Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in Mali (in Algeria)

France has now gone into Mali, or rather over it (edit: no, I was right the first time), Nigeria is preparing to send troops, ECOWAS cannot be far behind, and the US is making noises.  While I cautiously admit that in this case, a solution is likely to be at least partly military, the intervention does raise a few points. (An abbreviation guide and links to other resources are at the end.)

1. It’s quite evident that some countries – particularly France, but also the US – are using the Mali crisis as an excuse to do something in the absence of clear and uncontroversial steps they can take about Syria.  The start of intervention has raised an excellent opportunity for unreconstructed isolationist maniacs in the US to scream about variable treatment of Islamists in the two countries and how the Ba’thists aren’t that bad after all.  These objections ignore that the West is actually trying quite hard to marginalise Jabhat al-Nusra, Tawhid, and all the other groups in Syria – it just isn’t doing very well at it because its position in Mali allows it to call the shots.

Arab Spring doubters are having a field day with Mali – not only does it prove that the US is on the “wrong” side in Syria, but it’s an object lesson in the inadvisability of toppling that lovely old man Gaddafi and how badly thought through the West’s policies were. “Look at the unintended fallout!” they cry.  Well, yes and no.  While it’s true that the end of the Jamahiriya in Libya did send a lot of Tuaregs into neighbouring countries and create a supply of weapons, it’s important to recognise that the Azawad rebellion did not start in 2012: there were similar incidents a few years ago, in the early nineties, and way back at the start of Mali’s independence.  Pretending that it started last year ignores the long-standing grievances of Tuareg separatists and their role, often accidental, in the current crisis, on which more below at #4.

2. Another important aspect of the Mali crisis that seems to have been completely elided is that following last year’s coup by Captain Amadou Sanogo, the country is still under military rule.  There may be a civilian government, but the interim President Dioncounda Traoré was attacked in his palace, stripped naked, and beaten so badly that he had to go to France for two months to recover.  That his palace was guarded by the army, who somehow managed not to apprehend the attackers, is regarded as suspicious.  The military is supposed to have had an even stronger hand in the arrest and sudden resignation last month of the transitional prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra.  The unqualified condemnation unleashed upon Sanogo last March had softened by May and now his position as de facto leader of the country seems to be acceptable, no doubt assisted by his tendency to speak out against religious extremism.  After Cheick Modibo Diarra’s forced resignation the State Department did a little finger-wagging, but those reservations have evidently dissipated.  Apparently a choice has been made between Islamism and military autocracy, and Islamism lost.

Given the Malian military’s clear desire to encourage Western governments, and ECOWAS, to get involved in fighting what is essentially a battle that they started, it would seem reasonable to make such involvement conditional on the existence of a genuine, accountable, credible transitional government in Bamako.  Otherwise, with a military solution to the Azawad problem commanding all the attention, there is a danger that the Malian army – and particularly Captain Sanogo – may assume that its new role as a proto-deep state will be permanent.  It would be far better for a civilian transitional government to take care of things while the army focusses on war rather than trying to do two things at once.

3. There is a crucial difference between what is happening in Mali and the situations in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries where the role of Islamist movements is a  principle international concern: the percentage of Malians who are desperate for the introduction of a hardline state based on shari’a is vanishingly minute.  This is not to suggest that inhabitants of the other countries I mentioned above are universally panting for total application of Islamic law, merely that the minorities in support are large enough to give the movements some leverage.

In Mali, however, the rebellion in the north is looked upon unfavourably.  Although around 90% of Malians are Muslims, West African Islam tends towards the liberal and Sufic, and by now the first association most Malians have with AQIM is the destruction of venerated Sufi shrines.  The region to the south of Mopti, where the fighting is now taking place, is far more densely populated (map) than the areas already under Islamist control, and the terrain is not easy for those used to desert fighting.  This is not a fertile ground for Al-Qaeda-style activities.  Were Ansar Dine to attempt to expand any further south – even before the arrival of the French – they would have faced a huge insurrection.  The idea that the Islamists could charge to Bamako and install an Islamic state is therefore unlikely.  The secular nature of Malian government and society is not at risk here.

This is not to argue for a lack of action: the new, improved AQIM is certainly more dangerous than their primarily criminal predecessor, the GSPC.  The presence of a de facto AQIM state in Azawad will destabilise the region, and the porousness of the Sahara borders with Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, and so on means that these states are particularly worried about the goings-on in Mali.  Nigeria’s early intervention in Mali is clearly motivated by the country’s history with Boko Haram, who are supposedly linked to AQIM.  But to claim that the inhabitants of Bamako were days away from Islamic rule when the French attacked and saved the day is disingenuous.

4. The original cause of the crisis seems to have been forgotten, so power is the obsession with Islamic terrorism.  A functional and lasting solution to Azawad cannot happen without involving issues of Tuareg self-determination, and that is likely to be a significant thorn in the side of any Malian government, civilian or military, until it is sorted out.  It seems that the Tuareg nationalists (and possibly even Ansar Dine, which was only formed when Iyad ag Aghaly failed to become leader of the nationalists) have just as much cause to want AQIM out of Azawad as the Malian and regional governments do.  According to this map, the MNLA still control parts of Azawadi territory.  A deal could work to everyone’s advantage: Tuareg support against the Islamists in exchange for an eventual status referendum.  Thankfully, it seems that the Tuareg have not been forgotten.  There are whispers that talks are already happening between Malian representatives (?) and the ex-leaders of the MNLA.

5. When I sat down to write this, I initially wrote “there will be fallout in neighbouring countries”.  In fact, there already has been fallout in Algeria of a type unseen even during the civil war.  The Algerian government, in allowing the French Air Force to use its airspace, evidently decided to favour its fear of terrorist activities against its powerfully anti-colonialist ideology (the Algerian national anthem includes the line “Oh France, the day of reckoning is at hand”).  It might now be regretting this decision.  Nevertheless, in this conflict, increasingly seen through the anti-terrorist lens, Algeria’s role as a victim of extremists past and present will gain it sympathy and its involvement is unlikely to weaken the hold on power that the quasi-military FLN has enjoyed since 1962.  Their response to In Aménas, in particular, screams “uncompromising”.

Mauritania is another matter.  The international community regards the Mauritanian army as one of the strongest in the region and one of the best-placed, both geographically and culturally, to lend support.  The decision of Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz a few days ago to reverse his stance (which he had already reversed once) and announce that the country will militarily support France/ECOWAS/whoever else in Mali if requested has injected further uproar into an already precarious political situation.  The Mauritanian army has a history of overthrowing leaders when used in battle to avoid the humiliating defeats it usually sustains when it actually goes to war.  Notably, it was defeated in 1978 by the Polisario Front and sustained many casualties three years ago at Hassi Sidi by AQIM.  Perhaps Ould Abdel Aziz’s days as President are numbered – he has already been severely wounded in November after being shot by accident.   At any rate, nobody seems to have given any thought to the fact that the Mauritanian army has a poor track record fighting exactly the sort of stateless foe against whom the West hopes to goad them into battle.

Let me define my terms, briefly:
AQIM – Al-Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb
ECOWAS – Economic Community of West African States
FLN – National Liberation Front (Algeria’s ruling party)
GSPC – Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (AQIM’s predecessor)
MNLA – National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Tuareg nationalists)

RESOURCES:
This short post from Sahel Blog about the start of the intervention in Mali, why to be cautious about Malian celebrations, and the role (or lack of role) of colonialism.
An Arabist guest post exploring the likely effects of the war in Mali on neighbouring Arab countries.  Kind of strayed a bit in predicting peace and quiet in Algeria, but otherwise helpful.
A post from the Guardian (yes, I know, but it’s Ian Black) about the Algerian response to In Aménas.
The Dekhnstan blog in general, and this post in particular, for a lot of informative and incisive background information about Mauritania’s political situation and how that affects its attitude to Mali.

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