Three Recent(ish) Articles on the Death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam

Last month I wrote about the reported death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam, a key field commander and senior official for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and, at the time of his death, the number two in Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM). I wanted to flag three other pieces (all in French) for readers who are particularly interested in this issue:

  • RFI gives a readout of an audio message from Malian national and (ex-?) jihadist Sidan ag Hitta, wherein he says that Abu al-Hammam is indeed dead. A bit of background on ag Hitta can be found here, but the story has many twists and turns. Telling which jihadists are alive and which are dead is trickier than ever, as anyone following Amadou Kouffa’s saga knows.
  • Kibaru, citing anonymous sources, gives interesting if difficult-to-confirm details about the end of Abu al-Hammam’s life. That article goes on to speculate a bit about the future of AQIM and JNIM, and also gives a good overview of Abu al-Hammam’s jihadist career in Mali and Mauritania.
  • Libération puts Abu al-Hammam’s life and death in a wider context of politics, violence, and Mali’s overall trajectory.
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Thoughts on the Reported Death of Yahya Abu al-Hammam

According to the French Ministry of Defense, Operation Barkhane killed Yahya Abu al-Hammam and ten other members of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) on February 21 in the Timbuktu Region of Mali. The death of Abu al-Hammam, as the French noted, follows two other JNIM leaders’ (reported) deaths in roughly the past year: Amadou Kouffa, reportedly killed on the night of November 22-23, 2018 in the Mopti Region; and Abu Hasan al-Ansari, killed on February 14, 2018 in the Kidal Region.

If we look back to JNIM’s announcement video from March 2017, when JNIM formally brought together four (depending on how you count it) jihadist movements/units in the Sahara, we see that of the five men featured in the video, only two remain alive: JNIM’s overall leader Iyad ag Ghali, and Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, a judge with JNIM’s parent organization al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).*

On one level, this acceleration in the decapitation of JNIM is a remarkable success for French counterterrorism. On another level, however, we can look at the same images from JNIM’s announcement video and see, vividly, the limits of decapitation. Abu al-Hammam and al-Ansari, after all, were not just deputies in JNIM but were themselves former deputies within individual movements and battalions. In a sense, Abu al-Hammam’s seat at the table might have gone to the AQIM battalion commander ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, had Abu Zayd not been killed by French and Chadian forces in February 2013. Al-Ansari’s seat at the table might have gone to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leader of al-Murabitun, had Belmokhtar not been killed (or at least forced to go into deep hiding) by a French airstrike in Libya in November 2016. Alternatively, al-Ansari’s seat might have gone to Ahmed al-Tilemsi, had the latter not been killed by French forces in Kidal Region in December 2014.

Last month I wrote a piece at War on the Rocks focusing on Abu al-Hammam’s long career in Timbuktu and analyzing some of the political opportunities and constraints he encountered. So I have some appreciation for the accumulated jihadist capital and expertise that he represented. His death is a major event in the history of jihadism in the Sahara, and it could even be taken as a symbol for the passing of a whole generation. And yet, Abu Zayd and Belmokhtar had formidable accumulated capital as well, in terms of local and translocal networks, local knowledge, symbolic resonance, and military and political experience. Were they irreplaceable?

The situation in Mali has deteriorated, I think, not so much due to personalities as to trends. Each successive stage in the deterioration of the conflict has activated new patterns of violence, as well as new developments in hyper-local politics. In a recent and insightful article, Yvan Guichaoua and Héni Nsaibia call attention to the ways that widely used lenses for viewing jihadist expansion in the Sahel – individual-level radicalization and jihadist exploitation of topography and geography – fail to capture the ways that interactions between communities and jihadists drive expansion. The success or failure of jihadist interactions with communities and groups may depend partly on the savviness of top leaders, but not entirely or even predominantly, especially once you get to village-level dynamics.

Additionally, the conflict has produced jihadist leaders even as jihadist leaders have fed conflict – for example, not to be completely Tolstoy-an in my view of history, but someone like Amadou Kouffa can be viewed as both an agent in and a product of the crisis in Mopti. It takes more than force of will or sharpness of intellect to turn a former itinerant preacher into the face of a mass movement. How many people outside of Mali had heard of Amadou Kouffa before 2015? Before 2012? How many Kouffas are rising through the ranks now, their names not yet infamous?

Were I in Barkhane’s shoes and thinking in military terms, of course I would focus on killing top jihadists. But as Andrew Lebovich has laid out, in a piece that delves into Kouffa’s life and his Janus-faced self-presentation as jihadist leader and would-be ethnic champion, the political opportunities created by decapitation are short-lived and hard to exploit. In the wake of Kouffa’s death, Lebovich urged the Malian government to disarm militias and also urged international actors to not only help the Malian state return to Mopti, but return in a way that elicits ordinary citizens’ buy-in. These are immense challenges and without political progress, Barkhane is likely to continue knocking off top commanders without reversing the wider deterioration. On that note, I have also written about how various actors inside and outside Mali appear relatively comfortable with the overall status quo.

Meanwhile I am, honestly, skeptical whether there is even a net gain from some of these counterterrorism operations. At some point, I think there will have to be dialogue between the Malian government and the jihadists, or at the very least a kind of quiet and tacit agreement to stop fighting. I worry that decapitation will breed fragmentation in jihadist ranks that makes dialogue and peace harder to achieve. And I worry that putting big Xs through photographs of top jihadists will be mistaken for a sign of overall progress. And finally, I think that foreign forces may be exacerbating violence through their very presence. I’m not sure France has much of a plan other than to keep killing jihadists, and that might take a long time to work, if it ever works.

*I assume al-Sanhaji is still alive, and could find no reports of his death – but readers, please correct me if I’m wrong.

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!

Notes on the New JNIM/AQIM Video

The jihadist formation in the Sahara-Sahel region, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims), recently put out a new video called “The Battle Continues.” JNIM is a subsidiary of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MENASTREAM, as always, has a good rundown of some key moments, personalities, and images.

The video is heavily branded as an al-Qaida effort. It returns repeatedly to images of Usama bin Laden and other al-Qaida figures. The video presents the jihadist fight in Mali as both (a) a replay of medieval battles between Muslims and Crusaders, and (b) a part of a global struggle that extends to Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. Surveying the contemporary global scene, the video emphasizes images of Muslim civilians being killed and repressed by security forces. The video also displays images of numerous dead jihadist leaders, ranging from Yemen’s Nasir al-Wuhayshi to AQIM’s Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd to Ansar al-Sharia Libya’s Muhammad al-Zawahi. In other words, the video wants the viewer to think something along the lines of “Muslims are being unfairly attacked around the world and al-Qaida leaders are giving their lives to defend them.”

But to just take the video as an expression of transnational jihadist ties would be to miss some of its politics. So much analysis of jihadist videos, in fact, focuses on the visual symbolism to a degree where the actual content of what jihadists are saying goes under-analyzed. And this video, albeit not very original, is trying to stake out some political ground vis-a-vis both France and toward interpretations of the Mali conflict that JNIM does not want to become dominant.

In one sequence starting around 8:35, the video pivots to France, showing television clips of Western analysts asserting that France’s fight in Mali is motivated by ambitions to control resources in the Sahel. But then the video cuts to a clip from RT, where the announcer asks whether France’s intervention in Mali was in fact part of a war on Islam. JNIM cleric Abd al-Hakim al-Muhajir makes that case emphatically, arguing that “it is not an economic or interest-based war in the first degree…Rather, it is a war of creeds between faith and unbelief, Islam and polytheism, between the sovereignty of man, which France wants, and the sovereignty of God alone, for the sake of which the mujahidin are struggling (Bal hiya harb ‘aqadiyya bayn al-iman wa-l-kufr, wa-l-islam wa-l-shirk, bayn hakimiyyat al-bashar, kama turiduha Faransa wa bayn hakimiyyat Allah wahdahu, kama yujahid min ajliha al-mujahidun).” Al-Muhajir argues that economic interests are at stake, but as a secondary matter in this broader combat he sees between belief and unbelief. The video then includes two clips of French philosopher Michel Onfray arguing that France has double standards for when it invokes human rights justifications in foreign affairs.

To me, this was the most interesting argument the film made – ironically, both France and JNIM/AQIM now work to combat the perception that this is a conflict over untapped resources in the Malian Sahara. One wonders whether JNIM is not also, indirectly, trying to combat the perception that it too is a product of a conspiracy involving great powers. Interestingly enough, JNIM may lose ground in the information war if what it considers the wrong kind of conspiracy theories gain too much traction – JNIM wants audiences to understand the conflict as black and white, and that requires arguing that France is explicit about its “Crusader” ambitions, rather than arguing that France has hidden agendas.

Another part of the video’s message revolves around the romanticization of jihadist life. This comes across to some extent in the military sequences, which includes both JNIM’s own training footage and then news footage of the aftermath of JNIM’s June 2018 attack on a G5 Sahel Joint Force base in Sévaré, central Mali. Later, the video shows jihadists impersonating a United Nations convoy as they prepare for and execute their April 2018 attack on a MINUSMA base in Timbuktu.

But the romanticization comes across most strongly in sequences highlighting ordinary fighters. This section emphasizes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the fighters, who are presented as joyful, pious, and disciplined youth. If this is in part a recruitment video, the pitch is based largely on the idea that recruits will enjoy a pure life and a vibrant camaraderie. The segments featuring JNIM/AQIM’s Yahya Abu al-Hammam and an audio message from JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghali are relatively unremarkable; the young fighters come across as more three-dimensional, and that may be intentional on JNIM’s part.

To me this read as a demonstration of strength and a reminder that JNIM is digging in for the long haul (hence the title). The video did not break any new ground, ideologically speaking. There was not as much emphasis on building popular support as I might have expected; but again, perhaps the theme of camaraderie stood in for a more explicit pitch.

The Jihadist Merger in Mali and the Sahara

In early March, three jihadist groups in Mali and the Sahara released a video announcing that they have merged into a new group called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims). The jihadist groups involved are:

  • the northern Malian Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith or, if you prefer, Supporters of Religion),
  • the central Malian Masina Liberation Front (where Masina refers to an early nineteenth-century Muslim polity whose theological outlook has little in common with contemporary jihadism),
  • and the Saharan “emirate” of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), including al-Murabitun Battalion.

The leader of the new group is Iyad Ag Ghali (b. mid-1950s), a Malian national and leader of Ansar al-Din. Ag Ghali’s career has been extremely complex, but one might summarize it crudely in two phases: a career as a relatively mainstream rebel (albeit with growing jihadist ties) until early 2012, and then a career in open jihadism since 2012. Other jihadist commanders appearing in the video are, from the viewer’s left to right:

  • Amadou Kouffa, a Malian national who is leader of the Masina Liberation Front and a long-time associate of Ag Ghali
  • Yahya Abu al-Hammam/Djamel Okacha, an Algerian national who has been emir of AQIM’s Saharan battalions since 2012
  • Al-Hasan al-Ansari, deputy leader of al-Murabitun, AQIM’s most prominent battalion
  • and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, the “judge” of AQIM’s Saharan emirate

Many of the most important points about the video have already been made by Yvan Gichaoua here (French). Key points include the video’s emphasis on global jihadist (rather than local political) themes, and its strong message placing these Saharan groups under Al-Qaida’s banner, with specific pledges of allegiance to al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQIM’s overall emir Abd al-Malik Droukdal, and the Taliban’s Mullah Hibatullah. Gichaoua also points to the important fact that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous commander of al-Murabitun, is not in the video, perhaps because he is either dead or incapacitated. Gichaoua also remarks that the physical assemblage of these other leaders is striking in and of itself, given that the point of ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region is to disperse and weaken jihadist groups.

I would add three things:

  1. First, I see this as an administrative reorganization first and foremost. The move does not, it seems, either increase or decrease the number of jihadist fighters in the region. In other words, the groups are not necessarily greater now than the sum of their parts. So I would be skeptical of analyses proclaiming that this “changes the game.” After all, such administrative reorganizations are not new in the Sahara: AQIM has regularly promoted and demoted leaders, battalions have repeatedly broken off and rejoined, etc. Al-Murabitun has been involved in many such reorganizations: it originated as the merger of two breakaway AQIM units, which then subsequently rejoined AQIM. Moreover, Droukdal has had trouble – for years – imposing his will on the Sahara, and this reshuffle will not necessarily change that.
  2. Second, the anti-Islamic State message is not explicit, but neither is it hard to detect in the video. The video opens with the first part of Qur’an 3:103, “Hold firmly to God’s rope together and do not become divided.” That verse has been a key part of the Islamic State’s messaging to jihadis, as the Islamic State proclaims the need for unity. Jihadis pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, including breakaway units of AQIM, have invoked the verse to justify their decision to rally to the Islamic State’s banner. AQIM and its new (old) Saharan leader is making the same argument, except to say that al-Qaida should be the focal point of intra-jihadist unity. In that sense, the video may be aimed partly at defectors from AQIM to Islamic State, with the implication that they should rejoin the fold. That fits with prior AQIM statements, such as a 2016 interview with Abu al-Hammam (dead link, so I won’t post it) which frame the al-Qaida/Islamic State conflict as a kind of family dispute.
  3. Even if the video didn’t concentrate on local politics, the new group undoubtedly will continue attempting to insert itself and its violence in local northern Malian politics. Al-Sanhaji (Arabic) recently released an audio statement threatening the new “joint patrols” in northern Mali. The joint patrols, which I wrote about here, were the target of a major suicide bombing in January. The patrols are an important element of the slow, painful implementation of a 2015 peace accord. Ag Ghali and his allies want peace to fail.