Al Qaeda’s West African branch seeks French withdrawal, then negotiations

Al-Qaeda’s branch in West Africa, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM, or the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”), has released a two-page statement setting forth its position on negotiations with the Malian government. If French and other supposed “occupation” authorities are ejected from the country, then the jihadists will sit down for talks.

JNIM’s position is eerily similar to the Taliban’s stance in talks with the U.S. The Taliban agreed to a withdrawal deal with American representatives on Feb. 29, but refused to engage in “intra-Afghan talks” until the U.S. had set a timetable for withdrawing all of its and NATO’s forces. Of course, such a withdrawal greatly increases the jihadists’ chances of success.

JNIM, like the Taliban, seeks to establish an Islamic emirate in Mali and the surrounding countries. France intervened in 2013, after JNIM’s predecessor groups, operating as part of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) network, seized much of Mali and began laying the groundwork for their jihadist regime.

Formed in 2017, JNIM is openly loyal to AQIM’s leadership, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Taliban’s emir.

Al-Qaeda portrays itself as a populist movement

The two-page statement released by JNIM’s media arm, az-Zallaqa, is addressed to “our Muslim brothers [in] the land of Mali.” It is titled, “Regarding the Calls for Negotiations,” and was released in both Arabic and English.

JNIM attempts to capitalize on popular discontent, with the statement’s authors writing that they’ve “followed” the peoples’ “massive marches,” “angry protests,” and “steadfast sit-ins asking for the exit of the French occupiers and all kinds of invaders — whether they are under the cover of the European Union or what is called the United Nations — from this good land,” Throughout the message, JNIM labels France’s involvement an “occupation,” arguing that foreign interference, and not the jihadists’ war, is the true source of widespread anger.

The statement’s populist motif is evident. JNIM lauds the “glorious people” across all of Malian society, from all ages and social strata, claiming that that have “become more aware, like the other Muslim peoples who rose against the treacherous alliance of invaders and tyrants.” The organization blames France and its allies entirely for the “seven lean years” since 2013, laying responsibility for the deaths of “thousands of youths” solely at Western feet — while ignoring the toll of the jihadists’ own attacks.

Although the message is peppered with benign, liberal-sounding phrases — including words such as “free societies,” “freedom,” “dignity” and “noble concept of politics,” “right for self-determination,” and “liberty” — the authors cannot completely hide their intentions. “All good things are in the Shari’ah of our Lord,” JNIM writes, thereby reiterating the commitment to implementing Islamic law across the land. This is also the Taliban’s chief goal in Afghanistan. JNIM men add that their statement was crafted in such a manner that it “does not disagree with the Shari’ah of our Exalted Lord.”

JNIM’s leaders say they “have heard” the peoples’ “repeated” requests for the Bamako government to hold negotiations and dialogue with the mujahideen, because you care for the trial imposed on us with the Crusader French occupiers to end.” The al-Qaeda jihadists allege that a “corrupt political class” has assisted foreign forces as they “divide and conquer” and “pit the tribes against one another.”

Thus, JNIM claims to represent the “Muslim people,” writing that it is willing to act in such a manner that the jihadists “extend the role of affection between us and other brothers and sons.”

“No pre-conditions” — except one

Within this selective, populist framing, JNIM’s leaders say they are will to talk to the Malian government with “no pre-conditions.” But that isn’t really true.

“There can be no talking about negotiations under the shade of occupation, before the departure of all French forces and their followers from Mali as a whole, before it halts its aggression and its overt and covert interference in our affairs, just as we do not get involved in their affairs,” the statement reads.

JNIM demands that the Malian government, if it is seriously interested in serving “the interest of the Malian people,” would side with the people “in their legitimate pursuit of freedom from direct occupation.” JNIM further insists that the government “withdraw its formal invitation” for the “entry” of French and other forces, declaring “openly an end to the presence of Barkhane and MIUSMA troops on their territories.”

“Only then will you, our proud people, find us to be the one who cares most about peace, stability, progress, and improvement of your living conditions in all aspects of life such as health, education, housing, and employment opportunities,” JNIM’s leadership claims. “It is then that we will respond to any call to negotiations with the Bamako government, because that will serve the country and the subjects.”

Al-Qaeda seeks jihadist governance

AQIM and its subordinate groups, including JNIM, have long sought to establish a jihadist government in Western Africa. Al-Qaeda correspondence found by Rukmini Callimachi, then of the Associated Press and now of The New York Times, shows that AQIM considered multiple strategies for building an al-Qaeda style government. As FDD’s Long War Journal has written previously, one especially important document for understanding al-Qaeda’s thinking is a letter written by AQIM’s emir, Abdulmalek Droukdel, to the shura council of Ansar Dine, which AQIM used as its local face. Ansar Dine’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, went on to lead JNIM. Ansar Dine merged with other al-Qaeda groups to form JNIM in 2017.

Like Osama bin Laden, Droukdel surmised that Western forces could quickly topple any jihadist state. So he was concerned with building local support for the jihadists’ efforts, such that the new entity could overcome the many hurdles it would face.

Droukdel concluded that AQIM had “two missions” and combining them created a “true dilemma.” AQIM wanted to both preserve the “Azawad Islamic project,” meaning the effort to build an Islamist state, and also continue its “global jihadi project.” The latter was a reference to AQIM’s commitment to carrying out terrorist operations throughout the region.

Droukdel and his advisors came up with two proposals — both of which were intended to mask al-Qaeda’s plans, so as to avoid international scrutiny as much as possible while building local legitimacy. In the first scenario, AQIM would subordinate itself to the local ruler. AQIM would “be under the emirate of Ansar Dine” such that AQIM’s “emir would follow their emir” and AQIM’s “opinion would follow their opinion.” This would be the case for all “internal activity,” meaning “all activity connected to participating in bearing the responsibilities of the liberated areas.” But all “external activity” connected to the “global jihad…would be independent of them (Ansar Dine)” and AQIM “would ensure that none of that activity or its repercussions is attributed to them [Ansar Dine], as care must be taken over negative impacts on the project of the state.”

FDD’s Long War Journal assesses that this is precisely the same model employed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. So it is no accident that AQIM and JNIM have considered pursuing this same course.

In Droukdel’s “second proposal,” some of al Qaeda’s mujahideen “would be set aside and put under the complete control of the emir of Ansar Dine to participate in bearing the burden of running the affairs of the liberated cities.” The remaining al Qaeda members would be “completely independent of Ansar Dine and its activity would be limited to jihadi action outside the region.”

AQIM came up with these plans before France interrupted its state-building project in 2013. But JNIM is following a version of these plans, seeking to further embed itself within the local fabric while also openly embracing al-Qaeda’s global jihadist ideology.

Al-Qaeda has long approved of negotiating with “apostates”

Although it may seem odd that an al-Qaeda group would be willing to negotiate with the Malian government, the organization’s jurisprudence has long allowed for flexibility in this regard.

For instance, files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound show that AQIM considered a truce with the Mauritanian government. AQIM referred the matter to bin Laden’s senior lieutenants and they helped draft the truce’s terms. In exchange for freedom to operate, al-Qaeda would refrain from conducting terrorist attacks inside Mauritania itself. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Osama Bin Laden’s Files: Al Qaeda considered a truce with Mauritania.]

After the U.S. government released that set of files in 2016, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, a senior al-Qaeda ideologue in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, told the press that AQIM had in fact reached an accommodation with the Mauritanian government.

Therefore, al-Qaeda has long been willing to use negotiations — even with so-called “apostate” governments — to advance its interests in Africa.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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