In early 2013, the then Associated Press journalist Rukmini Callimachi recovered what was dubbed "The Mali al-Qa 'ida Playbook" in Timbuktu, a document that provided unprecedented insight into al-Qa 'ida's strategic ambitions for the Sahel region of West Africa. (1) The playbook was believed to be a guidance letter from the senior most al-Qa 'ida leader in Africa, Algeria-based al-Qa 'ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Emir Abdulmalek Droukdel, to his lieutenants in northern Mali. In it, Droukdel suggested that al-Qa 'ida viewed the 2012 Tuareg rebellions in Mali as an "historic" opportunity to expand and nurture a long-term presence in the Sahel.
The missive outlined five broad goals: uniting the Azawad people, (a) regulating the relationship with regional armed group Ansar Dine, (b) curbing the radical activities of militants, imposing sharia law, and developing support for external al-Qa 'ida activities. These objectives aligned with a directive from al-Qa 'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, disseminated in September 2013, titled "General Guidelines for Jihad." (2) In this communique, al-Zawahiri explained that establishing unity of effort, cultivating local support, and mobilizing populations were necessary to build up the jihadi movement as a prelude to the eventual creation of a caliphate.
In a 2013 CTC Sentinel article, Pascale Combelle Siegel argued that the AQIM playbook served as an "ominous warning" of a long-term plan by al-Qa 'ida that could signal a "successful return" of the group. (3) Unfortunately, events in the Sahel since 2013 have validated Siegel's warning, with the al-Qa 'ida network in the region methodically (albeit slowly) advancing on almost all of the strategic objectives it set for itself in the playbook. AQIM and al-Qa 'ida elements have deliberately integrated themselves into the region by nurturing ties to disenfranchised tribal and ethnic groups, fighting alongside armed groups in support of local/regional grievances, fostering unity of effort, and slowly implementing their version of rule of law.
These mechanisms reflect disciplined strategic patience and could help enable al-Qa 'ida lay the foundation for a durable presence in the Sahel, one that could eventually train and host foreign fighters and provide the sanctuary necessary to support external attacks. This long-term aspiration is alluded to in the playbook, where AQIM outlined the advantages of gaining a Mali-based safe haven:
"Gaining a region under our control and a people fighting for us and a refuge for our members that allows us to move forward with our program at this stage is no small thing and nothing to be underestimated. The enemy's constant, persistent effort now is to not leave any safe havens for the Mujahideen." Establishing Unity of Effort
In 2012, al-Qa 'ida elements recognized that for the strategy to succeed in Mali, the group needed to establish an organizational relationship with regional armed groups. The move aligned with al-Zawahiri's broader guidance to develop unity of effort, working together to "create an organized, united, ideological and aware jihadi force." (4) Two specific goals identified in the Mali playbook underscore this effort: uniting the Azawad people and regulating al-Qa 'ida's relationship with Ansar Dine.
These goals were largely satisfied in March 2017 when al-Qa 'ida formally announced the unification of several Mali-based armed groups under the umbrella organization Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam was al-Muslimin (JNIM), or Group to Support Islam and Muslims. (c)
This merger was the manifestation of planning put in place since 2012 and brought together members from AQIM's Sahara branch, Ansar Dine, Al-Murabitun, and the Macina Liberation Front. It also helped to underpin ethno-political dynamics that probably contributed to al-Qa 'ida's initial presence in the Sahel by naming Ansar Dine Emir Iyad ag Ghali (an influential ethnic Tuareg in northern Mali) as the leader of the group. In the announcement, JNIM and ag Ghali not only pledged allegiance to AQIM, but also to al-Qa 'ida leader al-Zawahiri and the Taliban (following longstanding al-Qa 'ida tradition), underscoring the influence and strategic direction of al-Qa 'ida senior leadership over...