The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged mali
In Mali, it's not Françafrique

Stephen W. Smith · In Search of Monsters: What are they doing in Mali? · LRB 7 February 2013

Stephen Smith writes in a piece critical of the French intervention:

Since the end of the Cold War, the prerequisites for a ‘Franco-African state’ – a bipolar world order capable of overriding the commercial interests of other Western powers; the absence of democracy and hence of elite competition in Africa; manageable demographics for a mid-level power like France etc – have diminished or disappeared entirely. Yet observers still tend to explain what Paris does, or fails to do, in sub-Saharan Africa as an effect of la Françafrique. Old habits die hard even in unfavourable circumstances, and the French have needed time to come to terms with many inconvenient truths. This may account for the fact that la Françafrique is such a lively anachronism in their public debates. But if France’s decision to intervene in Mali had anything to do with la Françafrique, at least some of the following conditions would be met: Hollande would enjoy a cosy relationship with the ‘big man’ in power in Bamako, who would have secretly funded the French Socialist Party; thousands of French expats would be making a good living in the former colony; Mali’s mineral or agricultural resources would be firmly in the hands of French companies; and the country’s diplomacy would follow the French lead as unerringly as a sunflower follows the daystar.

So what is it, then? Not sure Smith finds a satisfactory answer to that question — and perhaps he just can't quite admit that an intervention that had received UN backing, was welcomed by most African states, and was at the request of the country's government need not have some great hidden motive.

In Translation: On Mali's Islamist groups

There is a strange divide about the situation in Mali in the Arab world. Beyond the regular newspaper coverage and almost reflexive suspicion of “neo-colonialist” motives behind the French-led operations, my impression is that the average Egyptian or for that matter average Arab is not greatly concerned with this situation, especially at a time when many countries are embroiled in tense domestic developments. Yet, for Islamists, the Mali issue has been important: not only for the Salafis who protested outside the French embassy in Cairo and elsewhere, but also in the wider Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brothers. Just see Mohammed Morsi’s surprisingly vocal and repeated opposition to the intervention (I’ll have more on that soon) and the Brotherhood’s quite strong stance on the issue. They care about it way more than the average person or that the geostrategic importance of what happens in Mali (and is supported by the UN, Mali’s neighbors and its government) would suggest. It’s an interesting phenomenon now that they are in power, because it’s always clear whether their positions stem from opposition to interventionism or sympathies for some of the Islamist movements of northern Mali.

I came across the analysis below through a link on Twitter. I’m not sure where it originates, but the author is a well-known writer on Islamists (with Islamist sympathies himself) who edits the al-Islamiyoun website, which covers analyses of Islamist movements. I won’t comment on the content, as I am no specialist on the issue.

As always, our In Translation series is made possible by the wonderful Industry Arabic. If you need something -- anything! -- translated, please give them a go. They're really, really good.

Islamist Groups in Mali…An Overview

By Ali Abdel Aal, editor of al-Islamiyoun, Arabic original in Word format here.

In the past nine months, groups of “jihadist” Islamist groups have taken control of Mali’s northern areas, having captured them in the aftermath of an armed rebellion by the Tuareg people, a rebellion led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country and to create an independent state.

The events of the conflict, which has continued to this day with repercussions both regionally and internationally, were sparked by the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in August of 2011. After the fall of the Libyan regime, hundreds of armed Tuareg, who had been fighting on the side of Gaddafi, began to return to their homes in Niger and Mali, bringing with them military vehicles, advanced arms, and ammunition.

As the Tuareg groups prepared to join forces to face off against the Malian army, one result was that a military coup took place in the capital, Bamako, on March 22, in which soldiers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré. In addition, the secular MNLA joined forces with the “jihadist” group Ansar Dine to take control of the northern areas from which the army had retreated.

However, this alliance did not last long, despite the efforts made to maintain it. Conflicts soon broke out between the MNLA and its former ally, Ansar Dine, which was able to extend its control of the North after widespread fighting between the two sides during the last week of June which resulted in dozens of deaths.

Control over Northern Mali and its three largest cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal (an area comprising more than half of the country), has since been divided among groups allied with Ansar Dine, such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in addition to a number of smaller brigades such as Ansar al-Sharia and the al-Mulathameen Brigade.

What follows is an account of these groups and the areas they control.

Ansar Dine

Ansar Dine is an armed Salafist-Islamist group that seeks to apply Sharia law in all of Mali. Unlike the secular MNLA, which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country, it does not seek independence for Northern Mali.

Its founder and traditional leader is Iyad Ag Ghaly, a son of one of the families that historically led the Ifoghas tribes. A former soldier with a powerful personality, he was a leader of the Tuareg resistance that occurred during the 1990s. He hails from a long-standing Azawad family with roots in Kidal, in far Northwestern Mali.

An important official in Mali, Iyad Ghaly came under the influence of Salafi ideology while working as a diplomat in the Gulf, in addition to his work as an intermediary for the release of hostages kidnapped in 2003 by the AQIM.

Unlike other groups, whose membership is primarily Arab, Ansar Dine is mostly Tuareg. It is the largest and most important of the Islamist groups in Northern Mali, and like the Afghani Taliban is a local movement whose fighters and leadership are Malian. It is said that Ansar Dine’s military superiority and special status can be attributed largely to its alliance with Al Qaeda, whose infusions of money and manpower have given Ansar Dine the strongest field presence among Islamist organizations in the region.

Ansar Dine has come to completely control the historic city of Timbuktu, in Northwestern Mali. There, Salafi groups destroyed Sufi shrines and mausoleums that in 1988 had been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provoking a strong reaction from UNESCO and the international community.

Sheikh Mohammad al-Hussain, a judge in Timbuktu where Ansar Dine is concentrated, has related a number of the reforms undertaken by the movement since taking control of the city. These include the setting up of a judicial board for the city, composed of members of Ansar Dine alongside other citizens, which has worked to settle disputes. The website Sahara Media has noted that all of the cities’ inhabitants “obey the rulings, be they organizations or individuals,” perhaps granting them complete acquiescence on the basis that they are derived from Sharia law.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, itself born out of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), has for years been establishing bases in the Greater Sahara region, including Northern Mali from which to launch operations.

It is therefore the oldest and most experienced armed organization in the region, and has the most established ties with chiefs of local tribes. The organization, headed by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel, is thus linked to both Arab and Touareg residents, and maintains strong relationships with them.

The prevailing opinion among those who follow the region is that Al Qaeda is the real engine behind the various armed Islamist groups in Northern Mali, functioning as a fundamental link between different organizations and exercising the real influence in the region. Local sources most often describe it as the most deeply-rooted, knowledgeable and experienced organization in the Northern areas.

Several sources agree that the members operating within the ranks of Ansar Dine or MOJWA are ultimately former fighters from AQIM.

The organization states that it “aims to liberate the Islamic Maghreb from the West – France and America in particular – and the ‘apostate’ organizations loyal to them, to protect the region from foreign ambitions, and to establish a major state ruled according to Sharia law.”

Al Qaeda members in the Northern Mali work within the framework of the Saharan Emirate, the ninth region according to the administrative structure set up by AQIM. It is also called the Southern Region. In North Africa, the organization is divided into a number of military regions, with the “Saharan Emirate” spread across Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Libia, Mauritania and Chad. This region is known within the organization as “The Greater Islamic Sahara.” It is currently run by Yahya Abu al-Hamam, former commander of the al-Furqan Brigade, while its chief spokesman is Abdullah al-Shinqiti.

The commander of this region traditionally controlled two brigades and two squadrons, the brigades being the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, headed by Abu el-Hamid Abu Zaid, and the al-Mulathameen Brigade, headed by Mokhtar Bilmokhtar. The squadrons are the al-Furqan Squadron, and the al-Ansar Squadron, headed by Abd al-Kareem at-Tariki.

However, lately there seems to have been some splintering, with the Commander of the al-Mulathameen Brigade having left to form a separate organization. The Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade and the al-Furqan Squadron are based in Timbuktu, and all groups include members of every nationality present in the region, as well as some of Western origin. All of the brigades and squadrons are linked together by tight coordination.

Early last December, Al Qaeda announced the birth of a new brigade carrying the name of the Almoravid Leader Yusuf bin Tashfin. Its leadership was entrusted to al-Qairawani Abu Abd el-Hamid al-Kidali, whose name refers to the city of Kidal, the capital of the Tuareg tribes in Northern Mali.

The Brigade will work in Kidal and Aguelhok, and in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range that extends to the Algerian boarder. It is in this region where the organization is believed to have established its fortified bases.

The task of al-Kidali and his new brigade will be to increase recruitment of fighters in the region, especially among Tuareg youth.

There are no precise statistics on the number of fighters in the organization, but most sources estimate their numbers in the hundreds. Most are Algerian, with the rest coming mainly from Mauritania, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, and Nigeria. Some have estimated the number of small groups belonging to the organization at close to seventy cells.

AQIM’s organizational structure is characterized by both confusion and inclusion, reflecting the communal manner in which Al Qaeda works. The organization’s leadership is made up of a Commander, a Council of Notables, and the heads of the various committees and agencies who together make up what is called the Shura Council. This later is tasked with coordinating activity between the various levels of the leadership.

During the past few days, AQIM has displayed its fighting forces in the Azawad Sahara in a videotape entitled “Prepare for Them.” The video has seen the participation of large numbers of members, and has featured the use of the various weapons used by the organization.

The video concludes with a word from the head of the organization, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, warning African and European nations against entering the Northern Mali conflict.

In the video, the Al Qaeda commander addresses French president Hollande as well as the countries of the African coast, stating that his organization is prepared for peace if they should want peace, but also for war should they choose war. Abu Musab goes on to say that Al Qaeda will work to prolong the current war in order to deepen the wounds and inflict the most losses on the participating countries, vowing to turn the Sahara into a graveyard for the Western alliance soldiers.

He reiterated that Al Qaeda will make sure that the shrapnel of war reach every fragile, glass house that participates in the aggression, evoking the American defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa

One of the most important armed Islamic movements operating in the Northern areas, the group is an outgrowth of AQIM. It is led by Mohammad Ould Nuemer, and most of its members are Arabs.

The movement calls for jihad in West Africa, and its base of operations is the city of Gao, located on the Niger river in Northwestern Mali. For a time, MOJWA shared control of the city with the MNLA, following the expulsion of the Malian army. The MNLA was later also expelled following a two-month conflict between the two groups.

During that time, the movement gained control of an increasing number of Northern cities, where it declared that Sharia law would be implemented. The group continued to stress that they did not wish to reach the capital of Bamako.

MOJWA stated that if it wanted, it could take control of the Malian capital within 24 hours, indicating that it possessed a formidable military arsenal that would enable them to take Bamako and subdue the regional armies in the event of a military confrontation.

Due to its financial resources, tribal ties, and strong field presence, MOJWA was able to expel all of its Tuareg adversaries from the city of Ansongo after soundly defeating them in Gao (one of the three largest cities of Northern Mali) on June 27.

One of the causes facilitating the MOJWA’s presence was that the local population, especially in Gao, looked on them favorably, since they confronted the Tuareg rebels belonging to the MNLA. Before the intense battle that led to their expulsion at the hands of the MOJWA, these rebels had gained a reputation as highway robbers, and had been accused of numerous acts of violence and aggression.

Like their armed allies, the MOJWA has resorted to kidnapping diplomats and foreigners, including several Algerians kidnapped in the region of Gao last April. They also carried out the execution of an Algerian diplomat after Algerian authorities refused to sign off on an agreement that would have included the release of imprisoned Islamists and a ransom of nearly 15 million Euros.

In recent days, MOJWA has announced the creation of four military squadrons: the Abdullah Azzam Squadron, the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Squadron, the Abu al-Leith al-Libi Squadron, and the Martyrs’ Squadron. The organization stated in the statement they issued that the announcement of this new structure reflects the widening of their influence, and an increase in the number of their fighters. They went on to stress that the squadrons would be deployed according to the internal and external threats facing the region.

The movement also controls a brigade, known as the Osama bin Laden Brigade, which is headed by Ahmed Ould Amer, member of the Shura council of the MOJWA.

Ould Amer, known as Ahmed al-Tlemsi, declared in his first recorded appearance last December that the “international threat is a universal fate,” stressing that “it must be faced and repulsed through combat and jihad and by inciting Muslims to break the will of“ what he described as ”the global infidel system which seeks to ambush the Sharia of the Merciful One everywhere God has empowered his mujahideen servants.”

The Ansar al-Sharia Brigade

This brigade was founded by Omar Ould Hamaha, who had previously circulated among all of the Islamist groups in Mali, and who founded his own brigade immediately after leaving the MOJWA.

Ould Hamaha has been known since the beginning of the Islamist control of Northern Mali for his great ability to attract attention. Some have come to call him “The Red-Bearded Man,” and others “The Man of Great Charisma,” due to his striking presence, and his “sharp” French, which he speaks better than any other Northern Islamist leader.

Hailing from the Arab Barabiche tribes, Ould Hamaha has recently announced the formation of the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade, which seeks to become a new force embracing all members of the Barabiche and Arab tribes who have, in his words, "been remiss in Jihad.”

Ould Hamaha presents Ansar al-Sharia as a “popular, regional Islamic brigade for the implementation of God’s Sharia in all of Mali.”

The new brigade has been able to recruit most of the members of the Azawad Arab Front, whose members come from Arab tribes of Timbuktu, and who for a year had remained on the margins of the conflict. This is in addition to the Arabs of the Gao region.

Ould Hamaha denied that the brigade’s creation had met with any resistance from the tribal, Jihadist, or popular sectors, and in his speech has pointed to a relationship with the Gao-based MOJWA.

The leadership of Ansar Dine has made room for the brigade, whose specific character is that of “the only Arab, Islamist organization” in a region where there are as many organizations as ethnicities. According to Ould Hamaha, the brigade was founded out of “zeal on behalf of the Arabs and the Barabiche whose Tuareg brothers had surpassed them in the depth of their Jihad.”

In an attempt to downplay the geographic and ethnic aspects of the brigade, Ould Hamaha stated: “The door is open to any Muslim, Arab, non-Arab, or Songhai, and is not restricted to the residents of Timbukbu.” He also stressed that some Songhai tribes from along the Niger River had decided to volunteer and join the new brigade.

Ould Hamaha was an activist in the Tablighi Jamaat, before moving on to what he describes as his “period of the sword” with AQIM and the al-Mulathameen Brigade, then MOJWA as well as Ansar Dine. Following this interesting career, Hamaha denies that it was “resentment” that caused him to withdraw from these groups, for he believes that their goal is one: “Sound doctrine, and raising the banner of jihad.”

The Brigade of “Those Who Sign with Blood”

This brigade is headed by the Algerian Khaled Abu al-Abbas, or “Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” who founded it after he was ousted from the al-Mulathameen Brigade by AQIM. The decision, described by Al Qaeda as nothing more than “an administrative, organizational measure,” was taken by the head of the organization, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, and accepted by Abu al-Abbas.

Belmokhtar left to found a new brigade of commandos under the name “Those Who Sign with Blood,” but remained committed to the decisions made by armed groups during the Northern Mali conflict.

Jihadist websites later published statements from a leader known as “The One-Eyed Man,” claiming that the brigade would respect all decisions agreed to by Ansar Dine and MOJWA, and by tribes calling for the implementation of Sharia, as long as they do not conflict with the principles of Sharia, and that it would be “an aid and a support to them in peace and in war.”

In Khaled Abu al-Abbas’s statements, he calls on the world to respect the decision of the Azawadi people to implement Sharia law on their land, and threatens whoever would participate in or plan for war in Northern Mali, calling it a “cunning, malicious plan, tantamount to a proxy war with the West.”

He also has stated, in a video recording, that “we will respond with force, and you have our word that we will bring the fight to your doorstep, make you feel the sting of your wounds, and oppose your interests.”

He also issued a call to scholars and students and those preaching Islam in Mauritania, urging them to “emigrate to help your Muslim brothers in Azawad,” stating that they “know the scope of the suffering and ignorance prevalent in this land, and you should be the first to come and assist in this Islamic undertaking, by virtue of your kinship and proximity, for there are already those fighting who have come from farther away.”

Mauritania’s Society on the Mali War: Niet!! « Dekhnstan

Mauritania’s Society on the Mali War: Niet!! « Dekhnstan

Nasser Weddady gives the Mauritanian perspective:

Mauritanian public opinion remains dead set against their country’s involvement in Mali. Across the political and social spectrum, not a single meaningful voice called for Mauritania to intervene militarily. Worse, Mauritanian Salafis implicitly endorsed the Jihadis in Mali with an incendiary fatwa. Thus, it is no longer possible to present the Malian war as a foreign matter, it has become an internal political battle. Despite all of this, The “president” General Aziz unilaterally put the country on the path to war.

In the best tradition of a tribal chief, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz made a potentially fateful decision in a meeting with his French counterpart.  He told the Gauls’ chief François Hollande, that should the chief of the Malians ask for his help, he shall oblige. So is the mindset governing the country’s destiny. This should be a cause for serious concern for anyone contemplating a Mauritanian entry in the conflict.

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz’s meeting on Tuesday with François Hollande in Abu Dhabi shook the country’s political class out of its wait-and-see posture. Till that point, only the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood had declared -unsurprisingly- its vehement opposition to what it calls “the French invasion” of Mali.

As customary with General Aziz, he did not bother issuing any communiqués about the substance of his meeting with the French president. He even excluded his press adviser from the meeting altogether. Mauritanian state media reported the meeting as a routine discussion.  It was rather François Hollande who dropped the bombshell during this own press conference: “Mauritania is ready to take its responsibilities vis-à-vis the terrorist threat should the Malian state issue such a request.”

I wonder how this all works with the Maghrebi regional dynamics, with Mauritanian being allied with Morocco, vis-a-vis Algeria.

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

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.

Morocco

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

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.

Tunisia

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

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.

PostsGuestMaghreb, mali
More links (and audio) on Mali

Some recent articles on Mali and background pieces, as well as a clip from yesterday's World at One on BBC Radio 4, featuring UN Special Envoy to the Sahel Romano Prodi and Sahel specialist Jeremy Keenan.

 

 

The intervention was necessary. The drama of the Islamist offensive should not be underestimated—a successful assault on Sevaré would have meant the loss of the only airstrip in Mali capable of handling heavy cargo planes, apart from that in Bamako. The fall of Sevaré would in turn have made any future military operation a nightmare for West African or other friendly forces, and it would have chased tens of thousands of civilians from their homes. These would only have been the most immediate effects. After Sevaré, nothing would have stopped an Islamist advance on Segu and Bamako, although it is unclear to me that the Islamists would have any strategic interest in investing Mali’s sprawling and densely populated capital.

PostsIssandr El Amranimali
On Mali

From today's Le Monde

The situation in Mali, where France has launched a military strike because of the risk that the capital, Bamako, or its surroundings could fall into rebel hands (rebels here including jihadist groups) is incredibly complex. Beyond the question of the secessionist north and the junta that staged a coup against a democratically elected government last year, what is happening in Mali has far-reaching consequences for all the countries in the Sahel region. From those that may be as fragile as Mali is (Mauritania) to countries who appear to be playing on all sides of the conflict to have their cake and eat it too (Algeria). This consequence, in part, to the Libyan civil war is going to be with us for years.

For once, I am tentatively sympathetic to the idea of international intervention, since at least it is UN-sanctioned and demanded by the local government (although of course its legitimacy is scant.) Letting Bamako handle the situation itself hardly seems to be a solution, and the regional solution I would prefer does not seem to be forthcoming since every neighbor is either too weak or too reluctant to do anything. But I am withholding judgement here, since I know next to nothing about the situation. It just seems worth highlighting, though, as this war is not likely to get much attention in English, anyway.

There is also this remarkable piece in the NYT, which makes you want to hit your head against a wall:

For years, the United States tried to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in the region by conducting its most ambitious counterterrorism program ever across these vast, turbulent stretches of the Sahara.

But as insurgents swept through the desert last year, commanders of this nation’s elite army units, the fruit of years of careful American training, defected when they were needed most — taking troops, guns, trucks and their newfound skills to the enemy in the heat of battle, according to senior Malian military officials.

“It was a disaster,” said one of several senior Malian officers to confirm the defections.

Then an American-trained officer overthrew Mali’s elected government, setting the stage for more than half of the country to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. American spy planes and surveillance drones have tried to make sense of the mess, but American officials and their allies are still scrambling even to get a detailed picture of who they are up against.

Now, in the face of longstanding American warnings that a Western assault on the Islamist stronghold could rally jihadists around the world and prompt terrorist attacks as far away as Europe, the French have entered the war themselves.

For the last decade, I've followed from afar these US counter-terrorism efforts, mostly thinking that the US was being swindled by the Algerians and others for whom "training" translates into securing US backing for their own agendas. But this seems really half-arsed. What guarantee is there that the French will fare better? Well, there isn't.

Some other pieces offering background on what's been happening in Mali, where the incompetence seems to be in abundance of supply on all sides:

Tuareg-Islamist alliance collapses in northern Mali

DSC_1514 Kidal, Mali.

Above, houses from the Kidal region of northern Mali, where as you might tell good governance has not been part of the picture for a while. Paul Mutter sends in the latest on what's happening in the Sahel as international involvement increases.

Le Monde estimates that over 200,000 Malians have fled to neighboring countries in the wake of the ongoing "Tuareg rebellion," while at least 150,000 more have become international displaced persons. It is by now though, a misnomer to call this conflict a "Tuareg rebellion," as the MNLA, the Tuareg organization originally fighting to establish an autonomous homeland in northern Mali, has been driven from the cities it captured from the government. The government was driven from the north months before, and so the initiative is now in hands of the militias proclaiming Islamist goals.

Despite their superior armaments, MNLA fighters have now been driven from Gao which they had declared to be the capital of their autonomous state of "Azawad." Reporter Peter Tinti interviewed residents of Gao following the MNLA's departure from the city, offering insight into the Islamists' success:

The Islamists' "acceptance" seems to be less a matter of sincerity on the part of the "liberated" residents of Gao for "Les Mujadadin" than it is a hope that the past weeks of looting and arbitrary violence against civilians will subside. Neither the MNLA nor the Malian Army found themselves to be very popular as occupiers in the past few months because of their actions.

Indeed, success in Gao for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) - an organization involved in bombings, smuggling and kidnappings in Algeria - and Ansar al-Dine, founded by the Tuareg Islamist and former MNLA commander Iyad Ag Ghali, did not just come militarily. It also came through through the fact that the Islamists accurately read street protests over the murder of a local official and their escalation against the MNLA occupation and Tuareg separatism in general. France24 reports that MUJWA and Ansar al-Dine quickly took up places alongside the demonstrators A spokesman for Ansar al-Dine claims that the Islamists, who do count Tuaregs among their numbers, "only" moved against the MNLA in order to prevent them from further brutalizing the city's residents.

Tuaregs are now reportedly vacating northern Mali in fear of further reprisals from all parties, while MUJWA is apparently trying to win over Mali's Songhai minority. At the same, all of the Islamist militias have reportedly begun imposing their versions of Sharia law in the towns they hold: a family interviewed by Phil Paoletta reports public floggings and other harsh measures have been instituted in Timbuktu, while throughout the north, armed gangs are descending upon Sufi shrines to tear them down.

Unpopular as these actions are proving to be, an even greater dearth of popular support bedeviled the MNLA since the onset of the fighting that saw Mali's US-trained armed forces retreating before separatist Tuaregs kitted out with stolen Libyan weaponry. It was no coincidence that these columns bore the arms of the Jamahiriya - the late Colonel was a patron of Tuareg separatism in Mali in the 1980s and 1990s, when severe droughts and resentment towards Bamako's policies sparked revolts. Representatives of Tuareg tribes eventually reached a ceasefire with the government in 1998, though clashes continued to occur on and off since then and disappointment with the central government - in both the north and among the military - has festered through that time. The returning mercenaries from Libya provided the means for the conflict to be reignited.

But as the shock of its assault wore out over Mali's geographic space and ethnic divisions, the Tuareg's position deteriorated (they account for no more than a fifth of Mali's total population, and many have since moved to the cities). The MNLA has been hurting for manpower and finances. Additionally, the several-thousand strong MNLA did not represent all Tuaregs. Splits within the movement among participating Tuareg tribes, such as the Kel Adagh, had weakened the separatists before the falling out with Ansar al-Dine occurred in Timbuktu.

The conflict's regional implications are still being calculated. Mauritania and Algeria are deploying more border units, and Mali's West African neighbors have proposed direct military intervention. Parliamentarians and protestors in Bamako are demanding that the army - still chastened from its losses and self-defeating coup against President Touré in the spring - take more proactive measures to regain government control over the north.

Finally, there is the matter of assessing how possible next steps in this conflict - further Islamist offensives, outside military intervention from ECOWAS, refugee movements, a government offensive - might affect a Sahelian food insecurity crisis warned of by aid organizations for this year. Oxfam warned in June that "[l]ow rainfall and water levels, poor harvests and lack of pasture, high food prices and a drop in remittances from migrants are all causing serious problems .... National food reserves are dangerously low, while prices of some key cereals have dramatically increased: prices of corn in the Sahel are 60-85% higher than last five year average prices." Water access issues in the north are being exacerbated by conflict-related disruptions. And between 70,000 and 100,000 refugees have gone to [Mauritania], where "700,000 people (over one-quarter of the population) in Mauritania are [already] estimated to be vulnerable to food insecurity." The World Food Program and other NGOs remain optimistic that international donors and the region's governments can remediate most of these problems, including in Mali, where Oxfam plans to provide food aid to around 350,000 people.

Update: For more information on Ansar al-Dine's Iyag Ag Ghaly, AFP's Serge Daniel has a profile of the Tuareg Islamist leader up at Slateafrique.com.

Links January 7th and January 8th

Automatically posted links for January 7th through January 8th: