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.