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What Could Be Behind the Bamako Attack?
What Could Be Behind the Bamako Attack?
Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines
Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines
Malian troops take position near the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako on 20 November 2015. AFP/Habibou Kouyate
Commentary / Africa

What Could Be Behind the Bamako Attack?

In this Q&A, we talk to our Senior Sahel Analyst Jean-Hervé Jezequel about this raid, how it might relate to the Malian stumbling peace process, or whether a more global dynamic could be at play.

Islamist gunmen stormed a luxury hotel packed with foreigners in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday 20 November, taking 170 hostages and holding many for several hours.

Crisis Group: How much do we know about the identity of the attackers in Bamako and about what they are trying to achieve?

Jean-Hervé Jezequel: This attack might be related, in my opinion, to two different contexts: the local one, principally the Malian peace agreement, with possible spoilers trying to derail the process, and the global one, in which of course Islamic State (IS)’s name has come up. The attack may also result from a combination of both the local and global contexts: an attack that has been planned for a long time may have been accelerated following the Paris event.

I should first underline that there has never before been any solid evidence of any IS presence in Mali. It’s very hard to analyse and react to an attack so soon after it happens and on which we have very little solid information, at the same time as there are so many unchecked rumours. Commentators should avoid any premature assumption of a link with IS, since this risks a counter-productive overreaction in Mali and may overstate IS’s role.

Northern Mali fell to Al Qaeda-linked separatist groups in March-April 2012, which were driven out by a French-led operation in early 2013. A peace process and a deal in June this year – Crisis Group called it an imposed peace – has stumbled from the beginning, and agreements on ceasefires have been repeatedly broken. Where does it currently stand and how does it relate to the attacks?

The Malian peace process has made progress in the last few months, with the signing of the agreement on 20 June and more recently the signing of local agreements in Anefis (near Kidal) on 16 October. On 19 October, three days after the Anefis meeting, Iyad ag Ghaly, the Tuareg leader of Ansar Eddine (one of the jihadi groups that occupied northern Mali in 2012), released an audio file in which he criticised the “secular movements”, by which he probably meant the ones that met in Anefis. He accused them of “betraying the people of Azawad” and helping “an apostate government” retake control of the north in exchange for small privileges, positions and limited gains.

Iyad ag Ghaly also repeated his call for holy war against the French “crusaders”. He congratulated radical groups from southern and central Mali for their recent actions and tried to position himself as the leader of the several groups engaged in violent jihadi extremism in Mali. Indeed, two radical groups have been active and targeted Malian security forces in the last few months: the Macina Liberation Front (very active in central Mali and mostly recruiting among ethnic Fulanis) and Ansar Eddine’s so-called Branch for Southern Mali.

Radical groups have been excluded from, and have conversely refused to take part in, the Mali peace talks in Algiers. They have been repeatedly hit by French forces, whose targeted killings included some of Iyad ag Ghaly’s close associates. The recent progress made in the peace process, especially after the Anefis meeting, may put an end to ongoing fighting between armed groups, which is a threat for radical leaders.

This local dynamic could be one of the drivers, or even the main driver, behind the attack. Yet here again we should not make any premature assumptions. Pointing fingers at some individuals or communities before we get solid evidence might prove dangerous in the current context.

How likely is it that there is a link between the hostage crisis and the attacks in Paris?

It is possible to construct a hypothesis that would relate the attack to more global dynamics and possibly to the recent strike in Paris. By hitting both Malian citizens and foreigners in Bamako, the group responsible for the attack might be trying to deliver a strong message of opposition to the French intervention in Mali and, possibly also, on the risk for local states in associating themselves with Westerners. To this extent it may be related to groups trying to target or punish France and its allies.

However, the presence of the Islamic State in Mali is unclear. If it turns out to be linked to the Bamako raid, it would be the first time that movement has taken action or been seen to be present there. IS certainly has no official representative or presence in Mali, even if there were rumours this summer that some radical leaders active in the north were looking for an IS affiliation.

It might also be Ansar Eddine or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are trying to become more active, so as to counterbalance IS’s possible growing influence in the region more broadly. IS’s responsibility for spectacular recent outrages in France, Egypt and Lebanon are indeed a threat for them, since the al-Qaeda groups might seem to be losing prominence in the spectrum of violent extremist movements.

Police cordon off the site where twin bombs exploded two days ago, in Jolo town, Sulu island on August 26, 2020. AFP/ Nickee Butlangan
Commentary / Asia

Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines

Two August bomb explosions in the southern Philippines’ Sulu archipelago highlighted how militant networks may be splintered but are deeply entrenched. To keep the long Bangsamoro transition to peace on track, the government should strengthen outreach to local elites and improve cooperation between security services.

This article originally appeared in The Strategist, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute under the title: Violence in southern Philippines highlights resilience of militant networks.

On 24 August, two explosions in Jolo, a city in Sulu province in the southern Philippines, killed 15 and injured 74—a chilling case of déjà vu in a region that has suffered repeated attacks in recent years. The incident set alarm bells ringing in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) about the resurgence of violence. The explosions also reheated familiar media tropes of Islamic State’s perseverance amid the coronavirus pandemic and seemingly ceaseless lawlessness. But it’s important to move beyond this narrative to grasp the structural foundations of the turmoil Sulu finds itself in.

While some details remain murky, initial information put forward by authorities suggests that the perpetrators may be linked to Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a key figure in the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)—a loose collection of small networks in the Sulu archipelago. Sawadjaan’s group was most likely behind the Jolo cathedral bombing in early 2019 and has a history of harbouring foreign fighters. Sawadjaan himself, whom Philippine security forces might have killed  in an operation some weeks back, was allegedly proclaimed as the new emir of IS’s East Asia province in 2019.

The incident set alarm bells ringing in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) about the resurgence of violence.

His group, increasingly backed by another ASG commander, Radullan Sahiron, has also been the most lethal challenge to government forces in Sulu in recent years. Small kinship-based cells rooted in local communities make up the ASG. Some are primarily operating as kidnap-for-ransom outfits, others as militant groups opposing Manila’s authority and military presence in the majority-Muslim area. A few fulfil both roles.

At the BARMM’s fringe, Sulu has been a traditional bastion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the first ethno-nationalist resistance movement in Muslim Mindanao, founded by Nur Misuari in 1972.

Over the decades, the MNLF splintered several times and entered politics at the provincial and municipal levels. It is currently divided into two factions: Misuari’s wing and forces loyal to Yusoph Jikiri, a rival leader. Both are political–military organisations with hundreds of men still under arms. A majority of local elites who dominate various Sulu towns are ex-MNLF commanders who have been co-opted by the state from the late 1970s onwards, and who themselves control private armies.

Because the ASG was established by disgruntled MNLF commanders, its resilience until now has been fostered by blood ties with MNLF personalities and politicians. This intricate web allows room for cooperation while facing a common enemy, such as the military, and while pursuing economic benefits, such as revenue generated by kidnappings.

Sulu mayors publicly denounce the ASG, but they often lack incentives to counteract its presence because of kinship ties or don’t have the capabilities to do so because of weak governance. This in turn gives ASG commanders such as Sawadjaan ample opportunity to draw on a base of young and deprived individuals for new recruits. The governance vacuum also allows the ASG to promote its ideology unimpeded, even if it’s directed at an external audience.

At the outer edges of the Sulu archipelago, violence has declined in recent years. But the largest island in the chain, Jolo, has remained the centre of gravity for continued conflict.

Since late 2018, Sulu has hosted an infantry division of the Philippine army with over 10 battalions that bear responsibility for a population of around half a million. Yet, despite the heavy military presence, the ASG, after several presidential announcements of operations and deadlines to eliminate it, hasn’t been defeated and continues operating from the mountainous town of Patikul and environs. Moreover, bad blood between the military and police has recently contributed to a schism within the local security apparatus, lowering trust in the national government.

In recent peace processes in the southern Philippines, Sulu was more of a bystander than a key participant. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an MNLF splinter that emerged as the main guerrilla force in Bangsamoro after the MNLF entered politics, signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014. That process culminated in the creation of the BARMM in 2019.

The MILF has been leading the Bangsamoro Transition Authority since March 2019 but has only a miniscule presence in Sulu and limited soft power to shape governance. Sulu’s governor, Abdusakur Tan, the province’s kingpin who controls most local elites, initially opposed the province joining the BARMM but has since adapted to the new situation.

Still, a year and a half into the transition, the cooperation could be smoother. Historic competition for political dominance of Muslim Mindanao between Maguindanaons (those hailing from Maguindanao province who lead MILF and dominate the Bangsamoro Transition Authority) and Tausug (who hold sway in Sulu and command the MNLF) still lingers.

Moreover, various political dynasties that control Sulu’s municipalities are deeply entrenched, and it will take time for the transition authority to navigate the tensions between instituting necessary governance reforms and accommodating Tan’s leadership.

The Philippine army initially proposed imposing martial law in response to the bombings, but locals in Jolo—traditionally wary of the military—were sceptical about that option and army chiefs withdrew the proposal. Governor Tan also rejected martial law, yet he didn’t offer concrete proposals of his own for how to prevent further violence.

A comprehensive approach to tackling the complex nature of militancy in Sulu would require patching up strained police–military relations

Sulu is facing one of two likely scenarios in the aftermath of the bombing: a more intensified campaign by government forces against militants, or a business-as-usual, short-term security response without strategic vision. Either response, however, will need to supplement possible military or police action with measures outside the security toolbox, such as working with local governments and creating economic opportunities.

A comprehensive approach to tackling the complex nature of militancy in Sulu would require patching up strained police–military relations as well as complementary efforts in intelligence sharing between the two services. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia should also foster stronger cooperation to tackle cross-border flows of militants that feed into the ASG’s networks and to prevent its maritime renaissance.

Security institutions would need to distinguish between the objective of merely dismantling insurgent cells and the broader goal of curbing the power of clan-based networks that fuel the resilience of the ASG. Stronger political engagement by Manila with both MNLF factions could help enlist their support in that task. In addition, leaders in Sulu and the BARMM should increase their cooperation.

Sulu could also learn from the experience in neighbouring Basilan, where provincial elites and government security forces changed the status quo over the years by building a broad coalition against the ASG network. For now, it is unclear whether the fresh violence in Jolo will drive change in a similar direction.