Timbuktu: A Laboratory for Jihadists Experimenting with Politics

What options do jihadists have after they lose territory? In the short term, they can regroup and rebuild. But what then?

Since 2011, jihadists have found numerous opportunities to take territory — but they have also learned they cannot hold that territory for long. Any jihadist “proto-state” will attract attention from a superior military power, which will destroy the proto-state and force jihadists into remote areas.

One useful case study is Mali, where a jihadist state-building experiment already ended in failure. In 2012, following a separatist rebellion and a military coup, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies took control of Mali’s north. Yet jihadist field commanders, ignoring advice from AQIM’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, overreached ideologically and expanded too far militarily. In 2013, they provoked a French-led intervention, Operation Serval, that destroyed their proto-state. Serval killed key AQIM field commanders and dispersed the group’s remnants and allies across northwest Africa.

Yet six years later, AQIM remains central to the conflict in Mali’s north and the associated violence in the center. In northern Mali, the Timbuktu region has become a laboratory for jihadist experimentation with a kind of “shadow politics.” Timbuktu is not necessarily more important than the other major cities in northern Mali, but it is a site where AQIM frequently shows its face and, in the process, displays some of the strengths and weaknesses of its position.

In Timbuktu, as elsewhere in the north, AQIM and its Mali-centric organization, Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, or JNIM), are building coalitions and conducting targeted violence. In doing so, they are navigating a political landscape full of potential pitfalls: ethnic and tribal tensions, foreign soldiers, a peace agreement, and sanctions that affect not just jihadists but also their allies. AQIM’s Saharan emir, Yahya Abu al-Hammam, is attempting to strike a balance between sticks and carrots, punishing dissent and spoiling peace without sabotaging the chance to build a broader political coalition. The experiments in Timbuktu will offer insight as to whether jihadists are innovating a way to build broad coalitions for the long term without taking formal territorial control — or whether they are trapped in a cycle of growth, conquest, defeat, and recovery.

Al-Qaeda in Timbuktu

The Algeria-born AQIM has a long history in Timbuktu, a desert region that takes its name from its famous capital city. From the beginning, AQIM’s presence in northern Mali was political: Building and managing relationships was fundamental to its expansion. The future AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar may have begun cultivating ties with smugglers in the Timbuktu region as early as 1994. In the early 2000s, Belmokhtar married a woman there who came from the Awlad Idriss, a local Arab tribe.

Even the early phase of AQIM’s outreach, however, highlighted core political challenges: Amid the Sahara’s complicated racial divisions, it was initially easier to build ties with fellow “whites” (Arabs and Tuareg) than with “blacks.” Even among Mali’s Arab tribes, Algerian AQIM field commanders were relative outsiders whose maneuvers attracted attention.

As AQIM established a kidnapping economy in the Sahara, ransom negotiations represented not just economic activities but also a form of politics. Belmokhtar and his fellow field commander Abdelhamid Abu Zayd cultivated new relationships, for example with the Tuareg politician and rebel leader Iyad ag Ghali.

In 2011, a schism between AQIM and a breakaway group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), highlighted the political challenge of both holding its coalition together and choosing allies carefully. Forging relationships was not always a zero-sum game, but it frequently involved making tradeoffs as AQIM won over one constituency only to alienate another. The kidnapping economy helped AQIM expand, but it also empowered Saharan actors who could challenge the group’s dominance on the jihadist scene.

Timbuktu was an important node in AQIM’s operations, not just because it witnessed an assassination and a kidnapping, but also because it became a base for Abu Zayd’s men, and because ethnic ties had helped AQIM and its predecessor organization establish a foothold there. One key figure in this process was Algerian national Yahya Abu al-Hammam. Some accounts say that as Abu Zayd’s deputy, Abu al-Hammam was central to the kidnapping economy. As Abu al-Hammam’s stature rose, he took control of his own company, al-Furqan, which was later made a brigade. In 2012, amid the northern Malian rebellion, AQIM named him governor of Timbuktu. Abu al-Hammam, in other words, has served at virtually every level of AQIM’s hierarchy. He has witnessed the group’s ups and downs, particularly in terms of its political fortunes in Mali.

During the rebellion, Timbuktu became the most prominent laboratory for jihadist rule in Mali. AQIM and its allies in ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement imposed their version of Islamic order, targeting Western-friendly businesses, enforcing a dress code, destroying Sufi shrines, and banning smoking and music. Jihadists were sometimes harsher in other northern Malian cities, but Timbuktu saw the most overt AQIM presence and in a way functioned as the political hub for the jihadist project, the place where key coordination meetings occurred and the most fateful decisions were made. By using Timbuktu as the launching pad for their invasion of central Mali, which brought down the hammer of French military power, jihadists also sowed the seeds of their proto-state’s destruction. Abu al-Hammam participated in these crucial decisions, and he was one of the few senior leaders who lived to rethink them.

Abu al-Hammam after Operation Serval

Two deaths elevated Abu al-Hammam within AQIM. In September 2012, AQIM’s Saharan emir died in a car accident and Abu al-Hammam succeeded him. Then, in February 2013, the French killed Abu Zayd, and Abu al-Hammam took over his role as well. This hybrid role positioned Abu al-Hammam as AQIM’s foremost representative in the Sahara. Politically, he faced a continuation of AQIM’s dual challenge: uniting jihadists and then expanding their coalition, all under the shadow of continued French counterterrorism (in the form of Serval’s successor, Operation Barkhane) and a growing web of foreign and regional military operations.

When it came to crafting intra-jihadist unity, AQIM and Abu al-Hammam were fairly successful. The leader likely helped bring Belmokhtar back into the fold after the latter freelanced between 2012 and 2015. Abu al-Hammam’s importance was also reflected in the 2017 jihadist merger that produced JNIM, which is led by ag Ghali with Abu al-Hammam as deputy. Rumors of competition between the two men notwithstanding, it is significant that…

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