Trying to Understand MUJWA

Since it first burst onto the scene in December 2011, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (generally MUJWA in English, or MUJAO in French) has been a difficult group to pin down. The group, originally characterized as a “dissident” faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), its actions have raised a number of possible contradictions and open questions (laid out admirably along with excellent background herehere, and here by Kal over at The Moor Next Door). Recently, some local and international actors have taken in particular to questioning MUJWA’s actions, and speculating that MUJWA, believed to be heavily funded by the cocaine and now the kidnapping business, may in essence be using jihadist activities as a sort of front for its criminal behavior.

This post is an attempt to explore and analyze some of the possible explanations for MUJWA’s behavior, with a focus on its activities, composition, and role in the city of Gao. Ultimately, I will question some of the assumptions local and international observers have made about MUJWA’s motivations, in particular attempts to frame MUJWA as a “criminal” rather than a “terrorist” or “insurgent” organization, when available evidence paints a far more complicated picture of overlapping motivations and multiple sub-groupings within the same organization.

Tell me, who are you?

Confusion surrounding MUJWA’s personnel, actions, funding streams, and general relationship to other jihadist groups in the area (namely AQIM and Ansar Al-Din) as well as to local populations, have led to some recently to dig into MUJWA’s “true” identity. For instance, a recent article from Radio France Internationale (RFI), which generally provides detailed and well-informed coverage of northern Mali, gave voice to some longstanding theories that MUJWA’s attacks abroad and efforts to impose shari’ah in Gao and surrounding villages were little more than cover for what are believed to be the very lucrative criminal activities of the group’s core Arab leadership. The author (RFI often does not identify the authors of its stories) cites a purportedly connected local source on the subject (my translation):

For this person, very knowledgeable about the region, MUJWA’s men are above all else traffickers. ‘Shari’ah is a cover’ he says. MUJWA is looking to reorganize an already-existant [cocaine] trade that prospered during the years of [deposed Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré, or ATT]. Working with MUJWA is thus a guarantee of being able to pursue business, our interlocutor explains. According to him, under the auspices of association with local civil society, a number of the city’s notables are complicit with this mafia system.

This conception of MUJWA as a largely criminally-oriented organization is one that also appears frequently in Malian descriptions of the group, as well as in conversations with Malian and other specialists and residents of the north. It is also strikingly similar to the way some analysts wrote about AQIM in the Sahel (and in particular AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar), especially in 2010 and 2011, as violence in northern Algeria waned but hostage taking and other activities expanded in the Sahel. Many writers assumed that AQIM was becoming more of a “criminal” organization than a “jihadist” organization, a dichotomy that I do not think necessarily has to exist in practice.

However, this characterization still merits exploration, especially in light of the circumstantial evidence linking known or widely suspected traffickers from the region (people like Cherif Ould Tahar and Sultan Ould Bady, not to mention a number of other well-known Gao Arabs) to MUJWA. For instance, the Mauritanian journalist and specialist Mohammed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, in his lengthy explanation of the complicated relationship between AQIM, MUJWA, and Ansar Al-Din, states that the original tension between Sultan Ould Bady and AQIM’s Sahelian leadership arose when Ould Bady, a half-Tuareg half-Arab from the Gao region, was purportedly denied permission to form an AQIM unit composed primarily of Malian Arabs. Ould Bady is from the al-Amhar (sometimes written Lamhar) tribe, one of several from the Tilemsi Valley region north of Gao that are believed to largely control the cocaine trade in northern Mali, in addition to other legitimate and illegitimate businesses. Social Anthropologist Judith Scheele, for instance, has explored the increasing Tilemsi Arab control with regard to these traffics, and the major implications the growth of these trades have had on local tribal relationships and the interplay between previously “dominant” Kounta and the Tilemsi Arabs.

Before exploring this further, however, some caveats need to be added. While much ink has been spilled about the spread of the drug trade in the Sahel, precious little direct evidence has been publicly provided with regards to the actual size and profitability of this trade. This is due largely to the incredible difficulty of researching the trade, as well as efforts by traders to launder or otherwise hide money behind businesses in multiple regional countries, though I suspect part of it is also lazy writing and analysis. Within this lack of data is another frustrating problem, that of identifying accurately those involved in the trade. This creates the paradoxical problem in which anyone looking into this trade can quickly “know” the key players, but the evidence linking them to the trade (and groups like AQIM or MUJWA) is, again, largely circumstantial or speculative, and heavily dependent on vague reports and local rumor. This speculation has led one key figure in the Gao region, former Bourem deputy Mohamed Ould Mataly, to publicly deny membership in MUJWA.

Additionally, relatively little news is available on other “key leaders” either in the drug trade or in MUJWA, making it incredibly difficult to discern the complex interplay of factions and motivations that may be at work. To try to explore what MUJWA is and what they may or may not want, then, we need to look carefully at what MUJWA has actually done in the Gao region, and try to interpret these actions within the broader local and regional context.

MUJWA in Gao

Since first seizing Gao at the end of March alongside troops belonging to the Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), MUJWA’s behavior in the city has been marked by an interesting combination of flexibility and intransigence on certain key issues. After initial attempts to ban football and television sparked violent protests in mid-May, MUJWA relaxed some of their policies, aggressively courting and recruiting locals (in particular ethnic Songhai, which make up the majority in Gao). While the MNLA was busy forming a “government” and developing a reputation – merited or not – for theft, rape, and other abuses, MUJWA invested in cleaning the city’s gutters, providing aid (especially foodstuffs), and attracting the support of at least some of the city’s “notables”. The group also appointed a Gao local, Aliou Mahamane Touré, to head the city’s “Islamic Police”, also largely believed to be comprised primarily of natives of Gao and the Gao region.

These efforts, as well as clear attempts to associate themselves with local (particularly Songhai) history and symbols, combined with MUJWA’s attempts to portray themselves as protectors of Gao’s populations against the MNLA, allowed MUJWA – reportedly supported or even led by AQIM forces under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar – to boot the MNLA from the city after brief but intense fighting at the end of June. Until very recently, reports indicate that MUJWA continued to pursue a somewhat restrained attitude toward shari’ah and infringements on local practice, while also reportedly making efforts to restrain more zealous members of the organization (including the Islamic Police commissioner Aliou Touré) and continuing heavy investment into projects in the city, including providing money to buy fuel to power Gao’s electrical plant.

Of late, however, the organization has hardened its attitudes, refusing to bend to popular will as it had before. On the night of August 4, MUJWA reportedly announced on local radio that the next day, it would amputate the hand of a young MUJWA member alleged to have stolen arms from the group in order to later re-sell them. The next day, Gao youth flooded the streets, occupying the place de l’indépendence, where the amputation was supposed to take place and causing MUJWA to delay the amputation. That night, after a group of four fighters led by the Islamic Police Commissioner Aliou Touré mercilessly beat a popular local journalist, Malick Maiga, young Gao residents again flooded the streets in protest, causing MUJWA to back off. Yet only days later, another contingent of MUJWA fighters successfully amputated the hand of another alleged thief in Ansongo, around 100 km south of Gao. A MUJWA commander interviewed after the incident threatened to continue the harsh punishments, adding that the only reason the organization had delayed the amputation in Gao was due to pressure from local notables, rather than the protests.

Just a day after the amputation in Ansongo, MUJWA commander Abdul Hakim convened imams and notables at Gao’s Kuwait Mosque under the premise of a debate about shari’ah. However, according to local reports and press accounts the meeting was far from a debate, and instead a meeting to announce that shari’ah would be applied in Gao following the end of the holy month of Ramadan this weekend. Earlier this week, five local residents were whipped for allegedly selling drugs, and on Wednesday MUJWA banned local radio stations from playing Western music.

Explaining MUJWA’s Complexity

How, then, does a fairly common perception of MUJWA’s attitude, held by informed observers, fit with MUJWA’s actions on the ground? On the one hand, there is no reason that the interpretation presented above would be inconsistent with MUJWA’s actions; after all, the above take on their activities is premised on the implementation of shari’ah in order to “cover” other illicit activities. And even if those executing harsh judgment on locals (and the group’s own members) are sincere in their desire to apply shari’ah, this does not indicate per se that other powerful backers and members of the group are not primarily associated with MUJWA for financial gain, especially if a more powerful and feared MUJWA means more solid control of the trafficking routes that run through the Gao region. Terrorist groups of any size are hardly ever uniform, and MUJWA has clearly drawn, at least recently, on a large number of of recruits from many different countries across the region.

Indeed, it seems likely based on available evidence that even Gao’s local recruits are not all alike in their motivations. While some appear to have been drawn by lack of other opportunities and MUJWA’s seemingly abundant cash, others like Touré appear to have been drawn in by conviction. Gao’s mayor Sadou Haroune Diallo said as much in a recent interview, stating that MUJWA’s recruits from Gao are more hardline than other members of the group. And local reports suggest that many of the “local” MUJWA recruits have been recruited from small villages known for more strict Islamic practices (for more on the origins and early spread of Islamic reform movements in Gao and local “Wahhabi” villages, see this dissertation and shorter article from RW Niezen).

Even these explanations may not explain the actions of MUJWA or individual MUJWA factions. Following the amputation at Ansongo, a local organization of Bella, or “black Tuareg” from Tin Hamma, the victim’s village, said the amputation was primarily about settling scores between Peul and Bella over pastureland. And the attempted amputation of the MUJWA member’s hand in Gao could have been an attempt to instill fear in the local population – or MUJWA units themselves – by showing that they would readily punish one of their own.

Yet while definitive answers may be hard to find, this reading of MUJWA’s activities is not fully satisfying. For one thing, the organization has put extensive effort into showing itself protecting Gao and ensuring the quality of life for its residents, backing up rhetoric with both action and money. Why, then, would MUJWA continue to push for shari’ah even in the face of repeated and predictable public reaction? This is an especially important question given that a number of other actors – the West African body ECOWAS, the Malian government, and militias like the sectarian Ganda Izo and Ganda Koy – are practically itching to push into the north. Antagonizing local populations is bad for business in the best of circumstances, and potentially very dangerous when someone moves in to push out an oppressive “occupier”. For an example of the dangers of unduly angering locals, one need only look to how the city reacted to MUJWA after it defeated the MNLA.

Moreover, this seems to be an odd time to impose increasingly harsh punishments on Gao’s populations, given how close MUJWA was to achieving a sort of acceptance in Mali and the broader region. In the past two months, a range of actors including the pre-defeat MNLA, Malian politicians, and the powerful and influential head of Mali’s High Islamic Council, Mahmoud Dicko, had taken to treating MUJWA as a local actor, implying that they were somehow different from the “foreign” AQIM and signaling a possible place for MUJWA in political negotiations in the north. MUJWA representatives or figures close to the group may have even met with Burkinabé Foreign Minister Djibril Bassolé during his recent trip to the north, though people close to Bassolé deny these reports. However, a very public and very violent application of shari’ah punishments endangers this acceptance, as shown by Dicko’s aggressive reaction to what happened in Ansongo. And even if the Gao notables who purportedly traveled to Bamako on MUJWA’s behalf meet with success, any negotiations with MUJWA at this point run the risk of provoking a harsh reaction among average Malians, given the widespread disgust at abuses it and its allies have committed in the north.

This discontinuity is all the more striking given that, if the rumors about MUJWA’s key funders and leaders being tied to the cocaine trade and other traffics are true, many of these same men prospered in part due to corruption and state complicity under the previous Malian government. Why go through all of this trouble, including physically seizing and then attempting to administer an entire city/region, if the only ultimate goal was to “reorganize” a trade that was by all indications progressing quite well under the old Malian government. Traffickers prosper in part when they can operate within weak but extant state structures, in part so that they don’t have to deal with the complicated and expensive mess that is governing and administering territory. Yet until this time MUJWA has made no attempt to publicly distance itself from the organizations or actions that would throw a wrench in negotiations with Bamako, and they certainly have made no overt moves to welcome the Malian state back into the north – though it is entirely possible that this is being discussed in private, and we simply do not know about it.

Again, it is possible that what we are seeing is simply evidence of a divided organization with multiple, sometimes competing factions. But I suspect that at least some of the commentary on MUJWA reflects a tendency among analysts to want to place jihadists and “criminals” in distinct categories, despite the fact that jihadists, from the GIA in Algeria to al-Qaeda in Iraq to the Taliban and related networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and many, many more) have made use of criminal means and criminals themselves to further their cause. This was certainly the case with AQIM, an organization long dismissed for its criminal activities that has, in my opinion, shown itself to be a far more complex organization.

This is not to say that MUJWA does not gain from criminal enterprise, or even that these links – especially in the Gao region – are not vital for its implantation and growth. As a Malian who lived for a number of years in Gao noted to me, “if MUJWA were a purely ideological organization, it could have established itself in Timbuktu, Tarkint, Almoustrat, or elsewhere, why specifically Gao? Because their interests and investments are in Gao, and in Gao they can count on having ‘collaborators and friends.'”

Based on the evidence presented here, I would argue that instead of being a purely “criminal” or purely “jihadist” organization, it is MUJWA’s criminal activities that allow its jihadist activities, and quite possibly the jihadist activities that also help protect the group’s criminal (and other) activities. And we should at least consider the possibility that militants, like anyone else, can have multiple and overlapping motivations, and that MUJWA’s suspected Arab funders can be both jihadists and traffickers at the same time.


20 Responses to Trying to Understand MUJWA

  1. van kaas says:

    Thank you for this good overview. A quick search learned there is no mention of Morocco or Polsario in the text. That is remarkable for both have been accusing each other of complicity with MUWJA. That could be because the article seems to focus on “criminal” or “jihadist” activities and not on the *political* importance of those activities.

    • Andrew Lebovich says:

      Thanks for pointing that out. Earlier mentions of Sahraouis were scrubbed due to space consideration, not political concerns, and because I wanted to focus on one aspect of the group, it’s role in and ties to the Gao region. Future writing on the group will deal with some of the larger questions about MUJWA, including some of the accusations you allude to.

  2. lissnup says:

    Congrats on finding a credible reference to confirm the hand amputation story, so eagerly reported elsewhere without such consideration 😉

  3. oskarepelde says:

    Tell me, how is it you don’t say anything about the “feeding” they received in front of everybody from argelian official organizations? I wouldn’t take for granted that MNLA was defeated as you say in a brief, it might be true, as they say that they resigned an internal war in the north of Mali. The issue in writing about the conflict here, is where you focus, who you criticise and what you forget

  4. baz says:

    Thanks Andrew, this is excellent analysis

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