International Crisis Group, 28 May 2019

War between the state and jihadists in central Mali has led to growing intercommunal violence. To spare civilians additional harm, the government should explore the possibility of talks with the insurgents about local ceasefires and humanitarian aid – while remaining open to broader discussions.


What’s new? The war in central Mali has reached an impasse, with the state unable to defeat jihadist insurgents by force. The insurgency and military operations against it have exacerbated intercommunal violence. As a result, some Malians call for negotiations between the government and militant leaders.

Why does it matter? The calls for dialogue, while no longer marginal, are still resisted by the government, its foreign backers and parts of Malian society, who see no room for accommodation with the jihadists. Yet experiences negotiating local compromises and humanitarian access with militants suggest that at least some are pragmatic.

What should be done? The Malian state should mandate religious leaders to test the possibility of talks with militants, potentially aiming first for local ceasefires and other means of mitigating civilian suffering before broadening the scope. It should also sponsor wider dialogue among central Malians, including jihadist sympathisers, about the grievances underpinning the insurgency.

Executive Summary

Military operations aimed at defeating the Katiba Macina jihadist insurgency in central Mali have reached a stalemate, with the conflict fuelling ever deadlier intercommunal violence. In this light, some Malians call on the government to engage the militants in political dialogue. Obstacles to such talks are serious: the Katiba Macina’s demands seem to leave little space for accommodation; it has ties to al-Qaeda-linked militants; and the idea of dialogue generates resistance among many Malians and foreign powers. Nonetheless, central Mali residents, aid groups and religious scholars frequently engage the group to discuss local compromises, humanitarian access and religious doctrine, revealing at least some pragmatism among militants. Given the remote prospects for defeating the Katiba Macina militarily, the Malian authorities should empower religious leaders to explore initial talks with its leaders while seeking a wider dialogue among central Malians, including those sympathetic to the insurgency.

Since 2015, the Katiba Macina has established a strong presence in central Mali, capturing vast rural areas and expelling state officials. By framing longstanding socio-economic and political grievances in religious discourse, the movement’s leader Hamadoun Koufa has won support, in particular – though not exclusively – from Quranic school students and ethnic Peul herders. The group has provided basic justice, security and relief from decades of state predation in areas under its control. Both the Katiba Macina’s violence and military operations against it have widened pre-existing cleavages among ethnic groups, leading self-defence militias to proliferate and intercommunal clashes that now kill more people than fighting between militants and the security forces. Central Mali’s death toll is now the country’s highest, with civilians bearing the brunt. As the war’s costs mount, calls from activists, politicians and religious leaders for dialogue between the government and Katiba Macina leaders are growing louder.

Enormous challenges stand in the way of such dialogue. For now, both Mali’s top officials and jihadist leaders reject it. At first blush, the jihadists’ aspirations – in principle, the overthrow of Mali’s state and democratic institutions, their replacement with a theocratic system inspired by the group’s interpretation of sharia and the severing of relations between Mali and its Western partners – leave little room for conciliation. The Katiba Macina’s links to the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, a jihadist coalition that pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda, likely narrow its leeway to engage officials. Malian secular elites, Sufi Muslim scholars, human rights groups and victims’ associations express disquiet that talks with jihadists could lead to compromises on the role of Islam in public life. Those communities in central Mali that have suffered at its hands would likely resist negotiations. Some Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., expressly oppose the idea. No outside power explicitly backs it.

Despite these challenges, state and non-state actors have regularly engaged the Katiba Macina over the past four years. Malian officials have struck deals over hostage releases. Communal leaders, aid organisations, including Western groups, and religious scholars have discussed with the group its local rule, humanitarian access to areas under its control and the righteousness of its discourse. One initiative that appears to have shown promise involved the Malian government itself mandating religious and traditional leaders to explore what accommodation with jihadists might entail. Such contacts have mostly been local and limited in their objectives; as yet, they have not sought to introduce ceasefires or other means of reducing violence, let alone achieve peace. But they have revealed a degree of pragmatism among Katiba Macina militants, suggesting that even if the odds are stacked against success, dialogue with the group is worth trying.

The Malian government should consider two ways of engaging central Mali’s jihadists and their supporters:

The first would involve empowering Islamic scholars, including three religious figures that Katiba Macina leader Koufa himself has said he would be willing to meet. The scholars could seek to engage Koufa or at least people close to him, initially perhaps to explore ways of reducing civilian harm, such as through local ceasefires. They might also discuss the return of officials, especially those providing services like education and health that residents want, to areas under jihadist control. They might subsequently be able to work on proposals for political and religious reform or open a channel through which officials could talk with militant leaders.

The second would entail a more comprehensive dialogue among central Malians aimed at establishing a shared understanding of the causes of violence and how to address them. This dialogue would not necessarily include jihadists themselves, but it should involve groups that have tended to support them, notably Quranic school students and nomadic Peul. Given the state’s chronic weakness in central Mali, the dialogue should examine what its return to the region would entail, particularly in terms of regulating access to natural resources, restoring local security and justice provision, devolving authority, ensuring political representation, and improving both Francophone and Quranic education. A first step would be for Mali’s president to empower an envoy to explore how such a dialogue might be organised in the wake of state institutions’ collapse in parts of central Mali.
Pursuing these options would not mean an end to military operations. Indeed, dialogue should be part of a comprehensive plan for central Mali involving military pressure, development aid and efforts to disarm self-defence militias and militants alike. But such an approach would entail a shift of tack, with force used alongside efforts to bring Katiba Macina leaders to the table, rather than in the likely futile hope of defeating the movement on the battlefield.

Dakar/Brussels, 28 May 2019

I. Introduction

From 27 March to 3 April 2017, hundreds of delegates from across Mali’s ten regions attended a Conference of National Understanding (Conférence d’Entente Nationale) to promote peace and reconciliation in the war-torn country. In their final report, the delegates urged the Malian government to engage in dialogue with jihadist insurgents, including Iyad ag Ghaly, a Tuareg rebel turned jihadist leader and head of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM), a coalition comprising a number of militant groups formed in 2017, and Hamadoun Koufa, leader of the Katiba Macina, a JNIM member. Among the delegates’ dozens of recommendations, this one stood out. For years, at least officially, the Malian authorities had eschewed such dialogue. The delegates’ recommendation did not change their minds. A few weeks after the conference, officials including President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta reaffirmed their position: “no dialogue with terrorists”.

The Malian government and its foreign partners have long vowed to defeat jihadists, mostly now fighting under the banner of the JNIM or a smaller group calling itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, on the battlefield. For several years, the Malian army has mounted operations with this aim, alongside French troops under the auspices of Operation Barkhane, soldiers of neighbouring states in the G5 Sahel joint mission and forces of the UN’s stabilisation mission (MINUSMA).

Yet for years the jihadist groups not only remained strong but also extended their reach into new territories. That expansion has slowed if not stopped: government forces and jihadists today seem locked in a mutually hurting stalemate, as both sides take heavy casualties while capturing no new ground. Clashes are, however, fuelling even deadlier intercommunal conflict. The 2017 push for dialogue came in reaction not only to the failure of military operations to achieve peace, but also to the broader escalation of violence to which the military operations have greatly contributed.

Malian officials are not alone in resisting dialogue. Their foreign partners, particularly France and the U.S., are not keen either. Indeed, jihadists leaders themselves reject dialogue, at least rhetorically. In August 2017, Hamadoun Koufa rejected a reported invitation to peace talks. In a widely circulated audio recording, he said:

What dialogue? What are we going to bargain about in this dialogue? Is God for bargaining? God cannot be bargained [about]. … Either we prevail and establish the will of God or we perish.

The reluctance all around raises questions as to whether the two sides will ever agree to talk with one another or even what there is to talk about.

This report is part of a series exploring policies aimed at countering the spread of jihadism and curbing levels of violence in the central Sahelian countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Building upon Crisis Group’s recent report on the Mali-Niger border, it focuses on central Mali as an area where a number of actors, ranging from local residents, religious scholars and NGOs to state authorities, continue to gauge the possibility of dialogue. Looking at the demands and organisational structure of the Katiba Macina, the dominant jihadist movement in central Mali, as well as at the constraints faced by the Malian government, it investigates in particular whether various forms of engagement with jihadist groups could help reduce conflict, reinvigorate state authority and bring peace. It offers some ideas on how such dialogue might work, issues that it can address, goals it might achieve and actors who can influence the outcome for the better.

II. The Crisis in Central Mali


Over the last four years, the Katiba Macina has established a strong presence throughout central Mali. Militants have expelled state authorities from a large swath of territory, shut down government schools and attempted, with mixed success, to replace the state in providing basic public goods and services. The government and its foreign partners have stepped up military operations aimed at defeating the group and restoring state authority. Thus far, while the campaign has reinforced the state’s presence in towns and stopped the jihadists’ advance, it has left rural areas under their influence. Both the insurgency and the army’s campaign against it have fuelled intercommunal violence that has claimed many lives.

A. The Katiba Macina: An Ingrained Insurgency

In early 2015, as the Malian government and international backers focused efforts on fighting Islamist insurgents in Mali’s north, militants opened a new front in the central region of Mopti. Hamadoun Koufa, a preacher and companion of Iyad ag Ghaly, called for jihad against the state, launching the movement that came to be known as the Katiba Macina. Within a year, the group had chased the Malian army and state authorities out of many areas in Mopti and established a stronghold in the inner Niger delta, the river’s fluvial wetlands and floodplain. Its influence spread through much of Mopti and parts of the adjacent Segou region.

The Katiba Macina has its origins in Mali’s 2012 crisis. That crisis saw jihadists and Tuareg separatists expel the army from the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, with the jihadists subsequently turning on their erstwhile Tuareg rebel allies and controlling towns in those regions for almost a year. Many people from central Mali – in particular northern areas dominated by ethnic Peul – enlisted in jihadist movements, notably the Movement of Oneness and Jihad, which had its stronghold in Gao, and ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine movement, which occupied Kidal and Timbuktu. Recruits’ motives varied. Some were enticed by the promise of adventure or money. Others joined to obtain weapons and military training they could use to protect their communities amid the general breakdown of law and order. In 2013, after a French-led intervention routed the jihadists from northern towns, many central Malian fighters returned home, only to face harassment from the army. Starting in 2015, they regrouped and launched a new insurgency.

To mobilise support, they tapped deep-seated local grievances and exploited social fractures. The grievances included widespread resentment of state officials’ predation, pastoralists’ feelings of victimisation related to the government’s resource management and the shrinkage of pastoral land due to farmers’ expansion. The social tensions were especially salient among the Peul, notably between sedentary and nomadic sub-groups, and between autochthonous and immigrant Peul over access to pastures.

Important as these socio-political grievances are, it was Hamadoun Koufa’s ability to lend them religious resonance that appears to have given his movement additional purchase in society. Koufa’s use of Islamic discourse recalls the Diina, a 19th-century politico-religious movement led by Sékou Amadou, a Peul cleric whose jihad led to the creation of the Macina state in 1818 – it was dissolved in 1862 – and the consolidation of Peul hegemony in the region. To this day, many Peul in central Mali consider the Diina’s era their golden age. Some of those who support Koufa view his uprising as a way to reinstate it. Koufa’s discourse has also attracted many students from Quranic schools, an important segment of central Malian society that until recently was on the margins of political struggle. The students appear to have found in the insurgency a means of empowerment.

That said, not all Katiba Macina’s members sign up willingly. Jihadist leaders often force families in the inner delta to enrol their children at pain of sanctions. Senior commanders or sympathisers may influence younger relatives to join, which sometimes they do only reluctantly.

Unlike many jihadist movements, the Katiba Macina has no political wing but a single leadership – centred around Koufa – that justifies every action with religious argumentation. Koufa himself wields a great deal of authority. His charisma, degree of Islamic knowledge and connection to ag Ghaly make him the movement’s uncontested leader. A second tier of leaders comprises his original disciples and Islamic scholars who joined him later. An advisory council (majlis as shura) discusses important social and political decisions, including the liberation or execution of hostages and prisoners.

As a fighting force, the Katiba Macina comprises a core group of combatants who have received military training, carry weapons and live in the bush. These yimbe ladde (“bushmen”, in Fulfulde), as locals call them, rely on sympathisers in villages for material and logistical support, as well as intelligence. Some refer to these non-combatants in villages as “dormant cells”. They often serve as intermediaries between the yimbe ladde and others, whether locals or humanitarian NGOs seeking to work in areas under jihadist control. While only men can be yimbe ladde, women play a major role in the dormant cells, helping collect intelligence, facilitate recruitment and deliver supplies to the bush.

The Katiba Macina has a cohesive chain of command but is decentralised. Aside from its core in the inner delta, it comprises many units, each called a markaz (“centre”, in Arabic), scattered across central Mali. Each markaz has a leader, the “amirou markaz”, assisted by a military commander, a shura, or advisory, council and a qadi (“judge”, in Arabic). Every amirou markaz in principle sits on the movement’s main majlis as shura, which is headed by Koufa and includes other Islamic scholars.

Each markaz exercises authority over its own surroundings, often in collaboration with communal leaders, but the Katiba Macina’s leadership does appear to assert its command. Katiba Macina defectors and former hostages testify that each amirou markaz reports decisions taken at the local level to the Katiba’s central command. That said, it is unclear precisely how this works in practice and how much autonomy each markaz enjoys. It seems, for instance, that markazes outside the inner delta enjoy more freedom than others. A number of affiliated groups with varying levels of attachment to the core also operate in the areas surrounding the Delta, notably in the Haire (in the cercle of Douentza), Seno (in the cercle of Koro Bankass and Bandiagara), Kareri, Mema and Farimake.

The Katiba’s strong and ideologically committed leadership presents a challenge to ending the insurgency but potentially an opportunity for those who would broker dialogue. On one hand, peacemaking efforts that exclude Koufa may well prove – and indeed thus far have proven – ineffective. Nor does it appear likely that trying to weaken the movement by prising away mid-level commanders or entire markaz will work. On the other hand, the cohesive leadership means that the state would have a credible, authoritative interlocutor were it able to engage Koufa himself.

B. Intercommunal Violence

The jihadist insurgency in central Mali is fuelling ever deadlier intercommunal violence. This violence originates in the historical mix of competition and collaboration among ethnic groups over access to natural resources. Peul, Bambara, Dogon, Bozo and other groups share the same land and water and pursue vocations – farming, fishing and herding – that can coexist but also come into conflict, for instance when farmers seek to plant land previously used as pasture for livestock. Tensions have sharpened in recent decades as both human and livestock populations have burgeoned while natural resources have dwindled due to environmental change. Bandits increasingly roam the countryside as traditional livelihoods erode. More people in central Mali are learning to live by the gun.

The jihadist insurgency stems from intra-ethnic as well as inter-ethnic rivalries. Communities are themselves divided along lines of social status: noble, common and slave lineage; sedentary and nomadic lifestyle; and autochthonous and settler heritage. These cleavages have also produced tensions over political representation and access to resources, leading intermittently to small-scale intra-communal violence.

If the jihadist insurgency is partly a product of such cleavages, it and the army’s operations against it also deepen them, thus aggravating general insecurity. While the Katiba Macina mainly attacks the military and other state institutions, militants also target civilians whom they accuse of collaboration with security forces. Peul dominance among the jihadists lends an ethnic dimension to the insurgency and has prompted members of other ethnic groups, notably the Bambara and Dogon, to establish self-defence militias called dozo or donso (“hunters”, in Bambara) in the absence of state security forces. Dozos, traditionally armed with hunting rifles, now carry submachine guns. Until recently, direct confrontation between jihadists and dozos was rare; instead, dozos tended to respond to jihadist attacks on villagers with indiscriminate reprisals against Peul civilians. Direct clashes have become more common as violence has escalated and jihadists more openly claim Peul identity. Dozo militias have helped Malian troops with intelligence gathering, though of late their reprisals against other groups have compelled the army to scale back cooperation.

The death toll in Mopti has risen steadily since the insurgency began, with civilians caught in the crossfire. From 2015 to 2018, the number of conflict-related fatalities grew more than tenfold. Over a thousand people have died, hundreds been injured and thousands more displaced. Mopti has become the deadliest region in Mali, accounting for nearly half of the country’s violent deaths.

The Katiba Macina initially distanced itself from identification with any one community but that has changed. In the past, the movement emphasised its multi-ethnic composition and focus on fighting what it called the enemies of sharia. Yet Koufa has recently shifted his discourse to claim Fulani identity and called upon all Peul to join the jihad. He issued this call in response to a debate raging on social media where Peul in Mali as well as in the diaspora were inveighing against the community’s victimisation at the hands of other groups, creating a sense of cross-border Peul solidarity. Koufa seized upon this sentiment not to stir up more ethnic strife but to channel the anger at France, the G5 Sahel forces and the Malian army, which he labelled the Peul’s real foes. But by assuming a more explicit Peul identity, he risks further associating, in the eyes of other communities, all Peul with the Katiba Macina’s violence.

C. The Limits of Counter-terrorism and Development

The Malian government and its foreign partners, including France, have privileged a military response to address the jihadist insurgency in central – as well as northern – Mali, though they admit that stabilising the country requires more than that. As a Malian official puts it, “the government’s logic is simple: terrorism must be combated militarily, but the causes of terrorism must be addressed through good governance and development”. In this vein, the government’s official strategy for central Mali envisages both a military campaign and an injection of development aid. It is incapsulated in the Plan de Sécurisation Intégré des Régions du Centre, which was announced by the government in February 2017 but not officially initiated until a year later. The Plan envisages four steps: retaking territories captured by the Katiba Macina; bringing back state officials; enabling economic development; and, lastly, communication to explain the strategy to people living in areas affected (two additional initiatives, a disarmament program and intercommunal dialogue, were subsequently added and are examined in Section V).

In reality, efforts have focused primarily on the military campaign. Since launching the plan, the government increased significantly its military presence in the centre, setting up over a dozen new posts in major towns and villages (in effect, creating “garrison towns”) in Mopti and Segou. These operations have scored local successes. In some garrison towns, for instance, schools have reopened, the state administration is gradually returning, and economic activities, including those the jihadists banned, have slowly resumed.

In addition to the Malian army’s efforts, the French Operation Barkhane has also made sporadic counter-terrorism raids in Mopti. Barkhane has no official presence in central Mali, as it concentrates resources further north, particularly on the Malian border with Burkina Faso and Niger. Nonetheless, between March 2017 and February 2019, it has conducted at least six operations in Mopti, often combining airstrikes with ground action, sometimes in collaboration with the Malian army. Some of these operations targeted Katiba Macina commanders in an attempt to “cut the head off the snake”. In November 2018, the French mission claimed to have killed Hamadoun Koufa himself in Youwarou cercle. Four months later, however, Koufa appeared in a video, apparently safe and sound.

Other foreign forces also play a role. The G5 Sahel joint force, composed of units from five Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – had its headquarters in Sevaré, Mopti until June 2018. But in that month a jihadist attack destroyed the building, forcing the G5 Sahel command to relocate to Bamako. MINUSMA also has two bases in Mopti, at Sevaré and Douentza. Recently, in reaction to the upsurge in intercommunal violence, UN peacekeepers have stepped up operations, notably in the Koro, Bankass and Bandiagara districts. While the G5 Sahel focuses on counter-terrorism, MINUSMA is primarily concerned with protecting civilians and restoring the state’s presence. Thus far, neither has succeeded in halting violence in central Mali.

While military operations have helped return the state’s authority to garrison towns, they thus appear unlikely to defeat the Katiba Macina. Indeed, insurgents have shown considerable agility in the face of pressure, moving into the bush, where they can better hide out, and adopting guerrilla tactics like ambushes, roadside bombs and landmines. While the Malian army controls towns and their immediate vicinity, the jihadists rule the countryside, erecting checkpoints on rural roads and patrolling rivers. In this manner, they have effectively placed garrison towns under siege. They impose embargoes on villages they accuse of collaborating with security forces, forbidding the movement of people and goods in or out. They have also developed networks that allow them to rule villages without having to maintain a physical presence, limiting their exposure to military crackdowns. They rely on a sophisticated system of intelligence gathering, comprised of sympathisers in the “dormant cells”, to reward villagers who comply with their rules and sanction dissenters.

The development component of the government’s and its international partners’ approach has arguably made even less of a difference than military operations. The Plan de Sécurisation Intégré envisages delivering services as a means to improve communities’ lives, strengthen the state’s legitimacy and thus gradually sap support for the insurgents, as army operations weaken them militarily. In reality, development projects are rare in areas under the Kabita Macina’s control. Militants tend to allow in humanitarian groups but refuse access to development agencies. In the infrequent instances where agencies can deliver services, little suggests that the services boost the Malian state’s legitimacy, even when they benefit the local populations. Overall, prospects appear gloomy for strengthening the weak local governance and the state’s poor relations with society that underpin the insurgency while at the same time mounting military offensives against militants.

D. Breaking the Taboo

As the Katiba Macina’s military defeat has come to appear less likely, the idea of engaging it through dialogue has gained traction. An increasing number of outside experts, including Crisis Group, have recommended at least testing the waters to see whether negotiations might complement military action. In Mali itself, several civil society activists, politicians and Islamic scholars, began already in 2012 calling on the authorities to start a dialogue with the jihadists. The April 2017 report of the Conference of National Understanding echoed these pleas.

At the conference, dialogue advocates gave various reasons for their stance. For some, dialogue was the “pragmatic choice” given that military action had yet to end the insurgency. Others cited it as a means for the government to assert its sovereignty in the face of foreign pressure against such initiatives. Still others promoted dialogue with jihadists as a matter of consistency, since Malian governments have talked with leaders of past rebellions.

Indeed, Bamako has attempted to end successive insurgencies through negotiations. Over the last thirty years, Mali has endured three periods of uprising, in 1990-1996, 2006-2009 and 2012-present, resulting in repeated peace agreements. The last such deal, the 2015 Bamako Agreement, which followed French-led operations that ousted jihadists from northern towns in early 2013, formally excluded ag Ghaly and other jihadist leaders. That said, some of the armed groups that signed the Bamako deal enjoyed close ties to ag Ghaly or other militants; indeed, many fighters formerly with jihadist groups rehatted themselves as members of the signatory armed groups. Those who favour dialogue with jihadists argue that if the government is willing to talk to separatists – particularly separatists who themselves have close links to jihadists – why not talk to jihadists themselves?

Yet both the Malian authorities and jihadist leaders themselves have resisted talking. Many Malian officials view jihadists as nothing but “nihilistic” criminals without an identifiable political agenda. Some insist on “no negotiation with terrorists” as a principle. On the other side, the hardest-line among the jihadists view the Malian government as not only illegitimate but infidel. Many militants, in principle including Hamadoun Koufa himself, demand nothing less than its overthrow and replacement with an “Islamic state”. Between these two extremes lies a spectrum of officials and insurgents who, to one degree or another, are more amenable to dialogue. But thus far the less compromising attitudes have prevailed.

III. Obstacles to Dialogue

Three factors complicate prospects for dialogue with the Katiba Macina: its ideological program and the ambiguous support it enjoys locally; its transnational ties; and strong domestic and foreign opposition to such talks.

A. Are Jihadist Demands “Exceptional”?

Unlike Mali’s northern separatist movements, the Katiba Macina has no list of political demands. Yet its discourse, disseminated via audio and video recordings, as well as its governance practices in areas it has conquered, reveal that it does want something: namely profound change in Mali’s state institutions and foreign relations.

The movement’s rhetoric revolves around three ideas, akin to those propagated by jihadists elsewhere. The first is that Malian state institutions and the whole democratic system of government are un-Islamic and illegitimate. It is incumbent upon all Muslims to overthrow the system by force and replace it with theocratic governance based on sharia – as the Katiba Macina interprets it. Secondly, the West and “Westernised” Malian elites, particularly France and Francophone state officials, are enemies of Islam. They are thus legitimate targets, though state officials can spare themselves if they break ties with their Western allies. Thirdly, militants believe that they represent the purest form of Islam and that they must teach local Muslims to adopt their stricter approach. They consider Muslims who collaborate with the Malian government to be apostates (murtaddin), and they apply the same label to some of their local theological rivals and critics.

At first glance, this discourse appears to set aspirations well outside the realm of what the Malian state can offer. The Malian state is ostensibly committed to secularism (understood as the separation of religion and politics), representative democracy based on elections and strong relations with Western countries, particularly France. The gap between the Katiba Macina’s and the state’s respective positions is so wide that many on both sides see little point in talking. True, the movement has shown pragmatism. Its discourse and practices have evolved over time as local conditions have changed. As discussed in Section IV, the jihadists often have to juggle both being true to their ideology and making compromises in order to avoid alienating those whom they seek to rule. Yet if the grievances that motivate many to join Katiba Macina – shrinking pastoral land, abusive government officials and socio-economic neglect – are not religious, Koufa frames them within a religious discourse that would make reaching a negotiated settlement more difficult.

While Koufa himself self-identifies as jihadist and claims to be fighting for the establishment of sharia in Mali, his success in mobilising local support owes more to his ability to exploit ingrained socio-economic and political discontent in central Mali and fill the gap left by a largely absent state. During its early years, 2015 and 2016, the Katiba Macina focused on delivering public goods and services where it held sway. In reality, it struggled to provide much more than rough dispute resolution, attempts at regulating access to land, water and pasture, and a reduction in cattle theft. But given decades of government mismanagement and abuse, and the corruption and inaccessibility of the Malian court system for people in rural areas, even that won the jihadists some local support.

Over the course of 2017, as the movement consolidated control over larger areas, militants began to collect zakat, the alms regarded by Muslims as a religious obligation, and impose a draconian moral code that banned several local customs and severely restricted freedoms, in particular for women and youth. They outlawed playing music or football, consuming alcohol and social mixing between the sexes. They imposed a dress code requiring women to cover their bodies head to toe; though most women in central Mali have traditionally worn headscarves, covering the full body was uncommon. Not all women reject such a code; indeed, some approve of it. But many others chafe at a requirement that complicates daily practices like washing clothes in the river and farming. Jihadists also stopped women from travelling unless accompanied by their husband or a male relative, constraining women traders’ circulation around rural markets. They often enforced this code violently, including by whipping, abduction and even killing offenders.

The brutal enforcement of ultra-conservative mores has meant that some of – though by no means all – the sympathy the jihadists initially won has dissipated. Some locals approve of strict Islamic law as a concept. Many still appreciate the reasonably predictable dispute resolution, the degree of security (especially the tough measures against cattle theft), and the absence of corrupt and predatory state officials. Moreover, since 2018, when Malian army operations started reversing some of the jihadists’ gains, local Katiba Macina leaders appear to have been readier to enter deals with villagers that see them temper enforcement of some rules. Still, many central Malians consider the Katiba Macina’s rule as too extreme and out of tune with customs that are also widely accepted locally as Islamic. The jihadists’ use of violence is a particular source of anger.

The Katiba Macina’s aspirations and the questionable level of support its rule enjoys among many central Malians pose a challenge for dialogue. Many people in central Mali would likely oppose any notion that jihadists speak in their name. While many peace talks involve compromise with unpopular and violent groups, the Katiba’s recent experiences show that at least some of the social mores it might hope to negotiate in talks enjoy at best limited local support. Even were the state inclined to make such concessions – and nothing suggests that it is – it would risk running up against local resistance.

B. The Katiba Macina’s Outside Connections

The Katiba Macina’s transnational ties pose another challenge. Contrary to other jihadist movements in Mali such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara – respectively led by Algerians and Sahrawis – the Katiba Macina is primarily indigenous. All the movement’s key figures are from central Mali, and they exploit local grievances to recruit. Yet Hamadoun Koufa answers formally to Iyad ag Ghaly, who has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

In March 2017, Koufa appeared in a video alongside ag Ghaly and three other jihadist leaders to announce the merger of their movements, including ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine (of which Katiba Macina is considered part), AQIM’s Sahelian branch and the Katiba al-Murabitun, into the JNIM coalition. In the video, ag Ghaly, who assumed the coalition’s leadership, announced his allegiance to the Algerian Abdelmalik Droukdel, head of AQIM, as well as to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and by extension Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada (Zawahiri himself has pledged allegiance to successive Taliban leaders). The transnational connection poses problems. For some Malian officials, political talks with members of a movement, al-Qaeda, that at least rhetorically recognises no borders and claims to be fighting for establishment of a global caliphate make little sense.

The tone of the Katiba Macina’s discourse shifted around the time of its affiliation with JNIM and al-Qaeda. In 2015, when Koufa listed the Katiba Macina’s enemies, he pointed to oppressive Malian state officials, whether military or civilian, and those who collaborate with them. But starting in 2017, anti-French rhetoric and references to Crusaders started to predominate. The shift appears to partly reflect the Katiba Macina’s ties to JNIM, several of whose components are fighting French Barkhane forces. It has created concerns that Koufa may now be less interested in negotiating over local grievances and that, in any case, he could not enter dialogue unless authorised by more transnationally motivated jihadist leaders. Indeed, Koufa has rejected offers to engage in talks with Peul Francophone elites, arguing that they were part of a French conspiracy to pinpoint the jihadists’ bases and gauge firepower and manpower, and he has declared that all peace talks must go through ag Ghaly.

That said, the extent of ag Ghaly’s authority over Koufa and the latter’s commitment to transnational goals are hard to evaluate. Since 2017, Koufa has appeared twice beside ag Ghaly and Yahya Abul Hammam, the former top al-Qaeda commander in Mali. The quality of the Katiba Macina’s recent video footage and its attacks’ complexity, including the use of roadside bombs, suggests the transfer of expertise from JNIM. Yet, even if important, ag Ghaly’s authority appears loose. The JNIM itself espouses transnational goals, including establishing a caliphate, and the Katiba Macina’s membership in that coalition does appear to be slowly moving it away from its solely local roots. That said, the fervour of Koufa’s rhetoric against France may also stem from the Katiba Macina’s own battles with French troops. Most of his discourse remains locally focused, despite the al-Qaeda ties he nominally enjoys via ag Ghaly. His participation in the JNIM may well have been motivated by his long association with ag Ghaly and the desire to garner training, funds and expertise, rather than a commitment to its transnational aspirations.

The Katiba Macina has shown some flexibility toward dialogue. In August 2017 Koufa mentioned that he would be ready to speak with religious leaders, in particular three well-known Salafi scholars, including Mahmoud Dicko. He said:

Our wish is that you send us the scholars, they are more able to understand what we are looking for. If you send us the ulama [a body of Muslim scholars], they are welcome to come discuss with us. These are Mahmoud Dicko, Mahi Banikane, Cheick Oumar Dia and others so that they can see how we live here, and we will appreciate it together.

In addition, as recently as early 2019, the Katiba Macina has shown willingness to engage in transactional negotiations with the government, such as to exchange hostages for militants held prisoner. That the militants whom the Katiba Macina wanted released included men from outside central Mali, notably a high-profile fighter and former jihadist police chief from Gao, suggests that the JNIM may have condoned the transactional negotiations.

C. Domestic and Foreign Pressures

Pressure from both domestic and foreign actors who oppose the idea of dialogue or fear its possible outcomes also militates against talks.

Malian actors including secular elites, Sufi scholars, human rights organisations and victims’ associations voice concerns about dialogue. Secular elites view it as part of a larger threat to the separation of religion and politics in Mali. They point to increasingly assertive attempts by Islamist activists to carve out a place for themselves in the political arena. This concern is all the more resonant given that Mahmoud Dicko, whom many secular leaders regard with suspicion, is a key figure both in promoting the role of Islam in politics and in pushing for dialogue with jihadists.

Many clerics also reject the Katiba Macina and its intolerant tenets – perhaps not surprisingly given that the insurgents oppose the Islamic establishment as much as the state. Sufis from Mopti are particularly hostile to dialogue with jihadists, believing that any compromise struck with them would likely privilege Salafi strands of Islam to the detriment of others. In 2012, when the jihadists conquered northern Mali, the Malian Association for Unity and Progress of Islam in Mopti considered sending a delegation to debate the jihadists on religious matters. But most association members rejected the idea. Even today, several members of such associations continue to oppose the idea of dialogue.

Among central Malians, views toward dialogue are mixed, though predicting how they would respond to talks is hard. Thus far, debate about dialogue with jihadists occurs mostly among Bamako elites. In central Mali, such notions remain quite marginal. Given the deteriorating security context and the fear that violence could escalate further, some in the inner delta, including within communities that have borne the brunt of jihadist violence, admit that they would welcome dialogue that reduced levels of bloodshed even if it entailed concessions to jihadists. Outside the delta, the idea of dialogue with the Katiba Macina is likely to provoke anger, in particular among the Dogon and Bambara.

Opposition is not only domestic. Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., clearly reject dialogue, citing several reasons. Militant groups with which Koufa has ties are designated by the UN and others as terrorists. This classification does not prohibit talking to them but it can complicate doing so. It is difficult for French politicians to support dialogue with groups that have killed French soldiers. Relatedly, some countries view the jihadist insurgency in Mali as an extension of their own struggle with jihadists around the world. Many Western policymakers worry that engaging in dialogue with jihadists would bestow legitimacy upon these groups and their ideas. True, the U.S. has over the past year renewed efforts to reach a settlement with the Islamist Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, with senior U.S. officials holding repeated meetings with Taliban leaders. But whether those talks will create a precedent, making talking to militants in Africa or elsewhere easier to accept, as of yet is unclear.

IV. Engagement with Jihadists in Central Mali

The prevailing view of jihadists as beyond the pale has not prevented local leaders, humanitarian organisations and Islamic scholars from engaging them. These contacts have allowed jihadists and their interlocutors to address issues such as the management of daily affairs in places under jihadist control, humanitarian access to vulnerable populations and even jihadists’ practice of Islam.

A. Local Bargains

The jihadists have chased state authorities out of many rural villages, but they have not exactly taken their place. Rather, they reside in the bush and visit villages only periodically, often in small groups, to preach, settle disputes and police moral conduct. This shadow governance leaves local leaders in charge of managing local affairs, albeit under the Katiba Macina’s watch and according to its rules.

The collaboration is not always smooth. The Katiba Macina’s rule can impose a heavy burden. For instance, the jihadists frequently abduct those they accuse of disobedience and seize the herds and other property of suspected government informants. They have resorted to collective punishment to enforce rules, for example shutting down weekly rural markets because women have failed to respect their dress code or because people have smoked cigarettes. They have imposed blockades on several villages that they accuse of working with the military.

In some instances, village notables have won concessions from militants. For example, in Tenenkou cercle, as elsewhere, the ban on women travelling without a male relative has restricted women’s mobility, in particular that of women traders accustomed to shuttling between weekly rural markets to buy and sell goods. After discussions between notables and local Katiba Macina leaders, the jihadists allowed women to travel as long as the mode of transport, whether donkey cart, boat or car, was segregated by gender. In some areas, villagers have negotiated the reopening of schools, notwithstanding jihadists’ opposition to what they portray as the Western-influenced Malian curriculum. In others, villagers have voted in elections, despite militants’ antipathy to representative democracy. The implicit bargain is that those elected exercise their authority without challenging that of the Katiba Macina. Since 2018, as the Malian army stepped up operations and increased pressure on the group, such local accommodation appears to have become more common.

Local negotiations still often fail. In Toguéré Coumbé, a village in Tenenkou cercle under blockade since March 2018, the residents have appealed several times for the Katiba Macina to lift the blockade – to no avail.

Local negotiations take various forms. In most cases, village notables send emissaries to petition the jihadists, usually in forums where delegates from different villages gather. Villages also organise assemblies, knowing that “dormant cell” members are present and will convey discussions to militant leaders. On the jihadists’ side, the amirou markaz usually take charge and report the outcome to the Katiba Macina’s top leadership. The amirou markaz’s personality plays a significant role in determining how much militants compromise. Overall, the movement’s relationships with influential families in areas where it operates are complicated: at first, it often undercut those families’ authority but more recently it appears to have been more willing to compromise with them than with others.

B. Humanitarian Access

Though the Katiba Macina speaks in strident anti-Western terms, it has nonetheless allowed humanitarian organisations, including predominantly Western NGOs, to operate in areas it controls. This stance is in keeping with a fatwa (legal ruling) issued in 2018 by a jihadist judicial committee in Timbuktu urging member groups not to attack but rather to facilitate access for humanitarians. Koufa himself has mentioned that his group is not opposed to humanitarian aid, provided that agencies respect certain conditions, among which he cited a prohibition on foreign staff. While not all NGOs that operate in jihadist areas are aware of this announcement, it appears to have made negotiating humanitarian access easier on the ground.

Humanitarian organisations use varying tactics to negotiate. Some rely on local beneficiaries while others hire intermediaries. Some health care agencies started sending doctors to local clinics without obtaining the jihadists’ permission; they then sought approval only after the medics had established a good reputation. In general, negotiating access appears to be easier for health care providers than for agencies working in sectors like education or development.

Three factors in particular explain why such negotiations are possible. First, humanitarian organisations offer services that locals badly need. In jihadist-occupied zones, welfare services have been lacking for years, in many cases at least since 2015, when the state administration deserted these areas. Secondly, the Katiba Macina benefits from granting access. The movement can show residents that it cares about their well-being and foster an image as a service provider, all the more important given its struggles to offer those services itself. Humanitarian organisations also boost the jihadists’ claim to legitimacy by implicitly recognising them as de facto authorities. Thirdly, the agencies stress their respect for humanitarian principles: their neutrality in the conflict, their independence of foreign influence and their impartiality in treating the conflict’s victims, whether or not they are combatants.

Jihadists impose conditions on humanitarian agencies but also make compromises. They require organisations to forbid aid workers from listening to music, consuming alcohol and smoking, and to instruct female staff members to cover their heads. Particularly contentious is their attempt to force NGOs to use separate vehicles for transporting female and male workers. But while humanitarian organisations abide by some conditions, they often resist others. An international NGO that operates in Tenenkou has refused to segregate female and male staffers in vehicles and employs foreign Christians. Yet it is still able to operate in jihadist-held areas. Aid organisations can flex their own muscles, using services they provide and local support they enjoy as leverage.

Still, such negotiations are not without problems. The jihadists have refused humanitarian access to many organisations. Even aid agencies that have secured access can face harassment at checkpoints. The Katiba Macina has held NGO workers as hostages for weeks. In 2018, militants abducted two NGO workers in the cercle of Douentza and held them hostage for several days. They have repeatedly confiscated cell phones and other equipment. The militants often cite suspicions that humanitarian organisations conduct espionage on behalf of Western countries or collaborate with security forces to justify this harassment.

C. Religious Debate

Over the last three years Katiba Macina ideologues and Islamic scholars have engaged in debates over the righteousness of jihadist discourse. The Katiba Macina emerged in Mopti, a historical centre of Islamic learning, where numerous Quranic schools host students from all over the Sahel. Sufi orders, in particular the Qadriyya (also called Malikiyya) have dominated the area, though recently Salafism and the Da’awa movement (the local branch of the Tabligh Jama’at) have made inroads. Sufi as well as Salafi scholars have spoken out to discredit the religious foundations of jihadist tenets in several venues, including mosques, radio and television broadcasts, and social media, particularly WhatsApp.

In their argumentation, these scholars emphasise that jihadist violence is unjustified in an almost entirely Muslim society, and that it is suicidal – and therefore un-Islamic – for Muslims to declare jihad against the Malian government and powerful Western countries. They argue that jihad today should be a peaceful struggle preaching piety and intercommunal harmony. Islamic scholars also criticise the Katiba Macina’s forcible imposition of sharia and argue against specific fatwas the jihadists have issued.

Though they draw little attention, these challenges to jihadist discourse resonate. Katiba Macina leaders take them seriously, particularly as Koufa rationalises the movement’s every action with religious argumentation. His persona as a religious leader has made enforcement of sharia the uprising’s core element.

At the beginning, the exchange took a harsh, accusatory tone. Several establishment Islamic scholars cast the yimbe ladde as khawarij – a derogatory term referring to a nihilistic and violent movement that appeared in the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th century. For their part, jihadist ideologues denigrated the religious scholars as French allies and sellouts to the government. They even declared some critics to be unbelievers and threatened to kill them.

Starting in 2018, a more reasoned debate took shape between a handful of Peul Islamic scholars and Katiba Macina ideologues, though it did not last long. Citing Quranic verses that enjoin Muslim combatants to choose sulh (reconciliation) over war, the Peul scholars invited the jihadists to an open discussion. At first, the Katiba Macina accepted, mandating Imrana Cissé, one of their ideologues, to conduct the discussion, which took place via WhatsApp, on their behalf. As the debate gained momentum, many saw it as a sign that jihadists might be willing to engage in other forms of dialogue. Some weeks later, however, Koufa put an end to it, citing security concerns.

Though the debate ended prematurely, scholars who participated stressed the exchange was valuable. First, their interactions with Imrana Cissé allowed them to make public the inconsistencies in jihadist arguments. One scholar insisted that the debates had a positive impact on youth at risk of being seduced by jihadist discourse. He said the debates made them aware of the discourse’s fallacies and persuaded them not to join the jihad. But the scholars also recommended that the government take measures to meet some of the insurgents’ demands, particularly as they relate to the role of Islam in public life. They and others who followed the debate on WhatsApp viewed this attempt at religious dialogue as a window of opportunity for more ambitious initiatives.

The various engagements between the Katiba Macina and non-state actors from civil leaders to humanitarians and religious scholars have been narrow in scope but have shown promise. They have aimed to solve specific problems, such as easing jihadist sanctions or allowing humanitarian access, or at settling arguments over religious interpretation, rather than serving the broader goal of peacemaking. Nor have they challenged the jihadists’ authority, though those mediating have been far from obsequious. The engagements suggest that within the Katiba Macina there are pragmatic negotiators. True, Koufa curtailed the discussion between Imrana Cissé and religious scholars, but his ideological commitment has not stopped dialogue altogether, including with self-identified critics and foreign organisations staffed and funded by those the jihadists consider infidels.

V. Two Governments’ Different Approaches

Over the last two years, the government has taken two markedly different approaches to central Mali’s crisis. Between March and mid-December 2017, then Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maïga rolled out his signature program, the missions de bons offices, aimed at advancing peace through dialogue, including with figures close to the Katiba Macina. In December 2017, however, a new prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, came in with an approach relying first and foremost on military action, envisaged intercommunal dialogue in a supplemental role and explicitly excluded jihadists.

A. Political and Intercommunal Dialogue

The Malian authorities have been more willing to engage Katiba Macina than official rhetoric suggests. In the past, they have opened channels of communication with the jihadists with an eye to initiating peace talks. But these measures have been both ad hoc and inconsistent.

In March 2017, a community-based organisation called Amicale Jawambe du Mali claimed that high-level Malian officials, including the defence minister and the governor of Mopti had instructed it to mediate between the government and the “dormant cells” – people in villages with close ties to the Katiba Macina. The Amicale Jawambe created a commission called Jam e-Dina, composed of ten members, including traditional chiefs, religious leaders and other local notables. This commission claims to have engaged jihadist sympathisers and supporters in villages regularly. It even reportedly set up a meeting between Mahmoud Dicko, former head of the High Islamic Council of Mali, and the Katiba Macina’s emissaries, though the meeting did not come off, apparently for logistical reasons. Though unsuccessful, the Jam e-Dina’s outreach may have helped lay the groundwork for larger-scale initiative.

This initiative, the missions de bons offices, was the most ambitious the government has launched since the crisis in central Mali began. It aimed to advance peace through dialogue between a team of religious leaders and traditional notables, on one side, and armed groups in the north and centre, including the Katiba Macina, on the other. The government appointed Mahmoud Dicko to lead the team, which also comprised traditional chiefs from Kayes, Sikasso, Koulikoro and Ségou, as well as representatives from other associations. Through the missions de bons offices, Dicko and his team attempted to establish contact via intermediaries with both Iyad ag Ghaly and Hamadoun Koufa. Their goal was to identify influential families and Quranic school teachers who educated many of the jihadists and who together could convince the jihadists to enter peace talks.

As regards the Katiba Macina, Dicko attempted to make contact with Koufa’s inner circle by organising large meetings in Bamako, Segou and Mopti where he convened religious leaders, in particular teachers at Quranic schools, to discuss how to bring about peace. At these meetings, he called upon religious scholars to convince the jihadists to lay down their weapons and come to the negotiating table. He suggested various ways in which the jihadists and the government could compromise, including the appointment of a qadi by local district authorities, reform of Quranic schools, and bans on bars, brothels and gambling where necessary.

Despite showing some initial promise, the missions de bons offices were short-lived. The efforts mobilised many people and revealed some support, in particular but not only among Quranic school teachers, for such dialogue. It made clear who was responsible, in this case Mahmoud Dicko, for establishing contacts – important in an environment where potential mediators between the state and militants often compete for opportunities that can entail access to resources. More broadly, the mission illustrated that the Malian authorities can at least envisage an approach to tackling the jihadist insurgency that involves dialogue. In December 2017, however, Prime Minister Maiga resigned, effectively ending the program. The choice of Dicko, a religious personage many Malians view as controversial, appears also to have generated opposition from Western countries. That Dicko’s relations with President Keïta had also become increasingly strained also likely contributed to bringing the mission to an end.

B. Disarmament and Intercommunal Dialogue

Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga’s government adopted an approach to the conflict that centred more on military operations aimed at opening space for the state apparatus to return to central Mali than on efforts to negotiate a settlement. As described in Section II, this approach primarily entails the redeployment of security forces, state officials and development projects, outlined in the February 2017 Plan de Sécurisation Intégré des Régions du Centre du Mali, backed up by aggressive military operations. But after publishing the plan, Maïga’s government complemented it with two further other elements: first, a DDR program for combatants – including jihadists – who surrender weapons; and secondly, intercommunal dialogue sponsored by NGOs that aims to promote national cohesion but explicitly excludes the Katiba Macina. Officials presented these efforts as an integrated strategy. In reality, however, the DDR and dialogue initiatives are largely disconnected from the military campaign, limiting the effectiveness of the whole approach.

On 24 December 2018, Prime Minister Maïga launched a new DDR process in Mopti. It came as foreign countries stepped up pressure on Malian authorities to take steps to calm escalating intercommunal violence. The government fixed a deadline of one month for all armed groups and individuals to enrol. The program aims to disarm non-jihadist self-defence militias, many of whom were involved in intercommunal violence, but also jihadists. It thus appears to attempt to pull the rug out from under jihadist leaders and ideologues by peeling off less committed members and isolating those more militant.

The success of the disarmament program thus far is hard to evaluate. In February 2019, the government announced that an impressive number – over 5,000 – combatants had signed up. A few jihadist fighters may also have joined. Yet without a blessing from their leaders and suspecting that the government would use the program to arrest them, the vast majority of Katiba Macina militants have thus far boycotted. As militants refused to disarm, it has become harder to persuade the communal militias often involved in fighting the jihadists to do so. Continuing intercommunal violence also acts as a strong disincentive. Of the 5,000 combatants that the authorities cite as having joined the program, it is unclear how many have actually disarmed.

Meanwhile, the government has tasked NGOs with mediating intercommunal dialogue in central Mali, though explicitly excluding the jihadists from their mandate. On 28 August 2018, following a Center for Humanitarian Dialogue mediation, 34 village chiefs from Mopti met in Sevaré to sign an agreement that aimed to end intercommunal violence. Some militias initially laid down their weapons as a result. But as jihadists attacks continued, the truce fell apart. In some areas, the incidence of assassinations, raids and livestock thefts in the area has since risen. Much as with the disarmament program, such ceasefires appear unlikely to hold if they do not include all those fighting on the ground, including jihadists.

VI. Dialogue Options for Ending the Stalemate

Given the limits of the Malian government and its Western partners’ current approach, it could add to the mix dialogue involving – though not limited to – Katiba Macina militants. The government could pursue two channels for such engagement. The first would involve seeking to reinitiate talks with Katiba Macina leaders, by reviving the idea of debate between religious scholars and Hamadoun Koufa, though taking steps to minimise backlash. The second would aim to foster a more inclusive political dialogue involving all central Malian communities, including those who support and sympathise with the jihadists, that aims to reach at a shared understanding of the conflict’s causes, how to tackle them and the state’s role in doing so.

Pursuing these options would entail not an end to military operations, development work and DDR but a shift in tack. If thus far the goal has been to exhaust jihadists to the point where they have no option but to surrender or leave the region, the military instead could maintain a level of pressure but accept temporary and local ceasefires when those leading mediation efforts believe it is time to give more space to dialogue. Meanwhile, the government’s DDR program should at a minimum continue to leave the door open for jihadists who either joined the insurgency unwillingly or joined by choice but now regret doing so and wish to lay down their guns. Bamako should, however, recognise that few are likely to do so while their leaders are sworn to continue fighting. It should avoid aggressive efforts to prise away militants that are unlikely to work and could undercut efforts to open lines of communication to their leaders.

A. Renewed Efforts to Engage Katiba Macina

The Malian government should also consider renewing its efforts to engage people close to the Katiba Macina, with an eye to communicating with the movement’s leaders. Such efforts would be both controversial and challenging, with success far from guaranteed. But given the paucity of good options, they are worth pursuing.

The Malian government could seek to initiate local dialogue with confidents of Katiba Macina leader Hamadoun Koufa. Koufa rejected in August 2017 the invitation for talks from Peul elites, saying that any such talks should take place with Iyad ag Ghaly as his leader. Whether he would be prepared to engage now without a green light from ag Ghaly and, indeed, whether dialogue with ag Ghaly himself might be an option are unclear (a forthcoming Crisis Group briefing will explore prospects for the latter). But Koufa’s past expression of willingness to at least enter into religious dialogue with three Islamic scholars, one of whom was Mahmoud Dicko, might offer an entry point. The government could encourage such a dialogue, by explicitly mandating and empowering religious leaders, including the three scholars, to engage in discussions with Koufa or his representatives.

Such talks could probably initially yield at most small dividends, but could build in ambition over time. The Islamic scholars might, for example, start by seeking to simply establish contacts and explore options for steps that might reduce violence, such as local ceasefires and the negotiated return of some officials, potentially those providing services that communities want, notably veterinary and health services, to areas under jihadist control. They might eventually be able to explore with Katiba Macina representatives areas of potential compromise and produce concrete proposals for political and religious reforms. These might involve, for example, the creation of an official position of qadi appointed by local authorities in certain central Malian districts – as is the case in Mauritania and Nigeria – or the integration of Quranic schools in the national education system to improve their graduates’ job prospects. The initial dialogue might also open a channel through which officials could discuss transactional deals, like ceasefires or aid access, or political steps or even hold direct talks with Koufa over such issues.

The government would have to take steps to defuse the resistance such efforts are likely to generate. As described, some Bamako elites and many central Malians would likely view engagement as a step toward a deal with jihadists and sharia rule, while foreign powers might see it as legitimising a terrorist outfit with blood on its hands. Officials could make clear that those talks do not signal acceptance of the jihadists’ vision for the country as legitimate. To counter potential resistance from Western governments, they could guarantee that militants pledging to renounce transnational connections would be a requirement for any agreement. Malian leaders could also signal to Western counterparts that they share a heavy financial and military burden for a war that appears to be dragging on with no foreseeable end and have an interest in at least permitting the Malian government to explore all options for resolving it.

Challenges notwithstanding, there may be some scope for accommodation. In reality, Islam already regulates much of life in rural Mali, particularly in matters of family, marriage, inheritance and divorce. Most Malians, particularly in rural areas, look first to traditional or religious authorities to settle family and land disputes, for example, and only after exhausting these traditional avenues they resort to the state’s inefficient courts. Were, for example, the government to formalise sharia courts, the impact on people’s behaviour or the state’s authority is unlikely to be dramatic. Indeed, doing so might shore up the state’s legitimacy if people in areas affected see the step as part of a reduction in violence and responding to local needs.

B. A More Inclusive Dialogue for Central Mali

Given that jihadism is but one dimension of central Mali’s crisis, the Malian government should also pursue a wider dialogue with the region’s many constituencies, including those based on ethnicity. This would aim to arrive at a shared understanding of the grievances and cleavages underpinning violence, how to address them and, given the state’s chronic weakness in central Mali, what its return to the region would entail. Issues on the table could include, for example, how to regulate access to natural resources and restore forms of local security and justice provision, what forms of decentralised authority and political representation make sense and the nature of education, both Francophone and Quranic, in the region. Such a dialogue could help assuage fears of those constituencies worried about engagement with militants that their voices will count for less. It would not necessarily have to include the yimbe ladde directly; indeed, doing so would likely be impossible unless efforts to engage Hamadoun Koufa bear fruit. But it should include parts of society most sympathetic to them, including Peul nomads and Quranic school students.

The missions de bons offices offer lessons as to how such a dialogue might be framed and conducted. It should go beyond the periodic forums the government has tended to organise in the past. It should be as inclusive as possible and led by a range of people, including state officials, traditional authorities and religious and civic leaders. It should aim to generate grassroots mobilisation, nurturing or empowering strong leadership within communities. Contrary to the mission de bons offices, which ended prematurely due to the change of government, it should be catalysed and then publicly and consistently supported by the Malian presidency.

Obstacles to such a dialogue are serious. The three years of negotiations in Algiers that resulted in the 2015 Bamako accord, which aimed to give different constituencies from Mali’s north a say, and subsequent struggles to implement that deal, show how hard it is to hold inclusive talks, reach agreement and follow through. Much as in the north, the challenge is all the graver given the collapse of central Mali’s political system after years of insurgency. Most elected officials have fled their constituencies and retain little influence. The legitimacy of traditional authorities who remain is often contested. Nor is it clear that jihadists who control rural areas would allow people to participate, though this might potentially be an area on which the religious scholars seeking to engage Katiba Macina leaders could seek compromise.

One first step the government could take would be to appoint a presidential envoy with a full mandate to explore how such a dialogue might work and then lead it. The envoy should work with local elites and influential figures, such as Quranic school teachers and traditional notables, to reduce the chances that jihadists will stop the process even if they oppose it.

VII. Conclusion

Central Mali now suffers worse violence than anywhere else in the country, with thousands killed over the past four years. The state’s response, involving mostly military force complemented with some development aid, has thus far done little to reduce levels of bloodshed. If military operations have enhanced the state’s presence in towns, Katiba Macina insurgents control much of the countryside and continue to recruit by tapping deep-rooted local grievances. Little suggests the movement will be defeated any time soon. Meanwhile, both jihadist attacks and the counter-insurgency campaign have fuelled intercommunal bloodshed, which now exacts a higher toll than fighting between the security forces and militants. While development aid is critical for central Mali, the track record there and elsewhere in the Sahel suggests that it is an ineffective counter-insurgency tool, unable to sap popular support for militants and unlikely to much improve people’s lives absent at least a modicum of security.

As existing policies flounder and few good options remain, the Malian government should consider options for engaging militants and their supporters, whether by establishing lines of communication to Katiba Macina leaders or engaging in a wide dialogue including the social strata most sympathetic to them. Such efforts are fraught with difficulties: notably the resistance they would likely generate among communities that have borne the brunt of jihadist violence in Bamako and in foreign capitals; and the fact that Hamadou Koufa himself so far has rejected dialogue. They will almost certainly not lead to an immediate cessation of hostilities and may not even over time yield major dividends. Nor are they an alternative to force: the Malian government and its international partners should maintain military operations that since early 2018 have at least checked the militants’ advance. But an approach that pairs those operations with efforts to engage in dialogue might help bypass the current gridlock and open new opportunities for reducing violence and advancing peace.

International Crisis Group, Dakar/Brussels, 28 May 2019