When the dust settles: what will Droukdel’s death mean for the jihadist project in the Sahel?
On Wednesday 3 June 2020, the French defence minister announced that Abdelmalek Droukdel, emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) together with other jihadist leaders had been killed in northern Mali. The logic behind this approach is fairly simple: killing jihadist leaders should reduce the terrorist threat, by removing leaders who provide strategic or operational guidance, ideological appeal and organisational cohesion. The question is whether this strategy of decapitation works or not. We argue that at best it is a tactical achievement which could have unintended consequences. As long as jihadists continue to mobilise support among rural marginalised communities, the jihadist project in the Sahel will continue.
Hunting Jihadists – has it worked?
Surveying the current ‘hit-list’, suggests that the French strategy is to wipe out the AQIM, the Group for the support of Islam and Muslim (JNIM) and Islamic State-inspired groups’ leadership. While this strategy can provide tactical success, this does not detract from the reality that since France and the UN intervened militarily in Mali in 2013, the situation has not improved. Jihadist insurgents are established in areas closer to Bamako than they were in 2013, and the insurgency has spread to Burkina Faso and Niger. At the same time, the Malian army, which is supported by France is accused of committing increasing levels of abuse, according to a new UN report.
Moreover, France’s strategy of refusing negotiation and killing important leaders is in tension with the Malian government’s offer of entering into dialogue with JNIM, which officially was put on the table in February 2020. Domestic public opinion is not unified but there is support for negotiations with important Malian jihadists like Iyad Ag Ghaly and Hamadoun Kouffa. The idea of such talks could be to engage Malian jihadists while excluding the foreign, more globally oriented groups like AQIM and Islamic State affiliates – whose objectives are less conciliatory. This could be possible, but it is an approach that needs a delicate act of balancing. AQIM is more globally oriented but also allied with Malian groups such as Ansar Dine and Katiba Macina who all three are part of JNIM. While it would be easier to imagine negotiations with a JNIM that does not include AQIM, we fear that the death of Droukdel and France’s continued hunt for senior members of the JNIM leadership risks delegitimising and destabilising such negotiations before they have started. This would be a pity, as exploring the small window that the Malian government now has opened is an important alternative to the current forceful approach. Especially considering that a complete military victory against the jihadists currently seems unlikely, while the destabilization of the region increases.
How will Droukdel’s death impact the jihadist project?
Droukdel was one of the original jihadists in the region, and even if he had remained in the shadows in Algeria, he had achieved a mythical position as one of the few remaining that had started the jihadi project. Now, he is not only gone, but his death also suggests that AQIM’s entire history of origin in the Algerian civil war will become less tangible. Because Droukdel had important strategic oversight of JNIM, it is likely that his death will cause some instability and trigger an internal reorganisation.
However, this does not mark the beginning of the end for AQIM or the jihadist conflict in the Sahel. Despite ongoing counter-insurgency operations, the jihadists have displayed tenacity, resilience and adaptability. While AQIM’s overall standing today is weakened, the organisation will remain, and new leaders will emerge. If AQIM starts fragmenting further, it could represent a huge challenge to al-Qaeda’s overall appeal and influence. It could weaken its position vis-à-vis other jihadist groups, like Ansar Dine and the Katiba Macina, who have strong national interests, in addition to regional objectives. His death could offer Islamic State affiliates an advantage in the battle for hegemony in the region, especially given that al-Qaeda linked groups are currently trying to stem defections from its fighters to the Islamic State camp.
A tactical victory with no impact on the roots of the jihadist problem
Leaders of armed groups like AQIM will sooner or later disappear, but new ones will emerge. Even if the elimination of a leader like Droukdel may seem like a strategic victory for France it is at the best a short-term tactical one that may have several unintended consequences. First, it may deal a blow to the current attempt by Malian actors to initiate a peace process and secondly, it may strengthen IS-inspired groups that in contrast to the al-Qaeda linked groups have not signalled any interest in a negotiated settlement. If a more liberal state building project than the one proposed by the jihadists is going to win greater appeal in the Sahel, France and the international community must realise that jihadists mobilise support among the local population in a variety of ways. This includes grievances over abuses by state security forces, lack of livelihood prospects, or protection from armed violence perpetrated by other groups. Until the political and social roots of the jihadist problem are addressed, and as long as jihadists can continue to mobilise a wide range of grievances, the road to peace will remain elusive.