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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Our Journeys / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. Read Crisis Group’s in-depth report on the crisis in the area.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

Katiba Macina fighters on motorcycles in central Mali. Screen grab of a video by Az-Zallaqa. Title: "They Are Liars".
Report 276 / Africa

Speaking with the “Bad Guys”: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists

War between the state and jihadists in central Mali has led to growing intercommunal violence. To spare civilians additional harm, the government should explore the possibility of talks with the insurgents about local ceasefires and humanitarian aid – while remaining open to broader discussions.

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What’s new? The war in central Mali has reached an impasse, with the state unable to defeat jihadist insurgents by force. The insurgency and military operations against it have exacerbated intercommunal violence. As a result, some Malians call for negotiations between the government and militant leaders.

Why does it matter? The calls for dialogue, while no longer marginal, are still resisted by the government, its foreign backers and parts of Malian society, who see no room for accommodation with the jihadists. Yet experiences negotiating local compromises and humanitarian access with militants suggest that at least some are pragmatic.

What should be done? The Malian state should mandate religious leaders to test the possibility of talks with militants, potentially aiming first for local ceasefires and other means of mitigating civilian suffering before broadening the scope. It should also sponsor wider dialogue among central Malians, including jihadist sympathisers, about the grievances underpinning the insurgency.

Executive Summary

Military operations aimed at defeating the Katiba Macina jihadist insurgency in central Mali have reached a stalemate, with the conflict fuelling ever deadlier intercommunal violence. In this light, some Malians call on the government to engage the militants in political dialogue. Obstacles to such talks are serious: the Katiba Macina’s demands seem to leave little space for accommodation; it has ties to al-Qaeda-linked militants; and the idea of dialogue generates resistance among many Malians and foreign powers. Nonetheless, central Mali residents, aid groups and religious scholars frequently engage the group to discuss local compromises, humanitarian access and religious doctrine, revealing at least some pragmatism among militants. Given the remote prospects for defeating the Katiba Macina militarily, the Malian authorities should empower religious leaders to explore initial talks with its leaders while seeking a wider dialogue among central Malians, including those sympathetic to the insurgency.

Since 2015, the Katiba Macina has established a strong presence in central Mali, capturing vast rural areas and expelling state officials. By framing longstanding socio-economic and political grievances in religious discourse, the movement’s leader Hamadoun Koufa has won support, in particular – though not exclusively – from Quranic school students and ethnic Peul herders. The group has provided basic justice, security and relief from decades of state predation in areas under its control. Both the Katiba Macina’s violence and military operations against it have widened pre-existing cleavages among ethnic groups, leading self-defence militias to proliferate and intercommunal clashes that now kill more people than fighting between militants and the security forces. Central Mali’s death toll is now the country’s highest, with civilians bearing the brunt. As the war’s costs mount, calls from activists, politicians and religious leaders for dialogue between the government and Katiba Macina leaders are growing louder.

Enormous challenges stand in the way of such dialogue. For now, both Mali’s top officials and jihadist leaders reject it. At first blush, the jihadists’ aspirations – in principle, the overthrow of Mali’s state and democratic institutions, their replacement with a theocratic system inspired by the group’s interpretation of sharia and the severing of relations between Mali and its Western partners – leave little room for conciliation. The Katiba Macina’s links to the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, a jihadist coalition that pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda, likely narrow its leeway to engage officials. Malian secular elites, Sufi Muslim scholars, human rights groups and victims’ associations express disquiet that talks with jihadists could lead to compromises on the role of Islam in public life. Those communities in central Mali that have suffered at its hands would likely resist negotiations. Some Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., expressly oppose the idea. No outside power explicitly backs it.

Despite these challenges, state and non-state actors have regularly engaged the Katiba Macina over the past four years. Malian officials have struck deals over hostage releases. Communal leaders, aid organisations, including Western groups, and religious scholars have discussed with the group its local rule, humanitarian access to areas under its control and the righteousness of its discourse. One initiative that appears to have shown promise involved the Malian government itself mandating religious and traditional leaders to explore what accommodation with jihadists might entail. Such contacts have mostly been local and limited in their objectives; as yet, they have not sought to introduce ceasefires or other means of reducing violence, let alone achieve peace. But they have revealed a degree of pragmatism among Katiba Macina militants, suggesting that even if the odds are stacked against success, dialogue with the group is worth trying.

The Malian government should consider two ways of engaging central Mali’s jihadists and their supporters:

  • The first would involve empowering Islamic scholars, including three religious figures that Katiba Macina leader Koufa himself has said he would be willing to meet. The scholars could seek to engage Koufa or at least people close to him, initially perhaps to explore ways of reducing civilian harm, such as through local ceasefires. They might also discuss the return of officials, especially those providing services like education and health that residents want, to areas under jihadist control. They might subsequently be able to work on proposals for political and religious reform or open a channel through which officials could talk with militant leaders.
     
  • The second would entail a more comprehensive dialogue among central Malians aimed at establishing a shared understanding of the causes of violence and how to address them. This dialogue would not necessarily include jihadists themselves, but it should involve groups that have tended to support them, notably Quranic school students and nomadic Peul. Given the state’s chronic weakness in central Mali, the dialogue should examine what its return to the region would entail, particularly in terms of regulating access to natural resources, restoring local security and justice provision, devolving authority, ensuring political representation, and improving both Francophone and Quranic education. A first step would be for Mali’s president to empower an envoy to explore how such a dialogue might be organised in the wake of state institutions’ collapse in parts of central Mali.

Pursuing these options would not mean an end to military operations. Indeed, dialogue should be part of a comprehensive plan for central Mali involving military pressure, development aid and efforts to disarm self-defence militias and militants alike. But such an approach would entail a shift of tack, with force used alongside efforts to bring Katiba Macina leaders to the table, rather than in the likely futile hope of defeating the movement on the battlefield.

Dakar/Brussels, 28 May 2019

I. Introduction

From 27 March to 3 April 2017, hundreds of delegates from across Mali’s ten regions attended a Conference of National Understanding (Conférence d’Entente Nationale) to promote peace and reconciliation in the war-torn country. In their final report, the delegates urged the Malian government to engage in dialogue with jihadist insurgents, including Iyad ag Ghaly, a Tuareg rebel turned jihadist leader and head of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM), a coalition comprising a number of militant groups formed in 2017, and Hamadoun Koufa, leader of the Katiba Macina, a JNIM member. Among the delegates’ dozens of recommendations, this one stood out. For years, at least officially, the Malian authorities had eschewed such dialogue. The delegates’ recommendation did not change their minds. A few weeks after the conference, officials including President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta reaffirmed their position: “no dialogue with terrorists”.[fn]See “Mali : Polémique autour d’un eventuel dialogue avec les jihadistes”, RFI, 24 May 2017. In a major interview the next year, Keïta reiterated that “there is no way to negotiate with jihadists”. “Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta : ‘Pas question de négocier avec les djihadistes’”, Le Monde, 23 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The Malian government and its foreign partners have long vowed to defeat jihadists, mostly now fighting under the banner of the JNIM or a smaller group calling itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, on the battlefield. For several years, the Malian army has mounted operations with this aim, alongside French troops under the auspices of Operation Barkhane, soldiers of neighbouring states in the G5 Sahel joint mission and forces of the UN’s stabilisation mission (MINUSMA). Yet for years the jihadist groups not only remained strong but also extended their reach into new territories. That expansion has slowed if not stopped: government forces and jihadists today seem locked in a mutually hurting stalemate, as both sides take heavy casualties while capturing no new ground. Clashes are, however, fuelling even deadlier intercommunal conflict. The 2017 push for dialogue came in reaction not only to the failure of military operations to achieve peace, but also to the broader escalation of violence to which the military operations have greatly contributed.

Malian officials are not alone in resisting dialogue. Their foreign partners, particularly France and the U.S., are not keen either.[fn]Visiting Mali in April 2017, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault answered a reporter asking about the possibility of dialogue: “How do you negotiate with terrorists? This is a fight with no ambiguity”. Reuters, 7 April 2017. When asked about the U.S. position on dialogue with jihadists in Mali, a U.S. diplomat based in Bamako reiterated that the U.S. has an official position against dialogue with terrorists. Crisis Group interview, U.S. diplomat, April 2019.Hide Footnote Indeed, jihadists leaders themselves reject dialogue, at least rhetorically. In August 2017, Hamadoun Koufa rejected a reported invitation to peace talks. In a widely circulated audio recording, he said:

What dialogue? What are we going to bargain about in this dialogue? Is God for bargaining? God cannot be bargained [about]. … Either we prevail and establish the will of God or we perish.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 21 August 2017.Hide Footnote

The reluctance all around raises questions as to whether the two sides will ever agree to talk with one another or even what there is to talk about.

This report is part of a series exploring policies aimed at countering the spread of jihadism and curbing levels of violence in the central Sahelian countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Building upon Crisis Group’s recent report on the Mali-Niger border, it focuses on central Mali as an area where a number of actors, ranging from local residents, religious scholars and NGOs to state authorities, continue to gauge the possibility of dialogue.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°261, Frontière Niger-Mali: mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote Looking at the demands and organisational structure of the Katiba Macina, the dominant jihadist movement in central Mali, as well as at the constraints faced by the Malian government, it investigates in particular whether various forms of engagement with jihadist groups could help reduce conflict, reinvigorate state authority and bring peace. It offers some ideas on how such dialogue might work, issues that it can address, goals it might achieve and actors who can influence the outcome for the better.

Jihadists of the Katiba parading in the bush. Screen grab of a video by Az-Zallaqa. title: "They Are Liars".

II. The Crisis in Central Mali

Over the last four years, the Katiba Macina has established a strong presence throughout central Mali. Militants have expelled state authorities from a large swath of territory, shut down government schools and attempted, with mixed success, to replace the state in providing basic public goods and services. The government and its foreign partners have stepped up military operations aimed at defeating the group and restoring state authority. Thus far, while the campaign has reinforced the state’s presence in towns and stopped the jihadists’ advance, it has left rural areas under their influence. Both the insurgency and the army’s campaign against it have fuelled intercommunal violence that has claimed many lives.

A. The Katiba Macina: An Ingrained Insurgency

In early 2015, as the Malian government and international backers focused efforts on fighting Islamist insurgents in Mali’s north, militants opened a new front in the central region of Mopti.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°238, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote Hamadoun Koufa, a preacher and companion of Iyad ag Ghaly, called for jihad against the state, launching the movement that came to be known as the Katiba Macina.[fn]In the insurgency’s early stages, media coverage often called it the Front de Libération de Macina. The jihadists themselves never used that name, however. Locals refer to the militants by various names, including yimbe ladde and bahee or pilki, respectively “bushmen”, “bearded men” and “turbaned men” in Fulfulde. For background on Iyad ag Ghaly, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012.Hide Footnote Within a year, the group had chased the Malian army and state authorities out of many areas in Mopti and established a stronghold in the inner Niger delta, the river’s fluvial wetlands and floodplain.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit.Hide Footnote Its influence spread through much of Mopti and parts of the adjacent Segou region.

The Katiba Macina has its origins in Mali’s 2012 crisis. That crisis saw jihadists and Tuareg separatists expel the army from the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, with the jihadists subsequently turning on their erstwhile Tuareg rebel allies and controlling towns in those regions for almost a year. Many people from central Mali – in particular northern areas dominated by ethnic Peul – enlisted in jihadist movements, notably the Movement of Oneness and Jihad, which had its stronghold in Gao, and ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine movement, which occupied Kidal and Timbuktu. Recruits’ motives varied. Some were enticed by the promise of adventure or money. Others joined to obtain weapons and military training they could use to protect their communities amid the general breakdown of law and order.[fn]See Boukary Sangaré, “Le centre du Mali : épicentre du djihadisme ?”, Groupe de Recherche et d’Information sur la Paix et la Sécurité, 20 May 2016.Hide Footnote In 2013, after a French-led intervention routed the jihadists from northern towns, many central Malian fighters returned home, only to face harassment from the army.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit.Hide Footnote Starting in 2015, they regrouped and launched a new insurgency.

 To mobilise support, they tapped deep-seated local grievances and exploited social fractures. The grievances included widespread resentment of state officials’ predation, pastoralists’ feelings of victimisation related to the government’s resource management and the shrinkage of pastoral land due to farmers’ expansion. The social tensions were especially salient among the Peul, notably between sedentary and nomadic sub-groups, and between autochthonous and immigrant Peul over access to pastures.

Important as these socio-political grievances are, it was Hamadoun Koufa’s ability to lend them religious resonance that appears to have given his movement additional purchase in society. Koufa’s use of Islamic discourse recalls the Diina, a 19th-century politico-religious movement led by Sékou Amadou, a Peul cleric whose jihad led to the creation of the Macina state in 1818 – it was dissolved in 1862 – and the consolidation of Peul hegemony in the region. To this day, many Peul in central Mali consider the Diina’s era their golden age. Some of those who support Koufa view his uprising as a way to reinstate it. Koufa’s discourse has also attracted many students from Quranic schools, an important segment of central Malian society that until recently was on the margins of political struggle. The students appear to have found in the insurgency a means of empowerment.

That said, not all Katiba Macina’s members sign up willingly. Jihadist leaders often force families in the inner delta to enrol their children at pain of sanctions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Ouro Modi and Sare Seini, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote Senior commanders or sympathisers may influence younger relatives to join, which sometimes they do only reluctantly.[fn]A Katiba Macina defector said, “I was working at my uncle’s shop in Diafarabe, cercle of Ténenkou. In 2016 my uncle closed the shop and started travelling while I sat at home. One day he took me with him to Ouro Modi, and then Ténenkou, where he introduced me to the yimbe ladde. I was assigned the task of bringing fuel from the city to the markaz. This is how I found myself in the group. In 2018, my uncle was arrested and imprisoned in Bamako. I fled to come to Konna, region of Mopti”. Crisis Group interview, Katiba Macina defector, Mopti, February 2019. A cercle is a second-level administrative division in Mali. Each region is subdivided into cercles.Hide Footnote

More people in central Mali are learning to live by the gun.

Unlike many jihadist movements, the Katiba Macina has no political wing but a single leadership – centred around Koufa – that justifies every action with religious argumentation. Koufa himself wields a great deal of authority. His charisma, degree of Islamic knowledge and connection to ag Ghaly make him the movement’s uncontested leader. A second tier of leaders comprises his original disciples and Islamic scholars who joined him later. An advisory council (majlis as shura) discusses important social and political decisions, including the liberation or execution of hostages and prisoners.

As a fighting force, the Katiba Macina comprises a core group of combatants who have received military training, carry weapons and live in the bush. These yimbe ladde (“bushmen”, in Fulfulde), as locals call them, rely on sympathisers in villages for material and logistical support, as well as intelligence. Some refer to these non-combatants in villages as “dormant cells”. They often serve as intermediaries between the yimbe ladde and others, whether locals or humanitarian NGOs seeking to work in areas under jihadist control. While only men can be yimbe ladde, women play a major role in the dormant cells, helping collect intelligence, facilitate recruitment and deliver supplies to the bush.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, female jihadist sympathisers from the cercle of Ténenkou, Mopti, February 2019.Hide Footnote

The Katiba Macina has a cohesive chain of command but is decentralised. Aside from its core in the inner delta, it comprises many units, each called a markaz (“centre”, in Arabic), scattered across central Mali. Each markaz has a leader, the “amirou markaz”, assisted by a military commander, a shura, or advisory, council and a qadi (“judge”, in Arabic).[fn]In many cases, the amirou markaz is a Quranic scholar and assumes the judge’s function as well. The rank-and-file jihadists in each markaz are generally from nearby villages. The markazes vary in size and significance, but a few are considered most important, including Dialloubé and Guelédié in the cercles of Mopti and Ténenkou, respectively.Hide Footnote Every amirou markaz in principle sits on the movement’s main majlis as shura, which is headed by Koufa and includes other Islamic scholars.

Each markaz exercises authority over its own surroundings, often in collaboration with communal leaders, but the Katiba Macina’s leadership does appear to assert its command. Katiba Macina defectors and former hostages testify that each amirou markaz reports decisions taken at the local level to the Katiba’s central command.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Katiba Macina defectors and former hostages, January-February 2019.Hide Footnote That said, it is unclear precisely how this works in practice and how much autonomy each markaz enjoys. It seems, for instance, that markazes outside the inner delta enjoy more freedom than others.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote A number of affiliated groups with varying levels of attachment to the core also operate in the areas surrounding the Delta, notably in the Haire (in the cercle of Douentza), Seno (in the cercle of Koro Bankass and Bandiagara), Kareri, Mema and Farimake.[fn]See the map in Appendix A.Hide Footnote

The Katiba’s strong and ideologically committed leadership presents a challenge to ending the insurgency but potentially an opportunity for those who would broker dialogue. On one hand, peacemaking efforts that exclude Koufa may well prove – and indeed thus far have proven – ineffective. Nor does it appear likely that trying to weaken the movement by prising away mid-level commanders or entire markaz will work. On the other hand, the cohesive leadership means that the state would have a credible, authoritative interlocutor were it able to engage Koufa himself.

B. Intercommunal Violence

The jihadist insurgency in central Mali is fuelling ever deadlier intercommunal violence. This violence originates in the historical mix of competition and collaboration among ethnic groups over access to natural resources. Peul, Bambara, Dogon, Bozo and other groups share the same land and water and pursue vocations – farming, fishing and herding – that can coexist but also come into conflict, for instance when farmers seek to plant land previously used as pasture for livestock.[fn]According to conventional wisdom, each of these groups specialises in a particular profession: the Peul are herders, the Bambara and Dogon are farmers, and the Bozo fishermen. In reality, some Peul sub-groups practice farming, while Dogon, Bambara and Bozo own livestock as well.Hide Footnote Tensions have sharpened in recent decades as both human and livestock populations have burgeoned while natural resources have dwindled due to environmental change.[fn]See Marie Brossier, Cédric Jourde and Modibo Ghaly Cissé, “Le Centre du Mali : Relations de pouvoir locales, logiques de violence et participation politique en Milieu Peul (Region de Mopti)”, Centre FrancoPaix, Université du Québec à Montréal, May 2018. On livestock, see Matthew Turner, “Capital on the Move: The Changing Relation between Livestock and Labor in Mali, West Africa”, Geoforum, vol. 50, no. 4 (September 2009). For the effects of climate change on competition for resources, see Leif Brottem, “Hosts, Strangers and the Tenure Politics of Livestock Corridors in Mali”, Africa, vol. 84, no. 4 (November 2014).Hide Footnote Bandits increasingly roam the countryside as traditional livelihoods erode. More people in central Mali are learning to live by the gun.[fn]Crisis Group has observed this phenomenon along the Mali-Niger border as well. See Crisis Group Report, Frontière Niger-Mali : mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The jihadist insurgency stems from intra-ethnic as well as inter-ethnic rivalries. Communities are themselves divided along lines of social status: noble, common and slave lineage; sedentary and nomadic lifestyle; and autochthonous and settler heritage. These cleavages have also produced tensions over political representation and access to resources, leading intermittently to small-scale intra-communal violence.

If the jihadist insurgency is partly a product of such cleavages, it and the army’s operations against it also deepen them, thus aggravating general insecurity. While the Katiba Macina mainly attacks the military and other state institutions, militants also target civilians whom they accuse of collaboration with security forces. Peul dominance among the jihadists lends an ethnic dimension to the insurgency and has prompted members of other ethnic groups, notably the Bambara and Dogon, to establish self-defence militias called dozo or donso (“hunters”, in Bambara) in the absence of state security forces.[fn]In traditional Mandé-speaking societies, dozos are communal guardians as well as hunters. As the conflict has evolved, however, some of them have diverged from their original mission to become something more like a militia. See Jean-Hervé Jezequel, “Centre du Mali : enrayer le nettoyage ethnique”, Crisis Group Q&A, 25 March 2019.Hide Footnote Dozos, traditionally armed with hunting rifles, now carry submachine guns. Until recently, direct confrontation between jihadists and dozos was rare; instead, dozos tended to respond to jihadist attacks on villagers with indiscriminate reprisals against Peul civilians.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Direct clashes have become more common as violence has escalated and jihadists more openly claim Peul identity. Dozo militias have helped Malian troops with intelligence gathering, though of late their reprisals against other groups have compelled the army to scale back cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military officer, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote

The death toll in Mopti has risen steadily since the insurgency began, with civilians caught in the crossfire. From 2015 to 2018, the number of conflict-related fatalities grew more than tenfold.[fn]In 2015, the number of conflict-related casualties in Mopti was 78, increasing to 114 in 2016, 292 in 2017 and 853 in 2018. ACLED data. See also the map in Appendix A.Hide Footnote Over a thousand people have died, hundreds been injured and thousands more displaced. Mopti has become the deadliest region in Mali, accounting for nearly half of the country’s violent deaths.[fn]Recently, several human rights organisations have documented dozens of episodes of tit-for-tat violence, largely perpetrated by dozos against Peul civilians, and to a lesser – but not negligible – extent, by jihadists who are mostly Peul against Bambara and Dogon villagers. See “Dans le centre du Mali, les population prises au piège du terrorisme et du contre-terrorisme”, FIDH/AMDH, November 2018; “‘We Used to Be Brothers’: Self-Defense Group Abuses in Central Mali”, Human Rights Watch, December 2018; UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, “Situation of Human Rights in Mali: Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Mali”, January 2019. Hide Footnote

The Katiba Macina initially distanced itself from identification with any one community but that has changed. In the past, the movement emphasised its multi-ethnic composition and focus on fighting what it called the enemies of sharia.[fn]Boukary Petal, the Katiba Macina’s second most vocal ideologue after Koufa, says in an audio recording: “Our fight is not a fight for the sake of Peul or Arabs or Touareg or Bambara. No! Our fight is a fight between faith and disbelief, democracy and the book of God, idolatry and monotheism. … We do not fight so that Peul become superior to Bambara. … All ethnic groups must stop their rivalries, because we have nothing to do with it and we do not want it. They must stop hating each other”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2015.Hide Footnote Yet Koufa has recently shifted his discourse to claim Fulani identity and called upon all Peul to join the jihad.[fn]In a recent message, Koufa said, “O Peul! You have seen from the outset of our jihad to this day what the unbelievers have done to Peul – massacres and extermination, as France, the UN and the Arabs looked on. The French incite others against the Peul because we raised the flag of Islam and wanted to resubmit ourselves to God’s judgment (may He be exalted)”. He adds, “My [Peul] brothers, wherever you are, remember these words, ‘Come support your religion’”. See JNIM video, “Light or Heavy, March to Battle”, 29 September 2018.Hide Footnote He issued this call in response to a debate raging on social media where Peul in Mali as well as in the diaspora were inveighing against the community’s victimisation at the hands of other groups, creating a sense of cross-border Peul solidarity. Koufa seized upon this sentiment not to stir up more ethnic strife but to channel the anger at France, the G5 Sahel forces and the Malian army, which he labelled the Peul’s real foes.[fn]In an audio recording, Koufa said, “The G5 is the legalisation of Peul killing in the countries that compose it. Mali has changed its law to legalise the massacre of Peul. Burkina Faso has also legalised it. … Because of the G5 Sahel, the blood of Peul is cheaper than that of wild animals, because wild animals are, at least, protected by rangers”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, October 2018.Hide Footnote But by assuming a more explicit Peul identity, he risks further associating, in the eyes of other communities, all Peul with the Katiba Macina’s violence.

C. The Limits of Counter-terrorism and Development

The Malian government and its foreign partners, including France, have privileged a military response to address the jihadist insurgency in central – as well as northern – Mali, though they admit that stabilising the country requires more than that. As a Malian official puts it, “the government’s logic is simple: terrorism must be combated militarily, but the causes of terrorism must be addressed through good governance and development”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Malian minister, January 2019. In his 7 January 2019 address to parliament, former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga declared: “Whatever military action we take will quickly reach its limit if we do not follow it with political steps to restore consensus, cohesion and development”. Primature du Mali, “Le Premier Ministre Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga à l’Assemblée Nationale”, 7 January 2018. French Defence Minister Florence Parly also recognised the limitations of the military approach in her Twitter thread announcing the alleged killing of Koufa. She said, “the weakening of terrorist groups is essential for allowing the return of public services, access to education and the gradual normalisation of daily life. Military action is effective only if it is followed by a development policy”. Tweet by Florence Parly, @Florence_Parly, French defence minister, 10:46 am, 23 November 2018.Hide Footnote In this vein, the government’s official strategy for central Mali envisages both a military campaign and an injection of development aid. It is incapsulated in the Plan de Sécurisation Intégré des Régions du Centre, which was announced by the government in February 2017 but not officially initiated until a year later. The Plan envisages four steps: retaking territories captured by the Katiba Macina; bringing back state officials; enabling economic development; and, lastly, communication to explain the strategy to people living in areas affected (two additional initiatives, a disarmament program and intercommunal dialogue, were subsequently added and are examined in Section V).[fn]République du Mali, Ministère de la Sécurité et de la Protection Civile, “Plan de Sécurisation Intégrée des Régions du Centre (PSIRC Mopti et Ségou)”, February 2017.Hide Footnote

In reality, efforts have focused primarily on the military campaign. Since launching the plan, the government increased significantly its military presence in the centre, setting up over a dozen new posts in major towns and villages (in effect, creating “garrison towns”) in Mopti and Segou.[fn]In his address to the Malian National Assembly, Prime Minister Maïga enumerated the new military posts in the towns and villages of Mopti: Djenné, Diankabou, Sindégué, Kouakourou, Sokoura, Mondoro, Dialloubé, Toguere Koumbé, Diougouni and Konna. These new posts came in addition to others in cercles capitals, including Ténenkou and Youwarou. The goal of increasing the number of military posts is to achieve better military coverage of central Malian territory. See Primature du Mali, “Le Premier Ministre Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga à l’Assemblée Nationale”, 7 January 2018.Hide Footnote These operations have scored local successes. In some garrison towns, for instance, schools have reopened, the state administration is gradually returning, and economic activities, including those the jihadists banned, have slowly resumed.

In addition to the Malian army’s efforts, the French Operation Barkhane has also made sporadic counter-terrorism raids in Mopti. Barkhane has no official presence in central Mali, as it concentrates resources further north, particularly on the Malian border with Burkina Faso and Niger. Nonetheless, between March 2017 and February 2019, it has conducted at least six operations in Mopti, often combining airstrikes with ground action, sometimes in collaboration with the Malian army.[fn]The Barkhane sorties include Operation Panga in March-April 2017, Bayard in April 2017, Dague in May-June 2017 and Youwarou, Dialloubé 1, Serma and Dialloubé 2 between November 2018 and February 2019. For more information, see Barkhane’s official website.Hide Footnote Some of these operations targeted Katiba Macina commanders in an attempt to “cut the head off the snake”.[fn]The figures targeted were Yahia Aboul Hammam, the top al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb commander in Timbuktu; Mouhamed Ould Nouni, leader of al-Murabitun; Malick ag Wanasnat, Iyad ag Ghaly’s right-hand man; and Mohamed ag Almouner and Mansour ag AlKassim, commanders of JNIM and ISGS, respectively. Parly claimed the death of Koufa before the French National Assembly. “We are targeting [jihadists] at the top of the pyramid because it is the best way to weaken [their] base”. Assemblée Nationale Française, “Questionnement au gouvernement 28/11/2018”, La Chaine Parlementaire, 11 November 2018.Hide Footnote In November 2018, the French mission claimed to have killed Hamadoun Koufa himself in Youwarou cercle. Four months later, however, Koufa appeared in a video, apparently safe and sound.[fn]They Are Liars: Interview with Sheikh Muhammad Kufa”, JNIM, video.Hide Footnote

[The jihadists] rely on a sophisticated system of intelligence gathering to reward villagers who comply with their rules and sanction dissenters.

Other foreign forces also play a role. The G5 Sahel joint force, composed of units from five Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – had its headquarters in Sevaré, Mopti until June 2018. But in that month a jihadist attack destroyed the building, forcing the G5 Sahel command to relocate to Bamako. MINUSMA also has two bases in Mopti, at Sevaré and Douentza.[fn]The new MINUSMA mandate adopted on 28 June 2018 (UN Resolution 2423) directed the mission to “reprioritize its resources and efforts to focus on political tasks and its support for the restoration of State authority to the Centre of Mali, which is in the midst of a growing cycle of violence”. UN Security Council, “Resolution 2423 (2018)”, 28 June 2018.Hide Footnote Recently, in reaction to the upsurge in intercommunal violence, UN peacekeepers have stepped up operations, notably in the Koro, Bankass and Bandiagara districts. While the G5 Sahel focuses on counter-terrorism, MINUSMA is primarily concerned with protecting civilians and restoring the state’s presence. Thus far, neither has succeeded in halting violence in central Mali.

While military operations have helped return the state’s authority to garrison towns, they thus appear unlikely to defeat the Katiba Macina. Indeed, insurgents have shown considerable agility in the face of pressure, moving into the bush, where they can better hide out, and adopting guerrilla tactics like ambushes, roadside bombs and landmines. While the Malian army controls towns and their immediate vicinity, the jihadists rule the countryside, erecting checkpoints on rural roads and patrolling rivers. In this manner, they have effectively placed garrison towns under siege.[fn]On 20 March 2019 the jihadists stormed Dioura, a garrison town in the cercle of Ténenkou. They killed dozens, mostly military personnel, looted military equipment and set what remained of the garrison on fire.Hide Footnote They impose embargoes on villages they accuse of collaborating with security forces, forbidding the movement of people and goods in or out.[fn]The notable cases of villages under embargo include Toguéré Coumbé in the cercle of Ténenkou, Dialloubé in the cercle of Mopti and Kouakourou in the cercle of Djenné. See also fn 83.Hide Footnote They have also developed networks that allow them to rule villages without having to maintain a physical presence, limiting their exposure to military crackdowns. They rely on a sophisticated system of intelligence gathering, comprised of sympathisers in the “dormant cells”, to reward villagers who comply with their rules and sanction dissenters.

The development component of the government’s and its international partners’ approach has arguably made even less of a difference than military operations. The Plan de Sécurisation Intégré envisages delivering services as a means to improve communities’ lives, strengthen the state’s legitimacy and thus gradually sap support for the insurgents, as army operations weaken them militarily.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Malian and foreign officials involved with the Plan de Sécurisation Intégré, Bamako, December 2018 and April 2019.Hide Footnote In reality, development projects are rare in areas under the Kabita Macina’s control. Militants tend to allow in humanitarian groups but refuse access to development agencies. In the infrequent instances where agencies can deliver services, little suggests that the services boost the Malian state’s legitimacy, even when they benefit the local populations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian aid workers operating in Mopti, Dakar, Bamako and Mopti, December 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote Overall, prospects appear gloomy for strengthening the weak local governance and the state’s poor relations with society that underpin the insurgency while at the same time mounting military offensives against militants.

D. Breaking the Taboo

As the Katiba Macina’s military defeat has come to appear less likely, the idea of engaging it through dialogue has gained traction. An increasing number of outside experts, including Crisis Group, have recommended at least testing the waters to see whether negotiations might complement military action.[fn]Jean-Hervé Jezequel et al, “La France doit rompre avec la rhétorique martiale qui prévaut au Sahel”, Le Monde Afrique, 21 February 2018. See also Crisis Group Report, Frontière Niger-Mali : mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, op. cit.Hide Footnote In Mali itself, several civil society activists, politicians and Islamic scholars, began already in 2012 calling on the authorities to start a dialogue with the jihadists.[fn]Hide Footnote The April 2017 report of the Conference of National Understanding echoed these pleas.[fn]Advocates for dialogue at the Conference included religious leaders such as Mahmoud Dicko, civil society organisations such as the Association Adema, opposition leaders and delegates from the armed group Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad. Crisis Group interviews, Conference for National Understanding participants, October 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote

At the conference, dialogue advocates gave various reasons for their stance.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote For some, dialogue was the “pragmatic choice” given that military action had yet to end the insurgency. Others cited it as a means for the government to assert its sovereignty in the face of foreign pressure against such initiatives. Still others promoted dialogue with jihadists as a matter of consistency, since Malian governments have talked with leaders of past rebellions.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Indeed, Bamako has attempted to end successive insurgencies through negotiations. Over the last thirty years, Mali has endured three periods of uprising, in 1990-1996, 2006-2009 and 2012-present, resulting in repeated peace agreements. The last such deal, the 2015 Bamako Agreement, which followed French-led operations that ousted jihadists from northern towns in early 2013, formally excluded ag Ghaly and other jihadist leaders. That said, some of the armed groups that signed the Bamako deal enjoyed close ties to ag Ghaly or other militants; indeed, many fighters formerly with jihadist groups rehatted themselves as members of the signatory armed groups. Those who favour dialogue with jihadists argue that if the government is willing to talk to separatists – particularly separatists who themselves have close links to jihadists – why not talk to jihadists themselves?[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of civil society organisation who attended the 2017 Conference of National Understanding, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Yet both the Malian authorities and jihadist leaders themselves have resisted talking. Many Malian officials view jihadists as nothing but “nihilistic” criminals without an identifiable political agenda.[fn]A former minister and member of the current ruling coalition says: “Contrary to separatist groups, which have territorial claims, jihadists are nihilists. They just want to kill us. Would you say to someone who plants a bomb, ‘Please remove your bomb?’ We have known jihadists long enough to realise that only force works with them. ... Speaking with Iyad would be a capitulation”. Crisis Group interview, January 2019.Hide Footnote Some insist on “no negotiation with terrorists” as a principle. On the other side, the hardest-line among the jihadists view the Malian government as not only illegitimate but infidel. Many militants, in principle including Hamadoun Koufa himself, demand nothing less than its overthrow and replacement with an “Islamic state”.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017. See also fn 3.Hide Footnote Between these two extremes lies a spectrum of officials and insurgents who, to one degree or another, are more amenable to dialogue. But thus far the less compromising attitudes have prevailed.

III. Obstacles to Dialogue

Three factors complicate prospects for dialogue with the Katiba Macina: its ideological program and the ambiguous support it enjoys locally; its transnational ties; and strong domestic and foreign opposition to such talks.

A. Are Jihadist Demands “Exceptional”?

Unlike Mali’s northern separatist movements, the Katiba Macina has no list of political demands. Yet its discourse, disseminated via audio and video recordings, as well as its governance practices in areas it has conquered, reveal that it does want something: namely profound change in Mali’s state institutions and foreign relations.

The movement’s rhetoric revolves around three ideas, akin to those propagated by jihadists elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote The first is that Malian state institutions and the whole democratic system of government are un-Islamic and illegitimate. It is incumbent upon all Muslims to overthrow the system by force and replace it with theocratic governance based on sharia – as the Katiba Macina interprets it.[fn]In several audio recordings, the jihadists have emphasised the non-Islamic character of the Malian state. They have often referred to Malian officials as taghout (“idol” or “false god”, in Arabic). Koufa explained the Katiba Macina’s views in one recording: “God has given us the power to fight the protectors of laws that are not God’s law on this territory and at this moment. We have given up our families, parents and homes. We did all this so that God’s law can be implemented”. He added: “You cannot consider those who protect laws that run contrary to God’s law to be Muslims”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2016.Hide Footnote Secondly, the West and “Westernised” Malian elites, particularly France and Francophone state officials, are enemies of Islam. They are thus legitimate targets, though state officials can spare themselves if they break ties with their Western allies.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017.Hide Footnote Thirdly, militants believe that they represent the purest form of Islam and that they must teach local Muslims to adopt their stricter approach. They consider Muslims who collaborate with the Malian government to be apostates (murtaddin), and they apply the same label to some of their local theological rivals and critics.[fn]Koufa has blasted Islamic scholars who disagree with him as cowards and undercover French agents. Of some he has said, “The Wahhabites and the Da’awa have advocated for jihad, but why do they not engage in it now? What should we conclude? Either they are scared or they are hypocrites”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2016. He considers Muslims who accept secular laws to be apostates. But he has not called for indiscriminate attacks on these Muslims.Hide Footnote

At first glance, this discourse appears to set aspirations well outside the realm of what the Malian state can offer. The Malian state is ostensibly committed to secularism (understood as the separation of religion and politics), representative democracy based on elections and strong relations with Western countries, particularly France.[fn]In 2013, during peace discussions with armed groups in the north, including jihadists, President Keïta defined his government’s three red lines: 1) Mali’s national unity and territorial integrity; 2) the secular nature of the state; 3) the stability of the Sahel and the African continent.Hide Footnote The gap between the Katiba Macina’s and the state’s respective positions is so wide that many on both sides see little point in talking. True, the movement has shown pragmatism. Its discourse and practices have evolved over time as local conditions have changed. As discussed in Section IV, the jihadists often have to juggle both being true to their ideology and making compromises in order to avoid alienating those whom they seek to rule. Yet if the grievances that motivate many to join Katiba Macina – shrinking pastoral land, abusive government officials and socio-economic neglect – are not religious, Koufa frames them within a religious discourse that would make reaching a negotiated settlement more difficult.[fn]In jihadist discourse, the boundary between ideology and interest is blurred. When proselytising, jihadists say their ideas emanate from God but also strive to tie these ideas to human well-being. The sharia is not only God’s law, they say, but it is also best for humanity.Hide Footnote

Many central Malians consider the Katiba Macina’s rule as too extreme and out of tune with customs that are also widely accepted locally as Islamic.

While Koufa himself self-identifies as jihadist and claims to be fighting for the establishment of sharia in Mali, his success in mobilising local support owes more to his ability to exploit ingrained socio-economic and political discontent in central Mali and fill the gap left by a largely absent state.[fn]In many of his audio recordings, Koufa identifies himself and the Katiba Macina recruits as “jihadists”. In his August 2017 audio recording, he says: “We jihadists attack only our known adversaries, the allies of France”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017.Hide Footnote During its early years, 2015 and 2016, the Katiba Macina focused on delivering public goods and services where it held sway. In reality, it struggled to provide much more than rough dispute resolution, attempts at regulating access to land, water and pasture, and a reduction in cattle theft.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Ouro Modi and Sare Seini, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote But given decades of government mismanagement and abuse, and the corruption and inaccessibility of the Malian court system for people in rural areas, even that won the jihadists some local support.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Over the course of 2017, as the movement consolidated control over larger areas, militants began to collect zakat, the alms regarded by Muslims as a religious obligation, and impose a draconian moral code that banned several local customs and severely restricted freedoms, in particular for women and youth. They outlawed playing music or football, consuming alcohol and social mixing between the sexes. They imposed a dress code requiring women to cover their bodies head to toe; though most women in central Mali have traditionally worn headscarves, covering the full body was uncommon. Not all women reject such a code; indeed, some approve of it.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote But many others chafe at a requirement that complicates daily practices like washing clothes in the river and farming.[fn]See Nomade Sahel, “La Situation des femmes dans le Delta central du fleuve Niger (Mali) de 2015 à nos jours”, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote Jihadists also stopped women from travelling unless accompanied by their husband or a male relative, constraining women traders’ circulation around rural markets. They often enforced this code violently, including by whipping, abduction and even killing offenders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Ouro Modi and Sare Seini, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

The brutal enforcement of ultra-conservative mores has meant that some of – though by no means all – the sympathy the jihadists initially won has dissipated.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Some locals approve of strict Islamic law as a concept. Many still appreciate the reasonably predictable dispute resolution, the degree of security (especially the tough measures against cattle theft), and the absence of corrupt and predatory state officials. Moreover, since 2018, when Malian army operations started reversing some of the jihadists’ gains, local Katiba Macina leaders appear to have been readier to enter deals with villagers that see them temper enforcement of some rules. Still, many central Malians consider the Katiba Macina’s rule as too extreme and out of tune with customs that are also widely accepted locally as Islamic. The jihadists’ use of violence is a particular source of anger.

The Katiba Macina’s aspirations and the questionable level of support its rule enjoys among many central Malians pose a challenge for dialogue. Many people in central Mali would likely oppose any notion that jihadists speak in their name. While many peace talks involve compromise with unpopular and violent groups, the Katiba’s recent experiences show that at least some of the social mores it might hope to negotiate in talks enjoy at best limited local support. Even were the state inclined to make such concessions – and nothing suggests that it is – it would risk running up against local resistance.

B. The Katiba Macina’s Outside Connections

The Katiba Macina’s transnational ties pose another challenge. Contrary to other jihadist movements in Mali such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara – respectively led by Algerians and Sahrawis – the Katiba Macina is primarily indigenous. All the movement’s key figures are from central Mali, and they exploit local grievances to recruit. Yet Hamadoun Koufa answers formally to Iyad ag Ghaly, who has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

In March 2017, Koufa appeared in a video alongside ag Ghaly and three other jihadist leaders to announce the merger of their movements, including ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine (of which Katiba Macina is considered part), AQIM’s Sahelian branch and the Katiba al-Murabitun, into the JNIM coalition.[fn]Al Murabitun is a jihadist group created in 2013 out of the merger of elements from former Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and al-Mulathamine, another movement then led by the Algerian jihadist figure Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Al-Mourabitun split in 2015, into a pro-ISIS faction, which later became the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and a pro-al-Qaeda faction, which merged with JNIM.Hide Footnote In the video, ag Ghaly, who assumed the coalition’s leadership, announced his allegiance to the Algerian Abdelmalik Droukdel, head of AQIM, as well as to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and by extension Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada (Zawahiri himself has pledged allegiance to successive Taliban leaders).[fn]See the JNIM’s founding statement, “And Hold On Firmly to the Rope of God Together and Do Not Become Divided”, 2 March 2017. Al-Qaeda global leaders – first Osama bin Laden and now Ayman al-Zawahiri – have always pledged allegiance to the Taliban, dating from al-Qaeda’s founding in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.Hide Footnote The transnational connection poses problems. For some Malian officials, political talks with members of a movement, al-Qaeda, that at least rhetorically recognises no borders and claims to be fighting for establishment of a global caliphate make little sense.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Malian officials, Dakar and Bamako, November and December 2018.Hide Footnote

The tone of the Katiba Macina’s discourse shifted around the time of its affiliation with JNIM and al-Qaeda. In 2015, when Koufa listed the Katiba Macina’s enemies, he pointed to oppressive Malian state officials, whether military or civilian, and those who collaborate with them.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, “How to interact with civilians”, June 2015.Hide Footnote But starting in 2017, anti-French rhetoric and references to Crusaders started to predominate.[fn]In an audio recording likely made in 2018, Koufa declares: “It is France, not Mali, that is our enemy”. He redefines even local enemies as French allies, who refuse to adhere to sharia at France’s behest. He considers the Malian president himself to have been chosen by France. “France has become God”, he says. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2018.Hide Footnote The shift appears to partly reflect the Katiba Macina’s ties to JNIM, several of whose components are fighting French Barkhane forces. It has created concerns that Koufa may now be less interested in negotiating over local grievances and that, in any case, he could not enter dialogue unless authorised by more transnationally motivated jihadist leaders. Indeed, Koufa has rejected offers to engage in talks with Peul Francophone elites, arguing that they were part of a French conspiracy to pinpoint the jihadists’ bases and gauge firepower and manpower, and he has declared that all peace talks must go through ag Ghaly.[fn]In a 2018 audio recording, Koufa says, “We hear a lot about Peul holding meetings with France, MINUSMA and the Malian state to facilitate the return of peace between us and the Malian state. … We want you to understand: we can talk to each other and you can negotiate with us. ... [But] we know that you come to gather information on our positions, our manpower, our weapons and our mode of command. This is the mission that France has entrusted you with”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2018. In 2017, when a number of prominent Peul including Aly Nouhoum Diallo called on Koufa to attend peace talks, he replied: “If you want dialogue, go discuss it with our amir, Iyad ag Ghaly. … He is our guide. ... He is Malian. It is undeniable. If you want peace, go talk with him; otherwise, you won’t have peace, not on this earth or in the hereafter”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017.Hide Footnote

Katiba Macina has shown willingness to engage in transactional negotiations with the government.

That said, the extent of ag Ghaly’s authority over Koufa and the latter’s commitment to transnational goals are hard to evaluate. Since 2017, Koufa has appeared twice beside ag Ghaly and Yahya Abul Hammam, the former top al-Qaeda commander in Mali.[fn]See the JNIM’s founding statement, “And Hold On Firmly to the Rope of God Together and Do Not Become Divided”, op. cit.; and JNIM video, “Light or Heavy, March to Battle”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The quality of the Katiba Macina’s recent video footage and its attacks’ complexity, including the use of roadside bombs, suggests the transfer of expertise from JNIM. Yet, even if important, ag Ghaly’s authority appears loose.[fn]While the Katiba Macina appears dependent on Ansar Dine and JNIM for financial and logistical support, its increasing effort to collect zakat (alms) suggests a desire for financial autonomy.Hide Footnote The JNIM itself espouses transnational goals, including establishing a caliphate, and the Katiba Macina’s membership in that coalition does appear to be slowly moving it away from its solely local roots. That said, the fervour of Koufa’s rhetoric against France may also stem from the Katiba Macina’s own battles with French troops. Most of his discourse remains locally focused, despite the al-Qaeda ties he nominally enjoys via ag Ghaly. His participation in the JNIM may well have been motivated by his long association with ag Ghaly and the desire to garner training, funds and expertise, rather than a commitment to its transnational aspirations.

The Katiba Macina has shown some flexibility toward dialogue. In August 2017 Koufa mentioned that he would be ready to speak with religious leaders, in particular three well-known Salafi scholars, including Mahmoud Dicko. He said:

Our wish is that you send us the scholars, they are more able to understand what we are looking for. If you send us the ulama [a body of Muslim scholars], they are welcome to come discuss with us. These are Mahmoud Dicko, Mahi Banikane, Cheick Oumar Dia and others so that they can see how we live here, and we will appreciate it together.[fn]Audio recording in response to Peul leader Aly Nouhoum Diallo, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In addition, as recently as early 2019, the Katiba Macina has shown willingness to engage in transactional negotiations with the government, such as to exchange hostages for militants held prisoner.[fn]In February 2019, after long negotiations, the jihadists freed two hostages, including the former prefect of Ténenkou and a journalist, in exchange for nineteen militants.Hide Footnote That the militants whom the Katiba Macina wanted released included men from outside central Mali, notably a high-profile fighter and former jihadist police chief from Gao, suggests that the JNIM may have condoned the transactional negotiations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, counter-terrorist specialist from the Sahel, Dakar, April 2019.Hide Footnote

C. Domestic and Foreign Pressures

Pressure from both domestic and foreign actors who oppose the idea of dialogue or fear its possible outcomes also militates against talks.

Malian actors including secular elites, Sufi scholars, human rights organisations and victims’ associations voice concerns about dialogue. Secular elites view it as part of a larger threat to the separation of religion and politics in Mali. They point to increasingly assertive attempts by Islamist activists to carve out a place for themselves in the political arena.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°249, The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote This concern is all the more resonant given that Mahmoud Dicko, whom many secular leaders regard with suspicion, is a key figure both in promoting the role of Islam in politics and in pushing for dialogue with jihadists.

Many clerics also reject the Katiba Macina and its intolerant tenets – perhaps not surprisingly given that the insurgents oppose the Islamic establishment as much as the state.[fn]Koufa first came to prominence due to his preaching that criticised the clerical class in Mopti, which is largely Sufi. See Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit.Hide Footnote Sufis from Mopti are particularly hostile to dialogue with jihadists, believing that any compromise struck with them would likely privilege Salafi strands of Islam to the detriment of others.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim scholars, Mopti, Bamako, October 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote In 2012, when the jihadists conquered northern Mali, the Malian Association for Unity and Progress of Islam in Mopti considered sending a delegation to debate the jihadists on religious matters. But most association members rejected the idea. Even today, several members of such associations continue to oppose the idea of dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, a religious scholar member of Association Malienne pour l'Unité et la Progrès de l'Islam, Mopti, January 2019. He justified his position against dialogue as follows: “Now that they have the upper hand, how can we negotiate with them? It’s either they dictate what they want or we have to fight until everyone gets tired of fighting. Then we can talk about negotiation. That’s how all states have dealt with the issues of terrorism”.Hide Footnote

Many Western policymakers worry that engaging in dialogue with jihadists would bestow legitimacy upon these groups and their ideas.

Among central Malians, views toward dialogue are mixed, though predicting how they would respond to talks is hard. Thus far, debate about dialogue with jihadists occurs mostly among Bamako elites. In central Mali, such notions remain quite marginal. Given the deteriorating security context and the fear that violence could escalate further, some in the inner delta, including within communities that have borne the brunt of jihadist violence, admit that they would welcome dialogue that reduced levels of bloodshed even if it entailed concessions to jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, delta inhabitants, including from the districts of Ténenkou and Mopti, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote Outside the delta, the idea of dialogue with the Katiba Macina is likely to provoke anger, in particular among the Dogon and Bambara.

Opposition is not only domestic. Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., clearly reject dialogue, citing several reasons. Militant groups with which Koufa has ties are designated by the UN and others as terrorists. This classification does not prohibit talking to them but it can complicate doing so.[fn]The UN Security Council and the U.S. both list the JNIM, Ansar Dine and Iyad ag Ghaly as terrorists, but neither explicitly lists Koufa or the Katiba Macina. If the UN or U.S. were to designate Koufa and the Katiba Macina as part of Ansar Dine, that determination could complicate dialogue. U.S. law bans the provision of material support or advice to those designated, which can pose challenges to mediators.Hide Footnote It is difficult for French politicians to support dialogue with groups that have killed French soldiers.[fn]In April 2017, on an official visit to Mali, French Foreign Minister Ayrault justified France’s anti-dialogue position by evoking a dead countryman: “How do you negotiate with terrorists? … Iyad ag Ghaly rejoiced at the death of French soldier Julien Barbé”. See Moussa Bolly, “Mali : Paix et reconciliation nationale : Paris interdit à Bamako de négocier avec Iyad”, Le Reflet, 14 Avril 2017.Hide Footnote Relatedly, some countries view the jihadist insurgency in Mali as an extension of their own struggle with jihadists around the world. Many Western policymakers worry that engaging in dialogue with jihadists would bestow legitimacy upon these groups and their ideas. True, the U.S. has over the past year renewed efforts to reach a settlement with the Islamist Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, with senior U.S. officials holding repeated meetings with Taliban leaders. But whether those talks will create a precedent, making talking to militants in Africa or elsewhere easier to accept, as of yet is unclear.[fn]U.S. talks with the Taliban leadership are motivated by U.S. leaders’ desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. In addition, the Taliban is a considerably larger and more powerful insurgent movement than the Katiba Macina and enjoys relations with a number of foreign powers. Despite its longstanding ties to transnational militants, its leaders do not pledge allegiance to them and it has no aspirations beyond Afghanistan.Hide Footnote

IV. Engagement with Jihadists in Central Mali

The prevailing view of jihadists as beyond the pale has not prevented local leaders, humanitarian organisations and Islamic scholars from engaging them. These contacts have allowed jihadists and their interlocutors to address issues such as the management of daily affairs in places under jihadist control, humanitarian access to vulnerable populations and even jihadists’ practice of Islam.

A. Local Bargains

The jihadists have chased state authorities out of many rural villages, but they have not exactly taken their place. Rather, they reside in the bush and visit villages only periodically, often in small groups, to preach, settle disputes and police moral conduct. This shadow governance leaves local leaders in charge of managing local affairs, albeit under the Katiba Macina’s watch and according to its rules.

The collaboration is not always smooth. The Katiba Macina’s rule can impose a heavy burden. For instance, the jihadists frequently abduct those they accuse of disobedience and seize the herds and other property of suspected government informants. They have resorted to collective punishment to enforce rules, for example shutting down weekly rural markets because women have failed to respect their dress code or because people have smoked cigarettes. They have imposed blockades on several villages that they accuse of working with the military.[fn]In mid-2018, following the Malian army’s deployment in Toguéré Coumbé, Dialloubé and Kouakourou, respectively in the cercles of Ténenkou, Mopti and Djenné, the Katiba Macina imposed a blockade, banning all movement in and out. They accused the villagers of collaboration with the military. Due to the blockade, villagers could not reach their farms or weekly rural markets. The jihadists also abducted people and impounded thousands of livestock belonging to village notables. Recently, the jihadists have significantly eased the embargo on Dialloubé following negotiation with local notables.Hide Footnote

In some instances, village notables have won concessions from militants. For example, in Tenenkou cercle, as elsewhere, the ban on women travelling without a male relative has restricted women’s mobility, in particular that of women traders accustomed to shuttling between weekly rural markets to buy and sell goods. After discussions between notables and local Katiba Macina leaders, the jihadists allowed women to travel as long as the mode of transport, whether donkey cart, boat or car, was segregated by gender.[fn]These negotiations, with jihadist brigades operating in the Kadial forest between Ténenkou and Mopti, occurred around June 2017. Crisis Group interviews, Ténenkou residents, February 2019.Hide Footnote In some areas, villagers have negotiated the reopening of schools, notwithstanding jihadists’ opposition to what they portray as the Western-influenced Malian curriculum. In others, villagers have voted in elections, despite militants’ antipathy to representative democracy. The implicit bargain is that those elected exercise their authority without challenging that of the Katiba Macina.[fn]In the cercle of Youwarou, only two schools operate, including one in Gatchi Loumo, which is open due to talks between village notables and jihadists. The other, in Youwarou village, is open after the military’s deployment there. Mayoral elections have occurred in several districts, including Nampala and Dogo, respectively in the cercles of Niono in Ségou and Youwarou in Mopti.Hide Footnote Since 2018, as the Malian army stepped up operations and increased pressure on the group, such local accommodation appears to have become more common.

Negotiating access appears to be easier for health care providers than for agencies working in sectors like education or development.

Local negotiations still often fail. In Toguéré Coumbé, a village in Tenenkou cercle under blockade since March 2018, the residents have appealed several times for the Katiba Macina to lift the blockade – to no avail.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Bamako, December 2018; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Local negotiations take various forms. In most cases, village notables send emissaries to petition the jihadists, usually in forums where delegates from different villages gather. Villages also organise assemblies, knowing that “dormant cell” members are present and will convey discussions to militant leaders. On the jihadists’ side, the amirou markaz usually take charge and report the outcome to the Katiba Macina’s top leadership. The amirou markaz’s personality plays a significant role in determining how much militants compromise.[fn]In markazes where jihadist leaders are local, talks tend to be more cordial than in those where jihadists are from villages far away. Crisis Group interview, former yimbe ladde fighter, February 2019.Hide Footnote Overall, the movement’s relationships with influential families in areas where it operates are complicated: at first, it often undercut those families’ authority but more recently it appears to have been more willing to compromise with them than with others.[fn]For example, at first, the jihadists attempted to cancel royalties collected by landowners called Jowrow from foreign herders who were seeking access to a particular pasture in the inner delta called the Bourgou. Militants argued that the Bourgou belongs to God, who wants it to be open to all. But the Jowrow pushed back, and the jihadists reinstated the royalties in a reduced amount. Crisis Group interviews, members of Jowrow families from Mopti cercle, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Humanitarian Access

Though the Katiba Macina speaks in strident anti-Western terms, it has nonetheless allowed humanitarian organisations, including predominantly Western NGOs, to operate in areas it controls. This stance is in keeping with a fatwa (legal ruling) issued in 2018 by a jihadist judicial committee in Timbuktu urging member groups not to attack but rather to facilitate access for humanitarians.[fn]Houka ag Alhousseini, head of a judicial committee reputed to be close to jihadists in Timbuktu, issued a two-page letter on 14 March 2018, in which he authorised humanitarian organisations to operate in areas under jihadist control. He justified this fatwa by citing the benefits that those organisations could bring to the local population. Fatwa signed by the Timbuktu Judicial Committee in Crisis Group’s possession, March 2018.Hide Footnote Koufa himself has mentioned that his group is not opposed to humanitarian aid, provided that agencies respect certain conditions, among which he cited a prohibition on foreign staff.[fn]Koufa said, “We are not opposed to your humanitarian action, provided that it is not foreigners who will lead it. If a mayor wants to dig a well, he can go get funding from to the United States and dig his well [but only] with natives. … We do not want to see a single stranger”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, op. cit.Hide Footnote While not all NGOs that operate in jihadist areas are aware of this announcement, it appears to have made negotiating humanitarian access easier on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, heads of humanitarian NGOs working in jihadist-controlled areas of Mopti, Dakar and Bamako, December 2018; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Humanitarian organisations use varying tactics to negotiate. Some rely on local beneficiaries while others hire intermediaries. Some health care agencies started sending doctors to local clinics without obtaining the jihadists’ permission; they then sought approval only after the medics had established a good reputation.[fn]According to an international NGO worker in Ténenkou’s health sector: “We began sending medical agents to Ténenkou before engaging in contact with the jihadists. It was afterward, when we had our legitimacy, and proved that we are independent and neutral, that contacts with jihadist sympathisers began to take shape. We do not speak directly with the jihadists but with their sympathisers in the village. Sometimes these are local notables. Every time that we have a mission in the villages, we inform those sympathisers and they convey the information. When we arrive at the jihadist checkpoints, they check our ID cards, cars or boats and then let us pass”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, December 2018.Hide Footnote In general, negotiating access appears to be easier for health care providers than for agencies working in sectors like education or development.[fn]Koufa said, “Any mayor or deputy who comes to build a school, a road, bring humanitarian aid, dig a well on behalf of the Republic of Mali, France or any other country, he will be our enemy, except dispensaries or hospitals”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2018.Hide Footnote

Three factors in particular explain why such negotiations are possible. First, humanitarian organisations offer services that locals badly need. In jihadist-occupied zones, welfare services have been lacking for years, in many cases at least since 2015, when the state administration deserted these areas. Secondly, the Katiba Macina benefits from granting access. The movement can show residents that it cares about their well-being and foster an image as a service provider, all the more important given its struggles to offer those services itself. Humanitarian organisations also boost the jihadists’ claim to legitimacy by implicitly recognising them as de facto authorities. Thirdly, the agencies stress their respect for humanitarian principles: their neutrality in the conflict, their independence of foreign influence and their impartiality in treating the conflict’s victims, whether or not they are combatants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, heads of humanitarian NGOs working in jihadist-controlled areas of Mopti, Dakar, Bamako and Mopti, December 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote

Sufi as well as Salafi scholars have spoken out to discredit the religious foundations of jihadist tenets in several venues.

Jihadists impose conditions on humanitarian agencies but also make compromises. They require organisations to forbid aid workers from listening to music, consuming alcohol and smoking, and to instruct female staff members to cover their heads. Particularly contentious is their attempt to force NGOs to use separate vehicles for transporting female and male workers. But while humanitarian organisations abide by some conditions, they often resist others. An international NGO that operates in Tenenkou has refused to segregate female and male staffers in vehicles and employs foreign Christians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, head of a humanitarian NGO that operates in Mopti, Bamako, December 2018.Hide Footnote Yet it is still able to operate in jihadist-held areas. Aid organisations can flex their own muscles, using services they provide and local support they enjoy as leverage.

Still, such negotiations are not without problems. The jihadists have refused humanitarian access to many organisations. Even aid agencies that have secured access can face harassment at checkpoints. The Katiba Macina has held NGO workers as hostages for weeks. In 2018, militants abducted two NGO workers in the cercle of Douentza and held them hostage for several days.[fn]International NGO Safety Organisation, “INSO Rapport – Mali Central – Mopti : Détention irrégulière d’Agents ONG”, 15 January 2019.Hide Footnote They have repeatedly confiscated cell phones and other equipment. The militants often cite suspicions that humanitarian organisations conduct espionage on behalf of Western countries or collaborate with security forces to justify this harassment.[fn]Crisis Group interview, elected official abducted together with NGO agents by jihadists, Bamako, September 2018.Hide Footnote

C. Religious Debate

Over the last three years Katiba Macina ideologues and Islamic scholars have engaged in debates over the righteousness of jihadist discourse. The Katiba Macina emerged in Mopti, a historical centre of Islamic learning, where numerous Quranic schools host students from all over the Sahel. Sufi orders, in particular the Qadriyya (also called Malikiyya) have dominated the area, though recently Salafism and the Da’awa movement (the local branch of the Tabligh Jama’at) have made inroads.[fn]The jihadist insurgency’s outbreak exacerbated existing tensions among these religious currents. While all of them have unequivocally distanced themselves from the Katiba Macina, the jihadists are often associated with Salafists and sometimes also with the Da’awa. Koufa was an adherent of the Da’awa before he turned jihadist. In Mali, the terms Salafism and Wahhabism are used interchangeably to refer to a Sunni current originating in the Arabian Peninsula that advocates a practice of Islam inspired by the first generation of Muslims (al-salaf al-salih) and a literal reading of Islamic scriptures. The Tabligh Jama’at is also a Sunni movement but has its roots in South Asia. It is locally known as the Da’awa, is supposedly apolitical, rejects violence and emphasises that Muslims should engage in missionary work. Salafi scholars often criticise the Tabligh as deviant because its missionary practices go against the ways recommended by al-salaf al-salih and because they emphasise missionary work over Islamic learning. For more on Islamic movements in Mali, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°249, The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote Sufi as well as Salafi scholars have spoken out to discredit the religious foundations of jihadist tenets in several venues, including mosques, radio and television broadcasts, and social media, particularly WhatsApp.

In their argumentation, these scholars emphasise that jihadist violence is unjustified in an almost entirely Muslim society, and that it is suicidal – and therefore un-Islamic – for Muslims to declare jihad against the Malian government and powerful Western countries.[fn]Responding to Koufa’s audio recording released in August 2017, Alpha Ibrahim Sow, a religious scholar from central Mali now living in Egypt argued that “wanting to take up arms today to go to war against France or the West is a monumental mistake comparable to suicide that cannot be justified in Islam”. “Replique en Fulfulde d’Alpha Ibrahim Sow a Hamadoun Koufa”, 12 September 2017.Hide Footnote They argue that jihad today should be a peaceful struggle preaching piety and intercommunal harmony.[fn]Alpha Ibrahim Sow identifies five types of jihad: preaching to spread the word of God; emigration to escape persecution in emulation of Prophet Muhamad’s flight from Mecca to Medina; promotion of peaceful coexistence with Muslims and non-Muslims alike; armed self-defence, but only if Muslims are in a position of strength; and finally offensive jihad, in response to aggression and when Muslims have the requisite military might. He argues that “in our countries today, the rightful jihad is that of peaceful coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect between religions”. Ibid.Hide Footnote Islamic scholars also criticise the Katiba Macina’s forcible imposition of sharia and argue against specific fatwas the jihadists have issued.[fn]For example, in 2017, in Kouboulou, a village in the cercle of Ténenkou, a female maccudo (slave descendant) refused to cover herself according to the jihadists’ rules. She argued that female slaves in Islam are entitled not to cover themselves. The jihadists whipped her anyway. A prominent Islamic scholar in Mopti who follows the Maliki school of jurisprudence endorsed the woman’s argument, using the example to contend that the jihadists are ignorant of sharia. Crisis Group interview, imam, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Though they draw little attention, these challenges to jihadist discourse resonate. Katiba Macina leaders take them seriously, particularly as Koufa rationalises the movement’s every action with religious argumentation. His persona as a religious leader has made enforcement of sharia the uprising’s core element.

At the beginning, the exchange took a harsh, accusatory tone. Several establishment Islamic scholars cast the yimbe ladde as khawarij – a derogatory term referring to a nihilistic and violent movement that appeared in the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th century. For their part, jihadist ideologues denigrated the religious scholars as French allies and sellouts to the government.[fn]Audio recordings in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017 and October 2018.Hide Footnote They even declared some critics to be unbelievers and threatened to kill them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim scholars who have received threats from the Katiba Macina, Bamako, December 2018 and April 2019; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Starting in 2018, a more reasoned debate took shape between a handful of Peul Islamic scholars and Katiba Macina ideologues, though it did not last long. Citing Quranic verses that enjoin Muslim combatants to choose sulh (reconciliation) over war, the Peul scholars invited the jihadists to an open discussion. At first, the Katiba Macina accepted, mandating Imrana Cissé, one of their ideologues, to conduct the discussion, which took place via WhatsApp, on their behalf.[fn]In an audio recording, Imrana Cissé, who represented the jihadists in the religious debate defined their criteria for engagement. He said, “To all those who want to debate jihad and its conditions as written in the Quran. … We are ready to discuss all topics. … We have only one condition: if you win this debate with evidence from [Islamic] books, we will lay down our weapons. If you do not, you will abandon the government and follow us”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, September 2018.Hide Footnote As the debate gained momentum, many saw it as a sign that jihadists might be willing to engage in other forms of dialogue. Some weeks later, however, Koufa put an end to it, citing security concerns.[fn]Koufa said, “There was a debate between us and the ulama. … They asked one of us about why we engage in jihad. … When the debate dragged on, we discovered that the real intention of the ulama was not to debate. It was something else”. He reportedly feared that those scholars would reveal his location to the security forces.Hide Footnote

Though the debate ended prematurely, scholars who participated stressed the exchange was valuable. First, their interactions with Imrana Cissé allowed them to make public the inconsistencies in jihadist arguments. One scholar insisted that the debates had a positive impact on youth at risk of being seduced by jihadist discourse. He said the debates made them aware of the discourse’s fallacies and persuaded them not to join the jihad.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim scholars who debated the Katiba Macina via WhatsApp, Mopti and Bamako, January and April 2019.Hide Footnote But the scholars also recommended that the government take measures to meet some of the insurgents’ demands, particularly as they relate to the role of Islam in public life. They and others who followed the debate on WhatsApp viewed this attempt at religious dialogue as a window of opportunity for more ambitious initiatives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, pro-dialogue Muslim scholars and civil society activists, Bamako, October and December 2018; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

The various engagements between the Katiba Macina and non-state actors from civil leaders to humanitarians and religious scholars have been narrow in scope but have shown promise. They have aimed to solve specific problems, such as easing jihadist sanctions or allowing humanitarian access, or at settling arguments over religious interpretation, rather than serving the broader goal of peacemaking. Nor have they challenged the jihadists’ authority, though those mediating have been far from obsequious. The engagements suggest that within the Katiba Macina there are pragmatic negotiators. True, Koufa curtailed the discussion between Imrana Cissé and religious scholars, but his ideological commitment has not stopped dialogue altogether, including with self-identified critics and foreign organisations staffed and funded by those the jihadists consider infidels.

V. Two Governments’ Different Approaches

Over the last two years, the government has taken two markedly different approaches to central Mali’s crisis. Between March and mid-December 2017, then Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maïga rolled out his signature program, the missions de bons offices, aimed at advancing peace through dialogue, including with figures close to the Katiba Macina. In December 2017, however, a new prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, came in with an approach relying first and foremost on military action, envisaged intercommunal dialogue in a supplemental role and explicitly excluded jihadists.

A. Political and Intercommunal Dialogue

The Malian authorities have been more willing to engage Katiba Macina than official rhetoric suggests. In the past, they have opened channels of communication with the jihadists with an eye to initiating peace talks. But these measures have been both ad hoc and inconsistent.

In March 2017, a community-based organisation called Amicale Jawambe du Mali claimed that high-level Malian officials, including the defence minister and the governor of Mopti had instructed it to mediate between the government and the “dormant cells” – people in villages with close ties to the Katiba Macina.[fn]The Jawambe (sing. Jawando) is a sub-group of Peul, who as per the traditional socio-professional division of labour work as merchants and advisers to the chief. The Amical Jawambe claims that it can mobilise religious scholars and use local traditions, in particular the historical relations between pastoralist Peul and the Jawambe, to mediate contacts with the jihadists. One member of this association summarised this mediation approach, saying, “When a Peul is in conflict, a Jawando can bring him back to reason, just as when a talibe (Quranic student) is in trouble his master can bring him back to his senses. It is on this traditional basis that the current mediation will take place in order to speak with the young people who took up arms on behalf of Islam”. Crisis Group interviews, members of Amical Jawambe du Mali, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote The Amicale Jawambe created a commission called Jam e-Dina, composed of ten members, including traditional chiefs, religious leaders and other local notables. This commission claims to have engaged jihadist sympathisers and supporters in villages regularly. It even reportedly set up a meeting between Mahmoud Dicko, former head of the High Islamic Council of Mali, and the Katiba Macina’s emissaries, though the meeting did not come off, apparently for logistical reasons.[fn]Mahmoud Dicko says he could not travel because the meeting was scheduled at a time when the inner delta, where the meeting was set to take place, is completely flooded. Before the dry season arrived, he was sacked from the missions de bons offices. Crisis Group interviews, religious leaders closely involved in the mission, March and April 2019.Hide Footnote Though unsuccessful, the Jam e-Dina’s outreach may have helped lay the groundwork for larger-scale initiative.

Despite showing some initial promise, the missions de bons offices were short-lived.

This initiative, the missions de bons offices, was the most ambitious the government has launched since the crisis in central Mali began. It aimed to advance peace through dialogue between a team of religious leaders and traditional notables, on one side, and armed groups in the north and centre, including the Katiba Macina, on the other.[fn]According to a top official closely involved in the missions de bons offices, those efforts involved “choosing the right people to solve the issue of security”. He assumes that, where state institutions are weak, traditional leaders can play a significant role in advancing peace. Crisis Group interview, former senior official, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote The government appointed Mahmoud Dicko to lead the team, which also comprised traditional chiefs from Kayes, Sikasso, Koulikoro and Ségou, as well as representatives from other associations.[fn]Prime Minister, Lettre Nº 0362 PM-CAB, “Organisation d’une mission de bons offices à Kidal, dans le Delta intérieur et la Boucle du Niger”, 24 May 2017.Hide Footnote Through the missions de bons offices, Dicko and his team attempted to establish contact via intermediaries with both Iyad ag Ghaly and Hamadoun Koufa.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, religious leader closely involved in the mission, March and April 2019. Dicko claims that Iyad ag Ghaly agreed to negotiate. He says his intermediary Cheikh ag Aoussa told him as much. On the same day that ag Aoussa informed him of ag Ghaly’s answer, however, ag Aoussa was assassinated with a car bomb.Hide Footnote Their goal was to identify influential families and Quranic school teachers who educated many of the jihadists and who together could convince the jihadists to enter peace talks.

As regards the Katiba Macina, Dicko attempted to make contact with Koufa’s inner circle by organising large meetings in Bamako, Segou and Mopti where he convened religious leaders, in particular teachers at Quranic schools, to discuss how to bring about peace. At these meetings, he called upon religious scholars to convince the jihadists to lay down their weapons and come to the negotiating table. He suggested various ways in which the jihadists and the government could compromise, including the appointment of a qadi by local district authorities, reform of Quranic schools, and bans on bars, brothels and gambling where necessary.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

 Despite showing some initial promise, the missions de bons offices were short-lived. The efforts mobilised many people and revealed some support, in particular but not only among Quranic school teachers, for such dialogue.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote It made clear who was responsible, in this case Mahmoud Dicko, for establishing contacts – important in an environment where potential mediators between the state and militants often compete for opportunities that can entail access to resources.[fn]For more on tensions and competition among elites from Central Mali, see Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit. For another example of this competition for mediation positions in the central Sahel, see Crisis Group Report, Frontière Niger-Mali : mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, op. cit.Hide Footnote More broadly, the mission illustrated that the Malian authorities can at least envisage an approach to tackling the jihadist insurgency that involves dialogue. In December 2017, however, Prime Minister Maiga resigned, effectively ending the program.[fn]President Keïta distanced himself from the missions de bons offices. “Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta : ‘Pas question de négocier avec les djihadistes’”, Le Monde, 22 February 2018.Hide Footnote The choice of Dicko, a religious personage many Malians view as controversial, appears also to have generated opposition from Western countries.[fn]Dicko has taken strong conservative positions on family code reform, called for the Islamisation of Malian public life, and been an outspoken critic of homosexuality and Western influence. Senior Western officials apparently protested directly to the prime minister about his role. Crisis Group interviews, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote That Dicko’s relations with President Keïta had also become increasingly strained also likely contributed to bringing the mission to an end.[fn]Dicko supported President Keïta until 2016, but since then relations between the two had been increasingly strained.Hide Footnote

B. Disarmament and Intercommunal Dialogue

Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga’s government adopted an approach to the conflict that centred more on military operations aimed at opening space for the state apparatus to return to central Mali than on efforts to negotiate a settlement. As described in Section II, this approach primarily entails the redeployment of security forces, state officials and development projects, outlined in the February 2017 Plan de Sécurisation Intégré des Régions du Centre du Mali, backed up by aggressive military operations. But after publishing the plan, Maïga’s government complemented it with two further other elements: first, a DDR program for combatants – including jihadists – who surrender weapons; and secondly, intercommunal dialogue sponsored by NGOs that aims to promote national cohesion but explicitly excludes the Katiba Macina. Officials presented these efforts as an integrated strategy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, advisers to the prime minister and government officials in Mopti, January and March 2018.Hide Footnote In reality, however, the DDR and dialogue initiatives are largely disconnected from the military campaign, limiting the effectiveness of the whole approach.

On 24 December 2018, Prime Minister Maïga launched a new DDR process in Mopti. It came as foreign countries stepped up pressure on Malian authorities to take steps to calm escalating intercommunal violence. The government fixed a deadline of one month for all armed groups and individuals to enrol.[fn]The DDR commission’s president distributed registries to several armed groups in Mopti and invited them to register their combatants. Other registries were provided to each of Mopti’s eight cercles to allow non-affiliated armed individuals or even jihadists to enrol in the DDR process.Hide Footnote The program aims to disarm non-jihadist self-defence militias, many of whom were involved in intercommunal violence, but also jihadists. It thus appears to attempt to pull the rug out from under jihadist leaders and ideologues by peeling off less committed members and isolating those more militant.[fn]Former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga announced that the DDR program’s goal was to “provide an exit to those who enrolled [in jihadist groups] for lack of better perspectives”. See Primature du Mali, “Le Premier Ministre Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga à l’Assemblée Nationale”, 7 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The success of the disarmament program thus far is hard to evaluate. In February 2019, the government announced that an impressive number – over 5,000 – combatants had signed up.[fn]UN Security Council, “Situation in Mali: Report of the Secretary General, March 2019”, S/2019/262, 26 March 2019.Hide Footnote A few jihadist fighters may also have joined. Yet without a blessing from their leaders and suspecting that the government would use the program to arrest them, the vast majority of Katiba Macina militants have thus far boycotted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member of DDR commission in Mopti, Mopti, January 2019. A video portraying a group of armed individuals presented as jihadist defectors enrolled in the DDR program has circulated in social media.Hide Footnote As militants refused to disarm, it has become harder to persuade the communal militias often involved in fighting the jihadists to do so. Continuing intercommunal violence also acts as a strong disincentive. Of the 5,000 combatants that the authorities cite as having joined the program, it is unclear how many have actually disarmed.

Meanwhile, the government has tasked NGOs with mediating intercommunal dialogue in central Mali, though explicitly excluding the jihadists from their mandate.[fn]At least one international NGO, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and Promediation, has received a mandate from the Malian government to mediate in central Mali for the purpose of mitigating conflict. Crisis Group interviews, mediation NGOs, October and January 2019.Hide Footnote On 28 August 2018, following a Center for Humanitarian Dialogue mediation, 34 village chiefs from Mopti met in Sevaré to sign an agreement that aimed to end intercommunal violence. Some militias initially laid down their weapons as a result. But as jihadists attacks continued, the truce fell apart. In some areas, the incidence of assassinations, raids and livestock thefts in the area has since risen.[fn]In January and March 2019, central Mali registered the two deadliest attacks since the conflict began in 2015. On 1 January 2019, suspected Dogon militias stormed the village of Koulogon Peul, killing 36 civilians, injuring nine, and burning down over a hundred houses and dozens of granaries. On 23 March, in similar circumstances, suspected Dozo militias attacked the village of Ogassagou Peul killing 157, injuring 65 and setting fire to over 200 houses. An attack on Ogassagou’s scale is unprecedented in Mali’s history. See MINUSMA, “Communiqué de presse : Conclusions préliminaires de la mission d’enquête spéciale sur les graves atteintes aux droits de l’homme commis à Ogossagou le 23 mars 2019”, 2 May 2019.Hide Footnote Much as with the disarmament program, such ceasefires appear unlikely to hold if they do not include all those fighting on the ground, including jihadists.

VI. Dialogue Options for Ending the Stalemate

Given the limits of the Malian government and its Western partners’ current approach, it could add to the mix dialogue involving – though not limited to – Katiba Macina militants. The government could pursue two channels for such engagement. The first would involve seeking to reinitiate talks with Katiba Macina leaders, by reviving the idea of debate between religious scholars and Hamadoun Koufa, though taking steps to minimise backlash. The second would aim to foster a more inclusive political dialogue involving all central Malian communities, including those who support and sympathise with the jihadists, that aims to reach at a shared understanding of the conflict’s causes, how to tackle them and the state’s role in doing so.

Pursuing these options would entail not an end to military operations, development work and DDR but a shift in tack. If thus far the goal has been to exhaust jihadists to the point where they have no option but to surrender or leave the region, the military instead could maintain a level of pressure but accept temporary and local ceasefires when those leading mediation efforts believe it is time to give more space to dialogue. Meanwhile, the government’s DDR program should at a minimum continue to leave the door open for jihadists who either joined the insurgency unwillingly or joined by choice but now regret doing so and wish to lay down their guns. Bamako should, however, recognise that few are likely to do so while their leaders are sworn to continue fighting. It should avoid aggressive efforts to prise away militants that are unlikely to work and could undercut efforts to open lines of communication to their leaders.

A. Renewed Efforts to Engage Katiba Macina

The Malian government should also consider renewing its efforts to engage people close to the Katiba Macina, with an eye to communicating with the movement’s leaders. Such efforts would be both controversial and challenging, with success far from guaranteed. But given the paucity of good options, they are worth pursuing.

The Malian government could seek to initiate local dialogue with confidents of Katiba Macina leader Hamadoun Koufa. Koufa rejected in August 2017 the invitation for talks from Peul elites, saying that any such talks should take place with Iyad ag Ghaly as his leader. Whether he would be prepared to engage now without a green light from ag Ghaly and, indeed, whether dialogue with ag Ghaly himself might be an option are unclear (a forthcoming Crisis Group briefing will explore prospects for the latter). But Koufa’s past expression of willingness to at least enter into religious dialogue with three Islamic scholars, one of whom was Mahmoud Dicko, might offer an entry point.[fn]See also fn 68.Hide Footnote The government could encourage such a dialogue, by explicitly mandating and empowering religious leaders, including the three scholars, to engage in discussions with Koufa or his representatives.

The initial dialogue might also open a channel through which officials could discuss transactional deals, like ceasefires or aid access.

Such talks could probably initially yield at most small dividends, but could build in ambition over time. The Islamic scholars might, for example, start by seeking to simply establish contacts and explore options for steps that might reduce violence, such as local ceasefires and the negotiated return of some officials, potentially those providing services that communities want, notably veterinary and health services, to areas under jihadist control. They might eventually be able to explore with Katiba Macina representatives areas of potential compromise and produce concrete proposals for political and religious reforms. These might involve, for example, the creation of an official position of qadi appointed by local authorities in certain central Malian districts – as is the case in Mauritania and Nigeria – or the integration of Quranic schools in the national education system to improve their graduates’ job prospects. The initial dialogue might also open a channel through which officials could discuss transactional deals, like ceasefires or aid access, or political steps or even hold direct talks with Koufa over such issues.

The government would have to take steps to defuse the resistance such efforts are likely to generate. As described, some Bamako elites and many central Malians would likely view engagement as a step toward a deal with jihadists and sharia rule, while foreign powers might see it as legitimising a terrorist outfit with blood on its hands. Officials could make clear that those talks do not signal acceptance of the jihadists’ vision for the country as legitimate. To counter potential resistance from Western governments, they could guarantee that militants pledging to renounce transnational connections would be a requirement for any agreement. Malian leaders could also signal to Western counterparts that they share a heavy financial and military burden for a war that appears to be dragging on with no foreseeable end and have an interest in at least permitting the Malian government to explore all options for resolving it.

Challenges notwithstanding, there may be some scope for accommodation. In reality, Islam already regulates much of life in rural Mali, particularly in matters of family, marriage, inheritance and divorce. Most Malians, particularly in rural areas, look first to traditional or religious authorities to settle family and land disputes, for example, and only after exhausting these traditional avenues they resort to the state’s inefficient courts.[fn]See “Résumés des Résultats : 6ème Tour de l’Afrobarometer Enquête en/au Mali 2014”, Afrobarometer, 2015.Hide Footnote Were, for example, the government to formalise sharia courts, the impact on people’s behaviour or the state’s authority is unlikely to be dramatic. Indeed, doing so might shore up the state’s legitimacy if people in areas affected see the step as part of a reduction in violence and responding to local needs.

B. A More Inclusive Dialogue for Central Mali

Given that jihadism is but one dimension of central Mali’s crisis, the Malian government should also pursue a wider dialogue with the region’s many constituencies, including those based on ethnicity. This would aim to arrive at a shared understanding of the grievances and cleavages underpinning violence, how to address them and, given the state’s chronic weakness in central Mali, what its return to the region would entail. Issues on the table could include, for example, how to regulate access to natural resources and restore forms of local security and justice provision, what forms of decentralised authority and political representation make sense and the nature of education, both Francophone and Quranic, in the region. Such a dialogue could help assuage fears of those constituencies worried about engagement with militants that their voices will count for less. It would not necessarily have to include the yimbe ladde directly; indeed, doing so would likely be impossible unless efforts to engage Hamadoun Koufa bear fruit. But it should include parts of society most sympathetic to them, including Peul nomads and Quranic school students.

The missions de bons offices offer lessons as to how such a dialogue might be framed and conducted. It should go beyond the periodic forums the government has tended to organise in the past.[fn]Since 2016, several forums have been organised in Mopti, including the Forum de paix et de reconciliation de Mopti in January 2016 and the Forum des victimes et associations des victimes de la région de Mopti in April 2017.Hide Footnote It should be as inclusive as possible and led by a range of people, including state officials, traditional authorities and religious and civic leaders. It should aim to generate grassroots mobilisation, nurturing or empowering strong leadership within communities. Contrary to the mission de bons offices, which ended prematurely due to the change of government, it should be catalysed and then publicly and consistently supported by the Malian presidency.

Much as in the north, the challenge is all the graver given the collapse of central Mali’s political system after years of insurgency.

Obstacles to such a dialogue are serious. The three years of negotiations in Algiers that resulted in the 2015 Bamako accord, which aimed to give different constituencies from Mali’s north a say, and subsequent struggles to implement that deal, show how hard it is to hold inclusive talks, reach agreement and follow through.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°226, Mali: An Imposed Peace?, 22 May 2015; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°104, Mali: Last Chance in Algiers, 18 November 2014; and Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°115, Mali: Peace from Below?, 14 December 2015.Hide Footnote Much as in the north, the challenge is all the graver given the collapse of central Mali’s political system after years of insurgency. Most elected officials have fled their constituencies and retain little influence. The legitimacy of traditional authorities who remain is often contested. Nor is it clear that jihadists who control rural areas would allow people to participate, though this might potentially be an area on which the religious scholars seeking to engage Katiba Macina leaders could seek compromise.

One first step the government could take would be to appoint a presidential envoy with a full mandate to explore how such a dialogue might work and then lead it. The envoy should work with local elites and influential figures, such as Quranic school teachers and traditional notables, to reduce the chances that jihadists will stop the process even if they oppose it.

VII. Conclusion

Central Mali now suffers worse violence than anywhere else in the country, with thousands killed over the past four years. The state’s response, involving mostly military force complemented with some development aid, has thus far done little to reduce levels of bloodshed. If military operations have enhanced the state’s presence in towns, Katiba Macina insurgents control much of the countryside and continue to recruit by tapping deep-rooted local grievances. Little suggests the movement will be defeated any time soon. Meanwhile, both jihadist attacks and the counter-insurgency campaign have fuelled intercommunal bloodshed, which now exacts a higher toll than fighting between the security forces and militants. While development aid is critical for central Mali, the track record there and elsewhere in the Sahel suggests that it is an ineffective counter-insurgency tool, unable to sap popular support for militants and unlikely to much improve people’s lives absent at least a modicum of security.

As existing policies flounder and few good options remain, the Malian government should consider options for engaging militants and their supporters, whether by establishing lines of communication to Katiba Macina leaders or engaging in a wide dialogue including the social strata most sympathetic to them. Such efforts are fraught with difficulties: notably the resistance they would likely generate among communities that have borne the brunt of jihadist violence in Bamako and in foreign capitals; and the fact that Hamadou Koufa himself so far has rejected dialogue. They will almost certainly not lead to an immediate cessation of hostilities and may not even over time yield major dividends. Nor are they an alternative to force: the Malian government and its international partners should maintain military operations that since early 2018 have at least checked the militants’ advance. But an approach that pairs those operations with efforts to engage in dialogue might help bypass the current gridlock and open new opportunities for reducing violence and advancing peace.

Dakar/Brussels, 28 May 2019

 

Appendix A: Evolution of Violence in Central Mali (2015-2018)