hen French President Emmanuel Macron was asked by the magazine Jeune Afrique last November about negotiating with radical groups in Africa’s Sahel region, he said that “with terrorists, we do not negotiate. We fight.”
One year later, Paris has not changed its position, but it seems more amenable to dialogue with armed groups inside Mali, with the aim of including them in a peace agreement that has faltered since it was signed in 2015. The military route has reached a dead end in combating terrorism in Mali and the region overall, and this has revived debate about whether negotiations could end the vicious cycle of violence.
There has been hesitation about this step, however, at least officially, especially in Mali, even though it has been declared several times in recent years. This was the case most recently when the Malian ministry of religious affairs announced last October that it had been put in charge of talks with the Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM) and Macina Liberation Front (MLF) groups. However, the government quickly denied this news.
Despite this confusion, there have been calls inside and outside the region for negotiations with some of the radical groups in the African Sahel. These have sometimes been influenced by the US experience in negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan and at other times by reasoning that sometimes ideological extremism combines with local rebel movements in the region.
The real question is whether selective negotiation with a view to combating terrorism actually works.
Over the past two decades since terrorism began to spread after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, there has been a broad debate in the West about using negotiations as a tool to combat terrorism and extremism. While some reject this idea, others support it, and a third trend promotes selective negotiations.
Those who reject the idea believe terrorists are evil and irrational and are nothing more than members of isolated and fanatical groups that want to destroy negotiations, not take part in them, since they see others as infidels that should be annihilated.
They say that the terrorists do not have any national common feeling with governments to begin with. Terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group have goals that go beyond nation states (a global caliphate), for example, which make it difficult to reach a non-zero-sum solution on common ground within the country. Negotiating with terrorist elements is an ethical and humanitarian aberration, they add.
Terrorist attacks leave victims whom governments are responsible for avenging by punishing the terrorists, not rewarding them with negotiations. The negotiations mechanism also runs the risk of the tacit legitimisation of terrorist elements, which could give the latter a peaceful path to achieve their goals. They may also lead to a belief that violence can be a means to achieve demands from the authorities, undermining the legitimacy of the ruling regime.
Reasons to refuse negotiations with terrorists range from political issues to kidnapping by terrorists in return for ransoms. The laws in some countries, including the US, prohibit paying a ransom to terrorists in return for freeing hostages, because this would contribute to the funding of terrorist activities.
UN General Assembly Resolution 2133 of 2014 urges countries to prevent terrorists from directly benefiting from ransom payments or political compromises and to guarantee the safe release of hostages.
UPPORTING NEGOTIATIONS: Those who support talks with such groups, on the other hand, believe there can be opportunities to negotiate with terrorist groups in order to reduce violence.
Some analysts say that negotiations are both a pragmatic and humanitarian mechanism, are less costly than military options, and decrease the number of victims. Others believe that terrorist elements can be rational and accept to enter negotiations to survive and make gains based on temporary truces or can allow aid to get through or release prisoners.
Some argue that terrorism is an expression of political crises within societies, and therefore resolving these problems through negotiations can reduce violence. Negotiations can also be a strategic tool to end terrorism by forcing such groups to engage in a peaceful political process on the condition that they stop resorting to violence.
In the long run, this could cause terrorist groups to lose resources, cohesion, and supporters, they say. Examples here include the negotiations between Britain and the IRA in Northern Ireland and between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
However, this perspective can be problematic for several reasons, including the question of how to guarantee that terrorist groups adhere to the conditions of the peace process, as well as how to negotiate with groups that combine nationalist goals and terrorism with global goals such as IS and Al-Qaeda.
There is also the question of who should represent the terrorists, what legal basis the negotiations should have, and how receptive societies can be to negotiations when they have been harmed by these groups.
The third view, which supports selective negotiations with terrorist groups, says that negotiations can be appropriate for some, but not all, terrorist groups based on certain conditions and contexts. It does not oppose the use of negotiations and military action, especially in cases where there is a splintering of terrorist groups.
The rationale behind this view is that the official classification of a group as a terrorist group may hide the fact that it represents a blend of religious extremism driven by a global vision and social rebellion as a product of particular social, local, and ethnic grievances.
This hybrid type of terrorism means negotiations with it could defuse the reasons for the violence if the terrorists are directed towards peaceful channels, which in turn would reduce their need to resort to violence. It also means the separation of globalised religious extremism and local social factors, meaning that local social factors for some groups could be more important than declaring their allegiance to Al-Qaeda or IS, which they do to gain notoriety and put pressure on governments.
Some observers reference this approach by citing the US agreeing to negotiations with the Taliban but not IS in Afghanistan. The Taliban combines radical religious views and an allegiance to Al-Qaeda with local Pashtun grievances in the Afghan context, while IS has extremist trans-border plans. It is notable that Washington did not classify the Taliban as a terrorist group, but did add the Haqqani Network, which is allied with the Taliban, to its list of terrorist groups, as well as the IS-Khorasan province.
This experiment in negotiations, which led to an agreement between Washington and the Taliban in Doha in February 2020, caused Ismail Sharqi, the African Union’s commissioner for peace and security, to suggest a dialogue with extremists in the Sahel region of Africa.
The dilemma, however, is whether this choice of selective negotiations to end the violence may be counterproductive, such as when the Taliban took over power once the US withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021.
XTREMISM AND LOCAL GRIEVANCES: The selective approach seems to deal with territorial and organisational idiosyncrasies when considering negotiations as a tool to combat terrorism, which at times can prevent the larger use of them, but at other times can encourage it, as is the case in the African Sahel due to the hybrid structure of some terrorist groups in the region.
Calls for dialogue and negotiations, especially in Mali, are focused on two main groups: the JNIM and MLF, both of which are loyal to Al-Qaeda. There are no calls to negotiate with IS associates such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGC) group, which splintered from the Al-Mourabitoun group in 2015. For example, the international NGO the International Crisis Group (ICG) has called for dialogue between the government and the MLF to reduce increasing violence in central Mali.
For both the MLF and the JNIM, ideological extremism and ethnic and territorial grievances converge. The JNIM is a jihadist-Tuareg alliance that has been led by Iyad Ag Ghali since March 2017, and it started in northern Mali where the Tuaregs have suffered ethnic, political, and developmental marginalisation since Mali’s independence from France.
It includes the Ansar Al-Din, Mourabitoun, MLF, and Sahara Emirate groups. While the Ansar Al-Din belongs to the Tuareg Ifoghas tribe, the Mourabitoun emerged in 2013 as an alliance between the Tawheed and Jihad in West Africa group, which draws on Arab tribes in northern Mali, and the Al-Mulathamoun group, which includes Algerian, Malian, and Mauritanian nationals loyal to Al-Qaeda.
In recent years, the JNIM has expanded attacks from Mali to neighbouring countries, especially Niger and Burkina Faso, so that it can geographically expand into the states of the Gulf of Guinea. The group has not carried out attacks outside Africa and is focused on targeting French influence in the region, which it describes as “crusader colonialism”.
Meanwhile, the MLF, which emerged in central Mali in 2015 and is led by Amadou Kouffa, also combines extremism with political and developmental grievances of the Fulani tribe. The MLF is founded on the legacy of the 19th-century Islamic Macina Empire and present political and developmental exclusion, since the Fulanis complain that the Malian government is biased in favour of tribes such as the Bambara and Dogon.
Although the MLF was originally an ethnic Fulani group demanding greater autonomy, it has now become part of the JNIM in an attempt to strengthen its hand against the state.
Such hybrid forms of terrorism have also reached Burkina Faso, especially with the rise of Ansar Al-Islam in the north, in a country which combines extremism and Fulani grievances. It has also moved from the Sahel region to Lake Chad, where the Boko Haram group recruits from the Kanuri tribe that is spread across the Lake Chad countries. It is also an expression of intertwined identity, political, developmental, and tribal problems in northeast Nigeria.
Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, and this splintered it into two groups, one led by Abu Bakr Shekau (his death was announced in June 2021) and the other by Abu Musab Al-Barnawi (Nigeria announced his death in October 2021). In August 2016, IS chose Al-Barnawi over Shekau to become leader of the IS West African Province.
The combination of extremism and ethnic grievances is more complicated in the Sahel region due to poverty and developmental marginalisation. The rise of Ansar Al-Islam in northern Burkina Faso and terrorist groups in north and central Mali are directly linked to economic decline and environmental degradation, which have sparked conflicts between herder tribes (the Fulani) and farmer tribes (the Dogon) due to fewer water resources from the Niger River.
This has resulted in greater poverty among the Fulani and made them vulnerable to the extremism that has infiltrated central Mali.
ILITARY OPTIONS AND NEGOTIATIONS: Although hybrid terrorism has been present in the region since a coalition between the Tuareg and the Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb group took control of northern Mali in 2012, the idea of dialogue or negotiations was not on the table except when military options failed.
In 2021, interim Malian president Dioncounda Traore gave the Tuareg-Al-Qaeda alliance a choice between dialogue or war, but the offer was retracted once France intervened militarily in support of the Malian government through Operation Serval in early 2013.
Negotiations with terrorist groups remained off the table after Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita took office in 2013 and the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces (MINUSMA) in Mali the same year, as well as the launch of France’s Operation Barkhane in 2014 that expanded the fight against terrorism to include other countries in the region.
A peace agreement in Mali was signed in 2015, but it was problematic because it did not include all the armed groups and was hard to enforce, especially its provisions on security reform.
France’s plan to regionalise the fight against terrorism after 2017 using the forces of the five Sahel countries has not succeeded. The regional and French intervention has focused on targeting terrorist leaders and not direct confrontation with the terrorist groups on the ground, either due to a lack of efficiency, a lack of regional coordination, or the fear of human losses. In contrast, the terrorists in the region have become more adapted to the growing militarisation of the region through their geographical mobility, tribal alliances, and mobile bases.
The violence in the regional countries expanded from northern Mali in 2012 to its centre in 2015 and then to the country’s borders with Niger and Burkina Faso in recent years. The violence is now on the doorstep of countries in the Gulf of Guinea, especially Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, and Ghana. The US Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) shows a seven-fold increase in violence between 2017 and 2020, with the JNIM and ISGS being the key culprits.
Calls for dialogue and negotiations with the terrorist groups in Mali gained traction with invitations to two national conferences in 2017 and 2019. Former president Keita, who initially was opposed to any form of dialogue, admitted to communications with some groups in February 2020. Meanwhile, the military forces that carried out a coup against Keita in August 2020 also suggested possible dialogue when interim Malian Prime Minister Mokhtar Awani announced the creation of a panel for dialogue with extremist groups in March 2021.
The political instability caused by the military coup in Mali in May 2021 gave more impetus to the negotiations, which became a bargaining chip in the face of the French declaration that it was downsizing Operation Barkhane and redirecting efforts to supporting the European Takuba forces in the region.
This led to tensions with the Malian government, which escalated when reports emerged that Takuba would resort to using mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group.
At the time, the Malian government denied that anyone had been assigned to hold talks with the JNIM and MLF out of a concern that this would lead to further tensions with Paris. France has valuable bargaining chips, including encouraging northern Mali to secede from the rest of the country.
LTERNATIVE NEGOTIATIONS: Mali’s hesitation to negotiate did not prevent other forms of communication with terrorist groups in the Sahel region, ranging from forced negotiations to localised negotiations to avoid the risk of formal ones.
Forced negotiations are those that governments and terrorist groups accept as compulsory, but they do not prevent the use of military force later on. Such talks are usually mediated by local leaders and revolve around certain issues, such as the safe passage of humanitarian aid or a temporary truce. While governments benefit from this form of negotiation as a tool to gather information about the nature of terrorist groups, the groups themselves can use them, especially if a truce is declared, as an opportunity to catch their breath or to allow humanitarian aid through so that local communities do not turn against them and or to reduce their civil responsibilities in areas where they are active.
Such negotiations could also include the release of figures detained by the state. For example, the Nigerian government negotiated with Boko Haram for the release of kidnapped schoolgirls in the northeast of the country in 2018, and the Malian government made a deal with the JNIM through local negotiators for the release of four hostages, including one French woman, in exchange for the release of 200 prisoners in October 2020.
Burkina Faso’s public refusal to negotiate with terrorists did not prevent indirect talks in November 2020 from taking place to discuss a truce in the north.
Localised negotiations rely on negotiating with traditional and religious leaders in communities that host terrorist groups by settling disputes and grievances that motivate individuals and groups to join terrorist organisations through local peace agreements. They are a form of indirect social negotiation facilitated by international NGOs such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), the Geneva Call, and the US-based Search for Common Ground.
For example, in August 2019 HD succeeded in brokering a peace agreement between the Dogon, Fulani, and Dafing tribes in Mopti in central Mali, and in July 2020 local officials in several Mopti areas negotiated a local peace deal with MLF fighters.
OSSIBLE RISKS: However, selective negotiations with some extremist groups as an option to end the violence in the African Sahel face many risks, most notably an uneven balance of power between the negotiating parties.
For example, the Malian government is facing a serious security crisis that is not conducive to negotiations, and it has been weakened due to tensions with Paris and expanding attacks by the JNIM. If talks take place today, the terrorist groups could dig in their heels or even make gains that would impact on the legitimacy of the incumbent regime.
The imbalance of power relates to another dilemma regarding the terms of any negotiations. Although the JNIM has agreed to talks, as seen in a statement it reportedly released in March 2021, its precondition would be the full withdrawal of all French and UN forces from the country. This would weaken the government’s military position when it enters the talks.
Some are also worried that if talks take place once France withdraws, the same scenario as the Taliban recapturing power when the US withdrew from Afghanistan would repeat itself in Mali. The JNIM already views France’s decision to downsize Operation Barkhane as a victory. Others disagree that this will happen, because there are great differences between the organisational structure and political capabilities of the Taliban and the JNIM.
Selective negotiations are also problematic due to concerns by civil groups in Mali that the JNIM or MLF will seek to impose Sharia Law in the country. Negotiations could cause army ranks to splinter because talks would be an admission that the military has failed in combating terrorism and could lead to more political instability.
Since its independence from France, Mali has experienced five successful military coups, including two within nine months of each other in August 2020 and May 2021.
Meanwhile, excluding groups with ties to IS such as ISGS from selective negotiations could increase the violence, especially in their battle with Al-Qaeda loyalist the JNIM. There are also regional powers that do not support Mali’s position on negotiating with the jihadists. Burkina Faso and Niger refuse, at least publicly, to negotiate, and it is unlikely that France will change its mind, at least until later this year. Macron will face voters this year for another presidential term, so he would not agree to negotiate with extremists, at least for the time being, and his electoral campaign has focused on efforts to fight religious extremism inside France.
The above shows that negotiations as a tool to combat terrorism carry a great deal of risk in the case of the Mali and Sahel region, where countries are wedged between expanding terrorism because military solutions are ineffective and the risks of negotiation, even if selective.
This has prompted some circles, including in the International Crisis Group, to call for grassroots dialogue in areas controlled by the JNIM and MLF as an alternative that could reduce the risk of their legitimacy and recognition while exploring localised problems and grievances.
The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.