Taking Mali hostage
Commentary: Andrew Lebovich
The kidnapping of four ICRC workers by prominent political figures in Mali indicates that the Jihadists might be holding the peace process hostage as well as its aid workers.
The news that four employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been kidnapped in northern Mali on 16 April resonated locally and in the international community. The four were taken by a man on a motorbike near the town of Abeibara, north of Kidal and along one of the routes leading to Algeria. This is the second time that a local ICRC team has been kidnapped in the region since 2014, and at a time when security and political considerations have already contributed to making a serious humanitarian situation in northern Mali even more difficult. Although serious inter-communal fighting in the north has been quelled by a series of local peace agreements that began last fall in the town of Anéfis, the overall security situation continues to deteriorate in northern and parts of central Mali. As a result of this kidnapping, and despite the subsequent release of the four employees, the ICRC will reportedly restrict activities in the north, and other humanitarian organisations will likely follow suit.
The jihadist group Ansar al-Din, led by the veteran Tuareg rebel, politician, and erstwhile diplomat, Iyad Ag Ghali, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying that it was in retaliation for the arrest by French forces of the ICRC team’s guide, a local notable and elected official named Miyatène Ag Miyaris. Ansar al-Din freed the men last week after demanding Ag Miyaris’s release. The ICRC strongly denied engaging in any trade for the men’s freedom, but the release earlier that day of four other Tuareg men detained by French forces in Kidal raised eyebrows. Even if the ICRC is telling the truth and no deal was made for their employees’ release, appearances have certainly led many to believe that an exchange was made, and a message sent once more that even highly respected international organisations are not safe from Mali’s ongoing conflict.
Still, one of the most notable elements of the kidnapping is not whether or not such a deal was made, but how the release took place. According to various Malian press outlets as well as figures close to the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA in French), another familiar name handled the eventual hostage release – Cheick Ag Aoussa. A rebel and jihadist leader, Ag Aoussa’s continued importance and ability to recycle himself as a force in northern politics more than three years after the French intervention in Mali shows the incredible complexities of Mali’s current security and political climate, and the limits of military operations as well as the current peace deal architecture in place.
Ag Aoussa has nearly as colorful and involved a past as Ag Ghali, but whereas Ag Ghali often took the limelight, acting as leader of armed movements as well as political arrangements from the 1980s and 1990s until today, Ag Aoussa often lingered just behind the scenes. Like Ag Ghali, Ag Aoussa hails from the northern city of Kidal, and is a member of the influential Ifoghas Tuareg confederation. One of the legions of young men who sought military training in the 1980s in Libya, Ag Aoussa fought in Lebanon before returning to take on the Malian state in the 1990 rebellion.
Despite his military prowess and experience, Ag Aoussa opted not to integrate himself into the Malian armed forces after the emergence of peace in 1996, and instead maintained his authority and influence through business dealings, reportedly taking advantage of the burgeoning smuggling economy in northern Mali in the 1990s and 2000s while also staying deeply involved in local politics. In 2010, for instance, he was arrested after threatening to kill the head of Kidal’s Regional Assembly, Abdoul Salam Ag Assalat. Ag Assalat was later killed in a road accident months before a combination of longstanding political and militant actors, young activists, and Tuareg returnees from Libya began planning in earnest to rebel against the Malian state once more.
During the rebellion, Ag Aoussa again sided with Ag Ghali in the then-largely Tuareg jihadist group Ansar al-Din. Ag Aoussa appeared in the group’s first video, for instance, elaborating in Arabic on the reasons for the group’s combat and the need to implement the Shari’a in Mali. He also reportedly led the raid on the Malian military base at Aguelhoc that ended in the slaughter of at least 70 soldiers. Yet, after the French intervention in Mali in January 2013, Ag Aoussa chose not to follow Ag Ghali into the desert, where many jihadist fighters from Ansar al-Din, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), sought to escape the French bombardment or continue to fight them on more favourable terrain. Instead, he joined the newly-formed Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), composed in large part of the elements of Ansar al-Din with prior political experience in Kidal who had sought to negotiate with Mali’s government during the occupation. Ag Aoussa became the group’s military commander. He maintained this role when the MIA became the High Council for the Unity of the Azawad (HCUA) in May 2013, which is now a major component of the umbrella group representing the country’s rebel groups in Mali’s ongoing but halting peace process, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA).
Throughout this time, Ag Aoussa has maintained links to fighters who remained with Ansar al-Din, repeated assertions of the need to protect Islam and implement the Shari’a, and according to some local accounts has met repeatedly with Ag Ghali. At the same time, he has remained a key military figure in the HCUA, and just last month a document signed under his name announced the creation of a new HCUA military unit in Ménaka, a contested region that has seen intense combat between different ethnic communities as well as armed groups at several points in the past few years.
If this didn’t sufficiently demonstrate the complexities of making peace in northern Mali, one need only look to the deadly protests last week in Kidal against French and UN forces. These protests, spurred by a recent wave of arrests by French forces following a deadly IED attack last month, resulted in the deaths of two protesters, the destruction of nearly $6 million in property belonging to UN and French forces, and the blocking of Kidal’s airstrip, vital for bringing in military as well as humanitarian supplies and personnel. And according to the Malian media, western and European diplomats, and MNLA members in Kidal, one of the organisers of the protests was none other than Ag Aoussa’s wife, Zeina Walet Ilady.
Whether or not Ag Aoussa’s wife is involved, the multiple accounts of her presence in the protests and at Kidal’s airport all testify to popular perceptions that elements of the CMA – in particular those who once were part of Ansar al-Din – are trying to leverage popular anger against the UN and French forces to undermine the peace process in Mali. This tension is particularly salient not only as Ansar al-Din has dramatically increased its attacks against UN and French forces this year, but also as the CMA and especially its leader Bilal Ag Acherif have tried to calm tensions and show that they can work within the peace process laid out in the Algiers Accords, signed last June. The protests and their aftermath show the extent to which political difficulties remain prominent in parts of northern Mali, and that some people, whether within the MNLA or among the region’s civilian populations, remain indifferent or opposed to the foreign presence in northern Mali or a peace deal with Mali’s government. As long as French forces continue to hunt jihadists in the Sahel and Sahara and the EU continues to pour money into aid as well as training Malian military forces that remain largely ineffective or absent in many parts of the centre and north, these political issues will continue to shape any possible security outcomes.
There can be little hope of a lasting peace in Mali unless those issues can be dealt with.