Timbuktu: A Laboratory for Jihadists Experimenting with Politics


What options do jihadists have after they lose territory? In the short term, they can regroup and rebuild. But what then?

Since 2011, jihadists have found numerous opportunities to take territory — but they have also learned they cannot hold that territory for long. Any jihadist “proto-state” will attract attention from a superior military power, which will destroy the proto-state and force jihadists into remote areas.

One useful case study is Mali, where a jihadist state-building experiment already ended in failure. In 2012, following a separatist rebellion and a military coup, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies took control of Mali’s north. Yet jihadist field commanders, ignoring advice from AQIM’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, overreached ideologically and expanded too far militarily. In 2013, they provoked a French-led intervention, Operation Serval, that destroyed their proto-state. Serval killed key AQIM field commanders and dispersed the group’s remnants and allies across northwest Africa.

Yet six years later, AQIM remains central to the conflict in Mali’s north and the associated violence in the center. In northern Mali, the Timbuktu region has become a laboratory for jihadist experimentation with a kind of “shadow politics.” Timbuktu is not necessarily more important than the other major cities in northern Mali, but it is a site where AQIM frequently shows its face and, in the process, displays some of the strengths and weaknesses of its position.

In Timbuktu, as elsewhere in the north, AQIM and its Mali-centric organization, Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, or JNIM), are building coalitions and conducting targeted violence. In doing so, they are navigating a political landscape full of potential pitfalls: ethnic and tribal tensions, foreign soldiers, a peace agreement, and sanctions that affect not just jihadists but also their allies. AQIM’s Saharan emir, Yahya Abu al-Hammam, is attempting to strike a balance between sticks and carrots, punishing dissent and spoiling peace without sabotaging the chance to build a broader political coalition. The experiments in Timbuktu will offer insight as to whether jihadists are innovating a way to build broad coalitions for the long term without taking formal territorial control — or whether they are trapped in a cycle of growth, conquest, defeat, and recovery.

Al-Qaeda in Timbuktu

The Algeria-born AQIM has a long history in Timbuktu, a desert region that takes its name from its famous capital city. From the beginning, AQIM’s presence in northern Mali was political: Building and managing relationships was fundamental to its expansion. The future AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar may have begun cultivating ties with smugglers in the Timbuktu region as early as 1994. In the early 2000s, Belmokhtar married a woman there who came from the Awlad Idriss, a local Arab tribe.

Even the early phase of AQIM’s outreach, however, highlighted core political challenges: Amid the Sahara’s complicated racial divisions, it was initially easier to build ties with fellow “whites” (Arabs and Tuareg) than with “blacks.” Even among Mali’s Arab tribes, Algerian AQIM field commanders were relative outsiders whose maneuvers attracted attention.

As AQIM established a kidnapping economy in the Sahara, ransom negotiations represented not just economic activities but also a form of politics. Belmokhtar and his fellow field commander Abdelhamid Abu Zayd cultivated new relationships, for example with the Tuareg politician and rebel leader Iyad ag Ghali.

In 2011, a schism between AQIM and a breakaway group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), highlighted the political challenge of both holding its coalition together and choosing allies carefully. Forging relationships was not always a zero-sum game, but it frequently involved making tradeoffs as AQIM won over one constituency only to alienate another. The kidnapping economy helped AQIM expand, but it also empowered Saharan actors who could challenge the group’s dominance on the jihadist scene.

Timbuktu was an important node in AQIM’s operations, not just because it witnessed an assassination and a kidnapping, but also because it became a base for Abu Zayd’s men, and because ethnic ties had helped AQIM and its predecessor organization establish a foothold there. One key figure in this process was Algerian national Yahya Abu al-Hammam. Some accounts say that as Abu Zayd’s deputy, Abu al-Hammam was central to the kidnapping economy. As Abu al-Hammam’s stature rose, he took control of his own company, al-Furqan, which was later made a brigade. In 2012, amid the northern Malian rebellion, AQIM named him governor of Timbuktu. Abu al-Hammam, in other words, has served at virtually every level of AQIM’s hierarchy. He has witnessed the group’s ups and downs, particularly in terms of its political fortunes in Mali.

During the rebellion, Timbuktu became the most prominent laboratory for jihadist rule in Mali. AQIM and its allies in ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement imposed their version of Islamic order, targeting Western-friendly businesses, enforcing a dress code, destroying Sufi shrines, and banning smoking and music. Jihadists were sometimes harsher in other northern Malian cities, but Timbuktu saw the most overt AQIM presence and in a way functioned as the political hub for the jihadist project, the place where key coordination meetings occurred and the most fateful decisions were made. By using Timbuktu as the launching pad for their invasion of central Mali, which brought down the hammer of French military power, jihadists also sowed the seeds of their proto-state’s destruction. Abu al-Hammam participated in these crucial decisions, and he was one of the few senior leaders who lived to rethink them.

Abu al-Hammam after Operation Serval

Two deaths elevated Abu al-Hammam within AQIM. In September 2012, AQIM’s Saharan emir died in a car accident and Abu al-Hammam succeeded him. Then, in February 2013, the French killed Abu Zayd, and Abu al-Hammam took over his role as well. This hybrid role positioned Abu al-Hammam as AQIM’s foremost representative in the Sahara. Politically, he faced a continuation of AQIM’s dual challenge: uniting jihadists and then expanding their coalition, all under the shadow of continued French counterterrorism (in the form of Serval’s successor, Operation Barkhane) and a growing web of foreign and regional military operations.

When it came to crafting intra-jihadist unity, AQIM and Abu al-Hammam were fairly successful. The leader likely helped bring Belmokhtar back into the fold after the latter freelanced between 2012 and 2015. Abu al-Hammam’s importance was also reflected in the 2017 jihadist merger that produced JNIM, which is led by ag Ghali with Abu al-Hammam as deputy. Rumors of competition between the two men notwithstanding, it is significant that Abu al-Hammam accepted a subordinate role. In contrast to the pre-2012 period, AQIM’s leader in Mali is now a Malian, rather than an Algerian. AQIM/JNIM has also expanded beyond just Arab and Tuareg Malian communities, formalizing its links to central Malian militants and cultivating ties with local jihadists in Burkina Faso. In both central Mali and Burkina Faso, the fighters have been led by preachers (now likely both dead) from the Fulani ethnic group.

Timbuktu remains a key geographical node. It is a bridge between northern and central Mali, not just logistically but politically — the jihadists in northern Mali are more elite socially and politically, whereas central Malian jihadism is a more grassroots affair that involves widespread community-level violence as opposed to the more targeted terrorism in the north. Part of Abu al-Hammam’s political role involves accommodating the interests of different partners within the jihadist coalition. This dynamic was visible in Mali’s 2018 presidential election, when jihadists largely refrained from disrupting the vote in the far north, but dedicated substantial energy to shutting down polling places in the southern Timbuktu region and the adjacent Mopti region.

Meanwhile, Abu al-Hammam has tried to grow local political coalitions with tribes, especially around Timbuktu. JNIM prioritizes building popular support. In a 2017 interview, ag Ghali spoke of “consolidating relationships” with the populace and “stirring up the people” to target the French in Mali. For his part, Abu al-Hammam and battalion commanders such as Abu Talha al-Libi have continued to cultivate relations with Arabs and Tuareg in the Timbuktu region — particularly with the Awlad Idriss, the tribe into which Belmokhtar married, and with the Awlad Ich, another tribe. In late 2015, a video circulated showing al-Libi addressing an Awlad Ich crowd and urging them to unite with AQIM against what he termed French divide-and-conquer policies.

There is a tension, however, between JNIM’s coalition-building and its political violence. Indeed, by 2015 Timbuktu had become the northern Malian region with the highest number of assassinations carried out by jihadists, with Abu al-Hammam’s men targeting alleged informers and enemies. If the killings are an important stick, they nevertheless threaten to overshadow the carrots JNIM has to offer.

In September 2018, one killing highlighted Abu al-Hammam’s delicate political situation: His men murdered Salim Ould M’Begui, commander of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (French acronym MOC). The MOCs are government-backed structures meant to coordinate joint patrols in northern Mali — patrols involving ex-rebels, pro-government militias, and Malian soldiers. The joint patrols are key elements of the 2015 Algiers Accord, which is meant to end the conflict in Mali. JNIM/AQIM targets the MOCs as a way to reverse progress on the Algiers Accord.

Killing M’Begui made sense as political sabotage, but it threatened JNIM’s relations with M’Begui’s Awlad Idriss tribe. After the murder, Abu al-Hammam attempted to placate the tribe with a letter stressing that M’Begui had been killed only as a last resort and after repeated warnings, and saying  he was willing to meet to smooth things over. The incident recalled earlier precedents, such as AQIM/JNIM efforts to reassure the Kel Ansar Tuareg in 2017 that when they threatened one of its members, Col. Abass ag Mohamed Ahmed, they were not declaring war on the tribe.

The killing of M’Begui also speaks to the difficulties JNIM faces in interacting with northern Mali’s alphabet soup of militias. M’Begui came from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the preeminent ex-rebel bloc in northern Mali, to which many of ag Ghali’s former companions in Ansar al-Din belong. The CMA is an umbrella organization for three main rebel factions, ranging from Tuareg separatists to prominent Tuareg and Arab politicians to ex-jihadists; the CMA is also a key signatory to the Algiers Accord and a powerful force in northern politics. A number of questions arise: Are there contacts, as is widely rumored, between ag Ghali and the CMA? If so, do assassinations of the bloc’s figures strain those relationships? And is there daylight between Abu al-Hammam and ag Ghali about whether that price is worth paying?

Even within Timbuktu, the political questions are formidable. There are various prominent militias in the region with tribal or clan bases of support, all of which have different relationships to the Algiers Accord and to each other. Some of these militias belong to the same umbrella groups and yet take opposite views regarding core political questions in Timbuktu.

As militias jockey to participate in the peace accord and reap the benefits, AQIM faces a dilemma: Terrorism can help spoil progress on the accord and intimidate allies, but in a heavily ethnicized and tribalized militia landscape, any AQIM violence against one group risks fueling perceptions that AQIM itself is being ethnicized — a perception that leaders such as ag Ghali are keen to avoid. It was one thing, many years ago, for AQIM emir Abdelmalik Droukdel to advise his Mali-based field commanders to cultivate good relations with Malian tribes; it is another thing to put that advice into practice and calculate the various tradeoffs involved in each act of either outreach or violence.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is scrutinizing northern Malian spoilers and possible jihadist fellow travelers. Much of this scrutiny concerns militias and politicians in the Timbuktu region, particularly the Coalition of the People for Azawad (CPA), a militia led by figures from the Kel Razzaf Tuareg. In August 2018, a U.N. panel of experts report raised the possibility that the CPA’s leader Mohamed Ousmane ag Mohamedoune had political ties to AQIM/JNIM. The potential link the U.N. experts are probing is Ansar al-Din’s former judge Houka Houka ag Fousseyni, who was released from prison by Malian authorities in 2014 and whose profile has been rising in Timbuktu again. Even more damningly for the CPA, the U.N. panel asserted that the group’s military chief, Alkassoum Ag Abdoulaye, participated in AQIM attacks on Malian forces in the Timbuktu region in 2017 (allegations the CPA denies). In December 2018, the Security Council added ag Mohamedoune to its sanctions list.

AQIM can provide military firepower and political advantages to various factions, but they take risks in aligning with the jihadist group, especially given that various factional leaders have held elected office in the past or present and aspire to win office again in the future. Meanwhile, when AQIM takes sides with one militia over another, it risks eroding its image as an actor above the ethnic and tribal fray. This dynamic reflects an old and recurring challenge for the group, but if it cannot figure out how to grow without dividing the surrounding society, its political potential will be limited. Already in central Mali, JNIM’s forces are widely (albeit simplistically) seen as heavily tied to the Peul ethnic group, and that perception has reinforced the ethnicization of the wider conflict in the center. JNIM can destroy, but it struggles to create.


Mali-based jihadists are only willing to go so far in publicly detailing any “lessons learned” from their experiences since 2012. In the aforementioned 2017 interview, ag Ghali depicted the phase of territorial control as a positive experience, one that allowed for “establishing what we could of the shari‘a” and “providing obligatory necessities to the people, such as security, livelihood, electricity, water, medicine, and other things to the extent possible.” Similarly, in his 2016 interview, Abu al-Hammam depicted the period after the French intervention as “a test from God for His servants to distinguish the one sincere in his faith from the liar.” More prosaically, Abu al-Hammam argued that AQIM had frustrated France in all of its declared objectives — eliminating terrorism, restoring the Malian government’s sovereignty, retaking hostages without paying ransoms, and promoting economic development. He added that it would be a long war, but that he saw things trending in a positive direction for the jihadists, particularly in terms of penetration and recruitment in central Mali.

Even these detailed explanations, however, do not ultimately get at the question of whether jihadists in Mali will retake territory and, if so, whether and how they plan to hold it. On the one hand, AQIM and JNIM have demonstrated political sophistication in managing a volatile and convoluted network of relationships, cultivating tribal ties and building shadowy partnerships with more mainstream militias. The group has even turned the French occupation and the U.N. peacekeeping deployment to its advantage, making foreigners not just a military target but a political one as well, and attempting to unite the north’s populations in an anti-French campaign.

On the other hand, the jihadists have not resolved the problem of where to go with their political influence. Draw too close to one militia, and that militia will face international wrath. Assassinate and obstruct, and risk losing the goodwill of tribes and politicians. Translate political influence into territorial control, and risk provoking more external intervention. Invest too heavily in shaping mainstream politics, and risk splitting the jihadist coalition into hardliners and pragmatists — a scenario possible if ag Ghali ever decides to “come in from the cold.” Meanwhile, it is unlikely that AQIM/JNIM can ever conduct military attacks at such a tempo that they could force the French to leave, at least in the medium term. The question is whether AQIM/JNIM can build political influence in a way that allows them to rule without ruin. No jihadists, anywhere in the world, have solved that problem, but Timbuktu remains on the front lines of the experiment.


Alex Thurston is visiting assistant professor of political science and comparative religion at Miami University in Ohio. Among other publications, he is the author of two reports on Mali and the Sahel from 2018: one on past and potential political settlements with jihadists, and one on national and local politics in Mali.

Image: Photo by MagharebiaCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons