If you believe that any extremist group has the right to declare jihad, take up arms, run rampant across the country under the pretense of imposing sharia law, establish training camps, smuggle weapons, and welcome hordes of insurgents from all over the world, then do not waste your time reading this article. Likewise, do not bother if you think France is leading a religious crusade against the people of Mali, and deny the fact that it is the international community intervening at the request of the local Mali government based on agreements with France dating back to the post-colonial era.
Of course if you are one of the many Al-Qaeda apologists who defend the group’s ideology, provided that the terrorists do not come into your country, you may agree with their claim that they are committed to justice. Most likely your issue with Al-Qaeda lies with their means, not their ends; their tactics and mechanisms, not their overarching aims; foremost among them being the Taliban-esque application of sharia law and coercing communities into following extremist ideologies through terrorism, forceful displacement, and general chaos.
Dear reader, if Twitter and the like are the sources upon which you base your opinion, I ask that you kindly restart your browser, visit YouTube, and watch the two-hour documentary film about the Tuareg and the African Taliban. It is a sympathetic documentation of Al-Qaeda’s activities in that region, replete with interviews with the group’s leaders in which they discuss their extremist worldview like any other extremist organization. They justify their terrorist acts and their targeting of foreigners and opposition figures. In other words, it is raw footage which will help you better understand what exactly is transpiring there, far away from the din of Twitter.
Al-Qaeda’s presence in Mali and North Africa goes back more than a decade, when small groups linked to the terror organization set up camps in the Saharan Azawad region on the western edge of the vast desert, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Algeria meet. In 2004 Mokhtar bin Muhammad Belmokhtar (an Algerian-national born in 1972), better known by his nom de guerre Khalid Abu Abbas, became emir of the Sahel, after having been appointed by Abdelmalek Droukdel, also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.
After stabilizing in the Sahara, Al-Qaeda began actively recruiting Azawadi Arabs, Tuaregs, and indigenous Africans. As is the case in most areas in which the state has failed to meet the basic needs of the population or provide stability and security, their message resonated. Lack of security, spreading chaos, unrestricted weapon smuggling, and regional instability are the ideal conditions in which Al-Qaeda thrives. The last of these factors was provided by Libya, where fighters some point after the fall of Gaddafi helped to spread weaponry and attract fighters to Mali.
Soon after, militias began sprouting across the region and currently there are around ten organizations that all differ slightly from one another. However the bigger picture shows that they are all attempting to recreate the Taliban model and target Western interests. One of the most serious issues is their control over border regions of Mali, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya, which allows them to create safe passageways and ease of movement for their personnel. Another important factor is the international community’s reticence to engage the region, despite Al-Qaeda’s growing influence there, after its drawn-out war on terror and the events of the Arab Spring. The United States’ stagnant economy and its aversion to wade into new battles have made its relationship with Al-Qaeda somewhat touch and go. This is what we are seeing currently in southern Yemen where Al-Qaeda has taken root and recreated the Mali model, however with aims to destabilize more than to undermine the West.
It turns out Gaddafi was not bluffing when he claimed that Al-Qaeda would erupt across the region in his absence, which confirms that he had contact and relations with armed groups of an insurgent nature. The Azawad leaders were likely among these groups, and they did not embrace Al-Qaeda until after Gaddafi’s fall. The same applies to the traditional leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, the son of one the Ifogas tribe’s leading families. He is a former soldier and prominent figure having led the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s against the Malian government, which ended with signed peace agreements between the government and the Tuareg rebels in 1992. In 2007, Ghaly was stationed to work as a consular adviser representing the Republic of Mali in Jeddah, only to once again embrace Al-Qaeda’s ideology. After managing to recruit hundreds of his fellow Ifogas tribesmen in addition to many others from other Tuareg tribes, he established the militant group Ansar Dine. After the establishment phase, which took place while the world followed and praised the Arab Spring, Ansar Dine began integrating with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), much in the same way as the alliance between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban formed after the fall of Kabul.
Although history may repeat itself, it rarely does so exactly. I predict that this fifth wave of Al-Qaeda, with its tribal alliances, will be more violent by virtue of the wide-open borders and availability of new recruits who are enlisting in droves to fight an alleged Christian crusade. The recruitment tactic should have been the subject of ridicule by now, especially since Mali is a country of religious scholars, Sufism, and civilization inherently averse to the doctrine of Al-Qaeda. It is well-known that Mali has produced many revered Muslim clerics, and that its traditionalist methods attracted many religious scholars to study texts and take vacations there. The great linguist Mohammed Saleh al-Tenbakti al-Ansari (mayGod have mercy on him), who migrated to Saudi Arabia and studied at the Grand Mosque for more than 20 years, was originally from Mali. As were Hamad al-Ansari and Ismail al-Ansari, the latter being a member of the Senior Council of Ulama and one of the most influential figures with regards to Salafism in Saudi Arabia.
Imposing sharia law, the objective of Ansar Dine, is as unfounded and fanciful as the Christian crusades they claim are sweeping across the Muslim world. Sunni Malian society is extremely devout and leans towards a Sufi spiritual mysticism in the Zahdi region, which is an organic byproduct of the natural beauty of the desert landscape.
The situation in Mali is perilous. The war led by France, albeit at the behest of the local people, could likely decimate the militias and send them scurrying for the cover of major cities where their suffering will earn them the sympathy of the locals. In the event that the insurgents do take cover in urban environments, civilian casualties will result and the situation will transform into a humanitarian crisis. Moreover the Sahara will become a beacon for jihadists across the world, who have become disgruntled with the Arab Spring. The ascendency of Islamist factions to power has not abated the ferocity of these groups, but rather has allowed them to regroup and multiply. Thus is the case with the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with the armed militias in the Sinai, with the insurgents in Syria, and with the militias in Somalia who have kept a low profile due to the presence of a formidable, moderate Islamist presence.
In Mali’s case, the danger lies in Al-Qaeda’s tribal ties. Al-Qaeda often dissolves the tribe which embraces it and assimilates its members into its structure, but this is not the case in Mali. In Mali, Tuareg tribesmen join the jihadist organization, Arab AQIM defectors join the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar al-Sharia absorbs the remaining ethnicities.
The bottom line regarding Al-Qaeda in Mali is that military solutions and reactive measures only produce temporary results while negatively affecting the civilian population. There is no way of saving a country which Al-Qaeda has penetrated other than by rebuilding the state’s political, economic, and security functions. The Americans, despite their drawn out war on terror, are yet to grasp this lesson, and it seems that the same can be said of the French.