The images of him are rare enough for us to be able to detect in each of them the progressive whitening of his beard, the aging of his features. Still alive despite his status as public enemy number 1 in the Sahel, still powerful despite the fierce competition imposed on him by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) on the local jihadist scene, Iyad Ag Ghali, the emir of the Group of support for Islam and Muslims (GSIM or JNIM in Arabic), knows how to take care of its communication.
In his latest video, shot in the Ménaka region and broadcast on January 23 by Az-Zallaqa, the JNIM propaganda organ, the man appears under a tent, seated, surrounded by at least nine notables from the area. “From a human source, the photos were taken on January 6. The place is however less precise, but it is indeed the area around Ménaka “, assures Héni Nsaibia, researcher on jihadism in the Sahel within the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled).
The presence of Iyad Ag Ghali in this border area of Niger, several hundred kilometers from his supposed hiding places in the extreme north-east of Mali, close to the Algerian border, had already been reported a few weeks ago by local sources. Freer of his movements since the French aviation left the skies of Mali, he would indeed have come on the ground to galvanize his fighters against their enemies of the EIGS, on the offensive in this region since March. But, so far no image had come to confirm it.
Useful for armed groups and States
By appearing alongside dignitaries from the Tuareg Daoussak community, many of whose children joined the ranks of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), a militia once close to Bamako which has now joined the former separatist rebels of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad, Iyad Ag Ghali poses here as the first protector of the civilian populations, subjected to the violence of the EIGS.
“The rural areas are controlled by the EIGS or the JNIM because the MSA and the Gatia militias – Tuareg self-defense group Imghad and allies, another militia that followed the same evolution as the MSA – are mainly confined to the town of Ménaka. With these allegiance ceremonies, Iyad Ag Ghali wants to show that he has the support of the people. It is also a way of attracting other communities that are victims of the EIGS,” Heni Nsaibia analysis.
In operation seduction, Iyad Ag Ghali has also become useful to armed groups in the region and to States. “The CMA, General El Hadj Gamou, his historic enemy within the Tuareg community – now sponsor of the Gatia – collaborate with him because they can’t defeat the EIGS on their own. Mali and Niger have no problem with him helping to destroy them. Everyone needs a strong ally to fight ISGS and Iyad is positioning himself like this”relates one of the best-informed sources on developments in the jihadist sphere in the region.
A message to the officers in power in Bamako
By publishing these new images, where some of his fighters also appear brandishing their Kalashnikovs, the day after the celebrations of the 62e anniversary of the creation of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMAs), the jihadist leader sends a message to the officers in power in Bamako. During their first as well as their second coup d’etat, Colonel Assimi Goïta and his partners in the putsch had justified their actions by the lack of results in the fight against terrorism.
In fact, by carrying out military operations and then by winning the allegiance of local dignitaries in an area where the army has nevertheless redeployed, accompanied by its Russian auxiliaries from the Wagner group, but without carrying out the slightest action to defend the populations , the boss of the JNIM exposes the futility of the reconquest announced from Bamako.
In his previous video, in October 2020, broadcast a few days after the release of Frenchwoman Sophie Pétronin and politician Soumaïla Cissé, Iyad Ag Ghali appeared alongside his men who had just been released in exchange. A show of force that had taken the form of a giant banquet. More than two years later, the emir of JNIM is no longer making a splash, but he is still involved in politics.