Al-Qaeda Branch Emir Makes Rare Appearance in Menaka, Mali: What This Means for Islamic State in the Sahel
Over two days starting on 22 January 2023, Al-Qaeda’s branch, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), released footage through its media wing Az-Zallaqa on Chirp Wire showing notable tribal figures pledging allegiance to JNIM emir Iyad Ag Ghaly, who was present at the ceremony. Az-Zallaqa said that the men were from the “Azawagh tribe” in Mali’s Menaka region. In one image, Ag Ghaly appeared to be sitting at the center of the group surrounded by a few men dressed in Tuareg attire. Other images depicted weapons, technicals (vehicles with mounted guns), and several militants carrying AK-type rifles. However, the significance of the footage comes from its timing, the location, and the presence of Ag Ghaly himself in the Menaka region.
The appearances of Ag Ghaly (AKA Abu Al-Fadel) are rare. They usually occur in the Kidal region, the stronghold of the separatist Tuaregs, mainly the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in northern Mali on the border with Algeria. Ag Ghaly shares tribal ties with the separatists, and the latter is often accused of cooperating with him or concealing his whereabouts.
Ag Ghaly’s last appearance was in October 2020 in the Kidal region, where he welcomed the newly released prisoners in the largest-ever prisoner swap between JNIM and the Malian government. Approximately 200 militants were released to free national and international hostages, including the French-Swiss Sophie Pétronin, kidnapped in 2016. His social and tribal links in the region have likely provided him with the needed securitization to host banquets for the newly released prisoners. Ag Ghaly was also never reported to make an appearance in central Mali, and he often relied on his lieutenants, such as Amadou Koufa, to lead his militants there.
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Ag Ghaly’s presence at the allegiance was also not crucial, as most pledges occur without the presence of the emir. Public pledges of allegiance for JNIM are not common, if not scant. Most of these allegiances happen discreetly and are often not reported. A few local allegiances were reported in central Mali that the JNIM sub-group Katibat Macina forced.
However, Ag Ghaly’s presence was intentional this time, and many factors played a role in his appearance.
Why Menaka, and Why Now?
Menaka Region has often been associated with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel’s (ISGS - but now named Islamic State Sahel Province) presence and attacks. JNIM has only carried out a few operations in the region. The Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), an armed political group, a component of the loyalist Platform movement that signed the peace accord with the government and the separatist in 2015, is heavily involved in securing the region.
The Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA), also a component of the Platform movement, have assisted in securing the region. However, its efforts were more focused on the neighboring region, Gao. The French and European Counterterrorist activities under ‘Operation Barkhane’ and the ‘Takuba Task Force’ have also secured the region to some extent, often conducting operations alongside the MSA and GATIA. However, the withdrawal of CT forces from Mali announced in 2021 has contributed to the deterioration of the security situation.
JNIM and ISGS have been fighting against each other in the regions of Menaka and Gao for almost a year. The fighting started intensifying in March 2022 when ISGS launched a series of atrocities against the Tuareg civilians from the Dawasahak tribe in the eastern Menaka region. The attacks became more fierce around the summer of the same year, and approximately 1,500 civilians were killed in the region, with about half a million displaced. As a result of these attacks, ISGS has expanded its areas of operations, often occupying commercial centers/towns where wells and lands are rife.
During the fighting, multiple incidents were reported where ISGS attacked JNIM militants in several locations such as Talataye town. The town is considered a main stronghold for JNIM in the Gao region and borders the Menaka region. JNIM installed an Emir there from the Dawasahak tribe who is allegedly responsible for governing the area. By reaching Talataye, ISGS has compromised JNIM’s presence in Gao and Menaka regions. With ISGS on JNIM’s doorstep, JNIM increased its focused on fighting ISGS, often reportedly cooperating with the MSA. JNIM has also arguably prioritized attacking ISGS over attacking national and international forces.
The French media outlet RFI said in an article that the pledge of allegiance was held in Inekar, in the Menaka Region, a location frequently attacked by ISGS militants. The appearance of Ag Ghaly there was intentional, as it sent a solid message to ISGS that JNIM and its emir are safe and comfortable enough in the Menaka region to have the freedom of movement and to hold a pledge of allegiance ceremony.
The same media outlet said that the Azawagh is a clan of the Dawsahak tribe based in Menaka and that most of the notables were likely from the MSA movement. [Writer’s note: The MSA secretary general Moussa ag Acharatoumane was contacted to comment on the report but has not responded.]
Potential for Increase of ISGS’s Attacks
Since its inception, ISGS has been conducting several attacks against the local Dawsahak community in the Menaka region. The conflict, at its core, is ethnic. The Dawsahak tribe and the Fulani ethnicity inhabit the area of Menaka and the border of the Niger Republic. Since the group's formation, the latter is a primary component of ISGS, which has been exploiting their grievances to recruit from the community in its ranks. The Fulanis have a historical antagonism with the Dawsahak. Both communities are pastorals fighting over grazing lands, water, and cattle.
The Dawsahak is also one of the main components of the MSA. The Imghad and the MSA coalition to fight back against ISGS have intensified the intercommunal tension and violence between the Dawsahak and the Fulanis. If the reports of having MSA fighters at the pledging of allegiance to JNIM were accurate, this would fuel the fighting between ISGS and JNIM and provide ISGS with a more solid reason for attacking the Dawsahak community.
The pledge of allegiance might be a one-off ceremony. Still, it could be a new strategy adopted by JNIM to lure more tribes/clans and fighters into joining the group under the pretext that JNIM could provide them with the security they need against ISGS attacks. It is worth noting that the Malian government has had minimum involvement in defending the civilians in Menaka and has never announced a national mourning period for the victims killed there. On the other side, JNIM had, on several occasions, issued statements in support of the local community and promising to avenge the victims.
It is not uncommon for JNIM to portray itself as a protector of the community. Approaching local communities and providing services and protection is a widely adopted strategy for JNIM in Mali and the broader Sahel region. In Timbuktu, JNIM conducts security patrols, fights off bandits, installs Islamic judges (Qadis), and regulates the markets. Likewise, in the Kidal region, the stronghold of the separatist armed political groups and tribes, JNIM offered security patrols and punishment for bandits.
Indeed the appearance of Ag Ghaly can be analyzed in various ways. However, there is no question that Ag Ghaly’s presence in Inekar could launch a new wave of violence between ISGS and JNIM, with innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.