Three Questions To Our Guests

Three questions to Our Guests

In this section we ask three questions to the guests of our Sahel Seminars.

Dr Alex Thurston

Iyad and Alghabass: The Shifting Boundaries of Jihadism in Northern Mali.

Could you tell us a bit more about your new book project “Jihadism and Local Politics: Cases from Northwest Africa”?

My manuscript examines different interactions between jihadist groups and local politics in the Sahel and North Africa. The project focuses heavily on Mali but also includes cases from Libya, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria. With the project, I am trying to understand variations in jihadist mobilization and activity across this large region. I have been dissatisfied with analytical approaches that emphasize global jihadist thought at the expense of local context, and I have been equally dissatisfied with approaches that treat jihadists as run-of-the-mill insurgents and rebels. Through the vignettes and cases in the manuscript, I look for distinctive patterns where jihadists have to improvise and compromise in order to adapt their doctrines and goals to rapidly shifting circumstances, and I look for patterns in how local political elites respond to jihadist mobilization.

Why did some political leaders cut all ties to Al Qaeda and go back into mainstream politics after the French intervention in Mali in 2013?

In January 2013, following the French intervention in Mali, some leaders of Ansar al-Din broke away to form the Islamic Movement of Azawad, which subsequently became part of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad. In interviews, some of these leaders told me that Iyad ag Ghali – the founding leader of Ansar al-Din and now head of the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM, the Society for Supporting Islam and Muslims) – had violated his original understanding with them. Specifically, ag Ghali had extended the war into central Mali, and had begun ignoring his fellow Tuareg politicians’ advice in favor of listening to the counsel of hardliners from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The politicians who broke away also knew that amid the French intervention, Ansar al-Din was becoming completely politically anathema to Western governments and regional powers, and they wanted to preserve a future for themselves in mainstream politics. Nevertheless, questions persist about what possible relationships there may still be between ag Ghali and some of these politicians. News outlets such as Jeune Afrique have repeatedly, and credibly, suggested that ag Ghali may be in contact with these politicians as a means of influencing the wider politics of northern Mali. 

Should Jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Din also be part of the peace negotiations in Northern Mali?

I think so. Mali’s Conference of National Understanding, held in March/April 2017, formally recommended that the Malian government open dialogue with Malian-born jihadists, especially Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. I think that idea would be worth trying, and I think that France and the United States should not attempt to stand in the way of such a dialogue. The government of Mali should not compromise on Mali’s territorial integrity or democratic system, but there may be other areas of compromise that the government could find with certain jihadists.

Dr Fallou Ngom

Ajami in Muslim Africa

Could you explain the social and religious importance of Ajami in Muslim Africa?

Ajami plays important social and religious functions in Muslim Africa. It is used for both religious and non-religious matters. It is used to record major events, genealogies, write personal letters, and to keep financial and family records, among others. It is also used to teach about Islam. Since many African Muslim scholars are bilingual or multilingual (fluent in Arabic and one or several African languages), they have produced materials in Ajami to teach various religious subjects to their local audiences.

Can local interpretations of the Quran help counter violent extremism on the region?

Considering the Ajami documents I have collected from the Wolof, Fuuta Jalon Fula, and Senegambian Mandinka, there are Islamic teachings that can be found that emphasize the ethical and spiritual dimensions of Islam, and reject extremism and violence. There is even one poem by Muusaa Ka called Taxmiis bub Wolof which celebrates ethnic and linguistic diversity as a form of divine blessing to humanity.

Have African languages become more important politically in the region?

The pervasive reference to parts of Africa as “Francophone,” “Anglophone,” or “Lusophone” gives the misleading impression that people speak more European languages than their own in Africa and that African languages are not important. Nothing could be further from the truth. African languages have always been important across Africa. European languages are spoken by no more than 20 percent of the population, and mostly the Western-educated elite who hold power. As soon as one moves away from urban areas or goes to local markets, he will soon realize the vitality of African languages and that he is not in a “Francophone”, “Anglophone”, or “Lusophone” land, but rather in a Wolofophone, Pulaarophone, Mandinkaphone, or Swahiliphone land, to name only these!

This interview has been edited by SRG.

Dr Matt Kirwin

Insecurity and migration in the Sahel

What is the attitude of local populations towards Sharia law in the Sahel?

According to public opinion surveys, Sahelians are most likely thinking of milder forms of Sharia that govern civil issues such as marriage and inheritance. Large majorities in Niger (85%), Mauritania (84%) and Senegal support the implementation of Sharia in their country. Fewer in Nigeria (35%) and Burkina Faso (16%) feel this way, two countries that have significant non-Muslim populations. Mali is an interesting case in that 6-in-10 supported Sharia in 2009, but it dropped to 24% in 2012 after Malians experienced, first hand, a severe form of Jihadi-implemented Sharia. Today, about half of the surveyed population supports Sharia law.

To what extent do Sahelians support extremist groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?

Our surveys tend to show that few view Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in positive terms. In Mauritania, 6% say the group has a positive influence, but only 3-4% feel that way in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria and Niger. It is important to keep in mind the margin of error is +/- 4 when considering such small percentages.

What are the main factors that explain local conflicts in the Sahel according to public opinion surveys?

Across the Sahel pluralities in 5 of 6 countries name politics as the primary driver of conflict, yet there is variation by country. In Niger and Mali, for example, about 20% cite land use as the root of conflict. In Mauritania, a country where racial identification is sensitive, 30% cite ethnicity as a driver of conflict. Nigeria is the only country where a large proportion of the population (24%) cites religion as a cause of conflict, probably because the country faces three major conflicts: the jihadist insurrection led by Boko Haram in the north, ethnic tensions in the Middle Belt and violence carried out by armed groups in the Niger Delta.

This interview has been edited by SRG.

Lt Col Yssouf Traoré

Perspectives on the Malian army and the G5 Sahel

What could make the Malian army more effective in countering violent extremist groups?
The most important challenge is developing the capabilities and combat functions of the Malian Army to effectively deny violent extremist organizations sanctuaries and safe havens. The Malian army must be able to gather, disseminate and exploit intelligence through the acquisition of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets (ISR). It also needs to be able to move and maneuver quickly over great distances integrating ground and air units to protect its lines of communication while adapting its logistics to the nature of the terrain.

How should the money received from the international community for the G5 Sahel be spent?

The money should go to developing the capabilities of the Malian Army through engagements with experienced and skilled western armies. For example, this could be done through training and advice, during joint missions. I also think that the acquisition of technologies that proved to be essential in counterinsurgency operations which took place in the Middle East should be a priority.

What are the main tactical challenges faced by the Malian army when fighting in the Northern regions?

In Mali, violent extremist organizations are often elusive. They hide in villages and among the population, using Improvised Explosive Devices and ambush tactics. Another challenge is related to the size of the area of operations. Violent groups have access to safe havens in places that are out of reach, such as the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains in Northern Mali, or out of sight thanks to forest cover. They also have accomplices among the armed groups which have signed the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali.

This interview has been edited by SRG.