Mali: Time to Talk to the Jihadists

Li 2020 Mali ENG

Source: Bundeswehr /​Flickr

Should German soldiers fight terrorists in Mali? This question will continue to crop up in Berlin’s political circles ahead of May’s Bundestag discussions on whether or not the Bundeswehr’s mandates for participating in the UN and EU missions in Mali should be extended. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has already called for a more robust mandate, while France is planning a new special anti-terrorism unit in Mali called Takuba and sending 220 additional soldiers to reinforce its ongoing mission Barkhane. However, an increase in military force will only worsen the crisis if international actors fail to find political solutions that include all Malian actors. It’s time for the German government to call for a change in strategy: together with the Malian government, France and Germany should back local dialogue efforts and discuss further options for talking to jihadist groups. 

The Situation in Mali is Deteriorating 

The current strategy will not bring stability to the Sahel. For several years now, not only the French but also a UN mission, EU missions and the G5 states have been on the ground in Mali, including 1,100 Bundeswehr soldiers. Despite this international presence, the security situation in Mali has seriously deteriorated. Attacks are being carried out not only within Mali’s borders – the security of neighboring states like Burkina Faso and Niger is also crumbling. At the same time, many Malians are increasingly angry at the French, who despite their continued anti-terrorism efforts have been unable to improve the security situation. In France, too, people are not so sure about the Grand Strategy” in the Sahel – and yet European governments appear to want to continue along the same path as before. 

Talks with Jihadists are Politically Sensitive, But Necessary

Instead of the current course, Germany should lobby France to pursue a political strategy that seeks negotiations with jihadist groups. Opening talks with jihadists would not only represent a new approach that is more promising than merely continuing to send soldiers, but would also meet the demands of Malian stakeholders. As early as 2017, at the Conference on National Understanding, civil society organizations and religious leader Mahmoud Dicko called on the Malian government to open communications with jihadist leaders Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa – calls that were again echoed at the Inclusive National Dialogue in December 2019. Last week, the President’s High Representative for the Centre Dioncounda Traoré announced that he has mandated intermediaries to establish a dialogue with Kouffa and Ag Ghali four months ago. However, the position of the Malian government is unclear. They still officially oppose talks with jihadists. When they in 2017 once tried, with the aid of religious and traditional leaders, to initiate talks with jihadists, France refused – and the missions de bons offices’ were shelved. Then French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had a clear response: How do you negotiate with terrorists? There is no ambiguity in this fight.” The fact that the jihadist groups have French blood on their hands makes initiating official talks a political balancing act. 

Negotiating peace with jihadist groups is difficult, but not impossible. In Colombia, the government was able to make headway by negotiating with difficult groups despite entrenched ideological and economic conflicts. In the case of Mali, experts from the Berghof Foundation, which works on behalf of the German government to discretely mediate in various theaters of war, have identified starting points for talks with Ag Ghali’s group, Ansar Dine. According to the Berghof experts, within Ansar Dine there are regular opportunities – or strategic turning points” – and individuals who are open to possible talks. In addition, the International Crisis Group has proposed the Malian government to engage with the inner circle of Kouffa, who in the past has shown himself to be open to dialogue with religious leaders like the former president of Mali’s High Islamic Council, Mahmoud Dicko. 

Initiating such dialogue formats and supporting existing ones would also lead to a more precise analysis of who really are – and aren’t – the jihadists. Those who the international community labels as the’ jihadists are really an array of different groups with varying objectives. Some groups are indeed made up of zealous Islamist ideologists; yet others simply desire livelihood opportunities for their clans or region that are comparable to those of the people living in the country’s capital Bamako and, after decades of violent repression, have radicalized themselves into an insurgency. Still others operate primarily as drug or human traffickers. The motives and strategies of these groups are often mixed – but a careful analysis and an understanding of who really harbors jihadist ambitions is central to an effective political strategy in Mali. 

Dialogues with Mali’s jihadists should take place outside of the official peace agreement to avoid giving them the same legitimacy as participants in the peace process. What is more, for the time being, such negotiations should be kept out of the public spotlight. This could minimize the risk of a public and political outcry, which could spell a quick end to the talks.

Get France on Board 

Germany should not shy away from putting the option of talks on the table. But convincing France of this idea will not be easy. To get Paris on board, the German government would have to present a well-thought-out plan and come prepared to discuss increased German military involvement in return. Military pressure will be necessary to bring jihadists to the negotiating table. And the negotiations themselves would be no walk in the park either: such talks are politically sensitive and require a great deal of patience. However, without political initiatives the military operations in Mali will remain ineffective. As long as the international community keeps signaling to the Malian government that international financial and military support to fight terrorism will continue – regardless of whether it actually promotes the necessary reforms or removes the basis for violent groups – this very logic of counterterrorism will weaken the real political goals of Europe: peace and stability.


This commentary was originally published in German in taz on January 292020.