Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has said that government authorities have been maintaining formal dialogue with Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Koufa, jihadists leaders with connections to Al-Qaeda. The formal recognition by President Keïta of this interaction emerged during an interview with Radio France Internationale and France 24 in Addis Ababa, where the African Union is holding its first summit in 2020, the principal focus of which is ending ongoing conflicts in Africa. This acknowledgement of contact with the jihadist leaders, which many have known about for months, is all the more significant because Mali is a few days out from reinserting its military into the Kidal region, six years after it was chased out by jihadist militias.
Ag Ghaly headed the Ansar Dine movement, which alongside the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg separatist movement, launched a rebellion in 2012 that ousted Malian armed forces from the country’s north and declared an independent state of Azawad. Infighting between the Tuareg militants and Islamic jihadists soon followed the announcement, leading to a jihadist victory and a de facto caliphate in the heart of the Sahara Desert. France intervened in 2013 under Operation Serval to remove jihadist groups from the main northern cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal, but the conflict persists to this day along ethnic and religious lines. Koufa, a member of the nomadic Peul people, led a separate jihadist group called Katiba Macina, which first appeared in January 2015. Koufa and Ag Ghaly combined their forces along with Al Mourabitoun to form the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’, or Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), in 2017.
The announcement has irked Mali’s Western allies, in particular France, which under presidents François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron has maintained a stance of refusing to engage with terrorist groups in any capacity beyond a military one. For Malians, however, the decision has been largely welcomed. Among the figures involved in negotiations are Ali Nouham Diallo, former president of the National Assembly; Mahmoud Dicko, the imam who led Mali’s High Islamic Council; and Adama Coulibaly, president of l’Association Faso Dambé Ton.
Malians remain wary about the negotiations. Though they applaud President Keïta’s efforts to pursue all possible avenues to end the bloodshed, others have raised concerns about how these negotiations are being conducted. Cheick Oumar Diallo, an executive of the Democratic Alliance for Peace, told Jeune Afrique, “The jihadist leaders are unavoidable to reestablish peace… but will they recognize the principles of secularism and democracy in Mali? These two questions should be non-negotiable.”
Ag Ghaly and Koufa are, however, not the only jihadist leaders or organizations operating within Mali. Moussa Mara, former prime minister under President Keïta, says if they have to talk to terrorists, they must talk to all of them. Mara is primarily referring to Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). According to Mara, the ISGS has been responsible for the largest number of deaths of Malian, Nigerien, and Burkinabé soldiers in the border region, making it a major actor in the conflict that should not be excluded from future discussions.