By Philip Kleinfeld and Mamadou Tapily, The New Humanitarian, 04 May 2022
Editor’s note: As Sahelian governments struggle to contain the spread of al-Qaeda and jihadist groups linked to so-called Islamic State, some local communities have taken a radical step: talking to the militants themselves. Based on months of reporting in Burkina Faso and Mali, this is the third in a series of stories examining those efforts.
Aly Ongoiba* keeps meticulous notes on the conflict that consumed his commune – a maze of clay buildings and artfully thatched granaries spread across the top of a sandstone escarpment that cuts through central Mali.
During the peak of the violence, the mayor said dozens of villages in the commune were attacked by jihadist militants. Hundreds of lives were lost and tens of thousands of cattle were stolen before Ongoiba finally stopped counting.
Then came peace – or something of the sort.
Fed up with the violence, Ongoiba asked local leaders to open talks with militants linked to al-Qaeda. A deal was then struck that saw the commune agree to stop resisting the jihadists and follow a strict version of sharia law, according to individuals present at the dialogue.
Some residents objected to the harsh sharia conditions, but security gains soon convinced many of the deal’s benefits. “Until today, there has been no attack,” Ongoiba told The New Humanitarian. “Nowhere in the world do wars end without negotiation.”
Military operations have long been the strategy of choice for international and regional powers fighting jihadist groups in Mali and the wider Sahel region. Rural self-defence militias have mushroomed too, as residents seek to defend themselves against the militants.
But as the decade-long insurgency spreads and humanitarian needs soar, some communities that initially resisted the jihadists’ presence are trying a different approach: dialogue.
Since 2020, dozens of verbal accords between jihadists and communities have been struck in central Mali – the country's epicentre of violence and displacement in recent years. Ceasefires between militants and opposing militias have been brokered too.
The ability of these talks to help mitigate violence is explored in depth in the following briefing. Observations are based on interviews with 34 local leaders, aid workers, and public officials involved in talks or with close knowledge of them.
Community leaders don’t sugarcoat the accords. They see them as “survival pacts”, necessary because the state is absent and the army is weak. None want to follow oppressive rules, and most worry they will be called jihadists for making agreements.
Yet the leaders say the pacts have saved lives, that enforcement of sharia is often lax, and that jihadists are also making compromises as they seek to avoid community conflicts and focus on their real enemy: the state.
Though limited in scale, the talks carry weight beyond central Mali. They offer insight into how some jihadists approach conflict resolution. And they show a local appetite (though not uniform) for dialogue that may support the case for national negotiations with militants.
The idea for such discussions seem radical, yet many political and religious figures in Mali have expressed support for it, as have militant leaders from the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) – an al-Qaeda subsidiary and one of the main jihadist groupings in the Sahel.
A key obstacle to talks had been the War on Terror rhetoric of France, which spearheaded foreign military efforts in Mali since 2013. But the former colonial power is now leaving after relations soured with the ruling junta – and much of the general public.
“The best thing is for the government to stop fighting and start a dialogue,” said a community leader involved in mediation efforts in central Mali. “Officials should involve religious leaders, and of course include us.”
Part one of this story looks at how pacts are negotiated; part two examines how the deals are enforced by jihadists; part three analyses the risks facing community leaders involved in talks; and part four asks whether those leaders support a national dialogue.
Part 1: Hard bargaining – ‘We said we have marabouts more literate than you’
Quick read: Community leaders are on the backfoot during negotiations but that doesn’t mean they have no agency. Some have extracted significant concessions from jihadists, whose willingness to compromise bodes well for any national talks.
Discussions between communities and jihadists aren’t new. They had already been happening quite frequently in northern and central areas of Mali where militants are in firm control. Compromise is often necessary as fighters seek to enforce their ideology without alienating civilians.
However, what is notable is that the recent talks are occurring in some of the more volatile central districts, where jihadists have less of a support base and where they met fierce resistance as they spread from the desert north from 2015 onwards.
Self-defence militias sprung up here among various communities, including the traditionally agricultural Dogon and Bambara groups. These militias then committed atrocities against marginalised Fulani herders who dominate the jihadists’ ranks.
Mass killings and insecurity displaced tens of thousands of people and led to widespread hunger. A UN peacekeeping operation struggled to protect civilians, while military operations and occasional French airstrikes often made matters worse.
The failing led to different types of accords being struck. In some central regions, religious leaders have mediated ceasefires between militias and militants with Bamako’s blessing. But these agreements (outside the scope of this report) often break down.
In other areas, initiatives have come directly from community leaders, who often pay out of their pockets for meetings and risk being seen as jihadist sympathisers for wanting to engage with the insurgents, who are from a JNIM-affiliated group called Katiba Macina.
Rules stipulated by jihadists during these talks – which mostly occur without state approval – are usually the same, said Amadou Guindo, a Dogon village chief and farmer who has organised dozens of discussions in and around the turbulent Koro district.
Guindo said jihadists in Koro tell communities to lay down their weapons; to stop providing the military with information on the militants’ whereabouts; and to offer forgiveness for any violence they have suffered.
Compliance with the jihadists’ interpretation of sharia is also demanded as fighters have used the talks to consolidate power. Dress codes were set, alcohol consumption was banned, while other cultural customs were also proscribed.
Guindo, who lost family members during the conflict and saw his livelihood stripped away, said people had no choice but to accept. “We are doing it for our survival,” he said. “We can’t [fight] them, so we accept their torture to save our lives.”
Still, Guindo and several other community leaders said the talks are not entirely one-sided. As well as obtaining guarantees that they can farm and travel freely, some leaders extracted significant concessions during and after dialogues.
A teacher from Mondoro district in the central Douentza region said residents successfully pushed back at a late 2020 meeting with jihadists when they requested permission to preach in their communities and preside over legal and social disputes.
“We said, ‘we have highly literate marabouts who are already preaching every Friday’,” recalled the teacher who was present at the meeting. “We said, ‘[they] know the Koran better than you’.”
A community adviser from a different part of Douentza told The New Humanitarian that during a recent round of negotiations he had convinced a group of jihadists to stop attending markets carrying arms – a request raised in other dialogues too.
The adviser said jihadists also permitted the community to keep hold of their weapons – so long as they are stored away – and agreed to move their base further into the bush so that future firefights with the army didn’t spill into town.
“When they have confrontations with the army, they run into villages,” the adviser explained. “[With this agreement], we are protected from stray bullets, and from the army coming to us.”
A Malian aid worker, who regularly consults communities involved in talks, told The New Humanitarian that the reason jihadists are willing to negotiate is because they realise that conflicts with communities have little strategic benefit.
“A jihadist leader explained to us that attacking a village of 1,000 to 2,000 people means losing a lot ammunition,” said the aid worker, who is employed by an international NGO and asked not to be named for security reasons. “Attacking army positions gives them money and cars.”
Guindo said jihadists didn’t compromise much at first but eased up in future talks as trust developed. They pledged to stop damaging telecommunication towers during one recent meeting, he said, and to stop laying mines close to villages in another.
An accommodation on schooling was also discussed on one occasion, Guindo added. The jihadists said public schools could be reopened so long as French and Arabic were both taught and space for a madrassa was found.
Aid workers and analysts said the compromises shows that jihadists – though often framed as religious zealots and little else – do have a pragmatic streak. That’s also demonstrated in humanitarian access negotiations militants often hold with international NGOs.
Still, the agreements being struck are brittle. They usually skirt over the root causes of conflict – from state abuse to governance shortfalls – and are contingent on the daily conduct of local communities, jihadists, and unpredictable militias.
“It is very fragile,” said Ongoiba, the local mayor. “The problems could start again.”
Part 2: Enforcing the accords – ‘Women rush to get coverings, youth rush to switch off radios’
Quick read: Enforcement of sharia seems to vary after agreements are struck. Some communities said they have been left alone by jihadists, while others claimed corporal punishment has been used against women.
An ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam is already being implemented in the parts of central Mali where jihadist rule is entrenched. But Guindo said jihadists have shown laxity towards his Koro commune since an agreement was struck.
Though loud drumming and shooting firearms into the air during funeral and wedding ceremonies were ostensibly banned, Guindo said jihadists accept them so long as they are informed in advance and don’t equate the noise with enemy activity.
The jihadists’ lenience means some non-Koranic schools have opened in Guindo’s commune even without a madrassa being set up. Still, it can be hard to find teachers willing to work, because they fear the jihadists might turn up, the farmer said.
Ongoiba, who is from a district next to Guindo’s, said people are “living as they want” in his commune too. However, they have had to accept the presence of jihadists, who cross their area in order to stage attacks on other villages that haven’t struck accords.
Ongoiba narrated a story in which around 100 jihadists on motorbikes turned up in late 2020 at a village in Koro shortly after an agreement was made. They arrived as a Christian wedding was underway.
Attendees expected the worst, but when the jihadists said they just wanted water, local faith in the pact was cemented, said Ongoiba, whose knowledge of the incident was second hand. “People got full trust that their word was true,” he added.
The community adviser from Douentza said strict rules are rarely enforced in his village – where daily affairs are still run by traditional leaders – but they must be followed when travelling around other parts of the commune where jihadists might be patrolling.
The Douentza adviser said his community was already religiously conservative, and that new codes – including restrictions on spendthrift wedding parties – were even welcomed. “People agreed with the rules on weddings, because it was economical,” said the adviser.
The situation in other areas is different, however. The teacher from Mondoro said residents of one village that joined the accord were temporarily placed under a siege by jihadists earlier this year for not respecting certain behavioural codes.
Women who were pounding millets on the outskirts of town without wearing veils were whipped by the jihadists, the teacher said. Internal NGO security reports seen by The New Humanitarian confirmed this incident.
A similar account was shared by a deputy village chief from Koro’s Dinangourou commune. Since striking a pact, “the jihadists regularly came to our village to check people,” the deputy said. “Women rush to get coverings, youth rush to switch off radios.”
An adviser to a village leader in the district of Bankass, which is also next to Koro, said he had not heard of corporal punishment being used in local villages with accords in place, but that people were changing certain behaviours to avoid possible punishment.
“Since the accords, the jihadists have been regulating social affairs like adultery, stealing, and [not paying back] loans,” said the adviser. “People avoid having these problems so they aren’t punished by the jihadists.”
The Dinangorou deputy chief said enforcement of the agreements varies because some jihadist field commanders are stricter than others, even if they are all thought to be part of the same Katiba Macina group.
Guindo said the proximity of villages to jihadist bases also explains the discrepancy. His village is close to a big town where the army is present, whereas the other Koro village is in an isolated area where it is easier for militants to impose themselves.
Strategic thinking may also be guiding the jihadists, Guindo added. “They don’t impose their principles because they want to be on good terms with us,” he said. “Somebody thinking about tomorrow will be softer in order to survive longer.”
Research shows such calculations are normal for Sahelian jihadists. While religiously motivated, they are also political actors who must think carefully about building local support. Brute force is rarely a winning strategy.
Part 3: The risky business of mediation – ‘The army started acting as if we were with the jihadists’
Quick read: Community leaders involved in accords face threats from anti-jihadist militias and are viewed suspiciously by the Malian army. Proper support from the government would help legitimise their work and reduce the risks.
While some anti-jihadist militias have signed fragile pacts with the militants, many see negotiations as a form of submission and a threat to the power they wield over communities.
Dan Na Ambassagou (DNA), a militia that mostly recruits from within the Dogon community, has detained Dogon leaders for engaging in talks with militants in its stronghold in Bandiagara district.
Guindo said a leader of a local mediation association was shot (though it is unclear who by), while another had their business disrupted by DNA fighters who “considered him an ally of the jihadists”. He now sells old car parts in a town hundreds of miles away.
Ongoiba, who is also Dogon, said his life was threatened on social media by militiamen, forcing him to leave his commune in Bandiagara. He said the personal cost was worth it though, given the benefits of the accord to his community.
“Being far from my home doesn’t make me happy,” said the local leader, who is well known throughout Bandiagara. “But I am ready to sacrifice everything for my community.”
Local leaders aren’t only afraid of the militias. The deputy village chief from Dinangourou said soldiers stationed in his area have treated residents with suspicion since they made an accord.
“We are trapped between the army and the jihadists,” the deputy said. “The army started acting as if we were with the jihadists, while we are afraid of the jihadists for the way they enforce rules.”
The deputy and other local leaders formed an association and registered it with authorities in Koro in an attempt to formalise their efforts. They also sought mission orders from government officials before launching subsequent talks.
Yet occasional government approval doesn’t come with any material support, which community leaders said they sorely need. Top of their lists: training in conflict resolution, and much-needed funds for arranging dialogues.
However, providing such things does not appear to be a priority for the junta, which seized power in August 2020. For now, it is sticking with a military-first approach, alongside its new security partner: the Russian mercenary Wagner Group. Operations by the two forces have led to a string of recent atrocities against civilians.
Even when authorities green-light talks, anxiety lingers for mediators. Late last year, for example, the adviser from Bankass was given the go-ahead to speak with jihadists about ending a months-long siege they were imposing on a village in a different district.
The adviser brought together the two parties but was afraid to translate from Fulfulde, the Fulani language used by the jihadists, to Bambara, the language spoken by the village. He worried that if a video of the meeting spread, he would be mistaken for a militant.
The Bankass adviser, who is a shepherd in his daily life, also told villagers attending the meeting not to speak publicly about the terms of the accord – that women should cover themselves and households pay annual zakat or alms to the militants.
“I had an [official] mandate. So, if [media] articles came out about the agreement, it would have seemed that the government was organising sharia for its own population,” the shepherd said.
He added that the government should give more public recognition to mediators, something that is now happening in neighbouring Burkina Faso where similar dialogue processes are occurring.
“We travel around the country trying to bring people together,” said the Bankass adviser. “Even to give us an official card or paper so we are not distrusted at army checkpoints [would help].”
Part 4: A national dialogue – ‘Killing is not the only solution’
Quick read: Community leaders said the government should leverage their contacts and knowledge if it pursues talks. But some worry a national dialogue would give too much power to the jihadists and said the army should keep on fighting.
Moving from community dialogues to national talks wouldn’t be straightforward. The local pacts tend to weaken state authority, while the government would hope to strengthen itself through any national settlement.
It is unclear who would lead national negotiations, which militant groups would participate, and what concessions either side would be willing to make. Even pro-dialogue commentators feel talks would be more likely to fail than succeed.
Still, settlements with jihadists have been reached in neighbouring countries, while surveys conducted in Mali suggest a considerable chunk of the population would support a government initiative.
Efforts have been made in the past. In 2017, religious leaders were tasked by a former prime minister with establishing contact with individuals close to jihadist groups. But that mission did not have the support of the then-president and was brought to a close.
Community leaders who spoke to The New Humanitarian had differing views on the desirability of national talks, with much hinging on their experience of the local negotiations.
A religious leader involved in mediation work in Dinangourou said a national dialogue would be positive, but that military efforts were still necessary to degrade the militants and increase the government’s bargaining power.
A youth leader, who had negotiated with jihadists in Bandiagara district, opposed government talks altogether. He argued that the militants would accept nothing less than the submission of the state, which has a secular constitution.
The leader said that during talks last year his Dogon village had agreed to obey the jihadists’ rules and relinquish ties with militias. A few months later, however, the militants then demanded residents join their ranks. When the community refused, they were expelled en masse.
“If dialogue was a solution, then we would have succeeded,” the youth leader told The New Humanitarian from a displacement camp near Bandiagara town. “We accepted all their conditions. We gave them money, and our crops. But it never solved anything.”
Still, other community leaders thought a national dialogue was the right course of action. And many said the government would have a head start thanks to the contacts and knowledge that they have developed through the local dialogues.
Bringing together local mediators and pooling their ideas would be a good place to start, said the community adviser from Bankass. “If I had to give guidance to the government, it would be that dialogue is better than fighting,” he said.
If asked for advice, the deputy village chief from Dinangourou said he would explain that jihadist foot soldiers often don’t know why they are fighting and could therefore be convinced to drop their weapons.
“Sometimes, you need to help the jihadists understand why what they are doing is not good,” said the community leader. “The best lesson is that killing is not the only solution.”
*All sources in this story are anonymous for security reasons. Pseudonyms are used where interviewees are quoted multiple times. Village and commune names and certain other details are obscured to protect identities.
Illustrations by Dramane Diarra, a Malian artist based in Bamako. The top drawing portrays a dialogue between jihadists and community leaders. The second depicts a typical village in Bandiagara region. The third shows jihadists besieging a village – a common strategy they use against resistant populations. The fourth sketches a patrol by a self-defence militia.