Thursday, 17 January 2013

Mali and Terrorists at the Gates

Background: Mali

Reports of the recent events in Mali describe a country being overrun by Islamists. The recent conflict began a year ago in January 2012, when the people living in the north of Mali, the Tuaregs, succeeded in defeating the Malian army in a number of battles for independence. The victories culminated in the Tuaregs, led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), declaring the independence of Azawad, their land in the north of Mali. Around the same time, the Malian military ejected President Touré in a coup in response to his mismanagement of the conflict.

Although the conflict was just the most recent uprising in a series of rebellions by the Tuaregs, this time their success was attributed to an influx of experienced fighters with heavy weapons from the recent Libyan civil war (who at the time were supplied with French assistance!). Independence of Azawad was short lived, however, as the MNLA’s allies, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), turned on them in favour of enforcing Sharia law upon Mali. It is alleged that both groups have links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an organisation designated as terrorist by the U.S. and E.U.

By July 2012 the MLNA had lost control of the northern cities to its previous allies. In October the UN Security Council adopted a French resolution paving the way for military intervention in Mali. In December, it authorised the deployment of an African-led peacekeeping mission to help the government retake the north.

Two weeks later, the rebels, now reinforced by other Islamists groups from northern Africa and led by AQIM, attacked and captured the city of Kona, a city on the border of north and south Mali. Within days France announced it would respond to a call for aid from the Malian government, and on 11 January 2013 conducted airstrikes on the rebels.

Paving the Way for Intervention

Tuaregs and AQIM
The nomadic Tuareg people are spread across the Sahara region, covering parts of Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. The Tuaregs have been marginalised in these countries and have some of the highest poverty rates in the world. It is not in the interests of these countries for the Tuaregs to gain any power, as independence from one country would likely quickly spread to others.

What was initially an uprising for independence was hijacked by AQIM-affiliated groups to spread extremist views across Mali. But the Tuareg Sufi-like beliefs have little in common with the extremist Wahhabi views of AQIM, and AQIM has in fact set about destroying Tuareg shrines and tombs in the area. Although they were allies against the Malian government, it was always unlikely that the Tuaregs would adhere to AQIM’s cause.

MSM reports focus not on the Tuareg’s battles but on the growing power and attacks of AQIM, who by these accounts are trying to establish a new powerbase in the Sahara. The Tuareg’s grievances and fight for independence is largely ignored, as it does not benefit the countries involved – and threatens to disrupt lucrative trade deals in the region, including those involving Western powers.

French Interests
The African-led peacekeeping force will consist of African troops bolstered by international forces. France has leapt into the battle before the African troops have even been deployed. Why the haste?

France has a long history of conducting military action in its former African colonies. For example, in 2011 France carried out airstrikes to remove Laurent Gbagbo from the Ivory Coast, bringing an end to a civil war precipitated by Gbagbo’s refusal to leave office after an electoral defeat.

In this case, the land the Tuareg’s call home is rich in natural resources, including gold, uranium and diamonds. In neighbouring Niger, Tuareg’s inhabit the lands around two uranium mines owned by French companies. Historically these mining companies have had exclusive exploration rights in the region, but recently the government of Niger has issued mining permits to other nations, including China. Faced with investment from abroad, France stands to lose its exclusivity in the region. In addition, any disruption caused by Tuareg independence would likely affect French mining interests.

Hollande has stated that France will stay in Mali until the nation is “safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.” The French military in Mali will not only be able protect French commercial interests, but will also add leverage to ensuring a friendly government comes to power – or ‘legitimate authorities’ as Hollande may prefer.

Ensuring a friendly government runs Mali may explain the military coup which occurred in March 2012. The coup removed President Touré from power. Touré was set to step down during the next election – which was due in April 2012, only one month after the coup occurred. Toppling a president who is about to step down is not logical, unless the likely winner of the election was not your preferred choice – which could have been the case for France. The Malian and French governments had not been seeing eye-to-eye recently, with Mali refusing to sign an accord with the French government that would allow for Malian immigrants to be paid to return home, as well as not granting France’s requests to build military bases on Malian soil. A new government under the watchful eye of the French military may be more cooperative.

Selling Intervention
Selling military intervention on behalf of commercial interests to the world would likely be impossible. The intervention must appear to be for more altruistic reasons, for example humanitarian reasons, or to combat global terrorists for the world’s safety.

This is exactly what the intervention in Mali is being sold as. One may think it propitious that AQIM started another offensive only two weeks after the UN gave the nod for military intervention, provoking Hollande to respond that not stopping the terrorists would allow “a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe.” Why would AQIM choose that moment, when a more logical choice would have been some time in the preceding six months while the Malian government and military was in chaos?

It has long been suspected that AQIM is being financed by the Algerian intelligence agency in much the same way that the Taliban is financed by Pakistan’s ISI. If this is true, could it be that AQIM was ordered to provoke the response, giving France an acceptable reason to intervene in Mali? Could it be that only in appearance is France in Mali to combat AQIM, but in reality to end any Tuareg resistance and ensure a friendly government comes to power in Mali, to prevent disruption to French interests in the region?

Another twist is that there is popular belief in Mali that the Tuaregs were in fact aided by France. There is some evidence for this with the fact that they were supplied with weapons by the West while in Libya. Could it be that the Tueregs have been used by France to cause a crisis which can then be exploited for intervention? There seems to be parallels with America initially funding al-Qaeda in Afghanistan only to later use them as an excuse to invade the country.


Safeguarding commercial interests is no longer an acceptable excuse for military intervention. It is unknown whether AQIM’s hijacking of the Tuareg rebellion was simply chance or if the group was following orders from its Algerian backers, or if the Tuaregs were initially aided by France, but either way it provided France with an acceptable reason for intervention. With the non-cooperative Touré toppled by a military coup, perhaps on French orders, the Tuareg nationalistic uprising has been relabelled as another terrorist threat, where France has shouldered the burden to defeat the extremists for the good of Europe and the world. This labelling as good versus evil has made military intervention more acceptable and will advance the goals of France by ending the instability caused by the Tuareg rebellion and ensuring a government friendly to France comes to power, which in turn will protect France’s claim to the region’s natural resources. 

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