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Mali: a colonel in his labyrinth

Western states have reflexively diagnosed the continuing violence and lawlessness in Mali's fragmented north to the ills of global jihad, willfully ignoring the region's deep links to the transnational criminal racket that sustains both the criminalized state and its criminals. 

Ivan Briscoe
27 June 2014

Few better examples of a soldier spread-eagled between state and insurgency could be found. My first attempt to contact the colonel during a visit to Mali late last year was met with a gruff response. The next time I called, he said he was busy at his offices inside the fortified perimeter of the Ministry of Defence in the capital, Bamako. Eventually he just showed up at my hotel, resplendent in his robes for prayer day, accompanied by his assistant and handling a mobile phone that seemed to have taken on an irate insect life of its own, so frequently did it jump and trill.

The colonel’s view on the conflict that ignited in late 2011, and which led to the creation of a sharia-ruled statelet in Timbuktu and beyond, is not one that a European is accustomed to hearing. Conventional security wisdom has it that in the space of a few years, Mali mutated from a model African democracy to the global war on terror’s latest frontline. Poor, fractious and 90 percent Muslim, Mali first saw its desert north engulfed by secessionists and then, in 2012, by jihadists. A whole new taxonomy of Islamist phenomena emerged: “gangster-jihadists” and “tomb-destroyers”, sloshing around in the ransom payments made by western governments and the profits of drug-trafficking.

But for the colonel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the fundamental problem was not Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or its scions. It was the way the north had been systematically maltreated by the south, where most Malians live. By seeking to restore its presence in the north, the Malian army for which he works, a bunch of “hooligans” dominated by southern “blacks”, would only stoke the violence once again.

Though it was extraordinary to hear, the dissonance in the colonel’s persona should not perhaps have been surprising. He came to notice following an eclectic career in the north of Mali, during which he transformed from an insurgent to commander of a special military detachment – some call it an ethnic militia. His deeds, many of them opaque, feature in several of the Wikileaks cables emanating from Bamako. Nowadays he occupies a position in his country’s military architecture that is impossible to catalogue – a kind of smartphone intersection between the state that employs him, the ethnic community that he comes from, and the Islamist forces he fights yet also venerates. A slippery occupational category, but one Mali has somehow got very used to.

Western powers, on the other hand, would not be so comfortable with these promiscuous loyalties. For one, the colonel voiced respect for and friendship with Iyad Ag Ghali, a jihadist leader and Tuareg aristocrat. It was Ag Ghali who led the Islamist charge towards the south in January 2013, triggering a French military intervention, Opération Serval, which continues to this day. “He [Iyad] was my chief, we went to Libya together, we took up arms together.” Not least, the colonel let it be known that nothing would get in the way of serious crime in his northern homeland: “People are jealous of narco-traffickers. They don’t have any other activity – they’re killed and arrested for everything else.” 

Fragmentation and escalation 

Events since the meeting late last year have in large part confirmed the colonel’s wary outlook on his country’s possibilities for peace. Despite the many landmark achievements that followed the French intervention – the creation of a UN peacekeeping force (MINUMSA), the election of a new president in August, the signing of an agreement to hold talks with non-jihadist rebels – violence continues to flare in the north. Dozens were reported killed in May when army units and Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) clashed in the border town of Kidal, a lawless place where Malian officials have long been shuttered up in the local town hall, and where Ag Ghali’s followers continue to exert influence from their encampments in the parched hills bordering Algeria. 

UN photo mali.jpg

An Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Company from the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), leave Bamako and head towards Gao, in northern Mali. Flickr/UN Photo/Marco Dormino. Some rights reserved. 

The long rattle of violence reflects the ways in which society and politics in northern Mali has undergone acute fragmentation and armed escalation between and within its four main ethnic groups – Tuareg, Arab, Fulani and Songhai. Part of this process can be found in what the colonel mentioned: the disdain of the south for the north, a characteristic of the country that has been imprinted in collective memories of Arab and Tuareg people since independence in 1960s, reinforced by their experience of two cataclysmic droughts, exodus, uprising and political marginalization. 

But the route to conflict involved much more than an insurgency on behalf of one or two oppressed ethnic groups – the staple fare of civil war. As is well known, the return from Libya of several thousand Tuareg combatants made redundant by the fall of Colonel Gaddafi late in 2011 marked the onset of the rebel demand for a new state, Azawad. Very soon after, however, the MNLA’s classical grievance was subordinated to Mali’s post-modern hypermarket of violence: Islamist terrorism displaced from Algeria, low-ranking ethnic castes seeking comeuppance, illicit traffickers in need of protection, and foreign countries searching for proxies to defend their interests when every other anchor is lost.

As for the Malian military, the French spy writer Gérard de Villiers put the issue nicely in Panic in Bamako, one of the author’s last works of insightful pulp and soft porn before his death last year. A newly arrived secret agent is being briefed by the CIA station chief.

“Can’t the Malian army protect you?” asks Malko.

The American looked at him with a gaze full of commiseration.

“There is no more Malian army!”

A “crime-terror nexus” 

Crafting some sort of peace deal with the three main armed factions and tribal elites in de facto control of large parts of the north is going to be hard. Faced with skirmishes, kidnappings, rocket launches and most recently a suicide attack on UN troops, which killed four Chadians, many in Bamako are resigned towards major concessions towards self-rule in the north. A deal of this sort would no doubt have profound effects on countries across the Sahel, Sahara and West Africa. 

Yet that would merely vault over a first obstacle. What marked out the swift escalation of the Malian conflict was the way a geographically delimited political insurgency was soon fractured, intensified and recombined under the effects of two much broader and expansive influences. 

The first of these is radical Islam, which now appears to travel freely as an idea or as a mobile armed force across regionalized theatres of conflict in parts of sub-Saharan Africa as well as Syria and its neighbours. It is the logic of counter-terrorism which continues to justify the presence of 3,000 French troops in Mali: plans to redeploy them to southern Libya, Niger and Chad were put on ice after the recent fighting in Kidal. Meanwhile, the United States has deployed drones out of Niger, and is building up commando forces in Mali and its neighbours, in spite of abundant evidence from US military experts that such aid in the past achieved nothing. “An almost total lack of basic soldier skills… a culture overrun by apathy,” was the way one student at the Naval Postgraduate School described the effects of previous US aid to Malian counter-terrorist units.

The second pan-regional phenomenon, however, lacks not just a clear method of response, but also a basic means of separating friend from foe. There is no doubt that transnational criminal activity had become rife in the north by 2012: some 70 kidnappings from 2003 onwards generated tens of millions of dollars for Islamist groups. Even as Serval was well underway, the release of four hostages last year was reported by Le Monde to have earned these groups a further 20 million euros straight out of French secret service coffers. Although the drug trade was not organically linked to the jihadist cause in the same way, there is evidence to show that certain factions and allied tribal elites did take a cut.

A few years ago, an easy solution to such a “crime-terror nexus” stood to hand. Plan Colombia, initiated in 1999, was touted as the success of a combined counter-narcotic and counter-insurgent campaign; a hit on the “narco-guerrilla” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would solve both ills. Though the Plan was in fact far from reaching its reported accomplishments, this was nothing as compared to the effects of its replication elsewhere. Full-frontal attacks on crime and severance of the supposed crime-terror link became, in the contexts of Mexico or Afghanistan, a spur to rebellion and a trigger for atrocities. The long war against drugs, as the recent LSE Ideas report on the subject has reminded us, punishes the most vulnerable. Again, the same message has been relayed by the new report from the West Africa Commission on Drugs, which counsels a non-belligerent, health-based approach to narcotic control.

The wrong words

The reports and the evidence pile up, but at the risk of imminent obsolescence. Everyone seems to know the perils of battering criminal groups in conflict environments. But as the counter-terrorist logic takes hold, as it is clearly doing in the Sahel and Sahara, criminal activity soon becomes seen as essential to the radicals’ lifeline: this is no more than the logic of accountancy as applied to war. We may be losing the Protestant mysticism that underlay the original war on drugs, and carved strange totemic figures in the shape of Peter Hitchens and Nancy Reagan; we have not shaken off so easily the conviction that a sound way to hit the terrorists is to drain the financial pond in which they swim.

However, in Mali and elsewhere, extreme caution should be applied to any attempt to apply simplistic standards of legal propriety. For one, the basis of many illicit rackets is to be found in the state, either in its patronage-driven parliament, deeply nepotistic public sector or its shadowy intelligence agencies. Empowering a criminalized state is evidently no way to fight crime.

Another note of caution is even more relevant to the future of northern Mali. Accounts from those who know the region well stress that illicit trade is the north is not some perverted form of normal business, but absolutely intrinsic towards the nature and reproduction of social life in a weakly governed and poor region. It is a means of public survival through smuggled food from Algeria; a route of public aspiration for the wealth and independence it generates (autonomy being a very powerful motif of Tuareg and Arab cultures, as the Oxford anthropologist Judith Scheele has noted); and an essential resource for rival ethnic groups to buttress themselves against rivals, and thus survive the hostilities of nature and other people. At heart, it is resource that cuts across society, serving good and evil. And until a better resource comes along, it will stay an object of desire. 

Mexican sociologist Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo not long ago observed that organized crime was an artificial term that had been imported into Mexico with far-reaching and harmful consequences. The terminology, he argued, conjures up the notion of an identifiable professional group that uses violence and territorial control to make money. But in Mexico, as in Mali, “occasional ties [in crime] are much more frequent, more or less accidental in nature, opportunistic and distant.”

Within Mali, the colonel with his multiple loyalties, the mayors with a stake in the cocaine trade or kidnapping rackets, the known traffickers on the list of a major political party, or the many others intersecting in zones of grey with the hope of some material advantage, would probably fall within such a categorisation. The temptation will arise to hit the terrorists and their revenue chains, but the question should also be posed: are we even using the right words to describe what we mean to destroy?


See the full Clingendael report on crime after the crisis of 2012 in Mali.

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