Russia’s Counter-Insurgency Armored Trains Enter the Electronics Age

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 28, 2017

Strelnikov’s Red Army Armored Train in Doctor Zhivago

Armored trains have a place in the popular imagination, having been featured in films such as Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Train (1964) and the James Bond thriller Goldeneye (1995). More fantastic armored trains are now encountered in popular video games and Japanese anime. Hundreds of these menacing iron giants armed with formidable naval guns once roamed the expanses of Eastern Europe and Asia, but today there are only four left in service; the Russian Defense Ministry’s armored trains Terek, Baikal, Amur and Don (like the cruisers of the sea, these cruisers of the rails are given individual names). The Terek is the Russian Army’s sole factory-made, purpose-designed armored train, the others having been converted from various civilian rail cars.

A Weapon Built for Russian Expanses

Russia has an extensive history of armored train use, largely due to the difficulty of moving large numbers of troops across the vast road-less regions of early 20th century Russia. Large numbers of armored trains were deployed on the mobile battlefields of World War One’s Eastern Front, but the Russian Civil War of 1917-22 saw a virtual explosion in their use, with over 200 in operation at one point.

Many of the White Russian trains passed into the service of northern Chinese warlords before falling into the hands of the Japanese after their 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Both Russia and Germany deployed armored trains on the Eastern Front in World War Two. Russian armored trains patrolled the wild east Siberian frontier during the Sino-Soviet border conflict of the 1960s and appeared again during the 1990 Nagorno-Karabakh War. During the most intensive phases of the Chechen-Russian War armored trains were successful in performing reconnaissance missions, de-mining operations and the escort of military trains carrying troops and equipment.

The defensive weaknesses of armored trains (vulnerability to ambush, derailment, capture etc.) were recognized early and by 1919 it was common for each Russian armored train to carry a desantniy ortryad (raiding team) that could be quickly deployed alongside train-borne tanks or other armored vehicles. With fire called in by forward observers deployed from the train, the armored train can provide powerful fire-support to drive away or destroy enemy forces. In modern times these raiding teams include BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and T-62 or T-72 tanks. While mounted on flatcars, the more vulnerable sides of these vehicles are protected by timber and sandbags. The tanks have a secondary role as tractors in the event of a derailment.

Armored trains may also use small railed reconnaissance vehicles known as draisines to scout the track ahead of the main train.  The trains typically carry the material and trained men necessary to quickly repair damaged track as immobility places a train in danger of ambush or capture.

French Armored Train on Counter-Insurgency Operations in Indo-China

Use in Counter-Insurgency

Modern armored trains are vulnerable to air raids or artillery strikes, making them suitable only for counter-insurgency operations where such capabilities are typically unavailable to insurgents. Armored trains were first used for counter-insurgency work by the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1848. Later armored trains were used on counter-insurgency missions by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against Partisans on the Eastern Front in World War Two and by the French against the Viet Minh in Indo-China. Their use enabled railway troops to secure important transportation links from sabotage and provide fire support to infantry and armor.

Though armored trains have become vulnerable to modern tank tactics and armor-piercing munitions, their rail support allows the trains to carry a weight in weapons and armor that would crush paved roads or have mobility difficulties on certain types of ground. Expendable flatcars (often loaded with sandbags) are typically deployed ahead of the train to absorb the initial impact of explosives or derailment.

Antiaircraft gun of the Armored Train Terek. The Baikal is to the left. This photo was likely taken at the Russian Armored Train base at Khankala, Chechnya. © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Modernizing Russia’s Armored Train Fleet

The return of the Russian Defense Ministry’s four armored trains to service after a brief retirement is part of an expensive program to modernize and expand Russia’s armed forces by 2020, though sanctions and economic difficulties have hindered implementation.  The trains were operated by Russian Railway Troops (Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDk) in the North Caucasus from 2002 to 2009, at which point Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov decided the trains had outlived their usefulness as the Chechen insurgency wound down. Serdyukov was sacked over corruption allegations in 2012 and his order to dismantle the trains was never carried out. His replacement, Sergey Shoigu, had seen the trains in action and decided to bring them back into service (International Business Times, August 28, 2015).

Armored train Terek © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

The four corps of ZhDk railway troops are under the authority of the Defense Ministry and are responsible for securing and repairing Russia’s railway network during military operations or natural disasters.

There is no sign yet that the Defense Ministry trains will be re-joined by the Russian Interior Ministry’s sole armored train, the largely improvised Kozma Minin, which served in the Caucasus in the periods 1994-2002 and 2011-2012 before being sent for a technological overhaul in 2013. The Kozma Minin operated separately from the Army’s trains, carrying out missions for Interior Ministry forces.

Diagram of the Baikal and Amur armored trains: The Baikal (top) features 1) cover platform 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) radio station 7) headquarters 8) jammer; the Amur (bottom) features 1) freight car 2) anti-aircraft gun 3) locomotive 4) kitchen and dining car 5) sleeper car 6) sleeper car 7) radio station 8) jammer 9) headquarters 10) freight car 11) freight car, 12) crane 13) cover platform© Politrussia.com

The Defense Ministry’s overhauled armored trains now include an electronic warfare wagon capable of jamming enemy communications and radar. New tactical protocols now allow the trains to operate in tandem with helicopter support, a potentially lethal combination for insurgents operating anywhere close to the railway system (Sputnik News.com, August 15, 2016). Russia’s armored trains have also been fitted out with anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh M4K system, which uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled IEDs at a distance of up to 20 meters. Firepower is now provided, not by naval guns, but by powerful, rapid-firing twin 23 mm ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns (MK.RU, August 12, 2016). These guns are protected by shields and their crews have access to armored shelters on both ends of the gun-car. Heavy use of camouflage nets helps reduce the visibility of the armored trains as targets.

Armored Train Baikal © Photo: otvaga2004.ru

Amur and Baikal undertook intensive drills in Volgograd, Krasnodar, North Ossetia and Crimea in August 2016. One of the high points of the exercise was the construction by railroad troops of a 1300-foot long pontoon bridge over the Volga capable of supporting the armored trains (Russia Today, August 17, 2016; Video of the operation at Vesti.Ru, August 17, 2016).

Russia is also re-introducing military trains equipped with the new MS-26 Rubezh light intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), armed with multiple nuclear warheads (the whole system is known as “Barguzin”). An earlier version of these missile trains was deployed from 1984 to 1994, but the enormous weight of these missiles damaged the rail system and the entire project was shut down in 2005, partly due to strategic weapons treaties (Russian Beyond the Headlines, May 17, 2016).  The new, much lighter missile trains will be disguised by the inclusion of normal freight cars and wagons in the train to prevent their easy detection from space (Independent, November 23, 2016).

 

The Fulani Crisis: Communal Violence and Radicalization in the Sahel

CTC Sentinel (Volume 10, Issue 2)

Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

February 22, 2017

Andrew McGregor (AIS)

Abstract: Alongside the Islamist struggle to reshape society in the Sahel through violent means is a second, relatively unnoticed but equally deadly conflict with the dangerous potential of merging with jihadi efforts. At a time when resources such as land and water are diminishing in the Sahel, semi-nomadic Muslim herders of the widespread Fulani ethnic group are increasingly turning to violence against settled Christian communities to preserve their herds and their way of life. Claims of “genocide” and “forced Islamization” have become common in the region. What is primarily an economic struggle has already taken on an ethnic and religious character in Mali. If Nigeria follows the same path, it is possible that a new civil war could erupt with devastating consequences for all of West Africa. 

The Fulani,a an estimated 25 million people, range across 21 African countries from Mauritania’s Atlantic coast to the Red Sea coast in Sudan, though their greatest concentration is found in West Africa’s Sahel region.b The Fulani speak a common language (known as Fulfulde or Pulaar) but, due to their wide geographical range, are known by several other names in their host communities, including Fulbe, Fula, Peul, Peulh, and Fellata. Virtually all are Muslim. Roughly a third of the Fulani continue to follow a traditional semi-nomadic, cattle-rearing lifestyle that increasingly brings them into conflict with settled agriculturalists at a time of increased pressure on resources such as pastureland and water. They are typically armed to protect their herds from rustlers, wild animals, and other threats, and in recent years, the ubiquitous AK-47 has replaced the more common machete as the weapon of choice.

  • The Fulani in the Sahel (Rowan Technology)

The Fulani began building states in the 18th century by mounting jihads against non-Islamic rulers in existing states in the Guinea-Senegal region. A Fulani Islamic scholar, ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, recruited Fulani nomads into a jihad that overthrew the Muslim Hausa Amirs of the Sahel and attacked the non-Muslim tribes of the region in the first decade of the 19th century, forming a new kingdom in the process—the Sokoto Caliphate. Following Dan Fodio’s Islamic revolution, a whole series of new Islamic Emirates emerged in the Sahel under the Sokoto Caliphate, which fell to the British in 1903. There are accusations within Nigeria’s legislatures that the current Fulani-associated violence is simply the continuation of Dan Fodio’s jihad, an attempt to complete the Islamization of Nigeria’s middle belt and eventually its oil-rich south.1

Nomadic patterns and a significant degree of cultural variation due to their broad range in Africa have worked against the development of any central leadership among the Fulani. Traditional Fulani regard any occupation other than herding as socially inferior, though millions now pursue a wide range of occupations in West Africa’s urban centers.

Herdsmen vs. Farmers

Traditionally, Fulani herders would bring their cattle south during the post-harvest period to feed on crop residues and fertilize the land. Recently, however, environmental pressures related to climate change and growing competition for limited resources such as water and grazing land are driving herders and their cattle into agricultural areas year round, where they destroy crops.2 More importantly, the herders are now entering regions they have never traveled through before. The growth of agro-pastoralism, where farmers maintain their own cattle, and the expansion of farms into the traditional corridors used by the herders have contributed to the problem. The resulting violence is equal in both number and ferocity to that inflicted by Boko Haram’s insurgency3 c but has attracted little attention beyond the Sahel, in part because it is treated as a local issue.

Confrontations over damaged crops are typically followed by armed herders responding to the farmers’ anger with violence, inevitably leading to reprisal attacks on herding camps by farming communities. Traditional conflict resolution systems involving compensation and mediation have broken down, partly because new waves of herdsmen have no ties to local communities.d The Fulani, in turn, accuse their host communities of cattle rustling (theft) and therefore regard punitive violence against these communities as just and appropriate. The Fulani herders complain that they are otherwise faced with the choice of returning to lands that cannot sustain them or abandoning their lifestyle by selling their cattle and moving to the cities.4

With little protection offered by state security services against the incessant violence, many farmers have begun abandoning their plots to seek safety elsewhere, leading to food shortages, depopulation of fertile land, and further damage to an already fragile economy. Some see no future in negotiations: “We are calling on the state government to evacuate [the herders] from our land because they are not friendly; they are very harmful to us. We are not ready to bargain with them to prolong their stay here.”5 Others have registered puzzlement that relations with “people who have always been around” (i.e. the herders) could have deteriorated so dramatically.6

Nigeria’s Military Option

In late October 2016, Nigerian Defense Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar declared Boko Haram “100% defeated” and announced the launch of “Operation Accord,” a military campaign to “take care of the nuisance of the Fulani herdsmen once and for all.” 7 e Unfortunately, no mention was made of what kind of tactics would be employed to prevent ethnic nationalism and religious radicalism from further taking hold in the Fulani community.

Nigeria (Rowan Technology)

A common complaint from victims of Fulani violence is that help from security services rarely materializes despite their assurances that security is a top priority. This has led to the formation of anti-Fulani vigilante groups (some inspired by Borno State’s anti-Boko Haram “Civilian JTF”) that have few means and little inclination to sort out “bad” herders from “good.” Existing vigilante groups tend to have poor coordination with police services, perhaps deliberately in some cases due to suspicion that the security services sympathize with the herdsmen.8 Earlier this year, the United Nations stated advance warnings of the April 2016 attack in Enugu State that killed 40 people had been ignored and noted that perpetrators of earlier attacks appeared to enjoy “complete immunity,” which encouraged threatened communities to “take justice into their own hands.”f

In Zamfara State, rural communities have complained of Fulani herdsmen committing murder, gang-rapes, destruction of property, and massive thefts of livestock while security services do nothing. Reprisals are now organized by a Hausa vigilante group named Yan Sakai. Though banned by the government, Yan Sakai continues to operate, escalating the violence through illegal arrests and summary executions.9

Delta State’s former commissioner of police Ikechukwu Aduba expressed exasperation with the growing crisis: “The problem is how do we contain [the herdsmen], especially with their peculiar mode of operation? The way these people operate is amazing. They will strike within five and six minutes and disappear… there is no way the police can be everywhere at the same time.”10 Difficult terrain and poor communications complicate the matter, but the continued inability of the state to provide a reasonable degree of security damages public trust in authority and encourages an armed response in previously peaceful communities.

One claim that has gained traction among leaders of the Igbo (a large ethnic group with an estimated population of 30 million people in southern Nigeria) is that the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari (a Fulani), is pursuing the Islamization of Nigeria by allowing Fulani herdsmen to murder Christians.11 These claims were rejected on October 10, 2016, by the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, a Fulani and one of Nigeria’s leading Islamic authorities: “The problem with herdsmen and farmers is purely about economy. The herdsman wants food for his cattle; the farmer wants his farm produce to feed his family.”12 There have been calls for the sultan to make a personal intervention, appealing to the Fulani’s respect for “true leaders and their traditional institutions.”13 The sultan, however, like the cattle associations representing the herders, claims that those involved in the violence are “foreign terrorists … the Nigerian herdsmen are very peace-loving and law-abiding.”14

Solutions?

Herders cannot simply be outlawed. Despite the violence, they continue to supply the Sahel’s markets with meat. Grazing reserves have been proposed as a solution, but since these are seen as a government transfer of land to commercial livestock operations, they are unpopular. Fulani herders often object that such reserves are inaccessible or already in use by other herders. In May 2016, some 350 federal and state legislators declared they would resist any attempt by the federal government to take land by force for use as grazing reserves. Others have argued that ranching on fenced private lands (preferably in the north, where ethnic and religious tensions are diminished) is the only solution for Nigeria, where questions of land ownership remain politically charged.15 Nonetheless, 10 Nigerian states moved ahead in August 2016 with allocating grazing lands to the herdsmen.16

Ranching would improve yields of meat and milk, both of which suffer from nomadic grazing. (Most of Nigeria’s milk is now imported from the Netherlands.) According to House of Representatives minority leader Leo Ogor, “The solution lies in coming up with legislation that will criminalise grazing outside the ranches.”17 Governor of Benue State Samuel Ortom has said, “If we can copy the presidential system from America, why can’t we copy ranching? But, you see, it is a gradual process and cannot be done overnight.”18

Street Violence in South Kaduna

Christians in Nigeria’s Kaduna State complaining of daily kidnappings, killings, and rapes committed by herders have described the large Ladugga grazing reserve as an “incubator” for “all sorts of criminals that are responsible for the misfortune that has come to stay with us.”19 An editorial in a major Nigerian daily described the reserves as “a decoy” for Fulani herders to overrun and seize land from “unsuspecting natives.” “It is incomprehensible how anyone expects the entire country to have grazing reserves carved out for Fulani herdsmen … what else is the motive behind this adventure if it is not to grab land and have strategic power?”20

Three federal bills trying to establish grazing reserves and control of herd movement were dropped by Nigeria’s senate last November after it was ruled such legislation must be enacted at the state level. This will likely result in a patchwork of efforts, however, to solve a problem that is, by its very nature, unconfined by state or national borders.21

In Ghana, joint military/police task-forces have been deployed to evict Fulani herdsmen from regions affected by communal violence.22 Many of the herdsmen are from Burkina Faso where pastureland has receded. To deal with what has been described as “a national security issue due to the crimes associated with the activities of the nomads,” Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama announced that veterinary services and 10,000 hectares of land would be provided to the herdsmen to discourage violent clashes with farmers.23 The measure falls short of the ranching laws that have been promised since 2012 but have yet to be implemented.24

Dr. Joachim Ezeji, an Abuja, Nigeria-based water management expert, attributes the violence to poor water management practices in Nigeria that are “not robust enough to cope with the impacts of climate change,” suggesting soil restoration, reforestation, and the expansion of terrace-farming could aid the currently unproductive, sloping land.25

Nigeria: Economic Struggle or Religious Conquest?

In early 2016, the streets of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, began filling with Fulani herders and their livestock, snarling traffic and prompting fights between herders and beleaguered motorists. A ban on grazing in the federal capital had been widely ignored, and in October 2016, authorities began arresting herders and impounding their livestock.26 The local government has obtained over 33,000 hectares of land as an alternative to grazing in the streets of the capital.27

The Nigerian capital, however, has yet to experience the herdsmen-related violence that continues to afflict the following regions:

Northwest (primarily Muslim): Kaduna and Zamfara States

Middle Belt (ethnically heterogeneous and religiously mixed): Nasarawa, Taraba, Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, and Niger States

South (primarily Christian and Animist): Ebonyi, Abia, Edo, Delta, and Enugu States

At times, Fulani gunmen have shown no fear of attacking senior officials. On his way to visit a displaced persons’ camp in April 2014, former Benue governor Gabriel Suswam’s convoy was ambushed by suspected Fulani herders who engaged the governor’s security detail in a one-hour gun-battle. Afterwards, Suswam told the IDPs:

This is beyond the herdsmen; this is real war … so, if the security agents, especially the military, cannot provide security for us, we will defend ourselves … these Fulani are not like the real Fulani we used to know. Please return to your homes and defend your land; do not allow anybody to make you slaves in your homeland.28

The Ekiti State’s Yorubag governor, Ayodele Fayose, has implemented laws designed to control the movements of the Fulani herdsmen, much to their displeasure. A statement from the Mayetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN, a national group representing the interests of Fulani herders) suggesting that the new laws could “develop into [an] unquenchable inferno … capable of creating uncontrollable scenarios” was interpreted by local Yoruba as “a terror threat.”29 The governor described the federal government’s failure to arrest those responsible for the MACBAN statement as proof of a plot “to provide tacit support” to the herdsmen.30 With clashes threatening to deteriorate into ethnic warfare, Fayose called on Ekiti citizens to defend their land against “these Philistines” whose character is marked by “extremism, violence, bloodshed, and destruction.”31

Some senior Christian clergy have alleged the influx of Muslim herders is a scheme by hard-pressed Boko Haram leaders “to deliberately populate areas with Muslims and, by the sheer weight of superior numbers, influence political decision-making.”32 After herders killed 20 people and burned the community of Gogogodo (Kaduna State) on October 15, 2016, a local pastor described the incident in religious terms. “This is a jihad. It is an Islamic holy war against Christians in the southern part of Kaduna state.” Another said that like Boko Haram, the Fulani had a clear agenda “to wipe out the Christian presence and take over the land.”33 As many as 14 Fulani were hacked to death in retaliatory attacks.34

In late February 2016, alleged herders reportedly massacred over 300 Idoma Christians in Agatu (Benue State). A retaliatory attack on a Fulani camp across the border in Nasarawa State on April 30 killed 20 herdsmen and 83 cows.35 After the killings, Nigeria’s senate moved a motion suggesting attacks attributed to Fulani herdsmen were actually “a change in tactics” by Boko Haram. This view was roundly rejected by Benue State representatives in the House of Representatives, who castigated the president for his silence on the attacks. According to the leader of the Benue caucus, the incidents were an “unfolding genocide in Benue State by Fulani herdsmen, a genocide that, typical of the Nigerian state, has been downplayed or ignored until it spirals out of control.”36

However, it is not only Nigeria’s farming communities that complain of “genocide.” For Nigeria’s Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), attacks on “innocent Fulani” by vigilantes, rustlers, and security forces constitute an effort to eliminate Islam in Nigeria:

The Nigerian Muslim community as a stakeholder in nation-building is also aware of the symbiotic relationship between the Fulani and the religion of Islam and, by extension, the Muslim Ummah of Nigeria. Any hostile act against the Fulani is therefore an indirect attack on Muslims. Genocide aimed at the Fulani is indubitably mass killing of Muslims. It is war against Islam.37

Fulani Herdsman (Judith Caleb)

There were further attacks in Benue allegedly by Fulani herdsmen in late April 2016. A local Fulani ardo (community leader), Boderi Adamu, said that the attackers were not Fulani—he “heard people say they were foreigners”—but insisted that the Nigerian constitution provided free movement for all citizens within its borders, “so they cannot continue to stop us from finding pastures for our cows.”38 However, as one Nigerian commentator observed, while “the constitution grants free movement to all its citizens, it does not grant free movement to hordes of animals with those citizens … cows cannot overrun a whole country. It is unacceptable.”39 Despite a January 6, 2017, agreement between Fulani herdsmen and the majority Christian Agatu community in Benue State, violence erupted again on January 24 with 13 villagers and two herdsmen killed during an attack by Fulani herders.40

Ties to Boko Haram?

It is possible that some of those participating in the attacks on farming communities in Nigeria are former members of Boko Haram who trade in violence, but coordination with the group itself is unlikely. Boko Haram is dominated by Kanuri rather than Fulani, and the rights of cattle-herders have not figured prominently in the group’s Islamist agenda.

There are other differences from Nigeria’s Boko Haram rebellion:

  • Though many Boko Haram members are ethnic Kanuri, the Boko Haram insurrection never took on an ethnic character, and the movement’s leadership has never claimed one.
  • Boko Haram’s identity and aims center on religion. The Fulani herders’ main concern is with access to grazing land, although they are susceptible to religious agitation.
  • Boko Haram’s enemy (despite leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s recent calls for attacks on Christians) has always been the state. Armed Fulani groups generally avoid confrontations with the state.
  • Like most insurgent movements, Boko Haram has a central leadership that is generally identifiable despite the movement’s best efforts to keep details murky. There is no guiding individual or committee behind the violence associated with the Fulani herders.

Transition to Jihad: The Case of Mali

A significant concern is posed by the possibility that Nigeria might follow the pattern of Mali. There, young Fulani herdsmen have been recruited into jihadi movements, a break from the Fulani community’s traditional support of the Bamako government as a balance to Tuareg and Arab power in northern Mali.41

Unlike other parts of the Sahel, there is a long tradition of Fulani “self-defense” militias in northern and central Mali. Known as Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso, these groups were generally pro-government in orientation but clashed repeatedly since 1990 with both separatist and loyalist Tuareg groups over land and access to water.

Some Fulani from central Mali and northern Niger joined the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) during the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012.42 Since France’s Operation Serval in 2013 expelled most of the Islamists from the region, Fulani in the Mopti and Segou regions have experienced retaliatory violence and abuse from both the Malian military (including torture and summary executions) and Fulani jihadis who want to deter their brethren from cooperating with the Malian state, U.N. peacekeepers, or French troops.43 The national army, the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMA), are allegedly replicating the human rights abuses (arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings) that helped inspire rebellion in northern Mali.44 According to one Fulani chief, “Our people don’t associate the state with security and services, but rather with predatory behavior and negligence.”45

After Operation Serval, many of the Fulani jihadis drifted into the Front de libération du Macina (FLM, aka Katiba Macina or Ansar al-Din Macina), a largely Fulani jihadi movement led by salafi preacher and Malian national Hamadoun Koufa. Based in the Mopti region in central Mali, the group takes its name from a 19th-century Fulani state. The Islamists spur recruitment by reminding young Fulanis that their traditional leadership has been unable to defend their people from Tuareg attacks or cattle-rustling, according to the author’s research. The movement became formally allied with Ansar al-Din on May 19, 2016, but split off from Iyad Ag Ghali’s mostly Tuareg jihadi movement in early 2017 due to ethnic tensions, Hamadoun Koufa’s dalliance with the rival Islamic State movement, and the FLM’s failure to provide military support for Ansar al-Din.46 Reports suggest that FLM leader Hamadoun Koufa has been engaged in discussions with the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, regarding the creation of a new Fulani caliphate with Islamic State support.47

An unknown number of Fulani appear to have joined Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun movement. The group claimed that its January 17, 2017, suicide car-bomb attack that killed 77 members of the Malian Army and the Coordination of Azawad Movements coalition was carried out by a Fulani fighter, Abd al-Hadi al-Fulani.48 The attack followed similar suicide attacks by Fulani jihadis. Though there was some confusion created by rival claims of responsibility for the November 20, 2015, attack on Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel from al-Murabitun and the FLM (allegedly in concert with Ansar al-Din), al-Murabitun maintained the attack was carried out by two Fulani jihadis.49 A Fulani individual was also named as one of three men who carried out the January 15, 2016, attack on the Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Café in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, providing further proof of the growing attraction of jihad among some members of the Fulani community.50

Another militant Fulani group, formed in June 2016, is the “Alliance nationale pour la sauvegarde de l’identité peule et la restauration de la justice” (ANSIPRJ). Its leader, Oumar al-Janah, describes ANSPIRJ as a self-defense militia that will aggressively defend the rights of Fulani/Peul herding communities in Mali while being neither jihadi nor separatist in its ideology. ANSPIRJ deputy leader, Sidi Bakaye Cissé, claims that Mali’s military treats all Fulani as jihadis. “We are far from being extremists, let alone puppets in the hands of armed movements.”51 In reality, al-Janah’s salafi movement is closely aligned with the jihadi Ansar al-Din movement and participated in a coordinated attack with that group on a Malian military base at Nampala on July 19, 2016, that killed 17 soldiers and wounded 35.52 ANSPIRJ’s Fulani military emir, Mahmoud Barry (aka Abu Yehiya), was arrested near Nampala on July 27.53

Fulani groups that have maintained their distance from jihadis in Mali include:

The Mouvement pour la défense de la patrie (MDP), led by Hama Founé Diallo, a veteran of Charles Taylor’s forces in the Liberian Civil War and briefly a member of the rebel Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad (MNLA) in 2012. The MDP joined the peace process in June 2016 by allying itself with the pro-government Platforme coalition.54 Diallo says he wants to teach the Fulani to use arms to defend themselves while steering them away from the attraction of jihad.55

“The Coordination des mouvements et fronts patriotiques de résistance” (CMFPR) has split into pro- and anti-government factions since its formation in July 2012.56 Originally an assembly of self-defense movements made up of Fulani and Songhaï in the Gao and Mopti regions, both factions have many former Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso members.57 The pro-government Platforme faction is led by Harouna Toureh; the split-off faction is led by Ibrahim Abba Kantao, head of the Ganda Iso movement, and is part of the separatist Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) coalition formed in June 2014. While Kantao appears to favor the separatism of Azawad, he is closer to the secular MNLA than the region’s jihadis.58

Conclusion

In highly militarized northern Mali, Fulani gunmen have begun to form organized terrorist or ‘self-defense’ organizations along established local patterns. If this became common elsewhere, it would remove community decision-making from locally based “cattle associations” and hand it to less representative militant groups with agendas that do not necessarily address the concerns of the larger community. In this case, the Fulani crisis could become intractable, with escalating consequences for West Africa.

In Nigeria, the state is not absent, as in northern and central Mali, but it is unresponsive. A common thread through all the attacks alleged to be the work of Fulani herdsmen, rustlers, or vigilante groups is the condemnation of state inaction by victims in the face of violence. This unresponsiveness breeds suspicion of collusion and hidden motives, weakening the state’s already diminished authority, particularly as even elected officials urge communities to take up arms in self-defense.

There continues to be room for negotiated solutions, but attempts to radicalize Muslim herders will quickly narrow the room for new options. Transforming an economic dispute into a religious or ethnic war has the potential of destroying the social structure and future prosperity of any nation where this scenario takes hold. For Islamist militants, the Fulani represent an enormous potential pool of armed, highly mobile fighters with intimate knowledge of local terrain and routes. In Nigeria, a nation whose unity and physical integrity is already facing severe challenges from northern jihadis and southern separatists, mutual distrust inspired by communal conflict has the potential to contribute to the outbreak of another civil war in Nigeria between northern Muslims and southern Christians and Animists.

Is the violence really due to “foreign terrorists,” “Boko Haram operatives,” and local gangsters posing as Fulani herdsmen? All are possible, to a degree, but none of these theories is supported by evidence at this point, and any combination of these is unlikely to be completely responsible for the onslaught of violence experienced in the Sahel. What is certain is that previously cooperative groups are now clashing despite the danger this poses to both farmers and herdsmen. The struggle for land and water has already degenerated into ethnic conflict in some places and is increasingly seen, dangerously, in religious terms by elements of Christian Nigeria. There is a real danger that this conflict could be hijacked by Islamist extremists dwelling on “Fulani persecution” while promoting salafi-jihadism as a radical solution.     CTC

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in the analysis of security issues in Africa and the Islamic world. 

Substantive Notes

[a] This article is based on primary sources from West African media as well as environmental and anthropological studies of the region.

[b] The Fulani/Peul are found in Nigeria, Benin, Egypt, Liberia, Mauritania, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Mali, the Gambia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

[c] Boko Haram (a nickname for the group whose full name was Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wa’l-Jihad – People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) changed its official name in April 2015 to Islamic State – Wilayat West Africa after pledging allegiance to the Islamic State movement. The West African Wilayat split into two groups after Islamic State leaders took the unusual step of removing Wilayat leader Abubakr Shekau. Shekau refused his dismissal and now competes with the “official” Wilayat West Africa led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. “Boko Haram” continues to have wide popular usage for both factions. For more, see Jason Warner, “Sub-Saharan Africa’s Three New Islamic State Affiliates,” CTC Sentinel 10:1 (2017).

[d] This is based on the author’s own observations of developments in the Sahel over the past 20 years.

[e] One source declared the remarks were those of Chief of Defence Staff General Abayomi Olonishakin and were merely delivered by Brigadier Abubakar. See “Boko Haram is Gone Forever – CDS,” Today [Lagos], October 29, 2016.

[f] Though 40 was the number reported in Nigerian media, VOA gave a figure of 15 based on official police reports. See Chris Stein, “Farmer-Herder Conflict Rises across Nigeria,” VOA News, May 11, 2016, and United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “Press briefing note on Mozambique and Nigeria,” April 29, 2016.

[g] The Yoruba are a West African ethnic group found primarily in southwestern Nigeria and southeastern Benin (“Yorubaland”). The Yoruba are roughly equally divided between Christianity and Islam, with some 10 percent remaining adherents of traditional Yoruba religious traditions. Religious syncretism runs strong in the Yoruba community, inspiring local religious variations such as “Chrislam” and the Aladura movement, which combines Christianity with traditional beliefs. Protestant Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on direct experience of God and the role of the Holy Spirit, is especially popular in many Yoruba communities.

Citations

[1] Taye Obateru, “Plateau Massacre: We did it – Boko Haram; It’s a lie — Police,” Vanguard, July 11, 2012.

[2] Olakunie Michael Folami, “Climate Change and Inter-ethnic Conflict between Fulani Herdsmen and Host Communities in Nigeria,” paper presented at the Conference on Climate Change and Security, Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Trondiem, Norway, 2010.

[3] Yomi Kazeem, “Nigeria now has a bigger internal security threat than Boko Haram,” Quartz Africa, January 19, 2017.

[4] Muhammed Sabiu, “At the mercy of cow rustlers: Sad tales of Zamfara cattle rearers,” Nigerian Tribune, February 2, 2014.

[5] “Delta community women protest Fulani herdsmen’s invasion,” Vanguard, October 25, 2016.

[6] “Herdsmen attacks sponsored by politicians, says APC chieftain,” Vanguard, August 30, 2016.

[7] “Nigerian Military to launch operation against violent herdsmen,” News Agency of Nigeria, October 29, 2016; Akinyemi Akinrujomu, “Military begins plans to tackle Fulani herdsmen menace,” Naij.com, October 28, 2016; “Military to launch operation against Fulani herdsmen,” The Nation Online [Lagos], October 30, 2016.

[8] Francis Igata, “I alerted security operatives before Fulani herdsmen attack, says Ugwuanyi,” Vanguard, April 30, 2016; “The New Terror Threat,” This Day [Lagos], May 2, 2016; Ibanga Isine, “Interview: Benue ‘completely under siege by Fulani herdsmen’ – Governor Ortom, Premium Times [Abuja], October 3, 2016.

[9] Shehu Umar, “Violent crimes sparking Hausa vs. Fulani clashes in Zamfara,” Daily Trust, October 15, 2016.

[10] Evelyn Usman, “Menace of Fulani herdsmen: A nightmare to police too,” Vanguard, February 27, 2016.

[11] “Buhari’s islamization agenda is real, he is implementing it gradually – Igbo Leaders,” Daily Post [Lagos], October 6, 2016.

[12] Danielle Ogbeche, “Stop making noise about Fulani herdsmen, Islamization – Sultan of Sokoto,” Daily Post [Lagos], October 11, 2016; Jasmine Buari, “Sultan of Sokoto speaks on the herdsmen-farmers conflict,” Naij.com, October 10, 2016.

[13] Sale Bayari, “Herdsmen vs the Military – Don’t Use Force,” Daily Trust, November 2, 2016.

[14] “Fulani herdsmen moving with guns are foreign terrorists, says Sultan,” Vanguard, September 12, 2016.

[15] Moses E. Ochonu, “The Fulani herdsmen threat to Nigeria’s fragile unity,” Vanguard, March 18, 2016.

[16] Joshua Sani, “10 States allocate grazing lands to herdsmen,” Today [Lagos], August 24, 2016.

[17] John Ameh, Femi Atoyebi, Sunday Aborisade, Kamarudeen Ogundele, Jude Owuamanam, Mudiaga Affe, Femi Makinde, Gibson Achonu, and Peter Dada, “N940m grazing reserves for herdsmen: Lawmakers fault Buhari,” Punch, May 21, 2016.

[18] Seun Opejobi, “Just like farmers; Fulani herdsmen have the right to live,” Daily Post [Lagos], November 1, 2016.

[19] Paul Obi, “Southern Kaduna Cries Out Over Fulani Persecution,” This Day [Lagos], October 11, 2016.

[20] “The Mission of Fulani Herdsmen,” Guardian [Lagos], October 30, 2016).

[21] Omololu Ogunmade, “Senate Rejects Grazing Reserve Bill, Says It’s Unconstitutional,” This Day [Lagos], November 10, 2016.

[22] Ebenezer Afanyi Dadzie, “Joint police-military team storm Agogo to flush out Fulanis,” Citifmonline.com, February 4, 2016.

[23] “Fulani menace will be fixed permanently – Mahama,” GhanaWeb, November 1, 2016.

[24] “Politicians overlook ranching law,” GhanaWeb, October 28, 2016.

[25] Senator Iroegbu, “Expert Proffers Solution to Fulani Herdsmen, Farmers Clashes,” This Day [Lagos], July 9, 2016.

[26] “War against Grazing: FCTA Prosecutes 16 Fulani Herdsmen, Impounds 32 Cattle, 38 Sheep,” The Whistler [Lagos], October 14, 2016.

[27] Ebuka Onyeji, “Abuja Administration Bans Movement of Cattle on Public Roads,” Premium Times, October 25, 2016.

[28] Olu Ojewale, “The Menace of Fulani Herdsmen,” Realnewsmagazine.net, April 7, 2014.

[29] Eromosele Ebhomele, “ARG warns Fulani herdsmen for threatening Ekiti people,” Naij.com, October 25, 2016.

[30] Eromosele Ebhomele, “Fayose urges Ekiti people to prepare for war against herdsmen,” Naij.com, October 26, 2016; Alo Abiola, “Fayose Holds Meeting with Herdsmen, Says No Grudge against Fulani,” Leadership [Abuja], November 2, 2016; Dayin Adebusuyi, “Farmers, Herders to be Grazing Law Enforcement Marshals,” Daily Trust, November 2, 2016.

[31] Eromosele Ebhomele, “Fayose urges Ekiti people to prepare for war against herdsmen,” Naij.com, October 26, 2016.

[32] Richard Ducayne, “Bishop Warns: Boko Haram Enlisting Herders as Fighters,” ChurchMilitant.com, August 10, 2016.

[33] Amy Furr, “Muslim Fulani Herdsmen Slaughter Dozens of Christians in Nigerian Village,” CSN News, October 27, 2016.

[34] “Mob attacks, burn 14 Fulani herdsmen in Kaduna,” Vanguard, October 17, 2016.

[35] Adams Abonu, “The Agatu Massacre,” This Day [Lagos], April 4, 2016; Omotayo Yusuf, “20 herdsmen killed, 83 cows slaughtered in Nasarawa,” NAIJ.com, May 2, 2016.

[36] Musa Abdullahi Kirishi, “National Assembly and price of rhetorics over Agatu,” Daily Trust, March 22, 2016; Emman Ovuakporie and Johnbosco Agbakwuru, “Agatu genocide: Benue lawmakers slam Buhari,” Vanguard, March 19, 2016.

[37] Abbas Jimoh, “Muslim rights group alleges genocide against Fulanis,” Daily Trust, April 22, 2014.

[38] Tony Adibe, Hope Abah, Andrew Agbese, and Adama Dickson, “‘115 Grazing Reserves in Nigeria Taken Over’ – Miyetti Allah,” Daily Trust, May 8, 2016.

[39] Tope Fasua, “Da Allah, cows are not Nigerian citizens,” Daily Trust, May 15, 2016.

[40] “Herdsmen deadly attacks stalled Agatu’s constituency projects, says lawmaker,” Pulse News Agency, February 1, 2017; Petet Duru, “Benue farmers/Fulani herdmen renewed clash claims 15 lives,” Vanguard, January 24, 2017; Hembadoon Orsar, “Many Feared Dead in Fresh Herdsmen Attack on Benue Village,” Leadership [Abuja], January 24, 2017.

[41] For Mali’s armed groups, see Andrew McGregor, “Anarchy in Azawad: A Guide to Non-State Armed Groups in Northern Mali,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2017.

[42] Yvan Guichaoua, “Mali-Niger: une frontière entre conflits communautaires, rébellion et djihad,” Le Monde, June 20, 2016.

[43] “Mali: Abuses Spread South: Islamist Armed Groups’ Atrocities, Army Responses Generate Fear,” Human Rights Watch, February 19, 2016.

[44] “Violence in northern Mali causing a human rights crisis,” Amnesty International, February 16, 2012.

[45] “Mali: Abuses Spread South: Islamist Armed Groups’ Atrocities, Army Responses Generate Fear.”

[46] Ibrahim Keita, “Mali: Iyad Ag Ghaly affaibli, abandonné par Amadou Koufa!” MaliActu, January 7, 2017; O. Kouaré, “Mali: Amadou Kouffa; pourquoi il a trahi Iyad Ag Ghaly,” MaliActu, January 20, 2017.

[47] Idrissa Khalou, “Mali: Amadou Kouffa et l’Etat Islamique: ‘Creuse un trou pour ton ennemi, mais pas trop profond, on ne sait jamais,’” MaliActu, January 6, 2017; Boubacar Samba, “Mali: L’Etat Islamique du Macina,” MaliActu, January 7, 2017. 

[48] “Al-Mourabitoune dévoile l’auteur de l’attaque de Gao,” al-Akhbar, January 18, 2017.

[49] “Mali: Al-Mourabitoune diffuse une photo des assaillants du Radisson,” RFI, December 7, 2015.

[50] “Al Qaeda names fighters behind attack on Burkina capital,” BBC, January 18, 2016; Morgane Le Cam, “Un an après l’attentat de Ouagadougou, le point sur l’enquête,” Le Monde, January 16, 2017. See also Andrew Lebovich, “The Hotel Attacks and Militant Realignment in the Sahara-Sahel Region,” CTC Sentinel 9:1 (2016).

[51] Mohamed Abdellaoui and Mohamed Ag Ahmedou, “Les Peuls, un peuple sans frontières qui accentue l’embrouillamini au Sahel,” Anadolu Agency, April 7, 2016.

[52] Alpha Mahamane Cissé, “Attaque d’un camp militaire dans le centre du Mali, revendiquée par un mouvement peul,” Mali Actu/AFP, July 19, 2016; “Mali: un mouvement peul revendique l’attaque contre un camp militaire à Nampala,” Jeune Afrique/AFP, July 19, 2016.

[53] “Mali arrests senior jihadist blamed for military base attack,” AFP, July 27, 2016.

[54] Adam Thiam, “Hama Founé Diallo: Itinéraire d’un rebelle peulh,” Le Républicain, June 27, 2016; Kassoum Thera, “Mali: La plateforme des mouvements d’autodéfense s’enrichit d’une adhésion de taille: Les vérités amères du président de la Haute cour de justice,” Aujourd’hui-Mali, July 2, 2016.

[55] Rémi Carayol, “Mali: Hama Foune Diallo, mercenaire du delta,” Jeune Afrique, July 18, 2016.

[56] Amadou Carara, “Changement à la tête de la CMFPR: Kantao remplace Me Harouna Toureh,” 22 Septembre, January 30, 2014.

[57] Ibrahim Maïga, “Armed Groups in Mali: Beyond the Labels,” West Africa Report 17, Institute for Security Studies, June 2016.

[58] Youssouf Diallo, “Mali: Le président de la CMFPR2, Ibrahima Kantao, justifie son alliance avec le Mnla: ‘Pour la paix, nous sommes prêts à nous allier avec le diable,’” 22 Septembre, December 29, 2014.

Anarchy in Azawad: A Guide to Non-State Armed Groups in Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2017

Achieving peace in northern Mali (known locally as Azawad) is complicated by the proliferation of armed groups in the region, each varying in purpose, ideology and ethnic composition. Personal and clan rivalries make cooperation exceedingly difficult even when political agendas match. MINUSMA peacekeepers and UN diplomats deplore this state of affairs, which prevents the establishment of a successful platform for negotiations, never mind implementing the 2015 Algiers Accords meant to bring peace to the region. [1] As in Darfur, many of the factional “splits” are intended to place the leaders of self-proclaimed armed movements in the queue for post-reconciliation appointments to government posts.

As a way of facilitating talks with a variety of rebel movements and loosely pro-government militias possible, most of the armed groups in northern Mali agreed in 2014 to join one of two coalitions – either the rebel/separatist Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), or the pro-government Platforme coalition. Other armed groups devoted to jihad, such as-Qaeda, al-Murabitun and Ansar al-Din were deliberately excluded from the peace process and are not part of either coalition.

The June 20, 2015 Algiers Accord between the Malian government and the armed groups in the north was pushed through by an international community tired of the endless wrangling between northern Mali’s armed political movements. As a consequence, it is widely regarded in the north as an imposed agreement that does not address the often subtle and deep-rooted grievances that fuel the ongoing conflict. MINUSMA’s deployment, expensive in terms of both money and lives, is seen by the rebels as providing quiet support for Bamako’s efforts to retake the north through proxies such as GATIA, while ignoring the concerns of rebel groups.

Nonetheless, most of the armed groups in northern Mali can be brought together under one of five types: Pro-government militias (the Platforme); pro-independence or pro-federalism groups (the CMA); dissident CMA groups that have left the coalition; Salafi-Jihadist groups; and ethnically-oriented groups. Many of these groups break down further into brigades, or katiba-s.

Below is Jamestown’s guide to the non-state armed groups operating in northern Mail:

  1. The Platforme Coalition

Generally pro-government and/or favoring national unity, the coalition was formed in June 2014.

Coordination des mouvements et fronts patriotiques de résistance – Platforme (CMFPR I)

The Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Fronts and Movements was established on July 21, 2012 as a collection of self-defence movements from the Songhaï and Fulani/Peul communities in the Gao and Mopti regions. [2] The CMFPR split into pro and anti-government factions after leader Harouna Toureh rallied to the government and was dumped in January 2014 as spokesman by the main faction, which remained in the opposition CMA coalition as CMFPR II (22 Septembre [Bamako] January 30, 2014).

Harouna Toureh (Mali Actu)

A Bamako-based lawyer, Toureh is currently defending former 2012 coup leader “General” Amadou Sanogo (Journal du Mali, December 2, 2016).

Groupe d’autodéfense des touareg Imghads et alliés (GATIA)

The Imghad and Allied Touareg Self Defence Movement was established on August 14, 2014. The movement is composed mostly of vassal Imghad Tuareg locked in a struggle with the “noble” Kel Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal. Many of its members are veterans of the Malian and Libyan armies.

Although not a signatory to the Algiers Accord, GATIA is nonetheless the most powerful group in the Platforme coalition despite internal and international criticism that it is nothing more than an ethnic militia.

Fahad Ag Almahoud (Malinet)

GATIA has been involved in constant clashes with CMA forces since its creation and continues to put military pressure on the rebel coalition. Though Fahad Ag Almahoud is secretary general, the movement’s real leader appears to be Brigadier General al-Hajj Ag Gamou, an example of the close ties this group has with the Malian Army.

Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad – Bamako (MAA-B)

The Arab Movement of Azawad – Bamako is a pro-Bamako faction of the MAA, led by Professor Ahmed Sidi Ould Mohamed and largely based in the Gao region with a military base at Inafarak, close to the Algerian border.

Ahmed Sidi Ould Mohamed

The MAA is dominated by members of the Lamhar clan, an Arab group whose recent prosperity and large new homes in Gao are attributed to their prominent role in moving drug shipments through the country’s north. Some are former members of the jihadist MUJAO group. The split in the MAA is interpreted by some as being directly related to a struggle for control of drug-trafficking routes through northern Mali.

The Mouvement pour la défense de la patrie (MDP)

The Movement for National Defense is a Fulani militia led by Hama Founé Diallo, a veteran of Charles Taylor’s forces in the Liberian Civil War and briefly a member of the rebel Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad (MNLA) in 2012.

The MDP joined the peace process in June 2016 by allying itself with the Platforme coalition (Le Républicain [Bamako], June 27, 2016; Aujourd’hui-Mali [Bamako], July 2, 2016).  Diallo says he wants to teach the Fulani to use arms to defend themselves while steering them away from the attraction of jihad (Jeune Afrique, July 18, 2016). Other military leaders include Abdoulaye Houssei, Allaye Diallo, Oumar Diallo and Mamadou Traoré.

Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA)

Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoune (MaliWeb)

The Movement for the Salvation of Azawad was founded by Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, former MNLA spokesman and the chief of the Daoussak Tuareg around Ménaka, along with Colonel Assalat Ag Habi, a Chamanamas Tuareg, also based near Ménaka. The two established the group after a September 2016 split in the MNLA and joined the Platforme on September 17, 2016, after being informed that the new movement could not remain inside the CMA (Journal du Mali, September 22, 2016; RFI, September 11, 2016; Le Canard déchaîné [Bamako], September 21, 2016).

Colonel Assalat Ag Habi (al-Jazeera)

Most members belong to the Daoussak or Chamanamas Tuareg (Le Repère [Bamako], January 3).

Centered on the Ménaka district of Gao region, MSA joined in a pact with the CJA, the CPA and the CMFPR II in October 2016, effectively creating an alternative CMA (L’indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], October 24, 2016).

2) Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA)

The Coordination of Azawad Movementscoalition was launched on June 9, 2014, but has lost several member groups since.

Haut conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA)

The High Council for the Unity of Azawad was formed in May 2013 from a merger of the Haut Conseil de l’Azawad (HCA) and the Mouvement islamique de l’Azawad (MIA). The HCUA is led by Algabass Ag Intallah, who also acts as the head of the CMA.

Another prominent member is Mohamed Ag Intallah, brother of Algabass and chieftain of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal; deputy commander Shaykh Ag Aoussa was killed by a bomb in Kidal shortly after a meeting at a MINUSMA compound on October 9, 2016 (Journal du Mali, October 14, 2016).

The movement absorbed many former members of Ansar al-Din. The HCUA are suspected of remaining close to Ansar al-Din, despite rivalry between Iyad Ag Ghali and the Ag Intallah brothers over the leadership of the Ifoghas Tuareg. Last year, Mohamed, who may be trying to play both sides on issues like national unity or separatism, suggested engaging in “discussions with the Malian jihadists”, saying that, “in return they will help Mali get rid of jihadists from elsewhere” (MaliActu.net, March 13, 2016).

Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad – Dissident (MAA–D)

Sidi Ibrahim Ould Sidati (Journal du Mali)

The Arab Movement of Azawad – Dissident is a breakaway group led by Sidi Ibrahim Ould Sidati. This faction of the MAA consists mainly of Bérabiche Arabs from the Timbuktu region, many of them former soldiers in the Malian army who deserted in 2012. The group rallied to the CMA in June 2014.

Other MAA-D leaders include suspected narco-traffickers Dina Ould Aya (or Daya) and Mohamed Ould Aweynat. The military chief of the dissenting MAA is Colonel Hussein Ould al-Moctar “Goulam,” a defector from the Malian army.

Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA)

The Azawad National Liberation Movement was established in October 2010 as a secular, separatist movement. It played a major role in the 2012 rebellion until it was sidelined by the more powerful Islamist faction led by Ansar al-Din.

Bilal Ag Chérif (MaliNet)

Bilal Ag Chérif acts as the group’s secretary-general, while the military commander is Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim, an Idnan Tuareg and former officer in the Qaddafi-era Libyan army. Sub-sections of the Kel Adagh Tuareg (especially the Idnan and Taghat Mellit) are well represented in the movement.

Muhammad Ag Najim (Bamada.net)

The MNLA has suffered the most in an ongoing “assassination war” between CMA groups and armed Islamist groups. Despite the strong presence of Libyan and Malian Army veterans in its ranks, the MNLA has performed poorly on the battlefield.

3) CMA Dissident Groups

In the last year, a number of CMA groups have left the coalition, mostly because the alliance is perceived as promoting further violence rather than reconciliation. Some have referred to this alignment of dissident groups as “CMA-2.”

Coalition pour le peuple de l’Azawad (CPA)

The Coalition for the People of Azawad is led by Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, the former head of external relations for the MNLA.

Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh (L’Afrique Adulte)

Established in March 2014 by 11 founding groups after a split in the MNLA, the group was initially weakened  due to organizational rivalry between Ag Mohamed Assaleh and secretary general Shaykh Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoun (now MSA leader).

The CPA seeks federalism rather than independence. The movement is largely Tuareg, but claims membership from the Arab, Songhaï and Peul/Fulani communities.

Coordination des mouvements et fronts patriotiques de résistance II (CMFPR-II)

Ibrahim Abba Kantao (Journal du Mali)

The Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Fronts and Movements II is a rebel-aligned faction of the CMFPR led by Ibrahim Abba Kantao, who heads the Ganda Iso movement.

The group rallied to the CMA in June 2014 so as not to be left out of negotiations, with Kantao coming out against the partition of Mali (Malijet.com, July 15, 2014). In December 2014, Kantao took the unusual step of allying his movement to the Tuareg-dominated MNLA, vowing to “ally ourselves with the devil if it is necessary for the peace and salvation of our communities” (22 Septembre, December 29, 2014).  The move shocked many CMFPR II members who view the Tuareg clans as rivals for resources and political authority.

A split occurred in the movement when clan disputes led to the formation of CMFPR III by Mahamane Alassane Maïga, but the circle was completed when Maïga led his movement back into CMFPR I in May 2015 (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], May 20, 2015).

4) Salafi-Jihadist Groups

Alliance nationale pour la sauvegarde de l’identité peule et la restauration de la justice (ANSIPRJ)

 The National Alliance to Safeguard Peul Identity and Restore Justice was formed in June 2016. ANSPIRJ is led by Oumar al-Janah, who describes the group as a self-defense militia that aggressively defends the rights of Fulani/Peul herding communities in Mali, but is neither jihadist nor separatist in its ideology.

ANSPIRJ deputy leader Sidi Bakaye Cissé claims that Mali’s military treats all Fulani as jihadists: “We are far from being extremists, let alone puppets in the hands of armed movements” (Anadolu Agency, April 7, 2016).  In reality, al-Janah’s movement is closely aligned with Ansar al-Din and claimed participation in a coordinated attack with that group on a Malian military base at Nampala on July 19, 2016 that killed 17 soldiers and left the base in flames (Mali Actu/AFP, July 19, 2016; Jeune Afrique/AFP, July 19, 2016).

ANSPIRJ’s Fulani military Amir, Mahmoud Barry (aka Abu Yehiya), was arrested near Nampala on July 27 (AFP, July 27, 2016).

Ansar al-Din

Led by long-time rebel and jihadist Iyad ag Ghali, a leading member of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal and veteran of Muammar Qaddafi’s Islamic Legion. Ag Ghali is a noted military leader and sworn enemy of GATIA leader Brigadier al-Hajj Ag Gamou.

Ansar al-Din, with a mix of Tuareg, Arab and Fulani members, carries out regular attacks on French military installations or bases of the MINUSMA peacekeepers in northern Mali. The French believe Ag Ghali is “an enemy of peace” and remains Operation Barkhane’s number two target after Mokhar Belmokhtar  (RFI, February 20, 2016; MaliActu.net, March 13, 2016).

Ansar al-Din’s weapons specialist, Haroun Sa’id (aka Abu Jamal), an ex-officer of the Malian Army, was killed in a French air raid in April 2014.

Ansar al-Din Sud (aka Katiba Khalid Ibn Walid)

Souleymane Keïta (Mali Actu)

Ansar al-Din Sud is sub-group formerly led by Souleymane Keïta, who was arrested in March 2016 by the Malian Secret Service. The group emerged in June 2015 with operations near the border with Côte d’Ivoire (Sikasso region) followed by further terrorist operations in central Mali.

Front de libération du Macina (FLM)

The Macina Liberation Front (aka Katiba Macina or Ansar al-Din Macina) is a largely Fulani jihadist movement led by Salafi preacher Hamadoun Koufa. Based in the Mopti region (central Mali), the group takes its name from a 19th century Fulani Islamic state. The Islamists have succeeded in recruiting young Fulanis by playing up the traditional Fulani leadership’s inability to defend its people from Tuareg attacks or cattle-rustling.

The movement allied itself with Ansar al-Din in May 2016, but split again earlier this year in the midst of diverging agendas and racial tensions (MaliActu.net, January 7, 2017, January 20, 2017). The FLM claimed responsibility for the July 19, 2016 attack on the Malian military barracks in Nampala that claimed the lives of 17 soldiers and wounded over 30 more (@Rimaah_01, on Twitter, July 19, 2016).

Islamic State – Sahara/Sahel:

The Islamic State (IS) has made steady inroads in northern Mali over the last two years and may benefit from the arrival of IS fighters and commanders fleeing defeat in Libya.

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi

Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, a former al-Murabitun commander, publicly pledged allegiance to IS, together with his commanders, in May 2015, although IS only recognized the transfer of allegiance in October 2016. His defection to IS was publicly denounced by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (who said al-Sahrawi did not have any authority) and deplored by AQIM’s Saharan emir Yahya Abu al-Houmam (aka Djamel Okacha), who suggested ties with al-Sahrawi had not been irrevocably broken but nonetheless rejected the legitimacy of IS’ “so-called Caliphate” (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], January 10, 2016).

Al-Sahrawi’s fighters now form the IS’ Saharan battalion. Recent reports suggest that Hamadoun Koufa of the FLM has been discussing collaboration in the creation of a new Fulani caliphate in the Sahel in what is seen as a betrayal of his sponsor, Ansar al-Din’s Iyad Ag Ghali (MaliActu.net, January 6, 2017; January 7, 2017).

The leader of the Fulani contingent of IS-Sahara is Nampala Ilassou Djibo. Mauritanian Hamada Ould Muhammad al-Kheirou (aka Abu Qum Qum), the former leader of MUJAO, also pledged allegiance to IS in 2015 (El-Khabar [Algiers] via BBC Monitoring, November 13, 2015).

Mouvement pour l’unité et jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO)

The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa includes certain elements that appear to still be operating in Niger after the group’s hold on northern Mali was shattered in 2013 by France’s Operation Serval. Most of the movement joined al-Murabitun in that year, while other members drifted into various ethnic-based militias.

MUJAO’s military commander, Bérabiche Arab Omar Ould Hamaha, was killed by French Special Forces in March 2014. Commander Ahmed al-Tilemsi (aka Abd al-Rahman Ould Amar), a Lamhar Arab and known drug trafficker, was killed by French Special Forces in the Gao region of northern Mali on December 11, 2014.

Al-Murabitun

Al-Murabitun is an AQIM breakaway group that was formed in 2013 through a merger of MUJAO and the Katiba al-Mulathameen (“Veiled Brigade”) of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. [3]

The group claimed responsibility for the January 17 car-bomb attack in Gao that killed 77 members of the Malian Army and CMA groups, which it said was carried out by a Fulani recruit, Abd al-Hadi al-Fulani (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott), January 18).  Fulani and Songhaï may now be found alongside the dominant Arab and Tuareg elements in the group.

Al-Murabitun’s foreign recruits are mostly from Algeria, Niger and Tunisia (RFI, May 14, 2014).

The group rejoined AQIM in December 2015.

Al-Qa’ida fi bilad al-Maghrib al-Islami (AQIM)

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb appears to have been reenergized by the re-absorption of the Mokhtar Belmokhtar-led al-Murabitun splinter group in December 2015. It has since carried out several attacks intended to re-affirm its presence in the Sahel region at a time when the movement’s role as the region’s preeminent Islamist militant group is being challenged by IS.

The emir of the Saharan branch of AQIM is Algerian Yahya Abu al-Houmam (aka Djamel Okacha), a jihadist since 1998. The group operates primarily in the Timbuktu region.

The unification with al-Murabitun was confirmed by AQIM leader Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud (aka Abd al-Malik Droukdel) on December 3, 2015, who announced the Murabitun members would now fight under the banner of the Katiba Murabitun of AQIM (AP, December 7, 2015; al-Khabar [Algiers], December 8 via BBC Monitoring). AQIM has four sub-commands of varying strength:

  • Katiba al-Ansar: Formerly led by Hamada Ag Hama (aka Abd al-Krim al-Targui), an Ifoghas Tuareg and relative of Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali, the brigade operated in Tessalit, in northeast Mali. Ag Hama was killed in a French operation in 2015. [4]
  • Katiba al-Furqan: Based in the Timbuktu region, the brigade has been led by Mauritanian/Libyan Abd al-Rahman Talha al-Libi since September 2013. Al-Libi replaced Mauritanian Mohamed Lemine Ould al-Hassan (aka Abdallah al-Chinguitti), who was killed by French forces in early 2013 (Jeune Afrique, September 27, 2013). Al-Libi accuses France of “seeking to create a tribal conflict after the failure of its intervention in northern Mali” (aBamako.com via BBC Monitoring, December 2, 2015).
  • Katiba Tarik Ibn Zaïd: The unit’s Algerian leader, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaïd (aka Mohamed Ghdiri) was killed by French (or Chadian) forces in February 2013. In September that year, the command was transferred to Algerian Saïd Abu Moughati. [5]
  • Katiba Yusuf ibn Tachfin: Formed in November 2012, this mostly Tuareg group is named for the Berber leader of the North African-Andalusian Almoravid Empire (c.1061-1106) and is led by Abd al-Krim al-Kidali (aka Sidan Ag Hitta), formerly of Katiba al-Ansar. Ag Hitta, a former sergeant-chef and deserter from the Malian National Guard, reportedly defected from AQIM and sought refuge from the MNLA during the battles of February 2013 (Le Figaro, March 3, 2013). He has since resumed jihadist activities but is regarded by many as little more than a bandit chief. The unit operates mostly in the mountainous Adrar Tigharghar region of Kidal.

5) Ethnically Oriented Groups

Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad (CJA)

Hama Ag Mahmoud (MaliJet)

The Congress for Justice in Azawad is made up primarily of Tuareg, but has been weakened by leadership rivalries. It released its acting secretary general, Hama Ag Mahmoud, in December 2016. The group’s chairman is Azarack Ag Inaborchad. [6]

Abd al-Majid Ag Mohamed Ahmad (MaliWeb)

CJA allied with the MSA, the CPA and the CMFPR II in October 2016 (L’indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], October 24, 2016). The group has the support of Kel Antessar Tuareg leader Abd al-Majid Ag Mohamed Ahmad (aka Nasser), who is alleged to have supported the ouster of Ag Mahmoud (L’indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], January 18).

Now based in Mauritania, Ag Mahmoud retains the support of many CJA members who are unhappy with the change in leadership. The CJA operates mainly in the Kel Antessar regions of Timbuktu and Taoudeni.

Forces de libération du Nord du Mali (FLN)

The Liberation Forces of Northern Mali was created in 2012 from elements of the Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso (Fulani/Peul and Songhaï militias). CMFPR II leader Ibrahim Abba Kantao is an official with the group, which opposes the return of the Malian Army to northern Mali (L’Indicateur du renouveau [Bamako], April 21, 2015).

Mouvement populaire pour le salut de l’Azawad (MPSA)

The Popular Movement for the Salvation of Azawad is an Arab movement that is the result of a split in the MAA, with the dissidents who formed the MPSA claiming they wanted to remove themselves from the influence of AQIM (Anadolu Agency, August 31, 2014).

The group seeks self-determination for the north rather than independence but does not appear to be particularly influential.

Mouvement pour la Justice et la Liberté (MJL)

The Movement for Justice and Freedom was formed in September 2016. It is made up of Arab former members of the MAA in the Timbuktu region who announced they would no longer endorse the “unjustified war adventures” of the CMA coalition, in which the MAA was a main component.

The movement’s chairman is Sidi Mohamed Ould Mohamed, who has moved the MJL closer to the Platforme by seeking implementation of the Algiers Accords.

The MJL is centered on the Ber district of Timbuktu region (Le Repère [Bamako], January 3, 2017).

Notes

[1] Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Maul (MINUSMA), the UN’s mission in Mali, is regarded by the CMA as being in league with the Platforme forces, though other sources accuse it of intervening against GATIA, the strongest unit in the Platforme coalition (Le Malien, August 1, 2016).

[2] The militias that banded together in 2012 under the CMFPR umbrella include: Ganda Iso (Sons of the Land), Ganda Koy (Lords of the Land), Alliance des communautés de la région de Tombouctou (ACRT), Front de libération des régions Nord du Mali (FLN), Cercle de réflexion et d’action (CRA) and the Force armée contre l’occupation (FACO). See also: Ibrahim Maïga, “Armed Groups in Mali: Beyond the Labels,” West Africa Report 17, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, (June 2016). Available here.

[3] The Brigade also operated under the name Katiba al-Muaqiun Biddam – “Those Who Signed in Blood Brigade.”

[4] Ministère de la Défense, “Sahel: deux importants chefs terroristes mis hors de combat” (May 20, 2015). Available here.

[5] Alain Rodier, “Note d’actualité N°365:  Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique à la Croisée des Chemins?” Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, Paris, (August 17, 2014). Available here.

[6] Communiqué du Congres pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, Communiqué 005/CJA-BE/14-2017, (January 16). Available here.

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali

Andrew McGregor

January 19, 2017

Advocating loyalty to the regime may seem a rather uncontroversial and unprovocative stance in most instances. However, one influential Saudi shaykh, Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali, has taken this position to such extremes that many of his fellow Salafists regard him as a radical dangerously out of touch with the practice of the Salafist manhaj (method). Though his importance has declined in his homeland, his message of eternal loyalty to the ruler has gained him the support of individuals and certain governments throughout the Islamic world and beyond. In Libya, especially, we may be witnessing the militarization of a movement once best known for its quietist approach to politics.

Early Years and Education

The future preacher was born in the village of Jaradiya in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Jazan region in 1931. His birth made him a member of the Mudakhala tribe, part of the larger Banu Shabil confederation. The boy’s father died before Rabi’ was two and a paternal uncle gave the boy guidance. From the age of eight, al-Madkhali studied Islam locally before attending the newly-opened Islamic University of Madina in 1960. Graduating in 1964, al-Madkhali then pursued a Master’s degree in hadith studies (1977), followed by a doctorate at the University of Umm al-Qurra in Mecca (1980) that allowed him to take up a full professorship at the Islamic University of Madina. [1]

The Birth of Madkhalism

Al-Madkhali’s strong opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in 1984 at a time when Egypt’s Brothers were beginning to engage in parliamentary politics by running candidates under the banner of the centrist and secular New Wafd Party (the experiment was largely rejected by the voters and was not repeated). Initially, al-Madkhali was also reluctant to embrace the Saudi rulers, but by the early 1990s he became a firm exponent of the Islamic legitimacy of the Wali al-Amr (“Guardian,” or “One vested with authority,” i.e. the ruler). In practice this meant he and his followers were stepping back from political engagement in favor of improving Islamic observance amongst the people.

Madkhalism as it has evolved calls for unquestioning loyalty to governments, even those that use extreme and unjustified violence against their subjects so long as they do not commit clear acts of infidelity. This extreme position separates the group from other Salafist movements who draw line at unjustified violence inflicted upon Muslims. However, like most Salafist movements, Madkhalism rejects participation in multi-party democracy on the grounds that it inspires loyalty to individuals and organizations rather than to God.

The Saudi royal family took notice, and in the years following the First Gulf War, al-Madkhali’s doctrine brought him financial support from the Saudi government, which wished to use his movement to weaken the growing Sahwa movement (opposed to the American military presence in the Kingdom, which al-Madkhali defended) and to discredit the emerging Salafi-Jihadist movement. [2]

Al-Madkhali was among half a dozen religious scholars who were asked to supply fatwa-s in support of the Muslim Jihad in eastern Indonesia’s Maluku Province (1999-2002). The scholar ruled that the jihad was individually obligatory for Muslims as they were allegedly under attack by Christians. [3]

Al-Madkhali’s movement takes an aggressive ideological stance towards other interpretations of Salafism. Al-Madkhali’s following has been described as similar to a cult in its demands for members to offer unquestioning obedience to its clerics. Similar to certain religious cults, al-Madkhali’s followers spend a disproportionate amount of time refuting criticisms of their leader or his more controversial works, usually by deploying a broad collection of positive remarks or reviews from members of the Saudi religious establishment as evidence of his legitimacy. [4]

Shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani

Most of the scholar’s 30+ books concern hadith studies and have been received favorably by much of Saudi Arabia’s Salafist establishment, including hadith specialist Shaykh Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani. [5] Al-Madkhali studied under al-Albani in the 1980s but in recent years the latter has displayed a preference for Salafi scholars more radical than al-Madkhali. [6] Other leading members of the Saudi religious establishment have backed away from support of the preacher in recent years, contributing to the decline of the movement within the Kingdom.

The Spread of Madkhalism

Even as Madkhalism declined in influence in Saudi Arabia, the movement began to spread to Europe (particularly the Netherlands), Southeast Asia, Kuwait, Kazakhstan. Libya and Egypt (where the government promotes it as a Salafist alternative to Salafi-Jihadism). In Europe, the Madkhalists have little interaction with their host communities, preferring to avoid the temptations of Western life or attempts to convert European Christians. Followers are closely monitored for ideological conformity and are encouraged to read only pre-approved texts. Ideological competitors are likewise watched so that any refutation of Madkhalism on theological grounds can be quickly addressed by the scholar’s followers. Members of the movement typically refer to their Muslim opponents as Kharajites (Arabic: khawarij, “outsiders,” a seventh century Islamic movement that opposed the manner of succession in the early Caliphate and were known for their habit of declaring their opponents apostates to Islam, the practice of takfir).

Al-Madkhali has a habit of referring to Salafi-Jihadists solely as “Qutbists” to deny their legitimacy as Salafists. The term refers to the late Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid al-Qutb, who was executed in 1966 for plotting the assassination of General Gamal Abd al-Nasser and the Islamist overthrow of the Egyptian government. Al-Madkhali has repeatedly targeted Qutbist ideology in sermons and books such as Spreading the Light on the Creed and Ideology of Sayyid Qutb, The Abuses of Sayyid Qutb against the Companions of the Messenger of Allah and Protection from the Dangers that are found in the Books of Sayyid Qutb. [7] Unsurprisingly, the jihadists regard the preacher as an enemy. Al-Madkhali has been attacked repeatedly by Abu Qatada al-Filistini, an important al-Qaeda leader now resident in Jordan. Abu Qatada accuses the “so-called Salafi” of spying on jihadis for the Saudi government. [8]

To promote his message, al-Madkhali maintains a website that deals with a range of Islamic issues, ranging from tricky theological debates to rulings on whether it is permissible to take one’s maid on pilgrimage. [9] He and his followers are also active in social media. [10]

The Salafi community in Kuwait began to split in the 1980s when Salafists belonging to Jamaiat Ihya al-Turath al-Islami (Revival of Islamic Heritage Society – RIHS, a Kuwaiti Salafi umbrella group) began to participate in the political process. Madkhalism, with its strict opposition to political participation, offered an acceptable ideology for these Salafists and has grown in popularity. [11] Madkhalism is one of several Salafist sects to take root in western Kazakhstan in recent years, though wary authorities tend to lump it together with more radical Salafist groups. [12]

Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Raslan

In Egypt, al-Madkhali’s most prominent follower is Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Raslan, a well-known former Muslim Brother who is now an opponent of the Brotherhood and party politics in general. Armed with a Ph.D. in hadith studies and strongly influenced by the controversial teachings of mediaeval preacher Ibn Taymiya (a staple for non-political Salafists and Salafi-Jihadists alike), Raslan  has devoted himself, like al-Madkhali, to refuting the works of Sayyid Qutb. Raslan advocates political quietism within Egypt, though he may be taking a more aggressive approach in neighboring Libya (as seen below).

The Shaykh’s opponents are many however, and typically describe Madkhalism as “mental illness,” “fake Salafism” or bid’ah (innovation in religion, a serious transgression in Salafist Islam). [13] Detractors claim that submissiveness to the Wali al-Amr as prescribed by the Madkhalists produces passivity, submission to injustice and indifference to the suffering of fellow Muslims.

The Madkhalists in Libya

One common practice in man’s attempts to manipulate nature is to introduce a non-native species to control the proliferation of a native species or an undesirable intrusive species. In this spirit, the Madkhali movement was invited to Libya in the 1990s by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to offset the Salafi-Jihadism of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya al-Muqatila bi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – LIFG), which was threatening to overthrow Qaddafi’s regime at the time. [14] However, just as introduced species may proliferate and become an even greater problem than the one they were intended to solve, Madkhalism has taken root in Libya and has even infiltrated government-allied security services years after the disappearance of the LIFG as a coherent group.

During the 2011 revolution, al-Madkhali called on his Libyan followers to remain home, declaring participation to be fitnah, creating sedition against a lawful ruler (amongst other connotations that include falling into sin and hypocrisy). [15] The charge had an especially loaded meaning, having been used to describe the bitter civil wars that tore apart the early Muslim community in the 7th to 9th centuries C.E. The Madkhalis also opposed the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria on the usual grounds and disparaged those Salafists who supported it. [16]

Destruction of a Sufi Shrine in Zlitan

In 2012 Rabi’s brother Muhammad (a professor at the Islamic University of Madinah) led the demolition of Sufi shrines in Libya. Sufism is despised by Salafists on the grounds that it promotes the idea of an intermediary (or “saint,” usually a deceased Sufi leader known for exceptional piety and knowledge) who intercedes between man and God. On August 24, 2012 Muhammad directed the demolition of a Sufi shrine in Zlitan (Murqub district on the Mediterranean, west of Misrata) using bulldozers, jackhammers and explosives.  The Madkhalists went on to destroy the neighboring mosque and a library containing 700-year-old documents (France24.com, August 29, 2012). The demolition of the tomb of Abd al-Salam al-Asmar, a 15th-century Muslim scholar, followed by the demolition of the historic Sha’ab mosque in Tripoli while security forces looked on led to the resignation of the Interior Minister (al-Jazeera, August 26. 2016). [17]

In February 2015, al-Madkhali issued a fatwa issued forbidding participation in the battle between the largely Islamist and Tripolitanian Dawn coalition and the largely secular and Cyrenaïcan Operation Dignity forces led by General (now Field Marshal) Khalifa Haftar. [18] This was in keeping with Madkhalist principles, but in July 2016, al-Madkhali issued another fatwa urging all Libyan Salafists to join Haftar’s forces in fighting against the Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) led by Misrata’s Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi and loyal to Libyan Chief Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani. [19] The fatwa’s justification was that the BDB’s real objective was not to relieve Islamist fighters besieged in Benghazi, but to destroy Benghazi’s Salafist community.   Perhaps influenced by the presence of Ismail al-Salabi (brother of prominent Libyan Muslim Brotherhood member Ali Muhammad al-Salabi) among the BDB commanders, al-Madkhali insisted the group was simply another manifestation of the Muslim Brothers, whom he described as more dangerous than Christians and Jews (Libya Observer, July 14, 2016). [20] In the process al-Madkhali ignited a feud with al-Ghariani, who accuses the Madkhalists of acting as spies and assassins for unnamed Gulf nations (Digital Journal, November 24, 2016).

Madkahli’s Libyan supporters use an estimated 30 FM radio stations to make their opposition known to al-Ghariani and the militias loyal to him (Digital Journal, November 24, 2016). In July 2016, the Shura Council of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood denounced al-Madkhali’s attacks on the Grand Mufti (who they generally support) and called for Libya’s government to stop the Saudi government’s “blatant interference” in Libyan affairs (Ikhwanweb.com, July 19, 2016).

The adherence of Madkhalists in eastern Libya to Haftar’s camp since 2014 has created suspicion amongst those Libyans who view the Field Marshal as an ambitious interloper at best or an American intelligence asset at worst. Most of the armed Madkhalists supporting Haftar initially did so as part of the Salafist Tawhid Brigade commanded by the late Izz al-Din al-Tarhuni. After al-Tarhuni’s death in February 2015, the Tawhid Brigade broke up and its members joined various other units of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). [21] Madkhalists also joined in the successful offensive by the al-Bunyan al-Marsous coalition against Islamic State terrorists in Sirte, where their message may find some support after years of fighting have nearly destroyed the city, a former Qaddafi-era showpiece.

The Omrani Affair

Among those militias in which Madkhalist influence is strongest is the RADA Special Deterrence Force. RADA is a Tripoli-based militia that maintains security and operates smaller units elsewhere in Libya. Islamist in nature and led by Abd al-Rauf Kara, the unit is an independent formation under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior. Working out of a base at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, the unit mounts operations against terrorists, criminal gangs, drug traffickers, kidnapping rings and arms smugglers, maintaining its own private prison at Mitiga. RADA opposes al-Ghariani’s influence and, following the principle of Wali al-Amr, is a strong backer of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council, the latest attempt to impose a united administration on fractured Libya.

Abd al-Rauf Kara

In November 2016, an individual named Haitham al-Zintani confessed to being the assassin of Shaykh Nadir al-Omrani, a member of al-Ghariani’s Dar al-Ifta Islamic Research and Studies Council who was kidnapped in Tripoli on October 6, 2016 (the shaykh’s body has not been found, but he is presumed dead on the basis of the confession).

According to the suspect, the kidnapping was carried out by a RADA sub-group called the Crime Fighting Apparatus (CFA), a Tripoli-based unit strongly tied to Madkhalism: “We wanted to kill the shaykh because he presented an ideology different from Salafi scholars and clerics, especially that of Rabi’ al-Madkhali” (Libya Observer, November 21, 2016). Al-Omrani was also known to have been critical of specific fatwa-s issued by al-Madkhali. The murder was allegedly carried out by the CFA leader Abd al-Hakim Emgaidish and the CFA mufti Ahmad al-Safi on the order of leading Egyptian Madkhalist Muhammad Sa’id Raslan. Al-Zintani added that RADA holds regular meetings to plot the death of clerics they consider tied to the Muslim Brotherhood or other radical Islamist groups (Libya Herald, November 21, 2016; Libya Observer, November 21, 2016). RADA disclaimed any responsibility for the alleged assassin in a November 21, 2016 statement: “The force condemns strongly this crime but also condemns suggestions that it was involved in it” (Libya Observer, November 21, 2016).

Amidst popular outrage over the (presumed) murder, al-Ghariani took to Dar al-Ifta’s Tanasuh TV to denounce Saudi interference in Libya: “We want the Saudi Madkhali ideology to take its hands off the Libyan crisis, we know that the Salafis and Madkhalis here in Libya are the ones who killed Al-Omrani because he is moderate in Islam and they are radicals… These people [i.e. RADA] are receiving instructions from some Arab Gulf states to kill Libyan clerics” (Libyan Express, November 26, 2016; Libya Herald, November 23, 2016). Tripoli’s Awqaf and Islamic Affairs Authority banned 15 Madkhalist imams from preaching in Tripoli mosques as well as banning works by al-Madkhali, Raslan and their followers (Libya Herald, November 23, 2016; Libya Observer, November 24, 2016).

Conclusion

The fact that al-Madkhali’s fatwa-s on Libyan affairs have been contradictory has not added to his credibility in Libya. The question is why al-Madkhali should be issuing contradictory rulings; is the Madkhalist ideology in a state of flux? Or do these fluctuations represent, as some have suggested, fluctuations in Saudi foreign policy? [22] In Saudi Arabia’s religiously backed monarchy, the line between supporting the system and being an agent of the system is often blurred.

The declining importance of the doctrine of Wali al-Amr in 21st century Islam is partly due to growing international radicalization that ironically owes much to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to promote and finance the worldwide expansion of Salafism. While the secular and reformist wave of Arab Spring protest movements has been largely driven back by more traditional sources of authority (monarchies, militaries and political/economic elites), public distrust of such sources of authority remains high in the Islamic world. The politically quietist approach of Madkhalism is in danger of losing relevance under these conditions, though we may be witnessing a shift in the movement’s doctrinal approach in Libya intended to further embed Madkhali influence. Al-Madkhali’s regular (if inconsistent) proclamations on Libyan affairs may suggest the radically loyal scholar may be eying the nation as a future base of operations and expansion into the Maghreb.

Notes

  1. “Biographie de Cheikh Rabi’ Ibn Hadi Al Madkhali,” Rabee.net, August 1, 2012, http://www.3ilmchar3i.net/article-biographie-de-cheikh-rabi-ibn-hadi-al-madkhali-110174180.html
  2. Jarret M. Bachman and William F. McCants, “Stealing Al-Qa’ida’s Playbook,” CTC Report, February 2006, pp.13-14, https://www.ctc.usma.edu//wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Stealing-Al-Qaidas-Playbook.pdf
  3. Sumanto al-Qurtuby: Religious Violence and Conciliation in Indonesia: Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas, London, 2016, p.66; Muhammad Najib Azza, “Communal Violence in Indonesia and the Role of Foreign and Domestic Networks,“ In Arnaud De Borchgrave, Thomas M. Sanderson and David Gordon (eds.) Conflict, Community, and Criminality in Southeast Asia and Australia, Washington D.C., 2009, p.25.
  4. Rabi’ al-Madkhali’s followers are often referred to as “Madkhalis” or the “Madkhaliya,”though they reject this usage much as other Saudi Salafists reject the terms “Wahhabi” or “Wahhabism” as they imply devotion to a man rather than God (in the latter case, the 18th century Najdi reformer Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab).
  5. A hadith (Arabic – “report”) is a report of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings or actions as transmitted through reliable religious authorities.
  6. Roel Meijer, “Politicizing al-jarh wa-l-ta’di: Rabi b. Hadi al-Madkhali and the Transnational Battle for Religious Authority,” In Nicolet Boekhoff van der Voort, Kees Versteegh and Joas Wagemakers: The Transmission and Dynamics of the Textual Sources of Islam: Essays in Honour of Harald Motzki, Leiden, 2011, pp.380-81; Jarret M. Brachman, Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice, London, 2008, p.29.
  7. “Biographie de Cheikh Rabi’ Ibn Hadi Al Madkhali,” op cit.
  8. Abu Qatada, Bayn al-manhajayn (Between Two Methods),” articles 8 and 9, al-Nur, Denmark, 1994.
  9. http://www.rabee.net/ar/.
  10. An example of the type of type of hagiographical material produced by al-Madkhali’s followers can be found in Abu Khadeejah Abdul-Walid, “Is Shaikh Rabee’ Ibn Haadee a great scholar of this era?” http://www.abukhadeejah.com/is-shaikh-rabee-ibn-haadee-a-great-scholar-of-this-era/
  11. Zoltan Pall, “Kuwaiti Salafism and its Growing Influence in the Levant,” Carnegie Endowment Paper, May 7, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/05/07/kuwaiti-salafism-and-its-growing-influence-in-levant-pub-55514
  12. Almaz Rysaliev, “West Kazakhstan under Growing Islamic Influence,” IWPR Reporting Central Asia no.653, July 21, 2011, https://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/54/5427694_reporting-central-asia-no-653-.html
  13. See for example: “Madkhalism (Madkhiliyyah) – A mental illness,” Islam is Sunnah, October 28, 2014, https://islamissunnah.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/madkhalism-madkhliyyah-a-mental-illness/, or Abu Hafs ash-Shamee, “Deviations of the Madakhilah!!!,” The Ghurabah, October 18, 2013, http://theghurabah.blogspot.ca/2013/10/who-are-madkhalis.html .
  14. Frederic Wehrey, “The Authoritarian Resurgence: Saudi Arabia’s Anxious Autocrats,” Journal of Democracy, April 15, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/15/authoritarian-resurgence-saudi-arabia-s-anxious-autocrats-pub-59790
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sriMveeY9vA
  16. Zoltan Pall, op cit.
  17. Rabi’ al-Madkhali’s views on Sufism are available in: Shaykh Muhammad Ibn Rabee’ Ibn Haadee Al-Madkhalee, The Reality of Sufism in Light of the Qur’aan and Sunnah, 1404 H. http://www.slideshare.net/Truths33k3r/the-reality-of-sufism-by-shaykh-rabi-bin-hadi-al-madkhali
  18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOyYSJnLuaA
  19. The YouTube video announcing this fatwa is no longer available.
  20. For a profile of al-Ghariani, see Andrew McGregor, “Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani: A Profile of Libya’s Grand Mufti,” Militant Leadership Monitor, December 2014.
  21. Frederic Wehrey, “’Madkhali’ Salafists in Libya are active in the battle against the Islamic State, and in factional conflicts,” Carnegie Middle East Center, October 13, 2016, http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/64846
  22. For the Saudi possibility, see Frederic Wehrey, ibid.

This article first appeared in the January 19, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor. 

Why are Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts Failing in the Sinai Peninsula?

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2016

In October 2011, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi declared “the military situation in Sinai is 100 percent secure” (Daily News Egypt, October 6, 2011). Four years later, Army spokesman Brigadier General Muhammad Samir assured Egyptians that the North Sinai was “100 percent under control” (al-Jazeera, July 2, 2015). Even Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a former jihadist and principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group) declared as recently as last August that for Sinai’s branch of the Islamic State: “This is the beginning of the end for this organization…  It cannot undertake big operations, such as the bombing of government buildings, like the bombing of the military intelligence building previously … or massacre, or conduct operations outside Sinai. Instead, it has resorted to car bombs or suicide bombings, which are mostly handled well [by Egyptian security forces]” (Ahram Online, August 11; August 15).sinai-ea-map

Since then, Islamic State militants have carried out highly organized large-scale attacks on checkpoints in al-Arish, killing 12 conscripts on October 12 and another 12 soldiers on November 24. Together with a steady stream of almost daily IED attacks, mortar attacks and assassinations, it is clear that militancy in North Sinai is far from finished.

Since 2004 there have been a series of jihadist groups operating in the Sinai. The latest face of militancy in the region is the Wilayet Sayna (WS – “Sinai Province”), a name adopted by the Sinai’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM – Supporters of Jerusalem) following its declaration of allegiance to the IS militant group in November 2014. The secretive WS has been estimated to include anywhere from several hundred to two thousand fighters. Despite operating for the most part in a small territory under 400 square miles in with a population of roughly 430,000 people, a series of offensives since 2013 by the Arab world’s most powerful army in North Sinai have produced not victory, but rather a war of attrition. The question therefore is what exceptional circumstances exist in the North Sinai that prevent Egypt’s security forces from ending a small but troubling insurgency that receives little outside support.

As in northern Mali in 2012, the conflict in Sinai has merged a localized ethnic insurgency with externally-inspired Salafi-Jihadism. The conflict persists despite the wide latitude granted by Israel in terms of violating the 1979 Camp David Accords’ restrictions on arms and troops deployed by Egypt in the Sinai. Unsettled by the cross-border activities of Gazan and Sinai terrorists, Israel has basically granted Cairo a free hand in military deployments there since July 2015.

At the core of the insurgency is Sinai’s Bedouin population, culturally and geographically separate from the Egyptian “mainland.” Traditionally, the Bedouin of the Sinai had closer relations with Gaza and Palestine to the northeast than the Egyptian nation to their west, though Egypt’s interest in the Sinai and its resources dates to the earliest dynasties of Ancient Egypt. The Israeli occupation of the region in 1967-1979 left many Egyptians suspicious of pro-Israeli sympathies amongst the Bedouin (generally without cause) and led to a ban on their recruitment by Egypt’s military or security services.

According to Egyptian MP Tamer al-Shahawy (a former major-general and military intelligence chief), social changes began in the Sinai after the 1973 war with Israel: “After the war a major rift in ‎tribal culture occurred — on one hand was the pull of the Sufi trend, on the other the pull of ‎money from illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking and arms dealing… For a number of reasons the government was forced to prioritize a security over a socio-‎economic political response.”‎ (Ahram Online, August 15).

Lack of development, land ownership issues and Cairo’s general disinterest in the region for anything other than strategic purposes erupted in the terrorist bombings of Red Sea tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006. The deaths of at least 145 people led to a wave of mass arrests, torture and lengthy detentions that embittered the Bedouin and further defined the differences between “Egyptians” and the inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. With the local economy struggling due to neglect and insecurity, many young men turned to smuggling, a traditional occupation in the region. Like northern Mali, however, smuggling has proven a gateway to militancy.

In recent decades, Islamist ideology has been brought to the Sinai by “mainland” teachers and by students returning from studies in the Nile Valley. Inattention from government-approved religious bodies like al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments left North Sinai’s mosques open to radical preachers denouncing the region’s traditional Sufi orders. Their calls for an aggressive and Islamic response to what was viewed as Cairo’s “oppression” and the support available from Islamist militants in neighboring Gaza led to a gradual convergence of “Bedouin issues” and Salafi-Jihadism. Support for groups like ABM and WS is far from universal amongst the tribes and armed clashes are frequent, but the widespread distaste for Egypt’s security forces and a campaign of brutal intimidation against those inclined to work with them have prevented Cairo from exploiting local differences in its favor. The army claims it could “instantaneously purge” Sinai of militants but has not done so out of concern for the safety of residents (Ahram Online, March 21).

Egypt’s Military Operations in the Sinai

Beginning with Operation Eagle’s deployment of two brigades of Sa’iqa (“Thunderbolt) Special Forces personnel in August 2011, Cairo has initiated a series of military operations designed to secure North Sinai, eradicate the insurgents in the Rafah, al-Arish and Shaykh al-Zuwayad districts of North Sinai, eliminate cross-border smuggling with Gaza and protect the Suez Canal. While meeting success in the latter two objectives, the use of fighter jets, artillery, armor, attack helicopters and elite troop formations have failed to terminate an insurgency that has intensified rather than diminished.

sinai-ea-al-saiqaAl-Sa’iqa (Special Forces) in Rafah

The ongoing Operation Martyr’s Right, launched in September 2015, is the largest military operation yet, involving Special Forces units, elements of the second and third field armies and police units with the aim of targeting terrorists and outlaws in central and northern Sinai to “pave the road for creating suitable conditions to start development projects in Sinai.” (Ahram Online, November 5, 2016). Each phase of Martyr’s Right and earlier operations in the region have resulted in government claims of hundreds of dead militants and scores of “hideouts,” houses, cars and motorcycles destroyed, all apparently with little more than temporary effect.

Military-Tribal Relations

Security forces have failed to connect with an alienated local population in North Sinai. Arbitrary mass arrests and imprisonments have degraded the relationship between tribal groups and state security services. Home demolitions, public utility cuts, travel restrictions, indiscriminate shelling, the destruction of farms and forced evacuations for security reasons have only reinforced the perception of the Egyptian Army as an occupying power.  Security services are unable to recruit from local Bedouin, while ABM and WS freely recruit military specialists from the Egyptian “mainland.” It was a Sa’aiqa veteran expelled from the army in 2007, Hisham al-Ashmawy, who provided highly useful training in weapons and tactics to ABM after he joined the movement in 2012 (Reuters, October 18, 2015). Others have followed.

The role of local shaykhs as interlocutors with tribal groups has been steeply devalued by the central role now played by state security services in appointing tribal leaders. In 2012, a shaykh of the powerful Sawarka tribe was shot and killed when it became widely believed he was identifying jihadists to state security services (Egypt Independent, June 11, 2012)

The use of collective punishment encourages retaliation, dissuades the local population from cooperation with security forces and diminishes the reputation of moderate tribal leaders who are seen as unable to wield influence with the government. Egypt’s prime minister, Sherif Ismail, has blamed terrorism in North Sinai on the familiar “external and internal forces,” but also noted that under Egypt’s new constitution, the president could not use counter-terrorism measures as “an excuse for violating public freedoms” (Ahram Online, May 10).

Operational Weaknesses

The government’s media blackout of the Sinai makes it difficult to verify information or properly evaluate operations.  Restrictions on coverage effectively prevent public discussion of the issues behind the insurgency, reducing opportunities for reconciliation. Nonetheless, a number of weaknesses in Cairo’s military approach are apparent:

  • Operations are generally reactive rather than proactive
  • A military culture exists that discourages initiative in junior officers. This is coupled with an unwillingness in senior staff to admit failure and change tactics compared to the tactical flexibility of insurgents, who are ready to revise their procedures whenever necessary
  • An over-reliance on airpower to provide high fatality rates readily reported in the state-owned media to give the impression of battlefield success. The suppression of media reporting on military operations in Sinai turns Egyptians to the militants’ social media to obtain news and information
  • The widespread use of poorly-trained conscripts. Most of the active fighting is done by Special Forces units who reportedly inflict serious losses in their actions against WS. As a result, WS focuses on what might be termed “softer” military targets for their own attacks; checkpoints manned by conscripts and conscript transports on local roads. There are reports of poorly paid conscripts leaking information to Sinai-based terrorists for money (Ahram Online, October 21).
  • A failure to prevent radicalization by separating detained Sinai smugglers or militants with local motivations from radical jihadists in Egyptian prisons
  • An inability to stop arms flows to the region. Though effective naval patrols and the new 5 km buffer zone with Gaza have discouraged arms trafficking from the north, arms continue to reach the insurgents from the Sharqiya, Ismailiya and Beni Suef governorates

Islamist Tactics in Sinai

The Islamist insurgents have several advantages, including intimate knowledge of the local terrain and a demonstrated ability to rejuvenate their numbers and leadership. Possession of small arms is also extremely common in Sinai despite disarmament efforts by the state. The WS armory includes Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, RPGs and mortars. Many weapons have been captured from Egyptian forces operating in the Sinai.

According to WS’ own “Harvest of Military Operations” reports, IEDs are used in about 60% of WS attacks, guerrilla-style attacks account for some 20%, while the remainder is roughly split between sniper attacks and close-quarter assassinations. Since 2013, over 90% of the targets have been military or police personnel as well as suspected informants (al-Jazeera, May 1). In 2016, IED attacks have numbered roughly one per day. The bombs are commonly disguised as rocks or bags of garbage.

sinai-ea-checkpointEgyptian Army Checkpoint, al-Arish

Well-organized assaults on security checkpoints display a sophistication that has worried military leaders. Checkpoint attacks since October 2014 often involve the preliminary use of suicide bomb trucks to smash the way through fixed defenses, followed by assaults by gunmen, often in 4×4 vehicles which have been banned in military operational zones since July 2015. Car bombs and mortars have been used to launch as many as 15 simultaneous attacks, demonstrating advanced skills in operational planning. Snipers are frequently used to keep security forces on edge and the ambush or hijacking of vehicles on the road complicates the movement of security personnel.

Military intelligence has not been able to overcome WS security measures. WS is notoriously difficult to infiltrate – recruits are closely vetted and often assume new identities. Trackable communications devices are discouraged and the group’s cell structure makes it difficult to obtain a broader picture of its organization and membership. At times it is not even clear who the group’s leader is. Sinai Bedouin chiefs have complained that when they do give warnings to the military of militant activity, their warnings are ignored (Egypt Independent, August 7, 2012)

There is intense intimidation of residents not sympathetic to WS and its aims. The group has even warned ambulance drivers not to transport wounded security personnel to hospitals (Shorouk News, December 21, 2015). Suspected informants are shot, though the WS tries to remain on good terms with locals by providing financial aid and social assistance. Sympathetic residents are able to provide a steady flow of intelligence on Egyptian troop movements and patterns.

sinai-ea-brigadier-mahmoudBrigadier General Hisham Mahmoud (Daily News Egypt)

WS focuses on state institutions as targets and rarely carries out the type of mass-casualty terrorist attacks on civilians common to other theaters of jihad. However, public, security and religious figures are all subject to assassination. In November, WS beheaded a respected 100-year-old Sufi shaykh of the Sawarka tribe for “practicing witchcraft” (Ahram Online, November 21). Even senior officers are targeted; in November Air Force Brigadier General Hisham Mahmoud was killed in al-Arish; a month earlier Brigadier Adel Rajaei (commander of the 9th Armored Division and a veteran of North Sinai) was killed in Cairo. Both men were shot in front of their own homes (Ahram Online, November 4). In July, a Coptic priest in al-Arish was murdered by Islamic State militants for “fighting Islam” (Ahram Online, July 1). Religious sites inconsistent with Salafist beliefs and values are also targeted for destruction. The shrine of Shaykh Zuwayad, who came to Egypt with the conquering Muslim army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 640 C.E., has been attacked multiple times in the city that bears his name.

When Egyptian military pressure becomes too intense, insurgents are able to take refuge in Jabal Halal, a mountainous cave-riddled region south of al-Arish that acts as a main insurgent stronghold and hideout for fugitives. The area is home to many old Israeli minefields that discourage ground operations, though Egypt’s Air Force claims to have killed scores of militants there in airstrikes (Egypt Independent, August 20, 2012).

Conclusion

Egypt’s large scale counter-insurgency operations have been disappointing for Cairo. Such operations do not have the general support of the local population and are regarded by many as suppression by outsiders. The army and police are not regarded as guarantors of security, but as the violent extension of state policies that discriminate against communities in the North Sinai. So long as these conditions remain unchanged, Egypt’s security forces will remain unable to deny safe havens or financial support to militant groups.  Air-strikes on settled areas, with their inevitable indiscriminate and collateral damage, are especially unsuited for rallying government support.

Excluding the Bedouin from Interior Ministry forces foregoes immediate benefits in intelligence terms, leaving security forces without detailed knowledge of the terrain, groups, tribes and individuals necessary to successful counter-terrorism and counter-smuggling operations. However, simply opening up recruitment is not enough to guarantee interest from young Bedouin men; in the current environment they would risk ostracization at best or assassination at worst. With few economic options, smuggling (and consequent association with arms dealers and drug traffickers) remains the preferred alternative for many.

Seeking perhaps to tap into the Russian experience in Syria, Egypt conducted a joint counter-insurgency exercise near al-Alamein on the Mediterranean coast in October. The exercise focused on the use of paratroopers against insurgents in a desert setting (Ahram Online, October 12, 2016). Russia is currently pursuing an agreement that would permit Russian use of military bases across Egypt 10 October 2016 (Middle East Eye, October 10; PressTV [Tehran], October 10). If Cairo is determined to pursue a military solution to the Islamist insurgency in Sinai, it may decide more material military assistance and guidance from Russia will be part of the price.

A greater commitment to development is commonly cited as a long-term solution to Bedouin unrest, though its impact would be smaller on ideologically and religiously motivated groups such as WS. Development efforts are under way; last year President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi committed £E10 billion (US$ 560 million) to new industrial, agricultural, transport and housing projects (al-Masry al-Youm, March 8). Unfortunately, many of these projects are in the Canal Zone region and will have little impact on the economy of North Sinai. More will be needed, but with Egypt currently experiencing currency devaluation, inflation, food shortages and shrinking foreign currency reserves, the central government will have difficulty in implementing a development-based solution in Sinai.

This article first appeared in the December 15 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

The Fox of Kidal: A Profile of Mali’s Tuareg General, al-Hajj ag Gamou

Andrew McGregor

November 30, 2016

In Mali he is known as “Le Renard de Kidal,” the fox of Mali’s north-eastern Kidal region, the desert home of some of Mali’s most committed rebels.  The “Fox” however is General al-Hajj ag Gamou, loyal to the Bamako government and the first and only Tuareg member of Mali’s general staff.

al-hajj-al-hajjGeneral al-Hajj ag Gamou (Bamada.net)

With over three-and-a-half decades of active military life behind him, ag Gamou enjoys intense loyalty from the men in his command, many of whom have been with him for years. As one NCO put it: “Gamou, he eats with us, he fights with us. Despite his rank, he remains simple. This is a good warrior. One wants to be like him” (Bamada.net, June 27, 2013).

Now, as both an officer in the Malian Army and the leader of a powerful and personally dedicated desert-based militia, ag Gamou finds himself at the center of a social upheaval in the Tuareg world that has become inextricably tangled with the still-simmering rebellion of Arab and Tuareg separatists in Mali’s Kidal region.

From Shepherd to Soldier

Born in 1964 in Tidermène (Ménaka district), al-Hajj ag Gamou worked with his father herding goats rather than attend school. Like his father, ag Gamou is a member of the Imghad, a Tuareg group who act as hereditary vassals to the smaller but “noble” Ifoghas group in northern Mali’s traditional Tuareg hierarchy. [1]

As a 16-year-old, ag Gamou left drought-ridden Mali to join Libya’s Islamic Legion, a largely unsuccessful 1972-1987 attempt by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to create a multinational elite Arab fighting force to further his pan-Arabist policies. Relying on unsound historical and linguistic contortions designed to prove the Berber Tuareg were actually Arabs, Qaddafi recruited heavily from Tuareg communities in the Sahel. [2] Poorly trained and often reliant on impressed migrant workers to fill its ranks, the Legion never achieved elite status and performed poorly against French-supported Tubu warriors on its main battlefield, Chad. Nonetheless, the young ag Gamou received Special Forces training in Syria before fighting alongside Palestinians in Lebanon’s civil war and later in Qaddafi’s attempt to seize northern Chad, believed at the time to be uranium-rich (L’Opinion [Paris], June 9, 2014). By the time the Legion was dissolved, ag Gamou had likely been well exposed to Qaddafi’s belief that the tribes of the Sahel should reject the region’s traditional social hierarchies.

al-hajj-mali-mapSimilar ideas were forming in northern Mali. Like the earlier colonial French, Mali’s post-independence government continued to rely on the powerful Ifoghas Tuareg to assert authority over other Tuareg groups in northern Mali in the name of the government. However, the absence of state institutions in northern Mali meant an absence of development, infrastructure, health care, security and employment, all encouraging an illicit smuggling-based economy and a cycle of rebellion and temporary reconciliation when one or both sides were exhausted.

When democracy was introduced with independence in 1960, members of lower social orders in Arab and Tuareg society such as the Imghad were able to use their greater numbers to place their representatives in positions of authority over the local “noble” clans. The rejection by these clans of any social restructuring has been a core issue in nearly every rebellion in northern Mali since independence.

Return to Mali and Rebellion

After the Libyan defeat in Chad, ag Gamou returned to Mali, where he became involved in the Libyan-supported 1990-1996 Tuareg rebellion as a leading member of the Libyan-supported Armée Revolutionnaire de Libération de l’Azawad (ARLA). French historian Pierre Boilley met ag Gamou in those days and described him as “a taciturn and secretive man. He did not make grand speeches. He could get brutally excited, but he was pleasant” (Bamada.net, June 27, 2013). As usual, the Tuareg failed to unite in a common cause and ag Gamou’s ARLA became engaged in a violent rivalry with Iyad ag Ghali’s Mouvement populaire de l’Azawad (MPA). Gamou had served alongside ag Ghali, an Ifoghas, in the Islamic Legion.

al-hajj-iyad-ag-ghaliIyad ag Ghali

In February 1994 ag Gamou made a strategic mistake by kidnapping Intallah ag Attaher, the amenokal (chief) of the Ifoghas of Kidal. Though the amenokal was eventually returned unharmed in a prisoner exchange, the event was viewed by many Ifoghas as an unforgiveable assault on the traditional social order and led to ARLA’s military defeat. Over two decades later the event still has repercussions – Intallah ag Attaher’s eldest son, Mohamed ag Intallah, is the new amenokal, while another son, Alghabass ag Intallah (the former right hand man of Iyad ag Ghali in Ansar al-Din) is now head of the HCUA, an Ifoghas dominated militant group based in Kidal. Neither have forgotten the kidnapping, which continues to poison relations between the Imghad and the Ifoghas.

al-hajj-muhd-ag-intallahMohamed ag Intallah (Maliweb.net)

An End to Rebellion

As the rebellion wound down, Gamou joined other rebel fighters integrating with the Malian army. Integration allowed for further military training at the Koulikoro military school and deployment to Sierra Leone as a peacekeeper in 1999 (for which he was decorated) before assignment to Gao in 2001. His services resulted in promotion to lieutenant colonel and eventual command of the Kidal region in 2005. Gamou once explained his decision to become a government loyalist: “With the [1990-96] rebellion, we have obtained what we sought. Me, I have not been to school and I am a Colonel-Major. Why take up arms?” (Bamada.net, June 27, 2013).

The 2007-2009 Tuareg rebellion found Gamou on the government side in a bitterly fought campaign against Ibrahim ag Bahanga’s Alliance Touareg nord Mali pour le Changement (ATNMC). The tide turned against the rebels in 2009 when joint operations between Gamou’s Tuareg Delta militia, Colonel Muhammad Abd al-Rahman Ould Meydou’s Arab militia and Special Forces units of the Malian regular army (Echelon tactique inter-armes – ETIA) swept rebel bases in the north and drove the insurgents into Algeria. [3] Gamou’s work in the campaign brought him an appointment to President Amadou Toumani Touré’s personal staff despite concerns he was increasingly involved in northern Mali’s lucrative smuggling industry.

The Grand Deception

Many Malian Tuareg fought for the Qaddafi regime during the 2011 Libyan revolution. As the regime crumbled, ag Gamou was put in charge of welcoming these fighters back and urging their integration into the Malian Army, but the only takers were fellow Imghad (L’Aube [Bamako], February 18, 2016). The others quickly formed new armed movements, most notably the separatist Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar al-Din, led by ag Gamou’s rival Iyad ag Ghali.

When a January 24, 2012 joint MNLA-Ansar al-Din rebel attack on Aguelhoc resulted in the massacre of its mostly southern-origin garrison after their ammunition ran out, ag Gamou rushed north from Kidal only to find the attackers had withdrawn. Small-scale clashes continued for two months after the rebellion began, when ag Gamou found his 500-man force surrounded and cut off from escape routes by a combined rebel force. After the Aguelhoc massacre surrender did not appear to be an option for the 200 southern troops under his command, while Iyad ag Ghali had already made his desire to slay ag Gamou well known. With the collapse of the Malian Army and a military coup in Bamako, there was no chance of relief from the south. Ag Gamou now made a shocking announcement – he had decided to go over to the rebels:

I changed sides because the Malian government has great difficulties in assuring the army’s defense of territory… Today I am dejected both physically and morally. Since I joined the Malian Army, I vowed to never betray it. But, today, I feel I am worn out. I fought as best I could with the means available to me. Against heavily armed men and a state that could not support me in my fight, I could not find a solution that could save us, me and my comrades (L’Indépendant [Bamako], April 2, 2012).

Contacting the MNLA’s Colonel Assaleth ag Khabi, ag Gamou agreed to join the rebel movement in exchange for protection from Iyad ag Ghali. The southern troops were disarmed and the MNLA demanded their handover, but Gamou refused, saying they were now his hostages. Granted freedom of movement by the rebels, Gamou headed for Niger and reported to the Malian consul in Niamey that his men were still loyal and ready to be repatriated to Bamako (Jeune Afrique, April 11, 2012; Bamada.net, June 27, 2013 ).  The ruse had saved his command and left the rebels fuming.

A quick return to Bamako, however, was impossible. Mali’s army had abandoned the north, overthrown the president and was now consuming itself in bitter street battles between outnumbered Touré loyalists (the “Red Berets” of the presidential guard) and American-trained “Green Beret” putschists under Captain Amadou Sanogo. As Islamist militants poured into northern Mali, sidelining the politically secular MNLA, ag Gamou and his men were forced to watch helplessly from Niger: “It was very hard, very hard to be in a foreign country for a year” (France24.com, May 2, 2013). On December 2, 2012 an al-Qaeda operative attempted to kill Gamou in Niamey, but a potentially lethal shot was deflected by the commander’s cell-phone.

Return and Revenge

The launch of the French-led Operation Serval to retake northern Mali in January 2013 provided the opportunity for Ag Gamou’s fighters to join a column of Nigerien and Chadian troops crossing into northern Mali to link up with French forces advancing from the south. Ag Gamou helped drive Islamists of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) from Gao and loaned guides who provided invaluable services to Chadian and French troops fighting in the rocky and forbidding Adrar des Ifoghas region north of Kidal. However, the rivalry with the MNLA persisted, and Gamou found himself recalled to Bamako in March 2013 after arresting three MNLA members in Kidal who were aiding French forces in Operation Serval.

After the campaign, ag Gamou was decorated and elevated to the rank of brigadier general by a new unity government on September 18, 2013 (Le Débat [Bamako], January 3, 2014). MUJWA had not forgotten him however, and took their revenge on November 18, 2013 by murdering two members of his family (including a 3-year-old girl) and wounding two others (L’Indépendant [Bamako], November 25, 2013).

Assault on Kidal

Despite the expulsion of the foreign Islamists, the situation in the north remained tense with many fugitive Tuareg Islamists from Ansar al-Din transferring their loyalty from ag Ghali to a new and more politically acceptable movement, the Haut conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA). Despite all advice to the contrary, Prime Minister Moussa Mara insisted on visiting Kidal on May 17, 2014 to assert Malian sovereignty. Protesters prevented his plane from landing, so he arrived by helicopter. Ag Gamou and 60 of his men accompanied the PM’s convoy into the rebel stronghold, increasing local anger (Jeune Afrique, June 10, 2014).

Fighting broke out almost immediately between the Malian garrison and elements of the MNLA, HCUA and the separatist faction of the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), forcing Mara to seek protection in the MINUSMA (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali) peacekeepers’ camp outside of town. By the 19th, government reinforcements began arriving, including troops freshly trained by the European Union.

On May 21 a government offensive on Kidal led by the 33rd Para-Commando Regiment (the “Red Berets”) and supported by BRDM-2 armored patrol cars and Malian infantry (the “Green Berets”) appeared to go well until the rebels launched a three-pronged counter-attack in the early afternoon. Mistakenly thinking the Paras had been destroyed, the Green Berets fled, with many soldiers and officers taking refuge in the MINUSMA camp outside the city (the 1200 peacekeepers and 100 French troops at the camp took no part in the fighting). After taking heavy losses, the Paras were forced to surrender, leaving Kidal firmly in rebel hands. Ag Gamou’s men were pursued southwards, with the commander’s right-hand man, Colonel Faisal ag Kiba, killed in the retreat. Panic spread as far as Gao and Timbuktu while Malian troops fled other towns without firing a shot, taking refuge in MINUSMA camps or even fleeing across the border into Algeria (Maliactu.net, February 24).

In Bamako, new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta fired Defense Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga and denied ordering the offensive (L’Opinion [Paris], June 9, 2014). Ag Gamou’s role as one of the three leaders of the offensive (along with Brigadier Didier Dacko and Colonel Abdoulaye Coulibaly) resulted in a serious but apparently temporary blow to his military prestige. With both the army and its militia allies recognizing that the military required a field general as chief-of-staff rather than an “office general,” Arab and Fulani militia leaders at the Ouagadougou peace talks recommended ag Gamou as new chief-of-staff to replace General Mahamane Touré, who resigned following the Kidal affair (Maliweb, May 29, 2014). [4]

The Formation of GATIA

Imghad leaders observed that only armed groups were invited to the peace negotiations and decided to form their own in August 2014, the Groupe d’autodéfense des touareg Imghads et allies (GATIA). According to a statement issued by the movement, GATIA “was created… to protect the Imghad people and their allies who have been abandoned by the state in an area where there are armed groups that kill and humiliate with impunity” (Africa News/Reuters, August 29).

The pro-Bamako GATIA began successful operations against the MNLA in October 2014. Ag Gamou’s role as GATIA leader was initially unacknowledged, but he appeared to use a 2016 Facebook posting to remove all ambiguity: “I am from GATIA. I have never hidden it,” adding “Mali will never be divided; I am Malian. So long as I live, the conspirators will never achieve their aims. And after my death, I have trained men to defend the territorial integrity of Mali” (Le Malien [Bamako], September 23). [5]

A proliferation of armed groups in the north made negotiations almost impossible, so most groups agreed in June 2014 to align themselves to either a pro-government coalition (La Platforme) [6] or an opposition coalition (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad – CMA). [7] The general view in southern Mali is that the CMA is “feudal, anti-republican and anti-democratic” (Koulouba.com, August 1, 2016). As tensions increased between the two coalitions, GATIA set up checkpoints at the northern and southern entries to Kidal in mid-June 2016.

Ten people were killed on July 22 in fighting between GATIA and the CMA that some believed was a struggle for control of the smuggling trade (Maliactu.net, August 10). UN human rights observers and MINUSMA aerial surveillance recorded forced displacements and even executions of rival clansmen by GATIA elements, though a GATIA spokesman explained these as the result of “intercommunal tensions” (Reuters, August 31, 2015).

A series of clashes followed through the summer as the CMA attempted to break the GATIA blockade. After a September 16 battle at In Tachdaïte, a MNLA official claimed ag Gamou’s fight against the Ifoghas was only a pretext designed to gather popular support for his true purpose – establishing government control of areas now held by the CMA while using his growing military importance and political influence to protect trafficking networks. The official went on to say that peace with ag Gamou would be impossible as all his officers were drug traffickers using arms from government arsenals to control drug routes (Journal du Mali, September 22). GATIA in turn claims that CMA figures are involved in drug transports; in reality there are few Tuareg and Arab gunmen in northern Mali who are not involved in some type of smuggling, the only lucrative work available.

Despite reverses in Kidal itself, GATIA continues to maintain an effective blockade of the city that makes life there difficult (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], September 21). GATIA will not allow humanitarian aid to cross into Kidal unless it is associated with its distribution. Air transport is not an option as the airport is closed due to a proliferation of land-mines (Reuters, October 17).

GATIA’s activities have drawn the ire of the U.S.; American ambassador to Mali Paul Folmsbee recently demanded that Bamako “put a stop to all ties both public and private with GATIA, a group of armed militia that is not contributing to the north” (Africa News/Reuters, August 29). U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power similarly called for Bamako to “cease all supports to groups that are subservient to it,” while deploring the involvement of a Malian general (ag Gamou) who “continues to lead a northern militia” (L’indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], October 3).

al-hajj-dackoAg Gamou (left) with General Didier Dacko (right)

Mali’s army chief-of-staff, General Mahamne Touré, was replaced by on June 29 by his deputy, Brigadier Didier Dacko, who was at the same time promoted to Major General (L’Essor [Bamako], July 8; Jeune Afrique, July 18). Dacko, a member of the Bobo tribe (a group straddling the border with Burkina Faso), has a reputation as a fighting officer and has worked closely with Gamou on many operations. The change suggests GATIA will continue to be able to rely on the Malian Army for funds and weapons.

Conclusion: An Obstacle to Peace?

Ag Gamou once declared: “I have no political ambition. I am a soldier; soldiers are outside of politics. I am here to defend the territorial integrity of Mali… Politics does not interest me. Not at all” (RFI, March 6, 2013). Nonetheless, many in Mali now suspect Gamou’s involvement with GATIA reflects growing political ambitions. Bamako’s inability and/or reluctance to establish central control over northern Mali has left the region open to the rule of local strongmen, particularly if such individuals have the advantage of reflected legitimacy through an official role in the national armed forces. Politically, however, Gamou does not enjoy President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s trust in the way Amadou Toumani Touré trusted him. Western diplomats may regard ag Gamou as an obstruction to a negotiated settlement in the north, but for many in the region this professional soldier represents the face of a new social order no longer based on a hereditary hierarchy.

Notes

  1. For the Imghad, see Baz Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali, Brill, Leiden, 2010, pp.6-7.
  2. Lieutenant Colonel Kalifa Keita, Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Sahel: The Tuareg Insurgency In Mali, Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle PA, May 1, 1998, p.13
  3. See US Embassy Bamako Cable 09BAMAKO538_a, August 12, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09BAMAKO538_a.html
  4. General Touré was eventually retained in the post and made his official retirement on December 31, 2015.
  5. The authenticity of this statement was challenged by GATIA’s secretary general (Jeune Afrique, September 23, 2016).
  6. The coalition was formed June 14, 2014, and includes GATIA, the MAA-Platforme, the Coordination des mouvements et fronts patriotiques de résistance – CMFPR (a mainly Songhai and Fulani/Peul group) and the Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA), a Tuareg MNLA splinter group that opposes Ifhoghas domination of the Kidal region and joined La Platforme on September 17, 2016.
  7. The CMA was formed June 9, 2014. The coalition includes the MNLA, HCUA, MAA-Dissident, CMFPR II and the Coalition pour le peuple de l’Azawad (CPA), a largely Tuareg MNLA splinter group that favors federalism over separatism.

This article first appeared in the November 30, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

“A Doctorate in Fighting”: A Profile of Shilluk Militia Leader General Johnson Ulony Thubo

Andrew McGregor

October 5, 2016

South Sudan achieved independence in July 2011 but the era of peace most citizens had hoped the event would initiate remains elusive, thanks in large part to the ravages imposed by both a tribally oriented government and a slew of warlords with outsized personal ambitions. One of the most active of these warlords is General Johnson Ulony Thubo, a self-proclaimed defender of the Shilluk people, South Sudan’s third largest ethnic group (the Dinka are the largest, while their perpetual rivals, the Nuer, are second-largest).

ulony-1General Johnson Ulony Thubo (Gurtong)

In a land of extraordinarily tall people, Johnson Ulony’s size still makes him stand out. By repeatedly playing off one side against the other in Upper Nile State and threatening the young nation’s oil supply (nearly its only source of revenue), Ulony has cynically but successfully made himself a major player in the continuing struggle for South Sudan. In the process, Ulony has drawn the critical attention of the United States and been accused of war crimes by the UN and a former British Prime Minister.

The Situation in South Sudan

Fighting broke out in the Upper Nile State capital of Malakal between Dinka and Nuer elements of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA – the national army controlled by the Dinka-dominated Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement – SPLM) in December 2013 after President Salva Kiir Mayardit claimed Nuer Vice-President Riek Machar Dhurgon had attempted to overthrow the government in the capital, Juba. Machar fled north to rally Nuer and other allied troops under the name SPLA In Opposition (SPLA-IO).

Since then, the conflict has been complicated by President Kiir’s unilateral creation of 28 states from the original ten in October 2015, a move seen by many groups as an attempt to transfer traditionally held tribal lands to Dinka control. The decision is regarded as illegitimate by both the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC – an international peace monitoring group) and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). In the case of Ulony and his personal Shilluk militia Agwelek, the changes are seen as “a naked power grab” and an attempt to transfer Shilluk lands on the east side of the Nile (including Malakal) to the Dinka Padang group (Radio Tamazuj, May 4). Kiir’s decree divided Upper Nile State into three new administrative territories; Western Nile State (dominated by Shilluk), Eastern Nile State (with a significant Shilluk population) and Latjoor State (mainly Nuer). Agwelek controls the west bank of the White Nile, while government forces control the east bank, including the regional capital of Malakal, an important Nile River port.

The Shilluk

With a population of 1.5 to 2 million people, the Nilotic Shilluk (a.k.a. Chollo, or Collo), the Shilluk are divided into kwari (clans) who trace their lineage to some contemporary of the kingdom’s legendary mid-16th century founder Niyakang, who established a kingdom at the confluence of the Sobat River and the White Nile after being exiled by his twin brother from a kingdom in the region of Bahr al-Ghazal. The clans are all under the authority of the Reth, a king traditionally regarded as a descendant and spiritual incarnation of Niyakang. The Reth is regarded as a form of “divine kingship,” in which the health and prosperity of the king is an instrumental and necessary element in the success of the community as a whole.[1]

ulony-sobatThe Sobat River in the Shilluk Heartland

The Shilluk built a navy of dug-out canoes and made themselves a regional power through control of long stretches of the White Nile and by sending boat-borne warriors to raid Arab communities to the north. This situation changed dramatically when Turco-Egyptian forces occupied the Shilluk kingdom in the 1820s and initiated large-scale slave raids and cattle-raiding expeditions enabled by possession of firearms.

ulony-shilluk-warriorLate 19th century Shilluk Warrior

The Shilluk capital of Fashoda (Pachodo) was established around 1700 CE as a royal residence and center for mediation activities and religious/political rituals. The Reth was not obliged to live there full time, but spent most of his time within the Shilluk Kingdom. A French attempt to claim sovereignty over Fashoda and the Upper Nile region in 1898 (the “Fashoda Incident”) nearly led to full-scale war between France and Great Britain, which was in the process of consolidating its control of the Sudan. Fashoda was renamed Kodok by the British in 1904 as part of an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate memory of the incident at a time of improving Anglo-French relations.

Though most Shilluk are today Christians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) or Muslims, traditional religion is still a strong influence in Shilluk society.

Disarmament Campaign of 2010

Ulony, who hails from Panyakang County in Upper Nile Province, first came to prominence in the course of a nation-wide disarmament campaign in 2010 in which the SPLA was accused of massive human rights abuses in Shilluk territory. Despite persistent local rivalries over land ownership between Dinka and Shilluk, the government ill-advisedly sent Dinka troops to disarm Shilluk communities. Resistance followed, led by a former wildlife officer, Colonel Robert Gwang (Pachodo.org, July 27, 2010). Gwang joined the SPLA in late 2010, but his lieutenant Ulony and his men spent months waiting in a camp for integration into SPLA’s 7th Division before the alleged rape of a Shilluk fighter’s wife by an SPLA soldier sparked a battle that killed 14 on both sides.[2]

After initial clashes with the SPLA in Panyikang County in early March 2011, Ulony attacked Malakal on March 12, 2011.[3] Ulony’s militia was driven off by the SPLA, but it was only the first of a series of battles Ulony would fight in Malakal.

With integration now impossible Ulony led his men across the border into South Kordofan and joined a new armed movement opposed to the Government of South Sudan (GoSS). Formed by Dinka Lieutenant General George Athor Deng, the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A) attracted rogue commanders from several ethnic groups.[4]

When Athor was killed by South Sudanese border guards in December 2011, he was succeeded by Peter Kuol Chol Awan, who came to terms with Juba in February 2012. As led by Ulony and fellow Shilluk rebel Alyuak Ogot Akol, the SSDM/A’s Upper Nile faction rejected the peace agreement, with Ulony taking control of the dissident fighters still in the field. Ulony claimed Chol had already resigned as the movement’s leader due to health reasons and thus had no authority to negotiate an agreement with the ruling SPLM (Sudan Tribune, March 1, 2012).   Ogot accepted the amnesty in September 2013.

By early 2012, Ulony’s troops were active on Khartoum’s behalf against rebel forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N – Sudanese rebels abandoned by the South’s 2011 independence) in Southern Kordofan and participated in the seizure of Jau, a town in the disputed oil-rich region of Unity State. Ulony continued to campaign in the South Kordofan region into 2013.

Conciliation with Juba – 2013

In April 2013, President Kiir issued another amnesty offer, which was accepted by several Nuer and Shilluk rebel movements (Sudan Tribune, April 27, 2013). Ulony rejected the offer, but an order from the Reth to accept the amnesty brought Ulony into the SPLM/A fold.[5]

After his arrival in Juba in June 2013, Ulony appeared on state media to declare his 3,000-man militia had received full support from Khartoum, including training, logistics and “any support we need.” Now, however, it was time to join the SPLA’s 7th Division and forget the past as President Kiir had urged (Sudan Tribune, June 6, 2013). Ulony joined the SPLA’s bloated general staff as a major-general as his men crossed into South Sudan from Sudan. However, when clashes between Dinka and Nuer forces erupted in Juba in December 2013, Ulony’s Shilluk militia had still not been fully integrated into the SPLA.

During his unsuccessful defense of Malakal against SPLA-IO attacks in February 2014, Ulony was shot and wounded in the neck by the rebel forces and was evacuated to Juba for treatment (Sudan Tribune, February 20, 2014) Having recovered, Ulony took a shot In July 2014 at the ineffectual but well-educated Shilluk politicians who had been unable to secure Shilluk territory, announcing he had “a doctorate in fighting” (African Arguments, October 6, 2014).

Child Soldiers and Terrorism Accusations

In February 2015, UNICEF accused Ulony of recruiting 89 (or “possibly hundreds”) of child soldiers between 12 to 15 years of age. Ulony was summoned to Juba to answer these charges but failed to appear as he was involved in offensive operations alongside the Presidential Guard (the “Tiger Division”) against SPLA-IO forces in Manyo County at the time (The Insider [Kampala], March 16, 2015; Radio Tamazuj, February 28, 2015; March 9, 2015). Possibly unaware that Ulony was at the time a Major General in South Sudan’s national army, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown described Ulony’s unit as a “terrorist group,” adding that they were “a cynical, hypocritical group of people” (Radio Tamazuj, March 19, 2015).

Following clashes at Malakal in April 2015, Ulony was ordered to report to SPLA headquarters in Juba. When he failed to appear, SPLA chief of general staff General Paul Malong Awan was forced to admit he was no longer in contact with Ulony and no longer received reports from him. Ulony, however, claimed there was “no problem,” stating that he was “still part of the government” (Sudan Tribune, May 14, 2015).

Defection to the SPLA/M-IO

Ulony’s April 2015 defection to the SPLM/A-IO was spurred in part by the April 1 killing of his deputy Major General James Bwogo Olieu (a.k.a. Johnson Bwugo) by a Dinka militia allegedly under the supervision of SPLA military intelligence (Nyamile.com, April 19, 2015; Sudan Tribune, April 6, 2015). At the time, however, Ulony publicly maintained that the Dinka youth militia had confused General Bwogo’s entourage with a Shilluk youth militia they had been fighting sporadically for several days, adding that his forces remained under SPLA command and were not a separate Shilluk militia as some (including SPLA-IO leader Riek Machar) had alleged  (Sudan Tribune, April 7, 2015)

ulony-shilluk-mapMap Source: Joshua Project / Global Mapping International

Formation of the Agwelek Militia

Having taken SPLA-issued heavy weapons with him during his defection, Ulony formed Agwelek, a Shilluk militia, on May 15, 2015. Agwelek accuses the “tribally-oriented” South Sudan government of grabbing Shilluk land and handing it over to the Dinka (Southsudannation.com, July 3, 2015). The movement’s declared objectives include:

  • The unification of all opposition groups in South Sudan
  • Implementation of federalism
  • Establishment of a reconciliation commission
  • Proportionate representation of all states in a “truly national army”
  • A complete overhaul of the police and all security services
  • Diversification of the economy as part of a socio-economic revival
  • The establishment of an Upper Nile/Fashoda Trust Fund of $500 million, 60% of which will come from international donors.
  • An allocation of 50% power sharing in Upper Nile State and the right to appoint the governor (com, July 3, 2015).

In June 2015 the SPLA-IO declared it had retaken Malakal in cooperation with Agwelek forces, though by this time the city was largely a depopulated ruin, most residents having fled for the protection of a squalid UNMISS camp on the outskirts of town (Radio Tamazuj, June 28, 2015).

In early July 2015 a government offensive pushed Agwelek troops from the Kodok (Fashoda) region on the west bank and retook Malakal from Agwelek and the SPLA-IO on the east bank without meeting significant resistance (Radio Tamazuj, July 11, 2015).

Hassan Otor, a commander in Aguelek, denied September 2015 reports from Khartoum that Ulony had defected from the SPLA-IO (Radio Tamazuj, September 17, 2015). Other Shilluk forces under the command of Major General Ogot’s deputy, Yohanis Okeich, defected from the SPLA to the SPLA-IO the next month (Radio Tamazuj, October 30, 2015).

The U.S. proposed a UN travel ban and asset freeze on Ulony in September 2015 on the grounds of perpetuating a conflict that was causing needless civilian deaths and displacement. The sanctions were ultimately blocked by Russia and Angola (BBC, September 16, 2015). Hassan Otor, described the sanctions as “illogical” and maintained that Ulony was only defending civilians from aerial and chemical attacks by Juba (Radio Tamazuj, October 2, 2015).

An International Incident

In late October 2015, Ulony and his militia sparked an international incident by detaining three barges on the White Nile hired by UNMISS to deliver fuel to a UNMISS base in Renk. Aboard the barges were 12 South Sudanese crewmen, 18 UN peacekeepers and 55,000 liters of fuel. The shipping company that owned the barges was also used by the SPLA, which was involved in operations on the river against Shilluk rebels at the time. Ulony’s spokesman insisted that some of the detainees were SPLA troops and agents of the National Security Service, proof of local collusion between UNMISS and the Juba government.

ulony-nile-bargeTypical White Nile Barge Transport

On October 30, 2015 a U.S. State Department spokesman condemned the seizure of the UN barge and suggested the action could constitute a war crime (Radio Tamazuj, November 2, 2015). Meanwhile, the failure of UNMISS to respond to the seizure for three days led the SPLA to believe UNMISS was in collusion with Ulony. The UNMISS chief finally condemned the detention as a war crime and the personnel were released, though Ulony’s men kept the fuel, the peacekeepers’ weapons and some communications equipment (African Arguments, November 4, 2015; Radio Tamazuj, October 30, 2015).

In the same month, General Yohannes Okich (or Okij) split from Agwelek, forming the Tiger Faction New Forces (TFNF).

Deposing the Reth

On January 13, 2016, conspirators including General Ulony overthrew Reth Kwongo Dak Padiet, the long-standing 34th king of the Shilluk, citing his support for Kiir’s creation of 28 states and the Reth’s extended two-year stay in Juba during a time of crisis in the Shilluk homeland. The king was replaced by a prince of the royal lineage. A statement issued by Shilluk elders asserted that Shilluk leadership customs don’t “allow absence of the king from soil of the kingdom for a long period as this could open gaps for bad luck to the people with the spirit of founder Nyikango and other ancestors deserting the land” (Sudan Tribune, January 17).

The Shilluk king is seen as the community’s guarantor of law and order, so deposing the king is not an action to be taken lightly, as it threatens the stability of the community as a whole. Was deposing the king, in Shilluk terms, an outrageous and revolutionary act? It’s difficult to say, as there seems to be no precedent of a Shilluk Reth abandoning his people to live elsewhere, a primary cause of his overthrow. Given the Reth’s spiritual importance to the survival of his people (and the presumption that he would continue to live amongst them), the idea that he would live elsewhere seems inconceivable, and the same reaction may have occurred at any time in the Shilluk past. In any case, the move appeared to have the support of many Shilluk.

Conclusion

General Ulony’s proclivity for changing sides in South Sudan’s seemingly interminable civil conflict suggests that his interests lie in his own personal advancement rather than the improvement of the Shilluk community of the success of South Sudan’s efforts at nation building. Ulony is hardly alone in this; indeed, a long list of South Sudanese warlords who look mainly to their own fortunes could be compiled with little effort. Nonetheless, Ulony’s machinations have now made him the commander of SPLA-IO Sector 1, which includes the 1st and 7th Divisions as well as the Aguelek militia, all located dangerously close to the heavily defended Paloich oil fields, South Sudan’s last remaining source of revenue.

Notes

[1] See E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk of the Nilotic Sudan, Cambridge, University Press, 1948.

[2] “SSDM/A-Upper Nile Faction,” Small Arms Survey, November 6, 2013, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures/south-sudan/armed-groups/southern-dissident-militias/ssdma-upper-nile.html

[3] SPLM/A-Shilluk Conflict in Upper Nile, Small Arms Survey, April 2011, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/archive/other/armed-groups/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Shilluk-Conflict-Upper-Nile-April-2011.pdf

[4] See “Renegade Generals Threaten Unity of South Sudan’s SPLA as Independence Referendum Approaches,” Terrorism Monitor, May 20, 2010, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=36404&no_cache=1#.V-xEwiRqnIU

[5] Op cit, Small Arms Survey, November 6, 2013.

This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Nigeria Expands Its ‘War on Terrorism’ to the Niger Delta

Andrew McGregor

September 16, 2016

Though Nigeria’s southern Delta region has abundant oil reserves that should provide amply for the future of both the region and the nation, the Delta has become consumed by environmental degradation, unrestrained oil theft, destruction of infrastructure and a new wave of anti-government militancy complicated by ethnic friction and political rivalries.

niger-delta-military-operationsNiger Delta Military Operations (Premium Times)

Large stretches of the Delta region have little to no government presence or infrastructure of any kind. [1] For many residents, their only contact with the government occurs when troops arrive searching for militants or oil thieves. Delta residents complain routinely of being treated as militants, potential militants or supporters of the militants.

Nonetheless, government impatience with the seemingly endless instability that threatens the oil-dependent national economy boiled over at a recent African development conference in Nairobi, where Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari was quoted as saying: “The militants must dialogue with the federal government or be dealt with in the same way [as] Boko Haram. We are talking to some of their leaders. We will deal with them as we dealt with Boko Haram if they refuse to talk to us” (Naij.com [Lagos], August 30).

The threat to treat secular Delta militants in the same fashion as Boko Haram’s Islamist fighters reflects the frustration of bringing an end to one group’s operations only to see several new militant groups pop up in its place. More importantly, it is a sign that Nigeria’s federal government recognizes there will be an economic crisis unless something is done quickly. Nigeria’s budget assumes a daily production of 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil, providing 70 percent of national revenues. The actions of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and other groups has lowered daily production by 700,000 bpd to 1.56 million bpd in the last few months. On September 4, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) warned that “If the current situation remains unchecked, it could lead to the crippling of the corporation and the nation’s oil and gas sector, the mainstay of the Nigerian economy” (Reuters, September 5).

niger-delta-mapThe Niger Delta in Nigerian Context

An expensive war in the northeast and low international crude prices only exacerbate the problem. Buhari, already dealing with a recession, is unlikely to want to be remembered as the president who oversaw the collapse of Nigerian federalism, though this remains a danger if the government is unable to provide development programs, services, security and government salaries and pensions due to a loss of oil revenues.

The Military Approach

To help address the crisis in the Delta creeks, Operation Crocodile Smile was launched on August 29. The new military operation joins the ongoing Operation Delta Safe, a military effort launched in late June and led by the all-arms Joint Task Force (JTF) aimed at ending bunkering and other forms of crude oil theft (The Sun [Lagos] June 26).

Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Tukur Buratai explained the purpose of the exercise:

Operation Crocodile Smile … is an exercise aimed at training our men on amphibious warfare because of the peculiarity of the terrain that requires special training. This exercise is also important because of the need to build the capacity of our men, which has been neglected for a very long time (Vanguard, September 8).

The Nigerian defense spokesman added that the operation was designed to provide security for Delta residents, and the region’s economic assets, while demonstrating the ability of security forces to rein in criminals and “economic saboteurs” (Vanguard [Lagos], August 29; Premium Times [Abuja], September 6).

The operation involves an estimated 3,000 Nigerian Army troops, along with air and naval elements. Most of the troops involved belong to the army’s 4th Brigade, based in Benin City, Edo State, and the 13th Brigade based in Calabar, Cross River State. Calabar is home to the Nigerian army’s amphibious training school, which is playing a large training role in the operation.

Transport and firepower for raids in the largely road-less creeks region is provided by gunboats and speedboats. For operations on firmer turf, the Nigerian army’s Armored Corps has contributed two main battle tanks (likely the British-built Vickers MBT or Russian-built T-55s or T-72s), two South African-built MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected) armored personnel carriers and three British-built FV101 Scorpion reconnaissance vehicles.

On September 10, Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai announced the creation of a new brigade, the 61st, to be based in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State with the aim of increasing security in the Delta region (TVC News [Lagos], September 10). According to Buratai, the army plans to have 10,000 troops operating in the Delta by 2017.

Objections to Operation Crocodile Smile

Operation Crocodile Smile has been far from universally welcomed. Colonel Abubakr Umar (Ret.), the influential former military governor of Kaduna State, issued a statement on August 30 claiming that the Niger Delta militants could not be called terrorists “in the real sense of the word,” adding that military operations in the densely populated Delta faced major challenges, including difficult terrain, the possibility of setting the oil-polluted creeks on fire with explosives, international opposition, and the danger of inadvertently shutting down oil and gas operations in the entire region (Punch [Lagos], August 30).

Ijaw representatives claim the military operations target their community unjustly and complain the military approach comes at a time when a negotiated settlement looked promising. At the same time, JTF personnel have been accused of demolishing homes, beating up residents and stealing speedboats in Ijaw communities.

The commander of Operation Delta Safe, Rear Admiral Joseph Okojie, however, has insisted the Nigerian army is “people-friendly” and has prioritized the protection of lives and property (This Day [Lagos], September 9). [2]

The “people-friendly” aspect of Operation Crocodile Smile involves school-building, infrastructure rehabilitation and the provision of health services in areas that have seen little improvement from the riches drawn from their region. For General Buratai, the inclusion of these services trumps accusations of human-rights abuses during the offensive. “How can people grumble when we have medical outreach in their communities, there is no way they can grumble … we are supporting the communities, they are happy,” he said (Vanguard [Lagos], September 6).

Active Militant Groups in the Niger Delta

The lack of unity or any common approach amongst the Delta militants is a major impediment to reaching a negotiated settlement. Federal government negotiations with elders and stakeholders in the Delta region reached an impasse in August when Delta representatives demanded a payment of NGN 8 billion ($25.37 million) to continue, a demand President Buhari rejected (Sahara Reporters, August 6). The impasse left dialogue in the hands of a MEND-supported negotiating team, Aaron2, operating as part of the Niger Delta Dialogue Contact Group (NDDCG) led by Foreign Minister Henry Odein Ajumogobia, formerly the minister of state petroleum resources, and King Alfred Diete-Spiff. [3] Many smaller Delta-based ethnic groups claim the NDDCG represents only Ijaw interests.niger-delta-map-ethnic

As seen from the list below – which due to the sheer number of factions active in the region does not pretend to be comprehensive – some groups are at odds with each other as much as with the federal government:

Aggrieved Youth Movement (AYM): This group is composed mainly of amnestied militants based in Rivers State. AYM claims to be non-violent and against the destruction of oil and gas installations. The group has warned other militant groups to stay out of Rivers State (Daily Post [Lagos], September 5).

Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB): A secessionist group that has given its support to the NDA. Its leader is Nnamdi Kanu, the self-styled “president” of Biafra, is currently imprisoned.

Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF): Only several months old, this group claims to be affiliated with the NDA and has threatened to use missiles in its possession to shoot down military helicopters (International Business Times, June 2). In late June, members of the group told media sources they had been approached by senior Nigerian military officers interested in enlisting the group’s support for a coup against President Buhari, though the claim is likely baseless (Vanguard [Lagos], June 24).

Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB): A secessionist group led by Ralph Uwazuruike. Allegedly non-violent (though this is disputed by the government), the group has pledged “total allegiance” to the NDA (The Trent Online [Lagos], August 11).

Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND): This group is largely inactive since most of its leaders are imprisoned or have accepted the 2009 amnesty. MEND still seeks a role in Delta-related negotiations and has warned it will not talk to the government if Ijaw leader Chief Edwin Clark is appointed to speak for the Delta (Pulse.ng, August 22). MEND has threatened to take up arms against the NDA if it does not pursue dialogue with the government and recently declared “its full support for the ongoing military presence in the Niger Delta region” through its spokesman Jomo Gbomo (a pseudonym used by a number of Delta militants) (Pulse.ng, August 21).

Niger Delta Avengers (NDA): The NDA’s declared aim is to reduce Nigerian oil output to zero with a minimum of casualties. The NDA declared a unilateral ceasefire on August 29 and has expressed its interest in holding talks with the government, though it accused Buhari of organizing “a pre-determined genocide” in the Delta and warned the army that “no amount of troop surge and simulation exercises will make you win the oil war” (NigerDeltaAvengers.org, August 29). Ijaw Youth Council president Udengs Eradiri is alleged to be the NDA’s chief spokesman, ‘Brigadier General’ Murdoch Agbinobo (Pulse.ng, August 20).

New Niger Delta Emancipation Front (NNDEF): A new group whose only known leader is Lucky Humphrey, its so-called “director of public enlightenment and awareness.” The NNDEF rejects the “narrow interests” pursued by the militants and applauds Buhari’s military intervention to root out the militant groups (This Day [Lagos], September 8).

Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate (NDGJM): A Delta State group dominated by members of the Urhobo ethnic group, the largest in the state. Commanded by Aldo Agbalaja, the group believes President Buhari is committing “genocide” in the Niger Delta and followed a strike on a major trunk delivery line in Delta State by warning employees at a number of energy facilities to abandon their plants “because what is coming to those facilities [is] beyond what anybody has seen before” (Sahara Reporters, August 30). The NDGJM responded to the launch of Operation Crocodile Smile by bombing the Ogor-Oteri pipeline. The group opposes what it sees as one-sided government negotiations with the region’s much larger Ijaw ethnic group and its leader, 84-year-old Chief Edwin Clark, who they see as only “the leader of the Ijaw nation.” (Vanguard [Lagos], August 10). The group would prefer to join in talks led by King Alfred Diete-Spiff (Pulse.ng, August 23).

Niger Delta Red Squad (RDRS): Operates in Imo State, active for three months. Spokesman is “General” Don Wannie (or Waney) (Naij.com [Lagos], September 1). The Red Squad has attacked pipelines operated by the Nigeria Agip Oil Company (a Nigerian-Italian joint venture), citing its alleged neglect of local communities. The group has threatened to behead any security agents it manages to seize (Naij.com [Lagos], September 1).

Niger Delta Searchlight: Commanded by “General” Igbede N Igbede, this group rejects negotiations with the government and claims it will continue a bombing campaign until oil companies abandon the Delta region (Daily Post [Lagos], August 30).

Otugas Fire Force (OFF): The OFF is commanded by “General” Gabriel Ogbudge, who was arrested by the Nigerian Army’s 4th Brigade on September 6 during a raid in Edo State. Ogbudge is the primary suspect in the August 26 demolition of a major Nigerian Petroleum Development Company/Shoreline trunk delivery line. On August 31, Ogbudge declared the launch of Operation Crocodile Tears, the group’s response to the government’s Operation Crocodile Smile. The OFF was alleged to be planning an attack on the Utorogu gas plant (Punch [Lagos], September 7; Naij.com, September 7).

Reformed Egbesu Boys of Niger Delta: The group rejects any dialogue led by the NDDCG and aims for a total shutdown in oil production in the Delta (Vanguard, July 22). Egbesu is the Ijaw god of warfare and the group is as much a religious cult as a militant formation. The group’s leaders are “General” Tony Alagbakereowei and Commander Ebi Abakoromor.

Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA): The alleged leader of this NDA offshoot is one Jude Kekyll, whom the NDA denies was ever a member of their group (Vanguard [Lagos], August 6). The NDA maintains that the RNDA is a creation of Buhari’s government and does not represent a split in the movement. Meanwhile, the RNDA says it split from the NDA to pursue dialogue with the government and to avoid further environmental destruction of the Delta region (Vanguard [Lagos], August 6).

The Mysterious Cynthia Whyte

A sensational RNDA statement issued in August by “spokesperson” Cynthia Whyte identified a number of prominent Nigerians as sponsors of the NDA, including former president Goodluck Jonathan (which it accused of being the “grand patron” of the NDA), governors Nyesom Wike (Rivers State) and Seriaki Dickson (Bayelsa State), former Akwa Ibom State Senator Godswill Akpabio and fugitive militant leader Government Ekpemupolo (aka Tompolo) (Sahara Reporters, August 6; Sahara Reporters, August 16).

niger-delta-red-squadNiger Delta Red Squad (NAIJ.com)

Former president Jonathan responded to the accusations by noting that Cynthia Whyte was a name used for an earlier spokesperson for the Joint Revolutionary Council (an umbrella group for Delta militants) beginning in 2005 and suggested that, like MEND at the height of its power, the RNDA was intent on assassinating him (Punch, August 8). However, an individual using the official Cynthia Whyte email address claimed that the recent RNDA statements delivered under that name were those of an imposter. The “real” Cynthia Whyte blamed the RNDA fraud on “retired militant leaders from Bayelsa and Delta State who have made lots of money in past time through character blackmail and sabotage” (The Trent Online [Lagos], August 11).

There are suspicions that Cynthia Whyte is a pseudonym lately appropriated by the imprisoned Charles Okah. Charles is the brother of MEND leader Henry Okah, currently serving a sentence in South Africa (Elombah.com [London], August 21). The NDA believes the name Cynthia Whyte may have been resurrected by George Kerley, a Rivers State social activist and supporter of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), though they claim the content (described as “delusional”) originated with Victor Ebikabowei-Ben (a.k.a. Boyloaf), an amnestied ex-MEND leader (Today [Lagos], August 8; Nigerian Nation, August 8).

Though the list of alleged sponsors is largely unverifiable and probably inflated (if it has any basis in reality at all), it has helped fuel an incendiary Nigerian political environment where suspicion of treachery is the order of the day.

Deepening the Divide

Negotiations imply recognition and, if successful, tend to lead to some form of legitimacy for insurgent groups. This was the case with the last generation of Niger Delta militants, many of whom now receive generous government payments to keep in line.

Negotiating with the NDA and its allies and rivals may encourage new movements to seek eventual status and wealth by issuing statements and taking to the creeks to blow up a few pipelines, creating a perpetual and debilitating cycle of rebellion-negotiation-cash settlement.

However, folding the conflict into Nigeria’s broader “war on terrorism” is unlikely to produce anything other than short-term results, while encouraging the return of southern separatism and deepening Nigeria’s north-south divide.

Notes

[1] The Niger Delta consists of the following states: Ondo, Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Imo, Abia, Akwa Ibom and Cross River.

[2] Operation Delta Safe replaced Operation Pulo Shield in June 2016.

[3] Diete-Spiff’s title indicates he is one of Nigeria’s traditional rulers – in this case the Amanyanabo (King) of Twon-Brass, a community in southern Bayelsa State.

 

This article first appeared in the September 16, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Choosing a Figurehead over a Fanatic: A Profile of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the New Leader of the Islamic State in West Africa

Andrew McGregor

August 31, 2016

al-barnawiAbu Musab al-Barnawi (Breaking Times)

Though it might be difficult to conceive, there are apparently limits to the degree of barbarity the Islamic State organization is willing to tolerate in its regional leaders. On August 2, the Islamic State took the unusual step of intervening in the leadership of Nigeria’s Boko Haram to remove its long-time leader, Abu Bakr Shekau, who fell foul with the movement through his erratic behavior, military failures and willingness to slaughter the same Muslim civilians the Islamic State is trying to win over. The appointment of his successor, a relatively unknown 25-year-old named Abu Musab Habib bin Muhammad bin Yusuf al-Barnawi (a.k.a. Habib Yusuf), has been challenged by Shekau, though he has yet to break publicly with the Islamic State.

Prospects of a clash between what is now two factions of Boko Haram were diminished on August 23, when Nigeria’s military announced it had made a massive airstrike on Boko Haram positions in the Sambisi Forest on August 19, killing 300 fighters (an unlikely figure) and “fatally wounding” Abu Bakr Shekau (Sahara Reporters, August 23). While no confirmation of the strike or Boko Haram losses was available, it is the fourth time Nigerian authorities claimed to have killed Shekau.

Early Career of Abu Musab al-Barnawi

Abu Musab is allegedly the first or second son of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf, who was killed while in police detention in 2009 (UPI, August 5). Daily Trust [Abuja], August 6, CNN, August 4 (SaharaReporters.com, August 3). The fatherless youth was tutored in militancy by Shekau and Boko Haram third-in-command Mamman Nur and is alleged to have a solid background in Islamic scriptural interpretation and jurisprudence (Daily Trust [Lagos], August 6). However, differences between Shekau and Nur led to the latter leaving the movement to join a group with similar goals but different methods, Ansaru. [1] Abu Musab stayed with Shekau until the Boko Haram leader joined forces once again with Nur in the West African wilayat (province) of the Islamic State’s caliphate, formed on March 5, 2015 as the intended successor to the Boko Haram group. This process brought Shekau under someone else’s authority for the first time, though the Boko Haram leader evidently believed distance and remoteness from Islamic State “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his cadres would allow him to carry on in the ways familiar to him.

Abu Musab means “Father of Musab,” and refers to the new Boko Haram leader’s seven-year-old son (Daily Trust [Lagos], August 6). “Al-Barnawi” is simply a nisba, indicating the geographical origin of an individual or his family. In this case it refers either to the Kanuri-majority state of Borno in north-western Nigeria, or to the historical Kanem-Bornu Empire (c.700 – 1893), which includes not only north-eastern Nigeria, but parts of Chad, Niger, Cameroon. This equates roughly to the operational zone of Boko Haram.

Abu Musab is an ethnic Kanuri, as is most of the Boko Haram membership. His appointment is clearly designed to draw on his legitimacy and religious authority as the son of Muhammad Yusuf. However, enquiries by local journalists in Maiduguri (the home town of Muhammad Yusuf) and other parts of Borno were unsuccessful in finding anyone who had heard of Abu Musab al-Barnawi before his emergence in 2015 (Nigerian News Headlines, August 6).

Abu Musab remained virtually unknown until the release of his first video as Boko Haram spokesman in January 2015. Three months later, Shekau announced Boko Haram’s new alignment as part of the Islamic State organization on March 7, 2015. Since then, an already unstable Shekau has become increasingly erratic, even releasing a video in March 2016 in which he appeared to acknowledge his personal defeat: “For me, end has come” (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], March 24).

mamman-nurMamman Nur

One source indicated that the leadership was offered to veteran jihadi Mamman Nur, who declined in deference to Abu Musab (Daily Trust [Lagos], August 6). Nur, who was traditionally aligned with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the former third-in-command of Boko Haram and its temporary leader in 2009 while Shekau recovered from injuries. There can be little doubt that operational decisions will be taken by Nur, while Abu Musab will assume the role of a figurehead providing religious justification for the movement’s actions while offering a more palatable alternative to Shekau’s bombast and viciousness.

Emergence as Boko Haram Leader

The surprise announcement of Abu Musab’s new role as wali (governor) of the Islamic State’s West African wilayah came via an interview with Abu Musab in the 41st issue of the Islamic State’s e-weekly, al-Naba, released on August 2. In his interview with the Islamic State publication, Abu Musab rejects the use of “Boko Haram” as the common name for the movement, but admits that its use may be partly due to the difficulty of using the movement’s lengthy Arabic official name (al-Naba 41, August 2). He ascribes “Islamic servility” to the fall of the Caliphate centuries ago; supporting the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the path to a new era of Muslim glory. Abu Musab insists that, under the new leadership, targeting of mosques or markets full of innocent Muslims will cease in favor of a tighter focus on blowing up churches and killing every Christian they can find. Abu Musab insists that Western NGOs are exploiting Nigeria’s internally displaced Muslims (most of whom have actually been displaced by Boko Haram activities) by enticing them with food and shelter before converting their children to Christianity (al-Naba 41, August 2).

Abu Musab claims that he and seven other leading members of the group (possibly including Mamman Nur) left their women and goods behind to leave Shekau’s Sambisi Forest camp and reject the Boko Haram leader’s personal interpretations of jihad:

We will fight for the cause of Allah and work against personalizing Jihad and against unjustifiable killings and shedding of blood… Just like Allah gave us power to kill infidels, there are those he said we shouldn’t kill without reason. In the Quran, Allah forbade Muslims from killing one another…and he also taught against killing in secret. If it is serious punishment, it must be public for people to know and witness it. But once you see killings in secret, there is something fishy and this is what we noticed with Shekau. What he is doing is not Islam… He is always boasting that he will kill, he will kill. Okay, continue to kill, you will also be killed (Premium Times [Lagos], August 5). [2]

What isn’t clear is how many fighters joined the Abu Musab and Mamman Nur-led exodus from Shekau’s Sambisi-forest base. Shekau’s current state of mind suggests that further defections will be difficult, with the jilted Boko Haram leader watchful for any signs of dissent amongst his fighters. Shekau still commands large numbers of fighters and continues to hold the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls abducted in April 2014, though Abu Musab is reported to hold some of the girls (Daily Trust [Lagos], August 6).

Shekau, who had not been heard from for months, wasted little time in challenging the news of Abu Musab’s appointment, which he claimed he had only learned about from media sources. In an August 3 audiotape, Shekau claimed Abu Musab was in ignorance of “all holy books and teachings,” stating: “Today I woke up to see one who is an infidel whom they want me to follow. No, I won’t…” Shekau proclaimed his loyalty to al-Baghdadi, “the Caliph of the Muslims,” but complained the Islamic State leader had not responded to his messages, that his written explanation of his ideology had been rejected, and that he had ultimately been deceived (NewsNigeria.com, August 5).

Abu Musab similarly replied quickly to Shekau’s message, though much of his criticism of the Boko Haram leader has the perspective and attitude of a much more senior member of the movement, possibly that of Mamman Nur. Nonetheless, the criticisms of Shekau’s leadership were specific [3]:

  • Shekau believes Muslim refugees fleeing to non-Muslim (“infidel”) nations from violence in their homeland are also infidels and should be killed. Shekau justifies this approach by claiming the Quran demands Muslims must make public their opposition and anger to the “infidel” hosts who provide them with the necessities of life.
  • Shekau increasingly relies on a very personal interpretation of Islam and tolerates no dissenting opinions – “Islam is not his creation.”
  • Shekau is reluctant to distribute arms to his fighters, leading to territorial losses.
  • The Boko Haram leader tolerates looting and encourages the killing of Muslims, including women and children – “We don’t know this brand of Jihad… We should be looking for infidels and not our own people. How can we be killing people in the mosques when there are churches and barracks?”
  • Shekau has ordered amputations and even executions on false grounds or as the result of snap decisions that did not consider evidence. Instances cited included the execution of a leader because of a dream, a highly useful gun-maker killed for gossiping and an order to kill the former husbands of women Shekau had taken as wives.
  • Many of these executions have taken place in secret – “In Islam, there is nothing like secret killings, even of an infidel.”
  • Shekau is accused of callousness when told that many of his fighters and their families were dying of hunger; at this point Abu Musab plays an audio recording of Shekau’s response: “Who told you my duty is to look after babies? Who told you my duty is to look after fighters? If this is what you are talking about, then it is you that should look after me.”

In a video message released on August 8 with text read by one of Shekau’s aides, the Shekau faction of Boko Haram pledged its continued loyalty to Shekau and to the Islamic State “caliph” while warning the movement’s leadership has made an uninformed decision in making Abu Musab the new leader of the West African wilayah: “We will not entertain any middle man to come between us and the Khalifa al-Baghdadi until we meet face-to-face with the Khalifa or get a video or audio message from him, then we will reveal to him core secrets about those they are building their trust on” (Premium Times [Lagos], August 8). Meanwhile, Abu Musab claims to have agents hidden among Shekau’s corps of bodyguards who will “crush him” if he attempts to take action against him: “That is how Allah works like a miracle” (Vanguard [Lagos], August 15).

Conclusion

There is little doubt that Nigerian authorities would be pleased to see an internal struggle for the leadership of Boko Haram, though it is possible that a triumph of the Abu Musab/Nur faction could lead to the consolidation of a more efficient and united organization capable of revitalizing the West African wilayat with the support of the Islamic State organization. Unless Shekau is indeed “fatally wounded,” as claimed, deposing Shekau in reality rather than in name will prove difficult, especially given Shekau’s continued support by large numbers of the movement.

The current war of words is an effort by both sides to consolidate support without destroying the movement from within, but maintaining such a standoff is ultimately unsustainable. By claiming his heritage from Muhammad Yusuf, Abu Musab is appealing to a largely Nigerian and Kanuri base at the same time he (and Nur) seek to place the movement within the context of a larger international caliphate.

As Shekau has found, fighting a successful guerrilla war without the support of the local population is an uphill task, though his extremism may appeal to certain foreign fighters who believe the mercurial Shekau provides the path to glory or martyrdom. On the other hand, Abu Musab’s declared intention to kill every Christian he can get his hands on may appeal to the Islamic State leadership, but still places his movement well outside the parameters established by northern Nigeria’s traditional Muslim leaders, who reject Christian proselytization but insist on the necessity of peaceful co-existence with Nigeria’s Christian community, roughly half the Nigerian nation.

Notes

  1. The full title of the Ansaru organization is Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Bilad al-Sudan – Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands. Ansaru emerged in 2012 as an attempt to create a more focused version of Boko Haram less concerned with massacres of civilians in favor of more targeted attacks and kidnappings. Most of the Ansaru leadership were trained by or had operational experience with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
  2. Abu Musab’s audio in Hausa and Arabic can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/saharareporters/2016-08-04-audio-00000003-1
  3. Al-Naba 41, August 2, 2016, available at Jihadology:

https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/the-islamic-state-e2809cal-nabacc84_-newsletter-4122.pdf

 

This article first appeared in the August 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Romolo Gessi Pasha: Early Counter-Insurgency Lessons from an Italian Soldier of Fortune’s Campaign in Central Africa

Andrew McGregor

Military History Online, August 21, 2016

Gessi portraitRomolo Gessi Pasha

Successful counterinsurgencies typically combine the deployment of superior weapons, competent logistics, advanced tactics and the ability to win the “hearts and minds” of the non-insurgent population.  What is striking about the success of Italian soldier-of-fortune Romolo Gessi Pasha (1831-1881) against insurgent Arab traders and slavers in the south Sudan was his ability to overcome a much larger group of fighters who possessed similar weapons, had greater experience in both irregular and conventional warfare, held fortified positions, were at home in the terrain and had wide public support in the most influential parts of Sudanese society, including the military. Ultimately, Gessi Pasha would go down in history as the relentless weapon used by Sudanese governor-general Charles “Chinese” Gordon to smite the Arab slavers of Bahr al-Ghazal and destroy their expanding influence.

Early Career

Gessi is believed to have attended military schools in Germany and Austria before finding work as an interpreter for British forces in the Crimean War, where he would first meet Captain Charles Gordon of the Royal Engineers, later governor of Sudan’s Equatoria Province (1874-76) and governor general of the Sudan (1877-79).

Dr. Robert W. Felkin, an English medical-missionary and occultist, described the nervous energy that propelled Gessi, “a small wiry man, very impulsive and vivacious. He had grey hair, bright lively eyes and highly nervous hands; he seemed as if he could not sit still for a moment, but was always on the move, and continually occupied in making cigarettes… I think I never met a more entertaining companion.” [1] Gordon later described Gessi in his journal in 1881, when Gessi was 49-years-old: “Short, compact figure; cool, most determined man. Born genius for practical ingenuity in mechanics. Ought to have been born in 1560, not 1832. Same disposition as Francis Drake.” [2] Gessi’s colleague and sometime antagonist Carl Christian Giegler Pasha, the German deputy governor-general of the Sudan until 1883, remarked after Gessi’s death that he had been “one of the most striking figures in the Sudan.” [3] According to Giegler:

When [Gordon] went to the Sudan, he took Gessi with him, for he had a fancy for daredevils like Gessi… He knew how to tame such people and make them useful… Anyone was good enough for the wilds of Central Africa. It was of no importance to Gordon whether the people had previously been honest citizens or rogues. [4]

Giegler claimed Gordon once told him that “Gessi was a fellow capable of the worst and basest actions. Gordon once said to me in the course of conversation, ’Do you know Gessi yet? If I were to order him to kill his own mother, he would certainly do it.’” [5]

When Gessi accepted Gordon’s offer of a staff position in the Sudan in 1873 he was 42-years-old. Though the multilingual Gessi had only an acquaintance with Sudanese Arabic, he did speak Turkish, the command language of the Egyptian Army. While he was now under the authority of the Muslim Egyptian Khedive (Turkish – “viceroy”) and thus an official of the Ottoman Sultan, Gessi had a very low opinion of Islam, which he characterized as only “the first step from fetishism.” [6] Gessi once recommended “colonization on a large scale” to Christianize the Sudan, citing as a model the Protestant Dutch Boers in South Africa.  [7]

Gessi - Giegler PortraitCarl Christian Giegler Pasha

In 1875 Gessi led a mission to Uganda’s Lake Albert conducted on a lice-ridden open boat through continual storms; bananas were often their only food. Gessi feuded with an Italian compatriot on the expedition, beat his Arab sailors with a cudgel and made no useful contacts with the natives. [8]  Gessi claimed to have circumnavigated the lake, but according to Giegler, no one in Khartoum believed him. [9] Gessi was often consumed with sketchy money-making enterprises; Giegler and another official lost a substantial sum of money in Gessi’s attempt to speculate in sorghum, an incident that may have helped color much of Giegler’s later negative assessments of Gessi’s character. [10]

Gessi resigned after Gordon presented him with only a minor Ottoman decoration for his work on Lake Albert. [11] An 1878 mission to the Upper Sobat region followed and Gessi was planning yet another venture in the southern Sudan when news came that Sulayman Bey Zubayr had revolted in Bahr al-Ghazal Province, massacring the Dem Idris garrison and 400 loyal Arab traders before proclaiming the independence of Bahr al-Ghazal. Despite Gessi’s resignation, Gordon asked him to mount an expedition against the powerful rebels.

Bahr al-Ghazal in the Age of Slavery

After its conquest by Egypt in 1821, Sudan was ruled by elements of the non-Arab Turco-Circassian elite that dominated Egypt’s Arab majority. Though the Egyptian Khedive ruled largely independently of his nominal master, the Ottoman Sultan, the Egyptian administration in Sudan was dominated by Turks, Circassians and other peoples of the far-flung Ottoman Empire. Of local importance were the three powerful Arab tribes of northern Sudan, the Danagla, the Ja’aliyin and the Sha’iqiya.

In the mid-19th century so much of Sudan’s economy was built around slave labor that any attempt to simply abolish it would mean the ruin of the country and certain revolt. From 1837 to 1848, the Egyptian government maintained a monopoly on the south Sudan slave trade. This trade was eventually turned over to private merchants before Cairo yielded to international pressure in 1869 and engaged Sir Samuel Baker to abolish slavery in Egypt’s southern dominions. Baker’s often brutal methods succeeded mostly in displacing the slave trade from Sudan’s Equatoria Province to the less accessible Bahr al-Ghazal Province.

Prior to 1850, trade in the Bahr al-Ghazal was largely carried out by itinerant Arab and Arabized-Nubian traders from north Sudan known as jallaba. However, as ivory began to dry up, the traders turned to “black ivory” – slaves. Up to this point, the jallaba (not all of whom were slavers) had paid local rulers for trading rights and protection, but now aligned themselves with the armed trading establishments run by Khartoum-based trading houses.

Europeans and Levantines were also important as ivory traders in Bahr al-Ghazal, but most had sold their interests to Arabs by 1862 as a result of the depletion of ivory stocks, the undesirability of being associated with the expanding slave trade and the increasing violence in the region. [12] The slave markets in Khartoum were closed in 1857 but reopened in more inaccessible places in the south. Nonetheless, the European traders based in Khartoum continued to profit from the trade by offering high-interest loans to Arab slavers. [13]

In 1877 the Egyptian Khedive signed an anti-slavery agreement with the British government that called for an immediate end to the slave-trade and the gradual elimination of slavery over seven years in Egypt and twelve years (i.e. 1889) in the more slave-dependent Sudan. Gordon maintained that the agreement could never be properly implemented in that time-frame: “No man in the place of a governor would plunge the whole country into revolt on this question…” [14]

Most slaves were women who performed domestic tasks or were destined for harems in Cairo, Istanbul and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Corvée labor was usually preferred to slave labor on large projects and plantation labor was rarely performed by male slaves, who were instead diverted to the army for training before being sent back to the Sudan as soldiers. Manumission, susceptibility to disease (particularly Cairo’s regular plague epidemics) and low fertility rates meant that the slave population was constantly in need of replenishment.

Most of the leading traders in Sudan established zariba-s, trading settlements initially fortified by encirclements of thorn bushes and later by earth berms and timber. The traders deployed thousands of armed men, many of them bazinqir-s, former slaves who were allowed a share of the profits in return for their service. Maintaining private armies was not cheap, however, and the traders increasingly focused on expanding the slave trade with the connivance of officials of the Turco-Egyptian government. Unable to assert its authority in the region, the government attempted to integrate the traders into the official administration, giving their activities a degree of immunity.

With the main occupation of Egyptian Army detachments in the region being the collection of slaves and ivory, the traders began sending their illicit cargoes north through desert routes to avoid the Nile. Mortality rates were now far higher, making it necessary to send greater numbers of slaves north in order to maintain the normal profit margins. Sulayman’s powerful father, Zubayr Rahma Mansur Pasha (c. 1831 – 1913), attempted several times to negotiate right-of-passage treaties with the Baqqara (cattle-raising) Arabs of southern Darfur, but despite agreeing to a pact in 1866, the Arab tribesmen could not in the end be persuaded that receiving payment for passage would ultimately be more profitable than raiding slave caravans. These difficulties eventually inspired Zubayr to invade Darfur and add it to his personal empire.

The slavers’ private armies were no mere rabble; in most cases they were as disciplined as government troops, often better fed and supplied, at least as well armed and frequently more experienced in combat and the use of firearms. The men were fiercely loyal to their commanders and were paid in goods, including cattle and slaves. [15]

Zubayr Pasha and Sulayman Bey

By 1865, Zubayr controlled most of the Dar Fertit region of Bahr al-Ghazal. Following a successful thirteen-month war with the militarily powerful Zande peoples, Zubayr found himself the strongest force in the region by early 1873. In the meantime, Zubayr had angered authorities in Khartoum in May 1873 by killing the government-appointed ruler of Dar Fertit, an adventurer from Baguirmi (a slave-raiding sultanate in southern Chad) who had tried to seize Zubayr’s goods on a pretext.

Gessi - Zubayr 2Zubayr Pasha

In December 1873 the Khedive issued a royal decree making Zubayr governor of Bahr al-Ghazal with the Ottoman rank of Bey (a high Ottoman administrative rank, second to Pasha). [16] With his status vis-à-vis the government now normalized, Zubayr began to use his ever-increasing wealth to bribe all levels of officialdom, making himself one of the most powerful men in Sudan.

After a series of disputes with the Khedive’s appointee as Darfur governor, Zubayr decided to travel to Cairo in 1875 to lay his case before the Khedive personally, leaving a force of 6,000 men under the command of his son Sulayman (Zubayr maintained Sulayman was 15-years-old at the time; Gordon believed he was 21, a more likely age). [17] Though he was initially received with great ceremony, Zubayr eventually learned that the Khedive intended his stay in Cairo to be permanent to sideline the possibility that Zubayr might create a mighty empire in Darfur that could eventually threaten Egypt. [18]

While in Cairo, Zubayr met with Gordon, who was on his way back to the Sudan. Zubayr entrusted his son’s safety to Gordon while writing to Sulayman to remain loyal. Shortly after Gordon’s arrival in Khartoum he succeeded in quelling a revolt by Sulayman, but rather than executing the young man, Gordon exacted a promise of future loyalty and released the would-be rebel. The governor-general’s decision to free Sulayman was calculated rather than based on moral softness; Gordon expected reciprocity when he was magnanimous and, in this sense, Sulayman’s days were numbered once he decided to launch a new revolt. [19]

An unconfirmed story claims Zubayr had gathered his officers under a Tamarind tree near Shakka (a town in south Darfur Zubayr had seized from the Baqqara Arabs) and instructed them to revolt if they received a message from Cairo to “carry out the orders given under the tree.” Gordon believed such instructions were sent after he refused to assist Zubayr’s return from Cairo. [20]

Gessi - GordonCharles George Gordon Pasha in Ottoman Uniform

Meanwhile, Zubayr’s empire had been damaged by the maladministration of Idris Abtar, a Danagla slave-trader and merchant who had been appointed in Zubayr’s absence. Rightfully sensing trouble with Sulayman and his Ja’aliyin following, Idris convinced Gordon that Sulayman was in revolt. Idris was given command of Bahr al-Ghazal and set out with some 200 regulars to bring Sulayman to heel. Sulayman reportedly wrote to Gordon, expressing his willingness to submit to a Turk or European, but not to Idris, whom he regarded as a mere servant of his father. [21]  Sulayman now seized Dem Idris and slaughtered the garrison, which brought support from other leading slave-traders opposed to the government’s anti-slavery measures. However, as Gessi noted, “Gordon Pasha was not the man to leave acts of revolt and the massacre of his soldiers unpunished.” [22]

Sulayman’s Revolt

Prior to Sulayman’s revolt, Bahr al-Ghazal, a massive province of over 48,000 square miles at the time, was held for the Egyptian government by only two companies of Egyptian Army regulars, 2 cannon and 700 irregulars, the latter including Arab Sha’iqiya horsemen, local slave-troops and a mixed bag of adventurers and bashi-bazouq (“cracked brains”), Ottoman mercenaries who worked mainly for loot. Sulayman, on the other hand, had four “superior” cannon (with ample supplies of shells and grapeshot), Congreve rockets, ammunition in “enormous quantities” and thousands of well-trained troops. [23]

If Gessi was unaware of the hopelessness of his task, there were many in Khartoum who were ready to remind him: “When, solicited by Gordon, I accepted my mission, everybody began to laugh, saying that Gordon wished at all costs to get rid of me, and that he was sending me to certain death.” [24]

Sulayman’s appeals for fighters brought in thousands of recruits eager to preserve their slice of the lucrative slave trade. According to Gessi, Sulayman had some 700 wives, concubines and slaves, his lieutenant Rabih Fadlallah had 400 slaves, individual Arabs typically had 50 to 100 slaves, and even the lowly bazinqir-s could expect to own five to ten slaves each.

Many of Gessi’s troops were former slaves purchased by Gordon, a recruitment method that earned Gordon the ire of the politically influential London-based Anti-Slavery Society. Gordon did not have great confidence in the rough types of dubious loyalty of the Egyptian Army in the Sudan commanded by Gessi, noting in his diary that: “I am very anxious about him, amid all that gang of scoundrels.”  [25]

Though a loyal servant of the Khedive, Gordon was at all times aware of the corruption and brutality that characterized the Turco-Egyptian administration of the Sudan, suggesting that had Zubayr’s group not been slave-traders it might have been better for the people if the revolt had been successful. [26]

In Pursuit of the Slavers

Gessi left Khartoum on July 15, 1878 on the steamship Burdayn with 40 soldiers before spectators entranced by the sight of men heading to a certain death. [27] The strategic goal was to prevent Sulayman’s forces from joining in the north with the 5,000 men under Amir Muhammad Harun al-Rashid, a Fur prince who was seeking the expulsion of Egyptian troops from Darfur and the re-establishment of an independent Fur sultanate. [28] Gessi believed that Sulayman was intent on using Darfur as a base to seize Khartoum and force the Khedive to free his father.

Gessi - BordeinThe Burdayn on the Nile

The difficulty faced in eliminating the deeply entrenched slave trade was apparent when Gessi detained a two-masted dahabiya (a shallow-bottomed boat designed for use on the Nile) carrying 92 slaves crammed below decks. The ship was government-owned, the slaves were in the care of an officer of the regular army, and the cargo allegedly belonged to Colonel Ibrahim Fawzi Bey, governor of Equatoria Province and a favorite of Gordon. The captain of the ship was the brother-in-law of Yusuf Bey al-Shallali, Gessi’s Nubian second-in-command. [29]

Gessi expected to collect more troops on the way, but when he reached the garrison at Fashoda, he found only sick and convalescent men, of whom “the greater part were afflicted with syphilitic diseases, festering wounds, and the itch.” [30] The Fashoda arsenal was empty; at Lado, officials made 240 antique firearms available, but hid from Gessi all the modern Remingtons and ammunition.

By October 1878, Gessi could only muster 3,000 of the 7,500 troops he expected to command. At Rumbek, he obtained four companies of regulars and 1,000 irregulars of questionable loyalty, most having friends and relatives in the rebel camp. Arabs enticed many of the men to desert, a practice Gessi inhibited by publicly executing a deserter and flogging others.

The annual floods in the region that inhibited campaigning began to fall, and by mid-November 1878, Gessi was ready to march against the rebels. Once the fighting had started, Sulayman received a telegram from his father urging submission, an approach also favored by a council of 12 elders established to advise the young Sulayman. This advice was dismissed, with Sulayman convinced that he and all the leading men under him would be executed if they surrendered. [31] Nonetheless, Sulayman consented to sending two delegations to Gordon; all members were executed by Gordon as spies on Gessi’s advice. [32] This marked the end of any possibility of a negotiated settlement. Success would now be the only means of survival.

From the beginning, Gessi’s advance overland was slowed by thick vegetation and the soldiers’ insistence on bringing their women, children and slaves with them, a practice Gessi knew would hamper his progress but felt unable to correct without provoking dissent in the ranks. [33] The camp followers left the columns in a “perpetual turmoil which at times threatened a hopeless confusion.”  [34]

Terrain was near impassable at times; one particular five-hour “march” through waist-high swamp water underlain by thick, boot-sucking mud was called “the Devil’s Walk” by Gessi’s men. Forty-two men declined to answer the roll-call that night, “lying in the mud, preferring to die rather than go on, as they had no more strength.” [35] Powerful lightning storms lit up the nights and rain fell “with such force that it took one’s breath away.” [36] Villages on the way had been emptied by the slavers, who also burned grain-stores and the boats needed to cross crocodile-infested rivers.

Fatal illnesses such as smallpox and dysentery struck with frequency, while Gessi complained it was difficult to convince fatalistic Muslims of the wisdom of preventative health and sanitation measures. Lack of medical treatment meant an agonizing death was the most common fate of the wounded on both sides. The methods of the few Egyptian doctors under Gessi’s command was eye-opening: “Never have I seen doctors beat sick soldiers!” [37]

Constant ammunition shortages were another problem. Sulayman’s Arabs made their own copper bullets with metal from southern Darfur and traded slaves for ammunition and food. At times, Gessi had to order his troops to gather spent rebel bullets to be recast into ammunition for government rifles, sometimes in the midst of a firefight. When ammunition did arrive, it was in the form of ingots of lead and barrels of powder. Paper for making cartridges was in short supply, with official stationary and books from Gessi’s baggage being pressed into use during one crisis.

When supplies of meat and salt expired, Gessi noted that Zande troops under his command remained healthy, “owing to the feeding on human flesh. Directly after a battle they cut off the feet of the dead as the most exquisite dainties, opened the skulls and preserved the brains in pots.” [38] What is implicit here is that Gessi, like the later Congo Free State army of the 1890s, tolerated such practices, preferring to reserve the use of authority for measures directly concerned with military success while enjoying the psychological threat cannibalism imposed on the enemy.

By December 12, Gessi had gathered 2400 soldiers under his command at Wau, thanks in part to the decision of trader Abu Amuri to join the government side, bringing with him 700 armed men. [39] This force enabled Gessi to advance on Dem Idris, which under Sulayman had been commanded by ‘Abd al-Qassim, “a wild beast in human form” alleged to have conducted human sacrifices. [40]

If he tried to assault Dem Idris directly, Gessi was guaranteed a ferocious fight from a defending force at least as large as his own when assaults on fortified positions usually dictated a minimum of a three-to-one advantage over the defenders. Gessi dictated a message to a captured spy warning of the imminent arrival of large numbers of government troops at Dem Idris. The letter, written in the spy’s own hand to guarantee its acceptance, was entrusted to a slave to deliver to Dem Idris. By dawn the next morning, the Dem Idris garrison was falling back on Dem Sulayman, leaving Gessi in control of the fortified position without firing a shot. [41] When the deception was discovered, Sulayman hurled wave after wave of fighters against Dem Idris, whose fortifications had been quickly improved at Gessi’s order. A thousand rebels fell in the 3 ½ hours of continuous assaults against the government troops, most of whom were facing gunfire rather than spears and arrows for the first time. Gessi was astonished by the determination of the rebel fighters: “The best European soldiers could not have shown a greater contempt of death.”

In late December, 1878, Sulayman again turned his forces against Dem Idris, so confident of victory that some of his 10,000 men had been issued with ropes to tie their captives. The Arabs and bazinqir-s stormed the zariba four times before being driven off with the loss of another thousand men. [42]

After receiving reinforcements, Sulayman determined to put an end to Gessi on January 12, 1879, swearing on the Quran with his officers to succeed or die. The rebels made two fierce assaults on Gessi’s defenses, with the Arabs driving the attack forward by decapitating black troops who faltered. The rebels returned to the attack the next day, but Gessi’s outnumbered troops managed to repel the rebels after an exhausting seven hour battle. Sulayman’s force returned to the attack twice more and his artillery set fire to the government camp, but Gessi advanced into the open and defeated the rebels in a further three-hour battle.

By March 1879, food was running short in the rebel camp and Sulayman had begun executing both Arabs and bazinqir-s who expressed dissent. [43] On March 16, Gessi launched four columns against the rebel camp after receiving a much-needed supply of powder and lead. Gessi’s guns and Congreve rockets (still useful, but already a military antique in Europe) set fire to the camp and its tree trunk barricades. Five rebel sorties were driven back, with Sulayman and the surviving rebels forced to abandon the blazing zariba: “The dead lay one upon the other, most of them reduced to a cinder… Our nostrils were offended by the odor of burning flesh, which flamed as if it were fat.” [44]

Gessi - Dem Sulayman battleEgyptian Troops Attack Dem Sulayman

By now, Sulayman had only 1,000 soldiers left while Gessi had begun striking those zariba-s that served as the prime rebel recruitment centers. After ordering local shaykh-s to kill any jallaba they could catch, Gessi’s native allies began arriving with numerous baskets of heads. [45] Unfortunately, this had the effect of driving the remaining unaligned jallaba into Sulayman’s camp for safety. With the addition of a column of Arab and Zande reinforcements (the Zande were present on both sides), Sulayman was now able to muster over 3,000 men. [46] Though troubled by an outbreak of smallpox and the question of how to feed some 12,000 camp followers, Gessi had received reinforcements and supplies of ammunition. Mass public hangings of captured slavers continued to rouse local support. [47]

After four and a half months at Dem Idris, Gessi’s small army left on May 1, 1879 to take the rebel headquarters at Dem Sulayman. Gessi’s troops defeated a group of rebels outside the camp before storming it on May 4. Sulayman and the rebels fled but pursuit was halted because Gessi’s troops were busy looting Dem Sulayman’s considerable wealth. Gessi later claimed to have found a letter there from Zubayr to Sulayman instructing his son to “free Bahr al-Ghazal from the Egyptian troops…” [48]

Gessi - slaversSlaver Killing an Exhausted Slave

Gessi was now pursuing Sulayman’s forces through uncharted territory as they tried to make for Darfur. Sulayman’s progress was marked by wounded bazinqir-s whose throats had been cut. When Gessi’s advance encountered the bodies of small slave children slaughtered by the traders because of their inability to keep up due to fatigue and hunger, his sorrow “soon gave way to indignation” and some thirty captured slavers were brought up to witness the sight before their execution; according to Gessi, “God punished them by my hand.” [49]

Sensing the time had come to destroy the rebels, Gessi, now made a general by Gordon, assembled a group of chosen men consisting of two companies of regulars and 400 bazinqir-s. The force was small, but von Clausewitz’s maxim was to hold true: “The weaker the forces that are at the disposal of the supreme commander, the more appealing the use of cunning becomes.” [50] Departing on May 9, Gessi’s talent for deception soon brought results.

Gessi avoided the usual roads as he closed in on Sulayman’s chief lieutenant, Rabih Fadlallah. While camped in a glade, several men approached Gessi’s camp shortly after midnight. Mistaking the camp for Rabih’s in the darkness, the men revealed they were an advance party from a group led by Idris al-Sultan, a leading slaver and ally of Sulayman. Staying out of sight, Gessi ordered his men to tell the advance party that they would wait for Idris further on the next day. In the early morning Gessi fell upon Rabih’s camp, killing many, though Rabih himself escaped. The area was cleared of all signs of a battle and Rabih’s flag was re-hoisted beside his tent. Encouraged by some of Gessi’s men posing as Rabih’s followers, Idris al-Sultan’s group was led into a massive ambush outside Rabih’s former camp that began just as a storm broke. Confused and disoriented, most of al-Sultan’s group was annihilated despite repeated attempts to break out. Gessi “felt sorry for these soldiers, but though I admired their pluck I was obliged to order the firing to be continued against those who obstinately refused to surrender.” [51] With food short, Gessi’s men now returned to Dem Sulayman with vast stores of seized ivory and many leading slavers in chains. [52]

Despite promises of great riches and future victories, the shattered morale of Sulayman’s men soon led to acts of insubordination and a rise in desertions. [53] Sulayman had roughly 20,000 people with him at the time, all of them hungry. Native tribes-people removed all the grain in the path of the column, forcing the rebels to subsist on leaves and roots. Hundreds died from hunger daily and those jallaba who fell out encountered the lances of vengeful tribesmen. [54]

The campaign slowed for several weeks as Gessi fell ill and devoted most of his time to sending in great amounts of captured ivory. Gordon, who had occupied Shakka to the north to stop reinforcements from reaching Sulayman, was able to meet with Gessi on June 25. The governor-general remarked that Gessi was “looking much older,” [55] but was able to give Gessi the news of his elevation to pasha, the award of a major Ottoman decoration and a cash bonus of £E 2000.

Constant shortages meant that Gessi was usually in greater need of supplies than men. Even when desperately under strength, Gessi chose not to take untrustworthy irregulars: “The irregular soldiers… were the scum of all that is bad. The greater part, escaping the justice of the Soudan Government, committed the vilest actions; every day they were intoxicated, ravished the native women and carried away everything that fell into their hands.” [56]

The campaign’s pace picked up in early July when a deserter informed Gessi that Sulayman was encamped at three days’ distance. Gessi hastened to catch the rebel, but Sulayman’s spies informed their leader and his force departed in three columns led by Sulayman, ‘Abd al-Qassim and Rabih to join Harun Rashid’s rebels in Darfur. To prevent this rendezvous Gessi led 290 men through rain and mud in three days of forced marches. Meanwhile, Sulayman was having his own problems, with his right-hand man Rabih arguing against the advance into Darfur (Rabih was proved right – Harun Rashid’s rebellion was crushed in March 1880).

As Gessi’s column neared Darfur, the terrain began to change. This region was dry and often waterless. Massive and isolated Baobab trees replaced the forest and the tracks of elephants, giraffes, gazelles and buffalo could be seen everywhere. The men often resorted to drinking stagnant pond water that made many of them ill, though food became less of a problem with the presence of game.

The Destruction of Sulayman

By mid-July, 1879, Gessi had finally caught up with Sulayman’s column at a place called Gara. Gessi encamped several hours away, instructing his men to avoid lighting fires and to maintain absolute silence to prevent Sulayman’s scouts from discovering their position.

Sulayman commanded some 700 men at this time, while his lieutenant Rabih had a similar number nearby. At daybreak on July 16, Gessi concealed his force of 275 men in the woods and sent a message to Sulayman’s camp that they were surrounded and had five minutes to lay down their arms and surrender or they would be destroyed. It was yet another example of deception as a weapon; Gessi actually feared that surrounding the much larger group would allow his force to be overrun and instead kept his detachment intact. Believing that Gessi had 3,000 troops and that their own end was imminent, the rebel camp broke into mass confusion, with some fighters fleeing into the woods while most, including the leaders, laid down their arms and surrendered. Sulayman was visibly dismayed when he realized the actual size of Gessi’s force, exclaiming to his captor: “What! Have you no other troops?” [57]

What happened next is still a matter of controversy. The leading prisoners, Sulayman and eleven of his chief advisors, were oddly not bound, the usual practice, suggesting there was some type of agreement between the antagonists. Austrian Rudolf Slatin Pasha (governor of Darfur, 1881-1883) claimed that an officer in the government expedition told him that Gessi had offered Sulayman a pardon in return for his surrender, but this has never been confirmed. [58] In the night Gessi claimed to have received reports that Sulayman and his chiefs were conspiring to escape; according to Gessi, the slave-traders’ horses were found to have been saddled and supplied with food and arms. This uncommon lack of security seems strange, but it supplied Gessi with a justification “to have done with these people once and for all.” [59]

Gessi - execution of SulaymanExecution of Sulayman Pasha

Sulayman and the chiefs were lined up in front of a firing squad. The young Sulayman reportedly fell to his knees in shock and anguish, but most of the chiefs met their death with dignity and defiance. [60] Gordon took full responsibility for the killings; “I have no compunction about [Sulayman’s] death… Gessi only obeyed my orders in shooting him.” [61] Gessi makes only a fleeting reference to the most important incident in his career in his posthumously published memoir, noting he ordered the executions after an escape attempt. [62] Meanwhile, Rabih had moved off to Dar Banda in the Zande country, going on to carve out his own slave-based empire in central Africa before he was killed and decapitated by French colonial troops and their Baguirmi allies in 1900.

Governor of Bahr al-Ghazal

Having eliminated Sulayman, Gessi was now compelled to turn his attention to the development of Bahr al-Ghazal. His first step was disarming many of his own troops, “who were no less brutal and savage than Suleiman’s troops.” [63] Harsh penalties were promulgated for all slavery-related offences. Public hangings were meant as a deterrent, but much of Gessi’s time was occupied in expeditions against the region’s remaining slavers with only 150 regulars. By now, long exposure to brutality, fever and isolation had helped turn Gessi into a delusional prototype for Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz character in The Heart of Darkness:

I am obliged to rule by fear, and it is quite a miracle that I am still alive. My whole strength lies in the inhabitants, who obey me as if I were their Deity, and, if necessary, I should have more than ten thousand armed men ready to defend and die with me. [64]

Gessi spent over two months of the summer of 1880 bed-ridden by an extremely painful Guinea Worm infection that also brought down many of his officers. During this time, Gessi (like the fictional Kurtz) stopped sending reports to his superiors in Khartoum and failed to organize the administration, creating strains with the administration of Gordon’s replacement, Governor-General Muhammad Ra’uf Pasha. The result was a demotion and cut in pay. [65]

The Death Ship

Departing Bahr al-Ghazal on his own initiative on September 25, 1880, Gessi left for Khartoum on the steamer Safiya to defend his actions to Ra’uf Pasha. Gessi ignored advice not to attempt the passage through the 30,000 square kilometer Sudd swamp of south Sudan without a trained crew, proper equipment or a steamer with sufficient power. [66] The Sudd is famous for vast islands of floating vegetation that impede navigation and can easily trap a ship.

Gessi - SafiyaThe Safiya in the Sudd

Carrying two companies of troops and their families as well as many Danagla Arab traders, the Safiya was a small wood-burning steamer equipped with a 40 horsepower engine, insufficient to force its way through the Sudd. The ship’s tackle and equipment, essential to working the ship through the swamp, had been allowed to rot with neglect. Giegler maintained (likely on the basis of the subsequent inquiry) that the ship’s crew insisted on returning until a better-equipped ship could be sent to cut the way, but Gessi demanded the attempt be made, wanting “to waste no time in reaching Khartoum and Cairo in order to give [Muhammad] Ra’uf and me [Giegler] a slap in the face, as he put it!” [67]

Most of the soldiers and crew believed Gessi’s return to Khartoum was a result of official recall, making it difficult for Gessi to assert his authority aboard the Safiya, especially when food became scarce after the Safiya predictably became trapped in the Sudd.

Sleep on the ship in the midst of clouds of malarial mosquitos was nearly impossible and starving and exhausted men were asked to perform the brutally hard work of entering the swamp to break through the bars of vegetation. Fuel for the steamer ran out and the captain took to his cabin to sell the ship’s stores to starving men at extortionate prices. After having eaten their shoes, the lethargic men laid still on the deck to await their death. Accused of hoarding food, Gessi was forced to keep his weapons close while his native bodyguards slept in the doorway of his cabin. According to Giegler, it was only the protection offered by ivory trader and former Gessi ally Abu Amuri that kept Gessi from being murdered by his own soldiers. [68]

Passengers and crew alike began to die at an alarming rate and were simply pushed overboard, where the stench of their rotting corpses and the arrival of hordes of feeding vultures only increased the misery of those still trapped onboard. By mid-December, nearly three months after departure, Gessi recorded only eight of his 149 Sudanese soldiers still alive:

We have reached the worst. I cannot remember anything like it in all my life. Scarcely does someone die than he is devoured during the night by the survivors. It is impossible to describe the horror of such scenes. One soldier devoured his own son. [69]

On January 5, however, the Safiya was rescued by the steamer Burdayn, sent out by Giegler. Over 430 people had died on the Safiya and Gessi, a “living skeleton,” was held responsible. [70] Results of an investigation considered embarrassing to the reputation of the Egyptian Army were eventually filed away in a dark corner in Cairo. Giegler claimed it was “clear that Gessi and Gessi alone was responsible for the misfortune but this did not worry him at all.” [71]

Desperately sick in Khartoum, Gessi sought to head north to put his case before the Khedive. According to Slatin, Gessi insisted on being accompanied to Cairo by his eunuch al-Mas (likely one of the young eunuchs seized during a raid on a eunuch manufacturing operation that Gessi claimed was run by his second-in-command Yusuf Bey al-Shallali [72]), but Ra’uf Pasha, fearing a scandal, forbade it. [73]

Gessi was still sick and weak when he set out and had to be carried across the burning desert to the port city of Suakin on a litter suspended between two camels. By the time he arrived in Cairo he was clearly dying, and even a last minute personal visit from Khedive Muhammad Tawfiq was not enough to provoke his recovery. He expired on April 30, 1881; in his last note to a friend, Gessi remarked: “I have suffered too much. I have been exposed to too many fatigues. The last catastrophe of the voyage has quite crushed me. Another in my place would have died of horror.” [74] Again, one is reminded of Kurtz’s last words in Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!”

Was Gessi Actually Responsible for the Conduct of the Campaign?

One of the lingering questions regarding Gessi’s Bahr al-Ghazal campaign is the degree of success attributable to Gessi’s second-in-command, Colonel Yusuf Bey al-Shallali (later made a Brigadier and Pasha). Hailing from the village of al-Shallal on the First Cataract of the Nile, Yusuf had worked for Zubayr in Bahr al-Ghazal before receiving a military appointment from the Egyptian government.

According to Giegler Pasha, Yusuf was the “main-doer” on the campaign; “Though Gessi’s name is always connected with the history of the Zubayr Pasha revolt on the Bahr al-Ghazal, it was in fact Yusuf Bey who directed the whole operation. Gessi was responsible only for the end; he had Sulayman al-Zubayr captured and shot after the latter had acted so wildly.” [75] Giegler, like many in the Sudan administration, was not overly fond of the Italian mercenary, but neither did he hold a brief for Yusuf Pasha, who served the government under a certain degree of suspicion due to his reputation as a major slaver.  The matter seems fated to remain unresolved; Gessi himself gave Yusuf little credit for his role in the campaign, noting that “my faith in Yusuf Bey as an officer was not great.” [76] Elsewhere Gessi accused Yusuf of the greatest crimes, including murder, slave-raiding, and rampant corruption.

Nonetheless, Yusuf’s performance in the campaign brought him promotion in Khartoum and appointment as governor of Sinnar Province. [77] Yusuf replaced Giegler as military commander under the orders of a new governor-general, ‘Abd al-Qadir Pasha. In May 1881, Yusuf Pasha left Fashoda for the Nuba Mountains with 3500 mostly unwilling troops, four field guns and a rocket battery to put down the incipient Mahdist revolt.  Near Jabal Qadir, Yusuf uncharacteristically failed to post sentries around his zariba, allowing thousands of Mahdist troops to infiltrate the camp before attacking the still-sleeping soldiers. Yusuf, still in his underclothes, was killed in front of his tent and the entire Egyptian force wiped out.

Aftermath and Legacy: Tactical Victory, Strategic Failure

Bahr al-Ghazal only remained in government hands for five years after Gessi’s campaign, which inadvertently laid the foundation for the collapse of Turco-Egyptian rule in the region by disrupting the slave-based economy (for which no immediate alternative existed) and alienating many Arab groups. Those who joined the Mahdist rebellion were not, however, the Ja’aliyin Arabs who followed Sulayman Pasha, but rather Danaqla and Baqqara Arabs who had been promised much by Gessi for their support, but ultimately received nothing.  Other groups that had been provided arms by Gessi for use against the slavers turned these same arms against Gessi’s successor. Soon after Gessi’s departure Arab slavers and government troops alike began to re-indulge in the slave trade in Bahr al-Ghazal. Nonetheless, Gordon was pleased with Gessi’s efforts: “He has done splendidly, and I am greatly relieved… Gessi had most inadequate means for his work – at least five-sixths of those with him were, in their hearts, friends of Zubayr’s son…” [78]

Gessi was hailed by Italian colonialists shortly after his death as a model anti-slaver and notable explorer. Gessi’s remains were repatriated to Italy in 1883 and laid to rest in Ravenna. The transfer was used by pro-colonialist Italian factions to promote new 19th century Italian colonial adventures in Eritrea and Somalia. Gessi’s legacy was again revived in the 1930s by Fascist leaders seeking to build a new “Roman Empire” in Libya and Ethiopia. World War II’s Battaglione “Romolo Gessi” was an Italian combat unit formed in May 1941 from Italian and Libyan members of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (Italian Africa Police), a colonial police force. It was disbanded less than a year later after suffering heavy losses. [79]

In the post-WWII era, Gessi’s accomplishments were folded into an embarrassing and ultimately self-destructive colonial past that most Italians preferred to ignore. The availability of previously unexamined correspondence and documents in the 1980s shed a negative light on Gessi’s work and his often tempestuous relations with colleagues. More recent treatments of Gessi’s life have emphasized his weaknesses as an explorer, administrator, businessman and, most harshly, as a soldier. [80]

Conclusion: Lessons Learned in Counter-Insurgency

Though Gessi never explicitly described the actual lessons he might have learned over a year in the bush fighting highly capable and well-supplied insurgents, it is nevertheless possible to list those principles which served Gessi (and Yusuf) in their campaign:

  • Make liberal use of intelligence gained from deserters, prisoners and civilians hostile to the enemy
  • Impose iron discipline tempered by regard for local habits and customs
  • Adapt to local means of warfare by using ambushes, guerrilla tactics and mobile strike forces
  • Keep your force lean and avoid the use of undisciplined irregulars whenever possible
  • Employ ruthlessness as a force multiplier
  • Use deception whenever possible to even the odds against a superior enemy
  • Exploit local grievances to cut support for the insurgents
  • Improvise to cover weaknesses in supply and logistics systems
  • Offer economic alternatives to cooperation with the insurgents

Gessi was often hard-pressed to assert his authority over his own men as well as the enemy. In the circumstances, Gessi turned to severe discipline in the first case and ruthlessness in the second. Gessi later remarked:

I was the only Christian among all the Mohammedans whom I led against other Mohammedans, and who at any moment might have revolted and left me at the mercy of the enemy. Notwithstanding this exceptional positon, I used the utmost rigor against everyone. This discipline, and above all, Divine Providence, enabled me to succeed. [81]

As far as Gessi’s campaign was remembered at all in the U.K., it was mainly as an episode of the larger 19th century anti-slavery movement, while in Italy it was (in the pre-WW II era at least) an example of Italian superiority over the “lesser races” of Africa. The campaign’s controversies, the absence of other European troops, Gessi’s own death and the subsequent collapse of Egyptian authority in the Sudan did little to recommend its study in European military academies. As a result, many of the lessons that could have been drawn from the campaign had to be relearned later, initially by Belgian forces fighting their own war against Arab slavers in the Congo in the 1890s, and later by French officers like Colonels Roger Trinquier and David Galula, who developed modern counter-insurgency strategies during the bitter Indo-Chinese and Algerian insurgencies.

Colonel Galula described victory in counterinsurgency as “the permanent isolation of the insurgent from the population, isolation not enforced upon the population, but maintained by and with the population.” [82] In this sense, Gessi fell well short of ultimate victory; dissatisfaction created by Gessi’s failure to follow through on promises to his Arab allies helped promote the broader, religiously-inspired Mahdist rebellion that killed Gordon and expelled the “Turks” from the Sudan only a few years later. As the U.S. counterinsurgency manual notes, “killing insurgents—while necessary, especially with respect to extremists—by itself cannot defeat an insurgency.” [83]

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NOTES

[1] Cited in Udal, vol. ii, p. 346

[2] GB Hill, p.373

[3] Giegler, p.163

[4] Ibid, p. 28

[5] Ibid, p. 28

[6] Gessi, p.316

[7] Ibid, p.317

[8] Ibid, p. 125

[9] Giegler, p. 110

[10] Ibid, p. 49

[11] Ibid, p. 104

[12] Mowafi, p.56

[13] Berlioux, p.20

[14] Cited in Udal, p. 338

[15] Gessi, pp. 51-52

[16] Udal, vol.II, p. 170

[17] Shaw, p.674

[18] Ibid, p. 681

[19] Gessi, pp. 247-50

[20] GB Hill, p.372; Gessi, p.305

[21] Shaw, p.677

[22] Gessi, p.301

[23] Ibid, p.186

[24] Ibid, p. 344

[25] GB Hill, p. 343

[26] Ibid, p.373

[27] Gessi, p. 187; Giegler, p.117

[28] Gessi, p.288

[29] Ibid, p.190, pp. 355-57

[30] Ibid, p.194

[31] Shaw, p. 678

[32] Gessi, p.27; GB Hill, p.350

[33] GB Hill, p.370

[34] Schweinfurth, Vol. II, p.423

[35] Gessi, pp. 234-35

[36] Ibid, p.235

[37] GB Hill, p.375; Gessi, p.289

[38] Gessi, p.255

[39] Gessi, p.240; GB Hill, p.377

[40] Ibid, pp. 241-42

[41] Ibid, 242-43

[42] GB Hill, p.378

[43] Gessi, p.263

[44] Ibid, p.263

[45] Ibid, p. 268

[46] Ibid, p. 271

[47] Ibid, p. 270

[48] Ibid, p.307

[49] Ibid, p. 282

[50] Von Clausewitz, p.203

[51] Gessi, p. 286

[52] GB Hill, pp.384-385

[53] Gessi, p. 328

[54] Ibid, pp. 328-29

[55] GB Hill, p.370

[56] Gessi p. 350

[57] GB Hill, p.387

[58] Udal, v.ii, p.351

[59] GB Hill, p.387

[60] Ibid, p.387

[61] Cited in Udal, vol.ii, p. 351

[62] Gessi, p. 329. The number of chiefs arrested by Gessi differs from eight to eleven according to various accounts.

[63] Ibid, p. 359

[64] Ibid, p. 365

[65] Giegler, p.158

[66] Ibid, p.158

[67] Ibid, pp. 158-59

[68] Ibid, p. 159

[69] Gessi, p. 401

[70] Austrian Consul Martin Hansal, cited in Udal, Vol. II, p.369

[71] Giegler, p.160

[72] Gessi, pp. 355-357

[73] Slatin, p.35

[74] Gessi, pp. 416-17

[75] Giegler, pp. 117, 147

[76] Gessi, p. 207

[77] Giegler, p.117, fn. 11

[78] GB Hill, p. 348

[79] Crociani and Battistelli, p. 20

[80] See esp. Zaccaria.

[81] Gessi, p. 346

[82] Galula, p.57

[83] U.S. Army/Marine Corps, p.1-14

This article first appeared in Military History Online on August 21, 2016: http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/19thcentury/articles/inventionofcounterinsurgency.aspx#