The Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) has many different leaders among its ranks, ranging from its head, the Tuareg Iyad ag Ghaly, to the commander of JNIM’s “Macina Brigade,” the Fulani Hamadou Kouffa; recently, however, the group’s most visible persona has become Mahmoud Barry (alias Abu Yahya). He has appeared in a number of JNIM videos to articulate the group’s ideology, activities, relations with Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), and stance on negotiations, among other matters.
Barry’s most recent video monologue was released by JNIM’s al-Zallaqa media wing on January 18. In the video, Barry announced that JNIM supports Islamic scholars (ulema) who oppose secularism, or laïcité, which is the governing principle of the Malian state. This indicates how JNIM, unlike ISGS, is willing to establish alliances or at least comity with mainstream non-jihadist Muslim leaders if they push for Mali to become an Islamic state ruled by sharia.
Barry nevertheless asserted in that video that joining the mujahideen in JNIM is the best way for Muslims, and especially the ulema, to establish sharia (Twitter/@Sahelleaks, January 18). The message was particularly relevant in the Malian context because for the past several years the nation’s most prominent Muslim scholar, Imam Mahmoud Dicko, has been trusted to oversee backdoor discussions between JNIM and the government. There have been few concrete results (orientxxi.info, May 18, 2020).
Prior to this recording, in July 2022, Barry also delivered another monologue in a video released by JNIM’s al-Zallaq media wing. There, he claims two assaults made against the Malian armed forces and promised further such attacks. (Twitter/@Je_suis_le_Mali, July 28, 2022). He also vowed in Bambara language that “all of this [fighting] will not end until everyone accepts the application of sharia (fr.al-ain.com, July 28, 2022).” In an April 2022 video (also released by the al-Zallaqa media wing), Barry called for jihad and expressed the desire for Allah to support the mujahideen, a common theme in his monologues (Twitter/@ocisse691, April 26, 2022).
Barry’s newfound role in these and other JNIM video monologues only came about because of his release from prison in an October 2020 hostage exchange. Soumaïla Cissé, an opposition political figure and the former Minister of Finance of Mali, was released in exchange for Barry and 200 other jihadists. Also released by JNIM was the 75-year old charity worker and the last remaining French hostage in the world at the time, Sophie Pétronin, alongside two Italian hostages (rfi.fr, October 9, 2020).
Soon after being freed, Barry then appeared in a JNIM video featuring a meeting between the group’s top commanders. These included the blind, one-armed Algerian veteran explosives expert, Taher Abu Saad; Aliou Mahamane Touré, the former Islamic Police chief for Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) in Gao when al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and their allies controlled that territory; and Barry himself, who was then known as a commander of Katiba Macina (Twitter/@MENASTREAM, October 10, 2020). Along with AQIM, MUJWA, and Tuareg-led Ansar al-Din and its Fulani sub-unit, Katiba Macina, occupied northern Mali in 2012.
Barry was initially arrested in July 2016 after participating in several major operations, including being among the masterminds of an attack that killed 17 Malian soldiers in Nampala one week earlier (jeuneafrique.com, July 27, 2016). That attack was attributed both to Ansar al-Din and Katiba Macina and preceded JNIM’s formation in March 2017 by a year (voaafrique.com, July 27, 2016). Since returning to his jihadist brethren roughly five years after his initial arrest, however, Barry has now become more of an ideologue than a combatant on the battlefield.
Despite this, given the reclusiveness and high level of operational security of his superiors in JNIM, Iyad ag Ghaly and Hamadou Kouffa, Barry has accepted the all-important role of being among the most frequently seen JNIM leaders in the group’s videos. Therefore, he has also become a primary voice for al-Qaeda’s strongest franchise in West Africa.