JNIM official warns competing militia groups in northern Mali

Screengrab of the video of Yahya Abu al Hammam’s recent speech

In a recently released speech, Yahya Abu al Hammam, the deputy emir of al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), lambasted the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC), the legal body responsible for organizing joint patrols between the Malian military and the myriad of armed groups in northern Mali.

Hamman’s video included several clips of MOC fighters, the French military, and reported crimes committed by MOC fighters against civilians in northern Mali.

“This is a direct call to all soldiers and officers in MOC,” Hammam said. “We call on them to repent and seek forgiveness and return from their loyalty to the Christians [the French], and be in the ranks of the Muslims, who defend their religion and their land and who are not slaves to France.”

Hammam’s language within the message tracked with previous statements released by him and other al Qaeda leaders in the Sahel. The jihadists have tried to present themselves as the true protectors of local Muslims against France and the often heavy-handed tactics of the local militaries, as more nationalist armed groups make agreements with the two governments.

The jihadist commander then relayed a short history of the various armed groups in northern Mali, stating that they are the direct result of the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s and massacres committed by the Malian military during that conflict. However, Hammam chastised the current groups within the MOC by saying, “you turned from warriors to negotiators and from demanding rights to participators in the violation of rights … and fight on their [France and Mali] behalf against the people of Islam under the name of ‘counter-terrorism.”

The explicit mention of the Tuareg rebellion of the 1990s is interesting as Iyad Ag Ghaly, the overall emir of JNIM, played an important role within Tuareg separatist movements of the early ’90s. This was likely a subtle jab at the leaders of the various armed militias, as Hammam appeared to be indirectly positing Ghaly and his organization as the continuation of that conflict.

Hammam continued his statement by referencing the Jan. 2017 suicide bombing on the MOC garrison in Gao, which killed at least 50 people and wounded another 100.

“You can see with your own eyes the shameful end of more than 100 soldiers and officers in the Gao operation and we thought it was a strong enough message for you to wake up and return to your religion.” He then directly warned the MOC that this is the “last time we call on you to revise your positions” and to accept the warning “or wait for the fate of shame and disgrace.”

In addition to the suicide bombing on the MOC garrison, JNIM was also responsible for the assassination of a prominent MOC commander in Timbtuku last month. The jihadist conglomerate has sought to weaken the MOC as it sees the framework as a threat to its operations in northern Mali.

Prior to closing his message, Hammam then directly addressed the Berabiche Arabs, who mainly live in Mali’s Timbuktu region and who have had good relations with al Qaeda in northern Mali. He talked up the Berabiche as allies to the jihadists before warning them of allowing members of their tribe to work alongside France against JNIM.

Many of the tropes heard in Hammam’s statement have long been recycled by JNIM and its predecessor organizations for many years. In 2015, Iyad Ag Ghaly himself, chastised local Tuaregs and called them to repent and join in the jihad against the French. Similar to Hammam’s recent message, Ghaly said then that the Tuaregs who signed the 2015 Algiers peace agreement (which led to the creation of the MOC), have “diverted from the road of Tawhid [monotheism]” and that the agreement itself smelled “of apostasy and disbelief, and treason and cunning.”

While rival militia organizations in northern Mali are not JNIM’s prime target, the jihadist group has nevertheless consistently targeted various militia groups, especially the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Imghad and Allies Self Defense Movement (GATIA). For instance, in 2016, two videos were released showing attacks and executions on MNLA positions and fighters.

Hammam’s speech is not likely to make much headway at persuading the various groups within the MOC to stop cooperating with Mali and France. However, the message serves as a reminder that JNIM seeks to spoil whatever peace agreements Mali achieves with the militias in the north. The jihadist group will also continue to retaliate against the militias as their presence ultimately impacts how well al Qaeda can operate in the region.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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