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The French military operations in northern Mali have blocked a Jihadist offensive against Mali and have caused losses (although limited ones) to the Islamic militias in the region.  Yet they have also provided political and practical opportunities to many of the parties involved, including the terrorists.

Who profits from the war

The main beneficiary is surely France, which emphasizes its hegemonic role, with a vague neo-colonial flavor, in a part of the world that was already under Paris' influence.  It is the semantic composition ?francafrique?, coined by the former Ivory Coast president Felix Houphouet Boigny, who postulated a close relationship between colonialists and their former colonies.

France's military intervention takes place in former French colonies providing a reason for the French army stationing in the region.  It also provides president Holland with the possibility of gaining popularity in France, where the ?grandeur? factor of a now-dismantled but never forgotten empire always gives politicians the winning edge.  Even thought this untimely ?grandeur? was later dimmed by the failure of the French special forces during the attempted liberation of a French secret agent in Somalia.

The other beneficiary of the war is Mali itself, both on a political and financial level.  The coup d'etat of lieutenant Amadou Haya Sanogo in March of last year had raised doubts, quite recurrent in Africa when pseudo-democracies fatally turn into dictatorships or when they are ulteriorly conditioned by military elites.  The successive ousting by Sanogo of prime minister Sheykh Modibo Dialla on December 10 last year put a further strain on the credibility of the present Malian administration.  The French attack, following an explicit request for international aid from the Malian President Dioncunda Traore' (put at the helm by Sanogo himself), legitimated the authorities of Bamako.

Amadou Haya Sanogo

The irony of it all is that Sanogo carried out his coup d'etat because ? he claimed ? the preceding president Amaadou Toumai Toure' had shown scarce determination in fighting the Tuareg rebellion.  Now the French attack supports Sanogo's thesis and indirectly bestows upon him international credibility that he did not have in the past.

Then there is the economic aspect of it all, which in a poor country such as Mali has a great importance.  The international interest that is now concentrated on Mali is bringer of financial benefits.  International military contingents are moving in, there will be military bases, and the sovereignty of Bamako will surely be supported by further social initiatives.  The UN has placed Bamako's requests in the fast lane and if the country becomes the epicenter of a war against Islamic terrorism in the region, it will surely mean rivers of money.

But what about Algeria?  With the attack against Islamic rebels that had assaulted the oil fields in In Amenas on January 17th, Algeria stressed their refusal to negotiate with Islamic terrorism while placing the military ?pouvoir? at the center of any internal political contrast (as has happened in Algeria since independence and since the fight against the F.I.S. Of Mdani).

The raid carried out by the Algerian security forces in In Amenas caused the death of several hostages, thus sending out a clear message:  it makes no difference whether the victim is Algerian or European.  There are no political alternatives in the fight against terror.  The countries that have paid ransom money to save their fellow nationals (Italy is first in line) should be warned:  there are no margins for flexibility.  Form becomes substance in cases like this one.  Algiers forgot to warn the countries whose fellow nationals were held hostages before they went ahead with the police operation.

Algeria thus underlines its decisional sovereignty, its determination in the fight against terror and sends a message out to French neo-colonialism (Algeria was a French colony too and gained its independence through the struggle against the French).  Differently from the other former colonies in the Sahel, Algeria does not need to ask for help, to negotiate anything or to demand any authorization to proceed.

Yet there are other, collateral beneficiaries.  One is the idea that terrorism, especially Islamic terrorism, has become a universal problem that has no geographical limits nor limits of reaction to it.  This approach means that there exists no juridic or procedural limitations in fighting terror.  France has landed directly on the terrain to fight the Islamic militias without the preventive go-ahead of the UN.  The support of other countries came later, when the international community decided to uphold ? in afterthought ? the French army.  This meant the creation of the juridical principle that when faced with terrorism, the rituals that generally accompany an international intervention are skipped altogether.  It isn't the first time that the French act in this fashion, take the  attack on Libya, decided by Sarkozy first, and then by the UN Security Council.

It must be noted that the French attack has legitimated - with such an upscale military deployment - the Islamic militias that for some time had controlled the north of Mali.  Amidst the various configurations that these armed groups assumed in order to survive, and which gave them a negative connotation (banditry, drug trade, extortion, kidnappings and traffic of human beings), the sole credential that emerges now is the only one that could justify their criminal behavior:  Islamic terrorism.  Now people like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Iyad ag Ghali (aka Abu al Fadl), Abdulhamid abu Zied, Yahya abu Hammam, Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou have gone from regular cut-throats to being the prototype of the holy war against the infidel.

Thus comes true, albeit casually, the dream of the emir Abdulmalek Droukdal whom, by transforming the Salafite Group for Preaching and Combat (in an anti-Algerian sauce) into Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), paces closely in the footsteps of Bin Laden.  All of this happens despite the disaccord between Droukdal and Mokhtar Belmokhtar.  Just like all of the other crisis regions in the world (Iraq, Libya, Sirya, Somalia), northern Mali is swarmed by terrorism professionals who move from one conflict to the other without understanding the local reality and having blind, or ?aveugle? as the Algerians say, nihilism as their sole doctrine.

The French military intervention has formed the basis for the creation of yet another area of confrontation between the West and the Islamic readical milieu.  The war at hand is not solely for the re-appropriation by Bamako of the north of Mali, nor is it meant to oust criminal militias that hide behind a religious/terroristic facade.  It becomes a clash of cultures, a clash of religions, a clash between neo-colonialism and independence and a clash between poor and rich nations.

Another winner, especially under the media point of view, is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who from simple criminal and terrorist rose, thanks to the operation in In Amenas, to the top ranks of Al Qaida.  He is an Algerian national from Ghardaia and has had previous experiences in Afghanistan, where he operated side-by-side with the Hezb al Islami headed by Gulbeddin Hekmatyar.  After Aghanistan, Mokhtar returned to Algeria where he joined the GIA and the Salafite Group for Preaching and Combat, then he made the move to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.  He found funding through various illicit traffics and kidnappings and now has a pivotal role in the galaxy of Islamic terrorism.   Not only has Mokhtar surpassed Droukdal in the merit hierarchy of Al Qaida in the region but he also won out over other armed factions that used to station in the desert of Mali and Niger:  Abdulhamid Abu Zied's Katiba Tarek bin Zayad, Yad Ag Ghali's Ansar dine, Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou's  Movement for Unity and the Jihad in Western Africa (MUJAO) and, last but not least, the Katiba al Furqan of Yahya abu Hammam (designated head of the Saharan region by emir Droukdal after the death of the emir Makhlouf).  His name ranks high in the Islamic terrorist hit parade, so much as to be included in the US ?kill list?.  In other words, he could be ripe for receiving a guided missile shot by a drone soon.

Who loses

The main losers of the military escalation in the Sahel are the Tuareg that have been fighting for quite some time for their independence and culture (not only in Mali but also in Niger, Chad, Libya and Algeria).  The Tuareg are now witnessing their aspirations and their plight being shadowed by Islamic terrorism.  They have also been associated ? and this is the worst aspect of it all ? with terrorism.  The Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has been destitute ? by the army ? from any and all role in northern Mali, especially by Ansar Dine.  The movement isn't able to fight for Tuareg claims anymore.  The sole fact that it had operated in northern Mali, in areas that were controlled by Islamic militias and in contrast with the authorities of Bamako, had caused the Tuareg to be associated to international terrorism.  Consequently, the legitimate claims of this nomadic people have been undermined. 

Whether the MNLA is to become the mediator in Bamako for the Tuareg claims and whether it will chose to be sympathetic to the French operation or keep on fighting against the Malian army, the substance does not change:  a strong feeling of rancor divides the Tuareg (and the populations of Arab origin, the Peuls of the north and the bambara in the south) from the rest of Mali's population.

There is also the problem of the perennial fight between non-Arab Africans and the Tuareg, between   sedentary and nomadic populations, which is now producing the persecution of the defeated.  The Tuareg, which altogether make up a population of over 5 million inhabitants, divided among the various countries in the Sahel, have suddenly become the main target of all those dictatorial or pseudo-democratic regimes in the region that need legitimation through nationalism and the instrumental use of an ?enemy?.   For the 900.000 that live in northern Mali there are tough times ahead.  The non-governmental organizations are not authorized to go into that region because of the war.  This puts the community at the mercy of the abuses of the Malian army and of the black African population.

The other big loser is moderate Islam, the prevailing one in the sub-Saharan belt.  This Sufism is not only distinguished by the 333 tombs of the Saints in Timbuktu, but it is also the bringer of a religious culture impregnated with tolerance and open-mindedness that is now being surpassed by Salafite and radical Islam.  It is an imported phenomenon which now emerges dangerously in various other areas of the African continent.  This expansion of religious radicalism has virulent aspects in Somalia and Nigeria and more subtle ones in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

The over 400.000 refugees that escaped from the civil war also lost out.  Of these, 45.000 are camping in Mauritania, 38.000 are in Niger and Burkina Faso, 52.000 in Guinea and others are stationed in Togo.  They survive from international charity in catastrophic sanitary conditions and they don't know when and if they will be able to return to their homes.  There are also other Malians that have left their homes but did not end up in the refugee camps.  Overall, the number should be close to 700.000 people.

The origin of the new crisis

The military escalation in the north of Mali is the child of many fathers.

Firstly, the dissolution of Khadafi's regime has forced many armed mercenaries, who were fighting alongside Khadafi's troops, to flee towards the Sahel.  These mercenaries were joined along the way by armed Libyans fleeing from the war.  Since the areas where they traveled are ruled with weapons (and thus their rulers do not like to have armed foreigners visiting), the mercenaries and maverick Libyan fighters were forced to reposition themselves in areas where their weapons could provide them with a means of survival through crime.  Their criminal acts have been instrumentally clothed in Jihadism and Tuareg claims.  It is not just Libya, but the whole Arab Spring that has created situations of instability that have contributed to the resurgence of Islamic terrorism.

Another element that has favored crisis in the region is the commerce in arms that has gone from artisanal levels to industrial ones.  The various national crisis' that have exploded in a domino effect in northern Africa have turned into an endemic destabilization.  This happened because there were no more controls from central authorities, borders were not patrolled anymore, and the recourse to arms to settle legitimate and illegitimate claims grew exponentially.  The Arab Spring has thus become Springtime for arms trafficking.  Those who wanted arms or were thinking of using them did not meet with any difficulty in doing so.

As often is the case, alongside the arms with which ideas are prevaricated, there come interests of cultures that stem from a similar ideological base.  This is the case of Saudi and Qatar Wahabism, which through the local crisis' tries to re-affirm the radical Salafite vision.  It is a proven, almost mathematical fact that wherever Wahabism spreads, it becomes an element of expansion and adhesion to extremism and Islamic terrorism. 

It is a tragic circumstance that first manifests with Osama bin Laden and that continues to manifest in other operative theaters such as Syria, Somalia and Egypt.  The persuasive power of Wahabism lies in the money that accompanies its ideological expansion.

It is therefore clear that the paternity of the resurgence of terrorism in northern Mali lies in the money that circulates within that region.  The money of the Wahabite Ulemas, the money deriving from various traffics, money from kidnappings, money from the drug trade that today sees Guinea Bissau as the destination for the cocaine of the Medellin cartel that transits through the Sahel and is then moved to Europe.  The various Islamic factions in northern Mali (AQIM, MUJAO, Ansar Dine) all have interests in this emerging business.  They profit by ensuring a safe transit to the drugs through the areas they control.

It must be noted that the Tuareg tribes have always lived in poverty due to their exclusion by the central governments and due to the resourceless landscape they inhabit.  Now this newly found wealth, although generated by criminal activity, brings direct and indirect wealth to the Tuareg as well.  This circumstance has caused the Tuareg to be consentient with the various terrorist groups and their destructive aims.

An evolving situation

The French attack aimed at reconquering the north of Mali for authorities in Bamako and the Algerian offensive against the terrorists in In Amenas have raised a regional problem to the rank of international issues.  It must be noted that terrorism is a surrogate form of war that cannot be stopped and dismantled through a military operation but rather tends to regenerate itself every time situations and conditions justify or favor such resurgence.

It is difficult to determine for sure when a war ends.  In this specific case it is highly unlikely that the re-establishment of military control over the north of Mali could cause the effective end of terrorism in the region.  The desert borders that separate Mali from Algeria (1400 km), Niger (800km) and Mauritania (2240km) are not sufficiently patrolled and this lets the terrorists move at their liking through secure bordering areas and countries.  Since Mauritania doesn't have a sufficient capacity to contrast terrorism, Libya has other problems at hand (the 200.000 former rebels that don't want to disarm) and Niger is willing to take care of its Tuareg and not the Tuareg of other nations, the responsibility of fighting AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJAO rests inexorably on French and Algerian ? if they are willing ? shoulders.  However, as we have seen, Paris did not tell Algiers about their imminent attack in Mali and Algiers did not call Paris about the operation in In Amenas.  There clearly isn't any coordination between the two countries at this time.  And a collaboration will be difficult in the near future because the relationship between Algeria and France is a mix of love and hate since the war of liberation.  Yet it is clear that the country that is threatened most by Islamic terrorism in that region is without doubt Algeria and no efficient operation to fight this social plague could be successful without the consent of Algeria.  This is the main reason why no nation, from France to the USA, has criticized the Algerian decisions.  Algeria has not been touched by the Arab Spring and now it fears that this war against the Islamic militias in northern Mali could cause instability within its own borders.

Also, until the In Amenas operation, the Algerian authorities had treated terrorism in the south of the country with a subtlety typical of those who would accept a compromise with their counterpart as long as respective interests are not touched.  This stems partly from the consideration that a 1400km border with Mali could be hard to control (if we consider all of Algeria's ground borders we get 6400km).

Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Recurrent voices from the past spoke of contacts between Toufiq Mediene's DRS (Departement du Reinsegnement et de la Securite') and the leader of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali.  Some even spoke of contacts with Mokhtar Belmokhtar himself.

Now Algerian authorities have deployed 10.000 men to check the border with Mali (the aforementioned 1400km) and with Libya (c.ca 1000km).
These 10.000 men are supported by the armed border Police, Police helicopters and permanent air surveillance.  Yet the size of the area to patrol makes this deployment insufficient, despite Algeria's mighty army of 150.000 men (the biggest in Africa) and an annual defense budget of about 10 billion dollars.

With terrorism moving to northern Mali, it automatically decreased in southern Algeria.  This circumstance was seen positively by the Algerian authorities.  Algeria's worries were mainly for their oil installations that are located principally in the south of the country and that represent the main financial resource of Algeria.  The attack against In Amenas has brought an end to the silent armistice and has forced Algeria to act.

The In Amenas terrorist attack took place despite the strict surveillance and security measures enacted by authorities to protect the oil installations:  in order to work at the installations, Algerians have to obtain an authorization from the Algerian secret services.  A police department is detached to each installation to ensure external protection.  Algerians cannot even travel to the south of the country without a special permit.  Lastly, each oil corporation has an internal security apparatus with dedicated security personnel (although in In Amenas they were not armed).  This shows how unprepared the Algerian authorities were in facing such an emergency and how efficient the terrorists were in occupying the installation with the presumable assistance of someone inside.

Then there is the approach that Algiers has always had with respect to terrorism:  very little intelligence and a lot of shooting, a model that was confirmed by the In Amenas operation.  Such intervention was often criticized by the Libyan security services in Khadafi's time when the two countries carried out joint anti-terrorism operations.  In Amenas is a good example of this tendency not to negotiate.  The terrorists were met with an exclusively military answer made of bombings and attacks.  The elite teams that carry out these kind of operations are trained near the capital's airport.  Their ranks have been trained by Italy in the past.

We have thus said that the terrorists ousted from Mali have been able to move to neighboring countries, yet we must keep in mind that other nations in the African continent are touched by Islamic terrorism, namely Nigeria with the Boko Haram and Somalia with Shabab.  Although there is no territorial contiguity with AQIM as of yet, there is a possibility that this may happen in the future.  Either way, the spreading of terrorists in neighboring countries exports the risk of instability.

The outcome of the war led by France and the countries that supported operation ?Serval? could not be calculated based on the forces in the field.  If that were the only parameter there could have been but one victor.  France deployed 3000 men on the ground (with support from many other bases on the African continent) and had an absolute air supremacy.  They were supported by a 10.000 men-strong Malian army (although less than 1/5 of them were able to fight), by an African contingent that should count c.ca 5-6000 men among its ranks (from the ECOWAS countries ? Nigeria, Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin and Ghana) and by Chad (c.ca 2000 men).   US technical and intelligence support was provided through Africom from Djibuti and Maryland.  Logistical support from European countries (especially from Germany and the UK) and Drones were also provided.

Facing this potent war machine, the katibah of the terrorists with an esteemed 4-5000 men:  AQIM with about 2000, MUJA with a thousand, Ansar Dine with the rest of them.  To these we must add the maverick terrorists that flock crisis areas when they explode.   An army that lacks operative coordination yet well armed by Libyan weapons and Qatar money, with some formidable connaisseurs of the desert among its ranks.  And this is an asymmetric war, a non conventional one, where the strongest side doesn't necessarily win.  The fact that the French intervention was not resolutive is proven by the losses counted among the terrorists:  2-300 men.  The others escaped in view of better times, when the French will have departed and the African contingent or the UN and the rickety Malian army will be left to control the territory.  Meanwhile, being ousted from northern Mali, the terrorists have moved to neighboring countries, spreading conflict and instability.

African terrorism in general and the northern Malian terrorism in particular are the products of a mutated regional framework that has seen radical Islam prevail in several nations (see the hostile statements of Morsi against the French armed intervention) and by the instability produced by civil war.  This means collusion and less supervision.  It is generally in this context that the weakness of the State becomes a strength for endemic terrorism.  It must be noted that the only nation in north Africa that is truly secular and impermeable to the spread of radical Islam (perhaps because of previous experiences with the FIS during the '90's) is Algeria.  Algeria therefore became the designated target for those who dream of caliphates and the rigid application of the Sharia.  Algeria was contrary to an international war against Khadafi because they thought ? rightly so - that it would leave more room for terrorism.  Algeria presently harbors the family of the toppled dictator.

Terrorism sticks where there is poverty, social injustice and limited expectations of a better life, liberty or democracy.  Terrorism has a social role among the poorer masses.  The adjective ?Islamic? is to be considered a vehicle for these social currents, seen the absence of other ideologies after the fall of communism (in this particular area it was Panarabism and Baathism).  The terrorist of the Malian katibah is not a bringer of ideological Islam, he just uses some of its most questionable social habits on the terrain.  It is a kind of Islam that is pushed forth with the point of the dagger rather than with refined theology.

The only possibility to eradicate terrorism from northern Mali resides in an agreement between the Tuareg, who control the territory, and the central authorities, possibly mediated and subsidized internationally.  This seems to be the strategy proposed by Washington, which seems to be interested in building a new military command (probably in Niger) to support Djibuti's Africom.  The US has been planning such a move for some time but never managed to enact it due to Khadafi's hostility (according to the then-Rais the American presence in the Sahel would have attracted terrorists rather than repel them).

The French military intervention in Mali isn't motivated by the fight against terrorism or the preservation of Mali's integrity alone.  The foreign policy of a country, when it is imposed with the use of arms, is always the product of national economic interests.  In this case there are the uranium mines (presently presided by the French security services) that the French company AREVA have in Niger and which provide for 26% of Paris' uranium provisions (presently in Arlit and soon in Imouraren).  Sources say that the radioactive element can be found in northern Mali as well.  There are gold mines that make Mali the third gold producer in Africa, oil and bauxite fields.  Enough to make the fight against Islamic terrorism in the Maghreb a very good investment.