An American-Educated Warlord in Equatoria: A Profile of South Sudan’s General Martin Terensio Kenyi

Andrew McGregor

March 3, 2017

According to a confidential UN report, six million people, half the population of South Sudan, are in need of humanitarian assistance less than six years after the nation gained its independence as a result of militia warfare spinning out of control (AFP, February 15). Power struggles in the oil-rich but otherwise completely undeveloped nation have devolved along tribal and ethnic lines. Intensifying the problem is the large variety of South Sudanese warlords, invariably “generals,” whether self-appointed or granted this distinction in order to pull them within the orbit of the governments of Khartoum or Juba.  These inflated militia leaders share a habit of changing sides according to whatever profits them most, making rational solutions to the crisis in South Sudan difficult in the extreme.

General Martin Terensio Kenyi

One such “General” is Martin Terensio Kenyi, a member of South Sudan’s Ma’di tribe and the most important warlord in the hilly and forested Eastern Equatoria region bordering Uganda.

General Kenyi calls for a federal system in South Sudan that would break Dinka domination of the government, though the government claims he is working for the separation of Eastern Equatoria from South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, December 7, 2014). General Kenyi’s career is marked by a pattern of defections and changing loyalties based more on opportunism, tribal rivalries and personal relations with other warlords than the interests of the young nation.

Kenyi has called for a united front to dismantle the “tribally-dominated regime” of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who many South Sudanese believe is intent on establishing the dominance of South Sudan’s Dinkas, the largest ethnic group in the nation (Sudan Tribune, January 31, 2015). When not in the field, the General lives with his family in Kampala, Uganda.

South Sudan

The Ma’di People and Eastern Equatoria

 In South Sudan, the Ma’di people live in Magwi County in Imatong State. Other Ma’di live across the border (including South Sudanese Ma’di refugees) in Uganda’s adjoining Adjuman and Moyo districts. The Ma’di have an intensive interaction with Acholi clans (some friendly, some not) that live side by side with the Ma’di on both sides of the border.

The tribe’s oral history claims a Nigerian origin, though this has not been substantiated. The Ma’di were among many southern tribes that endured slave-raiding by Egypt’s Turko-Circassian army in the mid-19th century. The Ottoman onslaught drove many Ma’di into the bush and others south to Uganda, though General Charles “Chinese” Gordon made efforts to end slavery in the region while Ottoman governor of Equatoria (1874-76). The slave raids left the southerners with a deep hostility toward their northern Muslim neighbors that would help fuel Equatorian participation in the Anyanya rebellion (a.k.a. “The First Sudanese Civil War,”1955-1972). Government repression was heavy and atrocities frequent during the rebellion in Equatoria, the conflict’s focal point. [1]

After a brief period of Belgian rule in part of the Ma’di territory (the “Lado Enclave,” 1892-1910), all the Ma’di fell under Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Southern Sudan or British colonial rule in northern Uganda by 1910.  The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) arrived in Eastern Equatoria in 1985 when the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) began raiding Ma’di territory. The use of Acholi recruits on these raids heightened tensions with the Ma’di community for several years.  By 1986, some Ma’di began to form self-defense militias, though others, like Kenyi, joined the SPLM/A. [2]

Most Ma’di are Christian, though there is a significant number of Muslims, especially in trading families.  Syncretistic forms of Islam and Christianity are common and a minority continues to follow traditional forms of ancestor worship. Most Ma’di are sedentary agriculturalists specializing in tobacco and cotton.

Early Career

General Kenyi was born in the Sudanese border town of Nimule in 1962.  He and his family took refuge in Uganda during the Anyanya Rebellion, which ravaged Equatoria before a Ma’di officer named Joseph Lagu united the Southern guerrilla groups and forced Khartoum to negotiate the Addis Ababa agreement that ended the war in 1972.

The family returned to Sudan after the end of the war, and Kenyi eventually went to the United States to earn a B.A. in political science and economics at Iowa’s Loras College in 1986. After completing a M.A. in political economy and comparative politics at Western Illinois University in 1988, Kenyi returned to Sudan and joined the rebellion led by John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). [3] His American education earned him a spot in 1989 at the military college in Bonga, Ethiopia, a strongly Marxist institution that trained the rebel movement’s officers from 1984 to 1990 under the patronage of the military-communist Derg regime in Addis Ababa. [4] On graduation Kenyi was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the SPLA. Kenyi rose to the rank of captain and served as adjutant to co-founder and military chief-of-staff William Nyuon Bany (Nuer, killed 1996).

Early  SPLA Leaders: William Nyuon Bany (died 1996); John Garang de Mabior (died 2005); Salva Kiir Mayardit (current president of South Sudan); Kuol Manyang Juuk

Defection to the SSDF

In 1992, Kenyi followed Nyuon in defecting to the breakaway South Sudan Defense Force (SSDF), a Nuer-dominated umbrella group led by Riek Machar Teny (Dok Nuer) that incorporated a variety of South Sudanese ethnic militias aligned with the Khartoum government. Besides Nyuon, other leading members included Gordon Kong Chuol (Jikany Nuer) and the late Paulino Matip Nhial (Bul Nuer). However, there were serious tensions between the Nuer and the Equatorians in the movement that led to internal clashes and an assassination attempt on Kenyi allegedly ordered by Nyuon (Radio Tamazuj, November 23, 2014).

Birth of the Equatorian Defense Force (EDF)

Separating himself from the rest of the SSDF command, Kenyi assumed the role of military commander of the Equatorian Defense Force (EDF), which continued as a part of the SSDF. By 2001 Kenyi was a Colonel and the SSDF’s commander of the Equatoria military region. The EDF was one of dozens of pro-government militias operating in South Sudan during the Second Civil War.

With fighters from the Ma’di, Acholi and other small ethnic groups, the EDF fought Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA, still largely Ugandan Acholi at that point) along the Ugandan border through 2001-2004 (BBC Monitoring Africa, March 30, 2004).

The political wing of the EDF was led by Dr. Theophilus Ochang Loti. The movement signed on to the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement that committed the government to a referendum on independence, but the SPLM/A refused to sign the pact. The agreement called for the SSDF and its constituent parts to remain a separate entity from the Government of Sudan (GoS) army, but under a joint SSDF/GoS military command. This clause, like the referendum, was never implemented. [5] Nonetheless, the SSDF relied on Khartoum for arms and supplies.

In 2003, Kenyi claimed that the SPLM/A’s decision to negotiate a peace agreement with Khartoum validated his choice to collaborate with the GoS rather than rebel against it: “Today the SPLA is negotiating a peace agreement with the GoS. We are not opposed to such a process because after all these years the SPLA has come to follow our example.” [6]

With the encouragement of Riek Machar [7], Kenyi led the EDF out of the SSDF and re-joined the SPLA as a brigadier general after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. A major consideration was the need to drive the irrational and bloodthirsty LRA out of South Sudan, an objective best achieved by uniting forces.  Kenyi was made deputy director for procurement at SPLA headquarters in Juba, director of procurement for 2009-2010 and then , 2013-14.

Assassination Attempts

Not all Ma’di oppose the Juba government; some have little interest in prolonging the violence and are willing to cooperate with the Juba government. Prominent Ma’di supporters of the regime include Dr. Anne Itto Leonardo, the presidential advisor on agriculture and food security, and John Andruga Duku, a former ambassador for the SPLM/A. Both are held in suspicion by some Ma’di who are wary of their ties to Dinka leaders in Juba (SouthSudanLiberty.com, May 9, 2015).

One South Sudanese media source cited a leaked government report in May 2015 that alleged Dr. Itto and Ambassador Andruga met privately with President Kiir on April 15, 2015 to discuss means of convincing General Kenyi to abandon his rebellion. Three plans were devised: the first involved bribery and assistance in resettling in South Africa; the second would drop capital offense treason charges against Kenyi, allowing him to return to Juba; while the third plan was to convince General Kenyi that his rebellion was unwanted by the Ma’di people, who suffered repression on account of it. Kenyi’s caution made face-to-face discussion of these options impossible, so Andruga allegedly led South Sudanese security agents on a mission to assassinate Kenyi in Nairobi, but a tip from a South Sudanese security agent allowed Kenyi to escape (SouthSudanLiberty.com, May 9, 2015).

With the Juba regime still believing that the elimination of General Kenyi would lead to the collapse of a number of other small rebellions in Equatoria, Chief-of-Staff General “King” Paul Malong Awon (Dinka) and Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk (Bor Dinka) were alleged to have met with Equatorian General and 6th Division commander Johnson Juma “JJ” Okot (Acholi) in January 2016 to plan Kenyi’s assassination. This plan also failed when it was prematurely revealed (Nyamile.com, January 7, 2016). [8]   

The SPLM/A-IO claimed National Security Service agents attempted to kill Kenyi on July 1, 2016 by ambushing his car. Kenyi was not in the vehicle at the time, but his security chief, George Ruben Ishamala, was allegedly wounded, abducted, tortured and finally murdered by security agents who dumped his body in the Juba morgue (SouthSudanLiberty.com, July 3, 2016).

Renewed Alliance with Riek Machar

The South Sudan Civil War broke out in December 2013, ignited by a tribally infused rivalry between the nation’s Dinka president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and his Nuer vice-president, Riek Machar Teny. The latter formed the SPLM/A-IO (“In Opposition”), which Kenyi joined in November 2014. [9] Riek Machar made Kenyi a major-general and placed him in charge of the movement’s forces in Eastern Equatoria.

In January 2015, Kenyi explained his reasons for joining the opposition:

[The government] has created an atmosphere for rampant corruption. It has created an army, inherited an army, which is so parochial, sectarian, tribalistic, nepotistic. It has created a system of governance that has no sense of accountability. It has created a system… which generates crisis, ill-feelings… There is a need to struggle to establish a democratic system in this country. A democratic system which will reflect the diversity and multi-ethnicity in this country. This can best be addressed by creating a federalist system in South Sudan… [10]

Despite his decision, Kenyi would acknowledge local calls to form an independent Equatorian front:

There is a call for [an] Equatorian front because the people of Equatoria have repeatedly found themselves marginalized and even now in the government of Salva Kiir. They are right. There is no question about [it]. They have been marginalized and even treated as underdogs and called all [kinds of] names, including being branded as cowards, even when some of us led in battles and we captured major towns [during the civil war of 1983-2005] (Sudan Tribune, February 1, 2015).

Riek Machar made Martin Kenyi deputy Chief of Staff for moral orientation in 2014. In early January, 2015, Kenyi was named commander of the SPLM/A-IO forces in Eastern Equatoria.

The arrival in Eastern Equatoria of Dinka herdsmen and their cattle fleeing the civil war added to ethnic tensions in the region when the Dinka showed little interest in returning home after South Sudanese independence in 2011 (Sudan Tribune, August 18, 2011). Since then, the Dinkas have demanded land, grazing rights and representation in local government, all opposed by traditional Ma’di chiefs (Radio Tamazuj, April 5, 2015).

On the Road to Nimule

The Juba-Nimule Highway – Perfect Ambush Country

Since 2014, General Kenyi has made efforts to cut the vital Juba-Nimule road (a.k.a. the A43 Highway), the only tarmacked road connecting the land-locked nation to the sea via Uganda and Kenya. The many dips and hills along the 192 kilometers (km) A43 make it perfect ambush territory, especially as it passes through heavily forested areas. Vicious attacks on all manner of road traffic by well-armed guerrillas believed to be under Kenyi’s command pose a serious threat to South Sudan’s economic viability and have brought his group into confrontation with the Ugandan military. Customs duties and taxes paid by traders are a significant source of revenue for the government of South Sudan, which is otherwise reliant on oil revenues. Cutting the road hurts Uganda as well; Ugandan Ministry of Trade statistics indicate that South Sudan is Uganda’s largest trading partner, with annual export revenue of over $350 million a year (ChimpReports, December 17, 2014).

Led by Lieutenant Jada Anthony Tibi, Kenyi’s men destroyed three vehicles on the A43 carrying food for government troops in mid-December 2014 and announced that Kenyi had closed the “Salva  Kiir Mayardit lifeline to the outside world” (Sudan Tribune, December 18, 2014). A Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) spokesman warned that “this development will compel Uganda Special Forces commando units to use combat action to clear the rebels’ pockets of resistance along the Juba-Nimule road if it continues” (Nyamile, December 17, 2014).

Kenyi’s forces claimed to have overrun Nimule for three hours on July 4, 2015, capturing ammunition stores and vehicles after the local garrison fled into the bush following a short fire-fight. The attackers pulled out before retaliation from Ugandan and South Sudanese military units (Sudan Tribune, July 9, 2015). Two days later, a policeman was killed and three vehicles burned in an attack on an A43 checkpoint (Radio Tamazuj, July 6, 2015; Sudan Tribune, July 7 2015).

Burning Tanker on the Juba-Nimule Highway (Radio Tamazuj)

Kenyi’s forces under the operational command of Commander Marli Max attacked an SPLA-Juba barracks in mid-August 2015 and overran the town of Pageri approximately 25 km northeast of Nimule (Radio Tamazuj, August 18, 2015). Kenyi’s militia claimed the attack on Pageri happened only after they were attacked by government troops. The timing of the incident was curious, as SPLM/A-IO leaders had signed the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-sponsored Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan the day before. [11] SPLM/A-IO Major General James Koang Chuol Ranley suggested the government attack was an attempt by the Salva Kiir government to derail the peace process (Sudan Tribune, August 19, 2015).

South Sudan – Uganda Border Region

Attacks on the road continued, with rebels killing truck drivers and bus passengers (Radio Tamazuj, November 24, 2015). Six Ugandans were abducted in July 2016 inside Uganda’s Lamwo District by rebels believed to be under Kenyi’s command (Monitor [Kampala], July 19, 2016). The UPDF was involved at the time in the evacuation of over 8,000 Ugandans and people of other nationalities from renewed clashes in Juba. By August 2016, heavy fighting again closed the A43. The attacks on government forces were believed to be retaliation for a security sweep of Ma’di territory that left 13 civilians dead (Nyamile, August 7, 2016).

Government troops flooded the Juba-Nimule road in September 2016 after two South Sudan security officers were killed on the road in a Ma’di area by attackers armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other sophisticated military equipment. Hundreds of Ma’di fled the area afterwards, fearing retaliation from the army (Sudan Tribune, September 2, 2016). A flurry of attacks on buses and fuel tankers followed, with one unfortunate driver being burned to death (Monitor [Kampala], September 5, 2016; Welyam.com, September 9, 2016; Sudan Tribune, September 11, 2016).

Observers from UNMISS (the 13,000-man United Nations Mission in South Sudan) confirmed reports of clashes between government troops and SPLM/A-IO fighters in Magwi County in January 2017. According to the SPLM/A-IO, its forces under the command of Major General Patrick Ohiti Chapuho ambushed the government troops as they burned Acholi villages in the region (Sudan Tribune, January 25).

Government troops have been accused of illegally detaining and torturing civilians suspected of supporting General Kenyi (Radio Tamazuj, May 20, 2015; Sudan Tribune, December 2, 2015). Serious abuses were reported in February 2017 by Eastern Equatoria’s Bishop Paul Yugusuk, who alleged government troops were using a base south of Juba intended to provide security for travellers on the A43 to commit large scale rapes, looting and illegal detentions and torture (Sudan Tribune, February 15).

Conclusion

Many Equatorians are uninterested in the conflict between the Dinka and Nuer and resent the activity of SPLM-IO forces, which inevitably draw reprisals on civilians by government troops.  An agreement was signed earlier this year providing for joint South Sudanese/Ugandan police patrols to provide security along the highway (Monitor [Kampala], January 27). General Kenyi has been unable to sever the Juba-Nimule highway on anything more than a temporary basis even while most government forces are deployed against larger SPLM/A-IO in the northern regions of the country. Though his activities have encouraged government repression of the Ma’di, this is consistent with terrorist/guerrilla strategies of inciting repression in order to compel rebellion.

Given General Kenyi’s pattern of changing sides, the question now is whether he will maintain his campaign along the A42 on behalf of Riek Machar, who has now fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, settle with the Juba regime or lead his fighters in a Quixotic struggle for the independence of Eastern Equatoria. Ultimately, this warlord, like his South Sudan counterparts, will do what’s necessary to maintain a personal stake in a nation blessed by oil riches but tormented by a tendency to resort to violence in nearly all issues, a proclivity bred by decades of brutal warfare.

NOTES:

[1] Edgar O’Ballance, The Secret War in the Sudan: 1955-1972, London, 1977, p.83.

[2]  Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, International African Institute, Oxford, 2003, p.86.

[3] “Maj Gen Martin Speaking Directly to the People of South Sudan,” January 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQPbMicLU3U

[4] Mawut Achiecque Mach Guarak, Integration and Fragmentation of the Sudan: An African Renaissance, AuthorHouse, Bloomington, Indiana, 2011, pp. 305-309.

[5] “Interview with Martin Kenyi and Garhoth Garkuoth of the South Sudan Defence Force,” Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, June 22, 2003, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/137116/SUDANJUN03A.PDF

[6] Ibid

[7] Matthew LeRiche, Matthew Arnold, South Sudan: From Revolution to Independence,” Oxford University Press, 2013, (p. 273, fn. 51).

[8] After persistent accusations of corruption and misappropriation of salaries intended for soldiers in the 6th Division (which led to troops rioting in October 2015), General Okot was relieved of his command in February 2016 (Radio Tamazuj, February 17, 2016).

[9] John Young, “A Fractious Rebellion: Inside the SPLM-IO,” Small Arms Survey, HSBA Working Paper 39, Geneva, 2015, p.30.

[10] “Maj Gen Martin Speaking Directly to the People of South Sudan,” January 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQPbMicLU3U

[11] Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, Addis Ababa, August 17, 2015;https://unmiss.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/final_proposed_compromise_agreement_for_south_sudan_conflict.pdf

This article first appeared in the March 3, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

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.