Is Mali the ‘next Afghanistan’? No.

The title of this post includes a question I’m seeing more and more, and it reflects the growing concern in Washington, Paris, and African capitals that the security situation in northern Mali is spiraling out of control. In this kind of environment, bad news tends to echo loudly and quickly. The most recent example of this is the strong reaction in the international press to an interview Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou gave to France 24 this week, in which he said that Afghans and Pakistanis were in Mali training fighters, in addition to confirming that French hostages held for nearly a year and a half by AQIM were in “good health” and still alive. This news has garnered quite a bit of attention, especially in the Francophone media, though it should be noted that RFI reported the presence Pakistani trainers in Timbuktu and in Kidal a month ago, to considerably less attention. Still, this and other signs of the degradation in the security environment in northern Mali and the growth of AQIM have spurred speculation about whether or not northern Mali was becoming a “West African Afghanistan“, a new Somalia, or a jumping-off point for terrorist attacks elsewhere.

While I think some of this concern is warranted, I think some of this language and concern may be, for the moment, a bit overwrought, as I will explain in this piece. This post is my attempt to sort through some of the current popular attitudes about the security situation in northern Mali, the very real risks to regional and international security that may be looming in the north, and the equally real constraints on militant groups attempting to impose shari’ah in northern Mali or project force beyond Mali’s already porous (or nonexistent) borders.

First, the bad news

Long before the Tuareg rebellion and the birth of Ansar Al-Din, AQIM and its predecessor the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) were using Malian territory to strike other countries. The period from 2005-2011, in addition to seeing a number of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahel, saw attacks against military, government and foreign targets (including the murder of French and American citizens) in Mauritania, attacks against border guards and customs agents in Algeria, and similar attacks and confrontations in Niger. During this period, AQIM’s involvement in kidnapping for ransom (KFR) and various smuggling networks may have netted upwards of 200 million euro – though these numbers are very fuzzy, and do not take into account the money the group has had to spend to simply operate and survive in one of the harshest environments on earth.

More recently, the AQIM “splinter” group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), based in Mali, has conducted a suicide bombing in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset and kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in the city of Gao. Moreover, foreign fighters appear to have reinforced MUJWA, AQIM, and Ansar Al-Din. The latter group in particular has admitted to welcoming fighters from Somalia, Niger, Tunisia,  and elsewhere (though of course this information has not been confirmed independently). AQIM, according to unconfirmed reports, has been reinforced by “Maghrebin” jihadists and steered others, in particular Mauritanians, to Ansar Al-Din. And while reports of more than 100 Boko Haram fighters being present in Gao may be an exaggeration, there is enough circumstantial evidence of their presence in Mali (and the alleged presence of AQIM members in Nigeria) to conclude that the groups may be tightening their links.

So to sum up, we now have a situation where at least three-to-four jihadist or hardline Islamist groups are active and “in possession” of much of northern Mali, including the cities of Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. These groups appear to be operationally active and training new fighters for different regional militant organizations, and possibly securing areas of operation for future training or attacks in the region. This is not to mention the role that these groups, in particular AQIM, appear to be playing in enforcing a harsh interpretation of shari’ah law and supporting Ansar Al-Din, which seems to have quickly accumulated a suspiciously large amount of money, weapons and personnel, especially given the much smaller size and less diverse composition of the organization – an issue I previously discussed here – when it was created late last year. Regardless, AQIM and its key leadership in the Sahel are almost certainly active in northern Mali, and will likely stay there, whether they remain deeply involved with Ansar Al-Din or pull back to focus on jihadist activity while allowing Ansar Al-Din to worry about the implementation of shari’ah in Mali, per the recent instructions of the group’s Kabylia-based leader Abdelmalek Droukdel.

This is not the Afghanistan you are looking for

Setting aside for a moment the causes of concern in northern Mali, there are a number of structural and local particularities that may inhibit the emergence of northern Mali as a new “safe haven” for jihadist groups. For one thing, northern Mali is a rather isolated place, with large, relatively barren distances between population centers. This makes it difficult, though clearly not impossible, to bring fighters into the country, and could put groups of fighters at risk if they venture out of the cities, as happened in March when Mauritanian aircraft attacked a convoy they believed to include AQIM members, including Yahya Abu Al-Hammam, the head of one of AQIM’s sub-units, who is reportedly present in Timbuktu. While it is unclear if the aircraft actually found their target, Western aircraft may have more luck, if they end up getting involved in the fighting (NB: This is not an expression of support for the use of manned or unmanned aircraft in the Sahel, simply an observation).

This isolation also means that it is difficult to re-supply fighters, whether with fuel, food, or ammunition. While smuggling networks for these materials are present and well-established in the Sahel, Mali’s neighbors can damage militant groups by tightening their grips on these smuggling routes or by attacking jihadists who expose themselves while trying to obtain supplies. This happened last month, when a rapid Algerian helicopter strike reportedly decimated a column of MUJWA fighters who tried to steal two fuel trucks in Tinzawaten, on the Mali-Algeria border.

In this vein, it is worth keeping in mind that while Afghanistan in the 90′s was bordered by at least one state that tolerated or may have even supported the Taliban, who then gave shelter to al-Qaeda and the numerous jihadist groups who used the country as a training base, northern Mali is surrounded by countries that are not exactly disposed to welcoming a jihadist-controlled state next door. Mauritania has repeatedly attacked AQIM targets in Mali, Niger has been vocally pushing for an intervention to root out AQIM and its allies, and while Algeria has been reticent to commit military forces to a foreign intervention, the Tinzawaten incident demonstrates the latter’s willingness to use force – potentially across the border – if its interests are threatened. And behind all of this is the possibility of European (really French) or American involvement in providing logistical or intelligence support for an ECOWAS or African Union force or direct airstrikes. While such a foreign intervention may have a very negative impact on the overall security situation in northern Mali, something will eventually have to give. As former diplomat and Mali watcher Todd J. Moss told Reuters last week, “Western policymakers will absolutely not allow a jihadist safe haven” in Mali.

Moreover, I believe that Ansar Al-Din in particular and those supporting it remain limited on a local level. While residents of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu appear to have grudgingly welcomed the security and harsh justice Ansar Al-Din brought in the wake of the departure of the Malian army from the north, that appears to be changing. Protests have broken out in all three cities in the wake of the implementation of shari’ah (most recently in Kidal), the banning of soccer and smoking in Gao, and the destruction of a sacred holy site and a national monument in Timbuktu. After suppressing these protests Ansar has pulled back, especially in Timbuktu and Kidal; in Timbuktu, where the group has already put a local face on its actions, Ansar has attempted to show their appreciation for and willingness to protect the city’s patrimony. And in Kidal, after receiving significant pushback for having assaulted female protesters,  Ansar reportedly chose not to intervene during the second days’ protests. While Ansar Al-Din has been able to keep a lid on such protests so far, it is likely that these will grow if the group continues to pursue the implementation of shari’ah in the public sphere. And if protests continue to break out, the group will be faced with a hard choice between allowing the protests or suppressing them, given that violence may provoke protesters further, or push local notables influential within the organization – such as Ifoghas “chief executive” Alghabass Ag Intallah in Kidal – to push Ansar to moderate its behavior.

These local tensions could become more acute in an environment where multiple armed groups could eventually form in opposition. To put a spin on the Weberian expression, for the moment Ansar Al-Din and AQIM, dominant in terms of armament and manpower, have a monopoly on the threat of force in northern Mali. They have used this threat that the two groups used to push the MNLA and then the primarily Arab FNLA out of Timbuktu, as well as to assert their authority in Gao.

However, Ansar Al-Din and AQIM have so far resisted using anything more than targeted force, showing a potential unwillingness to unleash full-scale civil war in northern Mali. And other challengers to their authority may lurk in the wings; the National Liberation Front of the Azawad (FNLA) has threatened to kick AQIM out of Timbuktu; former Malian army commander El Hajj Gamou has formed his own group, the Republican Movement for the Restoration of the Azawad (MRRA); and another group purportedly composed of Songhaï and “black Tuareg”, the Movement of Patriots for Resistance and the Liberation of Timbuktu (MPRLT), has also promised to retake Timuktu. And the first clashes between Ansar Al-Din and MNLA fighters may have taken place in Kidal this week, though a number of people have since denied that any fighting took place. And the Songhai militia Ganda Iso’s members remain in and around Gao, even if the group fell apart after its leader was killed in combat with the MNLA in March.

For the moment, all of the groups mentioned except the MNLA exist primarily on paper, and the MNLA, reportedly lacking in arms and ammunition, has mostly cooperated or at least avoided conflict with Ansar Al-Din, to the point of briefly merging and then splitting with Ansar at the end of May. Still, there is the possibility that one or more armed groups could emerge to challenge or at least provoke Ansar Al-Din and its jihadist allies, especially if armed opposition groups receive support from abroad or from regional entities. Such opposition would again leave Ansar Al-Din and its allies in a position where they might have to actually use force against local populations, which could drastically alter the delicate balance of power and push local populations into open opposition. This would dramatically complicate life for Ansar Al-Din, and could potentially make the “safe haven” in northern Mali a bit less so.

None of this is to undermine or downplay the severity of the threat posed by the security situation in northern Mali, as the presence of hardline militant groups could threaten regional and international security, not to mention the security of the local populations forced to live under their harsh rule. Rather, it is important to keep in mind when analyzing the situation in northern Mali the important limits on hardline militant groups’ freedom of operation. While these factors may not be definitive in the long run, they will be important in shaping how these groups react to endogenous and exogenous pressure in the weeks and months to come.

12 Responses to Is Mali the ‘next Afghanistan’? No.

  1. Mike says:

    Good piece.

  2. jmhamilt says:

    Very good piece. Do you believe that Boko Haram are really in Mali? I agree that there is strong evidence now of AQIM operations in northern Nigeria but remain unconvinced that BH are really operating at any level beyond mere coordination in Mali if at all. It just doesn’t seem to sit with the ideological objectives of the organisation (assuming of course that they haven’t fractured massively and one of these splinters has radically expanded their aims).

    • Jack, thanks. I think there is enough evidence to conclude that there are at least some Boko Haram fighters in Mali, though I agree that hard evidence, at least in the public domain, is scant. I don’t think we can talk with any authority about “coordination”, though I wouldn’t read too heavily into ideological schisms here, as a) fractions may exist, as you point out, and b) groups can form tactical alliances or mutually-beneficial networks in spite of not lining up perfectly.

  3. van kaas says:

    Interesting article thank you very much. But it remains is a bit confusing. Some questions if I may.
    We seem to have Ansar Al-Din and Al-Qaïda au Maghreb islamique (Aqmi or AQIM) and MUJAO (mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest) in the Islamic corner. And possibly some Boko Haram folks too. Are these all foreigners as in non-Malinans?

    In the other one we see the Front de libération nationale de l’Azawad (FNLA), the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), former Malian army commander El Hajj Gamou group the Mouvement républicain pour la restauration de l’Azawad (MRRA) and the Mouvement des patriotes pour la résistance et la libération de Tombouctou (MPRLT) and the Songhai militia Ganda Iso all in the nationalistic corner. I presume these are all Malian groups, more or less.

    So I see a distinction between Islamic foreigners on one side and Malian/Azawad nationalists on the other. But is that the main distinction? Or would that rather be something etnical?

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