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.

Rukmini Callimachi’s Broken Clock Moment in Timbuktu

I have been torn about whether to write and post this. In the media furor that has broken out recently over the New York Times‘ ISIS reporter Rukmini Callimachi, I have chimed in substantively, once, in a minor way. I am chiming in again now not because of any animus towards her personally, but because I think her trajectory points to fundamental problems in (1) “terrorism reporting” and (2) what I often call “terrorology.” By terrorology, I mean deliberately alarmist and reductive analysis of jihadist movements and “terrorist groups.” I am interested in seeing terrorology as a whole get discredited, rather than caring about one particular reporter’s fate. Yet individual accountability can help with collective accountability – especially if the critics and their audiences keep zooming out to ask what’s at stake beyond a certain individual.

The recent scrutiny of Callimachi’s journalistic and professional record has concentrated on her reporting on ISIS. Most of the controversies are not new at all – rather, many controversies have been revisited following Canadian authorities’ September 25 arrest of Shehroze Chaudhry or “Abu Huzaifa,” a key but extremely problematic and seemingly unreliable (to say the least) source for Callimachi’s “Caliphate” podcast. To get a sense of the criticisms that circulated prior to Chaudhry’s arrest, I would recommend this August 2018 piece by Rafia Zakaria. Here is an excerpt that devastatingly renders the problem when “terrorism reporting” and “terrorology” intersect with each other:

Callimachi the journalist has to get the story, but Callimachi the terror fighter has to identify the terrorist, get into his head, and bring us back gems of insight. Once she does so, she even wonders why Canadian authorities aren’t acting faster, arresting him and charging him. In this approach, it is impossible to tell where journalism ends and where terror fighting begins. Westerners, journalists among them, see themselves as fighting the good war against terror and everyone else occupying the morally inferior positions of victim or supporter. Predation and scavenging of their stories or selves is thus absolved from the immorality—or at least partisanship—that would otherwise be associated with it.

For a sense of the scrutiny Callimachi’s reporting is now facing, I would recommend this story by Lachlan Cartwright and Maxwell Tani as well as this piece by Jacob Silverman. Cartwright and Tani’s piece, in particular, lays out a litany of disturbing episodes and accusations against Callimachi, including shocking ways that Callimachi allegedly spoke to the family of James Foley, executed by ISIS in 2014, as she reported on that story.

Scrutiny of Callimachi is focusing on her tenure at the New York Times, which makes sense given the extraordinary prestige and influence of the paper and given the size of the controversies that have surrounded her reporting for the Times. There are problems in her earlier reporting, however, including on Mali, that have not received adequate attention. In fact, even in Silverman’s piece, her rise through the journalism world’s hierarchy is described as unproblematic:

In a 2016 interview with Wired, in which she was dubbed “arguably the best reporter on the most important beat in the world,” Callimachi described standing in the remains of an office used by Al Qaeda during its rampage through Timbuktu. The floor was littered with documents in Arabic. Suddenly, she realized, some of them might be able to tell a better story of what happened there than any government official’s report. She started scooping up documents and filling trash bags.

Callimachi’s subsequent series of articles earned her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, the first of four. More than that, it catalyzed in her a belief in the power of original documentation to tell stories that otherwise go untold. It also convinced her that jihadist groups were far more sophisticated than she realized.

Some crucial context is missing here – both about Callimachi’s discovery of documents in Timbuktu, and by Callimachi in her own thought process.

Here is how she describes her find in Timbuktu in that Wired article at the link above:

Other than Hurricane Katrina, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many journalists as I did then in Timbuktu. We were all traipsing around the city doing similar stories, so I started asking the local people if they could show me the buildings where the group had been. They took me first to a bank that had acted as the Islamic police center, and they took me to a hotel that had been turned into a Sharia court, and they took me to a tax building that had been the jihadists’ administrative office. In each of these buildings, I noticed dozens and dozens of loose papers on the ground that were written in Arabic—even though Mali is largely a French-speaking country. Because I couldn’t read them, I didn’t think they were very important. The next day, I realized, “Oh my God, that must be the stuff the jihadists left behind.” So I went back with a bunch of trash bags, and I just went building by building, at least 10 in all, and scooped up every single thing that I could find. People were calling me the trash lady of Timbuktu. I started to translate the documents in my hotel with a translator.

We will unpack the problems with her thought process momentarily. First, though, let’s look at a slightly different narration she gave in a different interview, this one with Slate:

And then everything changed for me in January of 2013 when the French went in. I was able to get to Timbuktu three days after they flushed out the jihadis. I got there in the first wave of reporters that arrived. There were so many reporters at my hotel within a couple of days. At first we all went and interviewed residents. What was it like to live under sharia law? We went and looked at the places where they had executed people and the square where they had cut off somebody’s hand. Then residents began taking me to the buildings that had been occupied. Unbelievably, there were thousands of pages of internal documents that the al-Qaida cell had left behind.

Were—

I bet you are going to ask me: How did I know they were al-Qaida documents? In the very first place that I went into, I picked up one of them and went, “This is in Arabic. I can’t read it.” And I dropped it back down. [Laughs.] It took me getting back to my hotel to realize, Oh my God this is Mali. Mali is a French-speaking place. People that went to school here learn French. They don’t learn Arabic. By definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force. I then rushed back to these places with trash bags. I began going building-by-building and just picking up every single thing that I could find and bringing them back to my hotel.

First of all, I want to emphasize that Callimachi does not speak or read Arabic – yet her career has been made on the analysis, and also one might say the fetishization, of Arabic documents (more on this below).

Second, she is describing a real “broken clock” moment here – and unwittingly betraying a breathtaking lack of contextual knowledge about Mali. If someone doesn’t think about Mali or work on Mali, I wouldn’t expect them to know that Mali has a rich history of Arabic-language scholarship, or to know that northern Mali has a significant local population of Arabs. But a journalist working on the conflict in northern Mali in 2012-2013 should really have known both of those things.

Regarding Arabic, Timbuktu became internationally famous all over again in 2012 not just because of executions and amputations, but because of the threat that jihadist occupation posed to the literary heritage of the city, which is a core part of the Islamic literary heritage of northwest Africa as a whole. Not all of the manuscripts in Timbuktu were or are in Arabic, but the vast majority, from everything I’ve ever read, seen, or heard, were either Arabic materials written in Arabic or non-Arabic materials written in Arabic script. At any rate, the struggle to save the manuscripts became famous both as the events of 2012 were unfolding and afterwards. Journalists covered it extensively (example). It has been the subject of at least one book

Regarding Malian Arabs, any journalist covering the conflict in 2012-2013 should have known that there were Malian Arabs. A first-level analysis of the conflict would have described it as one of Tuareg rebels, and then regional and local jihadists, fighting the Malian state. But a journalist should progress to at least a second-level analysis, at which point one would have to become aware of movements such as the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (Arab Movement of Azawad, MAA), which took that name – and, I mean, look at the name – by late 2012/early 2013 (example). Interacting with northern Malians should have also dispelled the notion that Mali was “a French-speaking place”; Mali is quite obviously multi-lingual, and Arabic is one of the key languages in the north. It is not just Arabs, moreover, who can speak and write Arabic there.

So Callimachi’s statement that “by definition, anything that’s been written in Arabic is from this invading force,” in other words the jihadists, is just not true. And so her discovery of these materials has less to do with a flash of insight about a language she does not speak, and more to do with finding jihadist documents in a building jihadists were in. Then, of course, there is the issue of how the translators, fixers, interviewees, and local journalists fade into the background. I wonder how they would narrate the story of these documents’ discovery. Even in the Slate interview, Callimachi (again without much self-awareness) narrates that she couldn’t place the (very well-known, if you follow this stuff) pseudonym of the then-leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and thus couldn’t understand the full context of what she was looking at having translated for her. It was Baba Ahmed, one of the best journaists in Mali, who explained it to her. Tellingly, even though Ahmed was getting bylines in the Associated Press under his own name at that time – in other words, even though he was a fellow reporter – Callimachi refers to him as “my fixer.”

The issue of Arabic and Arabic documents, and the downplaying of translators’ and colleagues’ work, takes us back to Zakaria’s comments above about how Callimachi has made herself the star of much of her own reporting – often with the Arabic language featuring as a kind of talisman or fetish, important to the narrator-hero because Callimachi cannot, or can barely, understand it. Arabic is always out of reach and associated with menace. The journalist Alia Malek puts it well:

Here is another weird way Callimachi talks about Arabic. It is from her major writeup of “the ISIS files,” the hugely controversial cache of ISIS documents that she and others took out of Iraq. She writes, of Mosul, “I learned to read the landscape for clues, starting with باقية — ‘baqiya’ — the first word of the Islamic State slogan.” The journalist’s dominion over her core source, the documents, is proxied by her ability to recognize a single Arabic word. And it’s worth pointing out too that in my view, her and the Times‘ ultimate analysis of jihadist documents was often unexciting. Click through that link, and you will see that the online story is replete with images of documents and of Iraq, particularly Mosul – and yet the conclusions are thin. The core argument seems to be that “the documents and interviews with dozens of people who lived under their rule show that the group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.” But by 2018, when the report came out, this was a relatively commonplace and uncontroversial take. The aura of the documents sometimes counted for more than what Callimachi, and the Times as a whole, could really do with them. The story about the handling of the documents is probably more consequential than any stories the Times produced with the documents. (On the ethical issues connected with these documents, by the way, see this sober and careful thread from Mara Revkin, whom I consider the leading American expert on ISIS at this point.)

The thinness of Callimachi’s analysis relates to her connections to the terrorologist world. The fetishization and decontextualization of jihadist documents is central to terrorology, and it is unsurprising that Callimachi has a pattern of outsourcing much of her analysis to terrorologists such as those at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and its spinoffs. To a profound extent, she became a member of a terrorologist club whose outlines are pretty clear, once you start looking at who collaborates with whom.

To wrap this up, for me there are two takeaways from Callimachi’s career as a whole and from the Timbuktu episode in particular:

  1. When jihadist documents become objects of a bizarre kind of reverence and fascination not so much because of what they say but simply because they offer the promise of access into an illicit and forbidding world, there’s a problem. And that problem is magnified when the analysts and gatekeepers who manage those documents are either ignorant of, or actively dismiss, a sense of context. The repeated quest for that moment of scooping jihadist and specifically Arabic-language documents into a trash bag – whether by journalists in Timbuktu and Mosul, or by Navy Seals in Abbottabad – can start to make that moment crowd out the necessity of scrutinizing sources, talking with people who lived through events, etc. The documents can only ever tell part of the story, and the story the documents tell may not be the most compelling or accurate one. That it was a lack of critical self-reflection about a human source that eventually landed Callimachi in trouble is ironic, but her approach toward “Abu Huzaifa” was just an extension of treating the documents as transparent and unproblematic windows into the jihadist world. 
  2. There is something to be said, too, about Africa as a stepping stone in her career – a sense that for her and the New York Times, it was essentially a single experience in Timbuktu that qualified her to analyze jihadism from Orlando to Mosul. Here, too, we see about the one-millionth example of the idea that it is “understanding terrorism” or “understanding jihadism” that qualifies a terrorologist, or a journalist, to speak to widely different contexts. The most dramatic example of this is the various terrorologists who used to focus on jihadism and now bill themselves as specialists on “white nationalism” and “far-right extremism,” or even on Russiagate. Opportunism is central to terrorology. In any case, Timbuktu is still there, and it is still people like Baba Ahmed to whom I look for insights on Mali, that extraordinarily complex country that I, for one, will never fully understand – but whose history is much bigger than what you can fit in a trash bag. 

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.

Three Recent Journal Articles on Mali and Mauritania

Three journal articles with crucial perspectives on Mali and Mauritania have appeared recently.

1. Adib Bencherif, Aurélie Campana, and Daniel Stockemer, “Lethal Violence in Civil War: Trends and Micro-Dynamics of Violence in the Northern Mali Conflict (2012-2015),” in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. The abstract:

This article discusses the trends and micro-dynamics of violence in northern Mali. Using a mixed research design, we focus on the violence used by jihadist groups during the first phases of the Malian civil war (2012–2015). Integrating research on civil war and terrorism, we distinguish between direct and remote violence. Quantitative analyses show that the involvement of jihadist groups in this conflict had a strong impact on the level and intensity of violence of all warring parties. Qualitative analysis of data collected during field research done in Mali between 2016 and 2017 complements the quantitative work. It enlightens that relational dynamics strongly influence the decision to resort to violence within non-state armed groups, including jihadist ones, while local contexts often explain temporal and geographic variations in violence.

And one very interesting excerpt, from pp. 12-13 of the .pdf version:

The Timbuktu region illustrates another kind of relational dynamics between secular rebel and jihadists groups. These dynamics affected the level and intensity of violence and show how pragmatic these groups were. The factions of secular rebel groups operating in this region chose not to confront AQIM and fled to areas outside those controlled by jihadist groups. AQIM was the dominant jihadist group in Timbuktu. AQIM took control of Timbuktu on June 28, 2012, and Lere on November 28, 2012, with- out any major violent confrontations. Given their lack of military capability, MNLA leader in the Timbuktu region decided on a pragmatic retreat.93 Furthermore, at that time the relationships between the different communities living around Timbuktu were relatively stable. Armed groups were reluctant, at least in 2012, to exploit latent inter and intra-community tensions to expand their control over these communities as they had done in Gao. For example, the Front de liberation nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA), an Arab militia created in April 2012, was opposed first to the Tuareg rebels and also the jihadists. They occupied a part of Timbuktu on April 26, 2012. Abou Zaïd, one of the leaders of AQIM, asked the FLNA to leave to avoid death among civilians. On April 27, 2012, they left Timbuktu without a clash.97 Among the Timbuktu region, numerous notables had and are going to have relations with jihadist groups. One young Tuareg from Timbuktu and member of the MNLA summarized: “One of the few who rejected any collaboration with the jihadist groups was the colonel Abass who fled with his group to the Mauritanian border [on November 28, 2012]. (…) After that, in Timbuktu, you could find the true terrorists and Arab and Tuareg who were only collaborating with them because of fear or economic interests.”

2. Oumar Ba, “Governing the Souls and Community: Why Do Islamists Destroy World Heritage Sites?Cambridge Review of International Affairs. The abstract:

From Bamiyan to Timbuktu and Palmyra, Islamic fundamentalist groups have willfully destroyed cultural edifices which were listed as world heritage sites. Yet, beyond the criminal acts and their shock value, this article argues that attacks on cultural and religious sites may be viewed as actions embedded in a political project of gouvernement. In this regard, spectacular destruction of cultural heritage may not be simply a signal sent to the international community, but rather an action embedded in a broader political project of governing territory and its inhabitants, aimed at building a new political community based on a new ethos that includes the control of the economyof cultural heritage sites. This article uses the destruction of cultural heritage sites in Timbuktu in 2012 to show the ways in which they fit within the political project of the Ansar Dine jihadist group. Furthermore, the Islamic State’s attacks on cultural sites in Syria and Iraq are also analyzed in light of a political project to govern the territory and communities. The broader implications of this study include the need to pay closer attention to perpetrators’ claims and justifications and to take them seriously, by both international justice scholarship and policy circles. Doing so does not absolve the crimes or mitigate their gravity, but rather allows for better approaches to identify, protect or rebuild cultural heritage in conflict settings.

Ba’s book States of Justice: The Politics of the International Criminal Court has also just come out with Cambridge University Press.

3. Elemine Ould Mohamed Baba and Francisco Freire, “Looters vs. Traitors: The Muqawama (“Resistance”) Narrative, and its Detractors, in Contemporary Mauritania,” African Studies Review (link is to full .pdf version). The abstract:

Since 2012, when broadcasting licenses were granted to various private television and radio stations in Mauritania, the controversy around the Battle of Um Tounsi (and Mauritania’s colonial past more generally) has grown substantially. One of the results of this unprecedented level of media freedom has been the propagation of views defending the Mauritanian resistance (muqawama in Arabic) to French colonization. On the one hand, verbal and written accounts have emerged which paint certain groups and actors as French colonial power sympathizers. At the same time, various online publications have responded by seriously questioning the very existence of a structured resistance to colonization. This article, drawing predominantly on local sources, highlights the importance of this controversy in studying the western Saharan region social model and its contemporary uses.

One interesting paragraph, from p. 261:

To the best of our knowledge, the existing body of academic discussion on this topic—the rivalry between Hassān and Zwāya status groups— predominantly relies on historical documentation. We draw rather on other elements, analyzing, in particular, documents emanating from different media outlets such as newspapers, radio, TV shows, and social media. Our approach is important insofar as it incorporates a significant corpus of nonreferenced bibliographical materials, largely published online on Mauritanian media platforms or newspapers. This methodological option effectively broadens the scope of available sources on contemporary Mauritanian debates and authors. It should also classify and validate such sources as significant elements in the understanding of regional history. Our selection incorporates the authors—often with a limited track record of published materials (books)—who, through their public voices (in Arabic and French), have more clearly delineated the muqawama controversy.

Finally, you can watch the authors discuss the battle of Oum Tounsy in a video here (in French):

Mali: Sharia in Kidal?

My title here is intentionally provocative – the reference is to a recent RFI article discussing new regulations handed down by the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA, a bloc of ex-rebels) in Kidal, northeastern Mali, on 30 January. As of 19 February, the CMA was “backpedaling” (see below), but the issue remains a live and contentious one.

From the first RFI article, regarding the initial regulations:

The CMA, which has administered the city for many years, is taking charge of new sectors of security and justice, replacing the State. The rules are stricter: the sale and consumption of alcohol are henceforth forbidden, foreigners* must have a local guardian, and as for the role of Qadi or Islamic judge, it appears strengthened. The inability of the State to assume its responsibilities in northern Mali continues to pose a problem.

The full CMA declaration, signed by CMA President Alghabass ag Intalla, can be found here. Notably, a lot of the press coverage focused on the alcohol ban and restrictions on foreigners, but the declaration also devotes substantial attention to traffic issues and, in particular, says that armed motorcyclists and pedestrians will be brought before the Islamic tribunal and have their bikes and weapons destroyed. There is a a debate to be had over how much any Islamization at work here is    actually subordinate to the CMA’s bid for securitization; it might be going too far to say that the CMA is using Islam as a tool for taking greater physical control of Kidal, but at the very least one can say that Islamization/Qadi-fication is only one part of a larger ambition to expand the CMA’s roles in both security and non-security sectors (including health).

The RFI article caused a bit of controversy because it drew heavily on comments by the researcher Ferdaous Bouhlel, who has been criticized by other Mali specialists (Malian and non-Malian) for allegedly being too close to the CMA. For example:

(Translation: “With researchers like this, the CMA doesn’t need spokesmen any more.”)

My view, however, is that of Guichaoua:

The controversy over Bouhlel, I would say, is a microcosm of two larger debates – (a) have the CMA and Malian Tuareg/Arab rebels systematically obtained more favorable media coverage than they deserve? and (b) is the CMA more nefarious than it sometimes appears in the media?

In any case, there are some other dynamics to highlight here. Recently in one of the courses I’m teaching, civil wars, we discussed Zachariah Mampilly’s Rebel Rulers and Paul Staniland’s “Wartime Political Orders.” To crude simplify things, one point Mampilly makes is that rebels (or ex-rebels?) develop governance models partly through interaction with civilian populations, whose preferences and needs can shape rebels’ decisions. This is what Bouhlel argues – namely, that the CMA is responding to civilian needs for greater security, and that the CMA is drawing on longstanding idioms of governance in the region. One point Staniland makes is that states and rebels (or ex-rebels?) negotiate different arrangements during wartime, including what Staniland terms “spheres of influence.” The CMA and the Malian government are constantly renegotiating their relationship and probing the limits of the other party’s influence (and these are not the only actors in northern Mali or even in Kidal, of course).

Here it’s worth noting that the CMA’s new rules are at least loosely grounded in the 2015 Algiers Accord, which mentions (.pdf, article 46, pp. 12-13) the “reassertion of the value of the role of Cadis [Qadis] in the administration of justice, notably in terms of civil mediation in a way that accounts for cultural, religious, and customary specificities.” Other actors, however, are unpersuaded that the CMA’s rules have any legitimacy – Ahmed Boutache, president of the Committee for Monitoring the Accord (French acronym CSA), denounced the CMA’s rules as “a flagrant violation of the accord…and an infringement of the sovereign prerogatives of the government of the Republic of Mali.” I see these competing statements as not just legal disagreements but also, again, as a way that each side is probing the limits of the other’s authority and legitimacy.

This brings us back to the issue of the CMA’s “backpedaling,” with the CMA’s 19 February statement acknowledging the authority of the Malian state at the local level and expressing willingness for a dialogue over how to move forward on security and the role of the Qadis. Both the CMA and the state, I think, are in essence making offers and counteroffers amid an evolving and unstable situation.

One wishes, meanwhile, that one knew more about who exactly the Qadis were/are/will be:

Personnel, as they say, is policy.

A final point to consider, and one mentioned in the first RFI article linked above, is the issue of influence from Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin or the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims (JNIM). RFI quoted an anonymous official from Kidal denouncing the CMA’s new rules as a reflection of JNIM’s pernicious influence. The CMA, which includes some former members of Ansar al-Din, one of JNIM’s constituent parts, is regularly accused of maintaining contacts with JNIM’s leader Iyad ag Ghali. But all of this brings us back to the question of what all these actors want – would ag Ghali be content with a “shari’a-compliant,” autonomous Kidal? Or does he want something more? And was the CMA channeling ag Ghali’s influence – or attempting to undercut it? I’ve tried to get at the complexity of “jihadist politics” in Timbuktu, but there is as much, if not more, to think about in terms of local Kidal dynamics as well.

*I think the CMA is referring to non-Malians here, but I wonder if there is a hint that all outsiders (Malian or non-Malian) could be required to have supervision.

Piece on Jihadism and Politics in Timbuktu for War on the Rocks

This is a belated post to promote an article I wrote last week for War on the Rocks, where I looked at whether the jihadist project has a “political ceiling,” so to speak, in Mali or elsewhere. I took the Timbuktu region as a case study. I also appeared on their “WarCast” (subscription required) to discuss the piece and the broader situation in Mali.

I welcome your comments!

Mali: What Next for the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission?

RFI has an article on Mali’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (Commission vérité justice et réconciliation, CVJR) that raises some important questions. The CVJR, whose official website can be found here, was created in 2014 with a mandate through 2018. RFI expects that the mandate will be renewed, but at least two key challenges remain:

  1. How can the Commission hear from as many victims as possible? The article mentions that the office in Kidal only opened two weeks ago; even more seriously, victims can face reprisals if they are seen talking to the Commission. Then too there is the problem of severe violence in the center of Mali, particularly Mopti, which creates waves of new victims as well as new difficulties pertaining to victims’ access to the Commission.
  2. How will the Commission’s plans for a victims’ reparations law be squared with plans for a law of “national understanding,” which some critics call an amnesty? (For one commentary on the law, see here, and for one version of the text, see here.)

These are big questions, of course, and debates over “justice” versus “peace” can be extremely fraught. My own thinking on the bigger picture was heavily influenced by Jacob Mundy’s book Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence, which deals in part with ways  that forgetting can be just as important to peace as remembering can.

But to move from the big picture back to the details, I was interested to look a bit into the commission’s structure. From the website, one learns that it comprises twenty-five commissioners, directed by a president (Ousmane Oumarou Sidibé, a lawyer and former labor minister) and two vice presidents (former parliamentary deputy Hat ag Baye* and Islamic scholar El Hadj Sidi Konake). One could say that northerners have a large representation on the commission, with the president coming from Timbuktu, one of the vice presidents (ag Baye) coming from Gao, and at least nine of the commissioners having recognizably Arab or Tuareg names. This is not to say that the commission’s balance is off – after all, the north was where the violence began in the current cycle of conflict, and where many of the victims still are. And the other vice president (Konake) is from Mopti, so that region has senior representation too. I guess what is striking is the comparison between this northern-dominated Commission and many other organs of the Malian government, where northern representation is quite thin. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to get too caught up in the politics of representation, which easily becomes an end in and of itself – what matters is the quality of performance.

A final note is that there are several commissioners with connections to Mali’s High Islamic Council, which could mean both that the Commission actively sought out religious leaders as members and/or that the High Islamic Council had a lot of say in who got to sit on the commission.

*Ag Baye replaced Nina Wallet Intallou, who became Minister of Tourism.

 

Mali: PM Maiga in Timbuktu, and Reinforcements Promised

The violence in northern Mali is made up of multiple interrelated sub-conflicts, which makes the situation there extremely difficult to understand (including for me). I am increasingly interested in trying to better understand the conflict in Timbuktu (city and region), and am working on a longer piece about it. Timbuktu has been the site of some major attacks, including one targeting the United Nations’ Multi-Dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in April 2018.

In light of Timbuktu’s importance, I was interested to see that Prime Minister Soumeylou Maïga visited the city on December 14-15. Back in Bamako after the trip, he announced that the government will deploy an additional 350 security personnel to Timbuktu in early 2019 – not just to fight jihadists, but also to try to respond to pervasive banditry (see also here).

Maïga also announced that “the military region of Taoudenit will also be created in 2019,” a reference to the (to my mind, very confusing) plan to carve new regions out of the existing ones. Taoudenit in particular, which used to be part of Timbuktu Region, seems to exist in some kind of quantum state where it is always simultaneously already created and yet to be born. The other day a colleague tried to track down a map of its administrative boundaries, and only found a few rough approximations.

Below are a few tweets from Maïga about the Timbuktu trip. Note that the optics include not just displays of solidarity with the soldiers and displays of the state providing public services, but also public displays of religiosity (in a gesture toward Timbuktu’s religious status).

VOA also has a good report on the trip here.

Notes on the Carter Center’s Second Report on Mali’s Peace Process

The Carter Center is the independent observer designated to follow the implementation of Mali’s peace process as envisioned by the 2015 Algiers Accord. The selection of an independent observer is itself one part of the Accord’s implementation. The Carter Center released its first report in May 2018, and released its second report on 26 October.

Here are my notes on the latter. To me the most striking passages involved (a) the Carter Center’s concerns about the Accord Monitoring Committee (CSA) and (b) the report’s observations about the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC) and civilians’ negative perceptions of it in Gao. Here are some key excerpts:

  • The overall tone is mixed, leaning cautiously optimistic. From p. 3: “The observation period was marked by modest but real progress as well as by a significant pause in implementation caused by the presidential election. While progress has been made in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), other obstacles remain, particularly the establishment of the Interim Authorities and the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme opérationnel de coordination – MOC) as fully operational. Despite their continued commitment to the agreement, this mixed record underlines the fact that the Malian parties (government of Mali, Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad [CMA]), and the Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin d’Alger [Platform]) remain reluctant to advance quickly.”
  • After noting implementation challenges related to the structures created by the Accord and the signatories’ postures, the report goes on to note other challenges to peace. From p. 4: “Two challenges external to the agreement itself impede progress – the crisis in central Mali and criminal economic activity. The crisis in central Mali could overtax the resources initially earmarked for the execution of the agreement, while the ‘criminal economy’ – whose link with the implementation of the agreement has been sufficiently documented by the report of the group of experts established pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2374 (2017) – slows and discourages implementation.” For background on the crisis in central Mali, this report is a good place to start for Anglophones; for those who read French, I would add this report as well. The report of the UN group of experts can be found here, and my own notes on it are here. Finally, the Carter Center report discusses these two issues (central Mali and criminal economic activity) a bit more on p. 13.
  • The report makes numerous critiques of the Monitoring Committee/Comité de suivi de l’accord (CSA). From p. 6: “Normally scheduled monthly, only three CSA sessions were held during the five-month observation period, due in large part to the presidential election. These sessions lasted only a single day, and sometimes just a few hours. During these sessions, a blockage on a particular topic occasionally led to the suspension or end of a session. The CSA ratifies, often without discussion or formal decision, the actions or agreements made by the parties…The appointment of the minister of social cohesion [see here – AT] is a significant clarification of thegovernment’s presence in the CSA. At the same time, the Independent Observer notes that senior officials of the CMA, based in Kidal, regularly call into question the conclusions or decisions negotiated by representatives in Bamako. The Platform coalition is often marked by wide differences between its members, which impact and slow decision-making.”
  • The report also focuses in on the difference between the formal installation of the interim authorities in northern areas and their actual functioning. From p. 9: “At the regional level, Interim Authorities have been established officially in Kidal (February 2017), Gao and Ménaka (March 2017), and Timbuktu and Taoudéni (April 2017). However, none are in fact operational because they lack budgets to carry out their missions, including the provision of basic services…Over and above these specific obstacles, the Independent Observer expresses concern about the lack of initiative shown by the government to empower the Interim Authorities. Because of the absence of a budget and activities, the Interim Authorities are gradually being undermined and the government’s good faith called into question.”
  • The report has strong words about the MOC, writing that it is operation but deeply hamstrung in Gao, and “not operational” in Timbuktu and Kidal (p. 10). Significantly, the report notes that in Gao, “the population complains of growing insecurity and tends to attribute the increase in banditry and crime to the presence of MOC members.” In other words, the issue is not just about budgets and technical implementation but also about perceptions. The dynamic the report notes is a very dangerous one.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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