Mali: “The old man of the mountain”
Timely, two days ahead of Mali’s presidential elections, the emir of Jama’ah Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Iyad Ag Ghaly made his first appearance since the announcement of the merger in March last year, which gathered several militant factions into a Sahelian jihadi conglomerate. A beard grey of age and whitened by the sun, cut into a montage of wooden blinds with a laptop placed on a table in front, the long-serving Tuareg sheik and militant leader began to read out his speech accompanied by gusts of the desert wind and reflections of sun rays and silhouettes of tree leaves and branches waving above.
The multifaceted political message delivered was motivated by expectations on the jihadi alliance to clarify its stance amidst major political events and developments in Mali, while underscoring that the issue of the soon to be held elections already had been addressed in a previous message by the group’s Moroccan qadi (judge) Ali Maychou, more commonly known by his nom de guerre Abu Abderrahmane Al-Sanhaji or Al-Maghribi. Ag Ghaly dismissed the forthcoming elections as a mirage that only exploits people’s illusions, a democratic process which the Shariah opposes, further advising the audience that religion is the right way. Al-Sanhaji had earlier urged Malians to boycott the elections since they only would maintain a system of corruption, oppression, and continued French occupation, the only solution is jihad, according to Al-Sanhaji.
On the field, the group has suffered a series of tactical defeats with a dozen senior and mid-level commanders killed so far in 2018, and it had limited success in terms of outcome of the military operations where significant means were deployed, although the complex attack against the Burkinabe army’s Chief of Staff (EMGA) headquarters, the failed assault on the French Embassy in Ouagadougou in March this year, and the complex attack which destroyed the G5Sahel-Force headquarters in Sevaré a month ago were highly symbolic and indicated that the group maintained significant operational capabilities and the ability to strike hard targets across the subregion. Nevertheless, Ag Ghaly proclaimed that France had failed in achieving its goals and that the prolonged “occupation” and the numerous operations only had multiplied the ranks and popular support for the “mujahideen”, additionally, militant expansion in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. In light of the alleged failure on the part of France, Ag Ghaly accused the former colonial power of letting the Malian army commit massacres in Macina, Boulkessi and elsewhere, crimes that Ag Ghaly promised not to be left unanswered. Considering France’s central role in Mali, one gets a bit confounded that France does not use its leverage to pressure Malian authorities to put an end to these practices, essentially this is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, France did not hasten to express concerns over the massacres in Nantaka and Kobaka, Mopti, preceded by Canada and the United States. Meanwhile, Ag Ghaly puts further blame on France for igniting an ethnic and tribal war, or a war of jahiliyyah, referencing the tribal wars during the “age of ignorance” in pre-Islamic Arabia. To be seen in the light of France’s training and support of local militias engaged in hyper-localized conflicts catalyzed by political and tribal dividends, conflicts that currently are playing out in the Mali-Niger borderlands, rural Gao, and the Gourma.
Ag Ghaly warns the people in Mali and Azawad about diverting from the objective to fight the “crusaders” and their allies, with a reminder of the punishment for killing fellow Muslims, citing the Quran on the subject of killing believers.
But whoever deliberately slays another believer, his requital shall be hell, therein to abide; and God will condemn him, and will reject him, and will prepare for him awesome suffering. (Surah An-Nisa 4:93)
Thus, a pointer to the massacres that have taken place across northern and central Mali. Mass atrocities have been perpetrated by government forces, ethnic-based militias, and militants including ISGS and JNIM itself, although in the case of JNIM supposedly unintentional IED attacks that nevertheless have caused carnage with large numbers of civilian victims. In the context of ethnic and tribal fighting and collaboration with French forces of Operation Barkhane, Ag Ghaly calls on movements and militias who have allied with France to repent and return to their religion. Presumably, a communication primarily intended for armed groups in the north where such a message would have more penetrative power and potentially a more significant impact vis-à-vis militias composed of Dozos, Dogon, and Bambara in central Mali. While the militias, the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-defence Group (GATIA) have conducted counter-militancy operations alongside Operation Barkhane or under French air cover against the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), JNIM has largely been on the sideline, with only limited armed engagements with the aforementioned militias. However, in this context JNIM appears to portray itself as a broker, at the same time a subtle outreach which could be translated as the need for support, contradicting previous statements.
Ag Ghaly took the opportunity to express his support for imprisoned members who he calls on to stand firm, and says that no efforts will be spared to free them, note that JNIM constituent Katiba Macina freed prisoners in Banamba in late 2016 and that a senior Al-Mourabitoun cadre and former spokesperson made a breakout recently from the high-security prison in Koutoukalé, Niger.
A central focus of JNIM has been the launch and operationalization of the G5Sahel-Force, clearly reflected by the complex attacks in Ouagadougou and Sevaré, Ag Ghaly took the opportunity to lambast those Muslim countries that have provided the nascent regional counter-terrorism force with financial aid, materiel and other forms of support. He goes on by saying that war on Islam is a global war, and the G5Sahel-Force a device set up to eliminate the Islamic project in Mali. Ag Ghaly’s Algerian deputy, Yahya Abu al-Hammam, earlier described the G5Sahel-Force as another French intervention succeeding Operation Serval and Barkhane.
Ag Ghaly concluded his speech by articulating his support for the people in Gaza and Al-Quds (Jerusalem), forwarding thoughts and prayers for victory in defending Islamic sanctities. This in accordance with JNIM’s template for visual recordings which end with “Here we begin..and at Al-Aqsa we meet”.