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.
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.
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.