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.

Words and Deeds: Competing Narratives and Origins

To date there are competing narratives regarding MUJWA’s origin, intentions and disposition. Early on the group was described as a splinter group of AQIM; some analysts disputed this description, seeing it as an evolution of the group that was not hostile toward AQIM and which may have pointed to a division of territory or labour meant to allow the group to emphasise operations outside of northern Mali. Various explanations for MUJWA’s emergence have been explored on this blog previously. Early analysis of the group’s emergence was focused on its inaugural video, which stressed its differences with AQIM and its geographic orientation toward west Africa. Early western analyses also tended to assume the group would be (or was) led by black Africans or that the group would act as a competitor to AQIM. As the situation in northern Mali began to evolve with the outbreak of the 2012 rebellion, more and more information began to trickle out about MUJWA’s origins and activities. Reporting from the region suggested the group did have serious disputes with AQIM but that some kind of agreement had been reached in which the two groups (as well as Iyad Ag Ghali’s mainly Tuareg group Ansar Ed-Dine) had set aside their differences. No official communication came out from the groups laying out this agreement, though the agreement was hinted at in scattered media interviews with MUJWA or Ansar Ed-Dine members.

What is now known is not known well since the amount and quality of reporting is relatively weak and sometimes conflicting. However, the theory that MUJWA and AQIM remain groups with serious personality conflicts and potentially differences in vision or emphasis remains strong though not confirmed (other theories of the group’s origin remain valid and plausible), and the view that MUJWA represents a ‘black African’ splinter of AQIM does not enjoy strong support (and in this blogger’s view there was not ever a strong case for this impression based on the information available in December 2011 an January 2012). Though there is a high degree of uncertainty, it appears clear that MUJWA is strongest at Gao, relying on tribal support from at least part of the Arab community there and that the group cooperates with AQIM and Ansar Ed-Dine likely as a result of the volatile circumstances in the region more than just ideological fidelity.

MUJWA’s main operations to date include the October 2011 kidnapping of an Italian and two Spanish aid workers from the Tindouf refugee camps in south western Algeria, a suicide bombing involving two men at a gendarmerie office at Tamanrasset in March 2012, southern Algeria, the fighting together with other armed groups, including Ansar Ed-Dine and the MNLA, during the rebel advance into Gao, the sacking of the Algerian consulate at Gao and the subsequent kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats (including the consul), an attempted hijacking of fuel trucks near the Algerian border and fighting there which resulted in an Algerian airstrike which is reported to have killed twenty MUJWA fighters. The group appears to lack adequate resupply logistics and its range of movement appears more limited than AQIM or Ansar Ed-Dine. Its numbers cannot be assessed easily and it may share personnel with other Islamist groups. The group has been most active in and around Gao and occupied key points in the city after entering along with the MNLA and Ansar Ed-Dine; its leaders have been publicly identified with the application of shari’ah law in the city of Gao, including opening a phone line used to report crimes (according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, these groups have abused the local population and the MNLA and Islamist factions have been accused of relatively different kinds of abuse, an issue Alex Thurston has addressed). Despite its early rhetoric, which was critical of AQIM and gave many observers the impression it was some kind of dissident or break away faction, MUJWA has continued to collaborate and cooperate with AQIM, and this is especially evident in that AQIM members were allegedly allowed to visit the Algerian diplomats held at Gao. In addition, Khayrou, for example, told journalists that his group was not ‘in dispute’ with AQIM, that the group merely seeks to expand the frontier of jihad into west Africa, ‘as other jihadist groups have done’ in east Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. According to Abu al-Ma’ali, MUJWA came to an agreement with AQIM and Ansar Ed-Dine shortly after its founding to pursue a common agenda aimed at spreading their common creed in the region, coordinating their activities and setting aside their differences. A meeting was held at Timbuktu to cement this agenda in mid-May, as well.

As noted by this blogger and by other analysts, there is a disparity when one looks at MUJWA’s lone official communication, a video release in December 2011, to its subsequent operations and statements from its leadership. The group’s first communication spends special attention to France as the enemy of west African Muslims, the need for a stronger emphasis on active, violent jihad (it accuses AQIM of shying away from offensive measures), and spreading the Salafi-jihadi creed in West Africa. MUJWA’s targets thus far have thus far included European aid worker in southern Algeria, an Algerian gendarmerie office in Tamanrasset and seven Algerian diplomats posted at Gao in northeastern Mali.  MUJWA’s rhetorical emphasis on west Africa – Gharbi Ifriqiyyah – as opposed to the ‘Sahel’ is notable in this first video and in the public communications of its most high profile leader, Hamada Ould Lamine Ould Mohamed Khayrou going back to his time as a rising star in AQIM. The difference between the group’s rhetoric and its operations was also amplified because it did not release additional communications giving a more clear indication of its leadership, intentions or its view of other armed groups in the region. This difference between MUJWA’s words and deeds also likely owes to the regional climate, which has probably restricted its activities to specific sectors of northern Mali.

Early analysis and reporting looking of MUJWA’s objectives and ethos occasionally described the group as ‘black African’ based on the messaging in its first video. References to the group being a ‘black’ jihadist group do not appear anywhere in the video. The video does mention such figures in the history of west Africa as ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, Ahmadou Cheikhou, Haj ‘Umar bin Sa’id Tall as a signpost in its historiography of the region’s history of jihad. Khayrou was a key figure in AQIM’s propaganda targeting west African Muslims, for example appearing conspicuously and deliberately in videos in 2006 and 2010 alongside black GSPC and AQIM recruits from Guinea, Senegal, Niger (Hausa and Tuareg) and other parts of west Africa; that the group would likely focus on growing recruitment among these ethnic groups can logically be deduced from the themes in MUJWA’s first video and from Khayrou’s association with it. However, at the time the video was released little was known about MUJWA’s composition or leadership and this remains the case. What is known is that virtually all of the individuals who have been publicly associated with the organisation have been Mauritanian, Malian Arab or Tuareg – including Khayrou and Sultan Ould Badi. What little information that is publicly available about the group’s leadership and membership has come mainly from news interviews with its leaders, reports on the Tamanrasset suicide bombing and its initial video release. Articles by reporters in the region suggest the group is made up predominantly of Mauritanians and Malian Arabs who were associated or members of AQIM until last winter. Early an Ahmed Telmasi was identified with the group but very little reporting since mid-winter has mentioned him. There are limited reports that suggest the group’s membership may be skewed toward this demographic but also includes Hausa-speakers and members of black ethnic groups who left AQIM; Khayrou also told an interviewer in late April that the group included Nigerians and others from ‘black Africa’. The direction of the group’s attacks and the little information available about its leadership and composition do not support a description of the group as a ‘black African’ break away from AQIM.

Obscure growing pains 

A stronger case can be made that the group represents, as Christiani has written, one of probably several consequences of the ‘Sahelisation’ or regionalisation of AQIM’s membership, both as it relates to attitudes and relationships between members of its leadership hierarchy and internal perceptions of how the group ought to construct its ideology and operations in order to be relevant in its southern katibas operating environment. Abu al-Ma’ali has reported that Sultan Ould Badi, formerly of AQIM is reported to have created the group after his proposals for reorganising AQIM’s Saharan branches were rejected by AQIM’s leadership. This points to the tensions between the group’s Algerian leadership and its Sahelian membership that has long ben rumoured in press and other reporting. AQIM’s southern katibas had been especially economic operations used to finance the activities of the group’s northern core leadership in central Algeria, following the pattern set by armed groups during the Algerian civil war, in the late 1990s especially (including the GIA and GSPC from which AQIM is descended). MUJWA’s emphasis on actively seeking hard, military targets follows on the gradual enveloping of the Sahara-Sahel into the financial and political orbit of the jihadist trend emanating out of Algeria from the early 2000s onward, and perhaps conflict over how to use the southern operating area. AQIM had operated in northern Mali mainly on economic lines until relatively late, focusing for the most part on kidnappings for ransom while engaging in relatively limited armed activity against Malian, Mauritanian or Nigerien military targets only in late 2009 and 2010. The group’s Mauritanians were often obsessed with initiating armed activity in their country; perhaps more so some of their Algerian leaders who saw the southern zone as an area to use as a safe haven and means of financing through smuggling and similar activities first and an area to wage military operations second. Disputes between zealous Mauritanian recruits who wanted to fight and more senior AQIM leaders who were more patient (whom the Mauritanians called qa’idun, those who sit) was a recurrent theme in internal disputes that surfaced in regional media.

According to Abu al-Ma’ali’s account, MUJWA was founded after AQIM’s leadership rejected Sultan Ould Badi’s proposal for an AQIM unit made up of Saharan Arabs from Mali and Mauritania. According to Abu al-Ma’ali this was to be ‘akin to the al-Ansar squadron headed by Abu Abd al-Karim al-Tariqi which is composed of Tuareg fighters’. Serge Daniel has described Ould Badi as being half Tuareg and half Malian Arab form north of Gao.[2] Abu al-Ma’ali’s description of Ould Badi’s background is thus far the only one (available in English) which mentions his familial or professional background; Abu al-Ma’ali claims Ould Badi as coming from the Arab Amhar tribe which comes from the area around Gao and having been involved in smuggling activities prior to his association with AQIM. (This claim appears unique to Abu al-Ma’ali’s reporting. If Abu al-Ma’ali’s claim here is accurate is possible the variations of Ahmar found in names associated with Ansar Ed-Dine and MUJWA, for example Omar Ould Amarha, Hamaha and Amaha, may be confusions of or variations of Amhar, though this is very possibly not the case.) Most reliable sources describe MUJWA as consisting primarily of Tilemsi Arabs from the Gao area and as being financed by businessmen from Gao, active smuggling activity, to include drugs and other contraband. Individual sources have identified Ould Badi having been involved with the drug trade in northern Mali going back to the early part of the last decade, which brought him into the orbit of prominent smugglers who eventually introduced him to AQIM’s subcontracting network and then into the organisation at a deeper level. Abu al-Ma’ali describes Ould Badi as the group’s leader; press reports have thus far generally not identified a single leader for MUJWA or have described its leader as being anonymous (see, here for example). As yet there do not seem to be photographs of Ould Badi readily available.

Abu al-Ma’ali writes that on leaving AQIM, Ould Badi was joined by Hamada Ould Lamine Ould Mohamed Khayrou (also Abu Qaqa’a, and Abu Ghumghum), whom Abu al-Ma’ali describes as a ‘Mauritanian activist,’ but who is probably best described as a longtime AQIM member, going back to the Salfist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)’s first activities in Mauritania and who had been an important figure in AQIM’s propaganda, in addition to being an explosives expert and having been detained at Gao before escaping Malian custody in 2008. ‘Together they were able to attract dozens of fighters belonging to the Amhar tribe from the ranks of al-Qaeda.’ Because the break between MUJWA and AQIM caused significant tension, according to Abu al-Ma’ali’s account, Mokhtar Belmokhtar negotiated an understanding between AQIM and Ansar Ed-Dine (which was elaborated by MUJWA leaders in interviews with the regional press) in which MUJWA would operate independently but would coordinate its activities with the other two groups as part of a common jihadist front in northern Mali even if organisationally separate. Abu al-Ma’ali has previously written that AQIM’s leaders allowed MUJWA’s leaders to form their own, Saharan Arab group as a means of minimizing potential strife within their own organization and reached the understanding described above around the time of MUJWA’s creation. Such conflicts in the general contours and details of MUJWA’s emergence make adopting any one narrative difficult (as well as the historic pattern for Algerian armed groups or others to splinter and fragment not from internal conflicts but for pragmatic reasons).

Structural Limitations and Opportunities 

Abu al-Ma’ali writes that it was Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine which ultimately convinced MUJWA’s leadership of coordinating with AQIM (Abu al-Ma’ali compares Ansar Ed-Dine’s relationship with AQIM to the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qa’ida, calling it the ‘Taliban of Azawad’). Ag Ghali then drew up a plan, agreed to by AQIM and MUJWA, to divide the northern cities between them after the Malian military coup at the end of March 2012. Ansar Ed-Dine and AQIM agreed to allow MUJWA take control of Gao, on account of its membership hailing form that area; this explains why MUJWA was the main Islamist group acting together with the [non-Islamist] MNLA during the advance on Gao in March 2012, and it also explains why the group has been mostly active in this part of northern Mali. This agreement has allowed the groups to focus energy on consolidating control over key cities in the north and allowing the Islamist groups to outmanoeuvre the MNLA, as well as implementing shari’ah as opposed to fighting one another and has allowed the various Islamist groups in northern Mali to dominate the political and military field while the secular MNLA has remained mainly subject to these groups’ whims, including its recent talks toward a potential alliance with Ansar Ed-Dine. In recent weeks, however, Ansar Ed-Dine appears to have placed greater emphasis on establishing itself as the main governing authority in Gao, somewhat displacing MUJWA in much reporting and at public events. Ansar Ed-Dine’s political acumen has thus placed the group at the centre of events in northern Mali and to marginalise groups that initially appeared much larger or to have obtained more significant leverage at one or another point during the uprising. This is to leave out any mention of other ethnic militias that have emerged since the beginning of the uprising, including the ethnic militias the National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (FNLA) and Ganda Iso – all of which appear to be more or less on the sidelines of the conflict, representing only potential counter forces to the Islamist coalition in the region. To the extent that outside actors are likely to attempt to become involved, they will probably seek out non-Islamist alternatives to AQIM, MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine and may even allow associations with these groups negatively impact their willingness to cooperate with groups like the MNLA.

Christiani points the most important questions regarding the emergence of MUJWA:

The real question is whether this group has truly severed itself from AQIM, representing a potential regional competitor in both in the jihadist domain and more mundane smuggling activities, or is it simply another sub-group of the already internally fragmented AQIM, working more specifically in the territories of western Africa?

What ‘truly’ severing itself from AQIM means is important; the group appears to have serious disputes with its mother organisation while maintaining somewhat regular contact with AQIM and Ansar Ed-Dine. Both groups have strong incentives to compete for followers, especially among Hassaniya-speaking Malians and Mauritanians, given that MUJWA’s apparent priority of leading Saharan Arabs in the jihadist struggle while AQIM, as far as is known has no special requirements for membership based on ethnicity, though there have been recurrent reports that the group’s commanders in the Sahel (especially Abu Zeid) have grown paranoid about Mauritanian recruits as potential penetrations by Nouakchott’s intelligence services. Furthermore, MUJWA’s leaders have said they seek to recruit more west Africans, at least notionally. Competition for recruits from southern Niger and Nigeria (the two countries Khayrou has mentioned as possible sources of recruits) may spill over into physical or propaganda fights. There is little reporting on whether MUJWA has the capacity to recruit or operate outside Mali (or even Gao), although the group may maintain connections to AQIM networks in Mauritania and perhaps elsewhere, and the crisis in Mali has likely limited the group’s freedom of movement in the wider region. Its ambitions in west Africa have likely suffered as a result of the rebellion in northern Mali and its priorities have likely shifted from the more grandiose rhetoric in its inaugural video release to local priorities. And the two groups likely understand that open competition would weaken their positions relative to other armed groups and squander key resources (and AQIM would likely suffer stronger losses in support from elements of the local communities in such a struggle). If MUJWA is an evolution out of AQIM, rather than a ‘dissident’ faction (a possibility which remains plausible) this means the mother organisation may have plotted out that its objectives are best met by a more diffuse structure, capable of targeting specific communities for recruitment and operations, and may represent an attempt to lunge south; ‘reconciliation’ between the two groups is likely to proceed more rapidly in such a situation and broader regionalisation may result.

Christiani writes that if MUJWA ‘is merely an arm of AQIM, that would mean the end of the simple “economic functionality” of the Sahelian space, so far fundamental as an area of wealth production and training, but whose importance was neglected operationally’. This may be beside the point, though; AQIM’s old disposition in the Sahel was the result of specific structural conditions in the region at large which no longer exist. The pretense of state control from Bamako is now gone and the only credible threats to the organisation, aside from potential raids by Mauritania and Algeria, are other armed groups, many of them rooted in local interests and the most powerful of them share AQIM’s own ideology. Thus the crisis in Mali has created circumstances in which AQIM’s previous disposition in northern Mali is especially vulnerable; having moved into the cities and towns the group is now being forced to engage in politics both with other armed Islamist and non-Islamist groups but also with the local population. The group’s economic mission in the Sahel is thus compromised by the desire wage jihad and to apply shari’ah, by wrecking the local economy and bringing the group more deeply into local conflict dynamics. This situation exposes the group to variables and risks it did not face when it was concentrating on using northern Mali as a safe haven and at the same it presents the group with opportunities to expand its international profile and operations. There not being a regional hegemon with the capacity or will to back a proxy force may weaken potential coalitions between the Islamist groups if they lack a serious common enemy, and their common ideological framework may weaken as parochial interests dominate ideological ones. MUJWA’s existence points to this possibility. But the direction of the crisis so far suggest nothing is assured in any direction for any period of time.

[1] The naming and acronym used here is a compromise between the French and English namings and acronyms; the group’s name in Arabic is Jama’at Tawhid wa’l-Jihad fi Garbi Afriqiya, literally: The Unity or Oneness Group or the Tawhid and Jihad Group, as used in the English report on al-Qa’ida in northern Mali by Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali. Jama’at literally means group but may also mean association, band or order and is not traditionally translated as ‘movement’ (harakat in Arabic). The term Tawhid is literally “unity” or “oneness” in the monotheistic sense of the oneness of God, as found in Islamic discourses (and especially prominent in Salafi thought). Because the group’s name has been so widely translated as the Movement for Unity or Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and the term “Unity” was used early on on this page in the group’s name, the translation Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and the acronym MUJWA is used here for reasons of consistency and convenience.

[2] One of the explanations for the creation of Abdel Krim’s group was AQIM’s desire to recruit Tuaregs; some have speculated that MUJWA may have emerged from a dispute within AQIM over a similar effort to recruit Malian Arabs.