Changing Tack

In France’s efforts to push Al Qaeda out of Northern Mali (AQIM), a notebook was recently discovered containing ideas, remarks, and strategies enumerated by Abdelmalek Droukdel, Emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These notes show an Al Qaeda in flux, one that is not quite as rigid as its forbears in Afghanistan and Somalia. While this book may only be the thoughts of one man, it likely suggests a new adaptability in the Al Qaeda mindset.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab pursued their ideas with a single-mindedness not seen in North Africa. There are, for example, reports that Al Shabaab fighters sought to tear down all English or Somali signage in towns under their administration and replace them with Arabic versions. Of course, most Somalis do not speak Arabic so this new signage would likely be of limited effectiveness. While Al Shabaab are known for their more violent tendencies, this example of signage clearly demonstrates their unwillingness to adapt their movement for local attitudes.

In contrast, Droukdel writes:

“The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands. Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death.”

These are the words of a man who understands that wanton cruelty and indifference to local mores will not aid their mission to set up an Islamic theocracy. Droukdel is no moderate, as former explosives expert for the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) in Algeria he has been involved with construction of explosive devices that were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. And he did not slow down as he moved upwards through the ranks until gaining control of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) – which later became AQIM in 2004. Yet here he is preaching moderation, at least of a relative kind.

We see this moderation in the governance of Northern Mali. Not only have Droukdel’s notes been found, but so have “court” records. One case, from October, shows a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, accused of witchcraft and magic. Where Al Shabaab might resort to a beheading or some other grisly repercussion, AQIM’s courts only sentenced the man to three days in jail. This isn’t to say the courts were always moderate, women were known to be lashed for “mixing with men and the usage of foul language” as well as less gender specific lashings for alcohol use or anything else dubbed un-Islamic. Not to mention the destruction of Sufi shrines and other cultural heritage markers. Put mildly, these were not nice men.

However, there was a fascinating struggle on the part of some leadership elements, including Droukdel, to mitigate these abuses. Droukdel’s notes advise against the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites and public floggings, saying:

“On the internal front we are not strong… and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population. Your officials need to control themselves.

This is not to say the militant’s rule was not brutal. It was. Cases of amputation are far from uncommon. This is not a story of a moderate Islamic group, but of an extremist group with extremist ends attempting to cover its extremist means in a sheen of moderation.

While the end goal remains the same, Al Qaeda is learning that it needs to be seen to moderate its message, or at least alter it to be acceptable in differing cultural zones. This will only make Al Qaeda a more formidable opponent in the future if it allows them to gain more local acceptance than the limited amount extant in past examples.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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The Algerian Question

French intervention in Mali has proceeded apace as French troops begin a ground assault on extremists in the North. However, at the same time that France is making a push in Mali, Algeria is suffering from a terrorist attack targeting one of its gas plants 60 kilometers from the Libyan border. Reports are mixed, but it clear that the Algerian military has launched a strike that has freed the majority of the hostages, although the attempt also led to the death of many hostages as well. As it stands, militants in Algeria claim that they are still holding 41 foreigners.

What is also clear is that Algeria did not collaborate with foreign governments whose citizens were held hostage, including the United States. Algeria did not inform potential partners of its plans nor did it accept offers of assistance. The question, then, is why did Algeria not accept any of these offers or even at least inform is counterparts that an assault would be attempted?

The answer to this question lies in Algeria’s historical legacy. Algeria’s political identity was formed in the fire of a violent revolution against France. The struggle against colonialism has left an unwillingness to engage in multilateral interventions that was only enhanced by the civil war of the 1990s. Additionally, the scars of the civil war have left a mindset in the Algerian military that they must do whatever it takes to put down militants and rebels, whatever the consequences. The 1990s was truly a desperate time, full of massacres and atrocities committed both by the government and militants. During the 1990s Algeria learned from Hafez Al Assad the way to put down rebellions. Hafez Al Assad would have been a likely target to learn from, given that he had crushed a somewhat similar uprising in Hama as the Algerians believed they were then currently facing. Some claim that Algeria has, more recently, lent their advice and lessons learned fighting their civil war to Hafez’s son Bashar Al Assad as well as advising Ben Ali before his ouster in Tunisia. Algeria also voted against the imposition of a no-fly zone during Libya’s revolution. This assistance to regimes in danger is indicative of Algeria’s distaste for foreign intervention as well as its belief in the sovereignty of a government to control what occurs within its borders. 

Suffice it to say that it is clear that Algeria is both uneasy with foreign intervention and has a belief that it knows exactly how to deal with militants. In the eyes of the military, even if it was brutal, Algeria did eventually crush the Islamic militants that struggled against the state in the 1990s.

In a previous post I argued that Algeria’s feeling of discomfit with interventions may have unforeseen circumstances for the intervention in Mali. While Algeria has granted France the use of its airspace in order to allow French air raids in Mali, the current hostage crisis demonstrates that Algerian cooperation is unlikely to be comprehensive. It is critical that the French and Algerians come to an understanding regarding strategic goals and tactical methodology in Mali.

Algeria and Mali have a very long border. The hostage crisis demonstrates that militants remaining in Algeria are influenced by events in Mali. It also shows that Algeria will not defer to outsiders when dealing with issues within its borders. Looking for a silver lining here, perhaps the Sahel crisis is an opportunity to create a new understanding between Algeria, its neighbors, and the wider international community – including the United States. It will take some very difficult diplomacy and a rethink of longstanding ideas, both on the part of Algerians and the rest of the world, but perhaps some good may come from this tragedy.

 Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mali in the Crucible

The battle for Mali appears to have greatly accelerated in the past few days. Firstly, Islamists, including Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine, have begun a march on southern targets. On 8 January Islamists marching in the direction of Mopti were fired on by the Malian military. Just today, 11 January, Islamists have taken control of the village of Konna. The situation is summarized thusly:

The Islamists now threaten a major airfield some 25 miles away at the town of Sévaré, which is also the home of a significant army base. And 10 miles from Sévaré is the historic river city of Mopti, the last major town controlled by the Malian government, with a population of more than 100,000.

It may be that a major offensive on the side of the militants is underway. The loss of Mopti, while still hundreds of kilometers from Bamako, would constitute a major setback for the Malian government. However, to counter this advance it appears that the French have decided to participate directly in the Malian conflict.

On the same day that Konna fell, President Hollande stated:

“We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence…I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations Security Council resolution. We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues.”

The Malian and French governments have confirmed that French troops are on the ground. The French have been involved in interventions as recently as 2011, in Cote D’Ivoire. It is likely that a trained French force could provide significant support for the Malian military, but direct French involvement carries with it other issues that may impede the success of the mission. While President Hollande did recently go to Algeria and acknowledged “the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people”, he did not apologize for said suffering. Whether or not Algeria feels comfortable with a French intervention so close to its border may have unforeseen consequences for the Malian conflict.

Whether or not any of these events represent a turning point in the Malian conflict remains to be seen. What can be sure, however, is that a difficult situation just got significantly more complicated.

 Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

A Smooth Criminal

Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar Dine, has rescinded his pledge to halt violence and work with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Bamako. Specifically, “Ansar Dine has decided to revoke the offer to stop hostilities together with the negotiations being conducted in Ouagadougou.” This could mean greater difficulty for any force seeking to break up the control of Northern Mali by various Islamist groups. However, it is important to recognize that Ag Ghali is a canny operator and may not have as strong an ideological commitment to militant Islamism as it appears.

Firstly, it must be remembered that Ag Ghali has been on the scene for some time. He was instrumental in launching a previous rebellion in 1990. However, Ag Ghali also signed the Tamanrasset Agreement with Bamako in Algeria. He even obtained a Malian diplomatic posting to Saudi Arabia. Although it appears he was removed from his post for consorting with jihadis, it is unclear what real effect this had on him. His main connection was with Tablighi Jamaat, which, while definitely fundamentalist, does not generally espouse direct violent political jihad. 

After all, before the breakout of the current conflict, Ag Ghali was known to desire a position in the secular MNLA. He was rejected not for any Islamist leanings, but because of his prior relationships with Bamako, not to mention exterior actors such as Algeria. Even after getting rejected for a position as secretary general of the MNLA, Ag Ghali still didn’t go the Islamist route. Instead, he attempted to become the political head of the Ifoghas clan, to which he belongs. After he failed to attain this position he finally decided to helm the Ansar Dine movement.

This, by no means complete, history doesn’t show a particularly ideological man. The fact that Ag Ghali has retracted (for now) his offer to lay down his arms should not detract from the fact that he has been willing to talk to both the MNLA and Bamako. Not to mention that Ag Ghali and Ansar Dine have not ruled out laying down their arms in the future. In fact, the current retraction of the offer to stop hostilities was followed by a statement that Ag Ghali was open to “new negotiations, even if (Ansar Dine) has never detected a willingness from the other party to reciprocate.”

While it is believable that Ag Ghali’s time in Saudi irrevocably changed him, it is entirely possible that Ag Ghali is simply holding out for the best deal. If he believes that association with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) will be more profitable for him, he will likely maintain a more bellicose position. However, when events start moving in another direction he may prove more receptive to diplomatic overtures. For now, with any international intervention months, if not a year, away and Bamako seemingly incapable of retaking the North alone, he will likely continue to vacillate between conciliation and conflict.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Vaccination Campaigns Derailed by Violent Extremists as More Children Die in Disease Outbreaks

Extremist violence targeting Pakistani civilians continues. On January 1, 2013, gunmen killed seven teachers and health workers (six were women) in northwest Pakistan. According to The New York Times, the aid group, formed more than two decades ago, focused its projects on Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and South Waziristan. While a group has yet to claim responsibility for the attack, experts suspect either the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) or other violent religious extremists are to blame.

This attack follows a larger coordinated assault against aid workers on December 18 and 19, which left nine dead across the country. The Economist named the “Pakistani Taliban or allied groups” as the murderers, and underscored how the attack prompted a shut down of the UN’s polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan.

As the UN decision to cease operations demonstrates, targeted killings negatively impact health missions underway throughout the country. Afiya Shehrbano Zia, of The Guardian cites a study by the British Medical Journal, which details the effects of extremism on healthcare in Pakistan, stating:

“Not only did overall infrastructure of community health suffer drastically, but maternal mortality increased, and individual [lady health workers] LHWs were socially ostracized through a vilification campaign, while many left or stopped working due to direct threats to their lives.”

Certainly their fears are justified, as 15 health and aid workers were killed in Pakistan last year.

The targeted killings are but a piece of the bigger picture. Also troubling is the reported increase in measles cases in Pakistan. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman, Mayam Yunus, 306 children died from the disease in 2012, up from 64 in 2011. Though Yunus did not provide a reason for the increase, a health official from the Sindh province noted that most cases stemmed from areas where children were not vaccinated. Undoubtedly, continued, restricted access to these areas will only lead to further disease outbreaks.

In a PBS News Hour interview, Pamela Constable of The Washington Post underscored several important points regarding heightened violence, stating that almost all of the health groups are comprised of local workers, many of which are women subject to repressive tactics by militant groups who “do not think women should be out in public” period. When asked whether the government could protect aid workers, Constable replied that the lack of political will complicates its ability to do so, as the growing influence of the religious right keeps government officials from speaking out. The solution, she proposes, requires leadership from both the military and political establishment to “say this simply is not acceptable.”

A key aspect of this message should focus on debunking the notion that vaccines are a Western plot designed to harm Pakistanis or sterilize Muslims. Unfortunately, in a land rife with conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism, the arrest and 33-year sentence of a Pakistani doctor tied to the CIA’s hunt for bin Laden gave weight to extremists’ seeking to discredit health campaigns, as the doctor was “convicted of treason for using a vaccination drive to try to gather DNA sample from the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was in hiding,” reported The Washington Post.

Constable is right to encourage Pakistani leadership on this issue in particular, but combating the broader conspiratorial atmosphere will benefit a wider range of issues and undermine violent extremism. This is a tall order, however, given that many of these radical groups are state-sponsored and serve the interests of Pakistan.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Jumping the Gun?

The conflict in Mali may proceed at a greater pace than desired by the international community. Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s interim president, recently came out and stated that, “The legitimate, legal, quick and clean war we want to wage with the international community’s support… needs more time for all technical, strategic and legal aspects to be fine-tuned. However I can tell you one thing: Mali will not wait months, as some seem to advocate. We will not wait for the cancer to spread. The war against the terrorists will happen sooner than expected and the Malian army will be at the forefront.” This seems like it will be far in advance of the September or October dates envisioned by the United Nations and other international actors.

A preemptive strike by Malian forces could make a difficult situation more untenable. It is highly unlikely that the Malian military, itself in disarray after the March coup, will be able to wholly retake land lost to Islamic radicals in the North. It will likely rely on impromptu militias that have been forming out of populations that have fled the Islamist dominated North. On top of that is the question of what will happen to the MNLA, the secular Tuaregs that kickstarted the rebellion. Will Bamako be able to come to a meaningful agreement with the MNLA, or even Ansar Dine?

While it is clear that something must be done in Northern Mali it may not be feasible to expect action immediately. Perhaps President Traore’s statement is meant to catalyze quicker action by the international community. It may also be a result of internal politicking. After the arrest and resignation of Prime Minister Django Sissoko in December, the President may be acting to shore up support with the military. However, if not, then a new wrinkle will fold out in an already complex situation.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mali: A Brief and Incomplete Overview

Mali has increasingly fallen under the specter of Al Qaeda and its offshoots. A paralyzed, non-functioning government to the south has been toppled in favor of a weak, disorganized military regime. It is unlikely that Mali, by itself, will be able to thwart the goals of Al Qaeda and its affiliates as they consolidate their control in the North. Cities which were once focal points of Western tourist traffic are now enduring scenes of cultural destruction, as well as amputations and executions.

The United Nations has proposed that, in order to save Mali, the Economic Community of West African States formulate a planned military intervention on behalf of the Malian government. This plan envisages a force of between three and four thousand ECOWAS troops that will enter Northern Mali and rout Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Ignoring ECOWAS’ dubious record at successful intervention (ECOMOG, ECOWAS’ intervention in Liberia, was often referred to as “Every Car or Moveable Object Gone”), there is still the matter of a four thousand man operation ostensibly maintaining security in a zone the size of France.

This force, however, is not projected to even begin operations until September or October of next year. Al Qaeda is not going to sit still during this time. Malians, especially those displaced by the conflict, are not willing to wait. Already, locals are forming militias with the goal of retaking the North. While the formation of these militias does help demonstrate that AQIM is not highly popular, they also can lead to future instability. Once groups arm themselves and gain some level of political control of a region it can be very difficult to get them to put down their arms and rejoin the civilian world.

Finally, even assuming the intervention force gets rolling, no major spoilers appear, and the Malian government becomes more defined, there is no guarantee that the Tuaregs will be willing to place themselves under the control of Bamako once more. There have been rebellions in 1916, 1962, 1990, 2007, and now in 2012. These rebellions are not short affairs either, most last at least two years. The Tuareg rebels who began the current rebellion, the MNLA, have indicated their willingness to accept autonomy rather than full independence. Ansar Dine, up until now allied AQIM, may be able to be turned, but Iyad Ag Ghaly is a canny operator. It is unclear whether his interests lie with militant Islam or with his own personal stature.  

This whole plan has a lot of “ifs” – if Ansar Dine drops AQIM, if the MNLA and Bamako agree, if the intervention ever gets rolling, etc. The problem in Mali is not fundamentally one of Islamic radicalism. It is one of state weakness and dysfunction. The weakness of the state allowed for a rebellion which the Islamists used to their advantage. If a solution is to be found to the current problem, it will lie in strengthening the organs of the Malian state, whether by federalized institutions or not. A flexible approach is absolutely imperative.

This has only been a brief overview. I intend to explore the situation in Mali in more depth over the coming weeks.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s Expanding Influence

Recently, the US State Department designated Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Islamist rebel group currently operating in Syria, as a terrorist organization, claiming that the group’s name serves as an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The State Department underscored al-Nusrah’s responsibility for almost 600 attacks since November 2011 (40 of which were suicide attacks) and warned against providing the group with any form of assistance.

As anticipated, the designation sparked a backlash in Syria almost immediately, igniting protests and prompting a flood of statements by well-known organizations like the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – both of which condemned the designation outright, emphasizing that Assad and his regime were far more deserving of the terrorist label.    

While heated debate regarding the designation will undoubtedly continue, both sides can agree on one thing: that al-Nusrah is growing and its influence expanding. David Ignatius of The Washington Post notes that “rough” estimates put al-Nusrah’s size “somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, according to officials of a non-governmental organization that represents the more moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” Of the FSA’s fighters, Al Qaeda “accounts for 7.5 percent to 9 percent” of the total, Ignatius writes. The Economist provides a similar size estimate, stating that al-Nusrah totals approximately 7,000 fighters, and, in Aleppo, is “one of the four biggest brigades fighting on the front line.”

Al-Nusrah’s seemingly strategic behavior and calculated maneuvers have only won the organization more support. Given its steady stream of funding from donors in the Gulf and weapons acquisitions, al-Nusrah is emerging as a prime fighting force amongst the opposition groups; in turn, attracting the attention of new recruits. Off the battlefield, al-Nusrah is making further gains, as well. In his Foreign Policy piece, Aaron Zelin writes, “[T]here are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services,” and “becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.”

Al-Nusrah makes no effort to hide its ultimate end goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, and this objective has left many religious minorities fearful that its end state resembles “Taliban-style rule,” Reuters reports. As the organization grows and expands its reach, the West faces increased pressure to counter al-Nusrah’s influence, so that it doesn’t fill the governance vacuum left over by Assad’s regime. Unfortunately, the terrorist designation has already backfired on the US, and could ultimately lead to the unintentional empowerment of al-Nusrah. This dangerous possibility warrants immediate address and new strategic thinking because an al-Nusrah with any amount of influence will likely instigate sectarianism and disrupt Syria’s path towards peace.      

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Problem

Recently, the Pew Research Center reported that “nearly half (47%) of the countries and territories in the world have laws or policies that penalize blasphemy, apostasy (abandoning one’s faith) or defamation.” According to Pew, “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine,” constitute blasphemy. Of the thirty-two countries with anti-blasphemy laws, Pakistan frequently draws international attention for its seemingly absurd application of its law. Pamela Constable examines the topic in a chapter of her book, Playing with Fire, noting that while state executions have never been carried out, “dozens of defendants have been given life sentences, and some have been killed by enraged Muslims while awaiting trial.”

In 2012 alone, NPR reports that nearly thirty cases were filed. Most recently, Iftikhar Shaikhm, a US national, is under investigation after his nephew claimed Shaikhm wrote “blasphemous words” about the Prophet Muhammad in his newly published book. Other cases this year have earned more attention. Most notable, perhaps, was the case involving a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, whose neighbor, a cleric, accused her of burning pages from the Koran. As a result, an angry mob descended on the girl’s home, demanding that authorities arrest her. Ultimately, a Pakistani court dropped the charges based on lack of evidence.

The apparent ease with which accusations are made in Pakistan is troubling, leaving many human rights groups, according to The New York Times, to draw attention to its disproportionate application against religious minorities. Masih’s arrest, for instance, sent reverberations throughout her Christian community, prompting many to flee.  

Frequently, blasphemy accusations “turn out to be about something else, often settling personal scores or grabbing property.” The attack on Farooqi Girls High School helps illustrate this point. The vice principal from a nearby madrassa accused one of the school teachers of insulting the Prophet, which incited a mob attack on the building, and ultimately led to the arrest of Farooqi’s principal and sent the accused teacher into hiding. Salman Hameed of  The Guardian argues that the real driver behind the attack was “envy,” stating that “the burning of the school [was] probably about a clash between the upwardly mobile, educated middle class and the frustrated, poor and uneducated class.” He adds that being a well-resourced girls’ school likely amplified resentment.   

 Unfortunately, few prominent Pakistani officials dedicate sufficient talk to reforming the law, recognizing that previous critics were assassinated – both Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were killed in 2011. Alarmingly, Taseer’s killer won praise across the country for his commitment to Islam; in turn, scaring many political figures away from addressing the blasphemy issue.

 Still, there are individuals, like Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, who, in 2010 as a parliamentarian, advocated  making religious offenses the jurisdiction of higher courts; thereby, requiring higher standards of evidence for prosecution. Though Rehman’s proposal was blocked by religious conservatives, it certainly proves a step in the right direction.

 Perhaps now is the time for politicians to revisit the issue and ride the wave of international condemnation focused on the attack of Malala Yousufzai, who was accused of leading “a campaign against Islam and Shariah,” a charge similar to those faced by the alleged blasphemers mentioned above. The lack of attention on Iftikhar Shaikhm’s arrest, however, sadly suggests that the focus on violent extremism and abuse of the anti-blasphemy law has nearly dissipated.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.