Mali: Dragging the West Back in to the War on Terror

by Magnus Taylor on February 13, 2013

A few weeks ago, most Western journalists, politicians, and foreign policy watchers would have had difficulty accurately locating Mali on a map or naming its capital city (Bamako). They would certainly have been unable to bandy around the names of Tuareg and Islamist insurgent groups, or speculate on the importance of the trans-Saharan trade in drugs and cigarettes. That was before the French intervention in January propelled this poorly understood region to the headlines, turning Mali into the latest country to be subsumed within the rhetoric of the post-9/11 “Global War on Terror.”

The post-Arab Spring order in North Africa, particularly the violent regime change in Libya (facilitated by French, British and U.S. bombing), has resulted in a certain fluidity in the region’s politics, and may indeed facilitate a resurgence of Islamist groups in the Sahara—perhaps the least governed space on the planet. However, the origins of Mali’s crisis are more local than international, and do not herald a return to the kind of transnational terrorism experienced by New York, London, and Madrid during the first half of the last decade.

The current instability in Northern Mali is primarily a result of a complex combination of long-standing grievances within its marginalised Tuareg minority in the North (a minority population in Mali, Niger, and Algeria who have rebelled on multiple occasions, most recently in 2007), the cross-border meddling of a suppressed Islamist remnant of Algeria’s civil war, and a handful of foreign jihadists who see the Sahara as a fruitful region of struggle. Initially the groups saw common cause, but the secular Tuareg element was later expelled from the alliance, leaving the Islamists—including Ansar Eddine, commanded by the Machiavellian ex-Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali—in control of Mali’s Northern cities.

Intervention in Mali, in the shape of French-led Operation Serval, was largely motivated by a desire to stop the unpopular Sharia-based rule imposed on Mali’s rebel-controlled North from spreading to the more populous South. This threat became real when the Islamists made a surprise advance in mid-January, triggering the French intervention, although it is doubtful whether they would have been able to hold this territory for long. It was also feared that the contagion might spread further into West Africa. If Mali were to fall to the Islamists, it could threaten nearby Nigeria, which is currently battling its own home-grown Islamist insurgency in the north of the country. Whereas Mali may be a dirt-poor patch of desert with little international economic importance, Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil exporter, followed by Algeria.

While local concerns have informed policy, it is the framework of the U.S.-led ‘War on Terror’ that has enabled a concerted, if somewhat delayed, Western response (plans had been afoot for nearly a year to launch an African force led by Nigeria). British Prime Minister David Cameron has been outspoken in his analysis of the situation as part of a ‘global’ fight against Islamist terrorism. “What we face is an extremist Islamist, violent al-Qaida-linked terrorist group—just as we have to deal with that in Pakistan and Afghanistan . . . It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months.” While there is little appetite for ‘boots on the ground’ in the U.S. or UK after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the French are largely unburdened by this recent history. Operation Serval was launched after a direct request from the Malian government, but there is also a sense that in this region of traditional French influence, it was their turn to do the dirty work.

However, Western policymakers would do well to avoid conflating a long-standing crisis of governance in the Sahara—exacerbated by the fallout from conflicts in Mali, Algeria, and Libya—with a global terrorist threat. As Jason Burke, author of The 9/11 Wars, states, “[Cameron’s words] sounded dated” and bring us back to the immediate post-9/11 days when the enemy seemed clear and action unavoidable.

The West needs to be clear-headed about the second- and third-order effects of intervention in this complex region. Indeed, some analysts have blamed the fall of Qaddafi’s regime for causing a flood of weapons to reach the Malian rebels (some of whom worked as mercenaries for Qaddafi), thus facilitating their insurgency in Mali. A similar logic can explain the recent hostage-taking episode at the In Amenas gas plant in southeastern Algeria where forty-eight foreign workers were killed—a response, in part, to the French intervention.

While it is too early to say whether France’s entry in to Northern Mali will trigger an insurgency or otherwise drag international players into a morass of complex local politics, all those involved would do well to properly understand what the true nature of the threat is before making recourse to Bush-era rhetoric.

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1 Josh Meservey February 14, 2013

It’s a good point that the violence in northern Mali is largely the result of local problems, but these sorts of situations are precisely the type that international jihadis exploit. Syria is a good example of this–what began as a local struggle has now been dramatically transformed by the influx of foreign jihadis. Or there is al-Shabaab, a group that began with local goals that, under the influence of foreign jihadis, became increasingly transnational.

So while perhaps the terminology is dated, the threat of these groups with local grievances being influenced by international jihadis is very real.

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2 Magnus Taylor February 17, 2013

Hi Josh – thanks for comment.

I don’t entirely disagree with you. There are SOME ‘international jihadists’ who do attempt to exploit conflict in unstable and developing countries, especially those with a receptive islamic population. However, what the history of the last 10 year has taught us is that without serious provocation eg the war in Iraq, and to some extent, the situation in Israel/Palestine, local populations are not generally that receptive to violent, restrictive regimes, no matter how they are presented (Sharia-focused, or otherwise). Violent political islam is not a new thing in the Middle East and North Africa, regimes from that of Gadaffi to Mubarak to Ben Ali to Bouteflika had been combating it for years prior to 9/11. Indeed, the current problem in Northern Mali is, in part, due to the Salafist remnant from the Algerian civil war. In this sense, it is not necessarily a threat to European/western populations, although it may be disruptive to to a wider strategic goals (see the In Amenas situation). However, our previous pre-Arab Spring tactic of supporting the pro-western dictators in North Africa has failed, partly because the regimes sowed the seeds of their own destruction.

The Somali situation is interesting. Al-qaeda has had an ambivalent relationship with al-shabaab, some foreign fighters did end up there, but not many. Also, when a formal ‘partnership’ was agreed, signalling shabaab’s change from being a national (anti-Ethiopian, anti-state) group, to an internationally-focused org, this was precisely when the Somali population rejected them. They also did not like being left to die during the 2011/12 famine due to shabaab’s anti-humanitarian org attitude.

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3 Josh Meservey February 19, 2013

Hi Magnus–we agree on a fair number of points, but I’m still hesitant to discount the threat that international jihadis can pose to the West, even when embedded in a local conflict.

You’re right to point to al-Shabaab as a good example of how international jihadis often make themselves unpopular with local people. But local populations are generally, and understandably, frightened of the extremists and will (or can) do little to resist them and obstruct their agenda. And despite their unpopularity, international jihadis can dominate a local organization and twist it to their international goals, such as we saw when Shabaab carried out the July 2010 Kampala bombings. The question of the population’s loyalty becomes critical when interveners try to root out extremists, but in the meantime, without a security force to guarantee their safety a local population will likely acquiesce to these groups’ brutality.

Even more likely, however, is that international jihadis will try to carve out a safe haven in space opened up by a local movement, and from there plot international attacks as AQ did in Afghanistan under the Taliban. In fact, a few days ago several papers reported on documents found in northern Mali in which AQIM’s senior commander ordered his men to pretend to be concerned about local issues, and hide the fact they have a transnational agenda.

Where I think we are in full agreement, however, is the fact that the West (and others, such as AMISOM and the Ethiopians in Somalia) needs to be extremely careful about intervening in these situations. Getting it wrong risks fanning an insurgency among the local people and makes the task of chasing out international jihadis nearly impossible. While I think the French and others were correct to be concerned about the international terrorism implications of northern Mali, I also hope everyone involved bears in mind the danger a protracted occupation will bring with it.

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