Mali: The Saudi Factor


August 4, 2021: The prime minister openly acknowledged the important role J5M (June 5Movement) has played in obtaining government reforms. J5M has recently dropped its boycott and now supports the CNT (National Transitional Council). This is a contentious issue with some foreign donors because the populist J5M organized and sustained months of demonstrations in the capital to make the August 2020 coup possible and force a corrupt president out. J5M initially criticized the composition of the 121 member CNT because of the 22 army officers on it, in addition to some shady civilians. Most of the CNT members are less suspect and do represent a wide spectrum of groups. Nevertheless, in 2020 J5M declared a boycott against the CNT and refused to cooperate with it. J5M represents civilians who seek a less corrupt and more effective government and do not see a military dictatorship making a difference.

There is one problem; the main leader of J5M is Moslem cleric Mahmoud Dicko. He has been the de-facto spokesman for J5M and managed to maintain that position. Dicko is a popular senior imam (Moslem cleric) who studied Islam in Saudi Arabia and came to be chairman of Mali’s High Islamic Council. Despite (or because of) his education in Saudi religious schools, which stress the need for Islamic law, Dicko openly backs a secular government, but one run by honest, or a lot more honest than now, politicians and officials.

Dicko recently visited Saudi Arabia where he discussed the Saudi desire to provide financial and other aid to promote Islamic education in Mali. That means promotion of the very conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia. After the Saudi visit Dicko pledged to support the Mali military officers who were behind the latest coup.

Imams like Dicko are one reason Islamic terrorist beliefs have not spread to the majority of Malians, most (95 percent) of them Moslem. Many foreign students in Saudi religious schools note that for all its piety Saudi Arabia is very corrupt as are most other Arab oil states. There were some exceptions but, without all that oil wealth, many Arab governments would be undergoing the same political pain Mali is suffering.

Many Mali politicians and economic leaders don’t trust Dicko, feeling that he must be in touch with Islamic terror group leaders and is really willing to try a religious government. Dicko has never expressed support for that, and more Malians believe him rather than less popular and trusted politicians and other prominent Malians. Imams like Dicko put themselves in danger by taking the initiative to negotiate some matters with Islamic terrorists, like getting hostages released or temporary agreements that would halt attacks on innocent Moslems. Islamic terrorists justify the deaths of these civilians by designation them as “involuntary martyrs’', something that does not earn support from local Moslem civilians.

Imams like Dicko are often seen as traitors to Islam and marked for death. It’s not only difficult to deal with Islamic terror groups, but for imams it is often fatal. At the same time foreign aid supporters, whether they are infidels or Moslems, are uneasy about dealing with Islamic clerics like Dicko, even though some nations have developed ways to do it effectively. Israel is one example, and the Israeli approach is similar in some ways to what the Saudis have developed. The methods used by the Israelis and Saudis are not solutions but effective adaptations for dealing with troublesome Islamic clergy. This adaptation is no magic bullet and requires a deep knowledge of local customs and building personal relationships with the families or clans that produce a lot of imams. There is no one, local or foreign, in Mali who can effectively deal with clerics like Dicko. This is a common problem in most nations that are Moslem majority or have large Moslem minorities. The main problem with the new coup group is what they want beyond elusive clean and efficient elected officials to run the government. Since the second coup on May 24th there have been doubts about meeting the election deadlines, but with the support of Dicko and J5M there are fewer obstacles to meeting the voting schedule and replacing the CNT.

The Corruption Culture

In Mali the corruption problem extends to those who claim they are fighting corruption. Mali is currently a very vivid example of this. Mali has suffered three military coups (government takeovers) since 2012. None of these takeovers were about corruption, but rather anger at the corrupt politicians stealing money meant to finance operations against Islamic terrorist and separatist minorities in the north. That crisis was not unexpected but the intensity of the violence in the north was, by 2011, more than the army was prepared for. Mali never needed much of a military and that was reflected in how decades of corrupt rulers treated it; as another source of jobs for supporters. Many of the officers thought otherwise and argued for more realistic treatment of the military and the threats it was facing up north.

Foreign aid donors agreed with the minority of Mali officers who called for more professionalism. The most popular, in the army, officers were both professional and corrupt and that’s how we got a military government that staged a coup against itself (the 2020 coup) recently (May 24th.)

The May coup was not well received by foreign aid donors. This includes France, which pays for its 5,100 counterterrorism troops who operate throughout the region. The military was not happy with foreign donor demands that they cooperate with political factions that made possible the 2020 coup. These groups and the coup leaders formed the interim (and foreign donor approved) CNT government. The foreign donors insisted that a civilian lead the CNT with one of the military coup leaders as his deputy. The army and civilian members of the CNT did not get along. The main disagreement that triggered the May coup was about efforts to negotiate with Islamic terror groups and ineffective measures to prosecute corrupt politicians.

The May coup was led by the army colonel who was appointed deputy head of the CNT, and he replaced the civilian who originally held that job. The May coup promptly replaced many CNT officials with army officers or civilians known to be pro-military. When foreign donors, including France, criticized this, the army threatened to call on Russia to replace the Western foreign aid donors and troops in Mali. While this threat made for great headlines it ignored the reality of how Russia and China operate in Africa, where these two nations are often the cause of corruption and never the cure. Russia is too broke to provide foreign aid and if you want Russian troops or military contractors you have to pay for them, preferably in advance. China is even more mercenary, demanding payment in natural resources or other assets. China is a buyer, not a peacekeeper or charity. The Mali officers’ threats said a lot about their motives, which was mainly about maintaining their power and helping themselves to a portion of foreign aid.

July 31, 2021: The prime minister selected by the CNT said the existing schedule for the elections would be met. This is what neighboring countries and foreign aid donors demanded.

July 28, 2021: In the northeast, the three-borders (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) area (south of Gao) there was another Islamic terrorist massacre across the border in Niger where 19 villagers were killed. Three days earlier a similar raid in that area left 14 villagers dead. These attacks are made to intimidate local civilians into cooperating with the Islamic terrorists by not reporting terrorist activities to the security forces and turning over food and other supplies on demand. There is less of that kind of Islamic terrorist violence in Mali and there could be more if the security forces do not respond to civilian reports of Islamic terrorist activity or threats.

July 26, 2021: In the north (near Kidal) there were two attacks on peacekeepers in the last 48 hours. Today five peacekeepers were wounded by a roadside bomb. Yesterday a peacekeeper camp was fired on with rockets or mortar shells but there were no injuries.

July 21, 2021: In the northwest (Menaka) French troops acted quickly on intel reports that two ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) officials were at a rural terrorist camp. The raiders hoped to capture the two targets but the two leaders fought to the death. The bodies were identified as the ISGS head of finance and logistics along with the chief ISGS judicial official. Many Islamic terrorist groups appoint a prominent cleric as their chief judge to justify punishments or executions of civilians or misbehaving members. The French noted that they had cooperated with the Americans who regularly carried out aerial surveillance of the area and concentrated on tracking the ISGS officials. This Franco-American cooperation has been going in Africa for two decades. In addition to sharing intel t he U.S. provides a lot of air support in the form of aerial surveillance (including large UAVs and electronic monitoring), satellite surveillance, air transport and aerial refueling. All these capabilities have been useful for the French counterterrorism efforts in Mali and adjacent countries. The Americans are especially interested in keeping track of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) activity in Africa. There are small ISIL operations in Somalia and Egypt while most of the ISIL activity takes place further south. Since 2018 there have been two ISIL “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one is ISGS, which showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and much larger, ISIL province was ISWAP, which is actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. ISWAP recently took control of most of Boko Haram in Nigeria.

July 20, 2021: In the north, near the Niger border, a French Mirage 2000 fighter bomber crashed after having taken off from its base in Niger. The French jet experienced equipment problems and the two crewmen aimed the aircraft at a remote area before ejecting. The two airmen were soon picked up by British helicopters based in the area, which also brought in troops to safeguard the wreckage so that it could be examined to determine exactly what went wrong. This was done by hunting down and killing the leader of the Boko Haram faction that opposed ISIL.

July 17, 2021: In the southwest, near the border with Guinea, armed men attacked a road construction site and kidnapped three Chinese and two Mauritanian employees of the Chinese firm that is building the road. The raiders destroyed heavy equipment and stole five pickup trucks to carry their captives and loot. largest Islamic terror group in Mali is JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) which later took credit for the attack and released videos of the captives.

July 13, 2021: In central Mali a catholic priest kidnapped on June 21st by local Islamic terrorists was released. It is unclear if a ransom was paid. The priest was taken, along with four local Catholic, as the five were driving to a funeral. At first it was believed that all five had been released on June 23rd but it was soon realized that the priest was still being held. The kidnappers originally only wanted the car, and did not want to get involved with kidnapping or murder. But once they realized one of their captives was a priest, they kept the car and the priest and let the others go. Only about two percent of the population is Roman Catholic and they tend to live in Catholic neighborhoods in cities and largely Catholic villages in rural areas. Killing or kidnapping local Catholics is usually carried out by ISIL members, but in central Mali al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists are usually the culprit. Catholics, especially foreign priests, generally fetch larger ransoms than local Moslems. In this case the captive priest was a local man and that complicated matters for the kidnappers because demanding a ransom for a highly respected Malian priest could further inflame the resistance the Islamic terrorists were encountering with locals.




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