Who are These “Jihadists” Who Are Defeating the French Army in the Sahel?

French and Malian soldiers in Operation Barkhane, 2016 (TM1972 via Wikimedia Commons)

by Rémi Carayol

The French army takes pride in regularly announcing “victories” in the Sahel, where it has been operating for five years under the name “Operation Barkhane.” These may be the destruction of munitions dumps, motor vehicles or camps or, just as often, the “neutralisation” of jihadists or men described as such. In the French army’s newspeak—adopted recently by some of its African allies—“neutralised” means killed. Most of the time this has been the consequence of a firefight but may also result from an execution, when a target has been located by drone or by phone tapping and bombed from the air.

“Mowing the Lawn”

Since France sent its troops into Mali in January 2013, hundreds of alleged jihadists have been killed. In February 2019, the Minister of Armed Forces, Florence Parly, gave a speech before the Senate in which she spoke of 600 terrorists put out of action, including 200 for 2018 alone. Among these were several well-known heads of armed Sahelian Jihadist groups: Abdelhamid Abou Zeid in 2013, Omar Ould Hamaha in 2014, Mohamed ag Almouner in 2018, Djamel Okacha in 2019, etc.

Off the record, responsibility for these extrajudicial executions is claimed by officers and by high-ranking civil authorities. They correspond to a clearly established strategy: “mowing the lawn,” in other words, eliminating commanders at regular intervals in order to weaken the various armed groups and hoping that the grass won’t grow again (to extend the metaphor). Aside from any debates over the legality or legitimacy of such operations, or even their strategic usefulness, the jihadi groups still cause as much harm as ever in the Sahel, if not more so. And we have to ask ourselves who are those other “Jihadists” killed by the French troops.

In the official communiqués, most of the victims of Barkhane are nameless and ageless. We know nothing about them except that they have been killed in a firefight or an air strike, in a location often identified only vaguely, without the actual cause of their death being revealed or what became of their corpse. Their actual guilt is never proven—nor is it ever questioned by the media which relay the official press releases—any more than their membership in a so-called armed terrorist group. They happened to be in a place which was probably deemed suspicious. Most observers as well as the soldiers fielded by the countries collaborating with Barkhane assure us that the French army takes every precaution before it attacks, even if a few “blunders” have occurred in recent years. Thus a child of ten, mistaken for an informer, was killed in November 2016; three civilians, including two minors, in a moving vehicle, were shot and killed last June; Malian soldiers who happened to be in a katiba were killed by an air strike in October 2017. What were they doing there? Were they fighting, were they passing through for some reason? Were they fighters or civilians having some connection with an armed group?

Trapped by a Reckless Choice

The men and women in the ranks of the armed jihadist groups in the Sahel do not all fit the media caricature of religious fanatics, prepared to die in suicide bombings in order to impose the sharia on their fellow Muslims and seeing themselves as part of an unlikely “global Jihad.” In the same way, some of these groups are more like local insurrections, fuelled by societal and socio-economic issues rather than outgrowths of a worldwide war of religion. Many studies carried out in recent years by NGOs, think tanks or international bodies like the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) have shown that most of these “Jihadists” were in fact guided by very different convictions, were often prisoners of a hasty choice or an unfortunate encounter and that some of them had actually been forced to join the insurgents.

Regarding the first type, several reasons can explain their “commitment.” In 2016, The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) held interviews in Mali with 63 former fighters from 17 to 75 years of age, 19 of whom were recruited in prison. These interviews showed that “factors that are not economic, religious or ideological explain the presence of young people in the ranks of armed Jihadist groups in Mali.” Thus” the need to protect oneself and/or one’s family members, community or income-generating activity, appears as an important factor […] in most cases documented by this study, youth engagement did not hinge on religious factors and was not the result of religious indoctrination.”

The history of the Dewral Pulaaku association and its leader Amirou Boulikessi illustrates this ISS verdict: when in 2012 the Tuareg rebels belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) ran the Malian army out of the Northern part of the country, including Seno and Hayre, the Fulani farmers of those two regions grew concerned over the thefts of their livestock. Amirou, chief of the village of Boulikessi, travelled to Bamako to get help from the government. None was forthcoming. On his return, another armed group appeared in the region: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWAS), a breakaway from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). At the farmers’ urging, Amirou made contact with the group. There was no question of adhering to their ideas, or even imposing the sharia on the local population, but of negotiating their protection.

“Defend Us Against the Thieves”

The men of MOJWAS who had taken the town of Gao from the MNLA in the meantime, made him an offer: “send us young men for combat training.” And Amrou did just that. After which, these young men were suspected of being jihadists and some of them have been killed. Amirou himself has spent time in Malian and Burkinabe gaols. And yet he has always proclaimed his loyalty to Mali and swears he does not share the ideas of the jihadist groups. “It was only a matter of defending ourselves against the thieves and preserving our only source of income,” he never tires of repeating to anybody who will listen.

A similar concern prompted the Fulas of the North-Tillaberi region of Niger to join with Jihadist groups, including the MOJWAS and The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS): “Some have taken on board their struggle, but these are very few in number,” a negotiator explained to us. He knows them very well for having fought by their side in a self-defence group formed at the end of the nineties. “Most of them joined the jihadist troops solely in order to defend themselves against the Tuareg rebels but afterwards they never managed to get away. “

There are other factors explaining these young men’s enrolment: the profit motive (future recruits are promised several thousand CFA francs, a gun, a motorcycle…), the promise of a better future or just a timely encounter. A local dignitary in the Mopti region who wishes to remain anonymous for security reasons, hid several of those men after they had managed to escape from one of the Jihadi camps. In his opinion, “Those kids were deceived. Most of them had had no schooling and came from very poor families. They had no arguments to resist the fancy talk. They were told what they wanted to hear but once they were in situ they realised it wasn’t what they had imagined. They had no idea what they were going to be expected to do.”

The Money Motive

A former member of the Macina Katiba, Brahima (alias), 22, is one of the men hidden by our dignitary. He is from a poor family, one of 11 children and never attended public school, only a Koranic school. In 2013, he joined an association to prevent livestock thefts. He was only16 at the time. “They told me they were fighting the thieves too and that they were getting paid for it,” he explained to us. “They didn’t mention any particular sum, but they told me I’d get some money as soon as I joined them. Money was my main motivation. But I was also interested in getting a better religious education, and maybe getting sent to Yemen or Afghanistan to study, why not?”

That was how he joined the jihadists. After a firearms training course in a forest, he was sent to a camp on an inland delta of the Niger River to serve as a scout. He never had a weapon in his hands, he claims. His mission consisted of going into villages, especially on feast days, and gathering information. Though he soon realised this was no place for him, it took months to find a way to escape. “They told us if we left, we’d become enemies and they’d know how to find us. Abdou (another alias), who also found shelter with our dignitary, was 14 when he joined the Macina Katiba. His father raised livestock and he knew only the Koranic school. With no future prospects, in 2014 he decided to go to Europe. On his journey he met a man who told him that if he joined Koufa’s men, he could earn some easy money and they could help him get to Libya. After a period of military training, he was sent to a camp as a fighter. He took part in several missions, including one in which Malian soldiers were killed. “After that mission, I was congratulated by the chief. They gave me 300,000 CFAfrancs [£408, $509]. But after that, I didn’t feel so good. I asked to take a break.” He was assigned to a group whose job was preaching in mosques, then he managed to run away. While he was learning to handle weapons in a forest on the border between Mali and Burkina Faso, Abou said he heard bombings very near his camp. He could have died that day from a French or Malian air strike.

In telling their stories, Abdou and Brahima described their life in the Katiba camps. It appears that all the camps’ “residents” did not bear arms. Moreover the ISS study specifies that the former conscripts were not all meant to fight: “For example, some drew water, prepared meals, provided information, directed prayers, or learned or taught the Koran. Others were in charge of refuelling, organised patrols or worked as drivers, secretaries, messengers, couriers, mechanics or motorcycle mechanics.” Another phenomenon is often neglected (or at least hidden from the public eye) by the Western and Sahelian military staffs: many “Jihadists” were recruited against their will. A report by the International Crisis Group published in May 2019 and dealing with the conflict in central Mali points out that “not all Katiba Macina members sign up willingly.” Indeed, it goes on, the jihadi leaders, who control a large share of the rural areas, “often force families in the inner delta to enrol their children at pain of sanctions.”

Forced Enrollments

Such “passive” conscripts are especially plentiful in the ranks of Boko Haram. This group, created in Nigeria, has conducted many predatory raids around lake Chad in the past few years. In 2015 and 2016, forced enrolment was practised on what was virtually an industrial scale in Nigeria but also in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Confidential investigations carried out by various NGOs in Niger and which Orient XXIhas been able to consult, reveal the dimensions of this phenomenon. Dozens of former members of Boko Haram, held in Nigerian prisons, were questioned. The data thus collected should be taken with a grain of salt since it is based solely on the statements of the people interviewed. Yet it tends to confirm observations made by other NGOs on the ground, as well as by the Nigerian authorities: a third of the men questioned admitted they bore arms; half of them claimed never to have done so; nearly half of them also said they were forcibly enrolled by Boko Haram; only one in five declared having been prompted to join for ideological reasons.

Another study conducted by the NGO Mercy Corp, concerning 47 ex-members of Boko Haram and which has been made public, came to the same conclusions. Most of these young men said they were obliged to join the group or be executed, or see their families killed. “Boko Haram overran our village and told all the young men they had to come with them or be killed. We tried to resist, but when they killed the first to refuse, we all went with them,” one man explained to the interviewers.

At each attack, the Boko Haram fighters came into a village, killed two or three men—usually dignitaries—, assembled several dozen villagers, including women and children, and threatened to kill them too if they didn’t come with them right away. “The Boko Haram people ordered us to come away with them. We walked for a month. They took us to an island under Boko Haram’s control. I stayed there for two years,” said Hafisata (alias), a Chadian woman of 38 who comes from an island on Lake Chad. Various sources estimate at some 2,000 the number of inhabitants of the islands on the Chad side of the lake who were obliged to follow the Boko Haram fighters and live on the islands that the group controlled at the time. Some of them, very few in fact, bore arms. But most were never involved in the fighting. They lived the life of prisoners while at the same time doing the work they had always done—fishing, farming, raising livestock, etc.—until the day when they managed to escape and return home.

Such people can scarcely be considered terrorists to be fought and put to death. Actually, while some of them were arrested and gaoled in their country once they managed to get away, the judicial authorities quickly realised they were not dealing with people prepared to die for a cause. In Chad, several dozen “returnees” were freed after spending a few months in gaol. In Niger, a process of social reintegration of “reformed” individuals is under way. But the rhetoric of the French authorities contains not a trace of these niceties: France, we are told, is at war with the same Jihadists who attacked Charlie Hebdo or Le Bataclan, or those who have joined The Islamic State Organisation (ISIS) in the Middle East. This oversimplified picture, which ignores the local factors which may have prompted some men to take up arms “deprives this category of players of any form of return/reintegration” as Yvan Guichaoua and Mathieu Pellerin observed in 2017. And consequently of any right to the presumption of innocence.

Rémi Carayol is a journalist. Republished, with permission, from OrientXXI.

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One Comment

  1. “One day while I was in a bunker in Vietnam, a sniper round went over my head. The person who fired that weapon was not a terrorist, a rebel, an extremist, or a so-called insurgent. The Vietnamese individual who tried to kill me was a citizen of Vietnam, who did not want me in his country. This truth escapes millions.” –Mike Hastie, U.S. Army Medic, Vietnam 1970-71

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