The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Mali and the Maghreb

Geoff Porter emails:

Over the last several days there has been lots of analysis about AQIM and about how the situation in Mali and France’s bombing campaign came to be, so there’s not much point in going over that ground again. Instead, it might be helpful to look forward to what the French campaign is about (and what it’s not), as well as to look north to the implications for North Africa.

Until 2012, AQIM in the Sahara had been a relatively successful criminal organization – kidnap for ransom, smuggling, narco-trafficking, etc – but it was not a very good or very committed salafi jihadi terrorist organization. From 2008 until 2012 it prioritized making money over ideology. It was intertwined with local populations to the extent that they provided cover and support for illicit activities, but it did not try to impose its salafi jihadi ideology on the population with which it interacted. In general, its roughly 500 fighters existed on the margins of an already marginal region. It was troublesome, but it did not pose a strategic threat to local governments or Europe or the US. That obviously changed in 2012 with the influx of Libyan weapons, the Tuareg rebellion, the collapse of the government in Bamako and its control of the northern half of Mali. AQIM went from a criminally inclined, underperforming Al Qaeda affiliate with dubious loyalty to controlling a large territory and running a “terrorist safe haven” in a country that was an ally to both France and the US. And it placed AQIM and the other Islamist organizations with which it has tensely shared power – Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al-Din – squarely in France’s sights.

Early criticism of France’s military campaign has questioned its endgame. Critics say that given the scope of the territory, the difficulty of the geography, and the scattered nature of AQIM, MUJAO, and Ansar al-Dine, no military campaign will be able to eradicate them from Mali. It’s a fruitless and endless mission. But Paris’s colonial history in the region has made it well aware of the limitations of military campaigns in the Sahara and its objectives are likely more nuanced: France does not have to transform northern Mali into an environment in which it is impossible for AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar al-Din to operate, it simply has to make it an environment in which it is significantly more difficult for them to operate. And now that the door to military action has been opened, the possibility for further limited military interventions in the future will remain. France doesn’t need total victory and instead would be satisfied with the status quo ante, where the status quo is a slightly more disrupted and weakened AQIM/MUJAO/Ansar al-Din and the ante is circa 2010.

It is also worth mentioning what France’s campaign is not about. There have been periodic allegations that the French campaign and the preceding US interest in Sahel stability are about securing natural resources for eventual exploitation by US or French firms. Even in the overblown scenario that claims that western governments work hand-in-glove with extractive industries companies, it does not apply in this instance: there are no meaningful natural resource deposits in the territory under Islamist control in northern Mali.

To be fair, there were some initial expectations that there might be oil reserves in northwestern Mali, but these have not panned out. The suspicion was that similar geological structures that were discovered in northeastern Mauritania extended into western Mali, but the Mauritania acreage – explored by Total and CNPC – has not yielded any meaningful discoveries. Algeria’s Sonatrach acquired Malian acreage following that theory, but Algeria’s current Minister of Energy and Mines Youcef Yousfi has not pursued Sonatrach’s Mali assets, partly because he is lowering Sonatrach’s international profile and partly because it looks like there is nothing there.

What does all of this mean for northern Mali – expect periodic bombing campaigns and sustained guerilla fighting/insurgency for the remainder of the year, with the strong likelihood of an ever-present jihadi threat for the foreseeable future. It’s not ideal, not least for the residents of northern Mali, but for the broader Maghreb it is acceptable.

About the broader region – going clockwise from Mauritania:


Mauritania is likely the most vulnerable to blowback from the campaign against the Islamist coalition in northern Mali. Mauritania – the ninth most sparsely populated country in the world – shares a long border with Mali and AQIM has already demonstrated an ability to carry out attacks within Mauritanian territory. Mauritania has intensified its counterterrorism capabilities in recent years, but its ability to manage widening terrorist or insurgent threats resulting from the Mali campaign is undercut by questions regarding allegiances within the lower ranks of the military that would be deployed to secure Mauritania’s eastern border and by questions regarding President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who was shot in unclear circumstances in October 2012 and has been out of the country extended periods for medical treatment since then. Mauritania’s extractive industries – gold at Tasiast, iron ore at Zouerate, and oil offshore – are, however, all in the west of the country and out of range of the arc of insecurity. While Mauritania will probably suffer episodic instability on its eastern border that will challenge the resources of the Mauritanian military, there is likely no immediate threat to Mauritanian industry.


Despite Morocco’s propensity to hype the threat, not least to serve its own purposes of trying to portray the Western Saharan armed group POLISARIO as terrorists, Morocco is relatively far removed from the Mali conflict. There is no immediate threat to its borders which do not directly abut Mali and the likelihood of al-Qaeda sympathizers trying to carrying out an attack against French or Western targets within Morocco is very low. Morocco maintains extremely efficient domestic security and keeps a very close watch on any potential jihadi activity in the kingdom, especially since the April 2011 terrorist attack in Marrakech. On the diplomatic level, Morocco and France have what they call a “special relationship.” In fact, King Mohamed VI was the first foreign head of state with whom President Hollande met after taking office. The implications for Morocco’s business environment from the Mali conflict are thus negligible.


Algeria is in a difficult position. The border it shares with Mali is roughly equivalent of the distance from New York to Chicago and it has only recently managed to eradicate most AQIM activity within its own territory. The French military campaign is likely to put upward pressure on Algeria’s southern border, but it is worth recalling that Algeria was informed of French intentions before the campaign started and it is unlikely that Algiers would have condoned the French approach if Algeria felt there was a material threat to its territory and it was not confident in its ability to police the border or at least secure key southern installations. It is true that AQIM is allegedly led by an Algerian who is still at large in northern Algeria but he and his immediate followers in the Boumerdes Mountains have been ineffective and unable to carry out meaningful operations in the last several years, which reduces the threat of AQIM’s Algerian branch carrying out retaliatory strikes in northern Algeria. There will likely be widespread popular criticism of the French incursion in Mali, but this will be more a critique of French overreach and should not be confused with support for Mali’s Islamists.


Of all North African countries, Tunisia is the most vulnerable to salafi jihadi sympathizer violence. Three trends support this risk. First, Tunisia’s police and military do not have extensive counterterrorism training and the 2011 Jasmine Revolution disrupted the state’s domestic intelligence networks. Second, Tunisia has witnessed not only rising Islamism since the 2011 revolution, which was to be expected, but also rising salafism with strong jihadi overtones and a demonstrated affinity for other jihadi groups, such as the links between Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.  Lastly, Tunisia has become increasingly anti-French, with Tunisians blaming the French for having supported the Ben Ali regime for so long and for having been complicit in high level corruption that resulted in Tunisia’s distorted economy, with some Tunisians very well off and others cut off from economic opportunity. These three trends combined suggest that Tunisia is a likely target for a sympathetic retaliatory attack in response to the French campaign.


Libya too is at risk of some sort of retaliatory attack, but given the already high levels of insecurity in the country and the numerous sources of political or criminal violence, the negative security implications of the Mali campaign in Libya are not likely to perceptibly change the security environment. The poor security situation in Libya is well documented and since the September 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, the security situation has only worsened in Benghazi, in Tripoli, and elsewhere throughout the country. After the September 11 Benghazi attack it became clear that the Benghazi-based Ansar al-Sharia had communicated with AQIM (although there was no indication that it was coordinating or collaborating with them). This opens the possibility that Ansar al-Sharia or another Islamist group in eastern Libya may try to attack western targets in retaliation for the French campaign. French targets would be highest on any list, but it is possible that jihadi groups will not differentiate between French targets and Western ones in general, raising the possibility of increased anti-western Islamist violence. However, the rigorous security protocols that many foreign firms already have in place in Libya mitigate potential risks raised by France’s Mali campaign.

The main takeaway for the Maghreb – it’s important to remember that the Sahara is very big and population centers in the Maghreb are very far removed from what’s taking place in Mali. To be sure, there are shared sympathies, but each of these will manifest differently in the different Maghreb countries.

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