There is indeed a clear understanding in the international community that beyond the problem facing the government of Bamako, the network of extremists now in action in northern Mali represents a potential transnational threat for the seven states sharing borders with this country (i.e. Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, and Niger). The summit of the Maghreb Prime Ministers in Ghedamous (Libya) on the same day the French offensive was launched left no doubt about their concerns by the situation in Mali.
An editorial of the daily “La Presse” of Tunisia said on January 15 , “In fact, the war is well and truly at our gates, and this is not so for geographical reasons, but for ideological reasons. Al Qaeda jihadists know they can find among our population sympathisers, and relay solidarity with which they hope to expand the conflict zone and have attack bases outside of their established hub. Some Islamist movements at home remain close to these representatives of radical and warring Islam. We know, moreover, that beyond sympathy, there are cells that do seek to settle down here ... Recent incidents in the governorate of Kasserine and elsewhere show it.”
The editorialist of “La Presse” was right. Ideological reasons (not only geography) contain the potential transnational threat and the eventual challenge to the western old schemes of domination. Militant Islamic movements (some of which, though the less radical, are today in power in North Africa, Egypt included), are not a recent output of those societies. Since the nineteenth century, they have clashed with France and Great Britain, and they have never accepted the principle of “respect to the borders inherited from colonisation,” while Islam played a key role in their struggle. Moreover, transnational ethnic groups like Tuareg, Hausa and Fulani have always fought the states bequeathed by the colonial mapmakers.
In Mali itself, the North has been in conflict with the South for years. The conflict opposed the militias formed by the sedentary and semi-nomadic population (largely black African Songhai and Peul/Fulani) to the Tuareg, the Mauritanians, and all the Arabs commonly referred to in Mali as “the whites.” The Militias of the South are called “Ganda Koy” (Lords of the land) and Ganda Iso (Sons of the land). They have reportedly received support and funding from the Malian army and were composed largely of former Malian soldiers. This conflict thus racially and ethnically defined, which caused horrific massacres in the North, that the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) was unable to hinder, apparently led to the intervention of hardline groups, first to help AZAWAD, then to evict it and control the territory.
Writing in April 2012, Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor Editor, Andrew McGregor, said that though the southern militias “may treat the Arabs and Tuaregs as a common enemy, there are in fact enormous differences between the two communities exacerbated by a traditional lack of trust and the recent introduction into northern Mali of the largely Arab Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM’s apparent alliance with the newly formed Salafist –Jihadist Ansar al-Din group under the command of veteran Tuareg militant Iyad al-Ghali has only complicated affairs.”
Furthermore, as McGregor pointed out, in 2009, a US Embassy cable warned Bamako against the consequences of its support to Ganda Iso militia. It was clear therefore, since at least nine months, that “with the looming possibility of a clash between nationalist and Islamist Tuareg in Northern Mali (with the latter possibly receiving support from AQIM),” that some militant and radical groups would take advantage of such an opportunity and “reverse the recent Tuareg gains in the region.”
The French sources and the African Union estimated the number of armed militants as 6,500, not to mention followers (forced or voluntary) that provide local logistical support. This figure is to be compared with estimates of the numbers of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in late 2011, saying they had less than 1000 men! But is it possible that only 6,500 men could control the northern region in Mali?
There is indeed a sharp increase in numbers due to the destabilisation facing the region since the fall of Gaddafi in autumn 2011. The Malian Tuaregs who served in the Libyan army returned home and launched in early 2012, an insurrection led by the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA). Algerian Islamic activists were then supporting the MNLA, which allowed them to take control of northern Mali. Then, the Islamists ousted the Tuareg considered “not enough fundamentalist,” to take their place. Today, the MNLA is no longer a coherent fighting force, some of its members have joined the hardliners.
Since then, the jihadists managed the area around, imposing “their” Sharia. Not only many foreign volunteers have joined these groups, but hardliners have locally recruited new activists. Finally, the connection was made with the forces of the Nigerian Islamic sect Boko Haram that has sent militants in the Sahel.
This is therefore a real concern for all the countries of the neighbourhood, and if we remember that we are talking of mobile transnational groups, accustomed to crossing the borders, and bounded by ideological solidarity and strategic interests, Somalia is not far away from the Sahel. The large network of radicalism thus formed, may grow and expand into an arc, extending from Western Africa to Somalia, and from Somalia to Yemen. Reaching Yemen means a lot of concern for the Gulf. Today, there is indeed a vital interest to understand that the transnational threat emerging in Mali concerns the security and the stability of the whole MENA region. This explains the visit of President Francois Hollande to the Gulf, just after the beginning of the French intervention. There is also a need for the countries of this region, and those of the Northern Mediterranean shore, to organise a conference that would deal with the threat represented by the transnational radical groups.
The French military intervention however is not without risks. We always know how a war starts, but never how, when, or where it ends. This is another reason for treating this matter as a collective concern, not only as a French concern.
The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)