Context and Conflict Documents

Documents recovered from battlefields are tantalizing to an analyst. They contain raw data that can be mundane or groundbreaking, holding out the prospect of knowledge often hidden under dull pleasantries, flowery language, and stains left by the very destruction that made them available. They can also provide insight into little-understood insurgent groups, as seen most recently in the sands and bombed-out buildings of northern Mali’s main cities. As reporters have flooded in just behind French, Malian, and other African forces, some have been digging through the reams of paper left behind as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al-Din fled Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, seeking refuge in riverine villages and mountain hideouts.

Just last week, The Telegraph, Foreign Policy, and the Associated Press published some of these documents, providing a glimpse into the day-to-day operations of these groups in northern Mali, the minute detail put into the implementation of shari’ah, possible divergences over strategies and leadership, and the long-term plans AQIM’s leadership had (and may still have) for the Sahel. These are not the first instances of documents emerging from the failed jihadist offensive in Mali; the AP’s Rukmini Callimachi and Baba Ahmed previously found AQIM commander Abou Zeid’s trash and notebooks in Diabaly, while Lindsey Hilsum explored documents that littered the floor of the Islamic Police station in Gao following that city’s liberation. But they do show that we may soon learn much more about how AQIM and its affiliates thought and operated before and during the 10-month occupation of northern Mali.

However, it is important when analyzing these documents to provide the necessary context to understand what these documents do (and do not) show. For instance, the AP report, which details a 9-page letter from AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, shows divisions between Droukdel and his subordinates over the speed with which the latter implemented shari’ah in Timbuktu, as well as the failure to collaborate effectively with local groups, including the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA). The primary evidence provides key evidence not just of disagreements between the leader and his lieutenants, but also shows that Mali was part of a long-term strategy for AQIM to implement shari’ah in the north, or at least plant the “seeds” of the idea.

What the article does not note is that when Droukdel expressed these ideas to his local commanders some time after June (the letter is undated), it was not the first time. In May, Droukdel released an audio statement saying much the same thing, urging AQIM to use local Islamist groups like Ansar al-Din as cover for their activities in northern Mali, pushing for the gradual implementation of shari’ah in the north, and urging cooperation with the MNLA. Droukdel’s missive to AQIM in Timbuktu was not, then, the first instance in which he’d urged this path, a fact that could explain his pique at the actions undertaken subsequent to his “directions” from May. Furthermore, it is also possible that unease at the failure to implement his orders prompted Droukdel in part to travel to northern Mali at some point over the past year.

The documents unearthed by the various media organizations also show the difficulties in communication between northern Algeria (where Droukdel was previously based and to where he may have returned after his time in northern Mali) and the desert thousands of kilometers to the south. Droukdel has reportedly struggled for years to keep the southern katibat in line, sending three different men to the south to assume overall control of these fighters and appointing a fourth, Yahya Abou al-Hammam, after Saharan emir Nabil Makhloufi was killed in a car accident in August. It is also possible that Droukdel traveled to Mali to more directly coordinate with his commanders and with other militant and local leaders, including Ansar al-Din’s Iyad Ag Ghali. Unfortunately, it is a vanishingly small group of people that genuinely knows the truth about the subject. Still, the documents reinforce Droukdel’s isolation and the difficulty in maintaining control of far-flung and semi-autonomous commanders; Osama bin Laden struggled with this in Abottabad, and Droukdel has had to cope with increasingly effective military pressure from Algerian forces in and around Kabylia — another possible reason for him to have undertaken the dangerous and risky trip to Mali.

Still, while these documents raise some fascinating subjects and questions, they provide only snapshots in a complicated tableau. For instance, the AP suggests that one of the reasons the past 10 months saw fewer amputations than Gao was because of direct AQIM leadership in Timbuktu, as opposed to that of MUJAO in Gao. This is definitely a possibility, though it could also simply be because different leaders with different personalities and different personalities behave differently. Additionally, Ansar al-Din/AQIM in Timbuktu still engaged in their share of horrible and abusive behavior, just of another sort. I would suggest, though, that aside from the possibility that different leadership drove different group behavior, we would be well-served to look at the actual composition of these groups’ recruits. To take Gao as an example, we have known for months that the group recruited heavily from the Gao region, specifically from villages that have long been known for “Wahhabi” religious practice, the term used by many in Mali to refer to reformist or Salafi practices. I strongly suspect that this had a significant impact on the group’s actions in Gao, especially given that the fighters present in the city were largely these local recruits, though in recent months foreign fighters and in particular foreign leaders became more prominent in the management of affairs in the city.

Additionally, the documents present more anecdotal evidence that previous conceptions of AQIM may be incorrect, or at least severely deficient. In the document, Droukdel talks at some length about not just being a flexible and adaptable organization to adjust to changing conditions, but also about changing outside appearances and organizational structures in line with different stated aims. To this end, he suggests:

As for internal activity, in this we would be under the emirate of Ansar Dine.

Our emir would follow their emir and our opinion would follow their opinion. By internal activity, we mean all activity connected to participating in bearing the responsibilities of the liberated areas.

In external activity, connected to our global jihad, we would be independent of them (Ansar Dine). We would ensure that none of that activity or its repercussions is attributed to them, as care must be taken over negative impacts on the project of the state.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it appears to closely follow the apparent divergence between AQIM and MUJAO, with the latter group originally engaging largely in external activities yet still appearing to maintain a close or at least a working relationship with AQIM, the organization from which it ostensibly split in anger in late 2011. This is far from conclusive evidence for my contention that MUJAO’s formation represented a “managed separation” from AQIM but it does demonstrate the ability to accommodate multiple structures as well as the organization’s attempts to use group designs to shape outside opinions of northern Mali’s militant groups.

Finally, the documents shed an interesting light on continued racial and ethnic biases that may be present and at work among jihadis in northern Mali, especially the largely Algerian leadership of AQIM. In her excellent book Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara, the British social anthropologist Judith Scheele discusses the conception that many Algerian traders and their families held — and still hold — about northern Mali as a kind of wilderness that corrupted men and ruined families (forgive the lack of page citation, but I’m currently traveling and do not have the book with me). At the same time, Scheele notes that various families claim credit for their ancestors’ having first brought tea to the bilad as-Sudan, with tea here symbolizing civilization. That same paternalistic attitude toward the region creeps in to Droukdel’s writing, and his discussion of the “Azawad Islamic project”:

It is very important that we view our Islamic project in Azawad as a small newborn, with many phases ahead of it that it must pass through to grow and mature. The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. So is it wise that we start now to lay burdens on it that will inevitably prevent it from standing on its own two feet and perhaps even smother it?!! If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until it stands.

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The Night’s Watch: Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s ‘Neighborhood Committees’

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Following the untimely assassination of Chokri Belaïd (Shukri Bilayd), a Tunisian lawyer, opposition leader with the left-secular Democratic Patriots’ Movement and one of the leader’s of the Popular Front to which his party had adhered when the coalition was formed, there was a sense that security within Tunisia could break down. Although it appears, for now, that the situation has calmed down and many are returning to their normal everyday activities, on February 7th, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) for the first time activated its ‘Neighborhood Committees.’ The mobilization of these committees within a mere few hours illustrated the strength of AST’s organizing structures as well as its memberships obedience to orders coming from the top.

The ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ which were originally called ‘Security Committees,’ were announced and set up on October 6, 2012 as a preemptive precautionary measure in case there was a security vacuum within the country. In other words, aspirationally, the establishment of a de facto non-state controlled martial law force if need be (more on if they were successful in their first mobilization below). The original intent of these committees was to safeguard and protect individuals in case the country spiraled out of control on October 23, 2012, which was the one year anniversary of the Constituent Assembly Election. No security issue or vacuum developed and the date passed without the activation of AST’s committees.

This changed last week, though, in light of the assassination, as well as the tense environment on the streets of Tunisia. Some individuals attempted to take advantage of this and began to loot, but many have since been arrested for these crimes. As a consequence of the perceived lack of security, AST called on its followers to mobilize their ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ stating the goal was to protect individuals, their money and property, and ward off thieves and looters. AST also urged followers to remain vigilant and cautious in light of potential gangs and criminality. Within a few hours, AST was able to mobilize members in Sfax and Hammamet for the night of the 7th. The mobilization was even swifter on the 8th whereby committees in addition to the former two came to the streets in al-Zahra’, al-Wardiyyah, al-Qayrawan, Sousse, al-Qalibiyyah, Mahdia, Ariana, Sidi Bouzid, al-Tadhamin Neighborhood, Beni Khayr, Southern Suburbs (Tunis), al-Kef, Diwar Hishur, al-Dandan, al-Nur Neighborhood, Jendouba, the Western Suburbs (Tunis), Matar, the Braka Coast, al-Khadra’ Neighborhood, and Qarbah (excuse the literal transliterations from Arabic in some cases, I’m fully aware they are spelled differently in the French rendering). AST conducted some of their patrols with the League for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), believed to be a hardline faction associated with Ennahda.

In the pictures and videos AST has posted to its official Facebook page, it shows men either hanging around certain parts of streets or riding on scooters and motorcycles through the center or outskirts of cities. In all cases they are waving the flag made famous by al-Qaeda in Iraq that has the first half of the Muslim testament of faith on the top and under it Muhammad’s official seal. For added effect in the videos, AST adds anashid that provide an even more visceral emotion that is meant to bring out pride for their efforts in “protecting” the average citizen in the particular neighborhood, village, or city. The amount of AST members that helped on patrols varied by place, but has ranged anywhere from 10-50 (if not more). Their largest turnout was in al-Qayrawan, where they also rode through the center of the city during the day this past Saturday in a convoy of scooters and cars holding up Rayyat al-Tawhid (what jihadis call the black flag). AST framed all of this in terms of securing the residents and being the true bearers of stability in the country in comparison with the state and using the slogan ‘Your Sons Are at Your Service.’ As I have argued previously, AST has been in the process of building a state within a state going back to their founding in March 2011. The addition of security patrols to their social welfare provides them a strong selling point for many dissatisfied with the government or Islamists disillusioned with Ennahda.

While this is the perception that AST wants to foster, especially for those not necessarily in these locations, the truth is slightly different. Based on conversations with a few individuals in Tunisia (whom I will keep anonymous), indeed AST members were out in the streets, but their actions were on the whole no more than photo-ops. It is true that in some places they were standing “guard” all night, but truly securing a neighborhood, village, or city seems a bit exaggerated at this juncture, especially since, although many worried that more violence would erupt, on the whole, while things are tense, there has not been any type of descent into chaos. Sure there were a few scuffles and AST claimed they caught a thief with a knife going after a women in Sousse, but overall, one should not extrapolate too much from this episode. As AST’s strength grows, though, and it continues to try and co-opt more hardline elements within Ennahda that are perplexed by the concessions to the secularists in the writing of the constitution and the perceived to-be moderate stances of Prime Minister Jebali. AST is preparing the groundwork for the potential split within Ennahda. It is therefore possible that AST could one day truly impose some type of non-state martial law in some locations. Based on the evidence thus far, though, it would be too soon to ascribe these capabilities to AST.

That being said, the mobilization does illustrate that AST is a strong organization. It highlights its ability to call on its followers in a rapid manner in a variety of locations within Tunisia to respond to a request made by the leadership of the group. As AST continues to provide social welfare services, it is likely that they will be able to further project power in even more locations as well as being able to call on more individuals to back whatever plan AST might have going forward. It seems for now that the ‘Neighborhood Committees’ have been decommissioned until the next crisis (since they have not posted anything related to it in more than a day now and if they were still doing them you can bet they would promote it, though it is certainly possible the committees are still activated), but one thing is for certain, AST continues to gain prestige and credibility among a certain segment of the Tunisian population. Therefore, expect more cases where AST attempts to show it is out hustling the state and other Islamist rivals.

Salafis Consolidate Power in Syria

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While many focus on the fighting between rebel forces and the Assad regime as well as rightfully the continuing humanitarian tragedy that is wrecking havoc on the daily lives of many Syrians, there have been key organizational changes behind the scenes within the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). The SIF is a Salafi-jihadi conglomeration of brigades that banded together to create an umbrella organization in late December 2012. After its formation, the combined force of the SIF has become one of the key rebel factions in the battle against the Assad regime. The consolidation of the SIF’s power through mergers and acquisitions will help solidify its growing role in the opposition as a force that has reach throughout the country and is united unlike many other rebel factions that have fractured over time.

The SIF is an organization that calls for an Islamic state and the implementation of sharia based on its Salafi creed after the fall of the Assad regime. In addition, to playing an increasingly important role on the battlefield, the SIF has also been involved in some social welfare through its relief committee where they distribute aid from the Humanitarian Relief Fund (IHH), a government-linked Turkish NGO with ties to Hamas, and Qatar Charity, another government-linked NGO. Their charter has also gotten the stamp of approval from the Syrian jihadi ideologue Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who is allegedly affiliated with the SIF. Tartusi also recently spoke with al-Hiwar Channel explaining he was helping advise the creation of sharia courts in “liberated” areas of Syria.

When the SIF was first announced it was made up of eleven brigades, including Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (which operates throughout Syria), Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah (which operates in and around Aleppo), Kata’ib Ansar al-Sham (in and around Latakia), Liwa’ al-Haqq (in Homs), Jaysh al-Tawhid (in Deir al-Zour), Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah (in rural parts of Idlib), Katibat Mus’ab bin ‘Umayr (in rural parts of Aleppo), and the Damascus-area groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. It has since shrunk through two larger-scale mergers among some of the eleven brigades and one acquisition from outside its fold. This has helped strengthen the organization through the consolidation of ties and centralization of authority.

First, on January 31, three of the groups (Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah, Jama’at al-Tali’ah al-Islamiyyah, and Kata’ib al-Iman al-Muqatilah) merged into Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham (KAS). The four now go under the name Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah (HASI). This move can be seen as a victory for KAS’ hardliners, over elements in the group that wanted to join the Supreme Military Council (SMC), an armed affiliate of the U.S.-supported National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC) because groups that merged like Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah are seen as more radical. Further indication that rumors of KAS joining the SMC has likely been quashed, the SIF released a statement on February 6 rejecting the SOC president Mu’az al-Khatib’s recent call for talks with the Assad regime.

Second, on February 2, Damascus-based groups Liwa’ Suqur al-Islam, Saraya al-Maham al-Khasa, and Katibat al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib joined together to become Kata’ib al-Hamzah bin ‘Abd al-Mutalib. Prior to this formation, they had little to no battle record posted online, suggesting were not key players on the ground. It is possible that they joined forces better position themselves on the ground. Since then, the SIF has posted some attacks from this new formation, potentially signifying that the merger was a precursor to a more active plan going forward. The SIF might have also encouraged this due to a new offensive planned by rebel forces in Damascus and its countryside dubbed “Support for Daraya.”

Lastly, on February 5, the Hama-based fighting group Liwa’ al-Iman, which has an online footprint going back to late September 2012, left the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), an Ikhwani and Salafi umbrella group, and joined HASI within the SIF. This solidifies the SIF’s foothold in Hama since none of the original eleven were based there. It also highlights the strength the SIF is projecting to other rebel forces in contrast to the non-unified SLF, which is viewed as unorganized with a lack of coordination because of the number of large players like Suqur al-Sham and Kata’ib al-Faruq.

As a result of the consolidation, the SIF now stands at six fighting forces. These maneuvers over the past week have helped solidify its organization. It would not be surprising if other mergers and acquisitions occur in the near term because of their prowess on the battlefield as well as their ability to be organizationally disciplined and unified. More than anything, the actions of the SIF illustrate that they are planning for the long-term and will continue to play a key role in the fight against the Assad regime and attempting to shape the post-Assad state of play.