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

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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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

All the Tuaregs who participated in the takeover of northern Mali were not Islamists, right? You said some were nationalists. Explain the relationship between the two groups.

The Tuaregs are Muslim, but few Tuaregs who participated in the rebellion were radical Islamists. The stated goal of the main Tuareg rebel organization, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA) is to set up a secular state where the Tuareg can live unmolested. The name of that state, Azawad, is a Tuareg word for “pasture.”

However, among the jihadists are some Tuaregs. For example, one of the main jihadist rebel groups is called Ansar Dine (an Arabic term that means “Defenders of the Faith”), whose members include some Tuaregs and whose leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, is a Tuareg and former Malian diplomat (he served in Mali’s embassy in Saudi Arabia) and longtime Tuareg rebel leader. He took up leadership of Ansar Dine only recently, in 2012.

After the Malian army withdrew from the north in March 2012, the MNLA and the three jihadist groups in the north (Ansar Dine, the Movement for Openness and Jihad in West Africa, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) signed a powersharing agreement to rule the north together. By June 2012 that agreement had fallen apart. The MNLA leadership disagreed with the jihadist aim of establishing Muslim sharia law over the north and the rest of Mali. The agreement fell apart by June and the MNLA leadership, and many of its fighters, fled into refugee camps in Niger and Burkina Faso.

Does jihadism have long roots in northern Mali? Or is this a recent phenomenon?

The roots are deep. Jihadists, for example, fought the French and British colonial domination of the Sahel in the 19th century. In French Soudan, the colony now known as Mali, two jihadist empires, the Fulani Massina Empire and later the Tukulor Empire of Al Hajj Umar Tall, ruled from the Mopti Region. French forces fought for 50 years to destroy the Tukulor Empire. They succeeded in 1893. Ironically, the French began their operations against the jihadists on January 11 of this year in the same area where Tukukor power was strongest — the region of Mopti.

There is at least one al-Qaida linked group that is part of the trouble in northern Mali. Do we know if there are foreign fighters from outside of Africa participating in the rebellion?

The group you are talking about is The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (known by the acronym MOJWA), an al-Qaida splinter group. The other important jihadist group, Ansar Dine, is made up of Malians, including Tuaregs. There have been reliable reports that MOJWA has reinforced its ranks with fighters from Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram is also reportedly involved in northern Mali.

Some reports have suggested that Qatar might be funding the Islamists in northern Mali. Do you know anything about that?

I have heard the same reports that Qatar has been funding Islamist militants in northern Mali, possibly through its branch of the Red Crescent aid group and through other means. This sounds feasible but I have no specific proof of my own. French members of parliament from the far right and the Communist parties have both accused Qatar of meddling in Mali. The first reports of a Qatar connection apparently came from French intelligence. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence as of yet.

How much territory in Mali do the jihadists now control? What is life like in that region for ordinary Malians who have not fled?

Until January 11, the date France launched its operations in Mali, the jihadists controlled about 60 percent of the country, around 200,000 square miles, or an area a bit larger than France. The French have now retaken several major population centers, including Timbuktu and the far northeastern city of Gao. But the open countryside between these centers is another question. At this point, it’s not clear what power and control the jihadists have established in rural northern Mali.

Life under sharia law in the north has been harsh, at times brutal. Western news organizations and the Malian press have learned of life in the north through phone interviews and interviews with refugees fleeing to the south. There have been reports of amputations for violations of sharia. Unmarried couples with children have been stoned to death. Women have been arrested and flogged for merely speaking to men. Music has been banned and men are expected to wear beards and dress in the long robes and sandals favored by the prophet Mohammed.

Why did France suddenly get involved military earlier this month?

The sudden jihadist advance on January 9 started when jihadist forces overran the village of Konna, the farthest north position held by Malian army. This move appeared to threaten all of Mali, including its capital city, Bamako. France’s president, Francois Holland, announced that France would not tolerate an al-Qaida-held state so close to its shores — essentially across the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert. Until France’s intervention, northern Mali was the largest al-Qaida controlled piece of real estate in the world.

It’s also important to understand that France ruled Mali and much of West Africa from the 1870s until 1960. France still has strong economic ties to the region, particularly in agriculture and mining, including gold in Mali and uranium in Niger.

Should the United States be more involved in this fight? And why should Americans be concerned about what is going on in northern Mali?

To answer this question I go back to the memory of 9/11. Many of the hijackers who took over the planes that fell on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania were trained in al-Qaida camps in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States and its allies have since made that area much more difficult for al-Qaida to operate from, though its leadership is still in Pakistan.

As a result, al-Qaida has been looking for another unstable state in which to set up shop and organize its operations. 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.

Forgetting the threat posed by jihadists in northern Mali for a moment, is there a reasonable case to be made for a non-jihadist Tuareg state in northern Mali?

Yes. The reasons have to do with longtime Tuareg grievances over human rights violations, access to economic resources, and respect for Tuareg nomadic culture. At the end of the 1950s, when France announced its intention to free its eight West African colonies, it made clear the colonies’ borders would remain intact. So, France’s colonies would become countries overnight. Tuareg elders complained directly to President Charles De Gaulle that the borders were an affront to their nomadic way of life, particularly in Mali and Niger where most Tuaregs live.

The Tuaregs’ worst fears turned out to be true. Over the decades, the governments of Mali and Niger have directed economic resources away from Tuareg communities. During the awful droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, they used food aid as a way to manipulate and control Tuareg communities, starving whole Tuareg populations into submission.

The causes of this animosity toward Tuaregs are old and rooted in race, economics, and political power. To this day there remains a great deal of resentment among darker skinned ethnic groups of the Sahel for the Tuareg involvement in the slave trade and the centuries-old Tuareg practice of raiding markets, villages, and camel caravans.

Now we are hearing new reports of Malian soldiers killing Tuaregs and Arabs in southern cities, most notoriously in Sevare, the location of the main government military base and airfield in central Mali. So far these reports have not been verified, but true or not they are going to feed Tuareg suspicions of the Malian government and its future intentions.

Finally, what do you expect to see happen over the next six-months to a year?

French and Malian army forces will soon control all the cities in the north. France will withdraw most of its soldiers and leave the northern cities garrisoned by the Malian army, which is now also backed up by thousands of African reinforcements from Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Senegal, Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast. These reinforcements are acting under United Nations resolution in December that called for an African force of 3,300 soldiers to help Mali retake and hold the north.

France and its Nato allies, including the United States, Britain, Germany and others will maintain an ongoing military training presence in Mali along with aid in the form of intelligence gathering and arms. I also expect there will soon be an influx of international aid to help Mali rebuild its economy and protect and restore the damaged cultural treasures of Timbuktu and Gao.

The jihadist forces routed from Gao, Timbuktu and other towns will reorganize to continue their fight from the countryside. This war is not over.

A final major issue to watch is the continued instability of the Malian government. An inexperienced and disorganized junta of junior army officers currently holds power behind a puppet civilian president and prime minister. Mali’s future depends on its ability to the political chaos and infighting in Bamako.

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Jamie Weinstein