Foreign Policy Essay
Negotiating With Jihadists in the Sahel and Nigeria
Editor’s Note: West Africa is one of the most important jihadist hotspots, but it gets far less attention in the United States than in other areas, in part because the U.S. military role there is limited at best. France, however, is deeply engaged, as are regional governments. Having spent years fighting jihadists, French forces and their local partners are wrestling with difficult questions about whether to negotiate and, if so, which groups might be open to talks. Jacob Zenn, author of the new book “Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria,” offers a primer on the most important groups and how they might respond to negotiations.
Though the United States may be drawing down its forces in Western Africa, France, the other foreign power operating in the Sahel, has boosted troop numbers in the region from 4,500 to 5,100. The increase came as a response to a January meeting with the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) that affirmed the Sahel’s top security threat is the Islamic State’s local affiliate, popularly known as the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), which is formally part of the Islamic State’s West African Province.
France and the G5 Sahel’s counter-ISGS operations since January align them with another ISGS enemy: al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). To be sure, France and the G5 Sahel are hardly JNIM’s friends. However, just as the United States recognizes that it shares mutual interests with the Taliban to counter the Islamic State’s local organization in Afghanistan, France, the G5 Sahel and JNIM all want to see ISGS’s downfall.
Adopting a similar approach to the Taliban, JNIM has expressed willingness to negotiate with the Malian government and possibly cooperate in countering ISGS, but with a pre-condition: France’s military must withdraw from the country. JNIM—which comprises Sahelian Tuareg and Fulani jihadist brigades, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s Sahel brigade, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Sahel-based brigade—has declared loyalty to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, albeit with strategic and communications ties primarily only with al-Qaeda affiliates, especially AQIM. While JNIM’s demand for France’s withdrawal from Mali resembles the Taliban’s demand for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, their demands reflect how both groups can achieve their political goal of local governance only after foreign powers leave.
Although negotiations with JNIM seem more likely than with any other jihadist groups in the Sahel or neighboring northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram and its offshoots operate, all groups in the region have revealed their positions on negotiations through words and deeds. Given that combat with Sahelian and Nigerian jihadists has lasted a decade with no end in sight, it is worth taking stock of where JNIM, Boko Haram and related regional jihadist groups stand on the potential for diplomatic engagement.
Sahelian Jihadists’ Negotiation Positions
Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin
JNIM knows that France has no intention to withdraw from the Sahel. However, JNIM is confident it can recruit in the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso tri-border region from both ideologically oriented supporters and ordinary civilians caught between ethnic and land conflicts and security forces’ and vigilantes’ abuses. Altogether JNIM has around 2,000 fighters at present, which is likely twice that of ISGS. However, both groups are capable of fielding 100 or more fighters during raids (often carried out on motorcycles) and have broader support, logistics and kinship networks.
JNIM and ISGS both emerged from the same AQIM offshoots in the Sahel that controlled northern Mali for nearly a year in 2012. They diverged when JNIM’s two most important Malian leaders, the Fulani Salafi-jihadist preacher Amadou Koufa and Tuareg rebel-turned-jihadist Iyad ag Ghali, maintained loyalty to al-Qaeda. In contrast, the Western Saharan trafficker-jihadist, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, who lacks ideological credentials, switched loyalties to the Islamic State in 2015 and formed ISGS. Since 2015, ISGS has increasingly adopted the Islamic State’s hard-line theological positions and even its distinctly brutal ways of executing enemies.
Now JNIM’s offer to Malians is that if they want calm restored, they must accept France’s expulsion from Mali (not an unpopular position) and some JNIM governance. JNIM would likely settle for its long-standing areas of operations in northern Mali, where its core recruitment targets, Fulanis and Tuaregs, predominate; it would not intend to control the whole country anytime soon. It can also present itself as a better option for Malians than the alternatives: ISGS or a national government that is sometimes neglectful of northern Malians’ economic needs.
Although JNIM’s primary focus is Mali and secondarily neighboring parts of Niger and Burkina Faso, the group also affirms to international stakeholders it has an “Islamonationalist” agenda. JNIM’s predecessors attacked international hotels, restaurants, and worksites in several Sahelian countries, but JNIM’s limiting attacks on “far enemy” civilian targets since 2016 sends the message to the international community that JNIM will not become a menace to them if it governs parts of Mali. This assuages international concerns about Mali’s offering concessions to JNIM in potential talks and could enable JNIM to receive some level of international recognition. Nevertheless, JNIM’s imposition of sharia restrictions on women’s dress and public appearance indicates JNIM governance would still resemble Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Islamic State in Greater Sahara
Like its parent organization, the Islamic State, ISGS is unwilling to negotiate: It seeks military conquest. In late 2019, ISGS made unprecedented battlefield gains, killing nearly 200 soldiers throughout the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso tri-border region where ISGS and JNIM operate. After this, some JNIM members defected to ISGS, France and the G5 Sahel focused counterterrorism operations on ISGS, and ISGS alleged not only that JNIM collaborated with France-backed militias to target ISGS but also that France abstained from targeting JNIM. The Islamic State then derided JNIM in its official al-Naba newsletter and ISGS even launched a suicide operation against JNIM in April.
ISGS-JNIM infighting resembles conflicts between the Islamic State’s other “provinces” and al-Qaeda’s affiliates and allies in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Should JNIM negotiations progress, ISGS is positioned to act as a spoiler, just as the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province has tried to undermine Taliban-U.S. peace negotiations in Afghanistan by launching mass casualty attacks. Additionally, JNIM members convinced by ISGS’s assertion that JNIM are “infidels” by accepting “international diplomacy” may defect to ISGS, especially if negotiations stall or France turns on JNIM after weakening ISGS. Even though ISGS will not negotiate, it may nonetheless anticipate benefiting from JNIM’s failed negotiation attempts.
Beyond the Sahel: Nigerian Jihadists’ Negotiation Positions
South of the Sahel, in northern Nigeria, three other jihadist groups could be influential in affecting the prospects or outcomes of rapprochement between JNIM and the Malian government. The most powerful is the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which formally incorporated ISGS in March 2019. Since then, ISGS has officially been part of ISWAP and its attacks have been claimed in ISWAP’s name, but they are not necessarily the same organization in practice. Media outlets, governments and academics have continued to use the ISGS name.
A second relevant Nigerian jihadist group is Jamaat Ahlus Sunnah li-Dawa wal-Jihad (JASDJ), led by the notorious Abubakar Shekau. He had also led ISWAP from its March 2015 formation until the Islamic State ejected him in August 2016 because his extremism (ghuluw) was too much for even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to bear. ISWAP and JASDJ are popularly called Boko Haram, though they reject that name.
The third Nigerian jihadist group is Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan, or “Ansaru,” which is recognized by al-Qaeda as being part of its network, although it does not have the status of “first-tier” affiliates like al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), AQIM or JNIM. Ansaru was founded by AQIM-trained Nigerians in 2012 and recently emerged from five years of dormancy with an attack in January 2020 on an emir’s convoy. Its original members broke from JASDJ because of Shekau’s “egomania” and primarily kidnapped Western engineers in 2012 and 2013. Ansaru has likely never reached more than 300 total fighters and its largest operations typically involved around 30 fighters, while ISWAP and JASDJ have at least 6,000 combined fighters and can bring together 300 fighters for individual attacks.
Islamic State West Africa Province
Although the Islamic State and al-Qaeda fight everywhere they overlap, ISWAP and Ansaru initially avoided clashing because ISWAP’s leader after Shekau’s expulsion, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, established a detente with Ansaru and welcomed Islamic State-sympathetic Ansaru members into ISWAP. Moreover, Ansaru’s remaining cells relocated far from ISWAP’s and JASDJ’s bases to northwestern Nigeria, where they remain today. This was important after Barnawi was overthrown in 2019 and ISWAP’s new leaders executed members who contacted AQIM or JNIM, reportedly including Barnawi himself.
Under Barnawi, ISWAP negotiated with Nigeria through intermediaries, including journalists, lawyers and Swiss diplomats. One prominent case was ISWAP’s abduction of 111 girls in Dapchi, Yobe, in 2018. After the Islamic State’s central leadership in Syria and Iraq ordered ISWAP to release the girls because they never “actively opposed” the jihad, ISWAP established a one-week cease-fire with Nigeria to safely return them home (the lone Christian schoolgirl, however, was “enslaved” and forcibly married to an ISWAP commander). ISWAP also engaged in other prisoner exchanges with Nigeria outside the Islamic State’s oversight.
However, Barnawi’s “pro-al-Qaeda tendencies” contributed to his reported execution several months ago. His adviser, Mamman Nur, was similarly executed by ISWAP on Baghdadi’s orders for engaging in side negotiations with the government. When ISWAP’s new leadership cadre entered negotiations with Nigeria for exchanging 10 Christians in 2019, the Islamic State suddenly ordered ISWAP to dress the hostages in orange jumpsuits to evoke the uniforms of Guantanamo Bay detainees and record their executions on video to avenge Baghdadi’s death on Christmas Day. This was the culmination of the Islamic State’s subversion of negotiation-inclined members of ISWAP.
Although AQIM-trained Nigerians founded Ansaru, its theologians were university-educated Nigerian Salafis who separated from mainstream Nigerian Salafi groups that opposed waging jihad in Nigeria. Nevertheless, Ansaru’s leaders criticized Nigeria for “human rights violations,” condemned France’s violation of “women’s rights” through hijab-wearing restrictions, and asserted that Ansaru’s purpose was “defending Muslims’ rights.” When Ansaru defectors to JASDJ’s Barnawi-led moderate faction released a French priest hostage in Cameroon in 2013, they said it was done on “compassionate grounds” because he offered them medical aid (even if Ansaru really released him for a large ransom).
Ansaru’s messaging indicated it was predisposed to negotiation, but Ansaru’s new post-January 2020 leadership has adopted a different tone. The group no longer emphasizes “defending” Muslims in Nigeria, humanitarianism, or al-Qaeda narratives, despite still being promoted by al-Qaeda. In its new iteration, Ansaru is mostly involved in banditry, including with JNIM elements. It is hard to predict how strong Ansaru will be and whether it would negotiate like JNIM in Mali. However, given Nigeria’s ongoing dialogue with non-jihadist Fulani bandits, which has attained only limited, if any, success, it is worth exploring whether the bandits can resolve their grievances with Nigeria’s government and turn against Ansaru members trying to co-opt them.
Jamaat Ahlus Sunnah li-Dawa wal-Jihad
JASDJ’s negotiation position is more rigid and transparent than ISWAP’s and Ansaru’s. Shekau has stated since assuming JASDJ leadership in 2010, including as recently as last month, that Muslims should never negotiate a cease-fire until they are powerful and “infidels” will accept all their demands. However, Shekau still authorized exchanges for ransom of 123 Chibok schoolgirls in 2016 and 2017 and recent smaller-scale releases of a Christian pastor and a youth worker, despite executing another pastor for his Christian organization’s inability to meet JASDJ’s $2-million ransom demand. In sum, JASDJ shows that, like ISWAP and Ansaru, it will talk to mediators, but a more comprehensive truce with Nigeria is not in store.
There are greater prospects to negotiate with JNIM than any other Sahelian or Nigerian jihadist group. In a worst-case scenario, JNIM might leverage a French withdrawal to violate, or exploit technicalities in, an agreement and seize power in northern Mali. While an obvious, but strategically deceitful, policy would be to negotiate with JNIM and target ISGS and then target JNIM once ISGS is weakened, another option is to use negotiations to strategically divide JNIM. This would involve empowering JNIM members willing to renounce their al-Qaeda affiliation, as some Syrian groups have, and isolate al-Qaeda loyalists. The U.S.-supported French-led operation that killed AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel in northern Mali on June 3 may, in fact, facilitate JNIM members’ leaving al-Qaeda and is a development worth monitoring.
Amid changing local dynamics and alliances, mediators need to anticipate possibilities and understand JNIM’s internal factions. Governments would also need to be prepared to accept difficult compromises if JNIM is not defeated on the battlefield and a cease-fire is implemented. These could involve power-sharing with JNIM, including allowing JNIM-run sharia courts and hisba (Islamic morality police) patrols and, of course, reducing or eliminating France’s presence in Mali and Mali’s own French-inspired laïcité policy in JNIM operational areas. If recent history is any indication, Malian Christians and women would see their rights infringed under JNIM rule.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, has successfully asserted its priorities over ISGS and ISWAP and has bet that by maintaining a hard-line negotiation position, it can win al-Qaeda supporters to its cause when negotiations fail or al-Qaeda affiliates prove their “apostasy” by engaging “infidels” in negotiations. Although ISWAP leaders once would have been receptive to talks, they are not any more. Nevertheless, deaths of ISWAP leaders and changes in battlefield circumstances could allow conciliatory leaders like Barnawi to climb the ranks again. If so, Nigeria and its mediators may find opportunities for cease-fires with them.
Although JASDJ is more irreconcilable than even ISWAP’s hard-liners, Shekau never clarified whether his demand is that all Nigeria must be free from Nigerian rule or just is relatively small territory. If the latter, it could be possible to provide some autonomy to JASDJ in southern Borno in return for JASDJ ending its raids. This would require talks and difficult concessions regarding Nigerian sovereignty, but for now it is unlikely while Nigeria asserts that it has Boko Haram on the “brink of [military] defeat.” Whether true or not—and recent large-scale ISWAP and JASDJ attacks in Nigeria, Chad and Niger suggest the jihadists remain potent—any concessions would undermine Nigeria’s narrative about impending victory. Compromise may be both politically untenable for Nigeria and ideologically impossible for JASDJ.
Another tendency has been to explore negotiations with jihadists once they have generated major problems. This makes talks with Ansaru, in its relatively weakened state, appear unlikely at present. Nonetheless, negotiations with Ansaru, or perhaps rival bandit groups, might best be conducted sooner rather than later—though if Ansaru is receiving orders or advice from al-Qaeda Central members, its commitment to dialogue may depend on external actors as well.
Altogether, the military option has been employed more consistently than negotiation. Nevertheless, the latter is possible at the tactical level with all Sahelian and Nigerian jihadist groups: They are not “faceless.” Should governments prioritize negotiation instead of what appears to be unending war, they may be able to build on successes achieved by non-state actors, including non-religious-based mediators, to make inroads with these groups. Some innovation, determination and sincerity are needed.