France Moves Against an Al-Qaeda Haven
By Harold Hutchison
ISLAMIST UPRISING IN MALI
A year ago, most of you reading this issue had never really heard about Mali. About all you’d probably know about that country would be that it is somewhere in Africa. Maybe you’d know that it is where Timbuktu is now located. But beyond that, not too many people know that much about Mali.
And what does northern Mali matter? Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 164th out of 185 nations in terms of gross domestic product per capita according to the IMF. It’s way out the way – and there seems to be nothing anyone cares about there. I mean, who would care about it?
That was the sort of attitude we had about a place called Afghanistan. When al-Qaeda was allowed to establish a bases of operations there, they were able to carry out 9/11. So believe it or not, a poor country that is out of the way can matter a great deal.
BACKGROUND TO THE UPRISING
In January, 2012, an Islamist uprising began that piggybacked on the long-standing conflict between Tuareg rebels and the central government. In Mali, the Tuareg had had three rebellions in less than a quarter century. The first lasted from 1990-1995, the second from 2007-2009, and the third started last year.
Like the Kurds in Mesopotamia, the Tuareg have been seeking autonomy at a minimum, if not a nation-state of their own. The Tuareg are nomadic people who mix Islam with a variety of traditional tribal beliefs. The majority live in Niger, but around 450,000 live in Mali. They also reach into Libya, Algeria, and Burkina Faso. One interesting quirk among the Tuareg is that the women don’t cover their faces, but the men do.
The Tuareg have also been known for their indigo clothing – and the dyes they use sometimes will stain their skin. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tuareg Confederations fell to French invasion forces, their swords proving to be no match for French rifles. In 1905 and 1917, the Tuareg signed treaties after having been defeated.
The French left Africa in the 1960s. Much like the Kurds, the Tuareg found themselves divided among a number of countries. As a result, the central governments found themselves competing for resources in the region. One thing that the region does have is salt mines – and even some uranium deposits.
In recent years, though, there is a new presence in the region, one that started emerging in the 1990s. It got its start in the 1998 as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The group was founded by Hassan Hattab, who was forced out in 2001. The organization saw additional leadership changes until 2006, when Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat had united with al-Qaeda. The group changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in January, 2007.
How has this group become a big player – perhaps the wealthiest terrorist group in North Africa? “The source of our financing is the Western countries. They are paying for jihad,” Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of Islamist militias, boasted in a New York Times article on 31 December, 2012. In essence, humanitarian groups and Western governments had funded the terrorist group every time they had paid a ransom demanded in the wake of kidnapping people.
THE LATEST REBELLION LEADS TO A COUP
In January, 2012, the long-running tensions between the Tuaregs and the central government over mining and its effects on the pastoral lifestyle the nomads have lived blew into a new rebellion. The first attacks occurred on 16 January, 2012 around the village of Menaka in eastern Mali. The next day, the villages of Tessalit and Aguelhok were also attacked. Government forces reportedly re-took the villages, but rebels claimed to have taken back Aguelhok by 24 January.
The rebellion continued with more spasms of fighting for the next two months. United States Air Force C-130s began to carry out air drops to aid Malian forces fighting the rebels. Then on 21 March, 2012, things changed big-time. Troops dissatisfied with the government’s management pulled off a coup that deposed Malian president Amadou Toure. The Obama Administration cut off all aid to Mali on 26 March, and demanded the restoration of constitutional government.
The Tuareg rebels attacked in the wake of the coup – declaring independence on 6 April, 2012 after government forces withdrew from large portions of northern Mali. The declaration was rejected by both the European Union and the African Union. However, the forces that had driven the Malian government out began to fight among themselves.
ISLAMISTS VS. NATIONALISTS
The Tuareg nationalists soon found out that al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) was a problem for them. The day before the declaration of independence, AQIM took hostages in Gao. The rebels managed to convince AQIM to release the hostages, who were taken at the Algerian consulate. Tensions increased, and on 8 June, 2012, Tuareg and Islamist fighters engaged each other in a shootout.
The situation in Mali did not go completely unnoticed in the United States. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney cited AQIM’s rise in northern Mali during the third debate with Barack Obama. Had Romney won, it is likely that this rising threat would have been forcefully confronted.
Instead, Obama won, and it seems that “leading from behind” may be the American strategy. Yet it seems that there will be an effort to aid Mali in fighting al-Qaeda.
FRANCE STEPS IN
On 14 January, 2013, French forces began air and ground operations against the Islamists. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is also committing troops as well. The situation, though, is touchy. On 16 January, AQIM terrorists seized 41 hostages at a gas field in Western Algeria, demanding that France cease its operations. Algerian forces attempted a hostage rescue, but the attempt was an apparent fiasco. According to a report by Voice of America, the fates of the hostages are still unknown. The United States did not deny reports that an unmanned aerial vehicle was monitoring the situation.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted that American forces were supporting the French in their operations, saying “[W]e have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.” General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that France had “asked our help” due to America’s experiences in the War on Terror.
The situation in Mali is one with very high stakes. If AQIM succeeds in establishing a safe haven, the world is at risk for another 9/11. The fight in Mali may very well be vital to ensuring America’s security.