Mali: war, Islamism, and intervention

The advance of a radical movement in northern Mali, and its destruction of cultural treasures in the ancient city of Timbuktu, are increasing calls for a foreign military response.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 July 2012

The escalation of the radical Boko Haram group's campaign in northern Nigeria in 2012 is posing increasing difficulties to the security forces in west Africa's largest state. Now the state of Mali is experiencing an even greater challenge, as a period of internal turmoil is accompanied by the advance of the Ansar Dine (Defenders of Islam) paramilitary movement in the country's north.

The character of Boko Haram and Ansar Dine has been shaped by particular regional and social cicrumstances, though in the course of their struggle both have become associated with an especially austere version of the Salafi current of Islam. This ideology appears to drive the latter to such acts as the destruction of centuries-old Sufi Islamic sites in Timbuktu following their occupation of the ancient city. These have prompted calls, including from members of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), for military intervention to return the region to the control of Mali's central government. Indeed, three of these - Nigeria, Niger and Senegal - are reported to be prepared to furnish a large part of a planned 3,270-strong force. This would enter the country with the agreement of the (currently disorganised) Mali government, supported its weakened army, and endeavour to retake the north.

Among the western states, France (Mali's former colonial overlord) is the strongest advocate of intervention. Laurent Fabius - the new foreign minister in Francois Hollande's administration - even talks ing of the potential terrorist destabilisation of the whole Sahel region. The United States, in the guise of its Africa-focused military command (Africom), is concerned that an emerging Salafism could significantly threaten US interests, but so far is cautious about intervention (see Stephen Ellis, "The Sahara's new cargo: drugs and radicalism", 15 April 2010):.

The high-profile nature of the Timbuktu attacks has propelled the Malian conflict to greater international attention, reflected in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on 5 July 2012. This backed west African efforts to end the crisis but refrained (as over Syria) from supporting a military response (see Louis Charbonneau, "U.N. stops short of endorsing intervention in Mali", Reuters, 5 July 2012)

The Mali dynamic

The advance of Ansar Dine in northern Mali is part of a wider crisis of governance in the country that has accelerated in 2012. A section of the army overthrew the president, Amadou Toumani Touré, on 22 March, thee months before the end of his second term. But Ecowas refused to recognise the putative junta's assumption of power, a stance that helped restore the semblance of a political process. A fragile interim government was created, backed by Ecowas and led by the speaker of parliament, Dioncounda Traoré (see Gilles Olakounlé Yabi, "Mali's crisis: pitfalls and pathways", 18 April 2012).

The post-coup chaos boosted a diverse pre-existing campaign among the Tuareg people in Mali's north (where around a third of Tuaregs live) for greater rights and autonomy. This led to a declaration of independence of "the State of Azawad" (the region's Tuareg name) on 6 April. The emergence in late June 2012 of Ansar Dine to a dominant position in the evolving Tuareg uprising is seen by some observers as evidence that the al-Qaida movement, though elsewhere weakened, is finding new footholds in west Africa. It may well be that Boko Haram and Ansar Dine may have some links with al-Qaida (an entity known in the region as "Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" [AQIM]), but the degree of linkage is much disputed.

After all, the outlook of the Tuareg movement in Mali has hitherto been largely secular in outlook, with connections to fellow-Tuaregs across north Africa (including in Niger and Algeria) more evident than any strong religious impulse. There had even prospects of negotiation to settle the intra-Malian dispute, until Ansar Dine's consolidation of power - and now the destruction of holy sites in Timbuktu - have made it even more intractable. This gives the renewed calls for foreign intervention added appeal.

The dangerous impulse

There are strong arguments against intervention, however. They are outlined in a briefing from the Oxford Research Group, which highlights three instant consequences of this approach, in part reflecting the speed with which social media can distribute information - and propaganda (see "Mali: The Risk of Intervention", Oxford Research Group, 29 June 2012)

First, the entry of foreign forces would be denounced as the latest phase in a war on Islam by "crusaders". The conclusion would be drawn that Al-Qaida represents the sole noble movement still prepared to defend a besieged faith.

Second, there would be a determined effort to link suppression of the Salafist movement in Mali to the Nigerian government's harsh efforts to subdue Boko Haram. The security forces, both police and army, have responded to the group's numerous bombings and shootings with considerable repression, though it is also true that some in Abuja recognise the movement's appeal to marginalised youths and accept the need for a degree of compromise. In these circumstances, a military assault in Mali would offer a timely gift to AQIM strategists, allowing them to fuse Nigeria and Mali into a single narrative (see "Al-Qaida: the Nigerian case", 25 August 2011)

Third, the image of a western assault on Islam would spread far beyond west Africa. It could be connected to the current suppression of Islamists in southern Yemen and even the persistent drone attacks in western Pakistan. Again, the transnational impact of new media is a vital instrument here, still inadequately appreciated by those who think in terms of classical military power as the route to victory.

The Islamist surge in northern Mali is indeed a cause for concern that makes a negotiated settlement more difficult and thus enlarges the space for the interventionist option to gain support. This makes it vital to recognise that this outcome would suit the leadership of Ansar Dine, and of the wider AQIM, very well. That alone is good reason to avoid moving towards a military solution.

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