Map of West Africa.
“The countries that attacked and fought us under the banner of France and its allies, we will do everything in our power to fight them and transfer the war to these countries.”
Following a groundbreaking interview with the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) by France 24 in March 2023,[i]the independent website Africa Perceptions has published a new interview with the head of AQIM’s Sahelian branch,Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). Meaning “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims,” JNIM has recently been named one of the three deadliest terrorist groups in the world, one of the greatest threats to West African stability, and the core cause of the massive uptick in violence from the Sahel.[ii] As the United States, its African allies, and the international community at large seek to stem the tide of terrorism decimating the Sahel and increasingly spreading into littoral West Africa,[iii] understanding the perspectives of the perpetrators of the violence remains as important as ever.The interview of JNIM’s leader, Saydin Ag Hita alias Uthman al-Qayrawani, is much longer than is portrayed below, touching on JNIM’s relations with other jihadist groups and local populations in Mali among other topics. When asked about his group’s broader goals, al-Qayrawani’s responses reasserted the centrality of the jihadist mission: “The primary objective of this group is what appears in its name, namely support for Islam and Muslims…It is about waging jihad for the cause of Allah, so that the word of Allah is supreme, and it also means that the earth and its inhabitants must be governed by the religion of Allah [Islam].” Given this desire to have the entirety of the world under Islamic rule, his interpretation is that the friends of his enemies are also his enemies. As such, he is clear that not only France (which led counterterrorism operations against the group until recently), but those countries that supported France or received support from France (such as Niger), the Malian regime and its allies (like the Wagner Group), other West African countries (including Benin, Togo, and Ghana), and the broader international NGO and humanitarian corps are all potentially in the crosshairs of his group. In the full interview, he also refused to answer a question about his group’s adversarial relationship with the Islamic State.
“Exclusif: Le Chef De La JNIM, Alliée D’Al-Qaïda Au Sahel, Explique Le Sens Et La Raison De Ses Guerres (Exclusive: The Leader of JNIM, An Ally Of Al-Qaeda In The Sahel, Explains The Meaning And The Reason For His Wars)” African Perceptions, 16 April 2023. https://africanperceptions.org/fr/2023/04/exclusif-le-chef-de-la-jnim-alliee-dal-qaida-au-sahel-explique-le-sens-et-la-raison-de-ses-guerres/
“African Perception” publishes here the entire exclusive interview given on March 22, 2023 by Saydin Ag Hita alias Uthman al-Qayrawani. Self-proclaimed governor of Kidal, in Mali, for the Sahelian branch of Al-Qaeda, Ag Hita notably evokes the religious and military objectives of the organization, both in Mali and abroad, its agreements with local groups such as the MSA (the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad) led by Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, and the GATIA, coordination with jihadist units throughout Africa, the future of the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner group and the course of the war with the Sahelian province of Daesh.
African Perceptions: What are the goals of the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen? Are they limited to the application of the Islamic sharia in Mali or in the countries of the African Sahel, or do they target other countries? If yes, which ones?
Uthman al-Qayrawani: The primary objective of this group is what appears in its name, namely support for Islam and Muslims. Its purpose is clear from its name. In other words, it is about waging jihad for the cause of Allah, so that the word of Allah is supreme, and it also means that the earth and its inhabitants must be governed by the religion of Allah (Islam).
As for what you say, the countries of the African Sahel, or the targeting of other countries, what is that? We launched our call for jihad in Mali and we also fought the regime in place in that country. The Malian government asked for help from France, which intervened with nearly 60 countries and all their military forces. Some of these countries were known as Takuba, others as G5 and still others as MINUSMA. On the other hand, Muslims fighting for the cause of Allah came from several countries to support their religion and their mujahid brothers, and most of them came from neighboring countries (I mean Muslims), and up to ‘now the war has not ended.
The countries that attacked and fought us under the banner of France and its allies, we will do everything in our power to fight them and transfer the war to these countries. Those who abandoned us, we will abandon them, and those who fought us, we will fight them. And whoever started is the most unfair.
African Perceptions: While you were fighting Daesh in Ménaka and battling the armies of Mali and Burkina Faso with intense operations, you launched operations targeting Benin and Togo. What is the objective of these, especially at a time when you need to unite your ranks in Mali against Daesh?
Uthman al-Qayrawani: Our operations in Togo and Benin are due to several reasons. For example, when these countries felt the presence of the mujahideen on the Burkinabè border, they tried to harass them from several sides and they also oppressed the Muslims, especially the Fulanis, with all forms of injustice – murder, imprisonment, and flight. These strikes were therefore carried out in retaliation for the actions perpetrated by these countries against the mujahideen and all innocent Muslims.
African Perceptions: You fought the French military presence in Mali by waging a war until the total withdrawal of their soldiers from the country. How do you see the future of Russian forces and Wagner’s mercenaries in Mali?
Uthman al-Qayrawani: First of all, Allah is sufficient for us and He is the best in managing affairs. What we see in the future for Russian forces and Wagner’s mercenaries in Mali is defeat, with Allah’s permission. Allah the Almighty said: “Those who disbelieve spend their wealth to divert it from the way of Allah, and they will continue to spend it, but it will eventually cause them anguish.” They will then be defeated. And those who disbelieve will be gathered in Hell” [Al-Anfal, 36]. We consider that this is the last card left to the military regime in place in Mali, and that if it is defeated, there will be no more allies to fight alongside it and try to eliminate his enemy.
[i] For more on the interview with AQIM’s leader, see: Jason Warner, “Al-Qaeda Leader in Maghreb Says Group Has No Plans to Attack French Homeland, Though Celebrates French Departure,” OE Watch, 4-2023.
[ii] For more on JNIM’s contribution to West African terrorism, see: Jason Warner, “UN Warns About Islamic State Surging in Africa and Afghanistan,” OE Watch, 3-2023. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/437258 Jason Warner, “African Leaders, UN See Terrorism in the Sahel as Dire,” OE Watch, 11-2022. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/429303
[iii] For more on the threats to littoral West African states from northern terrorism, see: Jason Warner, “Coastal West African States Brace for Wave of Terrorism From the Sahel,” OE Watch, 10-2022. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/428040
Image: Map of West Africa.
Attribution: JRC, European Commission, CC BY 4.0