February 18, 2013 2 Comments
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.