JNIM Emir Exploits Anti-Islamic State Sentiments in Northern Mali
After an unusual appearance in the Menaka region in Mali, Al-Qaeda’s branch, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) Emir, Iyad Ag Ghaly, has allegedly met members of the Tuareg armed political groups in the Kidal region in northern Mali. Secrecy surrounded his visit, which reportedly lasted for two days. Most members of the armed political groups contacted by Militant Wire to comment on the news have refused to confirm or deny the visit.
Ag Ghaly’s alleged visit to Kidal was first reported by the French media outlet RFI on 31 January 2023. However, JNIM’s media wing Az-Zallaqa did not comment on the visit. According to the French source, Ag Ghaly has met the Secretary General of the separatist High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) Alghabass Ag Intalla, his brother Mohamed Ag Intalla who is the Amenukal (Tuareg leader) of the noble Ifoghas tribe, the ruling tribe in the Kidal Region, and the military commander of the loyalist Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies, El Hadj Ag Gamou.
The alleged meeting or series of meetings came a few days after Ag Ghaly’s visit to a border town in the Menaka Region, where he met members of a Tuareg tribe who pledged allegiance to him. The group’s media wing reported Ag Ghaly’s visit to Menaka, which likely aimed to send a message to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) stating that JNIM, with the support of the local tribes, will continue to fight against ISGS and push back against their expansion in the Menaka region.
The series of meetings in the Kidal region with the armed political groups’ figures were reportedly to create a non-aggression agreement between JNIM and these groups to protect JNIM militants from attacks while fighting ISGS, but also to recruit militants from the tribes there.
Ag Ghaly’s Political Maneuvers
Ag Ghaly’s visit to Kidal Region raised several questions about JNIM’s agenda, the group’s connection to the Tuareg and Arab tribes, and the level of freedom of movement the group has in northern Mali.
France24 journalist, Wassim Nasr, told Militant Wire that Ag Ghaly’s visit to northern Mali was a “political visit”; he clarified that “Ag Ghaly is doing what he always did, which is winning the hearts and minds of the local population and decision-makers at various levels”. Nasr said that “Ag Ghaly was following Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) policy in warming up to the locals”. He clarified that the deceased AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel and his successor Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Annabi have consistently lobbied for closeness with the locals. When JNIM was created in 2017, the policy was more visible in the group’s governance.
Nasr said that according to his sources, Ag Ghaly has indeed met with the Amenukal of the Tuaregs, Mohamed Ag Intallah. However, he does not have confirmation on the other meetings, adding that it is “dubious whether these meetings have occurred or not”.
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Nasr noted that Ag Ghaly had moved more freely since the French withdrawal from Mali. The French and European CT operations ‘Barkhane’ and ‘Takuba Task Force’ respectively, were imposing restrictions on the movement of JNIM leaders and often targeting them with air strikes. “Not feeling threatened physically has allowed Ag Ghaly to be politically active again and in a position of making such visits”, Nasr added.
ISGS as a Common Enemy
After the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Mali, Ag Ghaly’s number one enemy became ISGS, which has been expanding its area of operations in the Menaka and Gao regions, almost approaching the Kidal region. Since March 2022, the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security, and Development (CSP), which is a new coalition that consists of the loyalist and the separatist armed political groups, has been fighting against ISGS attacks. In several statements, the CSP said that ISGS was the greatest threat to northern Mali and promised to form a defense strategy to protect the civilians. However, no notable success has been reported. It is estimated that the group has killed around 1,500 civilians and displaced almost half a million. The main target of ISGS attacks is the Tuareg civilians, specifically the Dawsahak.
JNIM joined the fight alongside the CSP to first defend its presence in northern Mali and second to support the Tuareg tribes which they share tribal links with. Nasr said that “the armed political groups and JNIM currently have a shared enemy: ISGS”. However, he caveats that “this does not make them friends”. Nasr clarified that “any alleged meeting should not be seen as a rapprochement but rather a common interest in defeating ISGS”.
Ag Ghaly’s alleged meeting in the Kidal region came following a large CSP meeting on 15 January 2023 in Anfif, Kidal region, to determine a new defense strategy against ISGS and other threats from bandits. A meeting is also scheduled for 10 February in Kidal to specify the outlines for military collaboration between the various armed political groups.
Tribal links still play a significant role in alliances in northern Mali. Although Ag Ghaly has hijacked the rebellion of 2012 and defeated some Tuareg armed political groups in the north of Mali, tribal links still prevail over animosity.
Nasr said that the meeting between Ag Intallah and Ag Ghaly “was not out of the ordinary”, he added that it was customary for Ag Ghaly to meet tribal leaders, as solid tribal links join these groups. Ag Ghaly hails from the Ifoghas tribe, the nobles of the Tuaregs that largely make up the HCUA, and the secular Tuareg movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Although the HCUA signed the peace accord in 2015, the movement still keeps in its ranks ex-members of the Ansar Dine, the first Tuareg jihadi group that Ag Ghaly formed. And on one occasion in 2018, Secretary General Ag Intalla referred to Ag Ghaly as a “brother”.
However, Nasr concluded that “tribal links are being shaken by ISGS, as ISGS has recruited from the Dawsahak in its rank to fight against other Dawsahak in Talataye in Gao region.” He gives another example from Ansongo, also in Gao, where Fulanis in the ranks of ISGS were fighting other Fulanis.
It is worth adding that the CSP has suspended its participation in the peace accord signed in 2015. The group is still demanding a meeting with the transitional government in a neutral place to discuss the feasibility of the peace accord after seven years of signing it.
Mali is proving again that tribal links prevail over any other alliance or dispute. Ag Ghaly is an old nemesis of Ag Gamou. However, when it comes to fighting ISGS, old nemeses can ally to fight a common enemy.