Yesterday Adnan Abu Elwalid Sahraoui, a member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), announced that his group had freed three hostages in exchange for a reported $18.4 million and two imprisoned MUJAO members. The payoff culminates a 10-month test of endurance for two Spaniards and one Italian, captured from one of Algeria's Sahrawi refugee camps, and sowed new anxieties in African and Western capitals in the process. Repeated success has emboldened MUJAO to continue expanding its kidnapping operations across the Sahel region. According to Sahraoui, “We will take them as soon as they enter the territories of Mauritania, Mali, Algeria or Niger."
For now, MUJAO can use its new funds to amass weapons and supplies for incoming recruits in northern Mali.
If MUJAO's fortunes were traded in stock, the group's shares would have exploded between October 2011 and now. Less certain is the group's murky origins, which appear to be divided along two competing narratives: MUJAO emerged as a kidnapping outfit of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), or else broke off from AQIM after rejecting the influence of Algeria's government. In either case MUJAO has only needed a short span of months to deliver a rough jihadist paradise in Mali, a key step to establishing a haven in the wider Sahel. The group would belatedly pair with northern Mali's other Islamist network, Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), after the latter rode the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad's (MNLA) military uprising and capitalized on Mali's March coup.
Once the government was displaced from Mali's vast northern territory, Ansar Dine and MUJAO then asserted their military and religious authority to supplant the MNLA's control of urban areas. Their rise to de facto power and open invitation to international jihadists has attracted hundreds of foreigners to Mali, triggering visions of Somalia circa 2006. Last month Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou claimed that Pakistani advisers had arrived to train recruits in Gao, the regional capital and garrison for both Islamic groups. The latest reports suggest that another foreign unit has just landed in Gao via neighboring Burkina Faso, possibly numbering in the 200s. The majority claim to possess citizenship from Senegal, the Ivory Coast and Niger, along with an average age of 16, and come for the two rewards of jihad - cash and promises of "the sun, moon and stars." A man by the name of Alioune, chief of Gao's Islamic police, added that the youths are separated onto two training camps "where they will undergo military and religious training."
He's "awaiting many more."
The prospect of youth soldiers won't yield the deterrence that MUJAO hopes to achieve against the international community, but they are symbolic of the group's efforts to effect a permanent takeover of northern Mali. Hundreds of trained fighters will do the immediate dirty work of policing territory and battling "invaders," keeping the youth recruits in reserve or training them for support missions. As time passes - an international intervention is unlikely to begin before 2013 - younger seeds will grow into more formidable fighters and augment the main force. They also form natural connectors to Africa's younger, technologically-savvy generations.
On a second strategic level, conflicting reports have yet to pin down estimates of MUJAO and Ansar Dine's populations; the percentage of national and foreign recruits cannot be underestimated from either direction. Although the international web spun by Pakistanis, Afghans, Jordanians, Somalis and Nigerians has triggered a large amount of regional and international concern, an African-led movement would produce a more sustainable threat to Western Africa. The friction between national and international jihadist agendas has generated tangible fallout in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia, weakening each network relative to its maximum potential. If MUJAO and Ansar Dine can load the majority of their ranks with Africans, they should be able to instill at least some sense of local community within their base. Non-African elements would then assist as needed, not as they desire.
Bilal Hicham, a Nigerien, styles himself as the first black leader of a "katiba" (fighting unit) and claims, "Here there are Malians, Somalis, Ivorians, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Gambians, Mauritanians, Algerians, Guineans, Nigeriens, all the Muslims are here."
"We are many Africans, come from all over to join the mujahideen in Gao," says one Ivorian recruit.
MUJAO is also thinking ahead, at least publicly, by reacting to Ansar Dine's strict punishments in Timbuktu tombs reprisals and its own actions in Gao. Residents report an easing of Sharia law in Gao after protesters demonstrating a ban on playing football and watching TV. Enforcing new laws and securing the people's consent presents a constantly shifting line for insurgents to walk, and MUJAO must continue its religious agenda or risk its internal credibility. At the same time, a change in behavior cannot be ruled out when MUJAO is putting so much thought into its expansion. At least some commanders should realize that a supportive population mounts a higher level of resistance to external threats. The ongoing evolution of MUJAO injects another complicated dimension into a complex power equation.
While the majority of political questions seem to center around an alliance that never truly existed (MNLA-Ansar Dine), the relationship between Ansar Dine and MUJAO may be of greater consequence to Malians and the international community. The latest information suggests that MUJAO, which considers itself to be above the AQIM-affiliated Ansar Dine, is now calling the shots in northern Mali. Instead of confronting one well-armed and motivated force (the Tuareg-dominated MNLA), African and Western powers must now dispose of three entities that have fused into a loose guerrilla network.
Every last attempt to secure the MNLA's allegiance must made, but this possibility remains a longship despite extensive negotiations with African mediators; the group's liberation agenda is viewed as an equal threat to African stability. Worse still, Ansar Dine and MUJAO indicate no willingness to compromise their core objective of an Islamic state, instead ridiculing the UN's threat to punish the desecrators of Timbuktu tombs. And they could mount the most ferocious resistance if "invaders" do try to restore government rule in northern Mali.
"Yes, we have placed military devices which are defending the town [Gao] against attacks," warns spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui." Our enemy is also all the countries who will send fighters here."