Failed intervention

Mali crisis and growth of Al Qaeda

Mali is becoming Africa’s Afghanistan as Islamic terrorists find it easy to operate and get cheap recruits to carry out the conflict in a manner which is unknown to most professional militaries who go by traditional rules of engagements in a combat situation.

The conflict in the West African nation of Mali, a former French colony with a majority-Muslim population, came to sudden prominence in the West when France intervened at the request of Malian authorities. But the country and its complex dynamics have been scrutinized by scholars for many years.

Behind the recent fighting are nuanced factors that have deep roots in the nation’s history, as well as regional forces that have negatively affected the nation.

As a 2013 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report notes, “Mali’s instability stems from both internal and external factors. These include poor governance, the corrosive impact of drug trafficking and other illicit commerce, military fragmentation and collapse, limited implementation of previous peace accords with Tuareg rebel groups, and an uptick in regional arms and combatant flows from Libya since 2011.”

Despite a relatively small population-15.8 million-the country occupies a vast, landlocked area, with a huge northern region. Prior to a 2012 coup and the neighboring Libyan conflict, Mali had seen reasonably strong economic growth in the past few years, and there have been positive signs among development measures such as school enrollment and poverty rates.

Despite all this, Mali is no stranger to rebellion. Indigenous Tuareg tribesmen in the north have staged a number of uprisings for independence, first in 1916 against colonial ruler France and later against governments of an independent Mali.

Cause of conflict

The latest conflict traces its roots to the 2011 civil war in nearby Libya. Muammar Gadhafi, battling to save his ultimately doomed regime, used Tuareg mercenaries to bolster government forces. When Gadhafi fell, the Tuaregs-well-armed and battle- hardened-returned home to renew their cause for independence.

“Until the collapse of Libya under Gadhafi, the Malian Tuaregs were more or less ‘managed’ in a loose standoff” with the government in Mali, said Mark Schroeder, an Africa analyst with the intelligence firm Stratfor.

Along with money and guns from Libya came a shadowy new ally: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

“That combination of forces was able to gain control over the whole of northern Mali,” Schroeder said. With the entry of AQIM, and the takeover of the north last spring, the situation quickly became “insupportable for the international security community, raising the attention level in capitals like Paris and Washington.”

The returned mercenaries formed the backbone of the main Tuareg rebel group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad or MNLA. Hard-line Islamist groups with ties to AQIM were also fighting alongside the Tuaregs.

The Malian army failed to stop the advance, creating divisions within the government and military, and triggering a coup in March that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Months later, the alliance between the Tuaregs and the Islamist groups broke apart. The jihadists seized control of most of the north and imposed a strict form of Sharia law.

However, Northern Mali faces three principal, intertwining security threats: trafficking, rebellious uprisings and terrorist activity. Any attempts at maintaining law and order are undermined by the fragility of state structures.

These threats also weaken the socioeconomic fabric of local communities and Malian national and territorial unity.

The Malian government endeavours to address these challenges by adopting and implementing security and anti-terrorism policies, as well as social and economic development programs.

External partners support the Malian government in its efforts through a variety of joint anti-terrorism and development policies aiming to strengthen the state’s operational capacity in the region.

Furthermore, local communities work alongside state actors in the development and securitisation of Northern Mali by employing traditional conflict-management mechanisms (intercommunity and interclan solidarity systems).

This strategy may considerably reduce the risk of open conflict and contribute to the establishment of a multilevel shared governance system.

Another catalyst for violent extremism in Mali and the broader region is the confluence of marginalized peoples, pushed into harsh border areas, and violent extremist organizations.

Militant Islamist elements like AQIM, Boko Haram, the Movement for Tawheed and Jihad in African (MUJAO), Ansar Dine, and others prove attractive to some within marginalized ethnic groups, coerced into veritable no-man’s lands, seeking social justice and political recognition.

Across the Sahel and Sahara, there are numerous examples of such marginalized peoples living in (predominantly post-independence) areas marked by weak governance, poverty, ethnic tensions and other insecurities that develop symbiotic relationships with extremists.

This is the situation in Northern Mali and Niger with elements of the Tuareg ethnic group; the Toubous in southern Libya, northeastern Niger, and northern Chad; and the Sahraoui from Western Sahara.

Nigeria, the most populated country on the African continent, is also mired in corruption, abusive security challenges and strife between the largely Muslim North and the predominantly Christian South.


In each country, marginalized groups seek haven from oppressive regimes in neglected regions, while foreign militants are drawn to the same spaces to capitalize on the discontent. This creates a destabilizing conundrum that is playing out across the region.

A further reason for escalating destabilization in Mali is central government corruption. In Bamako (and elsewhere), the central government embezzled aid money destined for the North, leaving its inhabitants, the Tuareg, Songhai, Arabs, and others out to fend for themselves.

Fifty-three years after independence and these resourceful peoples continue to be deprived of development, leaving the door open for extremist elements to exploit their grievances to generate recruits.

A severe cultural and ethnic divide between northern and southern Mali are the result of this central government corruption.

From the perspective of many Tuareg (especially the older generation), before independence, their social and economic ties were historically with people of the North; decades post-independence, the Tuareg and Arabs still find it difficult to integrate with the South.

Bamako elites jockeying for lucre and other civilians scrambling for scarce resources and sparse development money want to stigmatize “light-skinned” peoples as a means of excluding them economically and politically.

These elites exclude whole populations based on arbitrary factors like skin color. This creates antagonism between pastoralists and agriculturalists, no matter where the Tuareg live.

The principal antagonists are some of the ethnic Bambara, who are largely in control of the government and benefit from the best salaried jobs, nepotism, cronyism, military positions, and major corruption.

In order to make their government seem like a democracy and procure Western aid, they also support a few “clients” in a patron-client system.

A further reason for the violence has to do with the entrenchment of jihadists in Mali. When the (primarily Algerian) Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC, the precursor to AQIM) first set foot in Northern Mali in 2003, it was careful to integrate itself into the local population.

Extremists like Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid (recently killed by French forces) married into local tribes, forging ties with and securing support from these communities, making it extremely difficult to extricate AQIM entirely.

Clearly AQIM is not a creation of the “Arab Spring” or even a new threat. It is a terrorist group that traces its origins back to the Algerian civil war in the early 1990s.

While the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi from power did indeed allow AQIM in Mali access to more sophisticated weapons, its threat and presence in Mali pre-dated  Gaddafi’s fall by almost a decade.

AQIM has also been relatively successful in establishing itself in Mali beyond intermarriage because of its ability to seize opportunities-a theme promoted by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri himself in a July 2007 message to the group.

This opportunity came last year, when a confluence of factors-namely, the Malian rebellion, the fall of Gaddafi to the northeast and the presence of generally like-minded factions like MUJAO and Ansar Dine -coalesced to spark a jihadist insurgency that carved out a de facto “jihadist condominium” in Northern Mali.

This “condominium” will, in theory, allow AQIM to “command the good and forbid the evil” on the ground (i.e. apply its understanding of shari’a law) to “reform” local tribes; manage the work of local jihadist partners, MUJAO and Ansar Dine; and develop a base to strike both near and far enemies-essentially, the pattern proposed by jihadi theorist Abu Bakr Naji in Management of Savagery.

Despite the French intervention in early 2013 designed to route AQIM, the former has most certainly not concluded its project in Mali.

For the better part of a decade, proselytization, intermarriage, a variety of inducements and alliances with tribes all these have left AQIM with many friends in northern Mali and the region.

Evidence shows that even corrupt Malian officials have benefited financially from the jihadists’ presence making it all the more difficult to root out the violent extremists.