French Troops Kill JNIM Military Leader Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara: What are the implications?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Militant Profile

November 20, 2020

Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara (Le Combat, Bamako)

French forces deployed in the Sahel under the “Operation Barkhane” banner scored a notable triumph on November 10, 2020 when they eliminated one of the region’s leading Islamist militants.

The French airstrike in Mali took out Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara “Abu Shari’a,” a prominent military leader of the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-allied Islamist militant formation active in the African Sahel. Two others were killed in the strike, including Ag Moussa’s aide and his son Hamza. The attack took place as the targets were travelling in a 4×4 seven kilometers from Tadamakat, near Ménaka in the Gao region (one of the three territories of Mali’s arid and sparsely populated north-east, the others being Kidal and Timbuktu).  Ag Moussa’s death is of some significance, as his military leadership had helped score a series of successes in the Sahel that demoralized local troops and pushed Mali’s government towards talks with JNIM terrorists led by veteran Islamist Iyad Ag Ghali. The move towards talks with the Islamists was a major factor in the August 2020 military coup in Mali; it should be recalled that it was a 2012 military coup that enabled the launch of an Islamist occupation of northern Mali and the creation of the ongoing Islamist insurgency, which has spread to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Wreckage of Ag Moussa’s Vehicle (Walid la Berbere)

Two drones, fighter jets, four helicopters and 15 commandos were involved in the operation, suggesting the French had acquired intelligence aforehand regarding Ag Moussa’s itinerary for November 10. A French military spokesman declined to say whether American intelligence sources were involved in the operation (AP, November 13, 2020). According to French sources, the men ignored warning shots, fighting back with small arms and machine guns before they were hit directly by French fire. The bodies of the three dead were buried on the spot; there was no word regarding the fate of two other occupants of the vehicle (Le Monde, November 13, 2020; Kibaru [Bamako], November 15, 2020),

Ag Moussa was one of the main drivers behind efforts to push the Sahelian jihad into southwestern Mali. A two-time deserter from the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMA), Ag Moussa’s father was a Bambara from Mali’s populous southwestern region (Diara, or Diarra, is a common Bambara name). Ag Moussa assumed a Tuareg identity through his mother, who came from the aristocratic Ifoghas Tuareg clan in the north-eastern Kidal region (Defense Post/AFP, March 18, 2019; Africa Times, March 24, 2019). Ag Moussa was considered to be very close to JNIM leader Iyad Ag Ghali, with whom he is reported to have received military training in Libya (RFI, March 18, 2019). Most recently, Ag Moussa had a leading role in violent clashes with JNIM’s Islamist rivals in the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). If not the military commander of JNIM (this point is uncertain), he was at least an important and influential military leader with responsibility for training new recruits in weapons and tactics.

Approximately 50-years of age, Ag Moussa was known as a clever strategist and capable tactician whose inside knowledge of the workings and capabilities of the Malian army played a large role in his battlefield successes. The colonel had a special role in training recruits at a camp in the Nara rural commune in the Koulikoro Region of southern Mali. (RFI, March 18, 2019). The base is close to Mali’s northern border with Mauritania and the Wagadou Forest, a traditional zone of jihadist operations.

Ag Moussa deserted the Malian Army to join Tuareg insurgents in the 2007-09 rebellion in northern Mali and Niger. He rejoined the Army through the re-integration protocols of the Algiers Accords that ended the rebellion. As a newly-appointed colonel, he was put to work combatting banditry and recalcitrance in his native Kidal.

With the launch of a new Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali in late 2012, Ag Moussa deserted once again, briefly joining the secular rebel Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (Azawad National Liberation Movement) before defecting to their Islamist rivals, Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (Supporters of Religion). Ag Moussa was accused of being the military commander of Ansar al-Din forces who brutally slaughtered 128 FAMA prisoners at Aguelhoc in January 2012 after the poorly supplied garrison ran out of ammunition (L’indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], January 26, 2016).

Victims of the Aguelhoc Massacre

He also took part in several battles in northern Mali before the French military intervention in the Spring of 2013. Like many Tuareg militants, Ag Moussa then joined the newly-formed Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) as a means of publicly disassociating himself from the extremists being pursued by French and Chadian forces, though he continued working for Iyad Ag Ghali and recruited for Ansar al-Din. According to the UN, his half brother, Sidi Mohammed Ag Oukana, serves as Iyad Ag Ghali’s advisor on religious affairs (UN Security Council, August 14, 2019).

After taking charge of most of JNIM’s military operations in 2017, Ag Moussa increased the tempo of JNIM operations in central Mali, the region at the physical center of Mali’s ethnic and cultural divide. In 2019, the UN reported that Ag Moussa was the new commander of JNIM’s Katibat Gourma (Gourma Brigade) following the death of its Tuareg founder, Almansour Ag Alkassoum.

FAMA insisted that Ag Moussa directed the major attack on a Malian military post at Dioura in the Mopti region of south-central Mali in March 2019. Twenty-six Malian soldiers died in the strike, with 17 men wounded and an additional loss of several armored vehicles. JNIM admitted three dead.

Amadou Koufa (Jeune Afrique)

However, JNIM’s media arm, the Zallaqa Foundation, insisted the raid was carried out by the Fulani Katiba Macina, led by Fulani jihadist Amadou Koufa and part of the JNIM coalition since 2017. The JNIM statement said the attack was retribution for the government’s “heinous crimes” against the Fulani. The message also cited the lack of international support for the Fulani and the presence of French military forces in the Sahel as reasons for the attack (Kibaru [Bamako], March 23, 2019). Ag Moussa was known to work very closely with the Katiba Macina, so it is possible that Ag Moussa may have taken part in the operation without actually being its official leader. Since then, Ag Moussa was credited with leading the November 1, 2019 attack on the FAMA base at Inelimane, in which 50 soldiers were killed. The former colonel became a US specially designated terrorist in July 2019, followed by the imposition of UN sanctions as an al-Qaeda associate the next month.

Morale, pay and equipment in FAMA are all poor. Real fighting is carried out by the French, with the Malian military still indulging in politics, struggling to take control over a state they have no means or training to run. The French military presence has become increasingly unpopular, with President of Mali Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta resigning on August 19, 2020 amidst large anti-French street demonstrations in Bamako.

(AFP)

The multinational Task Force Takuba, intended to relieve pressure on the French military which has lost over 50 men in combat operations in the region since 2013, is still in its early stages. Some 50 members of the Estonian Special Forces began operating alongside French troops in October; they are expected to be joined in the coming months by 60 Czechs and 150 Swedes, with the latter also deploying three Blackhawk helicopters. A small Greek deployment is expected soon, though this has been held up by growing tensions with Turkey. Other European states have committed to joining TF Takuba or are exploring the idea, including the UK, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine and Italy, but deployment has been held up by COVID-19 and, in some cases, failure to obtain parliamentary approval (Greek City Times, November 24, 2020; FranceTVInfo, November 9, 2020; AFP, November 5, 2020).

French forces go from victory to victory over the jihadists, but they are only a strike force, no longer a colonial force of occupation. In this sense, they have become an independent arm of the Malian state, operating without reference to the putschists in Bamako. Yet killing jihadists and their leaders cannot end the jihad, which is ultimately a political problem. The political instability generated by the military coup and the promised creation of a new civilian government pushes military and diplomatic progress back to the starting point, though the putschists have at least vowed to honor their alliances with the G5 Sahel, Takuba, MINUSMA and France’s Operation Barkhane (FranceTVInfo.fr, August 19, 2020).

Perhaps most importantly, France has likely succeeded in derailing the continued pursuit of unwanted negotiations between the terrorists and the new regime in Bamako. On the other hand, the French attack is yet another example of the ever-growing reliance of Mali’s military on French forces to conduct successful anti-terrorist operations that enable the nation’s continued survival and avoid a new descent into the political chaos surrounding the Islamist occupation of the north in 2012-13.

The day before the strike on Ag Moussa, Operation Barkhane commander Major General Marc Conruyt noted that JNIM had been taking advantage of a recent French focus on targeting Islamic State personnel and assets, adding that JNIM was still “the most dangerous enemy for Mali and the international forces” (AFP, November 9, 2020). Ag Moussa’s carefully engineered death was a potent reminder to JNIM and its supporters of France’s determination to restore regional stability by ridding the Sahel of religious extremists.

Yahya Abu al-Hammam: France Eliminates Leading Saharan Jihadist

Andrew McGregor

March 5, 2019

French commandos tore through the desert north of Timbuktu on February 21, in hot pursuit of a leading jihadist who had been detected as part of a three-car convoy by a Reaper surveillance drone. As the commandos caught up, the militants opened fire. Five French helicopters moved in and quickly destroyed the convoy, killing 11, including the main target, Algerian Yahya Abu al-Hammam (a.k.a. Djamel Okacha), a top al-Qaeda financier and strategist (Jeune Afrique/AFP, February 22; Defense.gouv.fr, February 22).

Yahya Abu al-Hammam

Al-Hammam was the second-in-command of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (JNIM), al-Qaeda’s Sahel/Sahara affiliate. There are reports that al-Hammam may have been ill and decided to seek medical treatment elsewhere (Malijet, February 23). According to a Malian security source, Abu al-Hammam had been tracked for three months through his telephone (AFP, February 22). Al-Hammam was the third JNIM leader to be killed within a year as French forces work to decapitate the JNIM leadership in the hopes of destroying the Salafi-Jihadist movement in the Sahara/Sahel region.

The announcement of al-Hammam’s death came only hours before French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe arrived in Mali, where French troops have been fighting militants and terrorists since 2013. An upbeat Phillipe told a gathering of French, Malian, British, and Estonian troops that they had “managed to destroy [the jihadists’] means of combat, to intercept their logistical flows, to dry up their resources… every day our enemies suffer significant losses…” (Ouest-France, February 24).

Born on May 9, 1978, in the Reghaïa commune of Algiers province, al-Hammam began his career in 1998 as a militant with the Algerian Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA – Armed Islamic Group) and later, after 18 months of imprisonment, the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC – Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat).

Al-Hammam arrived in northern Mali in 2004 with the controversial GSPC commander ‘Abd al-Razzak al-Para (Malijet, February 23). From bases there, al-Hammam left an explosive trail through Mauritania, where, under the direction of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abu Hamid ‘Abd al-Zaïd, he and his fellow militants exploited Mauritanian military weakness in a series of deadly attacks that killed dozens of Mauritanian troops between 2005 and 2008 (Malijet, February 23). In 2009 he was a suspect in organizing both the murder of American missionary Christopher Leggett and a suicide attack on the French embassy in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

In 2009, as commander of the Katiba al-Furqan, al-Hammam ordered the assassination of Mali’s intelligence chief in northern Mali, the Timbuktu-based Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, a Bérabiche Arab. Though the killing was a setback for security forces, it reportedly provoked a disagreement between al-Hammam and his former sponsor, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who had spent years cultivating relationships with the Bérabiche of northern Mali (Malijet, August 13, 2014).

From 2009, al-Hammam became heavily involved with kidnappings, particularly those of Western tourists or workers.

Al-Hammam led AQIM gunmen into Timbuktu in April 2012 as part of the Islamist uprising and occupation of northern Mali. As governor, he oversaw a rigidly strict Shari’a regime that destroyed much of the city’s Islamic heritage and applied corporal and capital punishments to its people for offenses against their interpretation of Islam.  He was rewarded in October 2012 when AQIM leader ‘Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud) appointed al-Hammam the new amir of AQIM’s Saharan affiliate in October 2012. (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, October 4, 2012; Le Monde, February 22). Unlike many of his fellow militants, al-Hammam survived the 2013 French-led Operation Serval that dispersed the Islamists and assumed ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaïd’s command when the latter was killed by a Franco-Chadian patrol in February 2013.

The founding of JNIM: Yahya Abu al-Hammam (left), Iyad ag Ghali (center), Abu Hassan al-Ansari (right, killed by French forces in February 2018).

Remaining aloof from the rival Islamic State group, al-Hammam appeared in the March 2017 video that announced the establishment of the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM alliance of four Sahara/Sahel jihadist groups under veteran Tuareg militant Iyad ag Ghali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], January 10, 2016, MaliActu, March 2, 2017).

Al-Hammam last appeared in a November 8, 2018 video, in which he sat alongside ag Ghali as Amadou Kufa, the Fulani leader of the Force de libération du Macina (FLM – Macina Liberation Front), and called on his fellow Fulani to “make jihad” wherever they are (Le Monde/AFP, November 9, 2018). Two weeks later Koufa died in the Wagadou Forest after being mortally wounded by a French attack. With al-Hammam now gone as well, the priority of French forces will be the elimination of JNIM leader Iyad ag-Ghali. Al-Hammam could be succeeded by Abd al-Rahman Talha al-Libi, the current commander of the Katiba al-Furqan, though there are rumors that Talha may have been one of those killed in the attack on al-Hammam’s convoy (Malijet, February 23).

This article was first published in the March 5, 2019 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.

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.

Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa

Andrew McGregor

July 24, 2014

With several military operations underway in the former colonies of French West Africa, Paris has decided to reorganize its deployments with an eye to providing a more mobile and coordinated military response to threats from terrorists, insurgents or other forces intent on disturbing the security of France’s African backyard.

France will redeploy most of its forces in Africa as part of the new Operation Barkhane (the name refers to a sickle-shaped sand dune). Following diplomatic agreements with Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania (the “Sahel G-5”), over 3,000 French troops will be involved in securing the Sahel-Sahara region in cooperative operations involving G-5 troops. Other assets to be deployed in the operation include 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 200 trucks, six fighter-jets, ten transport aircraft and three drones (Le Figaro [Paris], July 13).

Operation BarkhanePresident Hollande made a tour of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Chad between July 17 to 19 to discuss the new security arrangements with political leaders, but also to promote French trade in the face of growing Chinese competition (Economist, July 19). In Niger, Hollande was met by a group protesting French uranium mining operations in that country (AFP, July 18). In a speech given in Abidjan, French president François Hollande declared that the reorganization of French military assets in Africa would enable “quick and effective responses to crisis… Rather than having heavy and unwieldy crisis bases, we prefer to have facilities that can be used for fast and effective interventions” (Nouvel Observateur [Paris], July 19).

The official launch of Operation Barkhane will come in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on August 1. The operation will be commanded by the highly-experienced Major General Jean-Pierre Palasset, who commanded the 27e Brigade d’Infanterie de Montagne (27th Mountain Infantry Battalion, 2003-2005) before leading Operation Licorne in Côte d’Ivoire (2010-2011) and serving as commander of the Brigade La Fayette, a joint unit comprising most of the French forces serving in Afghanistan (2011-2012).

The initiation of Operation Barkhane brings an end to four existing French operations in Africa; Licorne (Côte d’Ivoire, 2002-2014), Épervier (Chad, 1986-2014), Sabre (Burkina Faso, 2012-2014) and Serval (Mali, 2013-2014). Licorne is coming to an end (though 450 French troops will remain in Abidjan as part of a logistical base for French operations) while the other operations will be folded into Operation Barkhane. Operation Sangaris (Central African Republic, 2013 – present) is classified as a humanitarian rather than counter-terrorism mission and the deployment of some 2,000 French troops will continue until the arrival of a UN force in September (Bloomberg, July 21). Some 1200 French soldiers will remain in northern Mali (Guardian [Lagos], July 15). Existing French military deployments in Djibouti, Dakar (Senegal) and Libreville (Gabon) are expected to be scaled back significantly, a process already underway in Dakar (Jeune Afrique, July 19).

8 RPIMaSoldiers of the 8th Regiment of Marine Infantry Paratroopers (8e RPIMa), deployed in Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire

The force in Chad has been boosted from 950 to 1250 men. Chad will play an important role in Operation Barkhane – N’Djamena’s Kossei airbase will provide the overall command center, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Zouar, a town in the Tubu-dominate Tibesti Masif of northern Chad, has also been mentioned as a possibility (Jeune Afrique, July 19). Kossei will provide a home for three Rafale fighter-jets, Puma helicopters and a variety of transport and fuelling aircraft. Chadian troops fought side-by-side with French forces in northern Mali in 2013 and are regarded as the most effective combat partners for France in North Africa despite a recent mixed performance in the CAR. Four Chadian troops under UN command died in a June 11 suicide bombing in the northern Mali town of Aguelhok (AFP, June 11). Chadian opposition and human rights groups are dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idriss Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

Intelligence operations will be headquartered in Niamey, the capital of Niger and home to French unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations in West Africa. There are currently about 300 French troops stationed in Niger, most of them involved in protecting, maintaining and operating two unarmed General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper drones and an older Israeli-built Harfang drone (Bloomberg, July 21). The French-operated Harfang drones are being gradually phased out in favor of the MQ-9s, though the Harfangs saw extensive service during French operations in northern Mali in 2013. Three Mirage 2000 fighter-jets will be transferred from N’Djamena to Niamey. A French Navy Dassault Atlantique 2 surveillance aircraft has been withdrawn from Niamey with the conclusion of Operation Serval.

Small groups of French Special Forces will continue to be based in Ougadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, and at Atar, a small settlement in northwestern Mauritania. Other small bases are planned for Tessalit in Mali, which controls the road running between the rebellious Kidal region and southern Algeria, and in Madama in Niger, a strategic post near the Malian border that was the site of a French colonial fort. There are reports that French troops have already occupied the nearby Salvador Pass, an important smuggling route between Niger and Libya that appears to have acted as a main transit route for terrorists passing through the region (Libération [Paris], July 16).

French forces in the Sahel-Sahara region will continue to be targeted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Murabitun group, which claimed responsibility for the death of one Legionnaire and the wounding of six others in a suicide bomb attack in northern Mali on July 15 (al-Akhbar [Nouackchott], July 16; RFI, July 17). Much of the ground element for Operation Barkhane is likely to be drawn from the French Légion étrangère and the Troupes de marine, the successor to the French Colonial Infantry.

The implementation of Operation Barkhane, an apparently permanent defense agreement with five former French colonies, raises a number of important questions, not least of which is what attitude will be adopted by Algeria, the most powerful nation in the Sahara-Sahel region but one that views all French military activities there with great suspicion based on Algeria’s 132-year experience of French occupation. There is also a question of whether the new defense agreements will permit French forces in hot pursuit of terrorists to cross national borders of G-5 nations without obtaining permission first. The permanent deployments also seem to present a challenge to local democracy and sovereignty while preserving French commercial and political interests in the region. For France, Operation Barkhane will enhance French ability to fend off Chinese commercial and trade challenges and allow France to secure its energy supplies while disrupting terrorist networks and containing the threat from southern Libya.

This article first appeared in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor