Today, three years after French president Francois Hollande claimed to have defeated jihadist groups in Mali, these groups have expanded their area of operation and space has opened for new groups to emerge. It will likely take many years and careful planning, as opposed to hasty and unplanned counterterrorism efforts, to remove the influence of jihadist groups in the Sahel. Relevant stakeholders must gain the trust of local populations, particularly in Mali. To achieve this, policy-makers should focus on targeted, community-specific programming, rather than vague regional- or country-based approaches.
This expert opinion is part of our Sahel Watch living analysis
The conflict in Mali has its roots in history, but can also be seen as a product of current economic, ecological, political, security and geopolitical developments in the region.
Recent Mali attacks attributed to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are putting violent extremist organizations (VEOs) back in the headlines. AQIM, which has been overshadowed by Islamic State (IS) for the past three years, was believed to have been eliminated by the French-led military intervention in January 2013. Credit for AQIM’s recent attacks has been given to the group’s merger with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun group. However, AQIM’s long-term efforts to build local community ties in the region has provided them with unique access, as well as making them more resilient. AQIM and its allies picked the right leaders – locals and foreign – and strategically placed them throughout Mali, relying mainly on home-grown fighters while bringing in a limited number of fighters from neighbouring countries.
There are four main jihadist groups operating in Mali: the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM/al-Murabitun, Ansar al-Din, and the newly emerged Macina Liberation Front (MLF). The existence of multiple groups allows them to conduct attacks in different areas against different targets in a matter of hours. For example, between 12–13 April 2016 attacks were launched against French, MINUSMA and Malian forces in the regions of Kidal, Gao and Mopti. These acts are making countering violent extremism (CVE), counterterrorism, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations both challenging and deadly. Countering these groups requires understanding how each of them operates and how they are connected to the communities and regions from which they recruit.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Four AQIM brigades are currently active across the regions of Kidal and Timbuktu, which are strategically important to the group, both geographically and demographically.
Brigades known to operate in the Kidal region include al-Ansar, Youssef Ibn Tachfin, and Tarik Ibn Ziyad. With the exception of Tarik Ibn Ziyad, all of these brigades are made up of recruited and trained local Tuareg, as well as a few Nigerien Tuareg. Despite the killing of al-Ansar and Tarik Ibn Ziyad leaders, Hamada Ag Hama and Abdelhamid Abu Zayed, AQIM remains present and operational in Kidal region. The head of Youssef Ibn Tachfin, Sidani Ag Hitta, a local Tuareg leader, is the most influential Tuareg leader remaining in the area. AQIM brigades in Kidal region are most likely working closely with Ansar al-Din, another pre-dominantly Tuareg group.
The Kidal region is logistically strategic to AQIM and cells based in the area provide the wider organization with access to fuel, foodstuff and weapons, smuggled from Libya or elsewhere through southeast Algeria and northern Niger. Because of existing ties with locals, villages on the Algeria-Mali borders are an ideal fall back for members escaping the French-led counterterrorism operations. Despite these counterterrorism efforts, recruitment in the region continues. An early 2016 recording in Tamasheq (a Tuareg language) has been circulated on social media showing a local religious cleric undermining the Malian government and foreign forces, encouraging the application of Sharia law, and calling for local youth to join the fight.
In Timbuktu region, AQIM is represented by the Al-Furqan brigade. This brigade resurfaced on the international scene when it claimed to have played a part in the attacks on the Radisson Blu in Bamako, Mali, and on the Hotel Splendid and Cappuccino restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Yahya Abou al-Hammam and Abou Talha al-Liby are key AQIM leaders in the Timbuktu region. Since they were chased out of Timbuktu city by the French in January 2013, al-Furqan has conducted several attacks on French, MINUSMA and Malian forces, and carried out several acts of retaliation against locals suspected of collaboration with these forces.
AQIM has survived in Timbuktu region due to ties built with local communities since the early 2000s. As an example, in November 2015, AQIM fighters led by Talha al-Liby filmed their appearance at a local community meeting in the village of Boudjbeha. The group released a video of the visit, showing al-Liby and his men greeted with smiles and cheers from locals, including notables and tribal leaders. Appointing al-Liby as head of al-Furqan is no coincidence. He spent many years in the area and appears capable of comfortably communicating in the local dialect. He listens to local concerns, which is something the Malian state has not done, and in recent AQIM videos al-Liby added al-Azawadi to his name – a term used to refer to someone from northern Mali, although he grew up in Libya.
Picture: Nomads between Gao and Tessalit. Source: author
When it first emerged in 2011, Ansar al-Din enjoyed a series of successes against the Malian military due to a number of factors. The group benefited from AQIM’s finances, fighters and weapons support. Its charismatic leadership by the former Tuareg rebel commander, Iyad Ag Ghali, worked to convince Tuareg Malian military defectors and Tuareg commanders returning from Libya to join Ansar al-Din instead of the MNLA. Ansar al-Din’s combination of sound finances and leadership attracted large numbers of Tuareg recruits. During its joint occupation of Timbuktu city with AQIM, local witnesses reported that the group recruited from a variety of ethnic groups, including Fulani, Songhai and Arabs. This explains the expansion of the group to central and southern Mali in early 2015.
Similar to AQIM brigades in the area, Ansar al-Din benefits from local support and the strategic border with Algeria. Key villages within Iyad Ag Ghali’s influence include Boughessa, Tinzawaten, Abeibera and Tassissat in the Kidal region and Timiaouine and Inerkache on the Algerian side. Without the presence of French, MINUSMA or Malian forces in these villages on the Malian side, these areas are an ideal recruiting ground for Ansar al-Din and AQIM. Both groups continue exploiting local grievances with the Malian government and targeting locals opposed to Ansar al-Din’s ideology. For example, on 1 July 2015, Ansar al-Din distributed flyers announcing future attacks on MINUSMA and French forces and warned locals against collaboration with foreign and Malian forces.
Most of Ansar al-Din’s wide network of social media sympathizers are found on Facebook. Sympathizers typically praise attacks conducted by the group. They post comments and images meant to undermine the Malian government and forces, French and MINUSMA troops, and secular armed groups such as the MNLA. Furthermore, Ansar al-Din recently expanded its media outreach by creating its own media outlet, ‘Rimah’, which was launched on 28 February 2016. Local witnesses from Kidal region also confirm that it is common in remote villages to find local imams close to Iyad Ag Ghali preaching on his behalf and encouraging local youth to join Ansar al-Din to fight Malian and foreign forces.
Picture: Remote village between Gao and Tessalit. Source: author.
The Macina Liberation Front (MLF)
The MLF rose to prominence in January 2015 when it began conducting attacks in central Mali. However, plans to build the MLF began at least three years earlier in 2012, when Ansar al-Din and AQIM occupied Timbuktu city and villages on the border with Mopti region. Local witnesses confirm that both groups recruited and trained new recruits, including Fulani youth, at a location north of Timbuktu. This makes sense as the supreme leader of the MLF, Hamadou Koufa, had a close relationship with Iyad Ag Ghali years before.
In 2016, media outlets associated with Ansar al-Din began releasing statements on behalf of the MLF, claiming responsibility for attacks conducted in central and south Mali. Also, in his most recent interview, Yahya Abu al-Hammam confirmed collaboration between AQIM and the MLF.
To expand influence and access beyond northern Mali, Ansar al-Din and AQIM rely on the influence of MLF leader Hamadou Koufa to recruit Fulani fighters. Hamadou is well known within Mali’s Fulani community and beyond for his radical preaching in the Fulbe language. This again indicates AQIM and its allies’ approach to infiltrate new communities. The majority of MLF fighters are disadvantaged youth from central Mali, and it is also reported that these include former MUJWA members. While the MLF continues carrying out small-scale attacks against Malian troops in central Mali, the relatively small size of the group prevents the MLF from fulfilling its initial objective to establish its own state representing the Fulani community, governed by Sharia law.
The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA)
At its inception, MUJWA attempted to spread Sharia throughout West Africa. MUJWA broke away from AQIM in late 2011, supposedly due to the domination of AQIM’s leadership by Arab militants from Algeria. MUJWA wanted to present itself as a black African Muslim alternative to the traditional domination of all al-Qaeda branches by Arab Muslims. MUJWA’s narratives and propaganda had a specific black African angle and were spread in Hausa, English and Arabic, praising the West African Muslim empire of the 19th century. Because of its financial means, MUJWA succeeded in attracting recruits from Gao region, especially from the Songhai communities along the Niger River where the group set up training camps. The group also attracted Nigerien youth from communities on the border with Mali and Fulani herders from central Mali.
MUJWA has witnessed several leadership changes and setbacks since 2012. At one point, the group was the biggest threat to security in northern Mali, especially along the Niger border and in the Tilemsi valley of Gao region, Mali. However, tensions between Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui and Belmokhtar in the summer of 2015 led to a noticeable decline. The outcome resulted in further divisions among the group as al-Sahraoui pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS) in May 2015 and Belmokhtar re-aligned with AQIM soon after. Belmokhtar’s defection to re-join AQIM was a major blow to MUJWA. After this MUJWA began disintegrating; members reportedly joined the MLF and pro-Malian militias or became armed bandits. The perception of MUJWA leaders as having ties with locals involved in illicit trafficking might have also have made it difficult to attract local youth with jihadist ideologies. The decline of MUJWA could be explained by the poor image of the group among local communities, especially the role it played in intensifying tribal tensions on the border with Niger and between Fulani herders against Tuareg bandits.
Three key recommendations
AQIM and its allies took full advantage during their occupation of northern Mali to recruit, arm and train new fighters. Relying on local leaders and presenting themselves as defending local interests is common among jihadist groups in Mali. Communities in most remote areas are unlikely to be fluent in French or the Maghrebi Arabic dialect spoken by North African AQIM leaders. Adjusting their language in extremist sermons from Arabic and French to local dialects resonates with local populations. Due to very limited access to the Internet and media in general, jihadist groups depend on face-to-face recruitment methods through existing local networks. Ties to local communities were key to the survival of all Malian VEO’s after the French intervention. This was the result of long-term planning and strategically appointing local leaders. Countering these groups requires a strategy built on three pillars.
First, in order to counter AQIM’s efforts and access, CVE efforts should be tailored and designed to each specific community, instead of regionally designed programmes that do not address the unique needs of specific communities. MUJWA, for instance, exploited isolated reformist communities along the Niger River in Gao region to recruit young fighters. Factors encouraging such youth to join differ from one community to another; youth from Kadji village have different reasons for joining MUJWA than Fulani herders joining the MLF. The first step should thus be to identify target communities and then design programmes that allow the Malian government to enter, learn about and establish a good relationship with these communities. The Malian government and its partners could identify and rely on legitimate partners for this type of programme, including influential leaders and religious institutions.
Second, civilians need to be protected through a permanent presence of local administration and security forces. Since 2013, VEOs have benefited from limited to zero presence of security forces in areas, enabling them to apply a carrot and stick approach. AQIM and other groups won the hearts and minds of locals by filling the void left by Malian authorities through the provision of basic services, security, rule of law and humanitarian assistance. However, harsh punishments were given to civilians – many locals suspected of collaboration with French, MINUSMA or Malian forces were assassinated. The Malian government and its partners could rely on re-integrated local former members of armed groups to protect civilians in isolated communities. This could be successful, but only if longstanding ethnic and racial tensions are addressed. Creative mediation efforts to encourage collaboration and highlight mutual benefits could prevent further tribal tensions.
Third, insecurity by AQIM and its allies has resulted in major economic harm to mobile or nomadic communities in Mali. These communities are unhappy with VEOs and these negative consequences should be exploited to delegitimize these groups. Communities in Mali and the Sahel generally rely on mobility to seek sources of income by conducting trade with neighbouring communities beyond country borders. However, traders are now increasingly hesitant to travel to sell their goods, basic commodities are becoming scarcer and prices are going up. Additionally, the threat of kidnapping has destroyed the tourism industry leaving thousands of youth unemployed. While counterterrorism efforts should focus on stabilizing the area, plans for diversifying the local economy should also be considered. Diversification will not only build resilience against insecurity, but also against that climate shocks that often hit the region.
Photo credit main picture: Monument de la Paix, Timbuktu City. Source: Rida Lyammouri.