The next al-Qaida safe haven? Understanding the jihadist threat in Mali

The United States has an interest in involving itself in the jihadist conflict in northern Mali lest it become the next Afghanistan-like safe haven for al-Qaida, says an author who recently returned from the region.

“Al-Qaida has been looking for another unstable state in which to set up shop and organize its operations,” Peter Chilson, a writing and literature professor at Washington State University who has extensively traveled to and written about West Africa, told The Daily Caller in an interview about his new e-book on the conflict, “We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches From the Lost Country of Mali.”

“It found that state in northern Mali, a space geographically situated much closer to Europe and the U.S. This is a space that already has airfields and where it can easily set up new training centers and launch operations against the West. Northern Mali offers vast open spaces to hide rebel bases, training camps and equipment. That is a concern both for Europe and the United States.”

Chilson most recently traveled to the frontiers of the conflict in Mali last year, which became the subject of his new book. He has also been chronicling it for Foreign Policy magazine.

See TheDC’s full interview with Chilson for the most comprehensive and succinct overview of the conflict you are likely to find anywhere:

You have traveled and written extensively on Mali. You’re recent e-book chronicles your journey to the frontier of the rebellion taking place in Mali today. Explain for those who may not be paying attention to West Africa what exactly is going on in northern Mali, as briefly as you can?

Since France withdrew from its West African colonies in the 1960s, Tuareg rebels have launched five rebellions in Mali and Niger to try and set up an independent secular state in the Sahara. Those rebellions failed militarily, though the Tuaregs were able to negotiate a limited degree of autonomy and respect for their nomadic culture.

The fifth Tuareg rebellion began January 2012, but this time with an important difference: Many of the Tuareg rebels had returned to Mali from years of service in the Libyan army, having been recruited as a mercenary legion by Muammar al-Gaddafi. In return for military training, he promised them support in their fight for an independent Saharan state.

Gaddafi began recruiting Tuaregs into his army in the late 1970s to help fight wars he planned against his neighbors of Chad, Niger, and Mali. He deployed this Tuareg legion when he invaded Chad (on Libya’s southern border) in 1981 to gain control of that country’s mineral resources, namely its oil. After eight years of fighting, Libya lost the war.

With Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, these rebels, numbering around 3,000, looted his arsenals and returned to Mali and Niger better armed than they had ever been. Niger’s army disarmed the Nigerien Tuaregs at the border. Mali, however, chose to welcome the Malian mercenaries back as brothers in arms who would be integrated into the Malian army. The Malian Tuaregs played along, buying time to organize a rebellion, which they launched in January 2012. On April 6, the Tuaregs declared the independent state of Azawad in northern Mali.

To achieve their military aims, the Tuaregs allied themselves with jihadist rebels working with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Some of the jihadists were also Tuareg, but mostly they represented a wider array of ethnic groups and nationalities. By July, the jihadists had succeeded in completely undermining the Tuareg rebellion. Most of the Tuareg rebel leadership fled into exile in Niger and Burkina Faso. The Tuareg leadership has since pledged its support for the Malian governments efforts to regain the north.

Mali’s north-south split was complete by March 31, when the defeated Malian army fell back to the central region of Mopti. Since that time, Mali has been in an uneasy face-off between the jihadist held north, an area a little larger than France, and the government held south. The jihadists broke that face-off when they began invading the north on January 9 with two large columns of hundreds of military vehicles and about 1,200 fighters that moved south from the ancient northern city of Timbuktu.

The jihadists overran the village of Konna, the farthest north position still held by the Malian army. On January 11, France responded with airstrikes and began its troop deployment. As I write this on January 28, French and Malian troops have retaken the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu. Jihadist rebel forces have melted into the local population and fled into open desert. This conflict is not going to end soon by any means.

What, exactly, are Tuaregs? What percentage of the population are they in northern Mali?

The Tuaregs are a berber nomad people native to the broader Sahara and Sahel regions of West and North Africa. Around six million Tuaregs live in these regions. But most Tuaregs — about 3.5 million representing numerous sub-groups — live in Mali and Niger. Traditionally they have survived by herding livestock, which is the basis of their nomadic lifestyle. They have also lived by trading, including the slave trade, and by raiding villages and Saharan camel caravans.

So the war in Libya was at least partially responsible for the Tuareg takeover of northern Mali?

The collapse of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in October 2011 put thousands of Libyan-trained Malian and Nigerien Tuareg mercenaries into play with a new arsenal they looted from the arsenals of the fallen Libyan regime. In fact, the fall of Gaddafi set North and West Africa awash in looted arms.

Jihadist groups allied with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Tuareg rebels took advantage of sudden influx of arms. Gaddafi’s former mercenaries in particular took what they could from these arsenals — vehicles, automatic weapons and ammunition, grenade launchers — and returned to Mali and Niger to launch yet another rebellion in their fight for an independent state. There’s been much concern inside western intelligence services that the rebels also have shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, capable of bringing down aircraft. So far, however, this does not appear to be the case as the French advance into the north