Early Perspectives on the Mali Crisis from a Jihadist Forum (I)

SUMMARY: The following is an excerpt from a longer write up from summer 2012; it comes from the same write up as the post ‘Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry‘ (06 July 2012). This post is one of two; a second excerpt will be posted in the future. The longer paper surveys posts dealing with the Mali criss on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum, a top tier jihadist Internet forum. The focus is mostly on user-produced content — essays, columns and debates, as opposed to content posted by the Islamist groups in northern Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine, MUJWA, etc.) or their media groups. It describes posts on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum from January through early August 2012 by summarising and analysing three general categories of user/member-generated content (essays, articles, discussion threads, etc.):

  • News and Analysis of Northern Mali and Its Jihadis
  • Northern Mali and Jihadi Strategy in Africa
  • Creative Responses

This post addresses several threads representative of key narratives emerging among jihadist forum users regarding the conflict there. Generally, forum members view events in northern Mali as reinforcement for their existing political and religious views. Posters appear to percieve events in the region — from the arrival of Islamist armed groups in Timbuktu and Gao to corporal punishment for violations of shari’ah – as evidence of an unbridled ‘awakening’ to jihadism in west Africa in an international context. Some debate over the origins and legitimacy of the Islamist groups in northern Mali does take place, largely due to a lack of propaganda material released through conventional jihadist Internet media outlets; late in the summer of 2012 this began to change, as both MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine began posting more content to the jihadist forums in the form of videos and newsletters. Continue reading

Some Things We May Think About MUJWA

SUMMARY: This post is a general description of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, also known by the English acronym MOJWA and the French MOJAO)[1], following on previous posts on the group’s origins and activities in northern Mali. It discusses the group’s origins, activities, leadership and relationships with other armed groups in northern Mali, including Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also points to recent analyses of the group’s origins. Unlike previous posts on this blog dealing with MUJWA, which deal with competing explanations for the group’s origin it is preoccupied with its activities and recent comments by its leaders. Among the strongest formal descriptions of the group in English (such as they exist) comes from Dario Christiani for the Jamestown Foundation, published in Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 10, Issue 7 (6 April 2012). Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali has dealt with the emergence of the group in overviews of the Islamist armed groups for al-Jazeera, first in Arabic and now in English (PDF). Though relatively little is known about MUJWA with certainty and any analysis of the group must cautious to stress this, more information has become available with time and certain observations and even claims can be about the group. Continue reading

Links and Reports on Mauritania Islamism and Security

In the last couple of months the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put out two reports on Mauritania:

Both are substantial and worth reading, even if one quibbles with specific parts of either. Both will be added to the next iteration of the Mauritania Bibliography.

The Algerian newspaper El Watan also recently published several articles on the Salafist trend in Mauritania, including a brief interview with Nouakchott Info journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali (whose long article on the situation in northern Mali was discussed here).

Magharebia also has an article on a meeting of shaykhs at Aleg last month on the role of mahadhras (religious schools; these are discussed at some length in the Boukhars report, and should be looked at in ) in promoting moderation, sponsored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Mauritanian Association of Religious Scholars.
A post on this blog on President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is forthcoming, going back to the broader domestic politics in the country and his handling of foreign affairs and crisis situations, which will hopefully be relevant as far as current events in the country are concerned, the protest, democracy and labour movements especially. Stay tuned.

Zelin on Maaroufi

The Salafi and Salafi-jihadi trends in Tunisia will be of increasing interest, especially as en-Nahdhah moderates its positions in hopes of governing together with secular and left-wing parties. The party’s moves to the center open space for more conservative and more “radical” elements to rally supporters in the name of a more pure Islamist cause. As was seen after the incidents at Bir Ben Khalifa and Sfax (and in Jendouba) earlier this year where Salafis clashed with local authorities and some were arrested suggest Tunisia’s Salafi trend, more or less peaceful if pushy, does still contain important confrontational and violent elements. Groups like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) have been covered well by Aaron Zelin on his blog and recently on Tunisia Live. AST is active on jihadist forums and identifies itself with jihadist causes explicitly on Facebook and elsewhere, and its leadership includes experienced jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and are well connected with militant networks in North Africa and Europe. His latest profile is of Tarek Maaroufi who recently returned to Tunisia from Belgium, after spending time in prison there for his role in the Brussels Cell. Maaroufi was involved in the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) and spent time in Afghanistan. Zelin writes:

The main modus operandi of Maaroufi’s “Brussels cell” was facilitating document forgery and recruiting individuals to fight abroad. As such, based on Maaroufi’s background, one could surmise that he may be attempting to tap into the swell of Tunisian Salafi youth that are outraged by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of their Sunni brethren. Such speculation could be bolstered by Abu Ayyad’s remark in an interview with As-Sabah last week that “we have a large group of young people who want to go out to jihad in Syria.” Based on past relations between Abu Ayyad and Maaroufi, and the fact that Abu Ayyad leads AST, it is possible that Maaroufi may be recruiting individuals to go fight in Syria—or that he may end up doing so if he remains in Tunisia. During the height of the Iraq war, Tunisia was a key staging area where fighters from Europe and North Africans West of Libya would go prior to making their trip to Syria and then later into Iraq. These networks may be re-established for the jihad in Syria, and Maaroufi could ultimately play a role in their regeneration.

The flow of fighters into Syria could be a future issue for Tunisia. Unlike many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia was unaffected by major violence following the Soviet jihad of the 1980s following the return of foreign fighters. One of the main reasons for this was a lack of promotion on the part of the former Tunisian regime to send unwanted individuals abroad. Though the current government is not promoting jihad abroad, the access to information through the internet has changed the game. There are already reports of Lebanese, Palestinians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Europeans joining the Syrian jihad. The last thing Tunisia needs though is a group of hardened fighters returning in a few years while the country is still transitioning to a better future leading to potential instability, especially if the economy continues to sputter. This is why although Maaroufi may only be in Tunisia for ten days, more should be paying attention, or at least determining his true intentions.

Zelin mentions Libyans showing up in Syria; these reports have been somewhat murky but there is no secret about militia leaders in Libya encouraging men to head to Syria or arms from Libya reaching the Syrian rebel fighters. And there appears to be official tolerance for whatever flow of men and guns may be moving to Syria from Libya (as well as overt support for the Syrian National Council from Tripoli, diplomatically, financially and in humanitarian terms). Imam Shaykh ‘Aymad Drissi was reported to have confirmed that fighters from Benghazi had gone to fight the As’ad regime in Syria, while saying jihad in Syria was incumbent on all Muslims and calling on Libyans to support the fight in Syria financially, morally or through pray and praised Libyans electing to take up arms there. At present these are relatively minor variables, but nonetheless worth watching as things change in the region, and outside actors (in the Gulf especially, but elsewhere too) push for the continued militarisation of the Syrian crisis. It is of course also important to be wary of exaggerated and false claims by the Syrian regime and its supporters about hordes of Libyan and Jordanian Salafites massing at the country’s borders, poised to wage an epic jihad against the Damascus government, designed or deceive internal and external opinion of Syria’s rebels — and there are no shortage of such reports in Arabic coming out in the last few months.

Re: The MSP & Leaving the Coalition

Boosted by the success of peers in the region, a leading Algerian Islamist party plans to leave the ruling coalition before April’s parliamentary election to press for constitutional reforms to limit the powers of the president.

“We are for a parliamentary system, not a presidential system as is the case now, and we will campaign to change the constitution,” Bouguera Soltani, leader of the Islamist Movement for Society of Peace, told Reuters in an interview. “The final decision belongs to the shura (advisory council) which should take it by the end of this month. Personally I am with those who support the idea to leave the government and the majority is with me,” he said.

The MSP’s withdrawal from the coalition would not strip the government of its majority but the party has a big following among conservative Algerians – a large part of the population.

[. . .]

Islamist parties have done well in elections this year after uprisings which overthrew leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. “The circumstances that have seen the birth of the government coalition in 2002 are over. We need to find new ways to do politics,” Soltani said.

Algerian Islamists set to quit government and push for reform,’ Reuters 27 December, 2011.

Some quick, disorganised thoughts on these public musings by the head of the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the 2012 parliamentary election and the evolving political climate in Algeria.

The MSP sees activity as an opposition party as more profitable than its formal association with the government/regime. The MSP is the largest legal Islamsit party in Algeria. The party’s internal struggles over Soltani’s leadership style and over the party’s role in the ruling coalition have been important in that the party lost seats in parliament as a result (because a group of MPs decided to split off from the party), and that they have called Soltani’s credibility as a leader into question in the last four years or so in particular. Soltani has become less popular with the RND and segments of the FLN in recent years, especially because he has had a tendency to criticise at inopportune times and because members of his party have disagreed with the other coalition parties during votes. In one incident in 2006 Soltani claimed to have dossiers on government corruption, which caused President Bouteflika to publicly rebuke him (the dossiers were not released, but a few years later some of the MSP ministers and their entourages were faced with threats of corruption investigations; Soltani himself has been accused of shady deals with Chinese firms when he was at the Ministry for Fisheries). Some members in parliament have wanted the MSP to have amore independent line than Soltani looked able to to maintain. Others felt the MSP’s views were drowned out by the much larger FLN and RND in policy discussions. That he is now talking to the press about leaving the coalition (for at least the second time with a major media outlet) suggests the MSP is more likely to actually make the split and that it will try to present itself as magnet for religious voters who will give it weight and negotiating power with the FLN and RND. And this kind of move could energise the party’s cadres and rally some support around Soltani. Soltani has said the government is not serious about reform and the coalition and other participatory Islamist parties have come out to point out their dissatisfaction with the last decade in politics, including Abdallah Djaballah (whose situation was written about in this space recently). These formal Islamist parties look to be trying to take the initiative in forming a new political context in a period when the dominant feeling is that reforms are needed and uncertainty and suspicion make it hard to point to credible or viable political leaders or trends as real alternatives. It is perhaps not unreasonable for the party calculate that the Islamist line will be a potent alternative, though the ‘freshness’ of the existing Islamist parties, especially in the MSP, is lacking and they will need to do work to distance themselves from almost a decade of as part of the system. Other parties like Djaballah’s can rely on their more distinctive conservatism and time in the opposition. It is unlikely Algerians will vote for Islamists simply for the sake of voting for Islamists and the fact that the FLN and RND both have considerable resources at the disposal of their party machines both as a function of their incumbency and patronage networks means they can offer and provide local notables and business elites benefits the Islamist parties can only promise. 2011 saw much discontent in Algeria but it remains unclear whether the Islamist tendencies can break the wall of voter apathy and necessarily capitalise on the current climate.

The move also points to the general disillusionment felt by the major legal Islamist parties, whose experience participating in the post-civil war regime has strengthened the regime more than the Islamist trend. While these parties have gain relevance and access to resources they would not otherwise have if the FIS were legal, their involvement in formal politics have kept the religious movements divided and competing with one another in a context of FLN/RND hegemony. The presidential system has the president forming governments and appointing a full third of the upper house of parliament (the Senate); the MSP seems to be calculating that a structural reform allowing parliament to form the government or to have an expanded role in that process could be among the government’s planned reforms (which is unlikely) or that it would able to negotiate such a reform if it won enough seats in the lower house on its own or in cooperation with some other Islamist party or parties. Voter turnout has been low in most elections since 1997 and in 2007 and 2002 saw boycotts by important parties, often secular parties. An enthusiastic Islamist constituency could capitalise on a lack of popular participation if it can be mustered by the parties and their informal leaders, which Djaballah has said he anticipates. Much of this depends on the electoral strategy of the FLN, RND and the non-Islamist opposition parties like the leftist Workers Party (PT) and Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and right wing secular party the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). If the FFS runs (it boycotted in 2007) it would likely take a significant part of the vote and pull votes from the RCD and PT currently the largest secular opposition parties in parliament. The MSP does not seem to anticipate the electoral law will be changed to allow the FIS to run, although the government approving a number of smaller Islamist parties as means of dividing the Islamist trend and diluting its performance relative to the historic mass parties and secular opposition parties is not inconceivable. A factor to watch is whether the remaining coalition parties look to pick up another partner party in the event the MSP does leave the coalition, and how the MSP leaving would impact voting and amendments to reforms going through parliament in the interval between a departure and the elections. Times change and the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood believes it is preparing to move to better political footing as the regional climate changes and the Algerian scene movs into a period where its past arrangements are perhaps less sustainable, especially as President Bouteflika’s era beings to fade. (Keep in mind these parties’ prominence and activity in formal politics very much depended on Bouteflika’s need for them in building the reconciliation narrative and a political segment to help dilute the power of the deep state in formal politics, so they are very much a product of Bouteflika’s rise to power as the general rise in Islamist politics over the last thirty years.) A French-language report on the this development can be seen at DNA, with some background on Soltani’s recent career and background as an imam and state minister and his corruption problems. Readers can search for a number of posts on the MSP and Soltani on this blog as well.

And the World Turns

Continuing on the theme from the last post — speculation and anticipation about the Algerian regime’s posture ahead of the 2012 legislative election — are a two articles taken from recent headlines; one which comes from an interview with Chafik Mesbah (a former Algerian intelligence (DRS) officer and political scientist), dealing with issues similar to the Le Soir article discussed previously and another comes from El Khabar and includes the latest in Abdallah Djaballah’s and Louisa Hanoune’s tit-for-tat on the Islamist tendency in Algeria. Continue reading

The Way Forward: Schmes & Speculation

There are many rumours and whispers about what will happen in Algeria’s election next year; how the parliament will look, what parties will be allowed to run and which will not, which will perform well and which will not. The Islamist trend is generally assumed to do well, given regional trends, popular sentiments and the government’s effort to put on a show of piety which some say means even they know or believe Islamists inside Algeria may hope to turn out to do what other have in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. A ‘well informed source’ (government) told the Francophone daily Le Soir D’Algerie about the Algerian government’s supposed strategy for managing the Islamist trend in the upcoming legislative election in either February or March 2012. The article outlines the regime’s perception of the situation generally, lays out how it sees the main Islamist trends emerging and their relationships to one another and to the regional Islamist trend in eastern Algeria and to the ex-FIS cadres and then drops some names from the ‘revolutionary family’ the article’s source says will appear in the campaign in 2012 as part of the Algerian regime’s effort to balance and control Islamist parties and trends. It also includes a reference to the possibility of the FFS participating in the election (it boycotted in 2007). In any case on is curious to find out why other reasonably prominent parties like Moussa Touati’s Algerian National Front (FNA) and  so on are not mentioned in the grand scheme Le Soir lays out. This is of course but one report.  The is an interesting piece in looking at the Algerian scene as some see it and should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. This blogger’s comments are interspersed in the text of the summary below.  Continue reading