In April 2012, the fall of northern Mali to a mixture of jihadist groups and irredentist Tuareg rebels caught the international community by surprise.[1] Two months later, the three jihadist rebel factions expelled the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) from the Malian city of Gao and many of the north’s towns and villages. This marked a peak period of dominance for jihadist groups in Mali, who evolved in a matter of months from living in desert hideouts to controlling northern Mali’s cities, with leaders establishing operations in former Malian administrative buildings, including a mansion once owned by deposed Libyan leader Colonel Mu`ammar Qadhafi.[2]

Once it became clear that Mali’s army was not capable of reconquering the north and a foreign intervention was months away, neighboring countries, as well as Malian actors,[3] began multiple processes of mediation to arrive at a political solution to the conflict. At the heart of these negotiations was an idea that “local” actors—specifically, the MNLA and the largely Malian Tuareg Salafi-jihadi group Ansar Eddine, founded by longtime powerbroker and rebel leader Iyad ag Ghaly—could be separated from the presumably more radical “global jihadist” groups, such as al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).[4]

It was believed by many, however, that the three jihadist groups occupying northern Mali—including Ansar Eddine—cooperated closely, sharing space and sometimes personnel. Their joint offensive toward the central Malian city of Konna in January 2013, which prompted the successful French intervention just days later, put to rest the idea that Ansar Eddine as a whole could be easily separated from AQIM and MUJAO.[5]

Yet a more fundamental problem with the “local” vs. “foreign” distinction is that all of northern Mali’s jihadist groups recruited locally in Mali and the broader Sahel, both from Mali’s arid north as well as from the more heavily-populated south. This article—based in part on interviews conducted in Senegal, Mali and Niger in 2013—explores the local face and context of jihadism in Mali, focusing largely on AQIM and MUJAO.[6] It finds that the lines between “local” and “foreign” are often blurry in the Sahel, and that isolating one group of militants in favor of others will be difficult to achieve.

Mali’s Jihadists
For nearly a decade before the fall of northern Mali in early 2012, AQIM and its predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), worked to establish itself within local social and economic structures in the region, including trafficking and other business networks.[7] These efforts included providing assistance and money to local populations (and even sometimes offering assistance to local security officials),[8] and marrying into local communities.[9] As described by the International Crisis Group in a report from July 2012, these connections meant that AQIM represented “a political and social object, not a pathology,” one that only survived in the Sahel and particularly in Mali through “the gradual construction of social arrangements at local, national, and international levels.”[10]

This strategy of local emplacement did not only involve the recruitment and promotion of fighters from neighboring Sahelian countries.[11] Although Mauritanians began joining the GSPC in large numbers in 2004 and 2005 after a series of crackdowns by Mauritanian authorities, these new recruits also included a significant number of Malians. According to the Institute for Security Studies, for example, a list of 108 top terrorists operating in the Sahel-Sahara region compiled by the Algerian government in 2011 included 21 Malians.[12]

The most notable (and well-known) Malian recruits to jihadist organizations in the years before the 2012 occupation were, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the country’s north, where various reformist religious movements, including Tablighi Jama`at, had made limited inroads for several decades.[13] This occurred at a time when religious groups were growing throughout Mali, causing ongoing changes in the dynamics around religious politics and overt religious practice in the country.[14]

As early as 2010, one of AQIM’s units known as a suraya[15] fell under the command of Hamada ag Hama, an Ifoghas Tuareg from Mali’s Kidal region, who is also known as Abdelkrim el-Targui, Abdelkrim Taleb, or Malik Abou Abdelkrim. Ag Hama, whose unit was comprised largely of Tuareg from Mali and Niger,[16] was behind the 2010 kidnapping and later purported execution[17] of French aid worker Michel Germaneau,[18] as well as the November 2011 kidnapping of French citizens Philippe Verdon and Serge Lazarevic in the Malian village of Hombori.[19] Ag Hama is also the cousin of longtime Tuareg powerbroker and Ansar Eddine founder Iyad ag Ghaly.[20] While Ag Hama or his unit were believed to be behind the reported execution of Verdon in March 2013,[21] he was rarely seen in the north during the occupation, despite his significant pre-rebellion role in the organization.[22]

This was not the case for other Malians involved in jihadist activity in the region, who would serve as key commanders and the public faces of these militant groups during the occupation of northern Mali.

One notable figure was the Bérabiche[23] Arab Oumar Ould Hamaha,[24] a colorful and seemingly omnipresent figure who became a favorite of Western journalists looking for insight into jihadist goals and operations. Although Hamaha was, after April 2012, publicly identified as a senior leader in Ansar Eddine, MUJAO, and a supposedly new Arab jihadist group called Ansar al-Shari`a,[25] he was first and foremost a longtime AQIM figure close to Mokhtar Belmokhtar,[26] and possibly Belmokhtar’s father-in-law.[27] Born in Kidal and educated in Timbuktu,[28] it is unclear when Hamaha joined AQIM, although he led the 2008 kidnapping of UN diplomat Robert Fowler and his adjunct Louis Guay in Niger,[29] as well as other kidnapping and military operations.[30] Long before that, however, Hamaha was known for his charismatic, prolific, and rigorous preaching of the Qur’an. Hamaha claims to have traveled the world studying and preaching before coming back to the Sahel, and a former Malian police officer stationed in the northern city of Kidal recalled hearing of Hamaha’s local preaching more than a decade earlier.[31]

Another key local Malian figure and longtime jihadist was Sanda Ould Bouamama, also known as Sanda Abou Mohamed. Ould Bouamama, a Bérabiche Arab born in or near Timbuktu[32] into the Oulad Ich tribe,[33] became the public face of Ansar Eddine in Timbuktu, both during the occupation and after the French intervention. He was frequently interviewed, met with the city’s “crisis committee,” and coordinated governance and the distribution of aid and other materials.[34] Despite publicly being identified with Ansar Eddine, Ould Bouamama was also a longstanding GSPC and AQIM member. He was arrested in 2005 in Mauritania amid accusations that he had participated in a GSPC attack that year on the Mauritanian garrison at Lemgheity.[35] He was arrested in Bamako in 2010 before being released quietly in January 2011, possibly as part of an exchange for hostages held by the group.[36]

Bouamama also reveals the significant involvement of local militants as well as local intermediaries in the governance of northern Mali in 2012. While it is often unclear to what extent new recruits and cooperating notables and other interlocutors were motivated by ideology or by more basic needs for income or self-preservation, Malians played key roles in implementing jihadist groups’ attempts at governance and control in the north. The use of Malians allowed AQIM and MUJAO to hide their actions behind those of Ansar Eddine, while also tapping into local religious, ethnic, and cultural divides to fuel support and recruitment.[37]

All Politics (and Militancy?) is Local
AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar Eddine were also able to draw a range of local recruits into their fold while other Malian members publicly emerged. The Malian members provided a local face to these groups in Timbuktu and Gao in particular.

In Timbuktu and elsewhere, Ansar Eddine and AQIM[38] drew Malians from north and south into their ranks.[39] The head of the Islamic police in Timbuktu, for instance, was a Kel Essouk Tuareg named Mohamed ag Moussa from the village of Aglal to the east of Timbuktu.[40] Although he was not a visible member of AQIM before the occupation, Ag Moussa, who developed a particular reputation for cruelty toward women,[41] was far from unknown. Having reportedly picked up more hard line attitudes after spending time in Saudi Arabia, Ag Moussa established a mosque in the city and preached on Mali’s official television station after returning to Mali around 2007.[42] According to press accounts, many in the city disliked Ag Moussa for his “foreign” views and discourse.[43]

While many local imams and notables fled or refused to cooperate with AQIM and Ansar Eddine, others such as the teacher Mohammed bin Hussain (known as Houka-Houka) served in key positions in the Islamic police in the city.[44] Some religious leaders even cooperated in the city’s governance.[45] According to one local official, some imams also helped recruit for AQIM and Ansar Eddine in Timbuktu and other parts of central and southern Mali, even as others refused.[46]

Others, largely Arabs and Tuaregs from Timbuktu, also joined AQIM and Ansar Eddine in the city or returned once Timbuktu fell in April 2012 after years spent with AQIM in the desert.[47] It does appear, however, that divisions based on race or ethnicity may have also played a role in the organization, with black recruits sometimes reportedly subjected to menial duty, or left behind in Timbuktu after other jihadists had pulled out of the city.[48]

A similar (although not identical) pattern emerged in Gao, which was controlled exclusively by MUJAO after June 2012. MUJAO reportedly started as a spin-off of AQIM led largely by Mauritanians and Malian Arabs from the Gao region (notably the Lamhar or al-Amhar tribe, reputed to be heavily involved in the drug trade in northern Mali).[49] The group’s leaders, the Mauritanian Hamada Ould Kheiru and the half-Tuareg, half-Arab Malian Sultan Ould Badi,[50] had extensive histories with AQIM and the GSPC (in Kheiru’s case), while the group’s supposed military leader, another Arab from the Gao region known as Ahmed el-Tilemsi, had also reportedly been involved with AQIM (and particularly with Belmokhtar) for several years.[51] While their recruiting base quickly diversified, drawing in Africans from a variety of countries in the sub-region, the group appears to have had significant success picking up local recruits, notably among Songhai and Peul communities.[52] Indeed, the head of the Islamic police in Gao was a Songhai and former merchant, who maintained his role with the organization throughout the occupation and has even spoken for the group after the French intervention,[53] months after it became clear how international the group’s leadership had become.[54]

It is difficult to estimate the numbers of recruits or their motivations for joining militant groups, especially in an environment of extreme poverty and one where religious ideology competes and sometimes overlaps with tribal and ethnic identity, tension and insecurity. MUJAO made carefully calibrated pitches meant to appeal to these populations, preaching religious values while also portraying themselves as defending the local population in Gao (a city dominated by Songhai) against the mostly Tuareg MNLA.[55] MUJAO statements and videos appealed to Songhai symbols,[56] and sometimes referenced conceptions among some sedentary communities of Tuareg as racist.[57] It appears that local conflicts, such as the one between the Peul and Bella (often referred to as “black Tuareg”) communities, or between Lamhar and Kounta Arabs, may have played a significant role in influencing MUJAO actions and recruitment in Gao as well as in places like the key crossroads town of Douentza.[58]

While Malians from Gao and its environs joined MUJAO for diverse reasons, it is equally clear that the group appealed to religious leaders and local “notables,” both Arab and Songhai, for support.[59] The group also specifically recruited from “Wahhabi” villages, by-products of a strong reformist movement that had existed and grown in the Gao region since the late 1960s.[60] After the intervention in Mali, attention focused on one Wahhabi village just outside of Gao, Kadji, where MUJAO recruited fighters and which may have been used by MUJAO to stage subsequent infiltrations into the city.[61] Yet this recruitment went beyond Kadji, focusing in part on other villages in the Gao area known for years for their strict religious practices and isolation from other communities.[62]

This process of working through and recruiting local religious leaders and notables also extended beyond northern Mali’s main cities. While some small villages appear to have escaped daily scrutiny by jihadist groups,[63] local imams and traditional marabouts (Muslim holy men) in places such as Goundam and Gossi were also reportedly involved in governance and assembling fighters for northern Mali’s jihadist groups.[64] Indeed, the push by Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJAO toward central Mali in January 2013 was led by a local marabout from the area around Konna, Amadou Kouffa, whose beliefs and preaching had reportedly grown more radical in recent years.[65]

Interaction with specific religious communities, the enforcement (for a time) of justice and the provision of assistance, opposition to the MNLA, and interaction with local notables and religious leaders all contributed to a level of local support for MUJAO in Gao. This sympathy became apparent even in interviews with members of Gao’s Comité des Sages, who served as interlocutors between Gao’s population and MUJAO during the occupation. In interviews with several members of the committee, they strongly denied allegations of active support for and collaboration with MUJAO, although they all expressed more favorable opinions of MUJAO than the MNLA.[66] Interestingly, those interviewed repeatedly referred to MUJAO as “the mujahidin,” consciously or unconsciously adopting MUJAO’s characterization of itself.[67]

The Costs of Local Recruitment
The overwhelming displays of joy in villages and cities of northern Mali after their liberation by French forces provide some testament to the overall unpopularity of these groups (although the MNLA was no more popular, and in many areas was more hated than the jihadist groups). The period of occupation saw protests against jihadist rule in each of northern Mali’s three cities as well as in smaller towns and villages. The jihadists’ rush to impose Shari`a and hudud punishments—including stonings, amputations, and public whippings—even embarrassed AQIM’s leadership in northern Algeria, prompting a strong, private rebuke from the group’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Mus`ab al-Wadud).[68] Yet ironically, in many areas the local nature of Mali’s jihadist groups appears to have hindered, rather than helped, their cause.

Secondary reporting and interviews conducted in Mali, Senegal, and the United States suggest that it was local radicals and local conflicts that drove some of the most egregious actions in northern Mali since April 2012. In turn, these abuses reduced support that may have otherwise existed for these groups for their role in providing security and a measure of economic protection and aid.[69]

In Timbuktu, where Malians and specifically Timbuktu locals were in part responsible for the city’s governance, key representatives such as Mohamed ag Moussa were widely feared and reviled for their harsh treatment of populations.[70] In other cases, locals involved in the city’s Islamic police turned a blind eye to residents’ complaints about hudud punishments and the destruction of cherished shrines, tombs, and mausoleums.[71]

In Gao, meanwhile, it was local recruits who often proved the most hard line in their interpretations and enforcement of Shari`a. While non-Malians certainly played key roles in these endeavors, it was recruits from the Gao region who often played out local conflicts and took out their own frustrations on local populations, especially local women, and who “exhausted the population” in the words of a Malian NGO figure who made repeated trips to Gao during the occupation.[72] On the other hand, Abdel Hakim, a non-Malian (sources disagree on whether he is from Algeria or Morocco) jointly charged with administering the city, developed a positive reputation among many residents for his attempts to provide security and assistance to the local population,[73] even as he was deeply involved in the harsh aspects of MUJAO’s rule.[74]

Militancy is often a minority phenomenon. Jihadist militancy is not mutually exclusive to other endogenous factors, whether they are economic, social, tribal, or intensely personal. In Mali, these factors came together over a number of years to produce a small but important cadre of fighters that came from a cross-section of the country, from Tuaregs, to Arabs, to Songhai, to southern Malians.[75] This is not to mention the involvement of jihadists from other Sahelian countries, where business and blood ties often straddle borders, and populations can easily move back and forth—a blurring of lines that makes the very act of defining “local” or “national” a difficult enterprise.

While this turn toward militancy in no way represents all or even most of Malian society, it still demonstrates the importance of these fighters in jihadist governance in northern Mali, as well as the fact that it is not always “foreign” fighters who are the most radical. Additionally, the history of the last 18 months shows the imprint of radical ideas on small parts of Mali, at a time when religious leaders and movements from a host of backgrounds become more important in Malian politics.[76]

Mali faces a series of security, political, and governance challenges in the future. Despite promises of cash and external support from foreign partners, many Malian state institutions, from the armed forces to governance structures, will need to be revamped at the same time that the government and external players look for solutions to problems of underdevelopment, separatist sentiment, and instability in the country’s north.[77] Yet the presence of Malians among jihadist groups in the Sahel is a real cause for concern that could resonate in the country for years to come.

Andrew Lebovich is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher and analyst focused on security and political issues in North Africa and the Sahel.

[1] In March 2012, disgruntled army officers overthrew the democratically-elected government in Mali. Capitalizing on confusion in the wake of the coup, Islamist militants—belonging to three groups, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Eddine—managed to take control of northern Mali. In early 2013, the French military intervened to stop an Islamist push south, and the three Salafi-jihadi groups lost control of the north.

[2] Drew Hinshaw, “In Gadhafi’s Timbuktu Villa, an al Qaeda Retreat,” Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2013; Laurent Touchard, Baba Ahmed, and Cherif Ouazani, “Aqmi: un tueur nommé Abou Zeid,” Jeune Afrique, October 3, 2012.

[3] One such initiative was led by the head of Mali’s High Islamic Council, Mahmoud Dicko, who was officially mandated by the government to lead negotiations. Another involved notables from northern Mali’s three main cities, organized in part by Malian politician (and current negotiator with northern armed groups) Tiébilé Dramé as the “Coalition for Mali.” See “Crise malienne: quand Mahmoud Dicko entre en scène,” Jeune Afrique, July 26, 2012; Paul Mben, “Tiébilé Dramé, Vice-President de la Coalition pour le Mali: ‘La voie est ouvert, le gouvernement doit bouger,’” 22 Septembre, August 30, 2012; “Missions dans les Régions de Kidal, Gao, et Tombouctou du 17 au 24 Août 2012, Rapport de Synthèse,” Coalition for Mali, August 27, 2012.

[4] Through the fall of 2012, many commentators and influential Malian political and religious leaders, as well as the MNLA, considered MUJAO to be a “local” group. MUJAO’s increasing public enforcement of hudud punishments and active cooperation with AQIM, however, eventually made this position untenable, leading to a shift in how Malian and international observers alike characterized the group and whether or not it could participate in negotiations. See, for instance, “Mahmoud Dicko dit stop aux négotiations avec le Mujao,” Jeune Afrique, October 10, 2012. MUJAO was born ostensibly out of internal discord within AQIM. Mauritanian newspaper editor and AQIM expert Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali best described this explanation for MUJAO’s origins, portraying its split from AQIM as the result of ethnic tension and a failure by AQIM’s Algerian leadership to appoint Mauritanian and other Sahelian Arabs as commanders in their own right. See Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, “Al-Qaeda and its Allies in the Sahel and the Sahara,” al-Jazira Center for Studies, May 1, 2012.

[5] In late January 2013, Ifoghas Tuareg notables associated with Ansar Eddine split off to form the Islamic Movement for Azawad (MIA). It is difficult to say definitively, however, how many of Ansar Eddine’s fighters joined the MIA, whether this shift toward the MIA was out of dissatisfaction with Ansar Eddine or simply a desire for self-preservation after the French intervention, or how many newly-minted MIA fighters maintain loyalty to Ansar Eddine leader Iyad ag Ghaly and the ideals he publicly espoused in founding the group.

[6] During the occupation of northern Mali, jihadist groups roughly divided the area among themselves, with Ansar Eddine taking control of Kidal, AQIM taking control of Timbuktu under the auspices of Ansar Eddine, and MUJAO taking control of Gao. While there is little dispute about the radicalism of Ansar Eddine founder Iyad ag Ghaly, it remains unclear to what extent Tuareg recruitment to the organization stemmed from religious ideology, local conflict and tensions among various Tuareg tribes and factions, or some combination of the two and other local factors. For an analysis of the relationship among the groups (including Ansar Eddine’s radicalism) see Derek Henry Flood, “Between Islamization and Secession: The Contest for Northern Mali,” CTC Sentinel 5:7 (2012).

[7] Most analysts trace the presence of Algerian militant organizations to the 2003 kidnapping in southern Algeria’s Illizi Province of 32 European tourists by Amar Saifi, known as Abderrazak el-Para in reference to his former service as an elite Algerian paratrooper. There are, however, indications that Algerian militants, including the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), had operated in northern Niger and northern Mali as early as the late 1990s, forging occasional business and other ties with local rebel groups and attempting to raise money. These details are based on: personal interview, former European intelligence analyst, June 2013.

[8] Personal interview, former Malian customs official, Bamako, Mali, February 2013.

[9] Former AQIM commander and head of Katibat al-Mulathimeen (Veiled Brigades) Mokhtar Belmokhtar reportedly married into at least one local family, a Bérabiche Arab family from Timbuktu. Another AQIM commander, Abu Zeid (killed in February 2013 in northern Mali), also reportedly married into local families along with other AQIM fighters. This practice reportedly continued under the 2012 occupation. See Tanguy Berthemet, “Comment l’Aqmi a pris place dans le désert malien,” Le Figaro, September 22, 2010; “Exclusif: reportage à Tombouctou au nord du Mali,” Radio France Internationale, December 7, 2012.

[10] “Mali: Avoiding Escalation,” International Crisis Group, July 18, 2012; Rukmini Callimachi and Martin Vogl, “Candy, Cash – al-Qaida Implants Itself in Africa,” Associated Press, December 4, 2011.

[11] Scholars and observers began noting the importance of this trend several years ago, as well as its possible impact on AQIM. See Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2010.

[12] Mohamed Fall Ould Bah, “ECOWAS Peace and Security Report Issue 2: The Political Economy of Conflicts in Northern Mali,” Institute for Security Studies, April 2013.

[13] Scholar of northern Mali Baz Lecocq traced this history in Kidal, where Tablighi Jama`at notably garnered followers among the Ifoghas Tuareg tribe. One of the early adherents to Tablighi Jama`at’s more rigorous—though non-violent—philosophy was Iyad ag Ghaly. See Baz Lecocq and Paul Schrijver, “The War on Terror in a Haze of Dust: Potholes and Pitfalls on the Saharan Front,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25:1 (2007); David Gutelius, “Islam in Northern Mali and the War on Terror,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 25:1 (2007).

[14] For a detailed explanation of these dynamics after the advent of democracy in Mali, see Benjamin Soares, “Islam in Mali in the Neoliberal Era,” African Affairs 105:418 (2005).

[15] AQIM operations in both northern Algeria and the Sahel were conducted by brigades believed to be comprised of around 100 members (katibat) under an amir, or commander, as well as smaller units (surayat) believed to contain around 40 fighters. For a description of the organization in the Sahel, see “Organisation al-Qa’eda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (aQIM), AV Signatures, a Brief Study, Chapter 1,” Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, January 13, 2013.

[16] Al-Ma’ali.

[17] While AQIM claimed to have executed Germaneau days after a Franco-Mauritanian raid in northern Mali in September 2010, other sources indicated that Germaneau may have died as a result of his advanced age, medical conditions, and the harsh environment of his detention. See Jean-Dominique Merchet, “AQMI: l’otage Michel Germaneau est mort de maladie, faute de médicaments,” Marianne, January 10, 2011.

[18] Thierry Oberlé, “Mali: La Tentation salafiste des ‘hommes bleus,’” Le Figaro, April 3, 2012.

[19] “Enlèvements au Mali: la piste Aqmi croise celle des ex-combattants touaregs de Kaddafi,” Jeune Afrique, December 8, 2011.

[20] “Derrière les groupes Islamistes du Nord-Mali, Aqmi tire les ficelles,” Jeune Afrique, July 20, 2012.

[21] Tanguy Berthemet, “Aqmi revendique l’assassinat d’un otage,” Le Figaro, March 20, 2013.

[22] In November 2012, AQIM announced the promotion of several new leaders and the creation of new units, including the primarily Tuareg Yusuf bin Tashfin Brigade, led by a Tuareg reportedly from the Kidal area, known as Abou Abdelhamid al-Qairouani. See Stéphanie Plasse, “Nord-Mali: le jeu trouble du djihadiste algérien Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” Slate Afrique, January 19, 2013; Jemal Oumar, “Al-Qaeda Creates Touareg-led Brigade,” Magharebia, November 30, 2012.

[23] Bérabiche are predominantly Hassaniya-speaking Arab communities primarily found in northern Mali and Mauritania, and are ethnically and linguistically distinct from nomadic and semi-nomadic Tuareg populations.

[24] For a concise profile of Hamaha, see Boris Thiolay, “Mali: le djihad du ‘Barbu Rouge,’” L’Express, October 4, 2012. Also see Julius Cavendish, “Destroying Timbuktu: The Jihadist Who Inspires the Demolition of the Shrines,” Time Magazine, July 10, 2012.

[25] Ethman Ag Mohamed Ethman, “La nouvelle qatiba ‘Ansar Echaria,’ un nouveau projet djihadiste conduit par l’homme à la barbe rouge,” Sahara Medias, January 11, 2013.

[26] Adam Thiam, “Iyad Ag Ghali – ‘Ansar dine ne connaît que le Mali et la charia,” Jeune Afrique, April 8, 2012.

[27] “‘Ansar Dine’ se démarque des menaces de mort des otages français proférées par Ould Hamhou,” Agence Nouakchott d’Information, October 15, 2012.

[28] While various sources claimed that Hamaha was from Ber or Arouane, both villages north of Timbuktu, Hamaha said he was born in Kidal. The discrepancy may be due to members of Hamaha’s family being from the Timbuktu region, or the fact that Hamaha grew up and was educated largely in Timbuktu. See Diossé Traoré and Bokari Dicko, “Le Chef d’état Major Général du MUJAO se confie à la radio ‘Nièta’,” Maliba Info [Bamako], October 5, 2012.

[29]  On the kidnapping and Hamaha’s role, see Robert Fowler, A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2011).

[30] Hamaha was reportedly behind the 2009 kidnapping of three Spanish aid workers in Mauritania, and he claimed to have fought in Libya in 2011 against Mu`ammar Qadhafi’s regime. In 2012, he was reported killed after clashes with Nigerien armed forces, only to re-emerge soon after. See Bokari Dicko, “Le Chef d’état major Général du MUJAO se confie à ‘MALI DEMAIN’: ‘Nous pouvons marcher sur Bamako en 24 heures,’ dixit Oumar Ould Hamaha,” Mali Demain, September 4, 2012.

[31] Personal interview, former Malian police officer, May 2012.

[32] “Révélations sur Les Hommes qui sèment la terreur au nord Mali,” La Dépêche [Toulouse], January 9, 2013.

[33] Personal interviews, Malian Tuareg and Arab contacts in the United States, Senegal, and Mali, July 2012, February-June 2013.

[34] Personal interview, local official from the Timbuktu region, Bamako, Mali, February 2013. Also see Baba Ahmed, “Mali: les fantômes de Tombouctou,” Jeune Afrique, May 25, 2012.

[35] May Ying Welsh, “Making Sense of Mali’s Armed Groups,” al-Jazira, January 17, 2013; “Démantèlement d’un trafic de drogue lié à AQMI: Un espagnol arrêté à Bamako,” Agence France-Presse, October 20, 2010.

[36] Baba Ahmed, “Silence, on négocie: Libération en catimini du présumé complice d’AQMI,” Le Combat [Bamako], February 2, 2011.

[37] For more on the need to understand the local context of militant activities in Mali, see Caitriona Dowd and Clionadh Raleigh, “The Myth of Global Islamic Terrorism and Local Conflict in Mali and the Sahel,” African Affairs, May 29, 2013.

[38] Given the close and documented relationship and interaction between AQIM and Ansar Eddine, it is difficult to disassociate the two movements, even though there were clear divisions along ideological and ethnic/tribal lines within Ansar Eddine.

[39] In the years before the fall of northern Mali, Malian press accounts suggested that AQIM had recruited from throughout Mali,  and that their ranks included members who spoke all of Mali’s languages, including Bambara, found primarily in the country’s south. While these accounts cannot be confirmed, they coincide with other anecdotal accounts from northern Malian notables. Interview subjects in Bamako reported the arrival in Timbuktu of a number of Bambara-speaking Malians as well as recruits from Senegal in spring 2012. Also see “Région de Tombouctou: AQMI en terrain conquis,” Lafia Révélateur [Bamako], May 26, 2011.

[40]  Adam Thiam, “La galaxie Aqmi à Tombouctou: ses hommes et ses problèmes,” Le Républicain [Bamako], November 5, 2012.

[41] Michèle Ouimet, “Crise au Mali: La Terreur de Tombouctou,” La Presse, February 5, 2013.

[42] “Mali: Une délégation du MNLA reçue par Paris,” Radio France Internationale, November 26, 2012.

[43] Personal interview, European journalist and former Timbuktu resident, March 2013.

[44] Mary Fitzgerald, “Timbuktu: ‘Anyone Can be a Victim in a War Like This,’” Irish Times, April 5, 2013.

[45] “Le cadi de Tombouctou à Sahara média: ‘Les choses ont changé beacoup depuis l’arrivé des moudjahidines dans la ville,’” Sahara Medias, July 9, 2012.

[46] Personal interview, Malian official from the Timbuktu Region, Bamako, Mali, February 2013.

[47] Thiam; Rémi Yacine, “Serge Daniel. Spécialiste du Sahel: ‘Il faut arrêter de payer les rançons,’” El Watan [Algiers], April 25, 2012.

[48] Tiékorobani, Abdoulaye Guindo, and S. Touré, “Fuite ou stratégie? Les Islamistes d’AQMI quittent la ville de Tombouctou,” Procès-Verbal, December 10, 2012.

[49] See, for instance, Wolfram Lacher, Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).

[50] Al-Ma’ali. This author has argued elsewhere that MUJAO marked something more akin to a “managed separation” from AQIM, rather than a strict dissidence. For details, see Andrew Lebovich, “AQIM and its Allies in Mali,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 5, 2013.

[51] “Terrorist Designations of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Hamad el Khairy, and Ahmed el Tilemsi,” U.S. State Department, December 7, 2012; “Mali: le chef militaire du Mujao est un Malien,” Jeune Afrique, July 27, 2012. Belmokhtar made his home in and around Gao during much of the occupation, and various reports suggested that Belmokhtar played a key role in founding and managing MUJAO. See Jade Haméon, “Exclusif: Au Mali, dans la maison du djihadiste Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” L’Express, February 9, 2013.

[52] There are an estimated 30 million people of Peul ethnicity spread across West Africa, with many involved in transnational commerce and semi-nomadic herding, which has at times and in certain areas put some Peul in conflict with other semi-nomadic populations, such as Tuareg. Personal interviews, local residents, journalists, and Western and African security officials, Bamako, Mali, February 2013 and Niamey, Niger, April 2013. Also see Hannah Armstrong, “Winning the War, Losing the Peace in Mali,” New Republic, February 28, 2013; Peter Tinti, “The Jihadi From the Block,” Foreign Policy, March 19, 2013; Rémi Carayol, “Planète peule: rencontre avec un peuple sans frontières,” Jeune Afrique, March 18, 2013.

[53] “Un cadre de Mujao revendique les attentats dans le nord du Mali,” Radio France Internationale, May 11, 2013; Cheick Tandina, “Application de la charia: Occupants étrangers, islamistes locaux,” Le Prétoire [Bamako],  August 13, 2012.

[54] “Nord Mali: Les islamistes gouvernent Gao par un conseil exécutif de cinq ministres,” al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], December 18, 2012.

[55] Largely sedentary Songhai populations have long been dominant in the Gao region, the site of the 15th Century Songhai empire founded by Askia Mohamed. Songhai communities have long lived in proximity to nomadic and semi-nomadic Tuareg populations in the area, although there has always been tension between some Tuareg and Songhai communities related to economic competition, slavery, and other issues. After several years of Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali during the 1990s, influential Songhai merchants and army defectors, with assistance from Mali’s military and intelligence services, created a sedentary militia known as the Ganda Koy (Masters of the Land). The Ganda Koy were involved in a series of tit-for-tat killings of Tuareg civilians and clashes with Tuareg armed groups, and spawned another largely Songhai militia, the Ganda Iso (Sons of the Land). See Andrew McGregor, “‘The Sons of the Land’: Tribal Challenges of the Tuareg Conquest of Northern Mali,” Terrorism Monitor 10:8 (2012). Starting in August 2012, MUJAO’s relationship with local populations began to sour, as the group cracked down on opposition and began more aggressively instituting punishments including amputations and public whippings. Still, the public appeals and recruiting continued, and it was not until the French intervention in January 2013 that MUJAO left Gao. For an example of the hyper-local image presented by the group in Gao, see “Azawad News Agency Presents a New Video Message from Jama`at at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad Fi Gharb Ifriqiyya: ‘Eyes on Azawad #2,’”, January 17, 2013. Also see “Azawad News Agency Presents a New Video Message from Jama’at at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad Fi Gharb Ifriqiyya: ‘Eyes on Azawad #1,’”, August 12, 2012.

[56] “À Gao, les Islamistes victorieux et ‘populaires au sein de la population,” France 24, June 28, 2012.

[57] “To the People of the Cities of Northern Mali About the Reason for Its Fight with the MNLA (the Secular Movement),” Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin in Gao, November 27, 2012, available at

[58] For instance, MUJAO’s first amputation for theft may have been linked to local conflicts between Peul and Bella over access to pastureland, while killings of Kounta leaders allegedly committed by MUJAO fighters may have had more to do with longstanding inter-Arab conflict than jihadist militancy. See Abdoulaye Ouattara, “Amputation de la main d’un homme par le MUJAO à Ansongo: L’association TITAR dénonce un règlement de compte,” Le Républicain, August 14, 2012; Oumar Diakité, “Suite à son refus de suivre le MUJAO: Alwata Ould Badi a été tué avec la complicité d’Arabes de Tarkint,” Le Combat, March 11, 2013; Oumar Diakité, “Douentza: le nouveau chef des ‘fous de Dieu’ lance une vaste campagne de recrutement de jeunes djihadistes,” Le Combat, December 11, 2012.

[59] “Les notables de la région de Gao, nouveau canal de négociation avec les islamistes,” Radio France Internationale, August 16, 2012.

[60] Organized reformist and more hard line thought and practice in this region was centered around local religious leader Seydou Idrissa, who founded the group Jama`at Ansar al-Sunna (Community of Helpers of the Sunna). See R.W. Niezen, “The ‘Community of Helpers of the Sunna’: Islamic Reform Among the Songhay of Gao (Mali),” Journal of the International African Institute 60:3 (1990).

[61] David Lewis, “Insight: Islamist Inroads in Mali May Undo French War on al Qaeda,” Reuters, May 13, 2013; “Les soldats français et maliens traquent le Mujao à Kadji, près de Gao,” Radio France Internationale, March 1, 2013.

[62] Sidi Haidara, “Golea dans la commune rurale de Bourra: Village pro-islamiste dans le cercle d’Ansongo,” Le Reporter [Bamako], March 21, 2013.

[63] Personal interview, Malian official from the Timbuktu region, Bamako, Mali, February 2013.

[64] M. Maïga, “État des lieux sur l’occupation dans le Cercle de Goundam,” Le Scorpion [Bamako], September 26, 2012; Abdoulaye Diarra, “Nouvelles révélations dans le démantèlement d’une cellule du MUJAO à Bamako: Les sept personnes arrêtées sont originaires de Gossi et disciples de l’imam Ahmed Yaya Diallo,” L’Indépendant [Bamako], April 30, 2013.

[65] Adam Thiam, “Affrontement armée-jihadistes: Konna, la tragédie en sursaut,” Le Républicain, January 11, 2013; Tanguy Berthemet, “Mali: la guerre en visite guidée pour la presse internationale,” Le Figaro, January 28, 2013.

[66] Personal interviews, Songhai and Arab members of Gao’s Comité des Sages, Bamako, Mali, February 2013.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Rukmini Callimachi, “In Timbuktu, al-Qaida Left Behind a Manifesto,” Associated Press, February 14, 2013.

[69] For instance, MUJAO in Gao provided various forms of economic aid, both direct and indirect, to keep vital city functions like electricity and water flowing and to keep the price of basic food staples in check. In Timbuktu, AQIM and Ansar Eddine notably paid for a time to keep the city’s electrical generators and water pumps operating at some capacity, although they later reportedly destroyed the city’s electrical network. On Gao, see Serge Daniel, “Mali: Gao, KO Debout,” Jeune Afrique, August 8, 2012; “Exclusive AFP – Nord-Mali: à Gao, les habitants abandonnés doivent s’accommoder des islamistes,” Agence France-Presse, July 18, 2012. On Timbuktu, see “Plus d’eau ni d’electricité à Tombouctou,” Agence France-Presse, January 24, 2013.

[70] Ouimet.

[71] See, for instance, Lydia Polgreen, “Timbuktu Endured Terror Under Harsh Shariah Law,” New York Times, January 31, 2013; “À Tombouctou, les islamistes détruisent les mausolées musulmans,” Le Monde, June 30, 2012.

[72] Personal interview, Gao resident and NGO representative, Bamako, Mali, February 2013.

[73] Personal interview, Gao notables, Bamako, Mali, February 2013. Also see Armstrong.

[74] “Mali: le Mujao met au pas les imams de Gao,” Radio France Internationale, August 11, 2012.

[75] “Mali: Sept Membres du Mujao se Rendent,” Xinhua, April 21, 2013.

[76] For a thorough assessment of the growth and status of “Islamist” and other religious movements and leaders in Mali, see Alex Thurston, “Towards an ‘Islamic Republic of Mali?’” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 37:2 (2013).

[77] “Niger: les attentats d’Agadez et d’Arlit ont-ils été planifiés au Mali?” Radio France Internationale, May 30, 2013.

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