The Carousel of Rebellion and Reintegration: A Profile of Northern Mali’s Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga

Andrew McGregor

July 5, 2017

From the moment of its independence in 1960, Mali was almost doomed to failure as a post-colonial state created from the territories of French West Africa. With its odd, bow-tie shape incorporating a larger but sparsely populated Muslim Sahel-Saharan region in the northeast and a smaller but more fertile, more populated Muslim/animist region in the southwest, the two distinct areas of Mali had little in common, including severe racial and tribal divisions that ignite communal violence to this day.

Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga (Tamoudre)

Northern Mali (known in rebel parlance as “Azawad”) is home to a number of ethnic groups, including Arabs, Songhai, Peul/Fulani, Moors and the Tuareg, a desert-dwelling branch of the North African Berbers. Clan-based and stubbornly independent, the Tuareg stretch across the deserts and mountains of Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. One of their most formidable strongholds is in the Kidal region of northern Mali, bordered to the north by Algeria and to the east by Niger. The Tuareg came to international prominence during their stiff resistance to French imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For many in Kidal, life in post-independence Mali is simply a new and similarly unwanted form of colonialism.

Born in 1958 as a member of the Ifergoumessen clan of the “noble” Kidal Ifoghas Tuareg confederation, Hassan ag Fagaga was still a child when portions of the Kidal Tuareg rose up in their first post-independence rebellion in 1963. The rising, which suffered from unfulfilled hopes of Algerian and French support for Tuareg independence, was quickly crushed. A ruthless repression by the new Malian government (dominated by southern Bambaras) involving massacres and torture created a legacy of animosity and resistance in the Kidal Tuareg. The rebellion was fuelled by racially-fuelled anger at a colonial decision to place the “white” Tuareg under the rule of “blacks” (the Malian majority) whom the Tuareg had always viewed as servants or slaves. [1]  This was the formative environment in which the young Hassan lived.

Rebellion of 1990-1996

A second rebellion by young Tuareg fighters began in Ménaka in June 1990. Many of the rebels, like ag Fagaga, had military training in Libya as part of Qaddafi’s “Green Legion,” which fought in Lebanon and Chad without ever achieving its intended “elite” status. The new rebellion would establish many clan and class-based divides in the Tuareg community that continue to endure and torment efforts to bring a resolution to the cyclical violence in northern Mali.

The revolt was led by the Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l’Azawad (MPLA), largely composed of fighters returning from Algeria and Libya, where many Tuareg had taken refuge from famine, persecution and economic deprivation.

Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré became president in March 1991 by overthrowing President Moussa Traoré. The change led to the negotiatioin of the Algerian-brokered 1991 Tanamrasset Agreement, which split the MPLA into three factions:

  • The Mouvement populaire de l’Azawad (MPA) led by Iyad ag Ghali (Iriyaken Tuareg and currently Mali’s most wanted man). [2] Mostly Kel Ifoghas, including Ifergoumessen, the MPA signed the agreement and went over to the government;
  • The Front populaire de libération de l’Azawad (FPLA) led Zeidan ag Sidalamine. Mostly Kel Intessar from Gouna region, southwest of Timbuktu, and Chamanamas Tuareg from the Ménaka region, the FPLA rejected the agreement;
  • The Armée révolutionnaire de libération de l’Azawad (ARLA), led by al-Hajj ag Gamou (Imghad). [3] Mostly Taghat Mellit and Idnane Tuareg, the ARLA also rejected the agreement.

A fourth rebellious faction was the Front islamique arabe de l’Azawad (FIAA) a group led by Ahmad Ould Sidi Mohamed and consisting of Malian Arabs and Moors (i.e. Mauritanian Arabs and Berbers). This group also went over to the government in 1991. The MPA and the FIAA joined the Malian Army’s Mixed Brigades, which now fought their former allies in ARLA and the FPLA.

In February 1994 al-Hajj ag Gamou stunned the Ifoghas and other traditional Tuareg by kidnapping the amenokal (supreme chief), Intallah ag Attaher. Though the amenokal was later released unharmed in a prisoner exchange, this shocking attack on the social order led to the dissipation of ARLA support and by the end of 1994 the group had been thoroughly defeated by the Ifoghas and their allies. [4] After being integrated into the Malian Army following the rebellion, ag Gamou became a Bamako loyalist and eventually the first Tuareg to join the Malian general staff. He and Fagaga would meet on the battlefield repeatedly over the coming years.

Fighting flared on and off until 1996, when various Tuareg rebel factions reported for demobilization and disarmament, bringing many ancient and useless weapons to be thrown into the bonfire of the televised “Flame of Peace” ceremony in March 1996. At this point ag Fagaga was integrated as an officer in the Malian Army.

Rebellion of 2006

In April 2006, Mu’ammar Qaddafi abused his hosts by using a visit to Timbuktu to express his support for the creation of an independent Tuareg state (Jeune Afrique, March 19, 2007). Qaddafi’s words inspired ag Fagaga to desert the Malian Army and mount another rebellion in league with his Ifergoumessen cousin Ibrahim ag Bahanga and Ahmad ag Bibi, calling themselves the Alliance démocratique du 23 mai pour le changement (ADC). [5]

 The uprising began as some 150 Tuareg soldiers rallied under Lieutenant Colonel ag Fagaga and left their barracks with their weapons and vehicles. According to Fagaga, the rebels would eventually number 2,000, including some 200 deserters from the armed forces (Jeune Afrique, May 29, 2006). The ADC was largely Ifergoumessen, but attracted some Idnane Tuareg. [6]

KidalBourrichon)

Based in the Adrar des Ifoghas (the main mountain range in Kidal), the movement launched attacks on Kidal and Ménaka. Iyad ag Ghali soon took overall command, with Fagaga leading military operations. As usual, clan and personal rivalries played an important part in the rebellion – Fagaga’s desertion may have been prompted by the promotion of al-Hajj ag Gamou (member of a “vassal” clan) over Fagaga, a member of a “noble” clan.

Fagaga maintained that the rebellion was prompted by “serious discrimination” against Tuareg in the military as well as a lack of development in northern Mali. He went on to deny Libyan funding and said he was seeking autonomy for the north within a Malian state: “The Tuareg cannot indefinitely accept to live as second-class citizens in their own country” (Jeune Afrique, May 29, 2006).

The 2006 rebellion ended before the close of the year with an Algerian-brokered settlement, one clause of which stipulated the rebels would be absorbed into the Malian Army. Fagaga was back in Malian uniform.

 Rebellion of 2007-2009

Government failure to implement the peace agreement led Fagaga, a Lieutenant Colonel, to desert the National Guard in August 2007. Still using the name ADC, Fagaga acted as military commander while his cousin Bahanga (also a deserter) took overall command. Bahanga’s Paris-based father-in-law, Hama ag Sid’Ahmed, acted as the group’s political representative.

Ibrahim ag Bahanga

In September 2007, Bahanga attacked Malian troops at Tinzaoutene, the headquarters of his smuggling network. Throughout the conflict, Bahanga and Fagaga have great success in capturing demoralized troops from southern Mali and holding them hostage.

In the same month, Bahanga and Fagaga created the Alliance Touaregue Niger-Mali pour le changement (ATNMC), a movement that was rejected by the Niger Tuareg and never received the same level of support as the ADC within northern Mali. The movement also continued to use the name ADC in official communications. In May 2008, the movement changed its name but retained its acronym, better reflecting its Malian base as the Alliance Touaregue Nord Mali pour le changement (ATNMC)

In March 2008, Fagaga threatened to “eliminate” any al-Qaeda fighters entering the Tuareg rebels’ zone of operations, but acknowledged some jihadists had entered the Kidal region (El Khabar [Algiers], March 5). The fighting intensified until July 2008, when Algerian mediation brought about a ceasefire and promises to re-integrate the rebel fighters into the Malian military. Bahanga fled instead to Libya (possibly with Fagaga) and remained there until December 2008, when he renewed the revolt with an attack on the Malian garrison at Nampala.

An exasperated Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré declared “enough is enough” and unleashed Colonel Mohamed Ould Meydou’s Bérabiche Arab militia and Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou’s Imghad Tuareg militia, expert desert fighters who chased the rebels from their bases in the Tigharghar Mountains and into Algeria by January 2009.

Fagaga split with Bahanga, who remained in the field, and laid down arms with 400 fighters on January 4, 2009 before re-integration into the army (Jeune Afrique, January 27, 2009). On his return to Bamako, the Colonel was vague when questioned regarding the purpose of his rebellion. When pressed, he claimed: ”We want the correct application of the Algiers Agreement. We do not want to reduce or increase the content of this document by a comma.” He made light of potential differences with his new colleague, Colonel Gamou, who had played a decisive role in quashing the rebellion: “Gamou, who’s that? He is an element of the army. There is no Gamou problem. Nor is there a problem between me and Gamou and even with the other soldiers of the army. They are on a mission and they do their job.” Finally, Fagaga angered many Malians when he placed his hand on his heart and swore he had never killed a Malian soldier: “I never killed anyone or attacked an army position. I was not in the fighting… However, there were attacks on our position, I defended myself without great difficulty. Whether you believe me or not, that’s the truth” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 19, 2009). Few believed him.

The failure of Bahanga and Fagaga to elucidate any kind of political basis for their rebellion other than dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Algiers Accords led to suspicions that the real motive for the revolt was to drive away security forces interfering with Bahanga’s lucrative smuggling trade (L’Aube [Bamako], May 15, 2008).

By January 2010 both Bahanga and Fagaga were reported to be in Algeria making an unsuccessful pitch to reconstitute and rearm the ATNMC as a regional anti-terrorist force targeting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (L’Observateur [Bamako], January 10, 2010; January 27, 2010). Bahanga died in a mysterious desert car crash on August 26, 2011 after clashing with AQIM and other groups over control of narcotics smuggling routes in northern Mali.

Rebellion of 2012-2013

In September 2011, an unusual decree was circulated through Mali’s military command announcing that Colonel Fagaga had been given a three-year leave on July 1, 2011 “for personal reasons without pay.” It was believed the leave was to allow Fagaga to lead a contingent of young Malian Tuareg to Libya to support its beleaguered leader, Mu’ammar Qaddafi (Le Hoggar [Bamako], September 16 2011). Qaddafi’s army collapsed and Fagaga resurfaced several months later, this time as a military leader in the rebel Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), formed on October 16, 2011 and consisting largely of Malian Tuareg Libyan Army veterans. The military commander was Colonel Mohamed ag Najim (Idnane Tuareg), a colonel in Qaddafi’s army.

The MNLA drew most of their forces from the Idnane, Taghat Mellet and Chamanass Tuareg, all vassal clans traditionally under the authority of Kel Ifoghas nobles. These groups were joined by elements of the Ifergoumessen, including Colonel ag Fagaga. [7]

Iyad ag Ghali

Since Fagaga’s earlier cooperation with Iyad ag Ghali, the latter had adopted a Salafist form of Islam after his experience as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia and association with Tablighi Jama’at missionaries in Mali. He had also become embittered with much of the Kel Ifoghas leadership after having been passed by as the declared successor of amenokal Intallah ag Attaher. Ghali formed his own Islamist movement, Ansar al-Din, which recruited primarily from the Kel Ifoghas while incorporating a number of foreign fighters. Ansar al-Din and the MNLA launched the rebellion as allies in January 2012, but Ghali would later turn against the MNLA and cooperate instead with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) to create a short-lived Islamic state in northern Mali. When French forces and their allies from Chad and Niger launched an overwhelming offensive against the Islamist extremists in early 2013, elements of the MNLA were there to act as guides in the mountains and caves of the Adrar des Ifoghas. Mali’s military, in a state of near collapse after their defeat in the north and a bout of internal fighting, played little role in the offensive and were unable to re-establish government authority in the north.

When public buildings in Kidal were turned over to Malian authorities in November 2013, Fagaga showed his displeasure by suddenly departing the city with his men, arms and vehicles to Tinzaoutene, igniting fears that he would resume armed rebellion (L’Aube [Bamako], November 19, 2013).

In the summer of 2014 tensions exploded between the pro-government Platforme movement (including Tuareg, Songhai and Arab fighters) and a rebel coalition led by Hassan ag Fagaga, who had returned from Tinzaoutene. The coalition consisted of the MNLA, the Tuareg Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) and the anti-Bamako faction of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA).  After a series of clashes in Kidal in May 2014 the rebels were defeated at the Battle of Anéfis on July 11, 2014. A running fight followed in the Tabankort region on July 19-21. The result was inconclusive, but the rebels retired to Kidal where they were blockaded by Platforme forces including Colonel Gamou’s Groupe autodéfense touareg Imghad et allies (GATIA).

The clashes led to the Algiers Accord on peace and reconciliation in Mali, signed on May 15, 2015 by all parties except the jihadist groups, who were excluded from the agreement.

There were further skirmishes around Kidal between the CMA and Platforme forces in the summer of 2016. Fagaga joined a delegation of CMA leaders who travelled to Bamako to seek a means of ending the fighting and reviving the implementation of the 2015 Algiers Accord (Le Républicain [Bamako], August 12, 2016).

Months later, Fagaga’s younger brother Azbi was one of the leading suspects in an October 6, 2016 attack by Malian Tuareg fighters on a Malian refugee camp in northern Niger. The attackers killed 22 Nigerien soldiers. A month later a French attack helicopter struck suspected members of the group, killing nine, including Mohamed ag Bahanga, Ibrahim ag Bahanga’s brother (Reuters, October 6, 2016; Actuniger.com, November 7, 2016).

Head of the Interim Authority of Kidal, 2017

Hassan ag Fagaga (on microphone) at his installation as president of the interim authority of Kidal (Journal du Mali)

On February 28, 2017, ag Fagaga was appointed president of the interim authority of the Kidal region, ironically making him the state’s representative for the promotion of national unity, respect for the constitution and the perpetuation of secular government (L’Humanité [Bamako], May 15). [8] His installation ceremony was attended by officials from Algeria, France, the U.S., the EU and the African Union. However, nothing about the ceremony suggested a return of government authority to Kidal. The national delegation arrived and departed in armored vehicles belonging to the UN peacekeeping force. [9] Armed rebels provided security, the flags outside were those of the Azawad independence movement and women and children chanted independence slogans in the streets (Le Malien [Bamako], March 7).

The appointment was confirmed with a swearing-in at Bamako on March 16. Only the day before, Fagaga complained that Mali’s government did not want to follow the procedures laid out in the peace agreement for a return to Kidal: “That is why today all the structures established by the peace agreement are still empty shells” (l’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], March 15).

Bamako’s press had only condemnation for the appointment of “the deserter Fagaga,” a “war criminal” (Le Démocrate [Bamako], March 8). One daily described the appointment as “a real capitulation,” while another described ag Fagaga as Iyad ag Ghali’s “hired hand,” whose appointment had delivered Kidal to the terrorist leader on a platter (Le Malien [Bamako], March 14; L’Aube [Bamako], February 20).

Kidal remains a “no-go” region for most Malian leaders and officials, who in practice must obtain permission to visit from the CMA. Even the new governor of Kidal, Sidi Mohamed ag Ichrach, was sworn in at Gao rather than Kidal due to CMA perceptions that he is too closely tied to GATIA and the pro-Bamako Platforme coalition.

On March 2, Fagaga’s one-time comrade and current rival, Iyad ag Ghali, took control of the newly created Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa’l-Muminin (JNIM), a merger of Ansar al-Din, al-Murabitun, the Macina Liberation Front and the Saharan branch of AQIM. Three days later the group claimed credit for an attack on the military camp at Boulkeissy, just north of the border with Burkina Faso. A series of terrorist attacks have followed.

In May, Fagaga gave his views on Ghali and his violent campaign to impose Shari’a in northern Mali:

Iyad says he is fighting for the application of the Shari’a. It is a noble cause. On the other hand, I do not approve of his method to achieve it… Iyad is a cousin but those who have known me for a long time know well that we do not share the same vision… Iyad says he is fighting for the application of the Shari’a. It is a noble cause. On the other hand, I do not approve of his method of achieving it. I even have doubts about his real will to apply Shari’a. Our prophet taught us that if one wants to be successful in a matter, one must do it with the greatest discretion. This is quite the opposite of what Iyad does (Jeune Afrique, May 12, 2017).

Fagaga has emphasized the need for “moral education” for young Tuareg fighters who have come of age in unsettled conditions, while disparaging those who pose as holy warriors: “A jihadist is no more than a man with a Kalashnikov” (Jeune Afrique, May 12; Sahelien, May 10).

Conclusion

Hassan ag Fagaga has always been a military character rather than a political player. Even when asked directly, he has struggled to articulate his precise reasons for rebellion other than vague references to Bamako’s failure to adhere to specific accords. Now, however, the eternal rebel finds himself in an administrative role (albeit interim in nature) as part of the Malian government. Negotiation and conciliation have never been his strengths, yet these are exactly the qualities he will need to exercise if he is to play anything more than a divisive role as Kidal’s interim leader.

Assuming July’s elections proceed without delay or incident (a large assumption in Mali), the question is where will Fagaga go then? Despite his appointment, there is little evidence he has abandoned his separatist sympathies. The Colonel’s military experience could be of value in combatting terrorism, but this would entail the unlikely re-acceptance of the two-time deserter into the Malian Army and his cooperation with long-time rivals such as Generals Gamou and Ould Meydou. It seems just as likely that this “rebel’s rebel” might be unable to resist the lure of a return to the desert wilderness to mount yet another struggle for the independence of Azawad.

Notes

  1. J.S Lecocq, That Desert is Our Country: Tuareg Rebellions and Competing Nationalisms in Contemporary Mali (1946-1996), University of Amsterdam, 2002, p.134.
  2. For Iyad ag Ghali, see “Bringing Militant Salafism to the Tuareg: A Profile of Veteran Rebel Iyad ag Ghali,” MLM, February 29, 2012, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=492
  3. For al-Hajj ag Gamou, see “The Fox of Kidal: A Profile of Mali’s Tuareg General, al-Hajj ag Gamou,” MLM, November 30, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3751
  4. Georg Klute and Trutz von Trotha, “Roads to Peace: From Small War to Para-sovereign Peace in the North of Mali,” In: Marie-Claire Foblets and Trutz von Trotha (ed.s), Healing the Wounds: Essays on the Reconstruction of Societies after War, Hart Publishing, 2004, pp.118 – 119.
  5. For Ibrahim ag Bahanga, see “Ibrahim Ag Bahanga: Tuareg Rebel Turns Counterterrorist?” MLM, March 31, 2010, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2773
  6. Stephanie Pezard and Michael Shurkin, Achieving Peace in Northern Mali: Past Agreements, Local Conflicts, and the Prospects for a Durable Settlement, Rand Corporation, 2015.
  7. Alexander Thurston and Andrew Lebovich, “A Handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 Crisis,” Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITSA) Working Paper Series/Columbia University Working Paper no. 13-001, September 2, 2013, http://www.bcics.northwestern.edu/documents/workingpapers/ISITA-13-001-Thurston-Lebovich.pdf
  8. Interim authorities were appointed for five northern regions; Kidal, Gao, Ménaka, Timbuktu and Taoudénit. Their appointments will expire after local elections scheduled for July 2017.
  9. Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA).

This article first appeared in the July 5, 2017 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Islamist Insurgency in Burkina Faso: A Profile of Malam Ibrahim Dicko

Andrew McGregor

April 30, 2017

Though the West African nation of Burkina Faso (and its earlier incarnation as Upper Volta) has had a sometimes turbulent political history since gaining its independence from France in 1960, terrorism was not one of its problems until the creation of Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist extremist movement led by Malam Ibrahim Dicko. The last two years have seen an increasing number of terrorist attacks in the landlocked majority Muslim nation that have killed over 70 people.

Malam Ibrahim Dicko (Burkinabe.com)

Assassinations, intimidation and assaults on civic institutions are creating widespread instability in northern Burkina Faso that is interfering with the delivery of social services and food distribution. Though Ansar al-Islam militants number only roughly 150 to 200 individuals, the small movement wields a disproportionate influence in impoverished northern Burkina Faso (Agence de Presse Africaine, April 8).

Malam Ibrahim Dicko is a member of the Fulani, an ethnic group of roughly 25 million people spread across 21 African countries, with a concentration in the Sahel region — they are also known as Peul, Fulbe and Fula. Fulani culture is centered on their main occupation as semi-nomadic cattle-herders. In recent years a general but uncoordinated southward movement of the herders in West Africa has created widespread conflict with sedentary agricultural communities. [1]

Today, nearly all Fulani are Muslims, and they have a long tradition of jihad. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Fulani attempted to create Islamic caliphates in the Sahel region until French conquest put an end to these states in the 1890s. The goal of Ansar al-Islam appears to be the re-establishment of a Fulani caliphate in the region with the aid of the Islamic State (IS) organization, which is making inroads in the area at the expense of its Islamist rival, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Unlike the earlier Sufi-dominated jihads, which succeeded, in part, due to their ability to absorb a certain degree of pre-Islamic customs and religious practices, Ansar al-Islam is an expression of Salafist Islam, which is intolerant of any modifications to what it sees as the “pure” Islam of the Salaf (the “pious predecessors” of the first three generations of Islam).

 Early Years

Approximately 46-years of age, Malam Ibrahim Dicko was born in the town of Soboule, 60 kilometers (km) north of the city of Djibo in Burkina Faso’s northern Soum Province. [2] Following an early education at a state school, Dicko moved on to Koranic studies. After marrying the daughter of a prominent Djibo imam, the young Dicko began to gain a reputation for piety and knowledge of Islam to the point that his efforts to promote Islam through his al-Irshad organization gained state approval (Le Monde, April 11; Jeune Afrique, January 9).

Burkina Faso – Soum Province in red

Malam Ibrahim began attracting a following in northern Burkina Faso in 2012 through preaching and delivering radio sermons. These activities drew the attention of the security services of the Blaise Compaoré regime (Compaoré was president until 2014, when a popular uprising put an end to his 27-year term in office) though initially his sermons demonstrated a degree of tolerance. Most notably, Dicko emphasized the equality of the Fulani and the Rimaïbe ethnic group, which had been enslaved by the Fulani in the 17th century. This ran counter to traditional Fulani views in the region and brought Dicko support from the Rimaïbe — the majority ethnic group in Soum Province— while antagonizing traditional Fulani leaders (Le Monde, April 11).

The construction of a mosque and madrassa (Islamic religious school) in the Djibo region helped spread his views to local Muslims, though he appears to have fallen off the radar of the national security services for a time. Inspired by the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, Dicko headed north to join the short-lived rebellion, which was quashed by French forces and their African allies in early 2013.

Dicko was arrested for possession of firearms by French troops in Tessalit (northern Mali) in late 2013, along with some 20 young followers. Dicko was also in possession of a large number of Euros at the time of his arrest (Jeune Afrique, April 6). The French turned him over to Malian authorities who confined him in a Bamako prison until he obtained his release in 2015 by paying a large fine (IB Times, January 4).

After a short return to Djibo and the divorce of one of his two wives, Dicko left once more for northern Mali in 2015 with a number of followers to take up training in arms (IB Times, January 4). At this time he met extremist Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa Diallo — leader of the Force de libération du Macina, also dedicated to the recreation of a Fulani caliphate — which proved an important stage in his radicalization (Burkinaonline.com, December 28, 2016). By this time, Dicko had attracted the attention of the newly formed Agence nationale de renseignement (ANR, National Intelligence Agency) in Burkina Faso and shifted his base from Djibo to the forests straddling the Burkinabé-Malian border region (Jeune Afrique, April 6).

 Launching Ansar al-Islam

Having founded the radical Ansar al-Islam movement in late 2016, Dicko created an operational base and refuge in the forests of Mondoro in the Mopti region of central Mali, just across the border from Burkina Faso. Mopti has also witnessed growing levels of jihadist activity since 2015. Three Malian soldiers died in February 2016 when their vehicle struck a landmine while on patrol in Mondoro (BBC, February 9, 2016).

Inside northern Burkina Faso, Dicko’s militants began to threaten teachers and students in state schools, forcing the closure of over 600 schools in Soum and Oudalan provinces (OCHA Reliefweb, February 15). In many cases, armed members of Ansar al-Islam arrive at village schools on motorcycles before storming in to demand teachers abandon the state curriculum in favor of Koranic studies (IB Times, February 2). Weddings and other ceremonies have also been interrupted by gunmen who object to musical performances and anything more than the most ascetic observations of these occasions.

Dicko tolerates little dissent in his movement; the group’s first deputy leader, Amadou Boly, was assassinated after objecting to Dicko’s increasing extremism (Burkinaonline.com, December 28, 2016). Ansar al-Islam is also known for attacking dissenting imam-s and deserters from the group, particularly those involved in trying to persuade youth from joining the movement (RFI, January 3; IB Times, January 24). These attacks have served as a warning to locals that collaboration with the government or security forces will be swiftly punished. The murders of educators and those suspected of collaborating with state security forces in Soum Province are typically carried out by militants who arrive at night on motorcycles and then flee across the border to their bases in Mali (particularly in the Douentza region) (Journal du Mali, March 24). In recent years, Douentza has been the scene of numerous ethnic clashes pitting the Fulani against the Dogon and Bambara peoples.

Douentza (MaliActu)

Attack on Nassoumbou

Dicko’s group claimed responsibility for the attack on Burkinabé troops at Nassoumbou (20 km south of the border with Mali) last December that killed 11 soldiers and one gendarme. The security personnel belonged to the Groupement des forces anti-terroristes (GFAT), a joint army/gendarmerie anti-terrorist group formed in 2012 to secure the northern border from terrorist infiltration. The fierce attack by roughly 40 militants in 4×4 trucks and on motorcycles used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. One French-built ACMAT Bastion armored personnel carrier was destroyed in the assault. In a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, Ansar al-Islam acknowledged the loss of two fighters but promised “this attack will not be the last” (DakarActu.com, January 4).

In mid-February, Ansar al-Islam militants on motorcycles stormed two police stations in Soum Province, plundering them before burning them to the ground. At one site, the militants left behind a sign reading in Arabic “Ansar al-Islam” (La Tribune Afrique, February 28). GFAT obtained some measure of revenge in late March when it succeeded in arresting 18 members of Ansar al-Islam and killing Harouna Dicko, Dicko’s chief lieutenant, in Djibo, the capital of Soum Province (Journal du Mali, March 24).

State Response to Ansar al-Islam

The ability of Burkina Faso’s army to provide security was long weakened by its politicization and rivalry with the Régiment de sécurité présidentielle (RSP), an elite but independent military unit loyal to former president Blaise Compaoré. With training, resources and superior arms all diverted to the RSP, the small, poorly trained and infrequently paid Burkinabe army remained challenged to provide security in Burkina Faso despite U.S. efforts to provide training in conventional warfare and counter-terrorism techniques. When a post-Compaoré transitional government recommended disbanding the RSP (popularly despised for its brutality in support of Compaoré’s rule), General Gilbert Diendéré led the regiment in a failed coup d’état in September 2015.  The coup attempt and the subsequent indictment of nearly 100 soldiers and officers effectively sidelined the RSP (Jeune Afrique, April 12).

Complicating counter-terrorist operations in the north are the vast distances between settlements, close cross-border ethnic ties and a pervasive lack of trust of security forces, which contrasts with the hard cash paid by the jihadists for information on the movements and strength of the security forces. According to a Burkinabé security official: “Even though we have permanent outposts in many villages, there are still corridors through which they can infiltrate. We will never have enough surveillance resources to manage the problem without the help of the population” (Le Monde, March 6, 2016). Human rights groups state they have received reports of alleged abuses by state security forces hunting Dicko’s militants (IB Times, February 2).

Colonel Yves Thiombiano

With the support of French troops, vehicles and combat helicopters attached to France’s Operation Barkhane, Burkinabé and Malian troops launched “Operation Panga” in late-March to clear the border region of Islamist militants such as Amadou Koufa and Malam Ibrahim (MaliActu, April 16). The Burkinabé troops, led by Colonel Yves Thiombiano, focused on the Fhero Forest of Soum Province where Ansar al-Islam has established bases. The work is delicate as the jihadists have carefully mined entrances and routes through the forest (Agence de Presse Africaine, April 8). On April 6, a French military vehicle struck a mine, followed by an ambush of a French patrol that killed a military engineer. Speaking of Dicko, Colonel Thiombiano said: “We think that this is a citizen who has lost his way and who can still redeem himself, especially as it will permit the citizens of the Sahel, especially in Djibo, to live in peace, to permit children to go to school and the administration to set up” (Koaci.com, April 10).

Liptako-Gourma Authority

Recognizing the inability of the security forces of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to tackle the jihadists on their own, the governments of these nations recently agreed to unite their troops in the “Liptako-Gourma Force” to counter the terrorists. The new grouping will have a rotating command with a headquarters in Niamey, the capital of Niger. The force is a military offshoot of the Liptako-Gourma Authority, a regional development agency formed in 1970. Its formation was inspired by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) created to bring the militaries of five West African states together to combat Boko Haram with greater effectiveness (RFI, January 25).

Rejecting the JNIM Alliance

Dicko has displayed an unusual streak of independence, denouncing the decision of his former mentor Amadou Koufa to align the Macina Liberation Front, his Fulani-dominated jihadist movement, with a newly formed alliance of regional jihadists, the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM, Group for the Defense of Islam and Muslims). Including Mokhatar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun and led by Tuareg extremist and Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali, the Jama’at has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In a sign of the growing rift between the two Fulani jihadists, Dicko characterized Koufa’s decision to align with al-Qaeda rather than the Islamic State as “a clear sign of weakness” and suggested Koufa was nothing less than a “hypocrite” who believed he could deceive God (Facebook posting via BBC Monitoring, March 14). The merger received the approval of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud and is seen as an attempt to consolidate support for al-Qaeda at a time when it is being challenged by the spreading influence of rival Islamic State formations in West Africa (Jeune Afrique, March 2; Reuters, March 18).

 Conclusion

Despite Ansar al-Islam’s small size, relative lack of striking power and general unpopularity with much of the Burkinabé community it intends to rally to its side, Malam Ibrahim’s Islamist militants have exposed the weakness of the state in northern Burkina Faso while demonstrating the virtue of audacity and the value of cross-border refuges in insurgent operations. As in the case of Boko Haram, regional inter-governmental cooperation is essential to contain the threat posed by Ansar al-Islam. Given the current small size of the movement and its loss of two of Dicko’s most important lieutenants, the elimination or arrest of Dicko himself might prove a devastating blow to the group, though there are a number of other radical Islamist groups in the region capable of absorbing the remnants.

 Notes

 [1] For the larger implications of the Fulani upheaval, see Andrew McGregor, “The Fulani Crisis: Communal Violence and Radicalization in the Sahel,” CTC Sentinel 10(2), Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, February 22, 2017, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-fulani-crisis-communal-violence-and-radicalization-in-the-sahel

[2] “Malam” is the Hausa language version of the Arabic mu’allim, or “teacher.”

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

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.

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

Mali’s Neo-Jihadi Macina Liberation Front: What do they really want?

Andrew McGregor
Aberfoyle International Security Special Report
January 15, 2016

What is the Macina Liberation Front?

The Macina (or Massina) Liberation Front (MLF – Front de Libération du Macina) is an Islamist extremist organization that exploits grievances amongst Mali’s Fulani (a.k.a. Peul or Fulbe) pastoralists as well as a 19th century tradition of Fulani jihad to recruit militants.

MLF members, who may number less than a hundred active members, are drawn mainly from two principal sources – veterans of the self-defence militias that emerged in Mali’s Fulani community after several decades of political and ethnic violence in Mali’s north, and members of the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA), an African-focused Islamist group that was part of the 2012-2013 jihadi occupation of northern Mali.

Fulani Map

Map showing concentrations of Fulani in West Africa

Who are the Fulani?

Since spilling out centuries ago from their homeland in the Senegal-Guinea region, the Fulani are now found across the Sahel from Mauritania to Sudan, a decentralized community of some 30 million who speak a variety of dialects and are known by an assortment of names in their many host countries. There is no common leadership in the present era (Fulani society tends to be internally competitive rather than cooperative), but improved communications and often-violent rivalries with non-Fulani communities have added to an emerging sense of persecution and unity. It is this that the Islamists are eager to capitalize on.

While the Fulani/Peul are best known as pastoralist cattle-herders, settled Fulani/Peul may be found in many professions (especially trade) and have provided presidents to a number of the nations in which they dwell. Most Fulani share a common ethical code, the Lawaal Pulaaku (the Fulani Way), that the extremists would like to replace with a new set of values.

The undeclared war between herdsmen and farmers that is raging across Sahelian Africa is based in part on receding pasture-land and increased competition for resources. The resulting violence can easily take on a religious dimension – most Fulani/Peul herdsmen are Muslim; their rivals are often sedentary Christians.

Typically, the MLF is described as seeking to revive the 19th century Fulani-controlled Islamic state of Macina, though this is as much a nostalgic recruitment tool as an objective. The more immediate objectives of MLF include the elimination of traditional Islam in the region, an effort that embraces the killing of rival imams and Sufi religious leaders. The MLF also seeks to empty the region around Mopti of all traces of government presence through a campaign of assassination and intimidation.

Fulani Hamadou KufaMLF Leader Hamadoun Kufa

How is the MLF Leadership structured?

The MLF leader is Hamadoun Kufa, a veteran jihadist and graduate of a local Koranic school. Kufa joined the Islamic missionary-reformist Tablighi Jama’at in the 1990s, along with Iyad ag Ghali, the now fugitive Tuareg leader of Ansar al-Din. Kufa worked closely with Ag Ghali in the 2012-2013 Islamist occupation of northern Mali and these ties continue to this day. The MLF appears to be intended as a southern arm of Mali’s armed Islamist movement, coordinating with Iyad ag Ghali and others while operating in Bambara-majority areas of southern Mali (including Bamako) where Arab and Tuareg strangers would be conspicuous. Other groups such as “Ansar al-Din in Southern Mali” and the “Katiba Khalid ibn Walid” appear to have been similarly created to bring African Muslims into the militant fold. Boko Haram (dominated by the Kanuri) has tried to make inroads in the Fulani community in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.

How does the MLF fit into the Malian Jihad?

The MLF insists on a severe Salafist interpretation of Shari’a together with restrictions on women (restricted to home, wearing of a veil when necessary to go out) that would limit the important role played by women in Mali’s largely agriculture-based economy.

The movement, by its own admission or that of its partners, has engaged in a number of military and civilian terrorist attacks in cooperation with Iyad al-Gali’s Ansar al-Din and Mokhtar al-Mokthar’s notorious al-Murabitun organization (now reunited with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM). The MLF’s value to the jihadis is its ability to open a new front in Mali’s south (where 90% of the population lives) that can draw off security forces from the north, giving the extremists greater freedom of movement while embarrassing the government and its foreign allies. MLF attacks have a secondary purpose of provoking government retaliation against innocent Fulani, thus radicalizing the community and encouraging jihadist recruitment.

Does the Front truly represent Fulani interests?

Just as many of the victims of the Kanuri-dominated Boko Haram movement are fellow Kanuri, the MLF does not fail to target other Fulani. It is AQIM strategy to form new arms by creating “local” insurgent groups that appear to be responding to domestic concerns while actually working towards the creation of an al-Qaeda-ruled state. Indeed, the MLF’s direct attacks against the state and its Islamist bent set it apart from nearly all other groups professing to represent the interests of Fulani herdsmen.

The group’s use of nostalgia for the jihadist Macina Empire of Shaykh Sekou Amadou was revealed as nothing more than a recruiting tool when the movement attacked the mausoleum of Shaykh Sekou last May. Though not especially grand, the tomb violated the group’s Salafist belief that anything more than a simple grave marker is idolatry.

Where does the MLF go from here?

Islamist extremists will continue to pursue the radicalization of Fulani communities across West Africa, but may ultimately fail in this effort if the MLF is not seen to address issues of concern to the Fulani community rather than those of interest to AQIM’s leadership. The Fulani pastoralists have legitimate grievances but at the same time the community has lost many opportunities to reap popular sympathy through a tendency by some of its members to turn to the AK-47 as a means of solving disputes.

Ultimately, Fulani ethno-nationalism would seem unlikely to play a major part in the larger Islamist movement in Mali, which, officially at least, eschews tribalism and ethnic rivalry in favor of a common status within a Shari’a state.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun Movement Introduces Urban Terrorist Tactics to Raise Ethnic Tensions in Mali

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report

Aberfoyle International Security, April 2015

A brutal March 7 attack on night-club goers in the heart of Mali’s national capital of Bamako using machine-guns and grenades announced the arrival of the bitter fight for control of northern Mali in a region traditionally untouched by the ongoing struggle. Eight people were wounded in the attack and five killed, including three Malians, one Belgian and one French citizen.

La Terrasse night-club, the scene of the attack, is located in the midst of the Hippodrome district of central Bamako, a hub for expatriates and westernized Malian youth who congregate in the districts’ many cafés, restaurants and nightclubs, many of them Lebanese-owned. Like many of its neighbors, La Terrasse is a known gathering place for Malian prostitutes and Western expatriates.

Credit for the attack was claimed by terrorist group al-Murabitun in a 90 second Arabic language audiotape sent to Mauritanian newspaper al-Akhbar: “We claim the last operation in Bamako led by the valiant fighters of al-Murabitoun to retaliate against the miscreant West that insulted and mocked our Prophet and [for the death of] our brother, Ahmed al-Tilemsi” (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], March 7, 2015). Al-Tilemsi was killed by French Special Forces in the Gao region of northern Mali on December 11, 2014. Ten other jihadists were killed in the raid and three captured.

Al-Murabitun (The Sentinels) was formed in August 2013 through a merger of the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) and veteran terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathameen (“Veiled Brigade”; also operating under the name al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam  – “Those who Signed in Blood Brigade”). Al-Murabitun is now led by its founder, Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas). Though Belmokhtar was believed to be the power behind the new group from the beginning, its first official leader was Abu Bakr al-Masri, a veteran Egyptian militant who was killed by French Special Forces in April 2014.

A week after the attack, Malian Special Forces announced they had killed a grenade-throwing accomplice in the attack during a two-hour gun-battle that began during a raid on a residence in Magnambougou, a crowded working-class area of Bamako. A large cache of arms and ammunition was also seized. Identity cards on the body identified the “light-skinned” suspect as Mohamed Tanirou Cissé, a native of Bourem in the Gao region of northern Mali (Nouvelle République, March 13, 2015; AFP, March 13, 2015). Three other suspects have been identified and arrested, including a transport agent working the Gao to Bamako line who arranged the transport of the attackers to Bamako, and a pair of Songhai shop-keeping brothers from Bourem who are alleged to have provided the terrorists accommodation in the capital (L’Essor [Bamako], March 20, 2015).  The principal assailant remains missing.

 Belmokhtar MaliAhmed al-Tilemsi

The individual named in the Murabitun statement was Ahmed al-Tilemsi (a.k.a. Abd al-Rahman Ould Amar), a Lamhar Arab from the Gao region with a reputation as a businessman who was not averse to drug-trafficking. Before the 2012 rebellion al-Tilemsi may have been associated with Colonel Abd al-Rahman Ould Meydou’s pro-government Arab militia, but had clearly sided with MUJWA by the time the radical Islamist movement occupied Gao. Though some have suggested his allegiance may have had more to do with protecting his business interests than with ideology, other sources claim he was a dedicated jihadist who held the position of MUJWA military chief in the Gao region. Most observers agree that al-Tilemsi became known as a major financier for MUJWA (RFI, December 11, 2014; Jeune Afrique, July 27, 2012).

Al-Tilemsi’s name was frequently connected to northern Mali’s lucrative kidnapping business, conducted primarily by Islamist extremists who often used local Arab businessmen as go-betweens in arranging the payment of ransoms (RFI, December 11, 2014).

All-Murabitun’s message also claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt against the nation’s highest-ranking Arab soldier “for his involvement in the war against the mujahidin” (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], March 7, 2015).

MeydouGeneral Mohamed Abd al-Rahman Ould Meydou

In the course of the January 26 assassination attempt on General Mohamed Abd al-Rahman Ould Meydou outside his home in Bamako’s city center, the general encountered two turbaned men on a motorcycle outside his home. The assailants opened fire, wounding him in the head, hand and leg before leaving him for dead (L’Indépendant [Bamako], January 28, 2015).  Ould Meydou was reported to have received threats days before the attack warning him to change his loyalties or he would be shot (L’Indépendant [Bamako], January 28, 2015).

Along with his Tuareg counterpart, General al-Hajj ag Gamou, Meydou played a vital role in the fighting of 2008’s Operationn Djiguitougou, which used Tuareg and Arab militias to drive Tuareg rebels under the command of the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga out of northern Mali. Colonels during the latest northern rebellion, both men were raised to the rank of Brigadier General in late 2013 in recognition of their vital contributions in restoring government authority in northern Mali. The men are, respectively, the highest-ranking Arab and Tuareg officers in the Malian Army.

Meydou was the target of an ambush directed at eliminating his leadership while travelling between Kidal and the northern garrison town of Aguel Hoc in 2012 but succeeded in escaping with his life. Ag Gamou escaped similar attempts by pretending to join the Islamist insurgents before passing into neighboring Niger with his roughly 400 man force intact. From there, he was able to return to the north in January 2013 alongside a column of Nigerien, Chadian and French forces.

During the operation to retake northern Mali from the Islamist coalition, Ould Meydou led a largely Bérabiche Arab Timbuktu-based militia that co-operated with Malian regular forces in Gao led by Colonel Didier Dacko. Now a Brigadier, Dacko is known as a capable and respected officer who opposes the reintegration of rebels into the regular army as part of any negotiated settlement. The strategy has failed several times, with some officers such as Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga (the current MNLA military chief) shuttling back and forth between the Army and rebel formations.

Projections

  • The attack on La Terrasse and the attempted assassination of General Ould Meydou mark the introduction of urban terrorism to Bamako, which has escaped such activity during all the rebellions and disturbances since independence. Like Somalia’s al-Shabaab, al-Murabitun’s ability to operate in northern Mali is now somewhat restricted by a major international military presence. Following al-Shabaab’s lead, al-Murabitun appears to be shifting to attacks against soft targets in the national capital.
  • Though Bamako is roughly 450 kilometers from the nearest point in northern Mali, the group may be able to draw on the capital’s small population of Arabs and Tuareg for recruits, though the size of this population is somewhat diminished since riots targeted light-skinned northerners in Bamako in 2012. In the Terrasse bombing, security reports indicate the operation was the work of a mixed cell of northerners and northern-origin residents of Bamako.
  • There is a significant danger that further incidents of urban terrorism may provoke even more serious revenge attacks against innocent northerners living in the capital. Besides the larger objectives of forcing a withdrawal of international (especially French) forces and a return to Islamist rule in the north, al-Murabitun’s latest strikes are destined to increase ethnic tensions within Mali that could derail the ever precarious peace talks ongoing in Algiers.

The Divided Leadership of Northern Mali’s Arab Community: A Profile of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA)

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report

Aberfoyle International Security, April 2015

MAA 1Despite their small numbers, northern Mali’s Arab population maintains a high degree of influence in the region’s social, religious and political life since their gradual arrival through the 17th to 19th centuries.

The Arab community of northern Mali is composed of three main groups:

  • The Bérabiche moved into northern Mali in the early 17th century and established an important commercial center at Timbuktu. Before the Islamist occupation of the north in 2012, some members of the tribe played an important role in guiding al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) smuggling convoys through the north. In some cases, AQIM leaders and fighters married into the Bérabiche.
  • The Kounta are part of a large confederation of religious clans found across West Africa. Claiming a common 15th century ancestor, their religious authority is tightly tied to their importance in the Qadariya Sufi order in West Africa. Once wealthy through commerce and the payment of tribute by lesser Arab groups, a changing social order has presented the group with new challenges. Some Kounta sought new revenues through engagement in narcotics smuggling, though this has damaged their religious status in the north. Kounta relations with the Tuareg are complicated, while struggles for control of northern Mali’s smuggling routes have brought the Kounta into conflict with the Bérabiche and Tilemsi Arabs.
  • The Tilemsi Arabs (a.k.a. Tangara) arrived in the Tilemsi Valley region of Gao from Mauritania in the 19th century in response to a call for aid from the Kounta, to which they were once subordinate. Their position close to the Algerian border allowed the group to profit sufficiently to allow them to stop paying tribute to the Kounta over a decade ago. However, their smuggling activities brought them into close contact with AQIM, the result being the growth of religious extremism in the community.

MAA 2Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati

The original Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA – Arab Movement of Azawad) was created in late 2012 as a reorganization of the short-lived Front de libération nationale de l’Azawad (FNLA). The movement was designed initially as an Arab self-defense group with an interest in autonomy but not independence for the north or the implementation of Shari’a in the region. Azawad is the local name for northern Mali.

Since then, however, the MAA has split into two factions – one in favor of greater autonomy within a united Mali, the other taking a harder line on independence for the north. The pro-Bamako faction of the MAA is led by Professor Ahmed Sidi Ould Mohamed and is largely based in the Gao region with a military base at Inafarak (near the Algerian border), while the dissident or separatist faction is led by Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati and suspected narco-traffickers Dina Ould Aya (or Daya) and Mohamed Ould Aweynat, amongst others. Both men are subject to international arrest warrants for their alleged roles in narco-trafficking (L’Indépendant  [Bamako], May 28, 2014). The military chief of the dissenting MAA is Colonel Hussein Ould al-Moctar “Goulam,” a defector from the Malian Army.  This faction is based in the Timbuktu region.

Both factions of the MAA include former members of the Islamist Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) that joined AQIM and Ansar al-Din in briefly ruling northern Mali after expelling government forces and defeating the rebel Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA).  A pro-government militia, the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA) helpfully claims that the former MUJWA fighters in the pro-Bamako MAA simply joined the Islamists to provide security for their community during the Islamist occupation (Le Monde, February 11, 2015). The mainstream MAA is dominated by members of the Lamhar clan, a group whose recent prosperity and large new homes in Gao are attributed to their prominent role in moving drug shipments through northern Mali. Some reports have characterized the split in the MAA as being directly related to a struggle for control of drug-trafficking routes through northern Mali (L’Informateur [Bamako], May 28, 2014).

With their intimate knowledge of the Malian Arab community and the lands in which they dwell, a loyalist Arab movement is a natural threat to the operations of jihadists in northern Mali.  It is not surprising, then, that Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun organization issued a threat against the loyalist MAA and the independence-minded but officially secular and largely Tuareg MNLA on April 8, citing their alleged loyalty to the French (MaliActu.Info, April 8, 2015).

Yoro Ould Daha (a.k.a. Sid’Amar Ould Daha), one of the leaders of the pro-Bamako faction of the MAA, typifies the kind of political confusion and pliability that hinders the arrival of a negotiated settlement in the north and frustrates foreign supporters of Malian democracy. Ould Daha came to prominence as the MUJWA chief of security during the Islamist occupation of northern Mali, but now insists he and his movement are now seeking a unified nation with its capital in Bamako. Widely regarded as a major drug trafficker with a reputation for brutality gained during his time as security chief for MUJWA-occupied Gao, Ould Daha was arrested by French forces in Gao in July 2014 and turned over to Malian authorities, but was released only days later, though not before accusing the French military of supporting his enemies in the separatist MNLA (Le Témoin [Bamako], August 12, 2014; MaliWeb, August 2, 2014; RFI, September 8, 2014). The loyalist MAA’s chief of military staff, Colonel al-Oumarani Baba Ahmed Ould Ali, resigned from the movement in mid-March, citing internal reasons related to the loyalist alliance (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], March 19, 2015).

At present, armed groups active in northern Mali include the following:

1/ Coordination des Mouvements et Front patriotique de résistance (CM-FPR, incorporating the largely Songhai Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias) On June 24, 2014, this coalition allied itself with GATIA and the loyalist faction of the MAA. The movement seeks self-determination for the north, but exists mainly to resist Tuareg domination of the north.

2/ Le Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA – Viewed as the voice of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal, the HCUA includes many former members of the now dormant Ansar al-Din Islamist movement led by Iyad ag Ghali).

3/ Coalition pour le Peuple de l’Azawad (CPA – allied with Ganda Iso) The CPA was created from a split in the MNLA and seeks federalism rather than independence. Largely Tuareg, but claims membership from the Arab, Songhai and Peul/Fulani communities of the north.

4/ Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA – both pro and anti-Bamako factions use the same name despite the split). Both factions of the MAA include many former members of MUJWA.

5/ Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) A largely Tuareg movement seeking an independent northern Mali. The Kel Idnan and Taghat Mellit Tuareg are well represented in the movement.

6/ Mouvement Populaire pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MPSA) The Arab MPSA is the result of a split in the MAA, with MPSA dissidents claiming they wanted to remove themselves from the influence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Anadolu Agency, August 31, 2014). The group seeks self-determination for the north rather than independence but does not appear to be very influential.

7/ Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA). This pro-government group is closely tied to the Malian Army and is led by General al-Hajj ag-Gamou. It consists largely of Imghad Tuareg but also includes a number of allied Arab fighters.

 

GATIA: A Profile of Northern Mali’s Pro-Government Tuareg and Arab Militia

Andrew McGregor
April 3, 2015

A little more than a year after a French and African Union military intervention drove an Islamist coalition from their bases in northern Mali in early 2013, Prime Minister Moussa Mara ignited the seething tensions in the area with an ill-advised visit to the Kidal region (a stronghold of separatist Tuareg rebels) in mid-May 2014. Within days, the Malian Army was in full flight from angered Tuareg insurgents in Kidal and many other sites of strategic importance in the north, including towns along the main drug-trafficking and smuggling routes that connect northern Mali to the northern Sahara and the Mediterranean coast.

Mali - Hajj ag GamouGeneral Hajj ag Gamou (right), with Chadian officers during operations in Mali

As a result of the army’s rapid flight, a significant portion of the Tuareg and Arab communities of the north that have no interest in separatism or the formation of an Islamic state were suddenly once more at risk from politically-motivated violence. These communities responded by transforming their pro-government Tuareg militia into a more inclusive pro-government self-defense organization, the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA), led by the only Tuareg member of Mali’s general staff, General Hajj ag Gamou. With an estimated 1,000 fighters drawn from Tuareg and Arab communities, the movement announced its formation on August 14, 2014. Since then the group has emerged as a powerful obstacle to the ambitions of those militant groups in northern Mali seeking greater autonomy or the establishment of an independent state to be known as “Azawad.”

Formation and Aims

According to GATIA’s secretary-general, Fahad ag Almahmoud, the movement was formed after the May 2014 withdrawal of the Malian Army from its positions east and north of Gao rendered the Tuareg and Arab communities “defenseless” (Le Monde, February 9, 2015). Failing to obtain the support of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali-MINUSMA) or French military forces (which the movement suspects of supporting the Tuareg separatists of the Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad [MNLA]), GATIA’s founders observed that only armed groups were being given a seat at the peace negotiations that followed: “There was no mission to substitute ourselves for the army or [government] assistance, we just have the same enemy. In reality, when we took up arms, the Malian Army no longer existed [in northern Mali]” (Le Monde, February 9, 2015; RFI, August 16, 2014).

The establishment of GATIA, however, is not just a response to growing insecurity in the absence of government security forces. It is, in many ways, also the result of a long-simmering conflict between the noble Tuareg clans of Kel Ifoghas (a.k.a. Kel Adagh) and the Tuareg vassal clans known as Imghad. The introduction of democracy after independence in 1960 allowed the more-numerous vassal classes of Tuareg and Arab society to accrue authority as elected officials over the less numerous noble groups. For many in the non-noble classes, Malian citizenship also offered a chance to restructure traditional Tuareg and Arab society in their favor, while the noble castes objected to these developments and their own sudden political subordination to the Bambara ethnic majority in southern Mali.

The rivalry between nobles and vassals was intensified by struggles over smuggling routes, after a new outbreak of rebellion in northern Mali led by separatist Tuareg vassal clans in January 2012 and the military coup three months later that ended Bamako’s authority over the north. When the Islamist coalition occupied northern Mali, the noble Ifoghas group tended to favor Iyad ag Ghali’s Islamist Ansar al-Din movement, while the vassal Imghad (particularly the Tuareg militia led by Hajj ag Gamou) sided with the state. Ag Ghali of the Ifoghas is a bitter enemy of Imghad General Ag Gamou, and is now believed to be in the uncontrolled region of southwestern Libya while preserving his influence in northern Mali through intimidation and alleged death squads which target his opponents in the Tuareg community (Jeune Afrique, February 18, 2015).

Evolving Alliances

The French and African Union military intervention in 2013 shattered the Islamist coalition in northern Mali (which included the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa [MUJWA] and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] as well as Ansar al-Din), leading many Ifoghas to abandon Ansar al-Din to form a new and less overtly provocative movement, Le Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA). With Mali’s regular army still absent from the north, there have been calls from Mali’s press and political establishment for Ag Gamou’s GATIA to be formally integrated into the Malian Army (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], October 24, 2014).

After the flight of the Malian Army from the north, GATIA joined Songhai fighters of the Coordination des Mouvements et Front Patriotique de Résistance (CM-FPR, incorporating the largely Songhai Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias) and the loyalist faction of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA). These took part in a successful battle against a coalition of rebels (HCUA, MNLA and the anti-Bamako faction of the MAA) led by veteran commander Hassane Fagaga at Anéfis on July 11, 2014. [1] Both the MNLA and GATIA use Malian fighters who returned from Libya after the defeat of the Qaddafi regime. One of these, Baye “Bojan,” was an important military commander in GATIA before his death in the battle for Anéfis.

The military weakness of the MNLA (exposed earlier when the movement was sidelined by Islamist militants in 2012) resurfaced in October 2014 when GATIA drove the MNLA from its base in the town of In Tillit (south of Gao) and several other smaller settlements (L’Indépendant [Bamako], October 20, 2014; Jeune Afrique, October 17, 2014). GATIA insists that the MNLA is deeply involved in drug trafficking, though in reality there are few armed groups in northern Mali that have not benefitted in some fashion from the lucrative drug corridors that run from West African ports through Mali to points north and east.

Mali - Didier DackoGeneral Didier Dacko

General Didier Dacko of the Malian Army  denied reports that government forces had provided support to the GATIA attack, adding that “the militia does not act under the orders of the Malian Army” (Sahelien.com, October 16, 2014). Mali’s Ministry of Defense has also described suggestions that GATIA was formed from members of Ag Gamou’s militia (an important part of the re-conquest of northern Mali in 2013) and elements of a Malian Army technical weapons group as “part of a pure disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the Malian Army” (Jeune Afrique, February 16, 2015).

Government denials that it is assisting GATIA may be a means of promoting GATIA as an independent (but Bamako-friendly) partner in the Algiers peace talks, which currently exclude GATIA. This is because if GATIA is too closely identified with the government through a formal relationship with the government there would be little reason for them to be part of the negotiations. General Ag Gamou continues to report to the Malian general staff, but GATIA Secretary-General Ag Almahoud insists that GATIA members receive no pay from Bamako: “Nobody pays us. We do it for honor, not for the unity of Mali” (Jeune Afrique, February 17, 2015).

GATIA’s goals remain only vaguely outlined; when asked directly what proposals GATIA intended to present at the peace talks, Ag Almahoud preferred to describe what GATIA did not stand for: “We are not part of the movements that have taken up arms against the state. We do not demand secession from Mali, nor federalism, nor autonomy” (JournalduMali.com, October 21, 2014). What is clear is that GATIA sees a future for northern Mali within a sovereign and secular Malian state. Less certain is what all this loyalty will cost, keeping in mind Ag Gamou’s apparent political ambitions.

Outlook

The flight of Malian troops from northern Mali in May 2014 confirmed once again that Mali’s military is utterly incapable of controlling the north, convincing Mali’s leaders that the deployment of pro-government ethnic militias is preferable to further misadventures by the Malian Army. While the French have committed to a military presence in the region with the inauguration of Operation Barkhane in July 2014, both separatists and loyalists suspect the French of favoring the other side. [2] The HCUA, MNLA and the anti-Bamako faction of the MAA are likewise all determined to prevent GATIA from having a seat at the peace talks, in part because GATIA’s very existence challenges their claim to be the legitimate voices of northern Mali’s Tuareg and Arab communities. On the other hand, the question is whether any agreement reached in Algiers that excludes GATIA could restore peace and order in northern Mali. The internal struggle within the Tuareg and Arab communities is escalating and a failure to address this in the ongoing negotiations will fail to produce a workable solution to the violence in the north.

Notes
1. For Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso, see Terrorism Monitor, April 19, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=39290&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=588&no_cache=1 ; August 10, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=39747&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=588&no_cache=1 ; and February 21, 2014, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=41997&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=757&no_cache=1 . Both factions of the MAA include many former members of MUJWA.
2. For Operation Barkhane, see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, July 24, 2014, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=42667&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=757&no_cache=1 .

Mali’s Peace Talks: Doomed to Failure?

Andrew McGregor
August 7, 2014

Mali’s disaffected minority northerners are now at least equal in military power to the state. Outside of a few tribal units drawn from loyalist Tuareg and Arabs, Mali’s military (drawn largely from the nation’s southern population) finds itself severely outclassed when fighting in the unfamiliar terrain of northern Mali. Every Tuareg rebellion has seen a marked improvement in arms and tactics over the last and it was ironically only al-Qaeda’s intervention that prevented the utter defeat of the state military by encouraging foreign intervention. If this pattern continues, Bamako clearly cannot expect to survive another rebellion and continue to retain sovereignty over the north. This creates a certain urgency for the success of upcoming peace negotiations to be held in Algiers beginning August 17, a situation the armed opposition will attempt to use to its advantage.

MNLAImproved military training does not appear to provide an answer to this dilemma – indeed, it was American-trained troops that led the military coup in 2012 that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government and then refused to fight in the north. Mali’s military remains badly divided and in dire need of reform before it can do more than pretend to be a stabilizing force in the north. Without an effective military presence, a Bamako-appointed civil administration will be reduced to giving suggestions rather than implementing policy. For now, however, the Tuareg and Arabs of the north do not trust the army, while the army does not trust its own tribal Tuareg and Arab militias. Until this situation changes, meaningful disarmament will be impossible and development initiatives unable to proceed regardless of what agreements might be made in Algiers.

The MNLA’s claim to represent northern Mali’s Arab, Songhai and Peul/Fulani communities is open to challenge. While individuals from these groups may belong to the MNLA, most members of these groups view Tuareg intentions with suspicion. Even though the Arab MAA sits side-by-side with the MNLA at the Algiers talks, recent clashes between the two groups in northern Mali suggest this unified front may not last long (Reuters, July 14; July 24). The Tuareg themselves are badly divided by class, clan and tribe, something reflected even within the senior ranks of the MNLA, with some leaders prepared to accept some form of autonomy, while others demand nothing less than complete independence (Inter-Press Service/Global Information Network, July 23; Xinhua, July 17).

MNLA 1France has complicated negotiations through its new redeployment of French military forces in Africa under the rubric Operation Barkhane, which establishes a series of French bases in sensitive areas of their former colonies in the Sahel (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 24). In Kidal, anger is growing in some quarters against the prolonged and now apparently permanent French military presence, while in the south, France is popularly perceived as a destabilizing element suspected of secretly backing Tuareg independence movements. The question is whether Bamako will now deal sincerely with the armed opposition in negotiations if it senses it now has French muscle behind it in the form of a permanent French counter-insurgency force. President Keita came to power on a platform of dealing firmly with the north but must obviously shift from the status quo without alienating his southern supporters.

While the inclusion of the three Islamist groups (Ansar al-Din, AQIM and MUJWA) in the talks could not be expected, they have increased their activity in northern Mali as talks get underway in order to remind all parties of their continued presence in the region. Again, this inhibits the creation and implementation of development projects, particularly if foreign nationals continue to be a target of the Islamists.

Bamako has laid out “red lines” it insists it will not cross with relation to Mali’s territorial integrity and republican system of government, but will have difficulty taking a firm stance given its weakened state and the defeat of its forces in Kidal in May (Echourouk al-Youmi [Algiers], July 19; All Africa, July 16). While it may be possible to persuade the opposition to settle for a robust form of autonomy, Bamako must be prepared to retain authority for little more than defense issues and foreign affairs. The northern opposition must, in turn, keep in mind that greater local authority will mean little without a budget. Mali is one of the poorest states on earth, and the more autonomy the north gains, the less likely it will be for Bamako to devote limited resources to its success. If development promises continue to be ignored as soon as the ink dries on yet another Malian peace agreement, then we are likely in for another round of phony disarmament campaigns, failed military integration and local discontent leading to rebellion.

This article first appeared in the August 7, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.