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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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