Mali’s Sleeper Cell – By Andrew Lebovich
When Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported late last month that Malian authorities had broken up an alleged cell of seven fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, in French) in March in Bamako, it seemed to confirm suspicions many Malians and regional observers had held for months. After the fall of northern Mali and its progressive takeover by jihadist groups, many began to fear attacks in regional capitals. The French intervention in Mali in January, and subsequent threats by MUJAO spokesman Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui to stage attacks in Bamako, Ouagadougou, and Niamey, compounded these concerns, as did a public warning about a bomb threat in February from the U.S. Embassy in Dakar. In Bamako in particular, this fear gave way late last year to panicked (and unconfirmed) reports of Islamist infiltration in Bamako, and in January the Tablighi Jama’at-linked Markaz Mosque in the Banankabougou neighbourhood was reportedly shuttered, though whether or not the mosque was actually closed or not is unclear.
Still, the arrests last month seemed to mark the first confirmation that a “sleeper cell” planning to commit attacks existed in Bamako. And the Malian security services wanted to be sure everyone knew about it. The security services took directly to the web aggregator Maliweb.net to provide information about the arrests. These leaks included pictures of the alleged cell members, as well as names and some information about the supposed plot.
The first account, which appeared April 30 and was signed by “Military source for maliweb.net,” claimed that a routine traffic stop in Bamako led to the detention of Mohamed Diallo, the son of a Gossi marabout and suspected jihadist. Mohamed Diallo, who had reportedly been under surveillance by Malian intelligence since December, reportedly admitted to belonging to MUJAO. According to another Malian press account, Mohamed Diallo was dispatched by his father to recruit young Quranic students for MUJAO in Bamako madrassahs. The marabout, Ahmed Yaya Diallo, subsequently dispatched six other disciples to Bamako with instructions (but without weapons) to attack night clubs, bars, hotels, and other targets.
Despite the initial attention, there are some inconsistencies and information gaps remaining. Malian sources initially couldn’t agree on the ages or even the number of people arrested; citing two separate security sources, Reuters reported that either eight or 15 suspected cell members had been arrested, while the AP’s Baba Ahmed, citing a source in the gendarmerie, suggested that the seven arrived in Bamako after fleeing the French intervention in the north, and that they were “not experienced fighters” despite having received military training in northern Mali. This information, combined with the fact that the men had no weapons with them, suggests that the initial breathless reports of a “sleeper cell” and attack threats in Bamako may have been overstated. This could be a case of simply rushing to judgment based on the evidence available (suspected MUJAO fighters with military training arriving in the Malian capital). The announcement, and in particular the leaks directly from security services, could also be an attempt to highlight the competence of the Malian security services after a period in which Malian security forces lost control of the north, staged a coup that earned international and increasingly local approbation, and continue to be dogged by reports of ineffectiveness and corruption.
Despite the questions about this specific series of arrests, however, there is still a strong possibility of militant infiltration in Bamako, as well as in other cities of the sub-region. Interviews and public statements from Malian, Nigerien, and Senegalese officials have all noted concerns about these attacks, and in interviews with Western diplomats in Bamako, several interlocutors seemed convinced that some weapons seized by French forces in northern Mali, purportedly including suicide vests and other explosives, were intended for attacks in Bamako and elsewhere.
Moreover, it is interesting to look at the slim profile of the supposed plotters that has come out so far. If the accusations of the Malian security services are correct (which is admittedly a big if), the group was very distinctly Malian, and appear to have been serving more or less under their marabout, or local religious leader, rather than under the commands of a known MUJAO leader on the order of Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui, group founder Hamada Ould Kheiru, or the group’s military commander Ahmed al-Tilemsi. This is a pattern in keeping with how AQIM and MUJAO “managed” the north before the French intervention, with foreign leaders initially keeping a low public profile in favor of leadership with more local roots.
Additionally, these groups appear in some cases to have specifically recruited and put forward local religious leaders with a history of radical activism, including Mohamed Ag Mossa, the head of the “Islamic Police” in Timbuktu, and Ahmedou Kouffa, the Konna-area marabout who reportedly led the jihadist push south toward Sévaré and Mopti.
Another interesting though much trickier aspect of the supposed plotters is their ethnicity. Reportedly from Gossi, a town that sits between the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, in the cercle of Ghourma-Rharous, the men all have the last name Diallo, which could indicate that they are Peul or Fulani (though this is not necessarily the case, as Mali expert Baz Lecocq pointed out on Twitter). Various reports have indicated significant recruitment of Malian and Nigerien Peuls to MUJAO. In fact, MUJAO has made direct appeals to Peul populations and has tried to define itself as carrying out the legacy of three Peul reformist figures and leaders of their own jihads in the Sahel and West Africa, Usman Dan Fodio, El Hajj Umar Tall, and the founder of the 19th-century Massina Empire in central Mali Seku Amadu.*
Additionally, some sources have indicated growing religious radicalization among some Peul, though this would make them no different from other Sahelian Muslim communities, and many Peul may have joined militant organizations as much for local social and economic reasons (in particular hedging against Tuareg-dominated groups like the MNLA and Ansar al-Din) as for religious reasons, though these motivations are not mutually exclusive.
As I noted above, however, we don’t actually know that the seven men arrested are Peul. Secondly, even if the men are Peul and are in fact linked to MUJAO, we have no indication that their ethnicity was a deciding factor in their recruitment. There are an estimated 30 million Peul spread out across West Africa and the Sahel, occupying positions ranging from semi-nomadic herders to, well, the presidency of Senegal.
In fact, ethno-centric assumptions and beliefs about recruitment into militant groups are having an impact in Mali, where various communities accused of links to militant groups, including Peul, Arabs, and Tuareg, are deeply concerned about extrajudicial killings at the hands of the Malian army, concern that also touches outwardly religious Malians. This logic of false association may have been behind the execution of 16 preachers associated with the Da’wa movement in September in Diabaly. And for various West African leaders have fanned popular notions of Peul influence and competition for political gain.
As is often the case, there remain tremendous gaps in what we know about this alleged cell. The information that has come out about the Bamako arrests should also be subject to a healthy degree of skepticism, though the risk remains real of attacks in Bamako or other capital cities in West Africa and the Sahel. Yet we should not rush to judgment about complicated issues relating to recruitment and radicalization based solely on broad categories like ethnicity. Still, some of these questions will hopefully be answered in the course of the investigation and eventual trial of the suspects. That is, if Mali can resolve the already pressing shortcomings in its judicial system.
*As an interesting aside, Tall invaded the Massina Empire, putting Amadu’s grandson to death in the process.
Andrew Lebovich is OSIWA’s Sahel consultant.
The Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) is a part of the Open Society Foundations global network and one of four foundations in Africa. OSIWA is dedicated to the promotion of inclusive democratic governance, transparent and accountable institutions and active citizenship across the region. www.osiwa.org and @osiwa1