Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

Background: The Situation in Mali

From our 4 February LDESP Africa News Update.


Crisis in Mali

For those who have been observing Mali for the past year, the events currently taking place in and around the country are viewed as a continuous and impending decline in the region’s stability and security. In a recent, excellent report on the “Crisis in Mali,” the Congressional Research Service explains:

What Happened?

After Mali’s government was overthrown in a military coup in March 2012, insurgents, capitalizing on the ensuing power vacuum, seized much of the country’s vast and sparsely populated northern territory. As of early January 2013, three loosely connected Islamist extremist groups—including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization—reportedly controlled all major towns in the north, an area roughly the size of Texas. (…) On January 11, 2013, France launched military air strikes and ground operations against insurgent targets in northern Mali after Islamist fighters—following months of stalemate—suddenly advanced toward the south and defeated Malian military forces in the town of Konna. The United States is sharing information with French forces and is also considering providing logistics and surveillance. (…)

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has attempted, with mixed results, to induce Mali’s military to stop interfering in politics and to empower a fragile civilian-led transitional government. The regional body, through its appointed mediator on Mali, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, has also facilitated negotiations between the Malian government and two northern armed groups. (…)

Preparations for planned regional troop deployments are now being accelerated in light of France’s decision to intervene on January 11. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2085 authorized for one year an external military intervention in northern Mali—termed the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, or AFISMA—to help reunify Malian territory and combat extremist and criminal groups. (…)

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Timeline of Events from “Crisis in Mali” – Alexis Arieff, Congressional Research Service

US Concerns and Implications of the Crisis

Since early 2012, U.S. officials have been concerned that AQIM and affiliated groups could leverage their expanded presence in northern Mali to carry out training, expand recruitment, and advance transnational terrorist plots. Officials have pointed to links between AQIM and extremist groups in Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. (…) The prospect of an expanded safe-haven for AQIM and other extremists and criminal actors in Mali is a principal concern for U.S. policymakers examining the situation in Mali and the wider region. The situation presents a threat to regional security; it may also threaten Western targets and interests in the region, and potentially beyond. Given France’s decision to launch military strikes in Mali, the Obama Administration may choose to provide direct support to French operations and to accelerate plans to provide logistical support to regional forces expected to deploy under the U.N.-authorized AFISMA operation. (…) The United States has provided military planners to assist ECOWAS and the AU in developing AFISMA’s concept of operations. Direct U.S. assistance to the Malian security forces is currently prohibited. (…)

The United States is the leading provider of humanitarian aid in response to the regional food security crisis, and has allocated $119.3 million over the past year for drought- and conflict affected Malians. The issue of humanitarian access could rise on the international policy agenda if armed groups in northern Mali turn against aid agencies, or if concerns arise over the potential diversion of aid to terrorist groups.  (Congressional Research Service)

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January 2013 “Crisis in Mali” – Alexis Arieff, Congressional Research Service

“How serious is Sahara terror threat?”

The current situation in Mali, coupled with the recent events in Algeria, has raised serious questions as to the severity of the threat posed by the growing presence of Islamist extremist groups in Northern Africa. Perhaps the biggest concern is the large number of countries in which groups promoting this jihadist rhetoric can be found:

“In Mali alone, alongside [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)], [Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa] and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion is Ansar Dine, another splinter from AQIM that has held large parts of the north since last year and has been imposing its version of Islamic law.

In Nigeria, Islamist group Boko Haram has conducted a destabilising and bloody campaign of terrorism in a fight that is rooted in longstanding local social and economic tensions.

Reports emerged last week that a leader from the group may have found his way to northern Mali, while American military commanders have long spoken about the connection between AQIM and Boko Haram.

Further demonstrating the potential links to Nigeria, back in July last year, a pair of men were accused in an Abuja court of being connected to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

And across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen is Somalia, a country that has been home to al-Shabab, a jihadist group that last year aligned itself officially with al-Qaeda.

There have been reports of Boko Haram fighters training alongside al-Shabab fighters and the Somali group is known to have deep connections with AQAP.”

Further complicating the issue is the large number of foreign fighters, which could potentially direct the threat towards to West, through fundraising and recruiting networks. However, it is important to not overemphasize the threat. While the there are often links between the groups, “it is not the case that they operate in unison or have similar goals” and thus, “often local issues will trump international ones, even if they claim to be operating under the banner of an international organization such as al-Qaeda.” Therefore, it is much for likely for Western interests in Africa to be targeted than Western territory. (BBC News)

“A Malian Quagmire? In Defense of French Intervention”

While many have argued that the French intervention in Mali was ill-timed and militaristic, others believe that there was no other course of action:

“From a military standpoint, the French had to act. More than 8,000 French citizens live in Mali, many of them in Bamako. And last week militant groups were on the verge of seizing a militarily vital airfield in the town of Sevare. Had the field been overrun, it would have been enormously difficult for troops from France or a UN-mandated West African force to have moved into Mali.

Gregory Mann, a Columbia University history professor and an expert on Mali, has written the best analysis I have found of the intervention. The crisis ‘needs diplomatic intervention every bit as urgently as it needed military intervention,’ he argues.

‘Mali’s troubles come largely from beyond the country’s borders, as do most of the jihadi fighters,’ Mann told me in an email message. ‘It will take a coalition of countries to confront them, and building and maintaining such a coalition should be the diplomats’ first priority.’”

David Rohde also argues that an entirely military-focused reaction will not solve the problem nor can the threat these violent militants pose be ignored completely. Rhode believes that through a mixture of “limited military force, expansive diplomacy and patience” the French can prevent their intervention from turning into a quagmire. (The Atlantic, Reuters)

“U.S. Sees Hazy Threat From Mali Militants”

“Over the past year, since the outbreak of the Mali crisis, the Obama administration has taken a position centered on the containment of the militants in the north as opposed to directly challenging them. There are two reasons for this. First, “officials in Washington still have only an impressionistic understanding of the militant groups” (…) and “they are divided about whether some of these groups even pose a threat to the United States.” In fact, Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top American commander in Africa, stated that an imminent attack on the United States from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the major Islamist groups in the north of Mali, was unlikely, a sentiment echoed by Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, who stated that AQIM “has not demonstrated the capability to threaten U.S. interests outside of West or North Africa, and it has not threatened to attack the U.S. homeland.”

The second reason that the US has not yet directly challenged these militants is concern that this confrontation would turn the attention of these regionally focused groups towards the United States. These fears were somewhat compounded, given the recent hostage situation in  Algeria in the wake of the French military intervention, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explained, “ we have always been concerned about their [AQIM] presence in Mali, because they would use it as a base of operations to do exactly what happened in Algeria.”

There are, however, some officials in the administration who have taken a more hawkish view towards the situation in Mali. These officials, citing intelligence reports, claim that those who carried out the attacks against the American compound in Benghazi were affiliated with AQIM. These officials have voiced their support for targeted strikes against militants in northern Mali, “arguing that killing the leadership could permanently cripple the strength of the militants.”

Given that France has already brought the West into the conflict militarily, the question about whether or not military action in Mali is justified has become somewhat of a moot point. Knowing this, the most pressing question, according the General Ham, ‘is now what?'” (The New York Times)


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