Mali: It Is All About Black And White


February 22, 2013: France wants to kill or capture as many Islamic terrorists as possible in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, near the Algerian border before the enemy scatters to more distant refuges (Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Niger, Nigeria, and even farther). This is an opportunity to do a lot of damage to several Islamic terror groups that have been rebuilding their strength (via kidnapping ransoms and drug smuggling) throughout northern Africa for most of the last decade. Local government was not able to do much about this, and Western nations with effective counter-terrorism capabilities were reluctant to get too involved. They still are, but what happened in northern Mali was too dangerous to ignore. Liberated Malians in the region were universally grateful for being rescued from an increasingly dire situation. France still plans to pull its troops out within a month and leave things to a 6,000 strong African peacekeeping operation. But without all the Western aircraft (for finding and tracking terrorists and delivering smart bombs and missiles) the Islamic terrorists will be able to maintain camps in remote areas (plenty of that in the north) and make the roads dangerous to use while carrying out terror attacks in the cities. For that reason the Western air power and some special operations troops may remain. That is still being negotiated. The Europeans want the Americans to help with this because the U.S. is best equipped to do so. The United States is reluctant to get involved. The Americans are trying to talk the French into sticking around. After all, this area was once part of the French colonial empire in Africa and France has maintained economic and cultural relations with their former African colonies. The U.S. is offering to provide cash and technical assistance if the French stay and use their special operations troops and warplanes to find and destroy any remaining terrorist camps in the north.

Then there is MNLA, a local Tuareg group that seized control of northern Mali last April and was supposed to run northern Mali after the takeover. But their more radical foreign allies (MOJWA and AQIM) brought in more foreign gunmen who turned out to be more effective than the Tuareg fighters. This led to Tuareg fighters being forced out of northern cities and towns after the resisting al Qaeda insistence that a foreign (Saudi Arabian) form of Islamic conservatism be imposed on the population. The MNLA was not destroyed but fled to the countryside and into Niger, regrouped, and were waging a guerilla war against the al Qaeda fighters when the French burst upon the scene. The Tuaregs now regret their alliance with the Islamic terror groups but still insist on some autonomy after the terrorists are driven out.

The Tuareg rebels in the north (mainly the MNLA) have been largely left alone by the French forces and were allowed, after consulting the French, to “liberate” Kidal (although 1,800 Chadian peacekeepers were also sent in). The French want the cooperation of the MNLA because this group contains hundreds of combat experienced (because of recent service in Libya, fighting for the deceased dictator Kaddafi) and separatist minded tribesmen. Many Tuareg want more autonomy, or even independence, for northern Mali. But the Tuareg also want the Islamic terrorists gone. This means MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, largely composed of black African Islamic radicals and led by Mauritanians) and AQIM (al Qaeda's North African wing, that contains mainly Arab and non-African Islamic radicals). MOJWA is unique because its leadership is black African. There has long been a lot of tension between Arabs and black Africans. The Arabs disdain the blacks and that causes a lot of tension and resentment. While still allied with AQIM, MOJWA has been striving to show they can be more extreme and effective than the Arab dominated al Qaeda. For example, the move into southern Mali that triggered the French intervention was the work of MOJWA, which was seeking to gain more black African subjects to dominate. MOJWA claims inspiration by 19th century West African Moslem leaders, who fought European colonial powers. The appearance of MOJWA has always presented the possibility of a war among Islamic radical groups. So far there has been some tension but not an outright break.

Then there is Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group composed of Tuaregs. Both Tuareg groups (MNLA and Ansari Dine) made it clear late last year that they wanted al Qaeda out of northern Mali and don’t consider any of that negotiable. Meanwhile, MOJWA and AQIM threaten “another Iraq” (in terms of terror attacks) in northern Mali. Before the French moved north, MNLA and Ansar Dine offered to work with the Mali government to destroy al Qaeda control of the north in return for autonomy for the Tuareg tribes that predominate up there and the continued use of Sharia (Islamic) law. The southerners were willing to discuss the former but are hostile to the latter. Meanwhile MNLA and Ansari Dine discovered they lacked the firepower to defeat AQIM and MOJWA. With these two groups on the run, the various Tuareg factions are keeping quiet and debating what, if anything, they should unite and do next. This debate is being influenced by the return of the Mali Army, which is looking for revenge over the way they were chased out of the north a year ago. The French and the AU (African Union) peacekeepers are trying to persuade the Malian troops to behave, but without a lot of success. The French believe that treating the defeated Tuareg decently is essential to keeping the Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali. If there are enough hostile Tuaregs in the north, the Islamic terrorists (especially the Tuareg Ansari Dine) will have a population to hide among. AQIM have a harder time because the Arab population in northern Mali is much smaller and concentrated in a few cities and large towns. 

Captured terrorist documents reveal a somewhat delusional perspective. The Islamic terrorist leaders, especially al Qaeda (dominated by Algerians) saw themselves finally on their way towards creating an Islamic empire in North Africa. With Islamic radicals free to operate in Libya (despite official government policy against such activity) and now controlling northern Mali, there seemed to be nothing that could stop them. AQIM believed the West had been forced by the indomitable will of Islamic radicalism to back off and not intervene. Islamic radicals were growing stronger in northern Nigeria. With all this in mind the Islamic terrorist leaders backed an advance into southern Mali in early January. That gave France sufficient political incentive to intervene. There is not a lot of political incentive to do a lot more of that. Other captured documents revealed tensions within terrorist groups, with more radical leaders wanting to impose strict lifestyle rules quickly, while the more experienced tried, without much success, to warn every one about how moving fast with “Islamization” usually backfires.

With the terrorists gone, over 200,000 refugees are returning and aid groups can operate without interference from terrorists. The region has always been poor and a year of civil war and occupation by rebels and Islamic terrorists has made it worse.

The EU (European Union) is providing 500 military trainers and support staff to improve the skills and combat capabilities of the Malian army. That will cost about $17 million for a 15 month effort. This will begin on April 2nd and will involve 2,500 Malian troops. Money is also being sought to buy new equipment for the force. Decades of poverty and corruption have left the Malian Army a small force (7,000 troops) that was primarily a source of plunder for corrupt politicians. The army was there to serve political interests and not defend the country. The only combat the army saw was fighting Tuareg rebels in the north, and they finally lost that war last year. Survivors of that rout are eager for revenge and French troops have not been able to stop that. Black Africans in the north will point out “light skins” (Arab or Tuareg) neighbors who seemed too friendly with the occupiers. Malian troops have arrested hundreds of these collaborators, who are usually eager to cooperate. But some of the “lights” have been tortured and at least a few killed. The soldiers say they are punishing murderers and rapists.

This sort of animosity between dark skinned Africans and lighter skinned people from the north has been around as long as the two groups have been in contact. Arabs first moved south of the Sahara in large numbers over a thousand years ago and often came as conquerors and slavers. Although many of the black Africans were converted to Islam, the lighter skinned Arabs (including the Tuareg and Berbers of North Africa) considered themselves superior. This racist attitude has persisted and the black Africans often reciprocate. This is one reason why the largely Tuareg of northern Mali constantly rebel. Not only is the Mali government corrupt but it is dominated by black Africans, which is what 90 percent of Malians are. Officially, Islam and most African governments deny that such ethnic tensions exist. This in itself is progress but the animosities remain and often become quite deadly. The slaving also continues and often gets into the news. This most recently occurred in Sudan, where the government encouraged Arabized tribes to raid non-Moslem black African tribes and take slaves. Retreating al Qaeda men sometimes took newly enslaved blacks with them. Many old customs die hard in this part of the world. Yet there is also a tradition of tolerance between the blacks and the lights but the corruption of the black dominated elected government has caused growing resentment from the Tuaregs of the north. Al Qaeda does not openly preach racism but it implies that Arabs and other “lights” will prevail over blacks in areas where the two groups are present. In all black countries like Nigeria, all black Islamic terror groups like Boko Haram promise that Moslems will dominate non-Moslems.

The Islamic terrorists can still operate in populated areas of the north because most of the population is Tuareg and Arab. The Tuaregs predominate but to the blacks the Tuaregs and Arabs are both “lights” and potential enemies. The Tuaregs have actually been in northern Mali longer than the blacks and feel the region belongs to them. But 19th century borders drawn by European colonial governments are considered sacrosanct in Africa, which had few permanent borders before the Europeans arrived two centuries ago (and largely departed fifty years ago). Most Tuaregs didn’t like the Islamic radicals but if some move into your neighborhood and threaten to kill anyone who talks to the military, it will be hard to tell the bad guys from the other Tuareg civilians.

February 21, 2013: In Kidal, town north of Gao, a car exploded in a garage, killing the driver and a nearby security guard. The garage was 800 meters from a French base but it is unknown if this was a failed suicide bombing or something else.

In the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, a French helicopter gunship attacked a truck carrying Islamic terrorists and killed ten of them.

February 20, 2013: In the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, a force of fifty French troops was ambushed by at least 30 Islamic terrorists. One French soldier was killed, along with at least twenty terrorists.

Outside Gao a few dozen Islamic terrorists shot their way past a check point and drove into the center of town, where French troops arrived, killed five of the rebels, and forced the others to scatter.

February 17, 2013: French and Malian troops have taken the town of Bourem, which is on the Niger River 95 kilometers north of Gao. Several hundred Islamic terrorists had fled to there from Gao and all of them have been forced to flee farther north. Before leaving, the terrorists launched two suicide bomb attacks on Mali Army checkpoints on the road north from Gao.

February 14, 2013: The government has agreed to hold presidential elections on July 7th. If needed (to get someone with more than half the vote) another election will be held on July 21st. Left unsettled is the issue of the army officers who have taken upon themselves veto power over any president of Mali. Western donors have insisted that these officers back off. The officers have not agreed to do so.




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