On 2 March 2017 a number of publications were posted on the messaging application Telegram on accounts linked to al-Qaeda, informing of an important imminent announcement. ‘One banner, one group, one Emir’,1 an enormously attractive slogan, preceded an image no less impactful: five of the most wanted terrorist leaders in the entire Sahara-Sahelian region were meeting in the same room to announce the creation of a new jihadist coalition loyal to al-Qaeda, Jamā’at Nuṣrat al-Islām wa-l-Muslimīn, (Support Group for Islam and for Muslims, JNIM in its Arabic initials). Identically dressed, in a scene stripped of nearly all objects that might distract attention –save for a computer and a flag (a variant of rāyatu at-tawḥīd, often erroneously called the flag of the Islamic State)– their image and their message clearly projected a central overriding idea of unity, a message which permeates the group’s media production at all its levels. Considering the sociodemographic characteristics of the region, the composition of this top leadership is significant in that it attempts to transmit a message of integration, plurality and equality within the community of the faithful, and it makes clear the importance of ethnic diversity among the group’s executive leadership.
From left to right in the original video can be seen:
- Amadou Diallo (alias Amadou Koufa), a Fulani originally from Mopti, leader of the Macina Liberation Front, a majority-Fulani group made up mainly of former MUYAO militants and affiliated to Anṣār ad-Dīn.
- Djamel Okacha (alias Yahya Abu al-Hummam), an Algerian Arab with nearly 20 years of jihad experience, mostly in Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, and appointed Emir of the Saharan Region of AQIM in 2012, after serving as commander of Katībatu-l-Furqān.
- Iyadh Ag Ghali (alias Abu-l-Fadhel), a Tuareg of the Ifoghas tribe, leader of Anṣār ad-Dīn and Emir of JNIM since its creation.
- Muhammad Ould Nouini (alias Hassan al-Ansari), an Arab from Tilemsi in Mali, co-founder of al-Murābiṭūn with Mokhtar Belmokhtar and right-hand man of the latter until his death on 14 February 2018.2
- Abderrahman al-Sanhaji (alias Abderrahman al-Maghrebi), a Moroccan of Berber origin and cadi of the Sahara Region of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In contrast with AQIM –which to this day is a group comprising mainly North Africans, with Algerians occupying the most important posts–, JNIM tries to distance itself from the existing tribal contexts in the geographical areas in which it operates. Nevertheless, the new alliance not only encourages the presence of Fulanis, Tuaregs, Bambaras, Sahelian and North African Arabs, muhājirūn,3 etc, but it also points to the equal and homogenous nature of its enemies (the Malian armed forces, the Mauritanian government, France and its neocolonialist policies…), establishing in this way a narrative thread by way of constant ‘us versus them’ comparisons, treating these enemies all as racists, usurpers, enemies of Muslims and, ultimately, dehumanising them, as is typical of jihadist propaganda.
The foundation of JNIM, unity for the sake of a lasting project for the Sahel
AQIM has long had ambitions for a project in the Sahel. Conscious of the limitations posed by the North Africa scenario (at least until the beginning of the revolutions linked to what in the West is known as the Arab Spring), the large surface areas, the porous borders and the weaknesses of states in the Saharo-Sahelian belt all made this arc of instability an area of great attraction for the development of AQIM activities. As a result, the organisation has always been highly interested in the region. Fully aware of the difficulties facing its activities on the Algerian front and emphasising the capacity to adapt, which the global jihadist movement has historically proved to have, in 2008, not long after swearing loyalty to al-Qaeda, AQIM established one of its most important brigades in the Sahel region, the Katība Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād.
A reading of the ‘Timbuktu letters’ gives an idea of the discrepancies already then existing at the heart of the organisation on how to manage the Sahelian project. The letters are the original correspondence between the shūrā (the consultative council) of AQIM and its affiliates in Mali, discovered by Associated Press in Timbuktu once French intervention put an end to the project of building a form of Islamic state in the north of the country between 2012 and 2013.4,5 In a letter addressed to Belmokhtar, reprimanding him for his indiscipline, the top AQIM leadership argued that ‘the large number of (jihadist) organisations is the healthy result of a correct decision that will continue to bear fruit; do not think that a region as large as France and Belgium combined is too small for four or five jihadist organisations: there is room for these and more’.
From the same documents it can be surmised that Belmokhtar, nevertheless, preferred a more autonomous and decentralised structure that cut through the intermediate links in the line of communication with the organisation leadership, without having to pass through the regional branch of al-Qaeda in the Sahel. As it was, on a number of occasions he side-stepped the shūrā of AQIM to communicate directly with al-Qaeda Central to explain that, in his opinion, ‘they are giving orders (on how to act in) a region where none of them have lived and that none of them know’. Iyadh Ag Ghali, in a more recent interview published in the magazine al-Masrā,6 confirmed that the new alliance put an end to a long period of setbacks among a good part of the jihadist militants in the region when he claimed that ‘the union (of these groups) did not occur earlier due to particular problems and other circumstances’, stressing that, knowing the difficulties in the particular case of al-Murābiṭūn and his return to the al-Qaeda network, with ‘tolerance in the face of difference and with an exchange of points of view, everything is possible’.7
With extensive knowledge of the terrain and with years of activity in the region already behind him, in 2012 Belmokhtar was defending the idea of establishing a new branch of al-Qaeda in the Sahel following the model of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which itself ended up forming an autonomous branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2009 after abandoning its severely weakened project for Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Abdelmalek Drukdel, the Emir of AQIM, after having undergone the experience of controlling territory in the north of Mali, appeared to have modified his earlier ideas and was now more inclined to build a project based on the model of al-Qaeda of the Land of Two Rivers (the Islamic State of Iraq, as of mid-2006) and by fusing the different groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda in the region.8 Now, analysing the events with a certain sense of perspective, it seems that the strategy that finally won was a combination of both.
Although JNIM swore loyalty to the AQIM Emir, and then, following the logic of the organisation, reconfirmed the oath to Ayman al-Zawahiri and to the mullah Haibatullah, the current leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and second in line of succession (after Akthar Mansur) to the Mullah Omar (to whom Bin Laden himself swore an oath of allegiance earlier on), the JNIM project began as a single organisation dependent on AQIM but with sufficient independence to self-manage on a day-to-day basis. JNIM has a local leader, but many of its top members are close to the regional leadership and enjoy the confidence of its Emir. Most JNIM militants are from the region where they operate –principally Mali– but intermediate ranks and emerging figures from the Maghreb are still preponderant. All of this, no doubt, has a dual intention for the future: on the one hand, to keep the new organisation on track and to avoid repeating the defeats of the Islamic State; and, on the other hand, to secure a possible haven in case the AQIM leadership, pursued in Algeria, is forced to move its base of operations. The Maghreb branch of al-Qaeda has languished for some time without undertaking any successful, large-scale attack in Algeria, and the Algerian armed forces and security services have reduced their capacities to a historical minimum.9
In any event, disagreements over the project have not completely disappeared. In an interview with the magazine Inspire in August 2017, Drukdel claimed that ‘the Algerian front (the historical headquarters of the AQIM leadership) has been bogged down for some time in a long war and suffers from the nearly complete absence of individuals willing to support the cause, either domestically or internationally. Meanwhile other fronts in Tunisia, Libya, the Sahel and the Sahara are experiencing a jihadist awakening without precedents’.10 Nevertheless, although the new organisation renewed its oath of direct allegiance to Drukdel in its foundational communique, the Emir of AQIM seems to have wanted to avoid any mention of the new coalition during this long, 17-page interview… What is more, noticeable inconsistencies are evident in the various congratulatory messages sent after the creation of the new entity. JNIM introduces itself as ‘the union of three jihadist groups in Mali: Anṣār ad-Dīn, al-Murābiṭūn and the Sahara branch of AQIM’,11 while Drukdel, in a self-congratulatory AQIM video sent after the creation of JNIM, mentions ‘the union of four jihadist factions in the Sahel and Sahara’.12 Al Qaeda Central, for its part, directly congratulated Abdelmalek Drukdel for the union of ‘our brothers from the different jihadist groups in Mali’,13 and in this way acknowledged for him a fundamental role in the fusion of the different groups.
One significant fact is that other than the congratulatory video mentioned above, AQIM has made no mention since its inception of any of its activities in the Sahel via JNIM. On the other hand, Ayman al-Zawahiri has mentioned several times the Sahel in his speeches; he even devoted a video almost exclusively to the return of France to the region, encouraging the peoples of the Maghreb and the Sahel to rise up against the invader.14 Furthermore, in the more than 10 official videos released during its first year of existence, JNIM barely makes reference to the main AQIM leaders, with the exception of Abu-l-Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi and Abdelhamid Abu Zayd; and while other figures linked to the global jihad do appear, they are leaders with no direct connection to the Sahelian cause, like Uthman Dukov, Abu Basir al-Wuhayshi, Abu-l-Bara’a al-Samrawi and Omar Ould Hamaha, among others.
As if this were not enough, the role of Belmokhtar within the organisation is also unknown. He was present, through his right-hand man, in the foundational communique and he is a key figure for understanding how Jihadist Salafism has laid down roots in the southern Sahara and northern Sahel. Yet nearly nothing is known of him, including what his current functions are in the new alliance. On the other hand, he does not appear to like the organisation’s hierarchical restrictions, and his historical disagreements with the top AQIM leadership since the creation of Katība Ṭāriq ibn Ziyād are well-known –the break with AQIM and the creation of al-Mulathamūn, the subsequent fusion with MUYAO to create al-Murābiṭūn, the return to the AQIM network, the carrying-out of operations without the consent of the AQIM leadership, and others– but his current location and role in JNIM (if he has any) are unknown.
Just as AQIM employs al-Andalus Media as its principal organ for broadcasting propaganda, the organisation has also provided JNIM with its own media brand, az-Zallāqa. The latter’s meaning also has a link to Spain: the term refers to how slippery the ground was with the blood shed when the Almoravid troops of Ibn Tashufin defeated the Christian army of Alfonso VI at the Battle of Sagrajas (in Badajoz province, Spain) in 1086.15 Similarly to how AQIM named its media wing al-Andalus Media ‘to remind Muslims in general and the inhabitants of the Islamic Maghreb in particular that their history is closely linked to that of al Andalus, and that their duty is to wage jihad in the name of Allah until the last strip of illegitimately usurped Islamic land is recovered’,16 JNIM is also deeply wrapped up in the idea of reconquering the Iberian peninsula. Therefore, a study of the audiovisual productions of both groups shows how direct the transfer of technical knowledge between AQIM and its new Sahelian faction is. This has been evident since the first videos released by az-Zallāqa: the headers and bumpers that open and close the productions and the typefaces used by both groups are very similar.
In fact, limiting the analysis to only the AQIM videos devoted to the Sahara, the similarities are such that it can be concluded that the same team is producing both sets of videos. Comparing the most recent JNIM productions, such as ‘ردع الطغاة 1 و2,’17 with the latest videos produced by the Saharan Region of AQIM, such as ‘من عمق الصحراء 1 و2,’18 it is immediately clear that there is a nearly perfect overlap between them, in both the arguments presented and the sequence of the narrative. They both include images of training camps and drilling, displays of military muscle, exhortations and the planning of terrorist operations, both wide-angle and close-up views of terrorist attacka and elegies to martyrs fallen in battle. The type and manner of shots taken, and the technical elements employed (the use of drones, body-cameras and landscapes), are also nearly identical between the two groups of productions.
An analysis of the official audiovisual productions of JNIM between 2 January 2017 and 31 March 201819 reveals that four main narratives or thematic areas are portrayed: war/jihad, victimisation and dehumanising the enemy, ʿaqīda and minhaj, and the handling of hostages. Of the 13 documents analysed, seven were devoted to warlike topics and the thread of their narratives focused on successful terrorist operations, calls to armed uprising against the crusading French invader or against apostate governments, the glorification of martyrdom, etc. They were based on the same frameworks and perspectives that have previously been used by al-Qaeda and its satellite organisations. An important point on the belligerent narrative is that, despite the inclusion in the documents analysed of explicit violence, they attempt to differentiate themselves from other jihadist groups in the region by not including scenes of brutality, sadism, torture, decapitations and other aberrations often present in the communications of groups within the orbit of the Islamist State. In the interview mentioned above of Iyadh Ag Ghali by al-Masrā, the Emir of JNIM made clear the organisation’s military policy: ‘expanding geographically as much as possible, undermining our enemy by attacking him wherever he may be, inciting the people to do the same and protecting them, and securing popular support’.
Given the new group’s well-known promoters, it does not appear to feel the need to stray too much into the strictly ideological; during its first year of existence, JNIM only devoted two videos to ideological issues. Still, the group’s first audiovisual production clearly establishes that its priorities are to pursue ‘jihad in the name of Allah, beginning with the commitment of the faithful to the principles of ahl as-sunna wa-l-jamā’a, especially with regard to the application of takfīr, and abandoning the path of innovation (الإرجاء) and extremism (الغلو)’.20 Furthermore, in a document entirely devoted to the elections in Mali, Abderrahman al-Sanhaji elaborated on the concept of monotheism (tawḥīd al-ūlūhiya), condemning the elections in the following terms: ‘Democracy is in itself a religion, a religion contrary to Islam, and the parliament is a polytheistic shura’.21
On the other hand, as described at the beginning of this paper (although not as its core narrative), the concept of unity is an idea that permeates all of JNIM’s audiovisual production; the well-known aḥādīth –‘There is mercy in unity and punishment in division’22 and ‘Allah’s Hand is over the jamā’a’–23 are repeated in many documents, not only to stress the importance of the progress made but also to leave the door open to other factions –for instance, the group of Abu Walid As-Sahrawi, which broke away from al-Murābiṭūn in 2015 and is now loyal to the Islamic State– to unite with the project in the future. In the same way, although only one of the videos is primarily devoted to this topic, the dehumanisation and demonisation of the enemy is a recurrent sub-theme. The West in general and France in particular –presented as an ‘occupying force corrupting our religion, and its collaborators and agents, pillagers of our wealth and our goods’–24 is the target of most of the threats, followed by the governments in the region –especially Mali’s– and the FCG5S,25 in that order, as the most quoted targets in the group’s audiovisual productions.
As regards the G5-Sahel and its Joint Force, its presence in JNIM’s discourse has been growing although surprisingly the force did not begin to attract the group’s attention until the end of 2017. Mentions of the G5-Sahel, ‘a still-born project for which France has had to beg from the UN, the US and the Gulf states to cover, without success, the €450 million of its budget’,26 have been growing both in frequency and in significance while JNIM’s references to MINUSMA,27 one of the group’s main targets of attack, have declined slightly. In any case, Drukdel makes it clear that his policy of attacking the enemy further afield has not changed much, although some nuance has been added over time: ‘the line separating the near and the far enemy is no longer clear; in some Arab countries (sic) the near enemy is America due to its notable presence. Ayman al-Zawahiri (sic) has already clarified that to fight the distant enemy, and not the proximate one (sic) is to ignore twice the reality that the far enemy only acts through the near enemy’, and he also defends the results achieved by al-Qaeda during the past year, reminding his colleagues that to ‘keep working and exercising pressure on the (far) enemy could undermine the enemy’s alliances, as when Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq once its capital had been attacked’.28
Dealing with hostages is also a recurring theme in JNIM’s audiovisual productions: three entire videos treat the issue. Nevertheless, the kidnapping industry is characteristic of AQIM and one of the pillars that turned it into the economically most prosperous branch of al-Qaeda in 2012.29 Between 2003 and 2011 AQIM (known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat until 2006) kidnapped a total of 57 people (54 of them from the West). The group currently has five hostages of different nationalities (Romanian, Colombian, French, Australian and Swiss) and, in addition to demanding ransom, it uses this type of production to intimidate the West in an attempt to dissuade any private investment or cooperation project in the region. In the words of one of the video’s narrators, ‘many do not understand why the mujahidin take civilians hostage; we as Muslims should guide ourselves by the sharia and not by the international laws created by apostates’,30 supporting his actions with the following quote from the Quran: ‘So when you meet those who disbelieve strike their necks, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favour afterwards or ransom until the war lays down its burdens. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken vengeance upon them, but [He ordered armed struggle] to test some of you by means of others. And those who are killed in the cause of Allah – never will He waste their deeds’.31
To lend their arguments greater legitimacy and to ground their narrative in a kind of retributive justice, the same video includes quotes from the medieval theologist Ibn Taymiyya and images of prisoners at Guantánamo. In the same way, in case there remained the slightest doubt, they also use a fragment from a speech by al-Zawahiri (inspired by an earlier quote by Osama bin Laden) that makes it clear that the current trend to kidnap Westerners will not change: ‘security is a common good; when we are safe you will be safe and if we can live in peace the same will be true for you. If (on the contrary) you attack us and kill us, we will also attack and kill you; this is the correct equation’.
A comparison of the audiovisual productions of AQIM and JNIM since the latter’s creation reveals the complementary nature of the narratives in the productions of the two groups. JNIM concentrates on productions with a warlike thematic content, while AQIM continues to have a greater responsibility for ideology. However, setting aside the audiovisual documents published by AQIM (14 out of the total 20) that are a series of lectures on Islamic jurisprudence based on Bulūgh al-Marām and delivered by Abu-l-Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi (who died in 2015),32 AQIM has only published a total of six original audiovisual documents, half of those released in 2016.
It is essential for the jihadist movement to generate a large number of publications; a reduction in the rate of publication, together with the increasing similarity of the two groups, seems to suggest that for the moment AQIM and JNIM are sharing media resources. The limitations on the ground that restrict the possibility of successful terrorist operations in the Maghreb –due in large part to the action of the Algerian and Tunisian security forces– together with the restructuring currently affecting the Libyan groups in their orbit after they suffered significant desertions in 2015, have put the main responsibility for maintaining high levels of violence on JNIM. It goes without saying that although the groups making up the new alliance have been cooperating with each other since at least 2012, the JNIM project is only one year old and its role within AQIM will continue to evolve, adapting itself to circumstances in the future.
Quotes from the Quran in JNIM propaganda, a call to jihad, independent of the daʿwa
To complete the analysis of JNIM’s media production, to consolidate the data shown in Figure 1 above and to shed some more light on this new alliance, it might be useful to make a quantitative analysis of the Quranic citations employed by JNIM. In order to determine the theme of the verse –or group of verses– used in each citation, and with the aim of maintaining as much homogeneity as possible, we have used the exegetic text Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm by Ibn Kathir, a respected and erudite Sunni historian. In the same way, and although there is no consensus on how to determine which suwar (or chapters) are from the Meccan period and which from the Medinan, for practical purposes we have relied on the traditional division between Meccan and Medinan suwar established by Theodor Nöldeke.33
The verses from the Meccan period (which date from 610-622) were revealed in a polytheistic context and their themes are different from those of the Medinan period (622-632). As shown in Figure 2, Medinan āyāt (or verses) are overrepresented in JNIM propaganda in comparison with the Meccan ones, which are shorter and generally more poetic and include the majority of verses related to the reaffirmation of the faith and the adoration of God. Medinan suwar, on the other hand, were revealed once the construction and expansion of a proto-Islamic State became a fundamental issue; as such they have more normative content regulating innumerable aspects of the life of the faithful, including in war and jihad.
From a total sample of 13 audiovisual documents and 78 official communiques –mostly short texts celebrating successful operations–,34 55 Quranic citations have been identified (38 from the Medinan period and 17 from the Meccan). As shown in Figure 2, and consistent with the different narrative categories of JNIM audiovisual productions mentioned above, most of the Quranic citations used by JNIM (22) have some relation to war and jihad. Although this may appear to be the usual among Salafist-Jihadist groups, it is not. In 2012 a study of more than 2,000 fundamentalist texts dating from 1998 to 2011 and originating in groups in the Middle East and North Africa concluded that most of the Quranic citations used by these groups were not the most warlike but rather those whose themes were victimisation, dishonour and divine punishment.35 The same study claimed that most of the citations could be divided into three categories: (1) calls to action; (2) affirmations of faith; and (3) imperatives for battle. For practical purposes (given the limited nature of our sample), it has been considered useful to add the additional category of demonisation of the enemy.
JNIM dedicates no small number of Quranic citations to support its vision of the Western presence in the Sahel –neocolonialist, oppressive, corrupt, exploitative, impoverishing…– and to legitimise its actions. Nevertheless, the most cited Quranic verse in its propaganda –repeated three times– has nothing to do with war, although it does with the enemy: ‘O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people’.36 It is also worth mentioning that of the six citations which are repeated at least once –Quran 03:28, 05:51, 08:30, 08:36, 21:107 and 47:04– only one comes from a Meccan sūra.
Another interesting aspect of the use of the Quran in JNIM communications is that the āyāt of sūra ‘The Repentance’ –among the most cited by extremist jihadists as its content focuses on the wrath of God–37 is not even among the most cited by the group. In the study sample, citations from the suwar ‘The Spoils of War’ are the most frequently used (11 citations), followed by those extracted from ‘The Table Spread’ (eight citations) and ‘The family of ‘Imrān’ (five citations).
It is true that the sample analysed here covers a relatively short period of time. As a result, we will no doubt need to wait and see how the organisation evolves. However, it does seem clear that it is not in a daʿwa phase, at least as far as its Internet propaganda diffusion is concerned. This should not be surprising: Internet penetration in the Sahara-Sahelian region is still limited and the group’s communications through its propaganda not only seek specific objectives but are also directed at a different audience, either Western or Arabised. Obviously, this does not mean that the group will not engage in proselytising and recruiting activities on the ground, employing a different strategy and applying different tools. Conscious of the region’s linguistic heterogeneity and of the status of Arabic within it, JNIM has made significant efforts to translate its publications into French, thus amplifying its global impact.
From the analysis undertaken in this paper, it is clear that JNIM is subordinate to the designs of AQIM; the new alliance inherited at birth a good number of the military and technical capacities of the regional body, but at least for the time being it has been relegated to the background when it comes to broadcasting ideology. The introduction of nuances to the Islam of West Africa and the Sahel –a strategy that could significantly increase its attractiveness– is conspicuously absent, constrained by the Salafist doctrine of al-Qaeda. Furthermore, although the presence of local militants is noticeable in the group’s audiovisual productions, the preponderance of North Africans in the middling ranks –emerging figures and AQIM leaders in the JNIM’s top brass– guarantees that it will not distort the regional brand. However, while this helps secure loyalty to the leadership and ensures maximum impact in certain areas like the north of Mali, it also limits its potential for rooting itself in other areas.
Under siege in Algeria and practically reduced to survival mode there, AQIM has managed to reformulate its strategy –trying to put an end to the disagreements of the past– within a scenario of enormous potential to develop its activities. In a context in which the Islamic State loses attractiveness, AQIM –through its different factions and ideologically-sympathetic branches, already the predominant group in the region– has been able to position itself perfectly to incorporate the groups disenchanted after the collapse of the caliphate and integrate them into its structure when the possibility presents itself. In this way AQIM ensures a larger and better structure in a region to which it would not in the least be unreasonable it considers moving its leadership headquarters if it is unable to reverse the situation in Algeria.
Furthermore, as explained throughout this paper, through their many successful terrorist operations, the existence of JNIM helps to mitigate in some way the decline of the military power of the leadership of al-Qaeda in North Africa. During the new entity’s first year in existence, the media production of both groups (AQIM and JNIM) has been complementary and consistent: a complete product that helps to prevent the failures of the regional leadership structure from becoming widely known. This trend could change in the future, although it does not appear that the importance of JNIM will decline in the short term; rather, if anything, it will increase.
Just as in other countries in the region, the presence of Spain in the Sahelian zone –a consequence, among other things, of the increase in the level of the terrorist threat– has risen significantly in recent years. Following the directions of the regional leadership, JNIM has not only named its media branch in clear reference to a significant historical battle in which the Christian Reconquest was halted, if only temporarily, in the first interview by Iyadh Ag Ghali as the organisation’s first Emir, he referred to Ibn Tashufin as one of the figures to emulate. Bearing in mind his antecedents, both the messenger and the message are credible. The reasons adduced here, together with the group’s historical demands as to al-Andalus, make Spain a very appealing and legitimate target for the organisation.