What to Make of Foreign Fighters in Mali













In the lexicon of modern analysis of terrorism and insurgency, the term “foreign fighter” has a particular power. The presence or suspicion of foreign fighters in a conflict zone, whether true or not, implies for many a increase in seriousness and scope of a conflict. Particularly after the war in Iraq, and the hard evidence of foreign fighter recruitment and networks found at places like Sinjar, reports about foreign fighters carried with them a risk of increased technical proficiency in central conflict zones that could then radiate outward after these fighters — if they survive — return home.

Sometimes these reports of foreign fighters can be overplayed or the impact of these fighters greatly exaggerated, as my colleague Alex Thurston pointed out to me earlier this month weekend when we went to Gainesville to speak at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida. The discussion arose after an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report claimed that up to 150 fighters, largely composed of Sudanese and Sahraouis from Tindouf in Algeria or the Western Sahara, had very recently traveled to Timbuktu and Gao. Other reports suggested an influx of Egyptians and Tunisians, especially in Gao, while a spokesman for the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (often shortened to MUJWA in English or MUJAO in French) stated that, “They want war, we’ll give them war. This is why our brothers are joining us from all over…They are coming from the camps of Tindouf in Algeria, from Senegal, from Ivory Coast, from everywhere.”

This news came on the heels of reports that several Westerners, including French citizens, had attempted to or successfully joined AQIM or other militant groups in Mali. One of these French AQIM members, a convert to Islam from Bretagne (Brittany) named Abdel Jellil who has lived for the past two years in Timbuktu, even made a video giving some of his personal history and threatening France, the UN, and the United States not to intervene in Mali. These reports certainly have gotten the attention of French intelligence, but have more broadly helped spread fears of a new “Malistan” that could attract jihadists to the Sahel, with negative consequences for the region and possibly even Europe.

So, how do we go about analyzing these various reports?

For one thing, these reports are hardly new; AQIM has been recruiting non-Algerians for years, though it is only more recently that its leadership has diversified to include non-Algerians. Some analysts believe that tension between non-Algerians and the group’s Algerian leadership prompted MUJWA to break off from AQIM, though as I’ve noted before I am unsure of the extent to which the division of these groups represented a true schism, rather than a somewhat less hostile separation. And though in recent months this recruitment appears to have picked up, including not just a number of North and West Africans but also purportedly Pakistanis and others, it is not a sudden phenomenon.

Additionally, it is incredibly difficult to ascertain what exactly is going on in northern Mali, making it challenging to get a clear picture about foreign fighters in the north, whether discussing nationalities or numbers. While it seems clear from various witness reports that accounts of foreign fighters, and even the recent entry of foreign fighters, is not simply a feedback loop, some reports put the number of new entrants into northern Mali far lower than others, while both the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Al-Din have denied that the influx of fighters took place at all — though both groups have their own reasons for denying the reports, and Ansar Al-Din in Timbuktu spokesman Sanda Ould Boumama’s already weak denials have become less convincing the more people asked. But these divergences highlight the confusion that can arise in an environment with few journalists (unlike, say, Syria), high danger, and a reliance on impossible to confirm local reports.

And finally, we should be cautious of other political agendas that can worm their way forward in reporting about terrorism issues. Despite reports only indicating that some fighters may have come from Tindouf in Algeria or the Western Sahara, pro-Moroccan press outlets or writers quickly spun that to claim that it was the Polisario that had “sent” fighters to northern Mali, or to only highlight that fighters came from Tindouf, rather than allowing the possibility that Sahraouis may have traveled to northern Mali from several places, including Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Regardless, the point is that for some, news of foreign fighters immediately became just another political football, a chance to lash out at opponents instead of focusing on other issues.

What does this mean for Mali?

The first thing to note is that it appears that recruiting networks to the Sahel, and particuarly (but not exclusively) AQIM, have shifted recently. Again, while AQIM has for years been recruiting in sub-Saharan Africa, it is interesting that previously, most analysts regarded AQIM, in northern Algeria as well as the Sahel as having broadly failed to recruit extensively among other North Africans and Europeans. While the organization had links to other Maghrebi jihadist groups and cells of varying capacity, AQIM never approached one of its stated goals, to unify the region’s militant groups into one organization. However, if the anecdotal evidence about Tunisians and Egyptians in particular is true, it could be a sign that northern Mali is becoming more attractive  for other jihadists, something that I would attribute at least in part to the very public application of shari’ah that has earned Mali’s Islamist groups international condemnation. The same is true for French fighters, whose small but growing presence in Mali is a change from recent years, where the vast majority of recruits seem to have been drawn to Pakistan’s tribal areas.

While this is largely speculation, I suspect that the opportunity to implement shari’ah, in addition to visual proof of its implementation, has drawn some fighters in while dispelling for others lingering suspicions about AQIM in particular. Additionally, the ability of AQIM, MUJWA, and Ansar Al-Din to operate openly and uncontested over a vast area of Mali, including northern Mali’s three main cities, has undoubtedly made it easier to reach and join these groups, though it remains extremely difficult for potential fighters to get to Mali in the first place, especially with the international attention focused on the country.

More interesting, however, is what these foreign fighter inflows may indicate about militant groups’ strategies in the face of a possible intervention in northern Mali. Based on discussions and observations, it appears that a number of countries particularly in ECOWAS, seem to have thought until recently that an intervention in northern Mali would be relatively easy. This despite the fact that intervention’s biggest booster, France, has recently acknowledged that an intervention would in fact be “difficult” and would require “hardened troops.” Still, it appears that by at least threatening intervention, some groups believed to represent a more localized or Malian militancy, namely Iyad Ag Ghali and Ansar Al-Din but also the MNLA, could be induced to separate from AQIM and MUJWA and seek negotiations. According to this thinking, the more hardline “terrorists” and “drug traffickers” in these groups could then be marginalized, isolated, and more easily targeted.

While this plan has potential to at least disaggregate the various militant groups in northern Mali, it does not take into account the plans these groups have already made for their own defense. Recent accounts have discussed efforts undertaken by Ansar Al-Din as well as MUJWA to disperse forces, with a “psychosis” reportedly taking hold in Kidal, leaders fleeing to Algeria or to the brush, others leaving Ansar Al-Din altogether, and MUJWA closing off some quarters of Gao and bringing people into the city’s center to purportedly use as “human shields.” Ansar Al-Din in Timbuktu (which I and others believe to largely be composed of AQIM members) and MUJWA in Gao and Douentza have also reportedly dispersed their forces, while concentrating “local” recruits inside the cities.

These movements can be interpreted as a reaction to the growing threat of a foreign intervention in Mali, and the reports of growing concern, confusion, and fear among northern Mali’s militant groups appear credible. Yet we should not assume that concern over intervention or dispersing forces means that the diverse forces arrayed across northern Mali will simply pack up and leave in the event of an intervention. After all, these groups have known for some time that an intervention could happen, as ECOWAS and France have been threatening such a move for months, even if the contours of such an operation appear to be ploddingly taking shape and more countries possibly coming on board for some type of military operation in Mali. MUJWA, for instance, has reportedly been keeping the bulk of its military forces at least 15 km outside of Gao since at least August, in anticipation of possible strikes.

This is where northern Mali’s new, foreign recruits come in. While the skills and capacity of foreign fighters in northern Mali is unclear — are they experienced? Novices? Trainers? — they may represent more than simply “reinforcements” or replacements for fighters who have left Ansar Al-Din, AQIM, or MUJWA. Instead, these fighters, whatever their numbers, represent another example of these militant groups showing a desire to dig in, and even set down roots in the north. For months now, these groups (especially MUJWA) have spent rather significant amounts of money on paying fighters, keeping down the price of food and other goods, and providing some level of services, like electricity free of charge. They’ve also taken steps like initiating meetings with local leaders to discuss governance, as Ansar Al-Din’s Sanda Ould Boumama recently did in Timbuktu.

In this context, foreign fighters could present a more solid kind of support than local troops, given that they have likely not traversed dangerous and bleak terrain, only to arrive at a place and leave at the threat of military attack. This does not mean that Islamist militant groups in Mali will not pursue other actions, whether extending current dispersal efforts, fleeing into other parts of the north’s hinterlands, or even heading to other countries in search of shelter. This fragmentation and separation may be more likely to occur if, as some reports have suggested, a struggle for leadership is taking place between factions of AQIM and MUJWA. And this is where the number and skill of fighters comes into play in terms of impacting the ability of militant groups to maneuver, defend territory, or otherwise ensnare ECOWAS troops on unfamiliar territory. But insofar as recent reports indicate a willingness to accept and even promote these fighters, their presence could signify an attention to at least make life difficult for any intervention force in Mali, something that could undercut current projections for the eventual success of such a force.

UPDATE: In the comments below, Nasser and 7our make excellent points related to the difficulty inherent in defining a “foreign” fighter in a region where ethno-linguistic groups cross borders, where some borders barely exist, and where centuries of trade and intermingling make it very hard to define who belongs and who does now. These comments remind me of something the great scholar of northern Mali Baz Lecocq noted in April, after RFI reported locals hearing fighters speaking Hassaniyya; as Lecocq pointed out then (and 7our points out below) a number of people speak Hassaniyya, including some Moors (Bidan) in northern Mali. One could complicate the issue further by pointing out that longstanding marriage and other ties can also blur the line between nationalities; for instance, in the Adrar in Algeria, many families have some sort of family connection to northern Mali, something social anthropologist Judith Scheele discusses at length in her excellent recent book. So in this case, if someone lives in Algeria, has an Algerian passport, but either has family in northern Mali or can directly trace their lineage to northern Mali, would that make them a “foreign” fighter, or not? This is partially why I find the recent reported influx of non-Sahelian fighters to be so interesting, because as Nasser very rightly stated in a message to me and in the comment, there are people who more naturally “belong” in the Sahel, than others, and it is important to differentiate when talking about these fighters.

Additionally, 7our and Nasser both raise important methodological issues in evaluating these reports, namely the issue of how local witnesses know about and identify these foreign fighters. Is it by accent? By how the fighters look or dress? By how they identify themselves? And if they do identify themselves, is it by region, by group, by country of origin, and so on and so on. Keep their insightful comments in mind while reading this post, and when looking at further reporting about this issue.

Photo Credit: Reuters


10 Responses to What to Make of Foreign Fighters in Mali

  1. I think that we need also to be careful to prevent the catch-all “foreign fighters” to obscure the ethnographic realities of the Sahel. A Mauritanian, a Sahrwai in Azawad is not the same as a north-african, or a levantine. The latter have no tribal ties, no social histories, no ties whatsoever to the region. Whereas a Mauritanian, a Sahrawi or Hogar Tuareg from Algeria do have all of the above. This makes it easier for them to fit in the Azawad social structures. Point in case, the guy running MUJWA. The implication is that it’s actually easier to root out the north-africans, or any other foreigners than it would be the Sahelians from Azawad; they are not as able as sahelians to merge in the local sociology. Thus, it is far more important to block access of Sahelian wanna-be Jihadis than it’d be from some of the other recruits from other places.

  2. 7our says:

    Good analysis, this issue is difficult to tackle because of the imprecise press reports we have. As borders are not barriers here, and most of the fighters are from the same ethnies with blood relations, maybe we should talk of “Stranger Fighters” instead of Foreign fighters. They could be foreign to the town of Timbuktu/Gao but not necessarily foreign to the country of Mali.

    Let’s have a close look to this excerpt : “after an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report claimed that up to 150 fighters, largely composed of Sudanese and Sahraouis from Tindouf in Algeria or the Western Sahara, had very recently traveled to Timbuktu and Gao.”

    Literally, a Soudani is a black. By the way, under colonialism, Mali was called French Sudan. Are people designated as Sudanese in fact Black Arabs ? Are they Haratines ?
    Otherwise, someone has to explain how Sudanese fighters moved through Tchad and Niger without being detected.

    Same remark for the Sahraouis which could be Hassaniya speaking people, including the Malian Bérabiche, Kounta and Telemsi.

    And since AFP Bamako has an anti-Polisario stance, the reader has to beware of their political agenda here. Two year ago, the drug trafficker Sultan Ould Bady (now a leader of the MUJWA) was presented as Sahraoui by the same news agency. Ould Bady is from the Gao region. A stranger fighter is not always a foreign fighter, but it’s still a dangerous Jihadist.

  3. Joe says:

    Also one thing to consider is the agenda of some journalists. To not name names, some journalists are profiting immensely (both financially and in prestige) from the conflict in northern Mali. When they make revelations about the “hundreds of foreign fighters” pouring into the region, there may be other reasons behind this than the mere goal of informing the general public. There is little oversight over what they write about northern Mali because editors physically cannot fact-check themselves. Just something to keep in mind as well and thanks for the article.

  4. Abou Djaffar says:

    Regarding the way they seem to cross Niger so easily, maybe we could just acknowledge that Niamey’s security services are not controlling anything…

  5. A very simple example to drive the point further: yours truly is a Kunta by tribal affiliation. So, if I were to show up in Azawad, I will be automatically put under the protection of the local Kunta leaders, and their historical allies (Ifoughass, KalAnsar to name a few). Additionally, the local Tajakanit and Brabiche would also offer protection and assistance by virtue of the history of that genealogy (matrilineal ties.) In other words, this is like putting a fish back into the ocean: these ties are well-kept and passed down from generation to generation.

    According to conventional wisdom, I am a Mauritanian by nationality of birth, but that is totally irrelevant once I am in Azawad as the papers just like the borders are modern constructs that matter little sociologically.

    The Sahel is best understood by mapping the tribal and ethnic communities, and the ties between them. There is no way around it if one aims to seriously understand, assess, and analyze that part of the world. Ignoring these realities will be disastrous. After all, the French’s success in ruling that area of the world once they produced people like Xavier Coppolani and Paul Marty who studied, mapped and thoroughly understood the politics/ethnography of the region.

  6. Pingback: Clinton in Algiers: Coverage of the 29 October Visit | The Moor Next Door

  7. Pingback: Early Perspectives on the Mali Crisis from a Jihadi Forum (I) | The Moor Next Door

  8. Pingback: Jihadology presents Think Tank/NGO/Policy/Gov Reports and Articles of 2012, Part II « JIHADOLOGY

  9. Pingback: Confronting Tunisia’s Jihadists | The Middle East Channel | Ramy Abdeljabbar's Palestine and World News

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: