Abstract: In 2012, al-Qa`ida-affiliated militants from North Africa and the Sahel joined regional armed groups in the Tuareg rebellions in northern Mali. The goal was to create an Islamic state and combine regional grievances with broader al-Qa`ida strategic ambitions. In 2013, journalists uncovered an al-Qa`ida ‘playbook’ for Mali, which provided insight into al-Qa`ida’s goals for the country. This was outlined in a 2013 article in this publication by Pascale Combelle Siegel. In that article, Siegel argued that the playbook served as an “ominous warning” of a long-term plan by al-Qa`ida for the Sahel. Unfortunately, events validate Siegel’s warning and suggest that al-Qa`ida, through its North Africa- and West Africa-based affiliates, is advancing on the goals it set out for its movement in the region.

In early 2013, the then Associated Press journalist Rukmini Callimachi recovered what was dubbed “The Mali al-Qa`ida Playbook” in Timbuktu, a document that provided unprecedented insight into al-Qa`ida’s strategic ambitions for the Sahel region of West Africa.1 The playbook was believed to be a guidance letter from the senior most al-Qa`ida leader in Africa, Algeria-based al-Qa`ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Emir Abdulmalek Droukdel, to his lieutenants in northern Mali. In it, Droukdel suggested that al-Qa`ida viewed the 2012 Tuareg rebellions in Mali as an “historic” opportunity to expand and nurture a long-term presence in the Sahel.

The missive outlined five broad goals: uniting the Azawad people,a regulating the relationship with regional armed group Ansar Dine,b curbing the radical activities of militants, imposing sharia law, and developing support for external al-Qa`ida activities. These objectives aligned with a directive from al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, disseminated in September 2013, titled “General Guidelines for Jihad.”2 In this communiqué, al-Zawahiri explained that establishing unity of effort, cultivating local support, and mobilizing populations were necessary to build up the jihadi movement as a prelude to the eventual creation of a caliphate.

In a 2013 CTC Sentinel article, Pascale Combelle Siegel argued that the AQIM playbook served as an “ominous warning” of a long-term plan by al-Qa`ida that could signal a “successful return” of the group.3 Unfortunately, events in the Sahel since 2013 have validated Siegel’s warning, with the al-Qa`ida network in the region methodically (albeit slowly) advancing on almost all of the strategic objectives it set for itself in the playbook. AQIM and al-Qa`ida elements have deliberately integrated themselves into the region by nurturing ties to disenfranchised tribal and ethnic groups, fighting alongside armed groups in support of local/regional grievances, fostering unity of effort, and slowly implementing their version of rule of law.

These mechanisms reflect disciplined strategic patience and could help enable al-Qa`ida lay the foundation for a durable presence in the Sahel, one that could eventually train and host foreign fighters and provide the sanctuary necessary to support external attacks. This long-term aspiration is alluded to in the playbook, where AQIM outlined the advantages of gaining a Mali-based safe haven:

“Gaining a region under our control and a people fighting for us and a refuge for our members that allows us to move forward with our program at this stage is no small thing and nothing to be underestimated. The enemy’s constant, persistent effort now is to not leave any safe havens for the Mujahideen.”

Establishing Unity of Effort
In 2012, al-Qa`ida elements recognized that for the strategy to succeed in Mali, the group needed to establish an organizational relationship with regional armed groups. The move aligned with al-Zawahiri’s broader guidance to develop unity of effort, working together to “create an organized, united, ideological and aware jihadi force.”4 Two specific goals identified in the Mali playbook underscore this effort: uniting the Azawad people and regulating al-Qa`ida’s relationship with Ansar Dine.

These goals were largely satisfied in March 2017 when al-Qa`ida formally announced the unification of several Mali-based armed groups under the umbrella organization Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam was al-Muslimin (JNIM), or Group to Support Islam and Muslims.c This merger was the manifestation of planning put in place since 2012 and brought together members from AQIM’s Sahara branch, Ansar Dine, Al-Murabitun, and the Macina Liberation Front. It also helped to underpin ethno-political dynamics that probably contributed to al-Qa`ida’s initial presence in the Sahel by naming Ansar Dine Emir Iyad ag Ghali (an influential ethnic Tuareg in northern Mali) as the leader of the group. In the announcement, JNIM and ag Ghali not only pledged allegiance to AQIM, but also to al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri and the Taliban (following longstanding al-Qa`ida tradition), underscoring the influence and strategic direction of al-Qa`ida senior leadership over the group.

This merger helped to create efficiencies, promote cohesion, and develop a more strategic operational outlook. Only three days after the announcement, JNIM claimed credit for an attack on a Malian outpost in Boulekessi, Mali, which killed more than 11 soldiers. The group has since conducted attacks on the French Embassy in Burkina Faso in March 2018; executed a sophisticated attack on French and U.N. forces in Timbuktu in April 2018; targeted a Western-style hotel in Bamako in March 2018; and assaulted the Sahel G5 Joint Force headquarters in Sevare, Mali, in June 2018, which led to the removal of the commander a few days later.d

After the attack on the G5 Joint Force in Sevare, the JNIM made clear the extent of its ambition:

“This blessed invasion comes to prove to the occupiers and their allies that by the grace of Allah, the mujahideen proceed on the path of jihad until the last Crusader soldier is repelled and until the Shariah of Allah is established on our land from the lands of Islam.”5

An image captured from JNIM’s video announcement regarding its 2017 merger in Mali. Featured are (left) Ahmadou Koufa, representing the Macina Liberation Front; (second to left) Yahya Abu al-Hammam, representing the AQIM Sahara Branch; (middle) Iyad ag Ghali, representing Ansar Dine; (middle right) Mohamed Ould Nouini, the now-deceased former leader of Al-Murabitun; and (right) Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sanhaji, an AQIM senior cleric and judge. 

Cultivating Support
Al-Qa`ida appears to also be progressing on its efforts to cultivate local support, although it has not completely satisfied the two specific goals AQIM outlined in the playbook: curbing radical policies and prepping the terrain to apply sharia law. However, al-Qa`ida almost certainly understood the cultivation of local support would not be achieved rapidly but rather would be a generational undertaking. This was acknowledged in the AQIM playbook, comparing al-Qa`ida’s “project” in Mali to the care of a “newborn, with many phases ahead of it that it must pass through to grow and mature.”6

In the playbook, al-Qa`ida stipulated that it needed to create more predictable and transparent policies in northern Mali, where militants were notorious for the indiscriminant burning of buildings and the implementation of harsh punishments amongst the local populace. Since 2012, al-Qa`ida has implemented rules and regulations forbidding the destruction of local shrines and the uneven application of religious punishments, suggesting this was contradictory to longstanding al-Qa`ida guidance.7 Al-Qa`ida also attempted to reign in the brutality being implemented by Iyad ag Ghali and notorious al-Qa`ida commanders Abou Zeid and Mohkhar Belmokhtar. Droukdel reportedly viewed them as “impetuous fanatics who were likely to alienate the very people they were trying to win over.”8 The deaths of Zeid and (likely) Belmokhtar in French-led counterterrorism operations9 almost certainly enabled AQIM to generate greater compliance amongst fighters in the Sahel/Sahara region and increasingly draw upon more disciplined and ideological leaders, such as the current AQIM Sahara branch emir Yahya Abu al-Hammam.

Perhaps more importantly, al-Qa`ida also recognized that the implementation of sharia law in Mali was vital to its long-term aspirations for the region. The group acknowledged in the playbook that this implementation needed to be a “gradual evolution” due to the lack of pre-existing religious education in the region. Al-Qa`ida stated that until circumstances were ready to apply sharia, officials needed to “talk and preach to people in order to convince them and educate them.”

Algerian-born Yahya Abu al-Hammam is a longstanding AQIM leader and U.S.- and U.N.-designated terrorist who has been tied to not only high-profile attacks in Mali and Mauritania (including a 2005 attack that killed 17 soldiers), but the kidnapping and detention of several Westerners.10 (Photo from December 2015 AQIM media statement)

Al-Qa`ida elements in the region have since been adopting a measured approach that includes religious education, outreach from al-Qa`ida ideological and religious leaders, and the provision of legal services for locals.11 Consequently, some of the local populace in northern Mali is likely becoming habituated to (the jihadis’ version of) sharia law. For instance, in 2013, when al-Qa`ida-aligned militants attempted to conduct a public stoning in Gao, Mali, locals interfered and stopped the practice. However, by 2017, militants were openly enforcing (their version of) sharia law (including public stonings) with little to no resistance from locals, according to data provided by Human Rights Watch and regional press reports.12

Mobilizing Populations
In line with al-Zawahiri’s guidelines to mobilize local populations in support of al-Qa`ida’s efforts, the playbook for Mali stipulated that fighters needed to patiently set conditions for locals to embrace al-Qa`ida’s external activities. This included providing instruction to “pretend to be a domestic movement” and not immediately show that al-Qa`ida had “global, expansionistic jihadi” ambitions for the region. In the playbook, AQIM laid out proposals stipulating that it would provide some manpower to Mali-based armed groups to support localized efforts and share the burden of governing, but would also have another parallel effort to support “jihadi action outside of the region.”

Al-Qa`ida groups in the Sahel have progressed on this initiative, using their safe haven in northern Mali to support three external attacks in West Africa against Western interests. This includes the January 2016 attack on a hotel in Burkina Faso, a March 2016 attack on a hotel in the Ivory Coast, and the March 2018 complex attacks on the French Embassy and a Burkinabe compound associated with the Chief of Defense in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The recent shift to attacking more hardened targets in 2018 may portend an increasing confidence and operational sophistication among al-Qa`ida elements in the region. Similarly, attack data also suggests that as of 2018, al-Qa`ida-affiliated, Mali-based groups are expanding into northern Burkina Faso, where as of early 2018, the threat of jihadi violence has forced the closure of several schools and militants are banning the use of the French language.13 In addition, on September 18, 2018, an al-Qa`ida-affiliated media outlet announced a new al-Qa`ida faction in Burkina Faso that would fight Ouagadougou’s “oppression and tyranny” and would defend against the “humiliation” and torture of Muslims in the region.14

Furthermore, a March 5, 2018, statement released by JNIM publicly referred to northern Mali as the “Timbuktu Emirate” (the first time al-Qa`ida has publicly done this since 2013), signaling that al-Qa`ida may be increasingly confident that it is meeting the preconditions to establish an Islamic state in the region.15 AQIM has also issued joint media statements with other affiliates, such as al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), that reflect the groups still aspire to contest “far enemies” in the West. This includes statements in 2017 calling for attacks on the United States, criticizing the 2018 move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and denouncing French forces.16

The Significance of Mali
Mali, home to the literal city of Timbuktu, may seem remote and relatively insignificant to some Westerners. However, the region would have strategic implications if a significant part of it fell to al-Qa`ida, particularly if it sets the precedent for the group to establish some form of state or ‘emirate’ within Mali based on its own brand of sharia law (similar to why Afghanistan remains so important). Should Mali be consumed by al-Qa`ida’s influence, it could further empower the encroachment of militant ideology into already volatile nations in West Africa and facilitate this reach into more stable regions as well.

Although located in sub-Saharan West Africa, Mali is connected to the Maghreb region of North Africa via a series of historical trade and facilitation routes. The militancy in Mali has been fueled in large part by the influx of weapons from Libya.17 In addition, it abuts the historical AQIM base of operations in Algeria. (The Algeria/Mali border region is particularly lucrative to JNIM and al-Qa`ida-affiliated terrorists, as it falls outside of the reach of the current French counterterrorism footprint.) Mali also sits at a crossroads to nations that have so far been largely inoculated by the rise of extremism in Africa, including the Ivory Coast—one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.18

Mali is likely viewed by al-Qa`ida as being advantageous and particularly vulnerable, owing to its near-failed state status, ongoing ethnic strife, and large percentage of the population that is disaffected with the government. Al-Qa`ida officials have been certain to note the shortfalls of Bamako on several occasions. For example, in a July 2018 statement from the JNIM Emir, ag Ghali stated that the 2018 presidential elections in Mali were like a “mirage” and the Malian people would reap nothing from it but “illusions, as it has always been accustomed.”19 Public discontent with Bamako was likely a contributor to the low turnout, with less than 28 percent of registered voters participating in the process.20

Al-Qa`ida is slowly yet methodically advancing its strategic goals in Mali. This progression is likely difficult to observe, given its often discrete tactics (a shift from the heavy-handed practices it employed in 2012). Undoubtedly, inter-marriage or the implementation of sharia law is not as apparent as some of the high-profile and media-savvy tactics employed by other groups such as the Islamic State. However, the slow and steady progression in the Sahel is notable and could pose a significant long-term threat to U.S. and Western interests in Africa—particularly given the encroachment of al-Qa`ida’s ideology into vulnerable populations of the Sahel.

Al-Qa`ida appears resolved to establish a foothold in the Sahel via AQIM and JNIM, despite pressure from ongoing French-led efforts and the presence of more than 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers there.21 The lack of progress of the peace process in Mali, coupled with the limitations of regional security forces, suggests that the current counterterrorism mission in Mali will remain inconsistent and ineffective. In addition, al-Qa`ida has openly declared its aspirations to remove all Western influence from the Sahel—which, if successful, could pave the way for its ambition to establish its brand of Islamic rule in Mali. For example, following a June 19, 2017, attack against a Western-affiliated hotel in Bamako, Mali, al-Qa`ida stated it was sending a “message dripping with blood and body parts” that Western “crusaders” would never be secure in the region.22

Should al-Qa`ida’s project of building a state in Mali succeed, it could advance al-Qa`ida’s strategic goals and become a flagship affiliate that inspires increased confidence in al-Qa`ida as an organization. In a September 2017 statement, al-Zawahiri claimed that AQIM’s efforts in the Maghreb and Sahel would serve as an “epic chapter in the war annals of Muslim history” and that the unity of effort in the region was as an “example, worthy of emulation, for … Mujahid brothers and Muslims the world over.”23

In addition, control over territory in Mali could help to support external attack planning, with the 1998 attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania serving as ominous examples of what al-Qa`ida may achieve with an Africa-based safe haven (Sudan in that case). Finally, it could position an increasingly emboldened al-Qa`ida to intensify its threats on the capitals of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, further undermine stability in already vulnerable regions, and threaten instability in economic pillars of West Africa such as the Ivory Coast. CTC

Jami Forbes is an analyst with the Department of the Army who specializes in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency studies, with regional focuses on Africa and Afghanistan.

Substantive Notes
[a] Azawad is the name used to describe Northern Mali, largely prescribed by ethnic Tuareg and Berbers in the region. It was also the short-lived name of the state established by rebels in Mali in 2012.

[b] Ansar Dine, or “Defenders of the Faith,” is a Northern Mali-based armed group led by Tuareg rebel leader Iyad ag Ghali. The group was designated as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group by the U.S. State Department in March 2013 due to its actions in inciting rebellion in northern Mali and its ties to al-Qa`ida.

[c] On September 5, 2018, the U.S. Department of State declared JNIM to be a Specially Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. In the announcement, the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, noted, “Al-Qaida and its affiliates like JNIM remain deadly threats to the United States and our allies. These designations are part of our continuing efforts to squeeze al-Qaida’s finances, denying it the resources it needs to carry out attacks.” “State Department Terrorist Designation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM),” U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2018.

[d] The G5 Sahel Joint Force is a collaborative security effort involving France and several Sahelian countries, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad. It was established in 2017 in response to terrorist threat posed in part by AQIM and JNIM. It remains in nascent stages, but is receiving financial and material support from the international community.

[1] Rukmini Callimachi, “In Timbuktu, Al-Qaida Left Behind A Manifesto,” Associated Press, February 14, 2013.

[2] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” As-Sahab Media, September 13, 2013.

[3] Pascale Combelle Siegel, “AQIM’s Playbook in Mali,” CTC Sentinel 6:3 (2013).

[4] Ibid.

[5] “JNIM Statement Following June 30, 2018 Attack on Sahel G5 Force Headquarters.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu And Their Race to Save The World’s Most Precious Manuscripts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] “AQIM confirms Zeid died in Mali battle,” France 24, June 16, 2013; Gordon Lubold and Matthew Dalton, “U.S.-French Operation Targeted Elusive North African Militant, U.S. Says,” Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2016.

[10] U.S. Department of State Rewards for Justice Program, Yahya Abu el Hammam.

[11] Benjamin Roger and Farid Alitat, “Sahel: Iyad Ag Ghali, The Ghost Threat,” Paris Jeune Afrique, March 24, 2018; “Al-Qaida Affiliate Incites Attacks on French,” BBC, April 8, 2018; “Rising Extremism Stirs Inter Communal Conflict,” All Africa Global Media, September 5, 2018; Philip Objai, Jr., “Here’s How Terrorists Recruit Africa’s Children,” Daily Beast, January 21, 2016; “The Social Roots of Jihadist Violence in Burkina Faso’s North,” International Crisis Group, October 12, 2017.

[12] “Mali: Islamist Armed Group Abuses, Banditry Surge,” Human Rights Watch, January 18, 20217; Lizzie Dearden, “Unmarried Couple Stoned to Death in Mali for Breaking Islamic Law,” Independent, May 18, 2017.

[13] “Teachers Security Fears Leave Thousands of Children Out of School in Burkina Faso,” Relief Web, May 17, 2018; Heni Nsaiba and Caleb Weiss, “Ansaroul Islam and the Growing Terrorist Insurgency in Burkina Faso,” CTC Sentinel 11:3 (2018).

[14] “Respond to the Tyrants,” Global Islamic Media Front, September 18, 2018.

[15] “Statement and Warning,” Az-Zallaqa Media Foundation, March 5, 2018.

[16] AQIM Ramadan statement, May 16, 2018; AQIM and AQAP joint statement, September 28, 2017; AQIM and AQAP joint statement, July 16, 2017; AQIM and AQAP joint statement, February 19, 2017.

[17] Stewart Patrick, “Collateral Damage: How Libyan Weapons Fueled Mali’s Violence,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 29, 2013.

[18] “Cote d’Ivoire: Sustaining Its Economic Transformation,” International Monetary Fund, June 29, 2018.

[19] “From Nusrat al-Islam to the Ummah Of Islam,” Al-Zallaqa Media Foundation, July 27, 2018.

[20] Tiemoko Diallo, “Low Turnout in Mali Election,” Reuters, August 13, 2018.

[21] “MINUSMA Factsheet,” United Nations.

[22] JNIM statement “Killing a Number of Crusaders as A Result of Heroic Operation,” June 19, 2017.

[23] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Messages From the Front Lines,” As Sahab Media Foundation, September 16, 2017.

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