Embattled France Rebuffs Negotiations After al-Qaeda Hostage Exchange in Mali
On October 11, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s sub-affiliate in Mali, Group for Supporters of Muslims and Islam (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin—JNIM), released photos featuring elder Malian Tuareg JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghaly. He was hosting a celebration for some 200 freed prisoners, including significant numbers of jihadists, in a certain northern Malian village (Al-Khaleej Today, October 13). Two weeks later, on October 23, JNIM released video clips of Iyad ag Ghali delivering a speech to those freed prisoners in Arabic, which was translated into a local language by a fighter standing beside him (Twitter/SimNasr, October 23).
Earlier that month, on October 8, the informal head of Mali’s opposition party, Soumaila Cissé, and three other foreign hostages, including French aid worker Sophie Pétronin, Italian priest Pierluigi Maccali, and Italian tourist Nicola Ciacco, were exchanged by JNIM for those prisoners and, according to Algeria’s Defense Ministry, an unspecified sum of money (France24.com, October 8; Ashaq al-Awsat, October 29). Algeria itself was understandably concerned about the hostage exchange because Algerians were among the jihadists released from prison. One Algerian prisoner who was released, for example, was immediately arrested attempting to cross into Algeria (malijet.com, October 30).
Cissé was abducted in March while campaigning in Timbuktu, and the 75-year old Pétronin was abducted in Gao in 2016. Maccali, meanwhile, was abducted in Niger near the Burkina Faso border in 2018, and Ciacco was a tourist abducted near Timbuktu in 2019. Pétronin, notably, converted to Islam and changed her name to Mariam while in custody (lemonde.fr, October 9). This resembled Italian Silvia Romano, who was kidnapped by al-Shabaab in Kenya in 2019 and released in June, but not before she also converted to Islam and changed her name to Aisha (menafn.com, July 11). Her conversion was not well-received in Italy (milanorepubblica.it, July 6). Although Pétronin was the last remaining French hostage released from al-Qaeda worldwide, fanfare seems to have subsided more quickly than usual, perhaps because of her conversion.
Cissé’s and the three hostages’ release demonstrates that negotiated deals can be reached with JNIM. However, France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, ruled out further dialogue with JNIM on his first visit to Mali since the hostage exchange and the previous August military coup that ousted Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from the Malian presidency (Agence France-Presse, October 26). JNIM, which is loyal to the Afghan Taliban, for its part, demands French military withdrawal from the Sahel before it is willing to negotiate peace with Mali’s government (Radio France Internationale, March 12). The mutually contradictory positions of France and JNIM largely explain Paris’ disinterest in any further negotiations, while the August coup may have somehow facilitated the behind-the-scenes negotiations for the hostage deal with JNIM.
With no end in sight to French involvement in combating JNIM in Mali and neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, France’s battles with jihadism are set to continue both at home and abroad in overlapping ways. One of Sahelian jihadist mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s former deputies, the Mauritanian Fawaz Ould Ahmed, for example, is standing trial in Mali for orchestrating the 2015 attack on a Bamako nightclub and 2016 attack on Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel, which killed more than 25 people combined, including mostly foreigners. Ould Ahmed states that the jihadists’ motivation for those attacks was revenge for the French Charlie Hebdo cartoons that mocked the Prophet Mohammed (information.tv5monde.com, October 28).
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron is facing an international backlash, especially from Turkey, for his standing firm in support of the right to blaspheme Prophet Mohammed after a Chechen refugee beheaded a schoolteacher in suburban Paris who showed one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to his students (francetvinfo.fr, October 27). Further, on October 29, a woman was beheaded and two others were killed in Nice, France in revenge for this blasphemy (liberation.fr, October 29). Combating jihadism and addressing Islamism’s challenge to French laïcité (secularism), therefore, cannot be considered either a domestic or foreign policy matter for France. Rather, they are intertwined. Moreover, with French presidential elections scheduled for April 2022, Macron may be drawn to the right. Macron’s longtime right-wing challenger, Marine Le Pen, called for a “comprehensive response aimed at eradicating Islamism from [French] soil” after the recent Nice attack (Twitter/MLP_officiel, October 29).
Islamic State’s Great Escape Jailbreak in the Congo
On October 18, Islamic State’s Nashir News media agency released an audio from Islamic state’s al-Furqan Media Foundation of spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, called “Tell the Stories so They can Reflect.” The audio was promoted by Islamic State supporters on social media, but its content was fairly unoriginal. Al-Muhajir, for example, predictably lambasted Gulf countries’ normalizing diplomatic relations with “the Jews” and spreading lies about Islamic State (IS) (The Times of Israel, October 17).
Also notable was the audio’s release nearly one year after IS’ first ‘caliph’ Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s death at the hands of U.S. special forces in Idlib, Syria on October 26, 2019. Al-Baghdadi’s own spokesman and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir’s predecessor, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, was killed shortly after al-Baghdadi’s death. However, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir’s audio did not mention al-Baghdadi or Abu Hassan al-Muhajir.
Although there are signs of an uptick in IS attacks in Syria and Iraq, the group is far from restoring its ‘caliphate’ in its heartland. Thus, it appears that al-Baghdadi’s successor as caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, has little incentive to release any videos or audios at this time. It was, for example, only after IS captured Mosul, Iraq in 2014 that al-Baghdadi appeared prominently for the first time and delivered a sermon from a historic Mosul mosque and declared the reestablishment of the “caliphate” (Al Arabiya News, June 29, 2014).
In his recent audio message, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir praised IS fighters in sub-Saharan Africa, where Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger and Islamic State in Central Africa Province (ISCAP) in Mozambique and Congo remain strong. They have remained loyal to IS, despite al-Baghdadi’s death (ISWAP, February 14). In addition, in his audio message al-Muhajir called for “demolishing the fences of prisons and freeing the Muslim prisoners,” which has historically been one of IS’ main ways of replenishing its ranks and retaining the loyalty of its fighters. Two days after al-Muhajir’s audio, on October 20, ISCAP conducted a jailbreak in Beni, Congo, which was claimed hours later by IS as part of its “Answer the Call [of al-Muhajir]” campaign (Al-Khaleej Today, October 20). The claim noted seven Congolese soldiers were also killed.
In total, according to Congolese authorities, 1,455 prisoners escaped, 122 remained in prison, 14 were caught by the police, and two were killed while escaping (actualite.cd, October 20). With this dramatic prison break, ISCAP has, like Islamic State itself in Syria and Iraq in previous years, now replenished its ranks, demoralized the Congolese army, and seemingly tied its prison break to al-Muhajir’s audio to buttress the IS spokesman’s credibility. ISCAP will likely escalate attacks in coming months not only in Congo, but also in Mozambique and even in Tanzania, where, since October, the group has begun formally claiming lethal attacks against Tanzanian soldiers in that country’s territory (Agence France-Presse, October 23).