Last Friday in Villacoublay, Sophie Petronin, the last French hostage in Mali, released after more than 4 years of captivity at the hands of Al-Qaida, celebrated her reunion with her family in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron. At the same time, thousands of kilometers away, in a very remote area of northern Mali, an ephemeral and unusual camp, in this vast desert expanse where it is rare to meet a living soul, gathered several dozen men.
A sequence with all benefits for the‘emir of GSIM
The ex-prisoners released a few days earlier savored their found freedom there around a gargantuan feast made of barbecue, couscous and fresh fruit, in the presence of their leader today regarded in their ranks as a liberator: Iyad Ag Ghali, head of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM). It is true that for four days, nearly two hundred jihadists or presumed such, often held for years in the Malian geoles, were released thanks to his negotiations, in return for only four hostages including Sophie Pétronin, Franco-Swiss humanitarian, and Soumaïla Cissé, leader of the opposition under the presidency of IBK, several times minister and ex-commissioner of ECOWAS. Among these ex-prisoners, some saw the head of GSIM for the first time. Others have met him a few times, such as Aliou Mahamane Touré, former Islamic commissioner for the city of Gao in 2012, arrested a second time in November 2019 and now free again. However, during the whole period of negotiations carried out in recent months to release the hostages, no one saw Iyad Ag Ghali.
Suffice to say that the emir of GSIM has something to boast about. He not only negotiated the release of more than a hundred prisoners and in addition, several million euros would have come to replenish the coffers of his organization. Enough to considerably increase its prestige in jihadist circles and in the regions in the north of the country. “This story of freeing hostages from dozens of prisoners has given Iyad a huge boost in popularity.
Poems to his glory are broadcast in audio on Whatsapp. They say that “he was able to free prisoners and bring innocent people back to their families when the armed movements were unable to”. He is a great and a real leader, ”says Moussa, a man close to the armed movements in Kidal who predicts that, in a few days, the money will irrigate the city. “This is always the case after this kind of deal,” he says with a touch of mischief.
What s‘really went into the last streak, after August 18th
It was a few days after the coup d’état of August 18, which brought down the regime of President IBK, that the negotiations to free Soumaïla Cissé, the leader of the Malian opposition, were resumed by the ruling junta. Let us remember: three days after the putsch, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that it had given Soumaïla Cissé’s family, from whom we had no news for more than 5 months, letters from this last, proof of life, arousing hope in the family and in the population. A coincidence that the Malian journalist who requested anonymity did not fail to note: “This ICRC announcement comes just three days after the fall of the regime! It makes you think… why keep silent until this moment? Knowing that the ICRC is authorized to go to these corners, to negotiate, without mediating, ”asked the media man.
From July, a negotiation channel is activated by the Malian intelligence services. He relies on Ahmada Ag Bibi, a Tuareg from the Ifogha tribe, cousin and friend of Iyad Ag Ghali, a former secessionist, man of the network and of the shadow, who revolves around the jihadist nebula and who has already shown to be effective in releasing hostages. It was in 2011, about three of the seven hostages in Arlit, Niger. The military junta imposes, to finalize this negotiating team, Colonel Ibrahima Sanogo, director of anti-terrorism intelligence, the man of confidence of General Moussa Diawara, the all-powerful boss of the Malian State Security (SE) during the presidency of ‘IBK, under the radar since the coup.
The negotiations therefore resumed and the return of Soumaïla Cissé among his family was quickly won against the release of 200 prisoners including jihadists. “Among these 200 people, there are major jihadists, it’s true, but also fighters from armed groups, explosives manufacturers, logistics experts, highwaymen specializing in the removal of vehicles, sale of arms and a lot of innocent people, picked up following waves of arrests against circles that may have known or helped a terrorist enterprise directly or indirectly, sometimes even without knowing it. Everyone took the opportunity to put in this list of prisoners the names of people they wanted to see released, ”says this security source close to the case.
But Ag Bibi goes further. This close to the French intelligence services wants Sophie Pétronin, kidnapped on December 24, 2016 in Gao, to also be released with Soumaïla Cissé. That’s good. The jihadists who have already sealed a “deal” that satisfies them are also eager to let go of this hostage of a certain age and in fragile health. They accept that the French hostage is added to the release of the leader of the Malian opposition. “Sophie Pétronin has spent many years getting involved with her project for children in Gao. Notables at the level of Gao, like Bourem and Ansongo, sent many letters to Iyad Ag Ghali to have her released, before the negotiations. It even seems that Iyad Ag Ghali respects her a lot, ”said this Malian negotiator.
On Monday, October 5 in the morning, the transfer of the two hostages is initiated. Rotations to send prisoners to the north of the country are underway. The Italian government, which has two of its nationals in the hands of GSIM jihadists, the priest Pier Luigi Maccalli, kidnapped in Niger in 2018, and Nicola Chiaccio, kidnapped in central Mali in 2019, has arrived, via another channel of negotiation, to start the process to get them released for several million euros that the Vatican would have financed.
On Tuesday, October 6, a press release was signed by the president of the crisis unit responsible for the release of Soumaïla Cissé. He announces the release of the 4 hostages. The press release is not being released. The hostages will not be released the same day and the Malian authorities are walled in silence. On Wednesday, October 7, uncertainty is at its height as to the release of the hostages. Somewhere in the Tessalit region, the now ex-prisoners wandered off into the desert. “There was one last sticking point,” explains Lemine Ould Salem, journalist and writer, specialist in jihadist movements in the Sahel. “The Americans opposed the release of Mimi ould Baba Ould Cheikh who is the organizer of the Splendid attacks in Ouagadougou where an American lost his life. He was on the list of prisoners to be released. This is what delayed the release of the hostages ”.
On Thursday October 8 at around 10 p.m., a Malian military cargo plane coming from Tessalit and carrying the 4 hostages finally landed at Bamako international airport. The hostages are freed.
A convergence of interests linking the authorities of the Malian transition, the jihadists and certain international partners, such as France, which did not have to pay a ransom but pushed in the shadows for the release of Sophie Pétronin, allowed , thanks to not always clear channels and certain sulphurous intermediaries, the release of the hostages. Everyone was able to appreciate the taste of victory in this operation which had started a few months earlier, under the aegis of a man who has not reappeared since August 18: the ousted ex-president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita .
What s‘went up to‘to August 18, the IBK sequence
A few days after the kidnapping of the president of the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD), Soumaila Cissé, kidnapped on March 25 in the region of Timbuktu by an armed group affiliated with Katiba Macina, President IBK confided to his Prime Minister Boubou Cissé the establishment of a discreet negotiation operation aimed at getting him released. The Malian head of state has been informed of the possible location of Soumaïla Cissé. He does not wish to implicate the head of the intelligence services, Moussa Diawara, in this affair. He learned from a diplomatic source that the latter was involved in parallel activities related to narco-trafficking. A crisis of confidence has settled between the two men, which pushes the president to resort to two negotiators: Chérif Ould Attaher, a former MUJAO (Movement for the uniqueness and the Jihad in West Africa), Notorious narco-trafficker who has already been involved in negotiations to free hostages, and Colonel Malamine Konaré, said Malla, trusted man of the Prime Minister, son of former President of the Malian Republic Alpha Oumar Konaré, ex-agent Malian counter-espionage, which was head of the special investigations office at State Security. The mission of these two men is to get in touch with the kidnappers and ensure that Soumaïla Cissé is still alive.
Oud Attaher and Konaré go to the Gao region and establish contact with the jihadists who detain Soumaila Cissé who, they are told, is in good health. They leave with the conditions to be honored for the president of the URD to be released: the release of around 20 prisoners held in Malian prisons, including 3 important jihadists, and a ransom that would amount to 2 million euros. At the end of April, the two emissaries leave to bring back to President IBK and the 1st Minister a video proof of life of Soumaila Cissé.
Negotiations are advancing but a conflict between the GSIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, which breaks out in the area where Soumaila Cissé is detained, will, for a few weeks, interrupt the negotiations. “We could not access the area where Soumaïla Cissé was because there was fighting. It was extracted from the southern zone at the time of the fighting between the GSIM and the Islamic State and found itself a little towards the northeast, ”explains this former senior Malian official.
When General Moussa Diawara s‘in the mix
The negotiations are on the way to bear fruit, but State Security relays in Gao informed General Moussa Diawara who, until then, had been working with the crisis unit responsible for coordinating actions aimed at freeing Soumaïla Cissé, the existence of a parallel negotiation channel coming from Koulouba, the presidential palace. The head of the Malian intelligence services is furious. He decides to inform the French DGSE of Koulouba’s secret attempt to free influential jihadist prisoners, some of whom have committed attacks in the sub-region. French diplomacy then puts pressure on the head of state so that Sophie Pétronin is included in the negotiations for a release and to change the negotiating team. “When the information leaked, Moussa Diawara went to see IBK and convinced him, by intimidating him by his proximity to the French foreign services, to let him resume the arrangements to better conduct the negotiations. IBK knew he could not free the hostages without the help of Moussa Diawara because most of the prisoners the jihadists wanted to be released were held by the SE. Only those who had already been tried by the anti-terrorism pole were in the remand center. He quickly understood that it was better to involve him to speed things up and the boss of the SE was tasked with finalizing the negotiations. At that time, Ag Bibi, who is also close to IBK, was called in to lead the negotiations. Ag Bibi and Malamine Konaré were to continue together. But the coup d’etat occurred and Colonel Malamine Konaré was not retained ”, relates our former senior official. Konaré was sent for training abroad until 2021, and Chérif Ould Attaher was dismissed. “What is a pity is that people with disproportionate ego and close to small interests in Bamako want to monopolize files. They ruin everything ”, reacted this close to the Konaré family.
In the days following the overthrow of the IBK regime, negotiations resumed, but the conditions demanded by the jihadists were revised upwards: the number of prisoners increased to 200, then 204, and the ransom was increased by several million euros . The conditions are accepted by Bamako and, under the rule of the military junta, the operation is finalized. On October 8 in the middle of the evening, four hostages land in Bamako while jihadist prisoners or supposed to be such are released and have spread throughout the vast semi-arid areas of the far North.
A mixture of joy, d‘bitterness and d‘questions to the‘from this unique sequence
Let’s recap: the purpose of Soumaïla Cissé’s kidnapping was to put pressure on the Malian authorities to release prisoners. The majority of them had been arrested by Barkhane and the Malian armed forces. For the most part, they were languishing in jail without trial, at least for now. The problem is that among them, there were real jihadists but there were also many for whom the term jihadist was inappropriate. This is why by having them released, Iyad Ag Ghali has attracted a lot of sympathy from the populations, as in Kidal or in Macina.
For all the families who were concerned, the members of GSIM left to appear as wrongdoers. “This will help Iyad Ag Ghali and GSIM present themselves as being on the side of the people. He will be able to more quietly try to carry out his political project which is to establish Sharia law, ”analyzes this former Tuareg elected representative from the Timbuktu region.
For this officer of CEMOC, a General Staff bringing together the four countries in the field (Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), the consequences of these releases are likely to be heavy: “It will encourage terrorism!” Terrorists no longer fearing arrests will show greater courage and commitment in their actions. The victims who must be defended are now not only victims of terrorism, but also of the state supposed to protect them. The transition started the ball with mediocrity and lost the confidence of the people and the international community, ”he says. “It would have been better to give the terrorist prisoners to Chad because it is the only G5 country that has never exchanged prisoners”, he continues, bitterly.
“It was a big negotiation and we don’t know what this will generate and what the consequences will be. Me, I try to see what it can bring. If that can defuse the situation and make the killings stop, the price is low. If this is a vulgar villainous scam, it is regrettable. But who can tell? I think that we should also try to have confidence and we will see what will happen in the future, in the short and medium term. And maybe there could be some good surprises ”, explained Sébastien Pétronin. Words that betray a mixture of questions, hope but also fears. The Sahelian jihadist equation in a setting of States with institutions to be strengthened is far from being resolved.