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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Mapping Conflict in North Africa and the Sahel

Straying briefly away from the types of analysis I’ve been engaged in so far, today I’m going to present a couple maps that shed light on developments in North Africa and the Sahel.

Firstly, coming from a report made to the IAEA in 2009, is a map of possible uranium deposits in Mali:

Mali-Uranium

The Arms Control Wonk explains the significance of uranium for the region at large:

“With national borders in the Sahara and Sahel existing largely on maps alone, a main focus of French concern has got to be Niger, the centerpiece of uranium production in northern Africa. As in Mali, Tuaregs in Niger have pressed the government for a greater share of the proceeds from mineral extraction, including from uranium production. Recent local accounts suggest that Tuaregs in Mali may have linked with Al Qaeda to tap money flowing into Mali, Niger, and Mauritania provided by Saudi-funded Wahabis, and that the rise in insurgency backed by Al Qaeda might be explained by Tuaregs’ once again demanding money from the government and other potential sources. In Niger…Touaregs made a deal with the Niger government in 1995 to cease fighting in exchange for between 10% and 15% of the proceeds from uranium-mining operations. Two years later, a breakaway group resumed violence against the state. This was followed by a peace accord, and that in turn by renewed conflict over water shortages, working conditions, and ecological degradation. Finally, in 2007, a new Tuareg separation movement was formed, which demanded greater compensation from uranium revenues and better environmental protection.”

So, Mali may very well have uranium reserves, at least if we’re listening to the Malian government circa 2009. Uranium in next door Niger has only led to a furtherance of the same type of conflicts that Mali is suffering from, but now there is the added wrinkle of Al Qaeda. At a fundamental level, however, the situation does remind me of an infamous quote from Laurent Kabila of Congo fame. To paraphrase Kabila, “Rebellion was easy. All you needed was $10,000 and a satellite phone.” In other words, rebellion and insurgency become very easy when a relatively small amount of seed money can get you enough followers to take advantage of natural resources – that satellite phone will come in handy when selling minerals to buyers abroad.

Another map, coming from Al Arabiya details French intervention in Mali so far:

FrenchMaliIntervention

While I am certain the details of this map will very quickly be out of date, it does provide a decent picture of where the conflict in Mali stands at the moment.

A final map, from The Guardian, looks at the wider issues in North Africa and the Sahel:

Africa_Turmoil_WEB

This map quite effectively demonstrates that the Mali crisis is not happening in a vacuum. It shows an entire region embroiled in conflict. While this map is only a snapshot of the region and not wholly complete, the collision of arms, smuggling, militancy, and weak states are a particularly troubling scenario.

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.

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.

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.