Al-Qaeda's affiliates in Africa see an opening in Mali
It all seemed to happen so quickly. On January 10, an alliance of Islamist militants captured the Malian town of Konna, 600km northeast of the capital, Bamako. The takeover by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, who had exercised de facto control of northern Mali for more than nine months, signaled two things: that they were no longer interested in peace talks with the Malian government, scheduled for January 21 in Burkina Faso, and that their intention was to push southwards.
Fearing that the militants would soon seize the whole country, and in response to a plea from the Malian interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, the French government confirmed on January 11 that its air force had launched strikes against targets inside Mali, and, later, that thousands of ground troops would be committed to the battle. On January 16, a reported 32 militants attacked and occupied a hydrocarbons facility in southern Algeria, at In Amenas. During the course of the four-day siege, an Al-Qaeda splinter group claimed responsibility for the operation and demanded the end of French combat operations in Mali, as well as the release of two high-profile prisoners from US detention. Thirty-seven foreign hostages died during the siege.
The explosive pace of these events, however, belies their long gestation period. One legacy of French colonial rule was the persistence of a weak central authority in Bamako, which in turn enabled two developments.
First, the grievances of the marginalized Tuareg community in northern Mali were left to smolder. This political and economic discontent erupted into outright rebellion in the early 1960s, and then again in 1990 and 2006. While measures to ameliorate the Tuaregs’ condition have been set out in a series of peace accords, including greater regional autonomy and more effective economic policies, they remained largely unimplemented by Bamako, guaranteeing the intensification of a Tuareg secessionist movement in the north.
Second, on the back foot in their doomed, decade-long war against the Algerian state, Algerian militants found breathing room in the desperately poor and ungoverned spaces of northern Mali from 2003 onwards. Here, North African jihadists and opportunists alike built up a substantial criminal network, smuggling drugs, arms, cigarettes, and people, trafficking in subsidized consumer goods from Libya and Algeria, and kidnapping for ransom.
The Tuareg and jihadist elements became linked, to a certain extent, through the person of Iyad Ag Ghaly. Nicknamed the “desert fox,” Ghaly forged a reputation for himself as a skillful fighter during the 1990 Tuareg rebellion. He later rose to political prominence as a negotiator between North African jihadists, the Malian authorities, and the governments of Western hostages. His influence was so great that the one-time Tuareg independence fighter was appointed as a consular adviser in Saudi Arabia. However, Ghaly returned from Jeddah in 2010 amid rumors that he had tested the patience of his Saudi hosts by making contact with Al-Qaeda elements. Indeed, Ghaly had become a Salafi.
Roughly one year later, a major Tuareg patron was deposed in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi, ever on the lookout for ways to needle his regional rivals, was a supporter of the Tuareg independence movement. He declared Libya the protector of the Tuareg people, who in his eyes were “the lions and eagles of the desert.” In addition to allegedly hosting Tuareg training camps, Gaddafi employed up to three thousand Tuaregs in his security forces. After his downfall, these heavily armed and well-trained fighters flowed back into Mali, reigniting the separatist rebellion, and intimidating the weak Malian army.
Motivated by their exhaustion and disillusionment with fighting the increasingly confident Tuaregs with poor equipment, among other things, a group of low-ranking Malian soldiers toppled the government in Bamako on March 22, 2012. With the Malian military focused on the coup d’état, the Tuareg rebels went on the offensive, seizing vast swathes of territory in the north and declaring an independent state of Azawad in April. Shortly thereafter, the gains made by the secular Tuareg independence movement were violently usurped by an Islamist faction known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), led by Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Sidelining his former brothers-in-arms from the Azawad movement, Ghaly linked up with an assortment of militants allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as the recently formed Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). An AQIM splinter group, MUJAO announced its establishment in October 2011 with a kidnapping in the Western Sahara. MUJAO is led by two men, Mauritanian national Hamada Ould Kheirou and Algerian Ahmed Al-Talmasi. Unlike the Malian Ansar Dine, MUJAO welcomes foreign fighters into its ranks. It has also carried out attacks against Algerian military targets, as with the March 2012 car bombings in Tamanrasset and Ouargla.
Together with MUJAO and AQIM elements, Ansar Dine pushed aside the Azawadis in order to take control of major northern towns in April 2012, including Timbuktu, Goundam, Gao, and Kidal. There, a puritanical vision of Islam was imposed on the local, largely Sufi, population, earning widespread comparisons with the so-called neo-Salafist policies of the Afghan Taliban when they took over Kabul in 1996. Militants destroyed ancient tombs—considered by them to be idolatrous—and implemented a harsh interpretation of Islamic justice , involving the stoning to death of unmarried couples and amputating the hands and feet of suspected thieves. Young boys were bought for as little as ten dollars from poverty-stricken families in order to serve as fighters, and girls as young as ten were forced into marriage. It is little wonder that journalists uniformly report that the French intervention is popular among the local population.
“Great doors of opportunity”
Shortly before he was killed in a drone strike in September 2011, Yemeni Al-Qaeda preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki reflected on the consequences of the Arab Spring: “With the new developments in the area, one can only expect that the great doors of opportunity would open for the mujahidin all over the world.” Awlaki’s optimism seemed misplaced at the time, given that Al-Qaeda was undergoing a strategic crisis brought on by the stark reality that most of Al-Qaeda’s victims since 9/11 have been Muslim civilians, and by the Obama administration’s decimation of its leadership structure, predominantly through drone strikes.
Although Awlaki’s global vision was exaggerated, Al-Qaeda has undeniably exploited the turmoil attendant to the Arab Spring in order to stave off defeat, at least for now. In Africa in particular, developments over the course of 2012 were striking.
A series of previously localized groups, which had been bogged down in domestic bloodshed, appeared to make a sudden turn towards global jihad. Al-Shabaab in Somalia had become infamous for its record of brutality against Somalis, banning games, music, and bras, with serious schisms between Somali and foreign fighters. Al-Shabaab had only launched one major attack outside Somalia: the Kampala bombings of July 2010, in response to the participation of Ugandan troops in the African Union’s Somalia Mission. However, in 2012 its nationalist narrative shifted to include threats against Western targets, and an alliance with Al-Qaeda was announced in February.
Boko Haram, Nigeria’s militant Islamist group, emerged as the product of power struggles between the predominantly Muslim north and the Christian south. Its domestic objective was the implementation of Islamic law and education, but its mandate widened in 2012. While its leader, Abubakar Shekau, had previously issued his communiqués in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria, his 2012 Eid message was recorded in Arabic and released through AQIM’s media wing. Shekau declared the US, the UK, and Israelis as Boko Haram’s enemies and pledged “solidarity with the mujahidin everywhere.” Hundreds of Boko Haram militants have been spotted in Gao since April, according to Malian security sources, and it is believed that Shekau himself is now operating from northern Mali.
At the same time, AQIM—which had been on autopilot in a grudge match against the Algerian government—seemed to shift its center of gravity southwards, as its fighters joined their more established Algerian comrades in northern Mali. After years of Algeria-centricity, AQIM’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and his longtime counterpart (and sometime enemy), Al-Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, both adopted Osama bin Laden’s terminology. Belmokhtar described AQIM’s strategy as “the declared strategy of Al-Qaeda . . . to confront the Crusader occident and the Jews.”
In this way, the seizure of northern Mali was the product of an emerging regional-cum-global consciousness among previously localized groups in Africa. The ideological space shifted towards global jihad throughout 2012, coinciding with the capture of a large territorial space in Mali.
As a consequence of these developments, and after a series of reports detailing the presence of Al-Qaeda training camps with increased coordination and financial cooperation , Mali’s neighbors sought support for a multilateral intervention force. By design, the force was to be Africa-led and deployed under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union. A UN Security Council Resolution (2085) was forthcoming in December 2012, and it was believed that the bulk of the 3,300-strong fighting force would be comprised of Nigerian troops. The ECOWAS intervention was deferred until after this coming summer, ostensibly to allow time for political dialogue, but more likely because of fears that the allocated troops were too disorganized to take on the militants—and, of course, a lack of clarity over who would foot the estimated USD 500 million bill.
Team of rivals
In response to the brewing intervention, threats from northern Mali came thick and fast. As early as June 24, 2012, an Ansar Dine commander in Timbuktu issued a message to the French, the US, and all NATO countries, emphasizing that the mujahidin were ready to fight at any moment in defense of Islam, and promising to take the fight “to the US, to London, to France, and to conquer the world.” In early December 2012, Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced the formation of a new jihadi faction , no doubt on account of having been passed over for the position of AQIM emir of the Sahel regions. In launching the Signed-in-Blood Brigades, Belmokhtar promised that, in response to any military intervention in Mali, “We will have some words to say to you.”
A veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, where he lost his left eye, Belmokhtar joined the Islamist uprising against the Algerian government in the 1990s, eventually becoming emir of the Sahel regions for the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which rebranded itself as AQIM in 2007. He is believed to have taken four wives from Sahelian communities, in the manner of Ayman Al-Zawahiri in the tribal areas of Pakistan, in order to become socially ensconced in his stomping ground. Evidently determined to establish the Signed-in-Blood Brigades as a force to be reckoned with, Belmokhtar reportedly used a Thuraya satellite phone from Gao to put into action the previously planned In Amenas operation, in a coded phone call with a commander that lasted thirty seconds. Within a few hours, Belmokhtar’s men had taken control of the facility, and “the one-eyed” commander was making global headlines.
The In Amenas attack was precisely the sort of blowback scenario the Algerian authorities had been worrying about—and, indeed, had warned of—for months. Despite its military and intelligence-gathering capabilities, and in spite of concerted lobbying attempts by Hillary Clinton and François Hollande, Algeria declined to become involved in the ECOWAS intervention plan. Instead, it favored a carefully negotiated political approach, by which more moderate Malian elements would be peeled away from a radical foreign core. In the event, a fortnight into the French intervention, a breakaway faction calling itself the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) announced that it was willing to negotiate with Paris and Bamako, as well as fight against its former comrades in Ansar Dine.
In addition to anxieties about a sharpened jihadi threat within Algeria, the Algerian government was concerned about Malian refugees inundating its southern towns, about the security of its oil and gas fields in the south, and about any sudden moves that might compromise Algeria’s delicately managed relationship with its own Tuareg population. Still, with the rapidly unfolding events in early January, Algiers did not wish to be seen to be thwarting the will of the international community and, as one Algerian newspaper put it, “Just like that, France drowned us in the Malian quagmire against our will.”
Alarm in North Africa
Since 2011, the Algerians had also been sounding the alarm about the impact on regional stability of growing extremism in Libya. The military regime in Algiers had long felt menaced by two principal threats, pro-democracy agitation and Islamic militancy. The popular uprising against Gaddafi and the subsequent proliferation of independent militias were viewed as something of an omni-shambles. As the official Algerian account of the In Amenas crisis is formulated, it is likely that fingers will be pointed to the south, but also to the east. There are already whispers in Algiers that military radios and satellite phones recovered from the scene in In Amenas had originally belonged to the Qataris, and had been passed on to Libyan fighters during the revolution against Gaddafi. It has also been reported that the nine Toyota vehicles used in the raid bore Libyan license plates.
Certainly, Libya has yet to fully stabilize. The political process appears hampered by regional and tribal divisions, and by mistrust between liberals and Islamists. While pluralism is no doubt a healthy feature of democracy, the trouble in Libya is that there is no effective, independent broker to mediate between these competing interest groups, in the form of a strong, centralized authority. At the same time, well over a year after the ouster of Gaddafi, the state does not enjoy a monopoly on violence.
A trend of small attacks against Western targets in 2012, including the Red Cross and a British diplomatic convoy, culminated in September with an assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four diplomatic staff, including the US ambassador. Since then, key Libyan officials have been assassinated, including the Benghazi security chief , Colonel Farag Al-Dersi, who led an anti-militia crackdown, as well as the head of Criminal Investigation in Benghazi, Abdelsalam Al-Mahdawi. Last month, the Libyan authorities declared the southern desert a closed military zone , in the face of “an upsurge in violence and drug trafficking, and the presence of armed groups that act with impunity.”
The growing unrest in Libya and the weak writ of the state prompted the US to begin flying surveillance drones over suspected jihadist training camps in the east, most likely near Derna, where Ayman Al-Zawahiri is believed to have deployed a trusted commander known as Abdulbasit Azuz. In addition, the Obama administration has earmarked USD 8 million to build an elite Libyan counterterrorism force , to be trained by Special Ops forces, but it is unclear which domestic factions would be the beneficiaries of such a partnership, given the ongoing limitations of the Libyan state.
The Tunisian authorities, who have engaged in several shoot-outs with jihadists, point to Libya as an “incubator” for regional Al-Qaeda elements. At the same time, it is becoming clear that these militants are keen to establish a base in Al-Qasrin province, along the border with Algeria. In Egypt, the Salafi–jihadi movement has gained traction among the long-disenfranchised Bedouin communities of the Sinai, where a power vacuum since Mubarak’s departure has produced both a further deterioration of their socioeconomic situation, and a rising appeal of the jihad ideology.
Defeat or retreat?
Thus, the Islamist takeover of northern Mali and the subsequent French intervention occurred in the context of longstanding governance failures by Bamako, the unresolved problem of Algerian militancy, an emerging subscription to global jihad on the part of local African extremists, political upheaval across North Africa and, of course, jihadi opportunism. The multilateral project to dislodge Islamic militants from northern Mali was never meant to begin this way—and, not for the first time, the international community defaulted to a scenario whereby a Western power assumes leadership in countering a multifaceted problem, taking the first step with its military.
France’s interests in its former colony are manifold, ranging from uranium concessions in the Sahel, to the safety of tens of thousands of its nationals residing in the region, to the sense of a humanitarian obligation to the Malian people, to homeland security. In deciding to act, the reasoning was most likely that it is easier to defend territory rather than to have to retake it, and that it is better to intervene now with a local partner on the ground than to have to launch an invasion from outside Mali’s borders later. No doubt, France’s military will triumph in the immediate battle, halting the rebels’ southward advance and recapturing the main towns of the north.
However, a number of unresolved questions remain. If the militants are not defeated but have opted instead to retreat, it is not clear which forces will fight the coming insurgency. And, if the militants are in fact pushed out of Mali altogether, what will be the fate of fragile neighboring countries, such as Mauritania and Niger? A fate equally uncertain is that of the Tuareg community. Hollande has taken great pains to emphasize that France is acting alongside its Malian partners, but this implies, first, that Paris is shoring up a government of dubious legitimacy in which an unelected junta calls the shots , and second, that it is closely aligning itself with a local military structure that may stand accused of human rights violations.
Perhaps the largest uncertainty is whether France has learned from the mistakes of the American war on terror, and will therefore place the human security of the Malian people at the center of its counter-terrorism approach and operate with a clear definition of success. If not, and despite French (and British ) assertions that the engagement in Mali will be “short-term,” France will find itself at war with an amorphous ideology, expanding its mission across time as well as space.