his name in a comment responding to Samira’s publication relating to allegation of corruption. Samira Sabou did not mention Sani Mahamadou Issoufou’s name. She should have never been prosecuted for these allegations of defamation and detained.

I think this must be the post in question, although she had a few that day (Amnesty is more specific about the post here). If I’m right, then her post was commenting on a Jeune Afrique article from March about how the opposition hoped to leverage an audit of the Ministry of Defense to weaken the ruling party during the lead-up to the 2020/2021 presidential elections. I’ve covered the audit and the related procurement scandal here, and I’ve discussed the elections a bit here.

Sabou was charged under a “cyber-criminality” law passed in June 2019. Concerns have been rising for several years now about press freedoms in Niger, and about political freedoms more broadly. In a 2019 briefing for African Affairs, two U.S.-based scholars wrote, “Western media reports often associate Niger with violent religious extremism, but an arguably more imminent problem is the rollback of Niger’s fragile democracy.” And here is a longer excerpt from the same piece:

Journalists and civil society activists such as Moussa Tchangari and Ali Idrissa are prime targets of government crackdowns. Freedom of information has declined sharply in recent years. The annual Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index dropped Niger from a ranking of twenty-ninth in 2011 to sixty-third in 2018. Two prominent examples illustrate the modus operandi of the government vis-à-vis journalists. In January 2014, Soumana Idrissa Maïga, the editor of a private newspaper, was arrested after the government accused him of inciting hatred and violence. In March 2017, Baba Alpha, the owner of a private radio station, was accused of using false citizenship papers. He was imprisoned for two years and eventually deported to Mali after the government declared him a threat to Niger’s internal security. Both journalists had reported critically on government conduct and corruption.

Sabou’s case occurred after that piece was written, but organizations such as Amnesty have also viewed her detention in a wider context, especially amid the fallout from the procurement scandal:

Journalist Ali Soumana, owner of ‘’Le Courrier’’ newspaper has been arrested and taken into custody since 12 July. His arrest is believed to be linked to the publication of a story on the alleged misuse of funds by the Ministry of Defence. This is the third time in less than four years that Ali Soumana has been harassed while carrying out his journalist work.

For nearly two years, journalists and human rights activists in Niger have been the target of repeated arbitrary arrests. Since 15 March, activists Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila and Maïkoul Zodi were detained mainly on the basis of fabricated allegations, after calling for an investigation into the alleged misuse of funds by the Ministry of Defence.

In this climate, human rights organizations have taken Sabou’s release as a baby step forward – the International Federation for Human Rights calls it “a first positive signal sent by the judicial authority in Niger.”

Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:

Remarks:

  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.

Heavy Rains and Risks of Flooding in Parts of the Sahel

Flooding is a recurring problem in parts of the Sahel – in 2019, floods in Niger affected over 200,000 people. Water damage to houses displaces people and elevates disease risks. An excerpt from the link:

OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke says the last time the Niger basin reached this level was in 2012.

“At that time, the floods left dozens of dead and affected nearly half-a-million people… Each year, there has been an upward trend in how many people are affected by these seasonal rains.  We have seen a doubling of the number of people affected since 2015, as well as increasing material damage including destruction of crops and loss of livestock,” Laerke said.

This year, above average rains are expected for much of the Sahel. That pattern may accelerate various grim domino effects:

Given the overall wet situation expected for the 2020 rainy season and the ongoing locust crisis in Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa, it is very likely that there will be an incursion of desert locust swarms due to the early onset of the rainy season in the Sahelian band.

Combined with the situation related to the COVID19 pandemic, this risk of desert locust invasion could increase the risk of food insecurity for millions of people in the Sahel and West Africa.

Heavy rains are already taking a toll in Niger – the Ministry of the Interior recently stated that from the beginning of the rainy season through July 20, nine people had died, seventeen had been wounded, and 20,000 had been affected. Earlier in July, the government had warned that 300,000 people across Niger face flood risks this year.

In Mali, flooding is also beginning to take a toll. The below tweet shows the situation in Douentza, Mopti Region, where 2,200 people have already been affected. Some 110,000 people face flood risks in Mali:

Here is a Red Cross report on the response to flooding last August in multiple regions of Mali.

In Chad, over 170,000 people were affected by floods last year. Heavy rains have hit N’Djamena, with residents of some quarters disputing with each other over how to deal with the water.

Heavy rains can also cause other problems, less serious than loss of life and mass displacement but still tremendously disruptive. In Mauritania, rains this year have made some roads impassable, damaged bridges, dams, and wells, knocked out electricity in some areas, etc.

Finally, writing in Le Faso, Felix Alexandre Sanfo makes some important points that apply not just to Burkina Faso but also to the wider region. He commends the Burkinabè government for its June 30 directive to regional and municipal authorities to begin preparing in case of floods – but he points out that such instructions could come earlier, given the predictability of the cycle. He goes on to argue for unifying the partly overlapping roles of the two main emergency services in the country, as well as for creating more robust early warning and reaction mechanisms.

To close with a nod to the big picture, the flooding raises questions about the links between climate change, disasters, food insecurity, and conflict. Crisis Group put it well, in a report back in April:

Climate change has certainly contributed to transforming the region’s agro-pastoral systems. But the direct relationship sometimes posited between global warming and dwindling resources, on one hand, and growing violence, on the other, does not help policymakers formulate appropriate responses…It is essential to consider the impact of climate change in the Sahel. But the climate component must be linked to a broader set of causalities, notably the political choices – including those made by states – governing access to resources.

In any case, amid the region’s many other crises, flooding appears likely to affect tens if not hundreds of thousands of people across the region in the coming months.

Niger: Ruling Party Presidential Election Candidate Mohamed Bazoum on the Campaign Trail

Niger’s term-limited President Mahamadou Issoufou is set to step down in 2021. With elections approaching in December 2020 (first round), the ruling Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya) has chosen one of its founders and longtime leaders, Mohamed Bazoum, as its presidential candidate. In order to forestall intra-party competition, Bazoum was invested as the party’s candidate back in March 2019. More recently, Bazoum left government (he was most recently Minister of the Interior) during a cabinet reshuffle announced on June 29; the move was explicitly done to prepare his presidential campaign.

The official campaign period is, if I understand the regulations summarized here, 21 days. Those days are far off for now. This month, however, Bazoum has embarked on a tour to rally the PNDS-Tarayya faithful, in what looks a lot to me like campaigning. He arrived in the Dosso Region on July 10, and then moved to tour the Tahoua Region starting July 18 (see a map of Niger’s regions here). This is far from the first time Bazoum has toured the country, of course, but this offers a snapshot of the evolving pre-campaign.

At least judging from the photographs, he can draw a crowd. This is in Illéla, Tahoua:

Bazoum’s multicultural and multi-linguistic fluency is also on display on this tour. Ethnically Arab, Bazoum hails from southeast/south central Niger: he was born in Bilabrine (Diffa Region), grew up in Tesker (Zinder Region), completed secondary school in Zinder city, and later represented Tesker as a deputy in the National Assembly. If elected president, Bazoum would be one of the few heads of state in Niger’s history to come from an ethnic group other than the Hausa or the Zarma, the two largest ethnic groups in the country (Mamadou Tandja, president from 1999-2010, “is of mixed Mauritanian, Kanuri, and Fulani parentage,” the Kanuri and Fulani being two minority ethnic groups in the country).

Here is Bazoum speaking fluent Hausa in Birni Gaouré during his tour of Dosso:

It is not surprising that a major Nigerien politician would be multi-lingual, obviously. But the basic messages of this tour appear to revolve around party unity and around the idea of the candidate as a national figure. Or perhaps the message is simply “victory.” Here is one local PNDS-Tarayya section, promising that Bazoum will win in the first round:

Niger: A Partial Cabinet Shuffle in Advance of the 2020/2021 Presidential Elections, and a Bit of Election-Related News

On 29 June, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou partly reshuffled his cabinet. The move is, in my view, partly related to the informal, ongoing campaign for the upcoming presidential elections, whose first round is scheduled for 27 December 2020 and whose second round, if one proves necessary, is scheduled for 20 February 2021. The main news in this reorganization is the departure from government of Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum, presidential candidate of the ruling Parti Nigerien pour la Democratie et le Socialisme (Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism, PNDS-Tarayya).

Issoufou, the outgoing president, is term-limited after his election in 2011 and re-election in 2016. Bazoum, Issoufou’s longtime political companion and the occupant of several senior posts in both of Issoufou’s administrations, was invested as the PNDS-Tarayya’s candidate at a party congress on 31 March 2019 – a move undertaken far in advance in order to “preserve party unity and avoid a multiplication of ambitions.” One particular ambition came from another PNDS heavyweight, current party Secretary-General Hassoumi Massaoudou, who now very publicly supports Bazoum.

I am assuming that Bazoum is now leaving the Interior Ministry in order to prepare a more intensive phase of the campaign.

In all, the partial reshuffle involved six appointments (see also here and here):

  1. Alkache Alhada, promoted from Deputy Interior Minister to Interior Minister; he has been Deputy since last September;
  2. Mohamed Boucha promoted from Deputy Minister of Livestock Farming (Elevage) to Minister of Employment; he replaces the late Mohamed Ben Omar, who died of COVID-19 on 3 May;
  3. Amadou Aissata switches from Minister of Population to Minister of Energy;
  4. Amina Moumouni switches from Minister of Energy to Minister of Population;
  5. Boureima Souleymane enters government as Minister of Youth Entrepreneurship;
  6. Ali Gonki (rendered Banki in some reports, but I think that’s a mistake) enters government to replace Mohamed Boucha as Deputy Minister of Livestock Farming.

The other major election-related news is that former military ruler Salou Djibo, head of the junta that ruled Niger in 2010-2011 immediately before Issoufou’s election, has announced his candidacy. Djibo retired from the military in May 2019 and, according to Jeune Afrique, thought initially that he might secure Issoufou’s endorsement for the 2020/2021 election. When that failed, he created a new party, Paix Justice Progrès (Peace, Justice, Progress, PJP). The party, unsurprisingly, declared him its candidate at a congress on 28 June. Djibo, according to the same report, hopes to embody “a third way” between Bazoum and  the Mouvement démocratique nigérien pour une fédération africain (Democratic Nigerien Movement for an Africa Federation, MODEN/FA-Lumana) of longtime presidential aspirant, 2016 runner-up, and former National Assembly President Hama Amadou.

Finally, it’s worth briefly mentioning that the defense procurement scandal continues to play out – a topic that I’ve covered a bit before, but that merits another whole post of its on. One of the latest developments is the public prosecutor’s announcement that his office will pursue charges related to the case, although perhaps not as aggressively as some citizens and observers had hoped. Whether the scandal will hurt Bazoum, as the opposition is hoping, remains to be seen.

On the Reported Death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel

On June 5, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced, “On June 3, French forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the Emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.” I would regard this claim as about 90-95% reliable. The French government infamously waxed too confident in late 2018 when claiming to have killed the Malian jihadist leader Amadou Kouffa, who turned up alive in early 2019. However, United States Africa Command or AFRICOM has announced that it has “confirmed Droukdal’s death in an independent assessment.” The journalist Wassim Nasr also reports that an AQIM source confirmed Droukdel’s death. No official eulogy has yet appeared, but again, it seems highly likely that France’s claims are accurate in this instance.

Droukdel (transliterated spellings vary), also known as Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, had been the top leader or emir of AQIM since 2004, when the group was still called the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). Biographies of Droukdel can be found in various places and they should all be treated with a bit of caution. One detailed biography comes from Jeune Afrique (French). According to this and various other sources, Droukdel was born in 1970 in Meftah, Algeria (map). Embracing jihadism around 1994, Droukdel fought in Algeria’s civil war and ultimately landed in the GSPC. He was a longtime associate of one of the GSPC’s architects, Hasan Hattab, who served as the group’s emir from 1998-2003 before being dethroned in an internal coup; Droukdel was also a protege of Nabil al-Sahrawi/Mustafa Abu Ibrahim, whose death at the hands of Algerian security forces led to Droukdel’s succession. Droukdel played a key role in bringing the GSPC into al-Qaida’s formal orbit, especially between 2003 and 2007, the year the GSPC changed its name to AQIM.

In terms of Droukdel’s public pronouncements, Aaron Zelin has painstakingly compiled many of Droukdel’s statements here, covering the period 2005-2020. For an English-language exposition of the jihadist leader’s views, see Droukdel’s 2008 interview with the New York Times. A 2005, Arabic-language interview he did with the jihadist platform Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad also offers substantial insight into his thinking.

Some key events that occurred during Droukdel’s tenure as AQIM emir include the following:

  • The December 2007 suicide bombings targeting the Constitutional Court and two United Nations buildings in Algiers, Algeria;
  • The rise of a kidnapping economy in the Sahara, especially between 2008 and 2013;
  • The circa October 2011 defection of a breakaway jihadist group whose name is usually translated as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA);
  • The 2011 Arab Spring, which saw efforts by AQIM to insert itself more fully into Tunisia and Libya, although with what I would call only modest and fleeting successes;
  • The approximately June 2012-January 2013 jihadist emirate in northern Mali, in which AQIM was a key player; that project and its attempt at southward expansion triggered France’s ongoing military intervention in Mali;
  • The December 2012 breakaway of key Saharan AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, after years of tension with Droukdel and with another Saharan field commander, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, who died in 2013 during the initial French intervention;
  • The 2014-2015 rise of the Islamic State, which brought a fairly unsuccessful breakaway group from AQIM in northern Algeria called Jund al-Khilafa, and a much longer-lived breakaway group from Belmokhtar’s forces (hence a breakaway from a breakaway of AQIM) that defied Belmokhtar, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and came to be known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS;
  • The late 2015 reintegration of Belmokhtar and some of the former MUJWA elements, who by then had formed a joint jihadist unit called al-Murabitun;
  • The 2015-2016 expansion of jihadism into Burkina Faso, with some attacks claimed by AQIM, including the January 2016 attack on the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou;
  • The March 2017 formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) as a coalition of AQIM’s Saharan units, al-Murabitun, and multiple units of the Mali-centric jihadist outfit Ansar al-Din (defenders of the faith).

Specifying the precise role that Droukdel as an individual played in these events, however, is difficult. First of all, common sense would seem to indicate that the higher one rises in a jihadist hierarchy, the more one becomes a target for precisely the kind of manhunt that killed Droukdel; the more of a target one becomes, the more precautions a leader is likely to take; and the more precautions that are taken, the more likely it is that decision-making will  be delegated downward as much as possible. Second, the far-flung geographical nature of AQIM’s project, and even of JNIM’s project, also worked against centralized control on Droukdel’s part. Note that the center of gravity for AQIM shifted to Mali and the Sahara-Sahel by 2012 at the latest and probably by the late 2000s, intermittent high-profile attacks in northern Algeria notwithstanding. Third, Droukdel’s control over what happened in the Sahara appears to have been challenged by his subordinates virtually from the beginning of his tenure. Most prominently, missives sent by Droukdel or on Droukdel’s behalf to his Saharan field commanders during the Malian emirate-building project in 2012 have become famous after the Associated Press recovered them in 2013; to me, the letters indicate that Droukdel could not discipline the perennially independent-minded Belmokhtar, or even the ostensibly more loyal Abu Zayd.

Following the French intervention in Mali in 2013, meanwhile, it seems to me that Ansar al-Din’s founder and JNIM’s current leader, Iyad ag Ghali, has been more important than Droukdel in setting the agenda for jihadist activity in Mali and Burkina Faso, theaters that have become much more important than Algeria for the trajectory of jihadism in northwest Africa. I am far from alone in my assessment of ag Ghali’s importance. If the symbolism of who comes to whom is any indication of relative importance, Droukdel was reportedly in Mali to meet ag Ghali. The analysis here has a few errors (for example, Droukdel succeeded al-Sahrawi as GSPC emir, as noted above, and not Hattab), but nevertheless makes some good points, including the following:

Having lost the battle for northern Algeria, without the support of the population and short on logistical means for pursuing his criminal activities, the terrorist leader resolved, with absolute discretion, to go reach a region acquired by and/or under domination of terrorist groups, the only lair more or less safe for him.

This analysis is, at the very least, plausible – although of course northern Mali did not turn out to be safe for Droukdel. The same piece goes on to say that “an inhabitant of the region, a collaborator of the French forces,” tipped the French off to Droukdel’s presence. Droukdel became vulnerable in part because his own inability to dictate events from afar forced him into the (relative) open. According to this article (French), which also relays the claim that Droukdel was on his way to a meeting, Droukdel was killed eighty kilometers east of Tessalit (map), just outside a village named Talhandak, inside Malian territory but roughly twenty kilometers from the border with Algeria. As Luca Raineri notes in a Twitter thread starting here, meanwhile, the accounts that have come out so far about Droukdel’s death leave a lot of questions – how long was he in Mali? How did he cross the Mali-Algeria border? How did he allow himself to be targeted, apparently unawares, in the deep desert?

Now, who succeeds Droukdel? Some analysts have argued that AQIM will begin to, or continue to, fade: one Algerian paper calls Droukdel “the last of the Algerian terrorist leaders” and describes AQIM as a “hollow shell.” That might be premature, although there are strong arguments that JNIM is now more important than its parent organization, and that with the death of Algerian national and AQIM commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam in February 2019, AQIM’s role even within JNIM has been diminishing. Some analysts have even suggested that AQIM might pledge allegiance to ISIS – I don’t think so, although no one has a crystal ball. More plausibly to me, the BBC’s Mina al-Lami made the case, in a Twitter thread starting here, that top AQIM cleric Yusuf al-Annabi is a likely successor to Droukdel, given his prominence in AQIM messaging over the past few years. My reservation about that line of analysis is that at least in the past, the top GSPC/AQIM leaders came from the ranks of field commanders and people with military/operational roles, rather than from among the group’s clerics. Then again, that pattern is not necessarily relevant now – after all, it has been roughly 16 years since AQIM faced a transition at the top.

France24, meanwhile, notes that the three most prominent jihadists in the Sahel – and, I would say, in northwest Africa as a whole – are now three non-Algerians: ag Ghali (a Malian national), JNIM’s Amadou Kouffa (also a Malian national), and ISGS’ Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi (from Western Sahara/Morocco). Their prominence does not mean that any of them is going to succeed Droukdel as head of AQIM, but it does suggest that Droukdel’s passing symbolizes the reality already mentioned above, namely that the jihadist project inside Algeria has been weak for years now.

In the Sahel, how relevant was Droukdel to events on the ground? The analyst Mathieu Pellerin put it starkly, and well: “You can kill all the jihadist leaders you want, that won’t prevent the children of the hundreds of civilians executed over a year from one day taking up arms to get revenge – be they jihadists, rebels, or others.” The same day that Parly announced Droukdel’s death, there was a massacre in Binédama, Koro District, in the Mopti Region of Mali – and the Malian armed forces stand accused of committing the killings. The incident is a grim reminder that there are drivers in the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and elsewhere that go very far beyond the dictates of Droukdel, or any leader for that matter.

Now, if I wake up tomorrow and see that ag Ghali or Kouffa has been killed, I will say it’s a huge deal; and I’m not saying that Droukdel’s death has no relevance (here I am writing nearly 2,000 words about it). But in the absence of clear evidence that Droukdel was micromanaging the conflicts in the Sahel, I see other actors as more important.

For the sake of self-promotion, I should say that I cover these different phases of the GSPC/AQIM’s career, and of Droukdel’s career, in my forthcoming book. The book covers events through 2019 – and now it’s increasingly looking like I’ll need to write an informal epilogue of sorts, covering all that’s happened (and will continue to happen) in 2020. One part of the book deals with debates among Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel about jihadist strategy – and part of the argument I make is that the jihadist project is ultimately futile (if the aim is to build a long-lasting jihadist state), and that jihadists’ debates with each other often dance around that point. Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel had very different ideas about how to approach the jihadist project – but now they all appear to be dead, providing a graphic illustration of how futile it all was and is for AQIM, however much the group waxes or wanes at any given moment. Droukdel’s main “accomplishment,” ultimately, was longevity – all other “accomplishments” proved fleeting.

Finally, Droukdel’s killing was not Florence Parly’s only announcement last week. MENASTREAM provides details about France’s announcement that it captured an ISGS commander on May 19 [Update – I’ve removed the post from MENASTREAM at his request, as he received new information. I’m replacing with a post from Parly.]

Roundup of Analyses on the JNIM-ISGS Conflict

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are the two most prominent jihadist groups in the Sahel. JNIM, created in 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations, is formally part of al-Qaida’s hierarchy. ISGS, created in 2015, is of course part of the Islamic State, which considers ISGS part of their “West Africa Province.” Analytically, I still don’t think it’s worth conflating ISGS with the West Africa Province, though, given that in common usage Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) refers to the Boko Haram offshoot whose theater of operations is the Lake Chad Basin. Your mileage on that discussion may vary.

Recently, there has been a wave of analyses about what appears to be a fundamentally new stage in the relationship between JNIM and ISGS. For context, JNIM is a coalition that formed in 2017, and ISGS, which formed in 2015, is an offshoot of one of JNIM’s components. Through late 2019, it appeared that JNIM and ISGS had some kind of non-aggression pact and it sometimes appeared that they were cooperating. The two groups are now in open conflict, including in the media arena – one driver for the recent coverage has been not just physical clashes but the publication of an anti-JNIM writeup in the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ 233 (May 7) which can be found here.

Here are three interventions on the JNIM-ISGS conflict that stood out to me:

1. Wassim Nasr, “ISIS in Africa: The End of the ‘Sahel Exception’,” Center for Global Policy, June 2. Two excerpts – here is the first:

The recent statements from [the important JNIM leader Amadou] Kufa suggest that the fear of defections from JNIM to join ISIS was real and justified a fight. His statements also suggest that recruits are receiving ideological teachings focused on building committed and dogmatic fighters. In the same line of efforts, an official audio of Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud), head of AQIM, was issued on March 16. Among many things, he stressed the “duty to avoid harming ordinary Muslims and not to attack civilians among them,” in contradiction to the still dominant local popular perception of ISIS’s extremist attitude toward al-Aama, or “the common Muslim,” though he avoided naming the group.

And the second:

The effect of JNIM’s acceptance of negotiations [with the Malian government] emboldened ISIS as many recruits joined its ranks from the Fulani community in Mali and Niger – a community that had provided JNIM with recruits before. Kufa was forced to seek help from other ethnic JNIM components in fighting in central Mali. This could put ISIS in the Sahel  in a situation similar to the one ISIS faced in Syria in 2013, when the group was uprooted from many areas before it regrouped and seized most of the east and the north. The Fulani ISIS commander in the Sahel, Abdel-Hakim al-Sahrawi, reached out to Kufa with a message, which the author has seen. In the message, he asked for a truce and the respect of rules of engagement and warned Kufa against infighting among the Fulani.

2. Yvan Guichaoua had a thoughtful thread on Twitter, in French, on June 5, responding to some of Nasr’s analysis and discussing how to weight local and global dynamics that affect jihadist movements. The thread starts here:

I’ll translate the sixth and seventh posts in the series:

The two pitfalls to avoid are clearly: i) to bring everything back to the local, ii) to see, in events, only the projection on the terrain of grand scripts written elsewhere. In my eyes, the only way to avoid these pitfalls is to do meticulous, punctilious history, that is to say reconstructing the chains of events and the immediate logics that provoke them.

3. Flore Berger, “Sahel – A New Battlefield between IS and Al-Qaeda?” The Africa Report, June 4. An excerpt:

ISGS has, together with JNIM, been active in the Gourma, on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border, for months. In mid-April, confrontations intensified with the ISGS launching a series of attacks on five consecutive days against JNIM units in the Malian Gourma and then on the Burkinabe side where the group killed 60 JNIM militants and took 40 prisoners.

ISGS thus decided to shift its focus there, but also expanded further north into the Inland Niger Delta. In Dialloubé, for example, they have been travelling to villages announcing their arrival for months, and have started to recruit with the offer of money and motorbikes.

It also promised militants that they could keep the spoils of war — a direct challenge to Kouffa’s centralised system in which he would control the allocation of rewards. Similar unverified reports have been gathered from the other side of the border, for example around Djibo, Burkina Faso. [All emphases are in the original.]

French-language summaries of the conflict can be found in Libération and Médiapart, although both are paywalled.

There is also a bit of background discussion about JNIM and ISGS in Crisis Group’s new report on ISGS in the Tillabéri Region of Niger (see pp. 4-5), but the JNIM-ISGS conflict is not a focus of that report. Note that much of the preceding analysis focuses on clashes in Mali and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, rather than Niger. Of Tillabéri, Crisis Group writes (p. 5):

[Adnan Abu Walid al-] Sahraoui’s Islamic State chapter thus went from being one of several jihadist groups based in the border zone to virtually dominating the entire space. Tactically, its implantation across the zone has also delivered important advantages on the battlefield. Rather than needing to occupy particular towns or villages, the Islamic State can call upon diffuse forces across the border region to mobilise, such that, when a call is issued, dozens of fighters on motorbikes can suddenly appear out of nowhere to swarm a target and then melt back quickly into the bush once they have executed their attack. Fighting in this manner maximises the impact and surprise of Islamic State operations and makes it virtually impossible for the authorities and their international allies to target Islamic State fighters with airstrikes. Though the Islamic State has developed a reputation elsewhere for mass atrocities against heterodox Muslims and non-Muslims, its Sahel affiliate has generally adhered to an approach that appears designed to win the trust and cooperation of northern Tillabery’s Sunni Muslims. The group is known to assassinate those who collaborate with the state, especially local chiefs, but it has for the most part eschewed large-scale targeting of civilians in northern Tillabery.

This snapshot reinforces Guichaoua’s caution about not projecting “grand scripts” onto events on the ground. ISGS is not necessarily always and everywhere harsh and uncompromising.

On a separate note, I’m planning to address the reported death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Abdelmalek Droukdel in a post tomorrow.

Snapshots of the Food Security Situation in Northern Burkina Faso

The central Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – is experiencing a complex crisis involving insecurity, displacement, and food insecurity, with COVID-19 adding another layer of crisis. In humanitarian terms, northern Burkina Faso is by several measures the hardest hit zone. Here I want to focus on food insecurity.

First, here is a useful map of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso from the World Food Program from April 2020, showing multiple facets of the humanitarian situation.

Second, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Response Plan for April 2020-April 2021 can be found here in French. The report notes that for the period March-May 2020, Burkina Faso had 2.1 million people facing levels of food insecurity at 3 or higher (on a 5-point scale), compared with 2 million in Niger and 1.3 million Mali (p. 4).

Here is another excerpt from that report (p. 6), giving some vital context:

In the Liptako-Gourma, agricultural and pastoral activities are conducted in the same spaces and were complementary for many centuries. These past 10 years, the presence of an important number of livestock in the regions of Timbuktu and Mopti in Mali, Sahel in Burkina Faso, and Tillabéri in Niger have not stopped growing, representing 30 per cent of the livestock in the entirety of the three countries. Indeed, pastoralist activities in the region are essential are take different forms: sedentary, agro-pastoral, and migratory. However, pastoralism is confronted by numerous difficulties, notably the increasing scarcity of water and fodder, and the reduction of pasture areas, which is linked to the growth of agricultural lands and to the frequent attacks by non-state armed groups. Additionally, the frameworks for cross-border cooperation, the early warnings mechanisms, as well as pastoralist infrastructures and arrangements (watering places, equipped resting areas, vaccination centers, and veterinary services) remain very insufficient in relation to the growth of the numbers of livestock in the region. Insecurity and violent conflicts at the level of cross-border spaces are detrimental to migratory pastoralism because of the inaccessibility of the corridors for official transhumance, due to the illegal traffic and proliferation of weapons of war. These factors create an environment conducive to theft of livestock and the development of organized criminality by non-state armed groups, which exacerbates conflict between pastoralists and farmers.

Here is an excerpt from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network’s report for May 2020, addressing the situation for livestock and crop prices and supply:

In rural areas of the Sahel region [meaning the Sahel Region of Burkina Faso, not the Sahel as a whole] in particular, the temporary closure of the main markets has negatively affected the sale of animals, which is the main source of household income. Despite the recovery, these markets remain unfrequented by non-local buyers. As a result, prices for small ruminants have fallen by about 16 percent in Djibo, Soum province, and Dori, Séno province.  Compared to the five-year average, the drop in prices is 29 percent in Dori and 20 percent in Djibo. The Djibo market remains particularly difficult to access due to the occupation of access roads by terrorist groups. The supply of animals has fallen by one-third and stocks of millet, a staple food, are low.

Here is an excerpt from the World Food Program’s Central Sahel report, May 15 (.pdf, p. 2), with some more information about food consumption:

In Burkina Faso, WFP is finalising the first 2020 round of Food Security Monitoring System (FSMS). Preliminary results outline good performance in the food consumption score – particularly in the Sahel and the CentreNord. In addition, WFP conducted and completed the second Market bulletin price monitoring report for 2020. Results outline that: (i) the situation on the agricultural markets remains dominated by a stable supply compared to the month of March. Demand fell sharply compared to the previous month due to the drop in exports of agricultural products and the weakness of monetary income and purchasing power of households; (ii) Prices are slightly lower thus strengthening economic accessibility to food; (iii) Due to the closure of certain markets and borders in the context of the fight against COVID 19, the livestock markets experienced a general decline this month due to a decrease in the presence of livestock exporters and a decrease in the sales volume for all the animal species monitored. This situation has led to a depreciation of the market value of the animals and thereby a deterioration in the terms of trade in animals for sorghum; and (iv) availability of non-food products (soap, hand-washing kettles, etc.) for the COVID-19 response is good but prices are gradually increasing.

Finally, this is noteworthy, from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, June 2:

Increasing insecurity in Burkina Faso is making humanitarian access more difficult, particularly in the Sahel, North, Centre-North and East regions…The humanitarian community needs US$371 million for the humanitarian and COVID-19 response in Burkina Faso. So far, only 21 per cent of the funds have been received.

Two Recent Reports on Conflict, Children, and Education in Nigeria and Burkina Faso

Two reports came out last week examining, respectively, conflicts in Nigeria and Burkina Faso. They make for effective if troubling paired reading.

The first report is Amnesty International, “‘We Dried Our Tears’: Addressing the Toll on Children of Northeast Nigeria’s Conflict.” An excerpt (p. 6):

Both sides of the long-running armed conflict in the Northeast have committed crimes under international law, including against children. They continue to commit such crimes regularly. Almost everyone in the Northeast has been affected, but the impact on girls and boys has been and continues to be particularly pronounced. Absent a major shift in strategy by the Nigerian authorities, an entire generation may be lost.

And another excerpt (p. 7):

People who recently fled Boko Haram-controlled areas, including children, describe worsening food insecurity. [Abubakar] Shekau’s faction [of the Boko Haram insurgency] seems especially under strain, pillaging villages and forcing families to give larger percentages of their harvest than in prior years. Families struggle to feed themselves, though at times still feel that staying and growing their own food is safer than being displaced to a site where they would depend on inconsistent aid delivery. Food insecurity is exacerbated by Boko Haram’s attacks on aid workers and the Nigerian military’s restrictions on humanitarian access. Amnesty International documented deaths of young children in 2018 and 2019 related to acute malnutrition in Boko Haram-controlled territory.

For further context on food insecurity in northeastern Nigeria, see FEWS Net’s May update.

And a third and final excerpt (p. 8):

The military’s practice of mass unlawful detention is as ineffective as it is inhumane. Many of the children interviewed by Amnesty International, including those who said they had been recruited “voluntarily” by Boko Haram, described hearing messages on the radio that told them if they fled Boko Haram territory, they would find safety and support in government areas. Instead, they often suffered years of unlawful detention and torture or other ill-treatment, while never facing any charges. Many former child detainees said that, after their experience, they would not counsel others to come out from the bush; several former child soldiers said they would not advise those still in Boko Haram to surrender. Some expressed regret at having fled themselves. And women, men, and children who fled Boko Haram-controlled villages in late 2019, after never having any involvement with the group other than being forced to relinquish part of their harvest, told Amnesty International that there were many more people who want to flee, but are reluctant because they fear the military will detain them or their relatives in brutal conditions for an extended period.

Amnesty is critical of the Nigerian government’s Operation Safe Corridor, a program for “rehabilitating” former Boko Haram members – more context on that program here, here, and here.

The second report is Human Rights Watch, “‘Their War Against Education’: Armed Group Attacks on Teachers, Students, and Schools in Burkina Faso.” An excerpt:

[Jihadist] attacks, the terror they generated, and worsening insecurity have resulted in a cascade of school closures across the country, undermining students’ right to education. By early March 2020, the Ministry of National Education, Literacy, and the Promotion of National Languages (“education ministry,” or MENAPLN) reported that over 2,500 schools had closed due to attacks or insecurity in Burkina Faso, negatively affecting almost 350,000 students and over 11,200 teachers. This was prior to the country’s Covid-19 outbreak, which resulted in the temporary closure of all schools from mid-March.

And a second excerpt:

Of the five regions most affected by the conflict-related school closures, Sahel region topped the list in early March with a reported 947schools closed (80 percent of the region’s schools), followed by 556 schools in Est (38 percent), 366 in Centre-Nord (21 percent), 357 in Nord (18 percent), and 239 in Boucle du Mouhoun (13 percent). The remaining closed schools were in Centre-Est (46) and Centre-Sud (1).

For additional context, see UNHCR’s most recent humanitarian snapshot for Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger. Out of the estimated 4,043 non-functioning schools in this region, Burkina Faso has 62% (2,512), but Mali has approximately half that number, and western Niger has 270 schools closed which is, though nothing like the figures in its neighbors, still a real educational crisis on top of the other multi-faceted crises the region is suffering.