Terrorism: The Islamist Threat in Mali

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October 4, 2005: Despite severe poverty and being surrounded by several highly unstable neighbors (Ivory Coast, Guinea, Algeria, Burkina Fasso, and Mauritania), Mali, a large country (1.2 million square kilometers, only about four percent of which is arable, with some 12 million people) in the Sahel, the swathe of semi-desert land that runs just south of the Sahara, is one of the few genuine democracies in Africa. Most Malians practice a very tolerant form of Islam, which leaves room for a lot of traditional animist customs. Of late, however, there has been Islamist activity in the country, activity which may threaten its stability.

There are several sources of Islamist influence. Saudi Arabia has been spreading money around, in the form of Islamic charitable donations to build mosques across the country, mosques where extremist Wahabi influences are strong. In addition, clerics from the fundamentalist Pakistani sect Jamaat al-Tabligh (known as Dawa al-Tabligh in the Sahel and Foi et Pratique in Europe), a group so radical it considers the Wahabi "westernized", have been active in the country. In addition, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC), which has been using the wild northern regions of the country (inhabited largely by dissatisfied Tuareg tribesmen) for base camps from which to raid into Algeria.

These Islamists have been preaching a much more fundamentalist line. It includes bans on many traditional practices, such as veneration of ancestors, the wearing of traditional charms, and all forms of "sinful excess," such as smoking, music, alcohol (naturally), rights for women, and tolerance toward the country's small Christian and animist minorities.

While most Malian political leaders and foreign scholars with a deep knowledge of the country and its culture do not believe there's much chance of a successful Islamist take-over of the country, the do fear the possibility of Islamist-inspired violence. In this regard, to help cope with this threat, Mali has been working with neighboring Mauritania, also plagued by SGPC infiltration, and the two nations have conducted combined military operations against the SGPC in northern Mali. It is expected that Mali may conclude similar arrangements with Niger and Chad, eastwards of Mali in the Sahel, where Islamist groups have also been active.

 

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