icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
13 people, taken under custody for their suspected links to the terrorist organization Daesh, are sent to court beside an accused, captured in an operation carried out by Turkish National Intelligence and Provincial Security Directorate, in Mersin, Turkey Sezgin Pancar Anadolu Agency via AFP
Report 258 / Europe & Central Asia

Calibrating the Response: Turkey’s ISIS Returnees

Turkey, like many countries, must figure out how to handle thousands of citizens coming home from jihadist battlefields abroad. None has mounted a domestic attack since 2017, but the danger is not gone. Authorities should consider adding enhanced social programs to their law-and-order approach.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s new? Turkey has to deal with thousands of citizens who travelled to join ISIS and have now returned. Of the few convicted, many will soon be released from jail. Others are under surveillance. The fate of the rest is murky.

Why does it matter? ISIS’s diminished stature and measures adopted by the Turkish authorities have spared Turkey from ISIS attacks for more than three years. But while the threat should not be overplayed, it has not necessarily disappeared. That Turkish returnees turn their back on militancy is important for national and regional security.

What should be done? Ankara’s approach toward returnees or others suspected of ties to jihadism relies mostly on surveillance and detention. The government could consider also offering support for returnees’ families, alternatives for youngsters at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for returnees released after serving ISIS-related jail time.

Executive Summary

Turkey, like many countries, faces a challenge in dealing with citizens who travelled to join the Islamic State (ISIS) and have now come home. Thousands of returnees have crossed back into Turkey. Some were involved in ISIS attacks between 2014 and 2017 on Turkish soil that killed nearly 300 civilians. As the authorities stepped up counter-terrorism efforts, some returnees came under tight surveillance. Some were prosecuted and jailed. Those who returned early on are more likely to have remained undetected. The collapse of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq has sapped its ability to inspire and mobilise. Turkish clampdowns have also helped spare the country from ISIS attacks for more than three years. Still, scant data exists on the diverse trajectories of former ISIS members. Ankara’s reliance on surveillance and detention to disrupt ISIS is resource-intensive and may not be fool-proof. The government could explore supplementary policies that offer help for returnees’ families, alternatives for youths at risk of being drawn into militancy and support for those released after serving time for ISIS-related crimes.

The profiles of Turkish citizens who joined ISIS varied widely and so did their motivations. They included veterans of past wars, some of whom were key recruiters; ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims, drawn by the prospect of life under strict Islamic rule; Islamist Kurds pitted against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has carried out an insurgency in Turkey for more than 35 years and is designated a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union, and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG); and youth seeking glory, wealth or “purification” of petty crime or drugs. Some returned to the social circles from which they were recruited. Others, rejected by their old friends and families, blended into Turkey’s big cities.

Ankara’s reliance on surveillance and detention to disrupt ISIS is resource-intensive and may not be fool-proof.

Turkish authorities’ understanding of the ISIS danger has evolved. At first, like counterparts in other countries, they underestimated the threat that returnees could pose and in 2014-2015 remained largely ambivalent toward ISIS recruitment. That perception began to shift over 2016, especially after an ISIS attack in May that year on Gaziantep province’s police headquarters, one in a spate of sixteen attacks between 2014 and 2017 that cost hundreds of civilians their lives, but the first that appeared to target Turkish state institutions. The most recent ISIS attack on Turkish soil was a shooting at a nightclub on 1 January 2017 that killed 39 people. Since then, security agencies have kept ISIS in check, foiling plots through surveillance, detention and tighter border security. But the threat has not entirely disappeared, as Turkish officials themselves admit. Turkish policies may have pushed returnees and what is left of their networks further underground. Even a few individuals slipping through the cracks can be a serious menace if they recruit, finance or plan future attacks.

Turkey faces challenges with prosecuting and incarcerating returnees similar to those faced by other countries, but there are also unique aspects. Turkish officials still view ISIS as less threatening to national security than the PKK insurgency or what they call the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation” (“FETÖ”), a transnational movement Ankara accuses of infiltrating the Turkish bureaucracy and carrying out the July 2016 coup attempt. Suspects accused of affiliation with the latter two groups face tougher prosecution and sentencing. Prosecutors and judges largely assume that women who went to Syria or Iraq to live under ISIS’s rule were simply obeying their husbands and had little agency. Lawyers for the victims of some ISIS attacks suggest that with more resources, investigations might have uncovered the masterminds of the strikes, rather than just the foot soldiers who carried them out. If convicted at all, ISIS returnees tend to be jailed for three or four years for membership in a terrorist group. Hundreds are due for release soon. In prisons, some may have accrued connections and possibly also status in militant circles.

At the same time, Turkish state institutions have only recently begun contemplating what they call “de-radicalisation” or “rehabilitation” efforts – broadly speaking, policies designed to move former militants away from jihadist ideology and violence. For the most part, the authorities rely on surveillance – monitoring those they believe may pose a threat – combined with short detentions designed to scare anyone whom they think is poised to join militant circles away from doing so. To the extent that other policies exist, their goals are vague, and the approaches of the ministries involved uncoordinated. Social workers, police, imams, prison wardens and local officials lack specialised training and guidelines on how to deal with returnees and their families. Civil society actors are largely absent and officials reluctant to work with outsiders. Mid-level officials in Ankara express the need for options beyond security measures.

Despite the lull in attacks, the evolution of the Syria and Iraq conflicts could yet present Turkey with new challenges related to returnees, particularly if ISIS resurges in either country or battle-hardened fighters cross back from war zones in Syria’s north.

A number of steps could help. First, Turkey should differentiate between ISIS, PKK, “FETÖ” and ultra-leftist groups, each of which poses a different type of challenge to the Turkish state. Lumping them together muddles policy and hinders efforts to design an approach tailored to the jihadist threat. The government should ensure that overstretched judges, courts and prosecutors have the resources to investigate crimes by ISIS recruiters and returnees. Prison authorities and other agencies might share information on convicts jailed for ISIS-related crimes before their release to ensure they get appropriate support as they adapt to life outside bars. The authorities should consider what help they can offer families who seek aid in deterring youngsters from turning to militancy. They might also offer those young people extracurricular activities or jobs as alternatives. It is true that such programs have a mixed and often contentious record in other countries. But if the authorities are responding to families’ demands and are sensitive to their concerns, policies along these lines might still be valuable.

Despite the lull in attacks, the evolution of the Syria and Iraq conflicts could yet present Turkey with new challenges related to returnees, particularly if ISIS resurges in either country or battle-hardened fighters cross back from war zones in Syria’s north. Turkey has kept the threat at bay for more than three years with an approach based largely on surveillance and detentions. But a strategy toward returnees that combines security measures with social programs helping former ISIS members steer clear of militancy and supporting their families might over time be more sustainable and relieve some of the burden on the security services.

Istanbul/Ankara/Brussels, 29 June 2020

I. Introduction

Since 2013, Turkey has been a leading source of recruits for ISIS and a hub for smuggling weapons, supplies and people across the Turkish-Syrian border.[fn]A 2015 report ranked Turkish nationality among the top five “foreign fighter nationalities” in Syria and Iraq, after Tunisian, Saudi Arabian and Russian. It counted 2,000-2,200 Turks who had already joined ISIS or other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq by November 2015. The report adds: “Turkish fighters (who joined violent extremist groups in Iraq and Syria) appear to return home in greater numbers than those from elsewhere”. “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”, The Soufan Group, December 2015.Hide Footnote  The number of Turkish citizens who left to live in ISIS-held territory is high, with estimates ranging from 5,000-9,000.[fn]Some studies have estimated that between 2013 and 2016, up to 9,000 Turkish citizens, including women, have gone to Syrian or Iraqi ISIS-held territory (some more than once, returning for certain periods). The methodology of such studies is often unclear. See Serhat Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler” [Turkey’s mujahidin fighting in Syria and Iraq], Al Jazeera Türk, 25 May 2015. Ahmet S. Yayla, “Turkish ISIS and AQ Foreign Fighters: Reconciling the Numbers and Perception of the Terrorism Threat”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 42 (July 2019). Other accounts in Turkish media and from Turkish political parties and officials hint at the number of Turkish citizens who joined. In June 2014, the Turkish daily Milliyet reported that ISIS had 3,000 Turkish members (without specifying whether this number included women). “3 bin Türk savaşıyor” [3,000 Turks are fighting], Milliyet, 13 June 2014. In February 2015, then Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said 1,000 youth of Turkish nationality (without specifying their gender) had joined ISIS. “Arınç: IŞİD’e Türkiye’den 1,000 kişi katıldı” [Arınç: 1,000 individuals from Turkey joined ISIS], Bianet, 23 February 2015; in March 2015, the Turkish daily Hürriyet reported that 2,307 Turkish citizens had joined ISIS (without specifying their gender). “Üç oğlu birden IŞİD’e katıldı” [All three of his sons joined ISIS], Hürriyet, 20 March 2015; a July 2016 field-based report prepared by Professor Ümit Özdağ for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), of which he used to be a member, concluded that between 5,200-9,000 had joined ISIS or the al-Nusra Front, excluding women and children, whom the report estimated made up around 40 per cent of the Turkish citizens who went. Report covered in “Türkiye’nin detaylı IŞİD raporu” [Turkey’s detailed ISIS report], Cumhuriyet, 1 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Turkey is thus one of the countries with the largest number of recruits in absolute terms, albeit not relative to its population of more than 80 million. In a 2015 nationwide poll, 3.2 per cent of Turkish respondents said they knew someone who had joined ISIS.[fn]“Metropoll IŞİD anketinden şaşırtan sonuçlar” [Striking results in Metropoll’s ISIS survey], Internet Haber, 15 October 2015.Hide Footnote  Still more may have planned to join but were foiled by circumstances and could harbour sympathy for the group while escaping state scrutiny. Thousands of recruits have now returned, many seemingly slipping undetected back across the border.

Turkey initially showed an ambivalent attitude to the flow of fighters across its southern border. In the Syrian civil war’s early stages, the Turkish authorities, like their counterparts in some other countries, adopted a relatively complacent view toward young people going to join rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°178, How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb, 24 July 2017.Hide Footnote  In 2013 and 2014, when Turkish families notified officials of sons and daughters tempted to join ISIS, the authorities did little to stop them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, returnee families, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish officials claim they were “caught off guard” in the war’s early years. “Foreign fighters would come in with valid travel documents as ordinary tourists and countries of origin were not sharing information with us”, one official said.[fn]Turkish foreign ministry official, speech at workshop titled “Radicalisation, Terrorism and Foreign Terrorist Fighters: The Current State of Affairs and Future Steps”, Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), Ankara, 2 May 2019.Hide Footnote  Western and domestic critics, however, accuse Ankara of turning a blind eye to militants’ movement across the border.[fn]Some Western officials and Turkish government critics argue that some in Ankara did not prioritise tackling ISIS because they viewed it as opposing common enemies, in that it was curbing the advance of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, and weakening the Assad regime. Crisis Group interviews, academics, lawyers and opposition party affiliates, summer 2019.Hide Footnote  Despite improved border security, illegal entry from Syria still takes place. There is also the risk of still more militants seeking to enter Turkey in the event of an all-out, Russian-backed regime offensive in Idlib.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°213, Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib, 14 May 2020.Hide Footnote

While Turkey has suffered no attack claimed by or attributed to ISIS since January 2017, returnees were involved in earlier plots. The first deaths at ISIS’s hands on Turkish soil took place in March 2014, when foreign militants returning from Syria shot two security force members (also killing one civilian). The security forces had attempted to stop the vehicle carrying the militants at the boundary of the central Anatolian province of Niğde. In 2015 and 2016, Turkish ISIS members who had travelled to Syria and returned targeted pro-Kurdish movement and opposition groups (see Appendix A). From 2014 to 2017, 291 people died in sixteen attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS.[fn]See the list of ISIS attacks and corresponding court cases in Appendix A.Hide Footnote  Turkish authorities stepped up policing efforts to crack down on ISIS after a suicide bombing at police headquarters in the province of Gaziantep in May 2016 and four strikes on tourist sites in Istanbul between January 2016 and January 2017. Ankara credits such efforts for stopping attacks for over three years, saying it has foiled more than 30 plots.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.
 Hide Footnote

Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.Hide Footnote

There is insufficient data to judge the risk that Turkish returnees remain connected to ISIS or could return to its ranks, but some social dynamics that enabled past jihadist mobilisation are still present.

The 2017 collapse of ISIS’s territorial “caliphate” significantly weakened the group’s capacity to mobilise but did not make it or global jihadism irrelevant. If new opportunities to join ISIS or a new transnational militant outfit emerge, returnees – including those soon to be released from prisons – arguably could do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Turkish officials and returnees, July 2019-May 2020. Europol has also highlighted the potential threat of returnees in relation to the reestablishment of logistical, financial and recruitment cells. “TE-SAT 2014: EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report”, Europol, 2014. Hide Footnote “I still hold onto most of my previous convictions, elhamdulillah (praise be to God)”, a Turkish returnee told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, May 2020.
 Hide Footnote
 ISIS cells – pushed underground by Turkey’s security clampdown – may also serve as a rear support network for the group, were it to regain strength in Iraq or Syria. ISIS continues to publish videos of Turkish militants pledging allegiance to the group, shows some signs of increasing assertiveness in Iraq and has instructed its affiliates worldwide to exploit potential disorder caused by the COVID-19 crisis (though it remains unclear if those calls have had any concrete impact).[fn]See Crisis Group Commentary, “Contending with ISIS in the Time of Coronavirus”, 31 March 2020; and Sam Heller, “When Measuring ISIS’s ‘Resurgence’, Use the Right Standard”, Crisis Group Commentary, 13 May 2020.
 Hide Footnote

There is insufficient data to judge the risk that Turkish returnees remain connected to ISIS or could return to its ranks, but some social dynamics that enabled past jihadist mobilisation are still present. Veterans of past jihadist wars remain influential.[fn]For an account of influential Turkish jihadists who were active in al-Qaeda before joining ISIS, see Doğu Eroğlu, ISIS Networks: Radicalisation, Organisation and Logistics in Turkey (Istanbul, 2018), pp. 63-69 (Turkish).Hide Footnote  A large number of Turkey’s Salafis bitterly oppose the West, the PKK and the Kurdish movement more broadly, as well as Alevis, heterodox Muslims whom Salafis view as infidels. Such social tensions do not necessarily mean that people will turn to militancy but in the past have helped push some toward violence.[fn]Together, Alevis and Kurdish movement supporters make up around 25 per cent of Turkey’s population. While there are no official statistics, estimates of the number of Alevis range from 15 to 20 per cent of the population. Judging by the electoral support for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the proportion of Kurdish movement sympathisers ranges from 8 to 12 per cent. See “The Alevis’ fight for recognition in Turkey”, Deutsche Welle, 26 January 2020; and “Turkey elections 2018”, TRT World, 27 June 2018.Hide Footnote  The state offers little in the way of support for troubled youth. Less than 10 per cent, or some 450 Turkish citizens (around 30 of them female), of the estimated thousands who returned are imprisoned on ISIS-related terrorism charges – around half of those under arrest are awaiting trial.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish justice ministry official, July 2019. The pro-government daily Yeni Şafak reported that, of the Turkish citizens imprisoned on ISIS-related charges, 95 were convicted and 138 were convicted by the first instance courts but awaiting their final appeals, while 189 remained under arrest. “Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var” [ISIS members from 40 countries are in Turkish prisons], Yeni Şafak, 8 November 2019.Hide Footnote It remains unclear how those who have not been caught and have gone home or hidden elsewhere fare.

As many countries grapple with how to handle returnees, this report focuses on steps Turkey is taking toward its own nationals and offers recommendations for how to deal with returnees to forestall new cycles of recruitment. There is little research on the recruitment into ISIS of Turkish nationals or their return from Iraq and Syria. This report aims to start filling that gap. It focuses on Turkish nationals, rather than on the equally important challenge posed by high numbers of foreign ISIS-affiliated individual members in Turkey, some of whom say they are determined to make the country their home.

The report is based on interviews conducted by Crisis Group between April 2019 and December 2019 in Istanbul and southern and south-eastern provinces of Turkey, as well as remotely in the first half of 2020. Crisis Group spoke with returnees, as well as relatives, friends and a range of others in places where returnees are now living or from where they were recruited. Widespread fear among returnees of prosecution and the stigma attached to ISIS hampered field research, as did travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was difficult to speak to female returnees, so research related to women formerly linked to ISIS relied on interviews with relatives and neighbours, as well as lawyers who know them personally. The report also draws on interviews with Turkish state officials from all relevant ministries as well as diplomats and grassroots actors. It builds on Crisis Group’s prior reporting on Turkey, Syria, surrounding countries and ISIS activities in the region.[fn]For previous coverage of related issues, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°273, Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria, 11 October 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°72, Steadying the New Status Quo in Syria’s North East, 27 November 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°197, The Best of Bad Options for Syria’s Idlib, 14 March 2019; and Crisis Group Europe Report N°252, mitMitigating Risks for Syrian Refugee Youth in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa, 11 February 2019.Hide Footnote

II. Recruitment and Return

Turkish authorities have been successful in preventing ISIS attacks since January 2017 but lack a full picture of their significant returnee population. A systematic and comprehensive assessment of Turkey’s returnees that accounts for dynamics in different parts of the country would be important to determine what measures may be needed. A one-size-fits-all formula is unlikely to work.

One key determinant of whether former ISIS associates can turn their backs on the movement appears to be the social networks in which they find themselves once back.

The authorities have made some attempts to assess risks that could offer a starting point for further analysis. In one early effort to profile ISIS affiliates in prisons, officials concluded that most were not die-hard. “We tried to gauge how hardline they were by asking questions like whether they could be friends with people who didn’t carry out Islamic requirements”, a Turkish security official said. “They had been moved by the ‘Muslims are being victimised’ line and were excited and adventurous types looking for [a] sense of cause”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish authorities should build on such assessments. Policymakers might look at factors such as why individuals joined ISIS, how long they stayed with the group, what they experienced under the “caliphate”, whether they returned by choice or necessity, and how connected they remain to past networks.[fn]For factors identified as relevant elsewhere, see Edwin Bakker, Christoph Paulussen and Eva Entenmann, “Returning Jihadist Foreign Fighters: Challenges Pertaining to Threat Assessment and Governance of This Pan-European Problem”, Security and Human Rights, vol. 11 (2014); “Focus on Returnees”, General Intelligence and Security Service (Netherlands), 2017.Hide Footnote “If we could have four or five categories based on likely risks returnees could pose, these individuals can be subjected to different rehabilitation programs, tailor-made for each category”, one Turkish security official told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish security official, Ankara, October 2019.
 Hide Footnote

One key determinant of whether former ISIS associates can turn their backs on the movement appears to be the social networks in which they find themselves once back. If ISIS returnees rejoin the circles that enabled their recruitment or simply maintain connections with friends who are involved with militancy, they can more easily resort to violence again.[fn]Evidence from elsewhere supports this conclusion. See Mary Beth Altier, Emma Leonard Boyle and John G. Horgan, “Returning to the Fight: An Empirical Analysis of Terrorist Engagement and Recidivism”, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 31 (2019); Badi Hasisi, Tomer Carmel, David Weisburd and Michael Wolfowicz, “Crime and Terror: Examining Criminal Risk Factors for Terrorist Recidivism”, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, vol. 35 (2019).Hide Footnote  Some Turkish ISIS returnees have found different lives once back in Turkey: some rejected by or themselves choosing to turn away from their past contacts, some fearing prosecution and leading hidden lives in Turkey’s big cities. Others have simply folded back into their old social networks, including in areas that in the past were fertile ground for recruiters.

A. Who Joined, and Why?

Crisis Group’s research suggests that while ISIS appealed to diverse Turkish citizens, most men fit one of four profiles, which are not mutually exclusive: veteran jihadists from previous conflicts; marginalised urban youths; ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims; and Islamist Kurds whose primary motivation was fighting the PKK/YPG. Most women, or at least those whose stories Crisis Group learned of, appear to be primarily from conservative Sunni backgrounds and were eager to live under strict Islamist rule; many left with husbands, though often remarried, sometimes more than once, after being widowed.[fn]Assessing the motives of women who left for Syria is hard. The difficulty of talking directly to these women means that any assessment must rely on the views of friends or associates of the women, but more usually of their family members or lawyers, who are often men. According to Onur Güler, a lawyer defending ISIS suspects: “Due to the culture of the pious communities, Turkish women were not prone to joining ISIS without their husbands. Instances of women making their own decisions to go without a husband appear very rare, though in one case in Konya a woman decided to divorce her husband because she began regarding him as an infidel since he was working as a police officer and, in her eyes, serving the tağut [false god] state”. Crisis Group telephone interview, May 2020. A man who said his brother had been “martyred fighting the Nusayris (the Syrian regime) on behalf of ISIS” and who had, after his brother’s death, gone to Syria to bring back his brother’s wife, told Crisis Group: “Turkish women did not join individually like European women. I don’t know of any Turkish woman there whose story was not husband-centred”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 14 June 2020.Hide Footnote  Security officials say recruitment was particularly high in certain suburbs of Istanbul, Ankara, Adıyaman, Bursa, Gaziantep, Adana, Kocaeli and Konya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Istanbul, fall 2019.Hide Footnote  Most recruits were aged between eighteen and 26 and often joined alongside friends and relatives.[fn]Most accounts of Turkish ISIS returnees Crisis Group came across during its field research said the individuals were in the 18-26 age group when they joined the jihadists. Other field-based accounts, Crisis Group interviews with Turkish officials and news reports corroborate this finding.Hide Footnote  Turkish ISIS recruiters, by contrast, were mostly older than 35. According to returnees’ acquaintances, recruiters sought to attract youths with promises of a richer, more pious and purposeful life under ISIS rule.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adıyaman and Diyarbakır, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Among Turkish nationals who took up recruitment and propaganda roles for ISIS were seasoned fighters from previous conflicts in Turkey’s neighbourhood or linked to al-Qaeda attacks in Turkey in 2003.[fn]Four al-Qaeda attacks in Istanbul in November 2003 targeted two synagogues, the British consulate and HSBC bank. Fifty-eight people were killed and 753 injured. Ely Karmon, “The Synagogue Bombings in Istanbul: Al-Qaeda’s New Front?”, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 18 November 2003.Hide Footnote  Some had fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1990s, some mobilised to join the wars in Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo. A stream of Turkish pan-Islamist militants travelled from Afghanistan to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academics, Ankara, July 2019. Also see Serhat Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  ISIS seems to have exploited pre-existing networks in Turkey that had rallied people to join the insurgency against the U.S. occupation in Iraq.[fn]Aaron Stein, “The Islamic State in Turkey: a deep dive into a dark place”, War on the Rocks, 6 April 2016; Aaron Stein, “Islamic State Networks in Turkey”, Atlantic Council, October 2016.Hide Footnote  From 2012-2013, some of these veterans journeyed to Syria to participate in ISIS’ state-building project, while others played key roles as ISIS recruiters in Turkey itself.

The vast majority of Turks joining ISIS were, however, young – under 26 – and not seasoned fighters. Many reportedly hailed from rural families who had migrated to cities in the past two decades or lived in former countryside swallowed up by urban sprawl.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, academics, lawyers, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır and Şanlıurfa, summer 2019. “Most of the families of those who joined ISIS I know had migrated from rural areas to cities in the last two decades. … I would estimate that 70-80 per cent of those who joined from Bursa were children of families who migrated there from the majority-Kurdish east and south east of Turkey, so most were ethnically Kurdish, possibly with sympathies for the Kurdish Hizbullah”. Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  One of the world’s most rapidly urbanising countries, Turkey had one quarter of its population living in cities in 1950, a proportion that rose to three quarters by 2015.[fn]See Stephen Karam et al., “Rise of the Anatolian Tigers: Turkey Urbanization Review”, World Bank, April 2015.Hide Footnote  In the south-eastern province of Adıyaman – a recruitment hub for ISIS in 2014-2015 – much of the majority-urban population has moved to the city from rural villages over the last two decades.[fn]Crisis Group interview, mayor of Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

While social, economic and psychological grievances do not fully explain why youths joined ISIS – the vast majority of youngsters in deprived areas did not do so – they appear to have been contributing factors that made some young people more susceptible. People who had recently migrated to Adıyaman city felt looked down upon and uprooted, saying they missed their tightly knit villages; youth in particular struggled.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  “When they moved into the cities, families lost the social protection nets of rural life and didn’t have a status in urban life”, one local human rights worker said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Unemployment in the majority-Kurdish province is high and wages are low, with yearly per capita income of $4,771, less than half the national average of $9,693 in 2018.[fn]Data compiled by the Turkish Statistical Institute.Hide Footnote  “Some of those we caught returning from Syria at the border had up to $10,000 on them. Some men from the Black Sea region went like ‘seasonal workers’ to make money”, a Turkish security official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote Officials also voice concern that youths who are abusing drugs – cheap narcotics are readily available across Turkey – are more vulnerable to ISIS recruitment pitches.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Adıyaman, July 2019. A single pill of the synthetic drug referred to as “ecstasy” costs 5 Turkish lira (75 cents) in Şanlıurfa and 20 lira ($3) in Istanbul. It is much cheaper than alcohol, which is heavily taxed. Crisis Group field observations, July 2019.Hide Footnote

In Turkey, ISIS recruiters appear to have appealed to prospective members’ desire to live under strict Islamic rules and escape what they described as state harassment.

Socio-economic ills were certainly part of the narrative spun by recruiters. Adıyaman locals referred to youths turning toward ISIS as “Cumasızlar” (those absent from Friday prayers) after they stopped attending the state imam’s sermons, viewing him as an “infidel” (kafir).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Male recruits were reportedly lured by promises of payments, polygamy and adventure.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, returnees, May 2020; Crisis Group interview, expert on ISIS recruitment and networks in Turkey, April 2019.Hide Footnote  According to telephone wiretaps of those charged with ISIS-related crimes, youth with criminal records or alcohol and drug problems sometimes saw joining as a second chance, describing it as “purification” (arınma) of past sins.[fn]See Eroğlu, ISIS Networks, op. cit., pp. 32-33. A lawyer defending individuals detained on ISIS-related terrorism charges estimated that 10-15 per cent of them had a history of petty crime or drug abuse. Crisis Group telephone interview, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  A local butcher is blamed by relatives for using such appeals to recruit over twenty youths in a few Adıyaman neighbourhoods.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, acquaintances of Turkish returnees, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  One such youth, Orhan Gönder, was sentenced to life in mid-December 2019 for a bombing in June 2015 at a Diyarbakır People’s Democratic Party (HDP) rally that killed five. Alevi by birth, he told his family at age sixteen that he was joining ISIS to learn the “real Islam”, his mother said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, mother of Orhan Gönder, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  His cousin, Ercan, who visits him in jail, said recruiters had told Gönder “his feelings of emptiness can only be overcome if they become part of a larger cause”.[fn]Crisis Group field research, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS also recruited among Salafis.[fn]Salafi groups in Turkey strive for the restoration of “real Islam” based on a literal reading of the Quran and sunna (sünnet). They object to modern Islamic practice that, in their view, has incorporated novel elements over time that distance it from the Prophet Muhammad’s example. Sometimes that translates into intolerance toward adherents of other strains of Islam, including Sufism and heterodox sects. Salafists differ among themselves over how to demonstrate their beliefs. Some “quietist” Salafists eschew political participation and focus instead on propagating Islam and perfecting their faith. Other “activist” (haraki) Salafists believe in participating in politics to achieve what they see as a more Islamic society and state. And “jihadist” Salafists abhor what they consider un-Islamic, tağut (false god) states and believe it necessary to topple them using violence, in order to eventually establish an Islamic state. See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°37, Understanding Islamism, 2 March 2005.Hide Footnote  Indeed, many returnees whose stories Crisis Group pieced together came from Salafi circles, sometimes having joined only a short time before leaving for Syria or Iraq. Most Salafis – in Turkey as elsewhere – are law-abiding. Moreover, the diversity of beliefs among those considered Salafis in Turkey is so wide that it would be hard to draw general conclusions about the relationship between Salafism in the country and violent jihad.[fn]More than 100 organisations that can be broadly categorised as Salafi are legally registered in Turkey as “associations” or “foundations”. Crisis Group interview, Turkish presidency official, Ankara, October 2019. An interior ministry official estimated the total membership at well over 60,000. An interior ministry official gave this estimate in 2018 in an interview with a Crisis Group consultant.Hide Footnote  Still, Turkish authorities admit that they keep a close watch on Salafis, some of whom in turn say they feel unjustly targeted.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish presidency official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  In a sign of the suspicion with which Ankara views Salafis, a 2016 Turkish police intelligence report estimated that 10,000-20,000 Turkish citizens were, in the report’s words, “radical Salafi/Takfiri”.[fn]“Takfiri” is a pejorative term for Salafi-jihadists, playing up their takfir, or pronouncement of apostasy, upon Muslims whom they accuse of acts that “negate” Islam.Hide Footnote  The report did not define what it meant by that term but noted that these people constituted a “potential threat to our country”.[fn]İsmail Saymaz, “İşte Emniyet’in selefi raporu: Türkiye tabanları 20 bine ulaştı, bu bir tehdit” [The Turkish National Police’s Salafi report: their supporter base has reached 20,000, this is a threat], Hürriyet, 25 April 2016. “I would characterise only a fraction, maybe 3,000-5,000, of Salafis as being close to resorting to violence as a means”, said a lawyer defending ISIS suspects. Crisis Group telephone interview, 30 May 2020.
Hide Footnote

In Turkey, ISIS recruiters appear to have appealed to prospective members’ desire to live under strict Islamic rules and escape what they described as state harassment, including searches of women wearing the ultra-conservative full body and face covers.[fn]“In Syria under ISIS they were more comfortable, as a couple, because all women wore the same attire, the full black khimar and niqab, while in Turkey they would be searched even if the metal detectors gave no signal”, said an investigative journalist who has conducted extensive research on Salafi groups in Turkey. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, March 2019.Hide Footnote They reportedly sought recruits at gatherings around Salafi “travelling preachers” (gezici vaiz) at teahouses, bookstores and unofficial madrasas. “I went to live the Islam of our Prophet and his companions (sahabe)”, one Turkish ISIS returnee who lived in Raqqa for two years told Crisis Group. “I was literally hypnotised by the great way of life that we had there when I first arrived. I lived the real Islam”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, returnee, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote Especially in the civil war’s earlier phases, this desire to migrate resonated broadly among a segment of ultra-conservative Turkish citizens, many of whom were slow to react when the caliphate turned out not to be the utopia they had expected.

A last group, Islamist Kurds, joined to fight the YPG/PKK, whom they viewed as atheist. Some supported the Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party), a political offshoot of the Kurdish Hizbullah, a predominantly Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant group.[fn]See Eroğlu, ISIS Networks, op. cit., p. 229.Hide Footnote  The PKK and YPG were the most mentioned issue on Twitter by Turkish-speaking ISIS supporters, according to an analysis of more than 2,500 accounts and 787,400 tweets shared between 2013 and 2015.[fn]“Twitter Social Network Analysis on Turkish-speaking Daesh Supporters”, ORSAM, August 2016. This report’s methodology was based on J.M. Berger and Jonathan Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter”, Brookings Institution, March 2015.Hide Footnote  The ISIS siege of the Syrian town of Kobani in September-October 2014 became a rallying cry. “We saw videos of fellow Muslims slaughtered by ‘the anarchists’ [the YPG/PKK]. This motivated many of us to join to defend our brothers”, one Kurdish male returnee said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote  In October 2014, Kurdish Hizbullah sympathisers clashed with pro-PKK Kurds protesting Turkey’s failure at the time to protect Kobani from ISIS; more than 50 people died over three days.[fn]“6-7 Ekim’in acı bilançosu 50 ölü” [Bitter consequence of 6-7 October protests: 50 dead], Hürriyet, 6 November 2014.Hide Footnote A cousin of another returnee from Diyarbakır tried to dissuade him from going, but said his cousin “was convinced that if we did not go fight the PKK they would soon finish off the rest of us [referring to Islamist Kurds]”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyarbakır, July 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Returning from the Caliphate

The fate and location of a significant portion of Turkish ISIS militants and their varyingly affiliated wives and children are unknown. Fearing the stigma of being associated with ISIS, some families have kept deaths secret, holding night-time burials.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local human rights lawyer, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Some analysts estimate that between 1,000-2,000 Turkish citizens, most of them males, died fighting in ISIS’s ranks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diyarbakır and Adıyaman, July 2019. Estimates of the number of Turkish men killed fighting with ISIS vary: in May 2015, Serhat Erkmen estimated – based on his count of funerals in Turkey – that some 900 Turkish citizens had been killed fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit. In a July 2019 article, Ahmet Yayla said around 2,000 ISIS members of Turkish nationality were likely killed in combat. Yayla, “Turkish ISIS and Al-Qaeda Foreign Fighters”, op. cit. In June 2016, a Turkish foreign ministry representative was cited stating that 500 militants of Turkish nationality fighting in the ranks of ISIS or al-Nusra were killed in Iraq and Syria. Cited in Monica Marks, “ISIS and Nusra in Turkey: Jihadist Recruitment and Ankara’s Response”, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, June 2016.Hide Footnote  A smaller number defected to other insurgent groups, including jihadist militias, while hundreds of others have been detained in Syria or Iraq.[fn]Around 100 Turkish ISIS fighters and a few hundred Turkish women remain in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled camps. Crisis Group field observations, north-eastern Syria, June and October 2019. Around 400 Turkish women, mostly wives of ISIS fighters, remain imprisoned in Iraq. “Türkiye’ye getirilen IŞİD’lilerin 250 çocuğu travma tedavisine alındı” [250 children of ISIS families brought back to Turkey receive trauma therapy], T24, 14 August 2019. Ankara repatriated around 200 children of ISIS families held in those Iraqi prisons in mid-2019. “‘Her eyes were full of fear’: Turkey repatriates children of ISIS followers”, The New York Times, 27 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Thousands appear to have returned to Turkey from ISIS-controlled territory.[fn]The prominent Turkish daily Hürriyet claimed in May 2015 that of the 2,700 Turkish citizen ISIS members who went to Syria and Iraq, 1,500 had returned to Turkey. The newspaper did not disaggregate male and female returnees. Cited in Erkmen, “Suriye ve Irak’ta savaşan Türkiyeli mücahitler”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Even some potential recruits who did not make it to Syria or Iraq arguably could pose a danger. “We should also worry about those who wanted to go and didn’t make it”, a Turkish official told Crisis Group. “Some of those who came back are still dangerous, but the point is, it is not just them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey experienced three waves of returns by citizens disillusioned, forced out by ISIS military defeats or loss of territory, or readying to take on other roles with ISIS elsewhere.

Part of the uncertainty owes to the once porous 911km border between Turkey and Syria. Turkish officials seem to have only a vague notion of how many people returned prior to 2016 before they tightened security.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Illegal crossing decreased due to stricter policing along the border after 2016, but, with the help of smugglers, people continued to cross back from Syria for a fee of $500-$2,000.[fn]The cost of crossing fluctuates according to smugglers’ success rates. Those with workable arrangements with bribed border guards charge more. As of July 2019, it was most convenient for a Turkish citizen who wanted to come from Syria to cross back around Hatay. Crossing in this area is relatively easy because authority is not clear-cut on the Syrian side of the border: refugees, rebels and aid workers can all blend together. If regime-affiliated people want to cross, they would enter through the westernmost point of Hatay, around Samandağ, because there is a small slice of regime-controlled territory on Turkey’s border with Syria there. Border controls at provinces bordering territory held by the SDF, the armed units dominated by the YPG, were stricter. Crossing through the Turkey-controlled Euphrates Shield area is also harder because Turkish security control is intense on the Syrian side. Also see “IŞİD’lilere 4 bin dolara sınırdan VIP geçiş” [VIP crossing for ISIS members costs $4,000], T24, 24 May 2019.Hide Footnote An investigative journalist said some of the 500 ISIS affiliates on whom he conducted research in 2014 and 2015 “were ‘part-time jihadists’ – they came and went a few times”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, March 2018.Hide Footnote  A new wall and beefed-up border security after mid-2018 further restricted movement to varying degrees, depending on where one intended to cross, but smugglers continued to find routes across with ladders, extracting a higher fee.[fn]“Suriye sınırı ‘akıllı’ sistemle daha güvenli” [Syria border more secure with ‘smart’ system], Hürriyet, 5 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey experienced three waves of returns by citizens disillusioned, forced out by ISIS military defeats or loss of territory, or readying to take on other roles with ISIS elsewhere. The first wave came back toward the end of 2014 and early 2015, after short visits to the caliphate; some were in Tal Abyad and escaped YPG-ISIS fighting there. Many militants also appear to have left for other countries around that time. The second surge in returns to Turkey came during the eight-month Operation Euphrates Shield against ISIS in 2016-2017, and the third during the battle for Raqqa in late 2017.[fn]Crisis Group field research, border provinces of Turkey, June 2018 and July 2019.Hide Footnote In smaller numbers, people have continued to return since then. One Turkish returnee from Bursa returned, for example, from Idlib in mid-2018 after joining the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) for a time there.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Turkish returnee, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Others who had been in Idlib were detained attempting to cross at the western end of the Syria-Turkey border in January 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, January 2020, Istanbul.Hide Footnote The circumstances of return to Turkey are varied, and offer only an incomplete picture of returnees’ motivations, but further study could help authorities understand the phenomenon.

Many ISIS members who returned to Turkey appear to have little contact with state authorities.[fn]A number of Turkish officials Crisis Group interviewed between July and October 2019 confirmed that many returnees, especially in the earlier waves, came back undetected.
Hide Footnote
Unlike some other countries, Turkey did not criminalise travel to designated ISIS-held areas in Syria and Iraq – although individuals can be charged with being members of a terrorist group if the state can prove they joined ISIS. Hundreds of Turks travelled to Syria to support rebel factions, providing cover for people wanting to join ISIS. Of the returnees Crisis Group spoke to directly or learned of through their acquaintances, many were never interrogated on their return.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, returnees or their acquaintances, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, July 2019; and by telephone, May 2020.Hide Footnote  “A boy from here who went to Syria, came back secretly and is now working in a hotel in Antalya”, a shop owner in Adıyaman who knew the youth said.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Adıyaman, July 2019; Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Others were questioned and released. Turkish security officials say they are monitoring returnees, even if police have not interrogated all of them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Istanbul, fall 2019.Hide Footnote Many women who returned, sometimes with children, live with relatives and have little interaction with the outside world.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, locals, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  In some cases, widows (including foreigners) are cared for by the families of their late husbands.[fn]“We know of at least seven foreign brides who are here in Adıyaman whose Turkish husbands were killed in Syria and the husband’s families accepted the women into their homes”. Crisis Group interview, cousin of a Turkish citizen returnee, Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Gauging whether returnees remain committed to ISIS ideology or to violence more broadly is difficult. In media interviews and police interrogations, returnees often express remorse, saying they took no part in violence and left because ISIS failed to live up to their vision of life under Islamic rule.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, high-ranking police officer, Ankara, May 2019; and journalist, Istanbul, July 2019.Hide Footnote Crisis Group’s own interviews with returnees indicate that some still carry positive memories of living in the caliphate and are willing to link back up with ISIS or another similar group, while others returned disillusioned. “If a new caliphate was established, depending on circumstances, … I would consider joining again”, one individual who went to Syria in 2017 and returned nine months later told Crisis Group. Another returnee, who lived in Raqqa for more than two years before making his way back to Turkey in 2016, leaving his Syrian wife and daughter behind, said:

The first year under Dewle in Raqqa was great. We had everything, we were rich and getting very good salaries. In time, the weaker Dewle got, the harsher its methods to punish sinners and infidels in public squares became. I realised this was not what I had hoped for.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, September 2019. In Crisis Group interviews, Turkish returnees referred to ISIS as “Dewle”, which means “state” in Arabic.Hide Footnote

Some returnees escaped prosecution by telling officials that while in Syria they fought in Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups or were engaged in charitable or humanitarian work.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, relatives of returnees, Diyarbakır and Adıyaman, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Officials told Crisis Group that ISIS trains people to obscure their links to the group, and they continued monitoring “suspicious individuals”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, October 2019; Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Women often tell officials or researchers that their husbands coerced them into joining and they had long been seeking a way home.[fn]See Başak Yavcan and Gülriz Şen, “Assessing the Role of Women in Fighting Radicalisation”, Improving Capacity against Radicalization and Extremism for All (icare4all), March 2020.Hide Footnote  It is often hard to assess how genuine such claims are.

At least some returnees appeared to remain connected to their former ISIS network, referring in interviews to the current circumstances of others whom they had known in Syria and Iraq. One family told Crisis Group of locking up sons and confiscating their mobile phones to prevent them from remaining in contact with former fellow ISIS members or leaving for Syria again. Having joined and fought for ISIS remains a source of pride in some circles. “There were even some who had nothing to do with what was happening in Syria who congratulated me for going”, a man who joined at the age of 20 and returned to his hometown Bursa in 2018 told Crisis Group. “I received only few negative reactions”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 4 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Among Kurdish Salafis in Turkey’s east and south east, some ISIS returnees reportedly received from their religious circles so-called sayyid [Muslim claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad] certificates for fighting for ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher who conducted relevant field research in 2015-2016, Ankara, April 2019.Hide Footnote  The reputational gains of those who have fought for ISIS are well documented in other countries, including among imprisoned ISIS members.[fn]Studies find that the prestige and increased credibility of returning fighters mean that they are better able to recruit new members. See B.M. Jenkins, “When Jihadis Come Marching Home”, RAND Corporation, 2014; “Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism”, Council of Europe, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote

III. Turkey’s Strategies Toward Returnees

Many states are struggling to assess the threat ISIS returnees could pose and how to respond. While many obstacles are shared, there are also unique aspects to Turkey’s efforts. Turkey’s focus on short-term detention, criminal investigation and prosecution appears to have disrupted attacks but has its limits: insufficient evidence complicates prosecution while mass surveillance is resource-intensive and far from failsafe. In some cases, “hard” security measures may even have unintended consequences. A closer look at some of the challenges Ankara faces in policing, prosecuting and detaining returnees might help Turkey determine whether and how to build out fledgling measures to help returnees reintegrate into society and deter recidivism, which would ease the burden on the security services.

Other countries have complemented security measures with “softer” policies, usually focused on “de-radicalisation”, ie, efforts to change former militants’ beliefs, “disengagement” – steps to move them away from a violent group or from using violence even if they retain some of those beliefs – or a blend of the two. Programs range from teaching peaceful interpretations of Islam to vocational training. They tend to be complex, costly and hard to evaluate, and have sometimes been controversial as well. They can require coordination among an array of stakeholders including security agencies, prison staff, religious scholars, community leaders, psychologists and specialised NGOs. In some countries, they have come in for criticism, especially for stigmatising communities targeted, tainting public servants, who arouse suspicion for being involved in state surveillance, or for distorting valuable social programs for counter-terrorism ends.[fn]For a comprehensive review of criticisms of de-radicalisation programs in Europe, see Lore Colaert (ed.), De-radicalisation: Scientific Insights for Policy, Flemish Peace Institute (Brussels, 2017).Hide Footnote  Still, some governments see them as a way to guard against jihadist recruitment and engage with returnees such as minors or those who cannot be charged for lack of evidence.

Turkey’s justice ministry, interior ministry and Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet) – the state-run Muslim religious authority – have no fleshed-out policies along these lines for ISIS affiliates. Embryonic initiatives that do exist do not distinguish among affiliates of ISIS, the PKK, “FETÖ” or ultra-leftist militant groups.[fn]“Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü” (Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation), or “FETÖ”, is a moniker used by the Turkish state since 2016 to refer to followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic preacher heading a transnational movement. Ankara accuses “FETÖ” of illicitly infiltrating state institutions and holds it responsible for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt. Followers refer to the movement as the Gülen, or Hizmet, movement, and to Fethullah Gülen as their spiritual leader.Hide Footnote All these groups represent different challenges to the Turkish state; lumping them together can make efforts confused and unfocused. While politicians and top officials seem content with what Ankara is now doing, mid-level officials in the interior and justice ministries and the Diyanet express a desire for greater guidance on dealing with ISIS returnees who have been detained or are being monitored and, indeed, for other Turks who did not join but might want to do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, state representatives, Ankara and Şanlıurfa, July 2019.Hide Footnote Clarifying the aims of existing initiatives would be a good start. The Turkish state might also try out modest, additional social policies, such as after-prison release programs and support for families worried about relatives turning to militancy. Ankara should see these policies as a complement to the current approach, not a substitute for it.

A. Threat Perception

ISIS attacks in 2016 on Turkish soil prompted officials to step up efforts to police the group, and they now say they have the threat under control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, July 2019; Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  ISIS networks are still present, officials say, but with degraded capabilities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  They say the group is organising in smaller cells, with more autonomous structures, geared toward carrying out attacks that require limited means and skills. “Some who crossed back, including foreign nationals, and are hiding have formed two- to three-person dormant cells waiting to be activated”, a Turkish security official said.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.; and statements made by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu on television in August 2019. “Türkiye’nin Nabzı – 20 Ağustos 2019 (İçişleri Bakanı Süleyman Soylu)” [Turkey’s Pulse – 20 August 2019 (Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu)], Habertürk, 20 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Following an April 2019 video in which ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who was killed by U.S. special forces in late October 2019) holds a file labelled “Turkey Province”, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu publicly acknowledged that they assessed ISIS had become more active in Turkey and that Turkish intelligence and security units were “on alarm”.[fn]“In the company of the leader of the faithful”, Al-Furqan Media, 29 April 2019 (Arabic). “İçişleri Bakanı Soylu: Türkiye’de DEAŞ bir hareketlilik içerisinde” [Interior Minister Soylu: ISIS has become more active within Turkey], T24, 17 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey’s involvement in Syria and its support to certain rebel factions could com-plicate its domestic counter-terrorism efforts, particularly given the apparent fluidity among the membership of various jihadist groups.

Nonetheless, Ankara ranks “FETÖ” and the PKK as graver threats.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, April, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  All three groups are designated as “terrorist”. But the designation is applied more broadly for those charged with PKK or “FETÖ” links, including those who would be regarded simply as sympathisers rather than terrorists themselves in countries with narrower definitions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of both victims and defendants of ISIS cases, as well as Crisis Group examination of court cases, summer 2019-spring 2020.Hide Footnote  Lawyers for both the victims of attacks and individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes say the state puts higher priority on investigation and prosecution of “terrorism” cases linked to “FETÖ” or PKK than ISIS ones.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of both victims and defendants of ISIS cases, Ankara and remotely from Istanbul, July 2019 and April 2020.Hide Footnote  As little as a phone call or social media post can lead to a jail sentence for suspects accused of links to the PKK or “FETÖ”, while ISIS suspects are more often released for lack of evidence. “They dig deep to find some sort of evidence in order to establish a link between suspects of FETÖ or PKK affinity; it’s not the same for ISIS”, a lawyer for one of the five victims of a bombing of an HDP rally in June 2015 said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyer of a victim, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Turkey’s involvement in Syria and its support to certain rebel factions could complicate its domestic counter-terrorism efforts, particularly given the apparent fluidity among the membership of various jihadist groups. Turkey does not deem rebel factions opposed to the Syrian regime as a threat. Although it officially designates the former al-Qaeda affiliate HTS as terrorist, this group fights in north-western Syria alongside Turkish-backed forces against the Syrian regime and thus benefits indirectly from Turkish aid.[fn]HTS is the latest iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front; the group had previously been Syria’s avowed al-Qaeda affiliate, but it has since cut ties with that organisation’s transnational leadership.Hide Footnote  HTS controls Idlib’s main border crossing with Turkey and, in rebel-held areas in that province, coexists with Turkish forces deployed to observation points.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Silencing the Guns in Syria’s Idlib, op. cit.Hide Footnote  While authorities do not view HTS and most other rebel groups as a danger to Turkish domestic security, were relations between Turkey and those groups to sour, militants might turn on Ankara.

Turkish officials tend to view ISIS returnees as less threatening than agencies in other countries do. Authorities say Turkish citizens faced lower barriers to joining ISIS and were driven by the pursuit of adventure and personal gain rather than by ideology. “We found that more ‘ordinary’ people had gone from Turkey compared to the mostly already fundamentalist-thinking people that joined from Europe”, one interior ministry official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, 1 October 2019.Hide Footnote  “Picking up to go from Turkey was easier”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, October 2019.Hide Footnote  By the same logic, Turkish officials believe that the majority of returnees have an easier time returning to their previous life, an assumption that likely explains the lack of systematic effort at assessing the threat posed by returnees and helping them reintegrate.

A wide spectrum of Turkish state actors, from Ankara to front-line practitioners, are sceptical that ISIS members who strongly adhere to its ideology can ever be disabused of their convictions. While some officials think every effort should be made to win over hardline militants, most argue that they are a small minority of returnees and that the only option is monitoring them for life. As a result, and perhaps also due to the widespread view that most returnees are not ideologically committed, Turkish officials have not developed systematic programs to deal with those who might be. Most officials think they should focus on prevention, that is, stopping individuals from turning to militancy in the first place.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, authorities from five state institutions, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  That said, few state policies are actually geared toward prevention – let alone systematic monitoring of the effectiveness of existing efforts.

Foreign militants transiting through or migrating to Turkey are a greater source of concern to authorities. Officials say it is harder to assess the risk they pose.[fn]Crisis Group interview, state official, Istanbul, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Monitoring and translating from foreign languages is a strain on the security services. While Turkish nationals may return to their former lives, officials assume, foreign nationals often lack the families and social circles that could help them leave ISIS and turn over a new leaf.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials, Ankara, July and October 2019.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group’s open-source tracking suggests that, as of late 2019, there were at least 446 foreign nationals among the 955 ISIS-linked detainees mentioned in the Turkish media. Of those in prison over ISIS-linked charges, 750 (62.5 per cent) are foreign nationals reportedly from 40 different countries (22 of them female).[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish justice ministry representative, Ankara, July 2019. “Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var”, op. cit. This conviction, paired with frustration that EU nations have left Turkey to deal with individuals they deem too dangerous to repatriate, motivated Ankara to step up its efforts to deport foreign ISIS-linked individuals to their countries of origin. Turkey deported a total of 778 foreigners suspected of ISIS affiliation in 2019 alone.Hide Footnote

As Turkey’s perception of the threat posed by ISIS has evolved, so, too, has its approach to policing and prosecution, including online. A two-year state of emergency put in place after the failed military coup in July 2016 allowed law enforcement agencies to step up efforts to combat ISIS “by granting authority for more serious operations”, a high-ranking security official said.[fn]Senior Turkish police officer, speech at ORSAM workshop, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Cyber units within the Turkish police have deleted or blocked thousands of allegedly ISIS-linked social media accounts.[fn]“Turkey’s Fight against Daesh”, Turkish Interior Ministry, July 2017, p. 53.Hide Footnote  They have also blocked access to ISIS’s main Turkish-language propaganda outlets, though content remained accessible through VPN proxies.[fn]ISIS propaganda targeting Turkey and its leadership intensified in July 2015, in particular, with the publication of the second issue of the Turkish-language magazine Konstantiniyye. Six issues of Konstantiniyye appeared between June 2015 and May 2016.Hide Footnote

Turkish officials say cooperation among key state agencies (such as national police, gendarmerie and military intelligence) has improved since the coup attempt. Most Turkish officials claim that “FETÖ”-linked police and prosecutors seeking to destabilise the country turned a blind eye to ISIS activity and that those officials’ dismissal strengthened Turkey’s counter-terrorist fight across the board. Turkish officials say they foiled ten major ISIS attacks in 2018 alone, seizing bomb-making materials, suicide vests, hand grenades and other weapons.[fn]Details shared in a book titled 2018’de Türkiye (Turkey in 2018), published by the pro-government SETA foundation (Istanbul, 2019).Hide Footnote Critics of the governments argue that in reality, Ankara simply did not count ISIS as a major danger before 2016. It was only then that attacks began to take a toll on the Turkish economy and, in the case of the May 2016 attack on a Gaziantep police station, to target state institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, analysts, lawyers and opposition party affiliates, Ankara and Istanbul, summer and fall 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Turkey’s Response

1. Policing

Law enforcement officials rely on widespread surveillance of known ISIS operatives and two- to four-day detentions (which can be extended to up to twelve days under certain conditions). Short-term detentions usually target people who come into contact with individuals under surveillance. Turkish security services say short detentions of individuals deemed susceptible to overtures by ISIS deter them from engaging with the group.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish security officials, Ankara and Istanbul, July-October 2019.Hide Footnote  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on 10 October 2019 that so far 17,000 people had been detained for suspected links with ISIS (it is unclear if this number includes duplicates, in that the same person is detained more than once in a given time period).[fn]“DEAŞ’a en büyük darbe Türkiye’den” [Turkey country to deal biggest blow to Daesh], TRT Haber, 12 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Officials say the detentions send a clear warning to those contemplating violent acts that they can be caught at any time.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish security official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  “It has proven effective to intimidate people who are just making first contact and are not yet entrenched”, an adviser to the interior ministry said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, theologian working closely with interior ministry, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Whether this contention is accurate is hard to assess.

Turkey’s heavy focus on surveillance and periodic catch-and-release detentions is resource-intensive. It rarely leads to prosecution, and risks aggravating grievances and feeding persecution narratives among some groups.[fn]“While it is true short-term detentions deter engagement in violence, they also increase grievances among the broad set of groups the Turkish state is targeting. Their anti-state feelings are pent up as a result. It does not seem to be a durable solution”. Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  “The sense of being watched all the time fuels anti-state sentiments and increases anger”, a lawyer representing individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes said.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  One mid-level official warned that surveillance and short-term detentions also risk pushing some individuals further underground.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, April 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkey’s interior ministry should review their effectiveness.

2. Prosecution

The number of prosecutions related to ISIS links has increased in recent years but remains a fraction of the estimated returnee population.

A lack of evidence is a challenge in Turkey, as it is elsewhere, though Turkey has some advantages in obtaining evidence due to its forces’ presence in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote Evidence gathered by intelligence agencies is only admissible in court for terrorism-related cases and then only if additional, legally obtained evidence exists.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, lawyer based in Istanbul, 22 January 2020; lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  A lawyer defending individuals accused of ISIS-related crimes said overstretched cybercrime police units have rarely processed digital evidence against clients in time for trials, particularly in the months after the July 2016 coup attempt.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, 3 April 2020 and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Pictures and video clips on seized telephones that his clients feared would be used against them rarely make it to court, although they have appeared more frequently in the last two years.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, 3 April 2020 and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote  Prosecutors in Turkey do, however, have an easier time than counterparts in other countries finding witnesses from among returnees to testify against defendants.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  They can also sometimes gain access to ISIS-issued identification documents seized at the border or in Turkey and draw upon testimony collected at police stations in areas in Turkish-controlled northern Syria.

Lawyers of both defendants and victims in ISIS attack cases claim that prosecutors in the past – particularly during the 2015 attacks – were not diligent in investigations.

Most ISIS returnees who go on trial are sentenced to between five and ten years for membership in a terrorist organisation – although in practice many serve only three or four years behind bars.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote Sentences can be reduced by a year or two during prosecution if the judge believes the defendant shows remorse or for other mitigating factors. Inmates may also be released early for good behaviour after serving three quarters of their sentence.[fn]See Mehmet Gün, “New criminal execution law: for reform or COVID-19?”, Yetkin Report, 14 April 2020Hide Footnote Other returnees receive softer sentences of one to six months in jail or a fine for crossing the border illegally; between one and five years on charges of possessing illegal arms; or between one and eight years for possessing hazardous substances or providing support to or promoting a terrorist group. “Those calling the shots behind the scenes and carrying out recruitment/indoctrination work are usually not targeted because it is difficult to connect their activity to the criminal act committed”, one lawyer said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, one of the lawyers of the victims of the ISIS bombings in Suruç and Ankara, Istanbul, July 2019.Hide Footnote In some cases, ISIS suspects are given reduced sentences under an “active remorse” clause if they agree to share information.[fn]A person accused of terrorism can be acquitted if after being caught, provided there is no evidence of a crime committed, he/she expresses remorse and agrees to share valuable information that helps security services catch other members of the organisation or dismantle it. An acquittal decision can also be made if there is evidence of a crime committed and the individual turns himself/herself in and shares information on the organisation’s structure and its criminal activities. If a person involved in criminal activities agrees to cooperate after being caught by security services, his/her sentence can be reduced by one third to three quarters. See Turkish Penal Code.Hide Footnote

Lawyers of both defendants and victims in ISIS attack cases claim that prosecutors in the past – particularly during the 2015 attacks – were not diligent in investigations, whether due to a lack of resources, a focus on higher-priority cases or a desire to protect informants or glean further intelligence from suspects let loose.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Ankara, July 2019; and by telephone, 3 April and 30 May 2020.Hide Footnote Lawyers for one defendant and for several victims in the trial of Turkish citizens involved in the attacks on the Kurdish movement have accused prosecutors of not using their discretion to investigate the suspects’ links to other alleged ISIS militants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Ankara, July 2019 and October 2019.Hide Footnote  Both said the attacks’ true masterminds could have been arrested with deeper investigation.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Lawyers for victims in the trial of Orhan Gönder (and four other suspects) for the June 2015 Diyarbakır bombing said prosecutors took years to comply with their request to admit evidence consisting of footage of the bombers’ movements before the attack.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyers of victims, Istanbul, September 2019. For details of the case, see “Suruç davası: Mahkeme ‘tanık’ imam hakkında suç duyurusunda bulundu” [The Suruç case: Court files criminal complaint against ‘witness’ imam], Artı Gerçek, 7 August 2019.Hide Footnote They also accuse prosecutors of failing to act on requests to bring charges against a local imam, Abdullah Ömer Aslan, against whom a judge eventually filed a criminal case, after his deposition in court as a witness in the case.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The relatively low number of prosecutions of ISIS suspects increases the number of individuals under watch by security agencies, but some Turkish officials see this tactic as effective policing – a way to cast a wider net. A Turkish security analyst said releasing ISIS suspects can be an effective way to track ISIS networks, identifying other suspects by monitoring the individual.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst with extensive experience studying al-Qaeda and ISIS, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Turkish local police keep tabs on suspects if no court ruling requires more extensive surveillance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, interior ministry official, Ankara, October 2019.Hide Footnote A court can authorise stepped-up surveillance, for up to six months, with monthly extensions after the first two months.[fn]See Turkish Criminal Procedures Code.Hide Footnote In practice, however, police can ignore this rule and extend surveillance when it comes to terror suspects, and judges may use discretion in admitting evidence in cases linked to national security.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer based in Istanbul, 22 January 2020.Hide Footnote

The success of this approach appears mixed. Releasing suspects in the hope that they will reveal ISIS networks may be effective, if suspects can be properly monitored. In the words of the same security analyst: “Flies will come to the sugar”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, analyst with extensive experience studying al-Qaeda and ISIS, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Other official sources make the same argument.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Istanbul, fall and winter 2019.Hide Footnote But there have been cases in which key figures were released and fled to Syria. Hasan Aydın, for example, was briefly taken into custody in 2015 while trying to take military equipment, including a drone, from the southern province of Hatay into Syria. He later appeared on the 2016 video in which ISIS militants in Syria burned two Turkish soldiers alive.[fn]“ISIS executioner who burned two Turkish soldiers alive in sick video is killed in a firefight in Syria”, Daily Mail Online, 4 July 2018. “Türkiye’yi tehdit eden IŞİD’li 2 kez gözaltına alınıp serbest bırakıldı” [ISIS member who has threatened Turkey, was detained and released twice], TimeTurk, 21 January 2017.Hide Footnote In another high-profile case, Musa Göktaş, the first person to be convicted for being part of ISIS in Turkey in May 2015, returned to Syria after being released for “good behaviour” after his conviction (which was awaiting appeal). He is suspected of helping plot the October 2015 Ankara railway station bombing.[fn]“‘İyi hal’den tahliye olan o IŞİD’li yeniden örgüte katıldı” [ISIS member released on ‘good conduct’ joined the organisation again], Internet Haber, 19 November 2017. “Türkiye’de tutuklanan ilk IŞİD’li, tahliye edildi, tekrar örgüte katıldı” [The first ISIS member arrested in Turkey, was released and rejoined the organisation], Duvar, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote Particularly among opposition segments, such cases lowered public confidence in the authorities’ judgment of the threat posed by released ISIS operatives.[fn]In interviews, lawyers representing victims of ISIS attacks expressed how such cases had fuelled the already deep mistrust toward the state among clients and their circles. Crisis Group interviews, lawyers of victims of ISIS attacks, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

The judiciary has taken a more lenient approach toward ISIS-affiliated returnee women due to a widespread perception that women simply follow men’s orders and have little agency. As of the end of 2019, only around 50 women – including both Turkish nationals and foreigners – were in prison on ISIS-related charges.[fn]“Hapiste 40 ülkeden DEAŞ’lı var”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Most of those detained are subsequently released pending trial, and few are ultimately sentenced. The court’s verdict in the trial of the wife of dead ISIS Gaziantep emir Mehmet Kadir Cabael is emblematic of this thinking. A panel of three judges in the Kayseri 4th Heavy Penal Court acquitted Fadile Cabael on charges of belonging to ISIS in April 2019, saying that “DEAŞ does not accept women as group members. On the contrary, it sees them as goods, the only job of women is housekeeping, raising children and serving their husbands”.[fn]“Turkish court acquits ISIL emir’s wife in Gaziantep attack”, Hürriyet, 19 April 2019. Turkish authorities usually use the acronym “DEAŞ” in referring to ISIS.Hide Footnote Only in a few rare high-profile cases were the wives of ISIS members involved in attacks in Turkey charged with “membership”, “knowingly and wilfully aiding an armed terrorist organisation” or “failure to report crime”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.
Hide Footnote

While women’s roles as prescribed by ISIS were largely domestic, the full picture is more complex. While rare in Turkey, examples of women making their own way to ISIS or playing roles in plotting attacks in Turkey suggest that judicial officials should not assume they are simply foils for their husbands. A former police chief in the Şanlıurfa border province said he had electronically monitored a Turkish woman who was “waiting for her child to reach six years old, and then would carry out a suicide attack”.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote In reality, women are not a homogeneous group and have various reasons for joining and diverse roles within ISIS. While it is true that militant circles are male-dominated and patriarchal, women returnees can play supportive roles in propagating the group’s ideology and recruiting upon return. The authorities need not take a more draconian approach to women if they correct the faulty assumptions. But Turkey’s justice ministry could help raise awareness about the diversity of women’s roles among judicial professionals dealing with ISIS cases.

That overstretched courts and difficulties collecting evidence hamper prosecution of ISIS suspects could mean that militants who slip through the cracks of the justice system subsequently commit attacks. As described, that has happened in the past. In 2014-2015, ISIS operatives who were released by courts pending trial – rather than being tried while remanded – later joined ISIS in Syria and played key roles for the group in Turkey.

When, after 2016, the security services took a tougher approach to ISIS, prosecutors followed suit with more detailed investigations and more caution regarding releases pending trial. While longer sentencing is not necessarily the answer, case-by-case risk assessments from police and prison officials on the threat level ISIS affiliates pose could help inform criminal justice decisions. An April 2020 amendment to Turkey’s penal execution law requires that more detailed assessments be made to evaluate the “good behaviour” of inmates, including through interviews with other inmates and prison wardens, before granting early release. It also affords more authority to enforcement judges (infaz hakimi) to gauge inmates’ attitudes and behaviours in deciding on early release.[fn]“İnfaz kanunu: İyi hal de yeniden düzenleniyor” [Criminal execution law: Changes will also apply to clauses on good behaviour], Duvar, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote

This change mirrors efforts in other countries that have put in place new models for prison authorities to communicate with probation officers and law enforcement when people they regard as dangerous are released on probation. Italy’s prison agency, for example, provides such reports to judges, law enforcement and other authorities in advance of a militant’s release, which helps inform decisions about allocating additional police resources or potentially, if the person is a foreigner, deportation on national security grounds.[fn]See Lorenzo Vidino et al., “Il carcere e il suo paradosso: bacino di reclutamento per aspiranti mujaheddin e garanzia di riabilitazione per i detenuti” in De-Radicalizzazione” [“Prisons and their Paradox: Recruitment Ground for Aspiring Mujahidin and Rehabilitation of Prisoners”], Journal of the Italian Intelligence Community (June 2018).Hide Footnote

3. Prisons

Halting the spread of ISIS networks in prisons, where around 1,150 men and 50 women are being held for ISIS-related crimes, is a major concern for Turkish officials, as it is for counterparts abroad. Inmates may form relationships, even during short detentions, and accrue status in prison. “People from different parts of the country whose chance of knowing each other was otherwise low are thrown together in the same cell”, said a lawyer who regularly visits ISIS-affiliated clients in prison.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, lawyer defending individuals charged with ISIS-related crimes in Turkey, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote  Many ISIS members cast time behind bars as medrese-i Yusufiye, a school for learning the virtues born of trials that may improve one’s prospects in the afterlife, referring to the prophet Yusuf, whose tale of unjust imprisonment appears in the Quran.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019. A source close to Salafis said “the concept of gaining religious credibility with time served in prison is common among Takfiri Salafi circles”. Crisis Group telephone interview, June 2020.
Hide Footnote
 (This conceptualisation of time in prison is not particular to ISIS or other militant groups, but is also adopted by peaceful Islamic movements.) ISIS inmates see any state attempt “to get them to do social activities or rehabilitation in prison as [an] effort to detach them from DEAŞ and diminish their positive afterlife prospects”, a Turkish justice ministry official said, alluding to the difficulty of meaningful state interventions in prison.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

There are dangers both in isolating ISIS-linked convicts and in not doing so.

Over the last decade, Turkey has isolated suspects or offenders entering prison on charges of terrorism from other prisoners. They are placed in separate wings of high-security prisons, to the extent that capacity allows, in one- to ten-person cells with other inmates linked to groups that share the same ideology. Members of organisations with different ideologies (mainly PKK, “FETÖ” and ISIS) are separated to “prevent contagion and avert potential physical violence between them”, according to a Turkish justice ministry official.[fn]These cells usually have a kitchen upstairs and a small courtyard accessible during certain hours of the day. Crisis Group interview, justice ministry officials, Ankara, July 2019. As of the end of 2019, out of a total prison population of around 300,000, some 41,000 inmates charged with terrorism-related crimes (convicts or arrestees pending trial) were imprisoned in Turkey. This number included some 1,150 Turkish men and 50 women jailed for alleged ISIS-related crimes, some 28,000-30,000 for alleged “FETÖ”-linked activities and 8,000-10,000 for alleged PKK involvement.Hide Footnote Where possible, inmates are also grouped according to their seniority in their respective organisations.[fn]This decision is taken either by respective courts or by prison managers after observations in the prison (through cameras or intelligence officers in prisons). Crisis Group interview, justice ministry officials, Ankara, September 2019.Hide Footnote In prisons with limited space, ISIS inmates are placed in larger cells of 20-25 people.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, returnees, May 2020.Hide Footnote Due to overcrowding, officials say, this containment policy is not always possible.[fn]Crisis Group interview, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Women’s prisons often have only twenty-person cells, and women held for ISIS-related crimes are often mixed in with others.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, justice ministry official, Ankara, July 2019; lawyer, Istanbul, September 2019.Hide Footnote That said, the release of around 90,000 prisoners (out of a total of 300,000) in mid-March 2020 due to COVID-19 risks may have created more space. No one charged with terrorism was let go.[fn]“Turkish dissidents remain jailed as thousands of inmates are released to avoid prison epidemic”, Washington Post, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote

There are dangers both in isolating ISIS-linked convicts and in not doing so. Separating them from the larger prison population might help prevent the propagation of their ideology. “Many regular inmates turn to Islam for consolation when they are incarcerated. Being exposed to extremist interpretations at that stage could lead to bigger problems”, the above-mentioned justice ministry official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Isolating ISIS inmates in small-group cells carries its own risks, however. Jailing like-minded individuals together can foster bonds, lead to more ideologically committed members influencing less devoted ones, and make it more difficult for inmates to resocialise upon release.[fn]Of the incarcerated perpetrators of the Suruç attack, a few of the young men were merely fixers, arranging transport and accommodation for the bomber. But because the indictment notes them as charged with an ISIS-related crime, they are placed with the ISIS militants in prison. Crisis Group interview, lawyer of convicted perpetrator Orhan Gönder, October 2019, Ankara. One NGO network outlines the following disadvantages of the containment approach: new and stronger bonds forged among prisoners; eroded trust between staff and prisoners; entrenched oppositional mindset; perceptions of unfairness reinforced; labelling effects/stigmatisation; status associated with being in a special unit; all violent extremists assumed to be of equal risk; difficulties finding staff; high financial cost. “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – Prison and Probation Interventions”, Radicalisation Awareness Network, 2018. Also see “Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism”, Council of Europe, 1 December 2016.
Hide Footnote
Either option can harden the beliefs of either the ISIS convict or his or her fellow cellmates.

Beyond containment measures, imams are made available to inmates but only on a voluntary basis. Diyanet has 600 imams, 70 of them women, on duty at prisons to teach, lead prayer and officiate at funerals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, justice ministry and Diyanet officials, Ankara, July-September 2019.Hide Footnote Their effectiveness at countering narratives that promote violence is limited by a lack of specialised training and because in ISIS inmates’ eyes they are extensions of the tağut state.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Turkish returnees who were imprisoned for a period of time, May 2020.Hide Footnote Most militants reject any form of religious counselling.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Turkish returnees who were imprisoned for a period of time, May 2020; lawyer of ISIS suspects, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote For those who are open to discussion of religion, the state could design programs involving specialised psychosocial workers alongside vetted Islamic scholars, perhaps with support from former militants, whom evidence from elsewhere suggests can more easily build trust with ISIS inmates.[fn]In Indonesia, for instance, the prison program is run by former inmates who may not have much religious knowledge but are nevertheless regarded as “credible”, if not “charismatic”, by many of the prisoners, in particular those they had personally recruited or trained. See, for instance, Cameron Sumpter, “Countering Violent Extremism in Indonesia: Priorities, Practice and the Role of Civil Society”, Journal for Deradicalization, vol. 11 (Summer 2017) pp. 112-147.Hide Footnote Authorities might also look into programs that can help inmates acquire new professional skills. Investing in day-to-day staff-inmate relationships has proven to be key in dealing with jailed jihadists in other places.[fn]See “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism – Prison and Probation Interventions”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The justice ministry should coordinate with the family ministry to explore whether and how to design programs aimed at preventing former militants from returning to ISIS after their release.

Turkish authorities have taken other initiatives to ensure that inmates convicted for terrorist offenses are held in conditions that mitigate rather than exacerbate the danger they pose. A two-year EU-funded Twinning project brings together Spanish and Turkish officials to develop systematic rehabilitation services for inmates under arrest for or convicted of terror-related crimes.[fn]The two-year Twinning project’s aim is to develop counter-radicalisation measures in Turkish prisons. An adviser to the project said: “The project has four components: alignment of Turkey’s legal framework (which is already quite good); dissemination of a concept called ‘dynamic security’; a treatment program and risk assessment tool; and training for correctional officers and prison managers”. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019. The project was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.Hide Footnote The project includes a needs analysis phase during which participants review legislation and develop risk assessment tools for training correctional officers and prison managers. Turkish officials involved welcomed the project but were sceptical that foreigners were sufficiently versed in local realities to offer recommendations. The different demographics of inmates and the different ways diverse militant groups recruit make it hard to transplant policies from one context to another. The Turkish government should, however, continue dialogue with European capitals, who have an interest in improving conditions in jails where many of their own citizens who joined ISIS are held, to exchange best practices.

The justice ministry should coordinate with the family ministry to explore whether and how to design programs aimed at preventing former militants from returning to ISIS after their release.[fn]Justice ministry representatives themselves told Crisis Group that they felt the need for such collaboration. Crisis Group interview, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote How incarceration influences the risk of recidivism for offenders remains an area of debate and is understudied in Turkey. Where appropriate, the family ministry could carry out visits to families to help evaluate whether they can be helpful, on a voluntary basis, in reintegration. It could also offer guidance on how to best communicate with relatives behind bars during regular visitations and after their release. If such programs do take place, they should rely on baseline studies and be piloted.

4. Social policy

Outside the prison system, different ministries say they lack clarity about which should take the lead on efforts to help returnees reintegrate and prevent them, or indeed others, from turning or returning to militancy.

Overseeing the work of all legally registered mosques and imams in the country, the Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, promotes Islam as a religion of peace, which it says is important for countering jihadist narratives. It also publishes anti-ISIS messages in books, pamphlets, seminars and Friday sermons. In the words of one Diyanet official: “Our mandate is enlightening society about Islam; therefore, everything we do shields against terror organisations that exploit religion”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyanet representatives, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote Diyanet officials add that their advocacy of family values is in itself a prevention mechanism, in that strong family bonds can provide some protection from militant recruitment. They have no defined policy intervention for returnees or their families. The Diyanet also groups “FETÖ” and ISIS together in one basket as “terrorist organisations exploiting religion”.[fn]See, for instance, “Dini İstismar Eden Terör Örgütleriyle Mücadele Seminerleri” [Seminars on Fighting Terrorist Organisations That Exploit Religion], video, Diyanet TV, n.d.Hide Footnote Conflating the two would hinder efforts to devise more targeted policies, were the ministry to undertake them.

The Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services (FLSS) is tasked with dealing with women and children returnees, but by law has no mandate to extend support to adult men. Even with women and children it gets involved only when security agencies invite it to do so. “We are not there yet”, said one high-level ministry official. “We are at the security response stage”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, deputy FLSS minister, Ankara, October 2019.
Hide Footnote
The ministry is charged with mental health support and other initiatives for some 200 children of ISIS-affiliated adults repatriated from prisons in Iraq in mid-2019.[fn]The Maya Foundation partners with the FLSS ministry to work with Syrian children to this end, but no such arrangement has been possible for Turkish citizens. Crisis Group interview, Maya Foundation representatives, Istanbul, September 2019. While some NGOs have been developing know-how in dealing with war trauma and extremist indoctrination working with Syrian refugee children in Turkey, they need significant capacity building in this respect. Crisis Group interviews, Turkish NGO representatives of professional psychosocial services who have witnessed FLSS ministry social workers in action, September 2019, Istanbul.Hide Footnote It does not divulge details of those programs.

In the absence of official guidance, families of returnees of all ages have found ways of coping. Children have often ended up with extended families. Some families have kept relatives’ involvement a secret; others rejected those who had joined ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local authority, Istanbul, November 2016. This official said he personally knew a few families who had spurned children returning from ISIS-held territory. The youths had to move to other cities. “These people are going to be trouble for the country in the future, because their family did not take them back”, he added.Hide Footnote “We took away his cell phone and web access”, said the cousin of a Diyarbakır-based returnee, who had worked as a state imam before going to Syria. “We are watching him but don’t really see any signs of him becoming less radical”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Diyarbakır, July 2019.
Hide Footnote

The Diyanet and the FLSS ministry could consider some of the “soft measures” other countries have developed to deal with returnees. In particular, they might test whether imams and social workers, who often have better access to returnee families than other state authorities, could play more of a role. To be sure, there are potential pitfalls in their doing so. State imams may not be the best placed to pull young people away from militancy. If they and social workers do get involved, they would have to guard against being suspected of surveillance on the state’s behalf: Turkish officials across ministries appear to recognise that the interior ministry would likely have to coordinate any additional policies toward returnees both locally and at the national level.[fn]Belgium provides one example of how central and local coordination could be structured: Belgian authorities work through the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment (CUTA), which deals with the evaluation and coordination of a threat. The line ministry in charge of CUTA is the interior ministry. CUTA has about 80 staff members from different ministries and works with local task forces that include social workers. When authorities identify people who leave Belgium to fight in jihadist wars, they inform CUTA. When the fighters come back, CUTA decides on a case-by-case basis which measures to take. For each returnee, CUTA determines whether the police, justice or intelligence are in charge. Local mayors and social workers are consulted in decisions on case-by-case approaches. For more information, see “What is the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment?” on CUTA’s website.Hide Footnote Still, in some instances, families have sought imams’ or other local religious leaders’ support. Diyanet and interior ministry officials argue that imams should develop expertise in engaging people who reference the Quran to justify violence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Diyanet and interior ministry officials, Ankara, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Outside the prison system, different ministries say they lack clarity about which should take the lead on efforts to help returnees reintegrate and prevent them.

The ministry already has a program, called Informing and Preventing Activities (abbreviated as BÖF in Turkish), focused on stopping youth from joining groups the Turkish state designates as terrorist. Under this program, Turkish officials say, police work with social workers and psychologists to offer “off-ramps” to youths reported by their families or flagged by security services. In other words, they provide opportunities for extracurricular activities, jobs or psychosocial support that might help prevent them from joining militant groups.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, former interior ministry official, September 2019.Hide Footnote The program has, however, primarily been geared toward preventing PKK recruitment. Overall, its success appears to have been limited.

Whether such programs could be applied to those vulnerable to ISIS recruitment is an open question. Some families, who in 2014 saw their sons and daughters being drawn into ISIS-linked circles, told Crisis Group they had reported their children to police but received no support. They said police had told them that unless a crime is committed, they had no role. The interior ministry could consider what programs designed to provide vulnerable youth alternatives to militancy might look like and whether they would give families who approach the authorities worried about kin being recruited by jihadists the support they need. Efforts along those lines might be more effective than locking people up for a few days in the hope that jail deters them. They would need to thoroughly assess the effectiveness of the BÖF program and identify neighbourhood-level actors who might have the necessary influence and could usefully be involved.

IV. Conclusion

Thousands of Turkish citizens have returned from ISIS-held territories in Syria and Iraq. Intensive Turkish policing over the past few years appears to have disrupted potential attacks and helped keep in check those still committed to militancy. But maintaining that so-far successful effort will require the Turkish state’s sustained attention and investment. The jihadist landscape’s evolution outside Turkey’s borders could affect militancy inside the country. If ISIS gains ground in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, for example, or other jihadist groups fighting in Syria, such as HTS, turn against Turkey, returnees are among the most likely to mobilise against the state. The risk could grow further if a regime offensive in Syria’s last rebel-held bastion in Idlib prompts many more militants to cross into Turkey, stretching the capacity of security services monitoring domestic and foreign ISIS returnees. Those in Turkey who were thwarted in their plans to join ISIS may also pose a lingering threat. Authorities should develop policies across the board aimed at ensuring that returnees refrain from violence and reintegrate safely into society.

Appendix A: List of ISIS Attacks in Turkey and Corresponding Court Cases

The list is available here.

Two villagers discuss their difficulties with United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) soldiers, near Menaka, Mali, on 25 October 2021. FLORENT VERGNES / AFP
Report 306 / Africa

Mali: Enabling Dialogue with the Jihadist Coalition JNIM

Authorities in Mali seem to be considering negotiations with Jamaat Nusratul Islam wal-Muslimin, the country’s largest Islamist insurgency. Pursuing talks will be a tall order, given the stakes and the group’s al-Qaeda connection. Both the government and the militants should begin with incremental steps.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Principal Findings

What’s new? The Malian government has expressed willingness to explore dialogue with Islamist insurgents, some of whom have sent reciprocal conciliatory signals. Previous talks among communal leaders, militants and militiamen yielded several local ceasefires that eased suffering in rural areas. Yet no one has taken steps to prepare high-level negotiations.

Why does it matter? Thousands have died as Mali’s conflict grinds on. Both the army and the jihadists are taking increasingly heavy losses, but neither party appears capable of securing military victory. Ethnic violence is spiralling. Foreign partners are showing signs of exasperation with the country’s interlocking security and political crises.

What should be done? The Malian government and those jihadists who have said they will talk should strengthen their commitment to dialogue. Ideally, to this end they would defuse resistance among elites and foreign partners, appoint negotiating teams and possibly even agree on a mediator.

Executive Summary

Both Mali’s government and the country’s largest jihadist grouping, Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), say they want to talk about ending their bloody conflict. Yet neither party has taken steps to make dialogue happen. After eight years of fighting, the government and its external partners lack a convincing military strategy for concluding the war. Talks could allow the government to cut deals with jihadists that would save lives. But officials face major obstacles, not least their own division over the notion of such negotiations. France, Mali’s most important ally, opposes dialogue. JNIM, meanwhile, says foreign forces must withdraw before it will talk, deepening the other side’s reluctance to engage. But with rural militias proliferating and elite squabbles prompting two coups in 2021 to date, the demoralised public is swinging behind dialogue. So as not to rush into talks unprepared, the government and JNIM should first unify their ranks and think through their positions on key issues, particularly the role of Islam in state and society. They should also name negotiation teams and agree upon a mediator.

JNIM is a coalition of four jihadist groups formed in 2017 that operates from rural strongholds scattered throughout northern and central Mali. It is an al-Qaeda affiliate, but most of its constituent elements are under Malian command. For a time, JNIM made significant headway in capturing territory, but the conflict appears to have reached an impasse, with both sides inflicting and incurring heavy losses. The coalition nominally seeks to impose its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on both state and society. In practice, however, the militants have thus far adopted a largely pragmatic approach, ruling through a system of shadow governance that allows for a degree of local autonomy. They have also agreed to ad hoc ceasefires with self-defence militias. These agreements secured at least a temporary lull in combat in several areas.

For years, the [Malian] government nixed the idea of dialogue with militants, but lately it has begun rethinking.

For years, the government nixed the idea of dialogue with militants, but lately it has begun rethinking its opposition due to bad news from the front and political instability in the capital. Early in 2020, following an outcry over unprecedented mass killings of civilians and soldiers, then President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta said he was ready to engage with militants. JNIM responded positively within weeks. The junta that ousted Keïta in a coup a few months later named a civilian prime minister, Moctar Ouane, who spelled out ways to pursue dialogue in the government’s action plan. The coup makers removed Ouane, too, in May 2021, but his successor must still contend with a public that has become dissatisfied with the purely military approach to dealing with insurgents. Foreign partners have grown impatient with Mali’s political turmoil. France, for its part, announced that it will reduce its military footprint in the Sahel and hand over responsibility for the anti-jihadist fight to the European Task Force Takuba. Meanwhile, Malian politicians, activists and religious leaders are bickering over how to resolve the conflict.

Talks are by no means guaranteed, and, if they do happen, are unlikely to bring immediate relief to a suffering Malian population. Many politicians, civil society representatives and religious leaders harbour deep reservations. The concerns are widespread, even among Malian officials who have helped shape dialogue policies in recent years. JNIM leaders, while showing an interest in talking, are hard to pin down about what compromises they might accept. France’s rejection of dialogue with JNIM’s top leadership – in the words of French officials, those “responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians and … Sahelian, European and international soldiers” – poses another challenge. Finally, and most importantly, neither the Malian government nor the jihadists have determined what they want to talk about and how or where such talks could take place. Yet, as it becomes obvious that the conflict has no military solution, the government could at least begin exploring engagement with militants as part of its search for an alternative way forward.

To this end, the Malian government and the jihadists can take steps to bolster their commitment to peace talks. Malian authorities should seize upon fatigue with the anti-jihadist fight as an opportunity to take the lead in promoting efforts toward a political settlement. Four concrete measures could render dialogue a more viable option:

  • The Malian government and the jihadists should work to overcome suspicions of dialogue within their respective ranks. The government will need to engage in shuttle diplomacy to convince sceptics, in particular France, that engaging with JNIM is worthwhile, given the flaws of existing policy. The Malian authorities should reassure foreign partners that a settlement with JNIM will entail at least the latter’s commitment not to attack foreign interests in Mali or use Malian soil to plot attacks abroad. In addition, the government should get the insurgents to pledge that, to the extent possible, they will stop other militants from carrying out such attacks.
  • The government and JNIM’s leaders can signal their seriousness about talks by appointing credible, inclusive negotiating teams. Neither the government nor JNIM has said who might represent it at the table. Designating teams could kickstart the process. The teams could define strategies, set the agenda for talks and conduct negotiations at a later stage.
  • Before embarking on talks, the Malian government should facilitate a public debate on the role of Islam in state and society, which could help draw the contours of possible compromises and trade-offs between authorities and the JNIM leadership. Both sides should then use the outcome of this debate to think through their own positions before entering talks.
  • Dialogue between the government and jihadists is likely to encounter obstacles that a mediator will have to help them surmount. The two sides will need to agree upon a trustworthy third party, ideally a neutral country with experience in facilitating similar negotiations, to serve in this capacity.

Dialogue is worth pursuing, notwithstanding enormous challenges. The gap between the two sides’ positions is yawning, and the task of negotiating a comprehensive settlement may seem impossible. Just talking to militants may seem a tall order, politically speaking, given some of their stated goals and their al-Qaeda connection. Even if JNIM has shown some pragmatism while fighting an insurgency, it is unclear whether that would extend to compromises off the battlefield. Many Malians oppose its draconian interpretation of Islam. But the present approach is clearly not working: without a change in tack, civilians in much of the country will remain caught up in a violent struggle between militants and security forces. The incremental steps outlined above could pave the way to at least exploring whether a negotiated settlement is a feasible option, and the cost of finding out would not necessarily be steep. Given the worsening instability wracking much of Mali, these steps are at least worth a try.

Bamako/Dakar/Brussels, 10 December 2021

Congress of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Kidal, 29 November to 3 December 2019. CRISIS GROUP / Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim

I. Introduction

The war in Mali is at a crossroads. Locked in a mutually hurting stalemate – at least as long as Mali’s foreign partners maintain their military presence – the Malian government and leaders of the jihadist coalition Jama’at Nusratul Islam wal Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM), have expressed cautious interest in negotiations as an alternative to settling their conflict by military means. After eschewing talks for years, former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (2013-2020) changed tack in February 2020, saying his government would “explore the path” of dialogue with jihadists.[fn]“Exclusif : Le président malien confirme l’ouverture d’un dialogue avec les chefs djihadistes”, France 24, 10 February 2020.Hide Footnote  A few weeks later, JNIM issued a statement welcoming the decision, albeit conditioning its engagement on the withdrawal of foreign troops from Mali.[fn]“On calls for negotiations”, Al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 8 March 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  Following Keïta’s ouster in an August 2020 coup, Mali’s interim government has sent mixed signals on prospects for dialogue.[fn]Marc Perelman and David Baché, “L’entretien : ‘le dialogue avec les terroristes est une volonté des maliens’ assure le premier ministre”, France 24, 3 December 2020.Hide Footnote  Both the Malian authorities and jihadist leaders had previously rejected talks as a matter of principle.[fn]On 21 August 2017, Hamadoun Koufa, a JNIM leader, responded to a reported invitation to enter peace talks in Bamako by saying: “What dialogue? What are we going to bargain for in this dialogue? Is God for bargaining? God cannot be bargained [about]. … Either we prevail and establish the will of God or we perish”. Audio recording on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

The sides’ apparent willingness to talk is a positive step, but domestic and international support for negotiations is far from guaranteed. Malian secular elites, Sufi Muslim scholars and human rights activists have expressed concern about dialogue with jihadists, whose vision for the country contravenes Mali’s secular constitution.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°276, Speaking with the Bad Guys: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote  France, which leads anti-jihadist military operations in Mali but plans to almost halve its troop deployment, rejects negotiations with jihadist leaders.[fn]“Emmanuel Macron, confidences en Afrique”, Le Journal de Dimanche, 30 May 2021.Hide Footnote  If they do engage in talks, the Malian government and jihadist leadership would be entering uncharted territory, having taken no concrete preparatory steps. Both sides risk alienating allies. Furthermore, neither party has determined how to conduct negotiations, what they want to talk about or, most importantly, which compromises they might be willing to accept in seeking a political settlement.

This report is part of a series exploring policies aimed at curbing jihadist violence in central Sahelian countries. In particular, it builds on a 2019 report that gauged the possibility of dialogue with militants in central Mali.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the Bad Guys: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists, op. cit.Hide Footnote  While the previous report focused on the Katiba Macina, one of JNIM’s members, this report analyses prospects for dialogue between the Malian government and JNIM’s Malian top commanders. The report takes as a starting point that both state officials and jihadists have shown openness to talks. Its primary goal is thus not to convince the parties to engage in dialogue with one another. Nor does it provide a roadmap of how they can conduct negotiations, as these details must come later. Rather its aim is intermediate: to get the protagonists to move from manifesting an interest in dialogue to creating the conditions wherein talks can actually take place.

The report looks solely at Mali and only at options for talking to JNIM rather than other militants. It is in Mali where JNIM’s presence is largest and the fighting between it and government forces fiercest. Malian officials have also publicly acknowledged that they would consider dialogue with JNIM’s leadership. Though JNIM is active in Niger and Burkina Faso, its objectives in those countries are less clear than in Mali and prospects for talks with its leadership much slimmer.[fn]While JNIM has carried out attacks throughout the Sahel, many of its statements focus on Mali. JNIM has described its attacks outside Mali as retaliation for the countries’ involvement in counter-terrorism operations in Mali. See “Fifteen dead and huge spoils in a sweeping attack on a Bamako government military outpost in Boni, and a message to the French elites and people after the recent DGSE leaks days before the N’Djamena summit”, Al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 12 February 2021 (Arabic). In Niger, JNIM’s presence, while steadily expanding, is small, and dialogue with it is not a government priority. In Burkina Faso, the presence of large Christian and animist communities as well as the absence of Burkinabé nationals among JNIM’s top leadership constrict the government’s leeway to engage with jihadists (though authorities have shown some openness to talking to militants about temporary, local ceasefire agreements). President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré said: “We will not negotiate with those who want to see Burkina Faso disintegrate and undermine our coexistence”. Sophie Douce, “Negocier avec les djihadistes ? Au Burkina Faso, une option de moins en moins taboue”, Le Monde, 10 February 2021. Crisis Group interview, officials and mediators involved in talks with local jihadist recruits, Ouagadougou, March 2021. See also Crisis Group’s forthcoming briefing on local dialogue between the state and jihadists in Burkina Faso.Hide Footnote  Al­though JNIM is not the only jihadist group in Mali, so far Malian officials view it as their only possible militant interlocutor. They exclude the second biggest group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), because until recently its leaders – its top leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui was killed in a French airstrike in August 2021 – were foreigners and its combat tactics particularly brutal.[fn]JNIM’s top commander, Iyad ag Ghaly, is a Malian Tuareg from the Kidal region, whereas ISGS commander Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui was originally from Western Sahara. See Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim and Jean-Hervé Jezequel, “The Death of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s Leader: An Opportunity for Dialogue?”, Crisis Group Commentary, 19 October 2021.Hide Footnote  ISGS leaders, for their part, have expressed no interest in talks, either.[fn]ISGS rejected the idea of dialogue and condemned JNIM for agreeing to enter talks with “infidels”. In an interview published after his demise, Abu Walid vehemently denounced al-Qaeda for its dialogue with regional states and its commitment not to attack states such as Algeria and Mauritania. See “Interview with Sheikh Abu al-Walid al-Saharaoui – May Allah accept him”, Al-Naba, 14 October 2021.Hide Footnote

The report is based on dozens of interviews with Malian officials, diplomats, and current or former JNIM members and their associates, conducted in Bamako, Kidal and Mopti, Mali; Ouagadougou and Soum, Burkina Faso; and Niamey, Niger between 2019 and 2021. It also incorporates dozens of JNIM’s text and audio statements.

II. JNIM: Rise of a Malian Jihadist Coalition

In March 2017, four Mali-based jihadist groups – Ansar Dine, the Katiba al-Furqan (the Saharan branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), the Katiba Macina and al-Mourabitoun – came together to form the JNIM coalition.[fn]In the merger statement, Iyad ag Ghaly mentioned only three battalions, or katibas, excluding the Katiba Macina, which he might have considered part of Ansar Dine. Rumours of coalition restructuring have emerged, according to which JNIM’s offshoot in Burkina Faso, Ansarul Islam, connected to or possibly under the leadership of the Katiba Macina, is now a katiba. Crisis Group interview, mediator in close contact with JNIM leaders, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  Three of these groups had their origins in the 2012 uprising in northern Mali, while al-Furqan had emerged earlier, in the 2000s.[fn]The Katiba al-Furqan is one of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s branches in the Sahara. Djamel Okasha (also known as Yahya Abu al-Hammam) created it in 2007 and led it until his death in 2019. It operates mainly in the region of Timbuktu. For more on the Katiba al-Furqan, see Mohammed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma‘ali, “The Competition between al-Qaeda and ISGS”, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 2017 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  United by fealty to the al-Qaeda network, the groups distinguish themselves from other militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.[fn]In 2015, al-Mourabitoun split. One faction remained loyal to al-Qaeda and later merged with other groups to create JNIM, while the other (led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, who was killed by a drone strike on 17 August 2021) pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), then Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In October 2016, ISIS formally recognised ISGS. See Ibrahim and Jezequel, “The Death of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara’s Leader: An Opportunity for Dialogue?” op. cit.Hide Footnote  JNIM has since become the largest jihadist force in the central Sahel.[fn]Since March 2017, when JNIM formed, its attacks have resulted in more than 2,254 deaths in Mali, accounting for nearly one quarter of all the conflict-related fatalities in the country (9,119). Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), November 2021.Hide Footnote

A. A Jihadist Coalition

The four katibas (“battalions”, in Arabic) operating under JNIM’s banner already had strongholds throughout northern and central Mali: Ansar Dine in northern and eastern Kidal, the Katiba Macina in the Mopti and Segou regions, al-Furqan in northern and western Timbuktu, and al-Mourabitoun in south-eastern Timbuktu and northern Gao. Since 2017, JNIM has consolidated its influence in these areas, expanded into neighbouring Burkina Faso and stamped its footprint on spaces in southern and western Mali as well as in western Niger. Furthermore, the coalition has staged attacks in northern Côte d’Ivoire and Benin, signalling its intention to encroach on Gulf of Guinea countries.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing N°149, The Risk of Jihadist Contagion in West Africa, 20 December 2019.Hide Footnote

Iyad ag Ghaly (born in 1954) a Tuareg rebel turned jihadist, leads the coalition.[fn]Ag Ghaly’s first interactions with jihadists in Mali date to 2003, when the Algerian movement the Salafist Group for Predication of Combat established bases in the country’s north. He repeatedly served as a mediator in hostage negotiations and formally joined the jihadist movement in 2009. See “A meeting with the distinguished Iyad ag Ghaly”, Al-Masra, 3 April 2017 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  His experience as a military strategist, and a deft negotiator in previous talks with the Malian government, has bolstered his reputation among Tuareg in northern Mali and beyond, in turn helping cement his authority in JNIM.[fn]For a detailed biography of Iyad ag Ghaly, see Alex Thurston, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel (Cambridge, 2020), pp. 106-118.Hide Footnote  His leadership appears uncontested and, if anything, has grown stronger of late due partly to his achievements.[fn]In October 2020, the Malian government released over 200 suspected jihadists from prison in exchange for four hostages, including Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, after talks with JNIM. This skillfully negotiated prisoner exchange shored up ag Ghaly’s reputation, resulting in several poems composed in his honour in Tamashek, the language spoken by Tuareg in northern Mali. Crisis Group interviews, residents, Kidal, January 2021.Hide Footnote  Another reason is that several senior commanders and other potential rivals in the coalition have perished.[fn]High-profile leaders who have died since JNIM formed include Djamel Okacha (known as Yahya Abu al-Hammam), JNIM’s vice emir, Katiba al-Furqan’s leader and a senior AQIM commander; Abdel Malik Droukdel, AQIM emir; senior JNIM commander Bah ag Moussa; and Mohamed Ould Nouini, al-Mourabitoun’s leader.Hide Footnote  Under his command, the various katibas tightened their coordination and improved communication, enabling them to extend their reach. Ag Ghaly’s headquarters is believed to be situated in his native Kidal region, near the Algerian border.[fn]While Algeria struggles with its own jihadists, in particular AQIM, many observers speculate about its role in the Malian conflict, suspecting Algiers of giving JNIM leaders safe haven. Many well-known JNIM members are said to regularly visit family in Algerian towns, including Tin Zaouaten, Timiaouine and Borj Badji Moctar. Ag Ghaly’s wife reportedly lives in Tin Zaouaten. Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, person who fought side by side with JNIM, May 2021.Hide Footnote

JNIM’s decentralised governing structure gives the ‘katibas’ significant leeway to run their own operations.

JNIM’s decentralised governing structure gives the katibas significant leeway to run their own operations. Katiba commanders therefore wield considerable influence, too. Among the coalition’s other main figures are Hamadoun Koufa, leader of the Katiba Macina; Abderrahmane Talha (known as Talha al-Libi), head of the Katiba al-Furqan; and Sedane ag Hitta, an Ansar Dine commander.[fn]Sedane Ag Hitta served in Mali’s army before deserting in 2006 to join the Tuareg rebellion in the north, where he became a close collaborator of ag Ghaly. After ag Ghaly, Sedane is JNIM’s most important commander in Kidal. He is held responsible for the killings of two French journalists in the region in 2014. Ag Ghaly designated him to represent JNIM in the October 2020 prisoner swap with the Malian government. For more on ag Hitta, see “Assassinat de G. Dupont et C. Verlon : Seidane Ag Hitta, l’ascension du présumé commanditaire”, RFI, 12 November 2020.Hide Footnote  All these leaders are Malian and primarily operate from Mali, with the exception of al-Libi, whom, despite his name, observers describe as Mauritanian though his mother might be Malian.[fn]For more on Talha al-Libi, see Abu al-Ma‘ali, “The Competition between al-Qaeda and ISGS”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Foreign jihadists with key roles in JNIM have included Algeria-born Djamel Okacha (also known as Yahya Abul Hammam) and Morocco-born Ali Maychou (also known as Abderrahman al-Sanhadji), who served as the coalition’s chief qadi (“judge”, in Arabic). French airstrikes killed both men in 2019.[fn]For more on Yahya Abu al-Hammam’s killing, see Caleb Weiss, “French military claims senior JNIM leader killed”, Long War Journal, 22 February 2019. On Ali Maychou’s killing, see “Mali : qui était Ali Maychou, jihadiste tué par les forces françaises au Sahel ?”, RFI, 6 November 2019.Hide Footnote

While JNIM has pledged allegiance to Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Taliban and al-Qaeda General Command, it is unclear whether they are subordinate to foreign networks.[fn]In the video announcing the merger, ag Ghaly proclaimed the group’s allegiance to Abdel Malick Droukdel (who died in 2020), AQIM’s leader, as well as Al-Qaeda General Command leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Afghan Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. “Statement by Sheikh Iyad Abu al-Fadl, may God bless him”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 2 March 2017 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  There is no doubt that AQIM has had a large influence on JNIM.[fn]Droukdel, AQIM's founder, often travelled to northern Mali to visit JNIM leaders and sent advisory letters to Malian jihadists to coordinate their actions. He died in a French airstrike in 2020. His successor, Abou Obeida Youssef al-Annabi, seems to be following in his footsteps, though the extent to which al-Annabi can replicate Droukdel’s authority is uncertain. Al-Annabi paid a visit to JNIM leaders in northern Kidal only a few weeks after his nomination. Crisis Group interviews, sources from Kidal region, Niamey and Kidal, February and April 2021.Hide Footnote  AQIM commander Abou Obeida Youssef al-Annabi describes JNIM as an “integral part” of AQIM, which in turn is an “integral part of al-Qaeda”.[fn]According to al-Annabi, al-Qaeda General Command decides the jihadists’ general strategy but leaves field tactics to the branches. See “Interview of Sheikh Abou Obeida Youssef al-Annabi with Journalist Wassim Nasr”, al-Andalus Foundation, 30 May 2019.Hide Footnote  Al-Furqan is seen as an AQIM branch, and it has numerous foreigners in its ranks, including fighters from Algeria and Mauritania.[fn]Abu al-Ma‘ali, “The Competition between al-Qaeda and ISGS”, op. cit., pp. 173-186.Hide Footnote AQIM pioneered jihadism in northern Mali, serving as an incubator for some of the Sahel’s first jihadist leaders – ag Ghaly, for instance, converted to jihadism under the influence of AQIM commanders­.[fn]See “A meeting with the distinguished Iyad ag Ghaly”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  As early as the insurrection’s start, however, the Sahelian jihadists appeared to form their own katibas against the wishes of AQIM and al-Qaeda General Command, which had instructed them to not wage war upon Sahelian states.[fn]For more on the relationships between al-Qaeda General Command, AQIM and Sahelian jihadists in the 2000s and early 2010s, see Vidar B. Skretting, “Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib’s Expansion in the Sahara: New Insights from Primary Sources”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 24 September 2020.Hide Footnote  Thus, they may act with a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis AQIM and al-Qaeda.

B. JNIM’s Strategy

In its statements, JNIM says it pursues two main goals: the withdrawal of foreign troops and the establishment of Islamic rule, primarily in Mali, and potentially in the entire Sahel.[fn]In an interview, ag Ghaly declared: “Our aim is to mobilise the umma … to lift the injustice from it and fight the French occupier and its associates and agents who occupy our land, corrupt our religion … and plunder our wealth … until they leave our country … and to implement justice and shura, and govern our land with the law of our Lord”. See “A meeting with the distinguished Iyad ag Ghaly”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  By Islamic rule, its rhetoric suggests, it aims to bring Mali’s political system as well as social practices in line with a particularly stringent interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia. The coalition rejects the country’s constitution as un-Islamic and the principle of secularism enshrined in Malian law as illegitimate. It describes electoral democracy as the rule of ignorance (hukm al-jahiliyya) as opposed to the rule of God (hukm Allah).[fn]Abdul Rahmane al-Sanhadji (who died in 2019), JNIM’s chief jurist, explained JNIM’s rejection of democracy: “Sovereignty, absolute authority and rule all belong to the majority, not to God, Lord of the worlds! Democracy makes God’s pristine commands subject to discussion by the dull minds of people. … Let me be clear, there is no rule but the rule of God. And there is no sovereignty except via Sharia”. “About elections”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 16 February 2018 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  As outlined below, the militants envision a society where people adhere to a code of conduct that restricts choices in terms of clothing, entertainment and education and limits interactions between men and women, among other things. But while JNIM’s rhetoric suggests a rigid commitment to global jihadist ideology, its approach to applying the rules it touts in official communications has been pragmatic.

In order to achieve its goals, JNIM relies on four policies: first, to spread over the largest possible geographical area; secondly, to exhaust the army and security forces by attacking them continually; thirdly, to gain popular support; and finally, to adopt the principle of guerrilla warfare while also using regular military tactics when possible.[fn]Only a month after JNIM’s launch, ag Ghaly summarised his movement’s military policy. “A meeting with the distinguished Iyad ag Ghaly”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

To impose their rule, militants have used both persuasion and coercion. JNIM issues a broad array of statements proclaiming the righteousness of the jihadist vision. The group’s dedicated media outlet, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, regularly publishes these statements as well as video and audio recordings of speeches to claim responsibility for attacks or to spread its ideas. But the jihadists have also sought compromise with residents in places they control, maintaining traditional power structures and allowing local officials to manage daily affairs on militant’s terms.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the Bad Guys: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists, op. cit. JNIM’s decision to maintain local hierarchies has bolstered its influence in certain places. Some people in northern Mali view JNIM as “the jihad of nobles”. Ag Ghaly’s status as Tuareg nobility has certainly contributed to this perception. Crisis Group interview, JNIM sympathiser who supports the coalition partly due to such sentiments, Kidal, November 2019.Hide Footnote

Still, the jihadists often resort to individual or collective punishment of those who resist their rule. They have surrounded villages that host military bases, blocking the movement of people and goods and interrupting access to farms to impose their will.[fn]The Katiba Macina has repeatedly imposed blockades on villages it accuses of resisting its rule and collaborating with the Malian government. Crisis Group Report, Speaking with the Bad Guys: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists, op. cit.Hide Footnote For example, Katiba Macina fighters maintained a six-month blockade on several villages, including Farabougou, in the south-central Segou region, between October 2020 and March 2021.

JNIM militants often strive to provide services to locals.

In areas under their control, JNIM militants often strive to provide services to locals, including Islamic courts and protection from crime, as well as price regulation and quality control in rural markets.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, people living in areas under JNIM control in Mali and Burkina Faso, Bamako, November 2020; Ouagadougou, March 2021; and via WhatsApp, April-May 2021.Hide Footnote  Jihadists have tried to be responsible stewards of natural resources, in some cases stopping villagers from cutting down trees.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mopti residents, Mopti, May 2021; and via WhatsApp, April 2021.Hide Footnote  They have also allowed humanitarian NGOs to supply health care, veterinary services, potable water and food.[fn]Numerous humanitarian organisations operate in areas under JNIM’s control. Militants allow aid workers to enter their areas on certain conditions; men and women, for example, are not supposed to sit together in the same vehicle. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers in areas under JNIM control, Mopti and Bamako, January 2019 and December 2020. Houka ag Alhousseini, head of a judicial committee that is reportedly close to jihadists in Timbuktu, issued a letter on 14 March 2018 instructing militants to facilitate the humanitarian organisations’ work. On file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote  At the same time, they have closed hundreds of government schools, which they perceive as contravening Sharia, primarily because boys and girls mix in the classroom and the schools do not teach Islamic courses.[fn]As of February 2021, a total of 1,353 Malian schools had closed, mostly in JNIM strongholds in Mopti, Timbuktu and Kidal. The bulk of the schools closed on militant orders, but some shut their doors due to insecurity. For more details, see “Réunion mensuelle, cluster éducation”, Cluster Education Mali, 17 March 2021.Hide Footnote  Instead, they encourage residents to enrol children in Quranic schools.[fn]JNIM often keeps health facilities operational but closes other government services, including schools and courts. Crisis Group interview, Macina residents, Sévaré and Bamako, January 2019 and November 2020.Hide Footnote

JNIM also collects zakat – the alms that Islam requires from wealthy Muslims.[fn]Zakat is the third pillar of Islam. People of a certain wealth are supposed to pay a small, specified amount to eight beneficiaries, including the poor and zakat administrators. Some militants use the tax to fund their own activities, however, arguing that their work is “for God’s cause”. Crisis Group interviews, Islamic scholars who have challenged jihadist arguments justifying zakat collection, Sévaré, January 2019; Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  Militants use some of this money to finance their activities and, in some places, redistribute the remainder to people in need.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, northern and central Mali residents who have lived under jihadist control, Bamako, November-December 2020.Hide Footnote  While zakat is burdensome for those whom the jihadists tax, presumably based on their riches, the redistribution of wealth is one of the aspects of jihadist governance that poor people appreciate the most.[fn]Crisis Group interview, zakat payer, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

C. Sharia Enforcement: Between Ideology and Pragmatism

The forcible imposition of Sharia is the most striking, and often controversial, aspect of JNIM’s governance. In areas under JNIM control, a strict interpretation of Islam rules most of public life, and the group’s ultra-conservative rules have drastically altered people’s behaviour.[fn]The shift toward more conservative lifestyles in Sahelian societies had begun before the jihadist uprising, however. See Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, “Islam et Politique au Sahel”, Politique Étrangère, vol. 86, no. 4 (December 2021).Hide Footnote  The dress code and the ban on the mixing of sexes (except for married couples or siblings) in public transport such as taxis, boats or donkey carts have been a particular burden on women, who find it difficult to farm, travel or trade in rural markets.[fn]Women have to cover their bodies head to toe, while men are required to wear trousers above the ankles. Crisis Group interviews, residents of JNIM-occupied zones in northern Mali, central Mali and northern Burkina Faso, Mopti, January 2019; Bamako, November 2020; and Ouagadougou, March 2021.Hide Footnote  In central Mali, the jihadists’ propensity to whip women who are not wearing a hijab or niqab is a major cause of anger among villagers.[fn]According to a source in Tenenkou, men often react angrily when jihadists whip women for not wearing the hijab. Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, Mopti, April 2021.Hide Footnote

The extent to which jihadists enforce Sharia varies, however, as they rely on a system of shadow governance that has kept local hierarchies largely intact.[fn]Crisis Group interview, central Mali residents, Mopti, January 2019; Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  They rarely stay in the villages they control but establish a base – known as a markaz (“centre” or “camp”, in Arabic) – in a remote area and leave local notables to run daily affairs, though on JNIM’s terms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of JNIM strongholds, including in Kidal, Mopti and Soum, Mopti, January 2019; Kidal, December 2019; and Ouagadougou, March 2021.Hide Footnote  This decentralisation has led to a degree of flexibility in enforcement of JNIM’s rules.[fn]In the Macina region, jihadists have imposed a particularly strict dress code on women, forcing them to wear a black garment known as a boumbassi, which they sell themselves. The religious police punish women whom they catch not wearing this garment with dozens of lashes. Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, Mopti residents, April 2021.Hide Footnote  For instance, residents of several JNIM-controlled areas were able to vote in the 2018 elections, despite the group’s rejection of electoral democracy.[fn]Residents of several JNIM-controlled areas were able to vote in 2018 presidential and legislative elections. These districts included Nampala in Segou and Dogo in Mopti. In Dogo, residents elected a mayor presumably close to the Katiba Macina’s local leaders. Crisis Group interviews, electoral candidates in Segou and Mopti, Bamako, August-September 2019 and November 2020.Hide Footnote That said, JNIM militants have also been responsible for killing or persecuting local notables who have resisted their rule.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

[JNIM] insurgents seem aware that violent enforcement of Sharia might aggravate frictions with locals.

For the most part, insurgents seem aware that violent enforcement of Sharia might aggravate frictions with locals, most of whom are Muslim but do not subscribe to JNIM’s interpretation of Islamic law. For this reason, perhaps, JNIM has not enforced the most callous provisions found in self-described Islamic penal codes, such as stoning of convicted adulterers or cutting off hands of thieves.[fn]No stoning or removal of hands has been reported in JNIM-occupied territories since 2017.Hide Footnote  The organisation has also shown itself to be amenable to compromise. In the Kidal region, complaints of abuse by the hisba, or moral police, convinced local leaders to soften requirements.[fn]In Amassine, a town in southern Kidal, residents complained about the vice squad’s abuses. JNIM’s leadership subsequently instructed the police to ease its practices. Crisis Group interview, armed group member, Kidal, December 2019.Hide Footnote  JNIM has justified this easing by saying locals are not ready to accept all the punishments in Islamic law.[fn]During the occupation in 2012, ag Ghaly travelled through the jihadist-occupied zones to advocate for a moratorium on harsh hudud punishments and for involving local qadis in making the rules. Crisis Group interview, former Ansar Dine militant, Bamako, November 2020. Furthermore, in 2012 other leaders of al-Qaeda branches, including Abdelmalik Droukdel (who died in 2020) and Nasser al-Wahishi (who died in 2015), then the emirs of AQIM and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), respectively, advised jihadist leaders in Mali to postpone the enforcement of Islamic punishments until they win local hearts and minds. See “First letter from Abu Basir to emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”, Associated Press, 21 May 2012.Hide Footnote  Many ideologues, including ag Ghaly, have advocated for a moratorium on enforcement of some aspects of JNIM’s codes on the grounds that Muslim societies are not religiously mature enough to embrace these sanctions.[fn]For example, JNIM published a document saying: “Evil must be punished in a way that does not distract from the most important duty of this time, which is to ward off the impending enemy. Evils should be forbidden in a way that does not lead to a greater evil. And evil should be punished according to the laws of God Almighty, taking into account the conditions of jihad, ability, empowerment and the like”. See Qutayba Abu Nu‘man al-Shinqiti, “Response to charges that you are not forbidding evil”, Al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, January 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

The ability to navigate local culture has allowed JNIM militants to entrench themselves. From late 2019 onward, for example, JNIM began to increasingly involve residents in local affairs.[fn]In January, at a meeting of the Ifoghas community in Tin-Essako in Kidal, communal leaders demanded that Ansar Dine allow them to nominate their own qadi because they did not want foreigners to rule them. They subsequently named two qadis with the militants’ approval. Another community negotiated a similar agreement with Ansar Dine in Kidal. Crisis Group interview, Kidal resident, Niamey, February 2021.Hide Footnote  In many parts of northern Kidal and in central Malian districts, JNIM militants allowed villagers to name their own qadis from among local religious leaders, who could draw on jurisprudence used in the past.[fn]The change was significant. Previously, militants had required people to petition courts in the markaz, where foreign qadis usually drew on jurisprudence unfamiliar to locals. Yet, in other areas of central Mali, militants appointed qadis only after training them in JNIM’s preferred interpretations of Sharia. Crisis Group interviews, residents of areas under JNIM control in Mali and Burkina Faso, Mopti, January 2019; Kidal, December 2019; Bamako, November 2020; and Ouagadougou, March 2021.Hide Footnote  Restrictions gradually loosened, notably the school ban, with some local qadis giving non-Quranic schools permission to reopen on certain conditions.[fn]In Zouera, a village in Goundam cercle in Timbuktu, the council headed by Houka ag Al-Husseini (known as chief qadi of Timbuktu during the 2012 insurgency) has issued a fatwa allowing schools to reopen under certain conditions, which include segregating boys and girls and adding Islamic courses. On file with Crisis Group. Dozens of schools in Kidal have reopened since late 2019.Hide Footnote  Still, the collaboration between jihadists and local qadis is often fraught with tension.[fn]The hisba rarely refer to the qadis to impose the moral code. Instead, they draw on their particular jurisprudence. By collaborating with jihadists, the local religious scholars attract the ire of state officials and defence and security forces. Some qadis hide when security forces arrive in the village. Crisis Group WhatsApp interviews, Islamic scholars from Mopti, April-May 2021.Hide Footnote

III. Local Dialogue Initiatives

Dialogue has become a viable option as the conflict appears to have reached an impasse, though JNIM has made significant headway in capturing rural areas. As both parties hesitated to engage in high-level talks, they trained their sights on local dialogue to stem the violence and build peace from the ground up.[fn]For more, see Ferdaous Bouhlel, “(Ne pas) dialoguer avec les groupes ‘jihadistes’ au Mali ?”, Berghof Foundation, May 2020.Hide Footnote

A. A Mutually Hurting Stalemate

The conflict between the Malian state and JNIM is locked in a stalemate as neither side appears capable of achieving military victory. Bamako struggles to contain the insurgency despite the efforts of Malian troops, the G5 Sahel joint forces, the French Barkhane mission and, more recently, the European Task Force Takuba. The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, while not a counter-terrorism force, has also frequently clashed with JNIM fighters.[fn]MINUSMA is officially a stabilisation force, but some of its outposts are located in JNIM strongholds and are frequent militant targets.Hide Footnote

Military operations have yielded mixed results. True, they have inflicted heavy losses on JNIM, but thus far they have failed to quash the coalition or secure zones that they have retaken from the militants. While the military often focuses on holding major towns, the jihadists often retreat to hideouts in the bush, desert or mountains, from which they continue to launch periodic raids. As a French diplomat put it, counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel are comparable to “mowing a lawn, only to see the lawn grow again after a little while”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote

France, the driving force of foreign military efforts in the Sahel, is showing battle fatigue.

More critically, France, the driving force of foreign military efforts in the Sahel, is showing battle fatigue. As the French public’s support for these efforts plunged, President Emmanuel Macron announced in June 2021 that he would close three military bases in Mali and reduce the number of French troops in the region to between 2,500 and 3,000 as part of an overhaul of French military presence (see Section IV.C).[fn]Public support for France’s military involvement in Mali has declined from 59 per cent in December 2019 to 49 per cent in January 2021. “Sahel : la moitié des Français opposés à la présence Française au Sahel”, Le Point, 11 January 2021.Hide Footnote  By November, French soldiers had withdrawn from Kidal and Tessalit, two remote military bases in the north near the Algerian border.[fn]See “Operation Barkhane : une deuxième base militaire française transférée au maliens”, AFP, 16 November 2021.Hide Footnote

On the other side of the coin, even as JNIM has gradually expanded its reach, it has lost hundreds of fighters and several senior commanders. Despite unrelenting attacks, JNIM has won complete control of only a few districts (or cercles) in northern and central Mali, occupying mainly rural areas outside major towns (see the map of JNIM’s presence in Mali below).[fn]Typical districts in which JNIM has established control include Abeibara and Tin-Essako (Kidal region), Tenenkou and Youwarou (Mopti region), and Niafunké, Goundam and Gourma Rharou (Timbuktu region).Hide Footnote  Three of the five leaders who formed the coalition in 2017 have perished, most in French airstrikes, while a fourth, Hamadoun Koufa, narrowly escaped a bombing in November 2018.[fn]“Amadou Koufa, chef djihadiste peul, dément sa mort”, AFP, 28 February 2019.Hide Footnote  Despite its extended reach, JNIM is unlikely to prevail over its enemies and compel all foreign troops to withdraw in the near future. As Western and other powers continue to pour vast sums into the region’s security sector, whether by boosting the European force or deploying drones, Mali’s conflict now resembles a war of attrition.

Map of JNIM’s Presence and Activity per Cercle in Mali.

Furthermore, JNIM now has to contend with an array of armed groups seeking to dislodge it, including from its strongholds. The jihadists’ recruitment strategies sharpened intercommunal tensions, which in turn motivated thousands of villagers to organise themselves in self-defence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°293, Enrayer la communautarisation de la violence au centre du Mali, 9 November 2020.Hide Footnote  In most cercles where JNIM’s offshoots operate, security forces and non-state armed groups fighting for various agendas, including separatists, loyalists, bandits and ethnic militias, challenge the militants’ territorial control.[fn]In Kidal, for instance, JNIM contends with armed groups affiliated with the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), a coalition of separatist movements, and parts of the Plateforme, another coalition that is pro-Bamako. While some of the signatory armed groups, in particular the CMA’s High Islamic Council of Azawad and the Plateforme’s Arab Movement of Azawad, presumably have close ties to JNIM leaders, relations with others have been tense. Diverging political interests and ideological differences prompted some of these groups to sever ties with militants or fight them even before the French military intervention in 2013. In central Mali, as well as northern and eastern Burkina Faso, several communal militias have sprung up to battle JNIM’s offshoots.Hide Footnote  The civilian death toll, meanwhile, has climbed exponentially. Since the crisis began in 2012, over 11,000 people have died, more than half of those in the last two and a half years alone.[fn]Between January 2019 and November 2021, the conflict killed 6,426 people, mostly in Mopti, where intercommunal violence between Dogon and Fulani surged. ACLED, July 2021.Hide Footnote

Growing communal violence has also undermined JNIM’s ability to rally Malians behind its cause. As insecurity surged, sedentary farmers increasingly directed their anger at ethnic Fulani herders, whose strong representation in jihadist fighters’ ranks gave an ethnic dimension to some JNIM offshoots.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, Speaking with the Bad Guys: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists and Enrayer la communautarisation de la violence au centre du Mali, both op. cit.Hide Footnote  These tensions hindered the group’s expansion as it struggled to find new recruits among rival ethnic groups. In some instances, fighters temporarily left their bases to protect their home villages, pointing their guns at militiamen or civilians instead of the “infidel” government.

Competition with ISGS poses another challenge. Fighting between JNIM militants and those affiliated with ISGS has escalated. After coexisting in the central Sahel for years, al-Qaeda and ISGS fell out in mid-2019 as the latter encroached upon JNIM strongholds in northern and central Mali as well as northern Burkina Faso.[fn]Héni Nsaibia and Caleb Weiss, “The End of the Sahelian Anomaly: How the Global Conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida Finally Came to West Africa”, Combating Terrorism Center, July 2020, pp. 1-14.Hide Footnote  Disagreements over access to land and pasture heightened tensions, culminating in major clashes between the two groups from early 2020 onward, particularly in central Mali, the Gourma area, and northern and eastern Burkina Faso. JNIM’s willingness to speak with the Malian government also widened the gap between the two rivals.[fn]In December 2020 audio recordings of someone reading a letter allegedly written by Sahraoui to Koufa, the ISGS leader sharply criticises JNIM’s decision to consider talks with the Malian government. On file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

[The Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan in August 2021] has resonated among JNIM’s leadership.

All that said, the turn of events in Afghanistan in August 2021, when the Taliban took advantage of the U.S. departure to seize power, has resonated among JNIM’s leadership. While the two insurgencies’ trajectories are markedly different, the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan will likely reinvigorate militants in Mali. On 10 August, five days before the fall of the Afghan capital Kabul, ag Ghaly published a triumphant message labelling Barkhane’s restructuring a victory for JNIM while congratulating the Taliban on “the historic withdrawal” of U.S. troops.[fn]JNIM released an audio recording of ag Ghaly’s speech. “Surely, the help of God is always nearby”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 10 August 2021 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  Moreover, the Afghan debacle highlights the limits of counter-insurgency efforts that rely on foreign troops. In its statements, JNIM attributes that withdrawal to the Taliban’s “ferocity in combat”. At the same time, JNIM leaders appear to have noted that the Taliban achieved its main goal not just by fighting but also by talking, in the Taliban’s case to U.S. diplomats.[fn]Ibid. See also a joint statement by AQIM and JNIM: “Congratulations and blessings”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation and al-Andalus Foundation, 23 August 2021 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  So far, a similar model – talking directly to France about a French pullout – is off the table in Mali, but the value of using diplomacy alongside force seems, for JNIM, to have hit home.[fn]“Martyrdom operation against the French occupation forces”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 11 January 2021 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

B. Local Ceasefire Accords

As ethnic violence surged, the protagonists have tacitly encouraged talks among local JNIM offshoots, communal leaders and self-defence militias to calm tensions. Communal leaders and mediation NGOs often led such initiatives.[fn]Jihadists typically hide out in the bush while their wives stay behind in the village. Women therefore often serve as intermediaries between their spouses and mediators. In the Koro discussions, Fulani and Dogon women facilitated the first contact between jihadists and militiamen. Crisis Group interview, Koro agreement mediator, Niamey, February 2021.Hide Footnote  While the Malian government took part in some negotiations by sending emissaries and supporting mediators, it did not sign any agreements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Niono agreement mediator, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  Most negotiations focused on protecting civilians, facilitating the return of displaced persons, lifting jihadist blockades and clearing checkpoints to allow locals to reach their farms or travel to markets.

Emblematic of these talks is the “Niono agreement” between jihadists affiliated with the Katiba Macina and self-defence militias called donso (“hunters”, in Bambara). Starting in October 2020, Katiba Macina militants placed several villages in the Niono district (Segou) under siege, accusing the inhabitants of collaborating with the government. The Malian army tried and failed to liberate one of the villages, Farabougou.[fn]On 22 October 2020, junta leader Assimi Goïta paid a short visit to Farabougou in what was presented as the village’s liberation. Soon afterward, however, it became clear that both the village and the military detachment there were still under siege. The military later supported a dialogue initiative between the jihadists and the donso. See David Baché, “Mali : La question du dialogue avec les djihadistes continue de se poser à Farabougou”, RFI, 26 October 2020.Hide Footnote  This defeat paved the way for talks between jihadists and the donso, facilitated by emissaries from the High Islamic Council of Mali and supported by the junta in Bamako. At first, the two parties put forward seemingly irreconcilable demands.[fn]For details of the Niono agreement, see the account by Moussa Boubacar Bah and Bocary Diallo, respectively the mediation mission head and rapporteur, “Les accords de Farabougou : De quoi s’agit-il”, Les Echos, 14 March 2021.Hide Footnote  After several months of direct talks, however, in March 2021 delegates agreed to a ceasefire pausing the six-month siege. Fighting resumed in September, with each side accusing the other of disrespecting the agreement’s terms.[fn]See David Baché, “Mali : dans le cercle de Niono, des attaques quasi quotidiennes”, RFI, 8 October 2021.Hide Footnote

The Niono agreement illustrates the evolving dynamics of local peace talks between JNIM offshoots and ethnic militias.[fn]The local JNIM offshoots engage in these dialogues with the blessing of their katiba leader, who allows them a certain latitude in conducting talks. Crisis Group interview, mediator in local peace talks, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  Since 2017, over a dozen similar initiatives have taken place involving JNIM bands and residents in northern and central Mali. In 2017, community leaders in Kidal brokered talks between Ansar Dine and members of a squad affiliated with the Tuareg separatist Movement for the Liberation of Azawad that participated in French counter-terrorism efforts. The talks resulted in a non-aggression pact that significantly calmed tensions in the region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former member of this unit, Niamey, May 2021.Hide Footnote  Similarly, in central Mali, JNIM affiliates, on one side, and Dogon and Bambara militiamen, on the other, signed several peace deals, including in Ké-Macina in 2019, and in Koro, Bandiagara and Niono in 2020 and 2021.

These local ceasefires decreased violence against civilians, particularly in central Mali, where attacks on villagers have dropped substantially in some areas since June 2020.[fn]Following these agreements, violence almost completely ended in the cercle of Macina – before resuming recently – and decreased by at least half in Koro and Niono. ACLED data.Hide Footnote  Whereas previous intercommunal dialogue initiatives failed partly because mediators excluded jihadists as interlocutors, the recent accords have succeeded, to some extent, partly because they included jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Enrayer la communautarisation de la violence au centre du Mali, op. cit.Hide Footnote

But they have been unsatisfactory in other ways. Some accords only temporarily halted the violence. For instance, fighting between donso militiamen and jihadists resumed a few months after they signed the Niono agreement. Moreover, despite accords saving civilian lives, jihadists have been the main beneficiaries. Militants have often used ceasefires to extend their authority.[fn]Jihadists succeeded in imposing their terms in some areas but had to make significant concessions in other zones, depending on their level of control. For their part, militiamen have often resisted jihadist demands, particularly those related to Sharia.Hide Footnote  They ask residents not to interfere in the conflict, a means of isolating them as well as self-defence groups in the area from the government officials and security forces that are supposed to protect civilians. Militants usually assert that their jihad is directed solely at the state and that they will spare civilians who do not collaborate with the government. (In reality, however, JNIM militants have killed hundreds of civilians, mainly during communal violence in central Mali.[fn]ACLED data. Human Rights Watch has also collected evidence showing that jihadists, mostly from the Katiba Macina, killed 119 civilians in 2019 alone. In one incident, presumed Katiba Macina militants attacked the villages of Yoro and Gangafani in the southern Mopti district of Koro, killing at least 38 people. See Human Rights Watch, “‘Combien de sang doit encore couler’ : Atrocités commises contre des civiles dans le centre du Mali, 2019”, 10 February 2020.Hide Footnote ) As the local ceasefire agreements remain fragile, the belligerents have in parallel started to consider broader dialogue, with each side coming with its own perspective on what it can achieve through peace talks.

Congress of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Kidal, 29 November to 3 December 2019. CRISIS GROUP / Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim

IV. Perspectives on Dialogue

Two years ago, neither JNIM nor Malian state officials and their foreign partners would publicly support the idea of dialogue. Authorities repeatedly said they “do not negotiate with terrorists”, while militants asserted that they do not “bargain about God”.[fn]For the Malian government’s position rejecting dialogue, see “Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta: ‘Pas question de négocier avec les djihadistes’”, Le Monde, 22 February 2018. For JNIM’s position, see Koufa’s quote in footnote 4.Hide Footnote  Yet, in 2020, both the Malian government and JNIM’s leaders softened their stance. This shift may be due to the abovementioned stalemate and the unforeseen surge in communal violence, as well as the protagonists’ perception of negotiations as an opportunity to achieve their goals by means other than fighting. Resistance to dialogue persists, however: France publicly opposes engaging militant leaders, while many state officials and jihadists cling to maximalist expectations and remain wary of embracing peace talks.

A. A Course Change

In February 2020, then President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta said his government was willing to explore dialogue with Malian jihadist leaders, an announcement that many observers saw as a breakthrough.[fn]“Le président malien IBK annonce un dialogue avec les chefs djihadistes”, RFI, 10 February 2020.Hide Footnote  Weeks earlier, Keïta’s high representative for central Mali, Dioncounda Traoré, asserted that he had sent emissaries to initiate talks with ag Ghaly and Koufa. The details of these talks never became public.[fn]“Dialogue avec les djihadistes : des émissaires chez Iyad et Kouffa”, Studio Tamani, 23 January 2020.Hide Footnote

Engaging militants had been tried before. In 2017, Malian officials, backed by the prime minister (but not, it later emerged, President Keïta), launched an ambitious dialogue initiative known as the mission de bons offices.[fn]“Organisation d’une mission de bons offices à Kidal, dans le Delta intérieur et la Boucle du Niger”, Office of the Prime Minister, Letter No. 0362 PM-CAB, 24 May 2017.Hide Footnote  Conducted by Mahmoud Dicko, an influential cleric who presided over the High Islamic Council of Mali at the time, the mission focused on communities that could facilitate talks with local militants, who would then help establish contact with their leaders.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Islamic scholar in charge of the mission, Bamako, May 2019.Hide Footnote  The goal was to advance peace through dialogue between a team of religious leaders and traditional notables, on one side, and JNIM affiliates, on the other. Despite a promising start, the mission was short-lived, mainly because it lacked Keïta’s support –he later said he had never approved it.[fn]President Keïta distanced himself from the mission de bons offices. “Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta: ‘Pas question de négocier avec les djihadistes’”, Le Monde, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Indeed, the former president was known as a staunch opponent of such talks.[fn]Keita once said: “A sea of blood separates us from these people ... and the criminals will have to answer for their actions”. For him, the jihadists’ demands, including “the application of Sharia law, the prohibition of republican and modern schools, the caliphate, the end of all the values that form the basis of our living together” were non-negotiable. See François Soudan, “Mali-Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta: ‘Nous sommes en guerre’”, Jeune Afrique, 1 July 2019.Hide Footnote

Two interrelated phenomena likely caused his change of heart in February 2020. Violence had surged in the preceding year, with unprecedented mass killings of civilians and large-scale raids on military outposts that left hundreds of soldiers dead. Overwhelmed by the security crises, officials began to acknowledge the limits of the military response and consider talks with militants as an alternative. The Malian public, meanwhile, began to demand that the government reach out to jihadists. At first, calls for dialogue emanated from opinion leaders. In 2017 and 2019, respectively during the Conférence d’Entente Nationale and the Dialogue National Inclusif, participants recommended that the government organise talks with ag Ghaly and Koufa, the most prominent Malian insurgent leaders.[fn]While calls for dialogue with jihadists date as far back as 2012, influential politicians, religious leaders and civil society representatives became increasingly insistent on the idea during the 2017 Conférence d’Entente Nationale. Advocates for dialogue included Imam Dicko, civil society organisations such as Association Adema, opposition leaders and delegates from the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad. Crisis Group interviews, participants, October 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote  But as the security situation continued to deteriorate, the proposal gained increasing traction among the public.[fn]According to polls conducted in Mali by the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, in 2017, nearly 56 per cent of Malian respondents, mainly from urban areas, supported the idea of dialogue between the government and leaders of jihadist groups. A year later, the percentage of those in support increased to 65. See “Mali-mètre : Enquête d’opinion ‘Que pensent les Malien(ne)s ?’”, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Mali), November 2017 and October 2018.Hide Footnote  The civilian massacres of 2019 and 2020 were particularly frightening and triggered a series of protests.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Enrayer la communautarisation de la violence au centre du Mali, op. cit. Insurgent attacks in 2019 and 2020 claimed more lives than in the previous six years combined.Hide Footnote

A military coup ousted Keïta in August 2020, before dialogue could take shape. The interim authorities who replaced him initially upheld the decision to engage with jihadists. Early in the transition, then Prime Minister Moctar Ouane (September 2020-May 2021), a civilian, positioned himself as an outspoken advocate of talks, saying they were “in line with the will of the Malian people”.[fn]See David Baché and Marc Perelman, “Moctar Ouane, premier minister malien : ‘Chacun joue sa partition au gouvernement’”, RFI, 4 December 2020.Hide Footnote  Indeed, the transition’s roadmap described dialogue with militants as a core government policy.[fn]See “Feuille de route de la transition”, Transitional Government of Mali, October 2020.Hide Footnote  In his cabinet’s action plan, Ouane provided details of engagement, which revolved around three premises. First, the plan said, the government would engage in broad-based, grassroots dialogue via the mission de bons offices aiming to reconcile aggrieved citizens and the state.[fn]See “Plan d’Action du Gouvernement de Transition 2020-2022”, Office of the Prime Minister, February 2021, p. 35.Hide Footnote  Secondly, and in parallel, military intelligence officials would reach out to the jihadist leadership to explore talks. Lastly, even as it pursued dialogue, the government would step up its military campaign and development efforts intended to undermine the insurgents.[fn]“Entretien : ‘Le dialogue avec les terroristes est une volonté des Maliens’ assure le Premier ministre du Mali”, France 24, 13 December 2020.Hide Footnote

In contrast, the junta’s leaders did not publicly comment on the issue.[fn]According to a Malian officer, the top brass faced a dilemma: they felt they could not publicly support the idea of dialogue without sapping the rank and file’s confidence in their leadership. “It is difficult for an officer to ask his soldiers to go and fight the jihadists, to accept the supreme sacrifice, and at the same time tell them we are talking to these jihadists. It is bad for the troops’ morale”. Crisis Group telephone interview, April 2021.Hide Footnote  But both Assimi Goïta, the junta’s top official, and Ismaël Wagué, in charge of the ministry of national reconciliation, supported dialogue between residents and jihadists to alleviate communal friction in central Mali.[fn]Goïta supported talks between jihadists and Farabougou villagers to resolve the conflict there, and Wagué backed mediation efforts that led to the Niono agreement between the Katiba Macina and the donso. See “Mali : La question du dialogue avec les djihadistes continue de se poser à Farabougou”; and “Les accords de Farabougou : De quoi s’agit-il”, both op. cit.Hide Footnote  In October 2020, the transitional authorities concluded one of the largest prisoner exchanges in the Sahel’s history with JNIM.[fn]See footnote 18, as well as Pierre Alonso et Célian Macé, “Echange de prisoniers au Mali : Le coup de la libération”, Libération, 15 October 2020.Hide Footnote  The government freed nearly 200 prisoners, including well-known JNIM militants, in exchange for the release of four JNIM-held hostages: Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé, French citizen Sophie Pétronin and two Italians.[fn]“Mali : Dans le secret des négociations qui ont permis la libération de Soumaïla Cissé et Sophie Pétronin”, Jeune Afrique, 9 October 2020.Hide Footnote  Ahmada ag Bibi, a Kidal-based politician and long-term companion of ag Ghaly, together with Malian intelligence officials, led the negotiations on the government’s behalf.[fn]In 2012, ag Bibi was a member of Ansar Dine and was part of the delegation that attempted to negotiate with the Malian government in Ouagadougou and Algiers. He and other high-level Kidal politicians broke away from the jihadist movement in 2013 to form the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, which is part of the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad, a party to the Algiers peace agreement. He has since been elected to represent the Kidal district of Tin-Essako in Mali’s parliament. For more on ag Bibi’s role in the prisoner swap, see “Ahmada ag Bibi : ‘Si l’état malien me demande de discuter avec les groupes jihadistes, je suis prêt’” RFI, 5 April 2021.Hide Footnote  JNIM was represented by Sedane ag Hitta, ag Ghaly’s right-hand man in Kidal.[fn]In January 2021, a video appeared on social media showing Ahmada ag Bibi delivering JNIM’s prisoners to ag Hitta. On file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote  Ouane’s action plan faded from view in May 2021, however, as the junta removed the interim premier along with the interim president, Bah N’Daw, in a second coup following disagreements over a cabinet reshuffle.

While public support for talks has clearly increased, many politicians, civil society representatives and religious leaders harbour deep reservations.

Still, views on dialogue diverge. While public support for talks has clearly increased, many politicians, civil society representatives and religious leaders harbour deep reservations. Most doubt that JNIM’s leadership is willing to compromise. For instance, even Dicko, a pioneer of the pro-dialogue discourse in Mali, questions whether ag Ghaly and Koufa will ever accept a political settlement.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  Though he supports direct engagement with JNIM’s leadership, Dicko cautions that the two may be too entrenched in jihad to lay down their weapons. But he does see promise in talks that could coax rank-and-file militants away from the insurgency and back to civilian life. Other officials fear that dialogue is equivalent to “opening the gates of power to JNIM”.[fn]A high-level official said: “It is difficult to believe that JNIM want to enter into serious dialogue. Their interest may be more in stating that they want dialogue than in actually getting to the table”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote

Many political leaders find jihadist demands, including the Islamisation of law and state institutions, particularly worrying. They see very little room for compromise on these matters, since the Malian constitution enshrines secularism, democracy and the nation-state as fundamental principles. Agreeing to skirt – or worse, in their view, to alter – these principles might be political suicidal for them, both in domestic opinion and with foreign partners. Some argue that the public’s call for dialogue is born of despair, as insecurity spreads and the authorities struggle to contain it, rather than willingness to consider jihadist demands, let alone support for them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Malian politician and former prime minister, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  Still others perceive JNIM’s leaders as instruments of foreign jihadist networks, lacking autonomy.[fn]A former prime minister rejected dialogue with Malian jihadists on the grounds that they are dependent on al-Qaeda elements abroad. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote

Persistent French diplomatic pressure eventually convinced Mali’s transitional authorities to shy away, at least in public, from backing direct talks with JNIM’s leadership.[fn]Macron said he told transitional authorities that he would remove French troops from Mali if they engaged with jihadists. “Emmanuel Macron, confidences en Afrique”, Le Journal de Dimanche, 30 May 2021.Hide Footnote  In private talks at first, and publicly later, France said it would withdraw its troops from Mali if the interim government engaged, strong-arming Malian officials into giving guarantees that such talks were off the table.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Malian official, former staff member in Bah N’daw’s cabinet, Bamako, December 2020.Hide Footnote  In June 2021, shortly after the second coup, Paris suspended its cooperation with Bamako’s security forces partly over concerns the junta might start talking with jihadists.[fn]“La France suspend sa coopération militaire bilatérale avec le Mali”, Le Monde Afrique, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote  Joint military operations have since resumed.

The transitional authorities have also sent equivocal signals. In May 2021, the junta brought in a new prime minister, Choguel Kokalla Maïga, who has acknowledged widespread public support for talks with jihadists and whose action plan mentions the mission de bons offices as a means of getting them started.[fn]“Plan d’Action du Gouvernement de Transition 2021-2022”, Office of the Prime Minister, July 2021, p. 22.Hide Footnote  On 19 October, Mali’s religious affairs minister, Mamadou Koné, said he had instructed the High Islamic Council to lead the mission.[fn]“Mali : le gouvernement mandate le Haut Conseil Islamique pour négocier avec ag Ghaly et Koufa”, RFI, 19 October 2021.Hide Footnote  Three days later, however, the government said no one had been officially mandated to start negotiations, while thanking those who had come forward to offer their services.[fn]“Communiqué du gouvernement de la République du Mali”, Office of the Prime Minister, 22 October 2021.Hide Footnote  In short, vis-à-vis talks, the government has at best taken two steps forward and one step back.

B. JNIM’s View on Dialogue

In March 2020, in response to Malian officials’ call for dialogue, JNIM leaders published a statement saying they were ready to talk with the government.[fn]The statement says: “We bear the good news to our proud people that we are ready to enter the path of negotiations with the Malian government, whose president announced his desire to negotiate with JNIM, in order to discuss ways to end the bloody conflict that has entered its seventh year”. “On calls for negotiations”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  In the following weeks, the insurgents pressed the authorities to cut ties with France so that direct negotiations could commence, accusing the government of dragging its feet.[fn]On 20 March 2020, JNIM attacked a military outpost in Tarkint in the Gao region, which it framed as a warning to the Malian government to end its alliance with France or suffer the consequences of maintaining it. See “About the battle of Tarkint in Mali”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 21 March 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  Their appetite for dialogue, however, was not a pledge to disarm and surrender. On the contrary, militants likely expected to gain the upper hand in eventual talks.[fn]Droukdel said in a statement about dialogue: “We do not want an empty dialogue, but rather a serious negotiation that will lay the foundation for the liberation of our homelands and peoples, and then a real civilizational breakthrough”. “France and the spider’s nest”, al-Andalus, February 2020. See also “About the battle of Tarkint in Mali”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

JNIM’s leaders see dialogue primarily as a means of pushing foreign troops out of Mali.

JNIM’s leaders see dialogue primarily as a means of pushing foreign troops out of Mali. The jihadist leadership explicitly conditioned talks on the withdrawal of French and international forces.[fn]In its statement accepting dialogue, JNIM said: “We do not have any preconditions for entering into these negotiations except … [the] demand … to end the French occupation”. Perhaps surprisingly, this statement does not set establishing Islamic law as a condition. It does, however, say negotiations should occur in a way that accords with Sharia. “On calls for negotiations”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  They perceive the international forces as an obstacle to their project of expanding their control. They particularly resent France because of its colonial history in the region and because its 2013 military intervention ended their short-lived rule in the north. Yet JNIM’s goal is not to defeat the French forces in combat; it is to deny France victory. JNIM hopes to drag France into a protracted war that will exhaust its army until Paris loses the will to fight.[fn]JNIM often refers to Algeria’s independence war as a model: “The same is the case with our fathers, the [Algerian] mujahideen, who fought the French Crusader occupation in the middle of the last century, when French President De Gaulle gathered NATO to eliminate the revolution of the Algerian Muslim people. He was disappointed, and he left dragging his tail in defeat. It was the end of the direct occupation of Algeria, and with it the end of the Fourth Republic. And here is arrogant America, after eighteen years of fighting, recognising the impossibility of victory in Afghanistan”. See “Regarding the Dioungani attack in southern Mali”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, January 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

Demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops is consistent with the pragmatic attitude that JNIM appears to have taken toward dialogue in Afghanistan. It welcomed the U.S.-Taliban negotiations that eventually led U.S. troops to leave the country in August. In a congratulatory letter, al-Qaeda General Command said the deal was a lesson for jihadists across the world, urging them “to follow the example of the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate”.[fn]Al-Qaeda General Command, “Verily we have granted you a manifest victory”, al-Sahab, February 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  For JNIM, the U.S.-Taliban deal may even offer a model to emulate in reaching a settlement with Paris. In January 2021, JNIM pointed out that it has never staged an operation on French soil, a seeming reference to the Taliban’s pledge to stop other militants based in Afghanistan from staging attacks outside the country, which appears in the U.S.-Taliban agreement.[fn]“‘Martyrdom operation against the French occupation forces”, op. cit. In the U.S.-Taliban deal, the Taliban offered guarantees that it would stop anyone seeking to use Afghan territory to attack the U.S. or its allies. “Agreement for Bringing Peace in Afghanistan”, U.S. Government, 19 February 2020.Hide Footnote

JNIM’s acceptance of talks seemed meant to woo rural dwellers, win popular support for its cause and bestow legitimacy upon its demands. It was framed as a courtesy to an exhausted public, which had been pleading with the government to consider dialogue. Indeed, JNIM’s statement addressed the Malian people rather than the government.[fn]“Our proud people, we have heard your repeated appeals to the government of ‘Bamako’ for negotiation and dialogue with the mujahideen, in your eagerness to overcome the ordeal imposed on us by the French occupier. … We inform you that we in JNIM are ready to succumb to the desire of our oppressed people in a matter that does not contradict the law of our Lord, the Mighty and Sublime”. “On calls for negotiations”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  It also coincided with a wave of anti-French sentiment in the country. Throughout 2019 and into early 2020, opposition and civil society leaders organised a series of mass protests calling for the departure of Operation Barkhane troops and UN peacekeepers, whom they said had failed to stem insecurity.[fn]Growing insecurity partly fuelled the public’s anger at France, as many Malian social media users questioned the usefulness of its military operations.Hide Footnote  JNIM tried to capitalise on the public’s frustration by saying they shared the protesters’ demands, while castigating the government for siding with France.[fn]In February and March 2020, JNIM media published videos profiling Koufa and Droukdel, thanking the protesters while highlighting the similarities between the militants’ and protesters’ demands. On file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

There may be more at play in JNIM’s calculations about dialogue than mere opportunism. Both the military stalemate and genuine concerns about spiralling intercommunal violence may have influenced JNIM’s decision. JNIM has attempted to show empathy with ordinary Malians’ suffering, particularly among Fulani who are close to them.[fn]As intercommunal violence raged in central Mali, Koufa expressed compassion, saying: “The state armed traditional hunters to wage war against us in its place. When they failed, they started attacking the Fulani to exterminate us, since most of our fighters come from these communities. ... The hunters began attacking Fulani villages, and we have decided to support the latter since they are the victims of injustice”. He added: “We are helping the Fulani, since they are being massacred because of us”. Audio recording, September 2019, on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote  Militants often accuse France and the Malian government of stoking communal violence as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy. To guard its own reputation in this regard, JNIM goes so far as to deny responsibility for the massacres in central Mali, despite its forces’ involvement in killing civilians, including in those massacres.[fn]See “From the support of Islam to the nation of Islam”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 27 July 2018 (Arabic). See also “Colonial France returns to the policy of genocide”, al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, 18 February 2020 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  In several statements, JNIM leaders have urged fighters to spare villagers, arguing that jihad prescribes the protection of civilians.[fn]In an audio statement, Droukdel cautioned jihadists in Mali against killing civilians, citing Abu Yahya al-Libi (a reputed al-Qaeda ideologue) as saying: “Let no Muslim blood be spilled unlawfully by our hand. It is a critical issue, very clear”. “France and the spider’s nest”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Whether the desire to appear compassionate could motivate JNIM to negotiate in good faith remains unclear, however.

The degree of consensus within JNIM about talks is also hard to assess. Of particular interest is the position of the Katiba al-Furqan, which tends to recruit foreign fighters and answers directly to AQIM. While former AQIM commander Droukdel, who was killed in a French drone strike in November 2020, was an outspoken advocate of dialogue between JNIM and the Malian government, his successor al-Annabi appears more sceptical.[fn]In an audio recording, al-Annabi says: “The [only] path leading to liberation ... is the path of jihad and martyrdom in the cause of God. There is no other path; there can be no negotiations or useless political solutions”. “And God will support those who support him”, al-Andalus Media, 20 June 2021.Hide Footnote  More generally, dialogue is controversial in militant circles, generating heated discussions. In the wake of the U.S.-Taliban deal, jihadist ideologues around the world debated the righteousness of talking with governments.[fn]“Jihadi reactions to the U.S.-Taliban deal and Afghan peace talks”, Jihadica, 23 September 2020.Hide Footnote

JNIM katibas – including al-Furqan – have thus far refrained from taking a public position.[fn]People who have met with Talha al-Libi more than once suggest that he affirms ag Ghaly’s leadership of all JNIM branches. It is unclear, however, where al-Libi’s loyalty would lie if ag Ghaly and al-Annabi were to disagree on dialogue. Crisis Group interviews, Bamako, November 2020.Hide Footnote  Koufa previously expressed interest in talking with religious leaders, including Dicko. At the same time, he deferred to ag Ghaly as having the last word, especially with regard to political negotiations. His deference attests to how firm ag Ghaly’s authority is.[fn]In 2017, when a number of prominent Fulani including Aly Nouhoum Diallo called on Koufa to attend peace talks, he replied: “If you want dialogue, go discuss it with our emir, 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, August 2017, on file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote  Yet even within the Katiba Macina, dialogue is a contentious issue. In November 2019, several Katiba Macina combatants defected to join ISGS, citing discontent with the Katiba’s willingness to enter talks with Dogon militia or the government among the reasons for their departure.[fn]In a December 2020 audio recording attributed to a ISGS senior commander, Abdel Hakim al-Sahraoui (who died in May 2021) cites the Katiba Macina’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the government as justifying war upon it. He argues that the Katina Macina may end up taking the government’s side and fighting other jihadists. On file with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote

JNIM lacks a political office that can translate its ideology into practical demands and make the group more amenable to negotiations.

An additional handicap for JNIM is the lack of experienced political figures beyond ag Ghaly. Back in 2012, when the insurgency started in northern Mali, several high-profile politicians and intellectuals from Kidal – including Alghabass ag Intalla, Ahmada ag Bibi and Mohamed ag Aharib – made up Ansar Dine’s political wing.[fn]Thurston, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel, op. cit., pp. 127-138.Hide Footnote  They represented the jihadist group during negotiations in Burkina Faso and Algeria in the same year. But the team fell apart after its members died or broke away to form a new political movement (the Haut Conseil de l’Unité de l’Azawad) which signed the June 2015 Algiers peace accord. Those who have since emerged as leaders are either military or religious figures. JNIM lacks a political office that can translate its ideology into practical demands and make the group more amenable to negotiations and even were it to establish one, might struggle to find apt representatives.

Overall, JNIM’s willingness to take concrete steps toward dialogue or make concessions with its enemies as part of talks is an open question. There is no evidence that it would be as flexible in talks as it has been in applying Sharia. Additionally, JNIM has never clarified the institutional and political systems it might like to see established. Further, as noted above, even the jihadists’ motivations to engage in talks are unclear. JNIM leaders may envisage a political settlement, but they are just as likely to perceive military victory as the only possible endgame and talks as a means of getting rid of foreign forces so as to achieve that, as has ended up happening in Afghanistan. Uncertainty about what JNIM wants to talk about is a major obstacle to starting negotiations.

C. Mali’s Partners’ Stance

Paris has championed hardline opposition to dialogue for several reasons. In November 2020, President Emmanuel Macron said: “We do not talk with terrorists; we fight”.[fn]“Macron sur le Sahel: ‘Avec les terroristes on ne discute pas’”, Le Point Afrique, 21 November 2020.Hide Footnote  More recently, Macron labelled ag Ghaly and Koufa “enemies” and designated JNIM as the main target of French and Sahelian counter-terrorism efforts.[fn]In February, Macron told a Paris press conference: “In recent weeks, we have converged with our interlocutors from the G5 Sahel in considering Iyad ag Ghaly and Hamadoun Koufa as enemies and not as interlocutors. They are terrorist leaders who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians and the deaths of our Sahelian, European and international soldiers”.Hide Footnote  Paris is understandably reluctant to encourage talks with a group that has killed French soldiers.[fn]Explaining why he rejects dialogue, Macron said: “We cannot suffer from ambiguity. We cannot carry out joint operations with powers that decide to talk with groups that shoot our children. ... I do not know how to explain that to the parents of French soldiers”. Emmanuel Macron s’exprime en amont des sommets du G7 et de l’OTAN,” France 24, 10 June 2021.Hide Footnote  It is worried that dialogue will help legitimate JNIM’s demands and embolden jihadists to try imposing their version of Islam on Mali. As France can use its military presence in the Sahel as leverage to align the Sahelian governments’ positions with its own, its resistance to talks is a major obstacle.[fn]French and Sahelian state officials have repeatedly tried to reach consensus on dialogue. The matter was at the heart of discussions between France and the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) at summits in Pau and N’Djamena, respectively in January 2020 and February 2021. Crisis Group interview, senior Malian official, Bamako, December 2020.Hide Footnote  France may also be able to obstruct dialogue if it begins. In November 2020, as the idea of engagement gained momentum following the prisoner swap, a French airstrike killed Bah ag Moussa Diarra, a JNIM senior commander.[fn]“Mali: mort du haut responsable jihadiste Bah ag Moussa”, TV5 Monde, 13 November 2020.Hide Footnote  Malian media interpreted the raid as an attempt to thwart any broader talks the exchange could have generated.[fn]“Insécurité : Bah ag Moussa, cet ancien officier de l'armée malienne devenu djihadiste, neutralisé par la France”, Le Pays, 16 November 2020.Hide Footnote  A French diplomat in Bamako rejected this claim.[fn]Crisis Group interview, November 2020.Hide Footnote

That said, France has on one occasion supported dialogue with insurgents who were prepared to defect and disarm. In 2013, France encouraged Ansar Dine members to create a new movement with which talks would be acceptable. Ansar Dine defectors then founded a Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad, but soon rebranded it as the Haut Conseil de l’Unité de l’Azawad after French officials told them to drop any reference to Islam. The group signed the 2015 Algiers peace deal with the government though, like other signatories, it has never disarmed.

France is not alone in opposing dialogue with jihadist leaders in Mali. Some U.S. diplomats also reject this option. In an interview with Jeune Afrique, Ambassador Andrew Young, deputy to the commander for civil-military engagement at U.S. Africa Command, said: “There is no negotiation possible with those who carry out attacks against civilians, murder children and advocate for a worldview that is incompatible with the values of democracy and tolerance”.[fn]See “Sahel-Etats-Unis : ‘Nous ne travaillons pas avec des militaires qui ont commis des exactions’”, Jeune Afrique, 14 June 2021.Hide Footnote  He added, however, that he supports the idea of talks with locals who have been indoctrinated by jihadists.

Beyond their opposition to talks with jihadists, France and most of Mali’s partners also resisted attempts to include matters of religion in the negotiations that led to the 2015 accord. During preliminary talks in 2014, the Haut Conseil’s secretary general, Alghabass ag Intalla, suggested that discussions include the principle of laïcité (secularism) and the role of Islam in Mali.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°104, Mali: Last Chance in Algiers, 18 November 2014, p. 10.Hide Footnote  The mediation team supervising the talks rejected his proposal, calling religion a red line. The peace agreement signed in 2015 barely mentioned religion, except for the qadis’ role in rendering justice in northern Mali.

France’s closure of bases in JNIM strongholds in northern Mali seems likely to play into jihadists’ hands.

That said, France is exasperated with Mali’s deteriorating security situation and deepening political crisis. In June 2021, Macron acknowledged that French military strategy was ill suited to the conflict’s contours, announcing that France would slash its troop deployment by about half and close three military bases in northern Mali as it draws the Barkhane mission to a close.[fn]Henri Vernet, “Barkhane : Macron annonce la fermeture des trois bases au nord du Mali”, Le Parisien, 9 July 2021.Hide Footnote  Instead, the Takuba task force will take the lead role in counter-terrorism operations, with special forces from France and other contributing European countries. Sahelian armies “that wish it” can still request training and support.[fn]See Morgane Le Cam and Jean-Pierre Stroobants, “‘Takouba’, l’embryon d’une force européenne”, Le Monde, 11 June 2021.Hide Footnote  As was to be expected, JNIM leaders hailed Barkhane’s end as a victory for jihad.[fn]“Surely, the help of God is always nearby”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Indeed, though it is too early to foresee the consequences, France’s closure of bases in JNIM strongholds in northern Mali seems likely to play into jihadists’ hands.

France’s decision to reduce its military presence has soured relations with Mali’s transitional government. In September, Maïga described the partial withdrawal as “abandonment” in a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. He alleged that France had not consulted Mali before taking the decision, leaving Bamako in search of alternative security partners. Maïga’s speech caused an outcry in Paris, with Macron labelling his comments “unacceptable” and dismissing his government as having no credibility. The junta is reportedly negotiating with the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, for the deployment of at least 1,000 mercenaries. Some observers suggest that in contacting Wagner, Bamako is merely seeking to ramp up pressure on Paris to maintain its support, but the government’s exact motives are unclear.[fn]See Boubacar Haïdara, “Paris-Bamako, les non-dits de la passe d’armes”, Afrique XXI, 12 November 2021.Hide Footnote  France, alongside several countries that support the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, is fiercely opposed to Wagner’s involvement. A complete breakdown of ties is therefore likely should Mali decide to hire a mercenary force.

Some external partners seem keener to talk. For instance, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said: “There will be groups with which we can talk, and which will have an interest in this dialogue to become political actors in the future”. Guterres excluded groups affiliated with the Islamic State, however, arguing that “there are still those whose terrorist radicalism is such that there will be nothing to be done with them”.[fn]“Dialogue possible with certain Sahel jihadists: UN chief”, Defense Post, 19 October 2020.Hide Footnote  Espousing similar views, former AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui has encouraged African states to explore dialogue with jihadists.[fn]“Sahel : Un haut représentant de l’Union Africaine appelle à explorer le dialogue avec les extrémistes”, AFP, 16 October 2020.Hide Footnote  But overt UN support for such talks is implausible given that the UN and all five permanent members of the Security Council have designated JNIM as an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organisation.[fn]Among the countries and organisations listing JNIM as a terrorist organisation are the U.S., the UK, France, Russia, China, Japan, Canada, the European Union and NATO.Hide Footnote  Still other foreign powers have refrained from taking a stance. Many diplomats, including from Germany and Canada, say that Sahelian states should decide for themselves about dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Bamako, November 2020; Niamey, September 2020; and Ouagadougou, March 2021.Hide Footnote

A school in Kidal, Mali. November 2019. CRISIS GROUP / Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim

V. Enabling Dialogue with JNIM

The military stalemate and political quagmire that Mali finds itself in offers authorities an opportunity to review their approach to dialogue. Until now, the Malian government’s half-hearted acceptance of dialogue opened channels of communication with jihadists affiliated with JNIM in central Mali but offered little concrete beyond the prisoner exchange and ad hoc ceasefires. While dialogue comes with risks and will certainly spark controversy among Malian elites and foreign partners, it is an underused tool that could change conflict dynamics and potentially even lay the groundwork for long-term peace.

To be sure, talks would be a leap into the unknown that carries dangers for a government already weakened by internal power struggles.[fn]Notable examples of dialogue between regional governments and jihadists are the 1999 peace talks in Algeria and a Mauritanian program, launched in 2010, that allows state-sponsored Islamic scholars to engage with imprisoned militants. In both cases, scores of jihadists agreed to defect. The Algerian and Mauritanian governments had considerable bargaining power, however, entering talks from a position of strength vis-à-vis weakened jihadist movements.Hide Footnote  Dialogue with jihadists is likely to further polarise Malian society if the government appears willing to accept compromises that restrict people’s freedoms, in particular those of women, or privilege Salafi strands of Islam to the detriment of others. As outlined above, secular elites, human right activists and Sufi Muslims could mobilise against talks. Secondly, it is unclear how dialogue would affect the implementation of the 2015 Algiers peace agreement and other planned reforms, such as revision of the constitution. Thirdly, it may impede the state’s ability to adhere to international commitments – in particular those concerning respect for human rights – that underpin Mali’s partnership with many foreign actors. Some external partners may decide to suspend their engagement with Mali as a result.

Last but not least, given the Malian state’s fragility, JNIM is likely to have the upper hand in eventual talks. Dialogue could also bestow legitimacy upon the militant coalition while conversely undermining the position of foreign actors who adamantly oppose its ideology and dismissed the possibility of allowing the group to encroach on Mali’s politics.

But the past eight years have shown that a military approach alone is not a viable solution. Furthermore, Mali would be ill advised to rely on French and other foreign nations to maintain a sizeable number of troops in the country indefinitely. Not only does these actors’ resolve seem uncertain, especially in light of Mali’s recent overtures to Wagner, but their withdrawal also could be as quick as France’s unilateral decision to overhaul Barkhane or, indeed, the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Should Malian authorities explore dialogue now, they will at least avoid having to rush into negotiations out of desperation or under public pressure, which would reduce their bargaining power.

Pursuing an all-out military victory may not work to JNIM’s advantage, either. As mentioned above, counter-terrorism forces have named ag Ghaly and Koufa as priority targets, pledging renewed efforts to kill them. JNIM has thus far survived the elimination of several mid-level commanders, but ag Ghaly’s removal would likely deal an enormous blow to JNIM, given that he has no heir apparent.

There is a long way to go before such dialogue can come about, however. Malian officials and the JNIM leadership can take four concrete steps to render talks a viable option. First, they need to bolster their commitment to peace talks and defuse resistance within their ranks. Secondly, they should appoint high-level negotiation teams to prepare an agenda. Thirdly, the Malian government should initiate a wider dialogue on the role of Islam in the state and society; it could do so under the auspices of planned national consultations. By establishing what Malians are ready to accept, the dialogue could yield potential compromises that could inform the two parties’ negotiating positions. Finally, the government and insurgents should decide who could serve as mediator. These steps would remove important obstacles to dialogue and send a clear signal that both sides are willing to pursue a settlement through non-military means.

A. Easing Resistance to Dialogue

The Malian government and JNIM’s leaders first need to bring those who resist dialogue on board. Malian authorities will need to persuade France, in particular, to allow high-level talks to take place. To this end, state officials will need to engage in shuttle diplomacy and lay out the potential gains of such talks and how they would protect foreign partners’ interests.

Foreign support for talks and close coordination between Mali and its partners will be critical for any settlement. While, again, the dynamics of any talks will very different from those in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s rapid seizure of that country illustrated how important it is that withdrawal of foreign forces is carefully sequenced with a peace deal between the government and insurgents. The state should not engage in dialogue without the support of its international allies. At the same time, the Malian authorities will need to reassure their foreign partners that they will condition any settlement with JNIM upon the latter’s commitment to – at a minimum – refrain from attacking foreign interests in Mali or using Malian bases to carry out attacks in other countries and, to the best of its ability, stop other militants from doing so. In this respect, Malian officials could hold JNIM leaders to their word: they have asserted that they attack only countries that have attacked them while remaining “at peace with those who behave peacefully with them”.[fn]See “Fifteen dead and huge spoils in a sweeping attack on a Bamako government military outpost in Boni”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Ideally, JNIM would fully break ties with al-Qaeda itself as part of negotiations.

French authorities should afford Malians leeway to explore new ways to address the conflict.

Both Mali and France face difficult balancing acts. While asserting its desire for dialogue, Bamako needs to convince France to maintain its troops, which have so far contributed to preventing militants from seizing important towns. A precipitous withdrawal or drastic downsizing of French forces would most likely shift the balance of power in JNIM’s favour. For France, Paris risks losing influence over Sahelian states if it continues to reject talks. As violence persists, domestic pressure in favour of dialogue is likely to increase in Mali and authorities may decide, whether rightly or wrongly, to pursue it without France’s support. Instead of clinging to their opposition, French authorities should afford Malians leeway to explore new ways to address the conflict. Paris could also help in other ways, for instance by adjusting its military response if the Malian government and JNIM decide to engage.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°261, Frontière Niger-Mali : Mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, 12 July 2018.Hide Footnote  French troops could suspend or temporarily limit military operations in JNIM-controlled areas while talks are taking place. Paris could also condition a drawdown on JNIM’s firm commitment to making concessions.

To be sure, with elections approaching in Mali (initially scheduled in February, but now postponed sine die) and France (April 2022), exploratory talks need to be suitably timed.[fn]In November 2021, the government made it clear that it will not be able to organise elections by February and that the transition period will have to be extended. So far, no new timeline has been decided. “Mali: Elections présidentielles du 27 février 2022: Le report confirmé”, Le Combat, 9 November 2021.Hide Footnote  Mali’s interim authorities face a tight deadline for completing the transition, while the May 2021 coup, the country’s second in less than a year, has raised concerns about whether the junta truly intends to hand over power.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°304, Transition au Mali : préserver l’aspiration au changement, 21 September 2021.Hide Footnote  Similarly, foreign policy in the Sahel and beyond is likely to influence, even if marginally, French public opinion as the presidential election campaign kicks off. Macron, who will probably seek a second term, may stiffen his opposition to talks with jihadists who have French soldiers’ blood on their hands. Newly elected officials with a fresh mandate in either country might be in a better position to carefully weigh the importance of dialogue.

For their part, JNIM leaders will need to soften their stance on foreign troops in the region. Dialogue is unlikely in the near future if the jihadists continue to condition talks on these forces’ withdrawal. Instead, foreign involvement should be a topic for discussion during negotiations. Another hurdle is opposition among Malian government officials to JNIM’s link with al-Qaeda’s transnational network as well as the foreign militants in its ranks. While the Malian authorities strive to convince France to assume a secondary role, JNIM leaders should endeavour to reconsider the group’s ties with foreign affiliates, in particular AQIM, but also the Katiba al-Furqan’s foreign fighters. As part of negotiations, state officials might push for JNIM to cut ties with al-Qaeda during talks. There is precedent: Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham – formerly an al-Qaeda affiliate involved in the Syrian civil war – broke with the transnational network partly in an attempt to win international acceptance.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “The Jihadist Factor in Syria’s Idlib: A Conversation with Abu Muhammad al-Jolani”, 20 February 2020.Hide Footnote