France Should Give Mali Space to Negotiate with Jihadists


On March 8, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Sahel region — Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (“The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims” or JNIM) — released a communiqué accepting an offer by the Malian government to negotiate a peace. The jihadists set only one precondition for entering into negotiations: “Ending the racist, arrogant, French Crusader occupation.”

France is highly unlikely to pull out of Mali altogether, at least in the medium term, given successive French governments’ seeming determination to pursue a military victory there. But however bitter a pill it might be for Paris to swallow, French forces would be wise to pull back on counter-terrorism operations in Mali. Doing so would give the Mali-JNIM dialogue a chance to play out, give France and its partners time to reevaluate their regional counter-terrorism approach, and could help drive a wedge between various jihadist groups. In particular, France should publicly commit to suspending its hunt for top jihadist leaders who participate in dialogue.

French Military Operations in Mali Aren’t Working

France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, deployed forces to northern Mali in 2013 to halt a jihadist campaign and topple the “proto-state” built by JNIM’s forerunners in 2012. Ever since, France has been more deeply invested in an effort to secure Mali and the entire Sahel, a region consisting of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and other countries such as Senegal depending on the definition used. France’s Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism mission in place since 2014, can boast tactical successes, such as the killing of the major JNIM field commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam in February 2019. Operation Barkhane has increasingly taken on roles in humanitarian aid and development efforts. It is paralleled and supported by a range of other security providers, including the United Nations’ Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and the European Union Training Mission in Mali. French President Emmanuel Macron has dedicated substantial attention to security in the Sahel, repeatedly visiting the region and convening a summit with regional heads of state in the French town of Pau in January.



Yet France is not succeeding at stabilizing the Sahel. In fact, things are getting worse. The years from 2017 through 2019 were all more violent than 2012 and 2013, the period still sometimes thought of as Mali’s time of crisis. A recent New York Times report observed,

France now finds itself stuck in the Sahel, much like the United States found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq — spending years and billions of dollars on fighting highly mobile Islamist groups in difficult, unfamiliar terrain, with no end in sight.

Barkhane’s tactical successes, in short, do not add up to a path toward peace.

Politically, French policy seems to lack a vision beyond the theory that eventually, killing enough terrorists and undertaking enough development projects will eliminate the jihadist presence. Jihadists’ ability to withstand the assault on their leadership points to the fundamentally political nature of the problem in Mali and the Sahel. And the political framework meant to solve northern Mali’s longstanding political grievances and internal divisions — the 2015 Algiers Accord — has suffered from chronic problems of mistrust and slow implementation. The Carter Center, designated as the independent observer of the Accord’s progress, is increasingly grim in its assessments.

French efforts to create an exit strategy have also faltered. Handing off counter-terrorism responsibilities to Malian authorities remains a distant prospect. The Malian state remains weak despite international efforts to rebuild and enhance its capacity — it is a “Potemkin state,” in the words of two expert critics. The Malian armed forces are undergoing ambitious reforms, but the “paternalistic behaviour of external actors … triggers forms of subtle resistance against externally-driven reform that undermines cooperation.” And survey researchers have reported that Malian citizens lack confidence in core state institutions such as the judiciary. Sub-national actors, too, are not necessarily the key problem in Malian politics — traditional rulers retain substantial authority in many localities, but their credibility has sometimes been undermined amid the present crisis as they, too, are drawn into the factionalism that now characterizes the conflict zones.

France’s hopes that other foreign actors can step in to share the burden of stabilizing Mali have proven mostly illusory. France helped decisively in standing up a regional counter-terrorism body, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, in 2017. Yet the joint force’s headquarters in central Mali suffered a devastating attack in 2018, and its successive operations in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso borderlands have not reversed the degrading security situation there. The nascent “Coalition for the Sahel,” announced at the Pau summit this year, appears to be something of a rebranding for the joint force, and a tacit acknowledgment that it is not going to be France’s ticket out of the Sahel.

Other nascent French-backed institutions, such as the Takuba Task Force comprising European special forces units, do not represent fundamentally new ideas. The United States, meanwhile, was considering reducing its West African military footprint even before the global pandemic hit. Despite French experts’ warnings that a U.S. withdrawal “would undercut counter-terrorism efforts at a crucial time and demonstrate disregard for the security concerns of its European allies,” France may sooner or later lack some of the American logistical support that is critical to its operations in the Sahel.

Meanwhile, the goodwill that Malians showed French forces in early 2013 has faded in many quarters. In Mali’s capital (Bamako) and elsewhere in the region, anti-French protesters call for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers. There is little reliable quantitative data about Malians’ overall attitudes toward France, but during my own fieldwork in Bamako I have been surprised by how many Malians, including elites, question France’s motives and regard France’s role as problematic.

Does the French presence accelerate jihadist recruitment? It’s hard to say. Evidence from around Africa suggests that it is the conduct of security forces generally that pushes civilians into jihadists’ ranks or dampens civilians’ willingness to cooperate with authorities. There is a drumbeat of reports highlighting abuses by Sahelian security forces, as well as by militias that are often perceived as government-aligned. A broader sense of government neglect and corruption can also fuel violence.

In some ways, France and Barkhane are implicated in all of these dynamics, whether it is citizens’ sense that France props up a corrupt Malian elite or more directly in terms of the intercommunal conflicts exacerbated by Barkhane’s backing for militias in northeastern Mali. Whether or not Barkhane directly drives recruitment, JNIM does seem to feel that they benefit politically from the French presence. At the very least, it is a theme they return to again and again in their propaganda, counterposing their own alleged championing of the Malian people with the allegedly imperialist, divisive, anti-Muslim agenda of France.

Potential Dialogue Already a Game-Changer

JNIM’s acceptance of the Malian government’s dialogue offer ups the ante, at least rhetorically. The group can now redouble its argument that France is hostile to peace, and that the Malian government is no more than a puppet of Paris. In the March 8 communiqué, addressed to “our Muslim brothers in the land of Mali,” JNIM commended anti-French protesters and noted how carefully jihadists had followed expressions of discontent. Its depictions of France may resonate among citizens already frustrated with their enduring security situation. France, by maintaining the status quo, risks accelerating a cycle whereby its own actions turn even more Malians, including in areas outside the main conflict zones, against France and against their own government.

In fairness to the French government, official positions have evolved since 2017, when the idea of dialogue first gained traction. In 2017, then-Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault rejected the idea of dialogue completely, saying there was “no ambiguity” in the fight against jihadists in Mali. Nearly three years later, current Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is much more equivocal on the subject, saying, “It’s not up to me to enter into a debate specific to Mali,” and stipulating only — with reference to a 2019 Malian law whose implications have been open to interpretation — that he believes there can and should be no immunity for jihadists. Malian and French authorities seem to have acknowledged that steps toward dialogue have already taken place; public statements, in other words, are likely lagging behind actual events in the process.

JNIM, however, remains visibly frustrated with France, and willing to express that on the battlefield. In claiming a March 19 attack on a Malian army base in the northern city of Tarkint, it linked the assault to the issue of negotiations, complaining that France opposed dialogue and “will not accept a marginalization of its role in the region easily.” Needless to say, such rhetoric and attacks will make it harder for France to support a dialogue — but the situation also underscores that a dialogue may eventually be the only solution to problems that the current counter-terrorism approach cannot solve.

Segments of the Malian elite have repeatedly, and increasingly, called for a political solution. Specifically, they support negotiations with the Malian-born jihadist leaders Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. This proposal surfaced prominently at Mali’s Conference of National Understanding in 2017, and again at the Inclusive National Dialogue in 2019. Members of civil society and the political class, such as Aliou Nouhoum Diallo, the former speaker of parliament, have sometimes pursued informal contacts with jihadists in the hopes that such channels could pave the way for state-led dialogues. After years of ambivalence on the topic of dialogue with jihadists, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta formally committed to the idea in February 2020.

The Content — and Possible Pitfalls — of a Potential Dialogue

Neither the Malian government, nor civil society, nor jihadists have publicly offered a fleshed-out peace proposal. As far back as 2017, Kouffa reportedly stated that his core demands in any hypothetical dialogue would include the withdrawal of Barkhane as well as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, a peacekeeping operation first deployed in 2013. Malian authorities, meanwhile, have emphasized that the character of the state — particularly as republican and secular (laïc) — is nonnegotiable. These respective statements could appear to make any dialogue a non-starter: why would Malian (or French or U.N.) authorities accept a withdrawal of foreign forces? And why would jihadists accept living under a secular democracy?

Yet dialogue does not commit the Malian government, or JNIM, to any specific outcome, and offers the best chance to advance prospects for peace and stability. A provisional ceasefire or limited agreement could give time to see whether there is any flexibility on these broader, seemingly irreconcilable visions: Could jihadists and secular authorities (many of whom already appeal to religious symbols, leaders, and identities, especially at election time) compromise around changes to the constitution that would remove references to the laïc character of the state and instead reference sharia as the “source” of Malian law? Such phrasing, found in countries such as Egypt, is not tantamount to installing a theocracy. Could there be amnesty provisions for specific leaders or for rank-and-file fighters who lay down arms, even despite the 2019 law against immunity? Could jihadists who want to be included in the political process join the northern ex-rebel bloc the Coordination of Azawad Movements, and even participate as signatories to the Algiers Accord? Could ag Ghali and Kouffa renounce ties to al-Qaeda and commit to expelling foreigners from their ranks?

There are reasons to be skeptical of negotiations with jihadists. Mali has a history, stretching back more than a decade, of one-off deals and ad hoc arrangements with jihadists — including prisoner releases, suspected collusion, and tolerance by local authorities in parts of the north. Some of the Malian authorities’ past actions appeared to pay off in the short run, but were ultimately destabilizing over time. And just this year, Kouffa’s men appear to be responsible for the kidnapping of Malian opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé — and for the recent kidnapping of another politician dispatched to negotiate Cissé’s release. These latest moves are a potentially ominous sign for the prospects of a bigger deal.

Further, now that bigger deals are conceivable, what if jihadists take advantage of a pause in military operations to entrench themselves even more thoroughly in northern and central Mali? What kind of carrots could be offered to ag Ghali, a chameleon-like character? On the one hand, ag Ghali has been negotiating with various iterations of the Malian state since he led the separatist rebellion of 1990, then in a decidedly non-jihadist posture. On the other, ag Ghali has been offered virtually every sop — peace accords, a stint as a presidential advisor, privileged roles in mediating hostage releases, a diplomatic posting in Saudi Arabia, and more. Is there anything that could satisfy this man, so central to the politics of northern Mali but now so embroiled with al-Qaeda?

There are also reasons to fear the potential outcomes of even a successful negotiation. What if jihadists take a central role in administering regions that achieve de facto autonomy? What if the government, at the negotiating table, compromises not just on symbolic language in the constitution but on core issues relating to the secularity of the state, especially involving the rights of women and non-Muslims in the country? If the government grants amnesty to jihadist leaders and fighters, how are their many victims supposed to move on without justice and accountability? What if other armed factions balk at perceived favoritism for jihadists?

It would be grotesque — including in the eyes of many Malians — to see the political rehabilitation of ag Ghali and his companions, given the harm they have inflicted on specific people and on Malian society as a whole. At the same time, continued war will bring incalculable suffering. What began as a crisis primarily in the north has spread into central Mali and into parts of Burkina Faso and Niger. In these three countries, over four million people are at risk of hunger and disease, and nearly one million have been internally displaced. Governments have struggled to respond to both the insecurity and the humanitarian catastrophe, and many of the measures that governments take — especially security deployments that routinely involve ethnic profiling and collective punishment — exacerbate rather than ameliorate the situation. The continuation of current strategies is untenable, and COVID-19 may soon take a dramatic toll on Mali generally and even on Barkhane’s own forces. It would be better, now, to give even an unlikely peace a chance, rather than squandering a rare opportunity to negotiate with part of al-Qaeda.

What Would a French Pause in Counter-Terrorism Operations Entail?

RAND Corporation analyst Michael Shurkin has suggested that there are two alternatives to the status quo: a French withdrawal or an intensification of its role in Mali to the point where France “drops its post-colonial scruples and assumes more control over the host nations and their forces.” I disagree — I think there are a range of options that include a limited and tentative pullback in Mali. France’s Operation Barkhane is headquartered in Chad’s capital N’Djamena and has a remit to cover the entire Sahel region. France could, in the short term, reduce the tempo and intensity of its Mali-centric operations without fully withdrawing from the conflict zone. It could do this while still maintaining an operational tempo in Burkina Faso and Niger. French authorities could make a public declaration that they will pause their hunt for ag Ghali and Kouffa for a set time, and that they will not target any jihadist representatives traveling to or from meetings with Malian authorities. The French-backed G5 Sahel Joint Force, comprising soldiers from Mali and four other countries in the region, could follow suit. These actions could give the Malian government some space to reestablish its authority and credibility.

And if a pause in the fighting gave jihadists a chance to build strength, it could also give the Malian government — and that of France — a parallel opportunity to inventory current policies and capabilities. At the Pau summit and in other venues, France has been signaling that its top counter-terrorism priority in the Sahel is now not JNIM but the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which emerged in 2015 as a breakaway from al-Murabitun, itself a then-dissident faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), JNIM’s parent organization. Al-Murabitun later reconciled with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and became a founding element of JNIM in 2017.

Negotiating with JNIM could help further divide the jihadist milieu and allow France even greater latitude to pursue the fight with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. The relationship between JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara is in considerable flux. At least for a time, the two factions appeared to have less friction than al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates elsewhere and even to cooperate, although there have been recent reports of clashes.

Meanwhile, negotiations can produce some good in and of themselves. It is already a good sign to see an al-Qaeda affiliate publicly offering to negotiate with a secular government; this weakens al-Qaeda’s brand as uncompromising revolutionaries, and sends a signal to multiple constituencies — including some of the jihadists’ own fighters — that peace is possible, however remote the chances. France could also improve its public image, especially in northern Mali, by showing its own willingness to make compromises in the service of peace. If French authorities surprise Malians by showing some flexibility, that decision could counter the image of “occupying Crusaders” even if the dialogue ultimately fails.



Alex Thurston is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. His next book, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in fall 2020.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that JNIM field commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam was killed in January 2019. That was incorrect. He was killed in February 2019.

Image: Wikicommons (Photo by Philippe Chapleau)