Who’s on First? Or Why Fences Matter More Than Al-Qaeda in Mali

Security and development personnel are in a unique position to leverage Tuareg socio-economic grievances to counter Al-Qaeda ideology and recruitment tactics in Mali. The nature of the Tuareg Rebellions in Mali, both past and present, are founded upon issues of ethnic identity, regional autonomy, and government marginalization of minorities. The provision of both financial and development programs in the northern territories of Mali is an effective way to deter vulnerable groups from adhering to AQ ideology and provide a long term security solution for the Mali and the Sahel.

The conflict in Mali could be decisive in determining whether violent Islamist extremism spreads throughout Africa and metastasizes. Mismanagement of the conflict may push radical Islamists further into sub-Saharan Africa to seed new cells. Mali’s porous borders make containment virtually impossible and the northern desert will require staggering numbers of well trained, highly motivated soldiers to stabilize the situation for humanitarian efforts aimed at resolving conflict to take root and thrive. This, coupled with widespread corruption and a flourishing smuggling and traffic trade, allows extremists to move unhindered from one country to another.

The complex socio-ethnic breakdown of Mali further complicates the conflict. The Malian government is faced with Tuareg nationalist movements aligned with violent extremist groups; radical Islamists bent on purging the region of apostate “unbeliever” governments in order to install fundamentalist regimes based on Islamic Law or Sharia; pressures from foreign intervention; and its own internal dynamics of corruption, weak institutions, and individual demands from its various marginalized multi-ethnic groups. Any potential solution will need to address Mali’s heterogeneous society and its demands, regardless of how that fits into the Western perception of the country.

Therefore, while ample attention has been given to Al-Qaeda Affiliated Movements (AQAM) like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its role in the conflict in Mali, the deeper anthropological and sociological issues are not well understood and should be explored. SIC’s research and analysis, based on both on-the-ground and desk research, has led us to the following key conclusions:

1.         There is substantial confusion in media reporting regarding simple matters such as the key ethnic groups of Mali. Reports frequently confuse the French and Anglo naming conventions of various groups, implying or stating that the Fulani (English name) and the Peul (French name) are not the same ethnic group but rather, two separate groups, and that Tuaregs (a people of Mali) are different from Tamasheqs (the language spoken by some Tuaregs). France and the US can hardly hope to remedy the problems of Northern Mali when even professional observers like news reporters cannot keep track of the different ethno-political factions.

2.         There is a tendency in reports to confuse the Tuareg Rebellion against Bamako with Tuaregs supporting an Islamist insurgency effort. While some Tuaregs do support AQAM elements, no monolithic Tuareg Islamist insurgency exists.

3.            The potential humanitarian crisis developing in Northern Mali has been overlooked. Non-rebel Tuaregs are targets of ethnic violence and are blamed for the country’s instability. The Malian military, local militias, and citizens have already been accused of “score settling” against Tuaregs in Bamako and  other traditionally tolerant and ethnically mixed locations.  Worrisome, once more, is the misrepresentation of the Tuareg Rebellion in Western media with AQAM. The predominantly ethnic Mande-dominated government in Bamako has the potential to launch a state-sponsored genocide against the Tuaregs. Such an effort, conducted under the guise of counter-terrorism, could go unnoticed by the West, or even, could be tacitly supported. The targeting of Tuaregs and ethnic Arabs could result in the death of 5-8% of the Malian population.

4.         While AQAM have added a new element to the conflict in Northern Mali, this latest Tuareg Rebellion is little more than an extension of the 1962-1964, 1990-1995, and 2007-2009 rebellions, with AQAM manipulating Tuareg frustrations with the primarily ethnic Mande government. The US and France must hold the Malian government to its promises regarding the Tuaregs, or be prepared for a cessation of hostilities to last no more than two to three years.

5.         Intervention in Mali must focus on anthropologically rooted issues such as ethnic identity, land ownership, and traditional versus “modern” livelihoods. One of the chief divides in Mali lies between pastoral and sedentary peoples. Land owners have fenced off their property and closed caravan routes used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and have forced nomads to abandon their herds and foster alternative livelihoods. The herdsmen of the Fulani and Tuareg have had difficulty leaving behind their nomadic lifestyle and, as a result, have come into conflict with frustrated sedentary Malinke and Songhai land owners. No conflict will be meaningfully resolved without addressing this key issue. As with the second Tuareg Rebellion, reintegration of refugees and IDPs fleeing the conflict with varying livelihoods will be a difficult task. Communities that have subsequently lost their herds will need to sedentarize and adapt to urban centers. Others will attempt to reclaim dispossessed lands. 

6.         Radical Salafism does not appeal to Sufi Malians who often incorporate pagan animist religious practices to form a culturally hybridized version of Islam.  As Al-Qaeda discovered in Somalia in the 1990’s, the old adage “you can’t buy a tribe, but you can rent one,” is particularly apropos in Northern Mali. This provides a substantial opportunity for security and development personnel who are able to provide resources and influence tribes through aid programs. By addressing socio-economic grievances, development personnel can wane the North from adhering to Radical Islamist ideology. The Malian government will need to invest in the North to dissuade populations vulnerable to Islamist welfare programs.

7.         French intervention will have no meaningful impact on the long-term security of Mali, other than to buy time for a more comprehensive approach to resolving and sustaining Mali. Uprooting Islamist groups will require more than the severely limited operation the French are completing now. A constant, large, well trained, highly motivated, and stable presence, with the ability to interdict movement across border areas, will be required to secure the environment for relief efforts and make a meaningful security contribution. We say contribution, because security will principally rest in the hands, and rifles, of the Tuaregs themselves.

8.         AQAM will remain in Northern Mali and continue to conduct regular small-scale attacks to ensure they remain relevant to the populace at large, beyond the transactional, logistical, and supply linkages necessary to operate effectively.  A key way to measure AQAM’s ability to “hang on” in Northern Mali will be the cities they reclaim. If AQAM do little more than reclaim Tessalit, as in the past, then AQAM have likely been diminished. However, if AQAM periodically attempt to retake Kidal or Gao, then AQAM will constitute a far more significant threat.

9.      The Malian military is not a reliable force and its pre-conflict numbers should not be used in post-conflict troop strength calculations.  The military lacks the training, numbers of dedicated soldiers, and resources to manage any sort of clear, hold, and build strategy vital to resolving the conflict in the long term. The Malian army requires external support to effectively counter Islamist attacks. Although troops from Chad, Niger, Nigera, Togo, and other neighboring countries have arrived in Mali, many come without training, funding, equipment, and experience. The provision of logistical support will be required from the West. 

Successful intervention in Mali is ultimately predicated upon an in depth understanding of the various ethnic and tribal factors that are the underpinning of the conflict, and the ability to leverage that knowledge. Armed with an understanding of the drivers of conflict, the West must successfully compete against AQAM for the hearts and minds of the Tuareg people. The successful actor in this competition will create a vision for the future backed with the means to achieve it. The outcome is simple; the winner will dictate the success or failure of the next round of AQAM incursions in the Sahel.  

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