One: Mali is an accidental battlefield, the offspring of a militant Islamist defeat in Algeria.
Two: In Mali, al-Qaida is repeating an operational scheme it has employed in its Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen campaigns, with little success despite great bloodshed and suffering. The scheme has three components: rough terrain, tough Muslim tribes and tribal grievances that al-Qaida can exploit. The tough Muslim tribes who have cooperated with al-Qaida have inevitably suffered immensely, at the hands of al-Qaida, as well as al-Qaida's opponents.
Northern Mali, a chunk of the Sahara Desert roughly the size of Texas, is isolated and rugged. The area is the home turf of several Tuareg clans. The Tuareg are a nomadic (or semi-nomadic) Berber tribe who live in several West African nations.
Tuaregs are tough by any standard. They have avoided domination and assimilation by Romans, Arabs (from several sources), Turks, Spaniards and Frenchmen.
Mali's Tuareg have also largely avoided domination by the largely Black African-controlled post-colonial government in Mali's capital, Bamako -- at least until the waning years of the 20th century.
As the Tuareg see it, Mali's current government is endemically corrupt. Indeed it is. That's a legitimate grievance. However, ugly ethnic resentments compound that grievance. At one time, Tuareg warriors traded Black African slaves. Now, the southern government calls the shots.
So all three conditions for an al-Qaida insurgency exist in Mali, or through an al-Qaida usurped insurgency is a better way to describe it.
StrategyPage.com reported on April 6, 2006, (seven years ago) on the Tuareg's separatist rebellion. "The Tuareg tribes are again in rebellion against the Mali government. ... Although most of the people are Muslims, religious radicalism does not seem to have put down any roots. ... (However) ... the region seems to have attracted Islamist fundamentalists fleeing defeat in Algeria, who have reportedly set up base camps in order to regroup."
So defeated Algerian militant Islamists, with ties to other terrorist groups, retreated south into the forbidding desert to lick their wounds. By early 2007, the militants had reorganized as part of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Tuareg needed allies. AQIM despised the infidel French who supported Mali's government. An alliance of convenience began, with a Tuareg Islamist faction, Ansar al Dine, something of a go-between. An AQIM splinter group also became involved, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
The Tuareg have a secular, separatist political faction that despises the Mali government and al-Qaida. The separatist group had led the insurgency until it was undermined by hardline members of Ansar al Dine and AQIM's guns and money.
Last year, West African diplomats began meeting with Tuareg representatives to discuss a political solution. The Tuareg secularists demanded autonomy. In November, West African diplomats asked Mali's government to offer Mali's Tuareg separatists regional autonomy similar to the political arrangement Tuaregs enjoy in neighboring Niger.
Meanwhile, extremists in AQIM and Ansar al Dine have committed the same mistake their fellow hardliners made in Iraq and Somalia: imposing a harsh brand of Islamic law upon tribespeople, often at gunpoint. Stories circulate that Arab militants have demanded the Tuareg give them women to marry. That coercive demand appalled Iraq's Sunni tribes. In December, diplomats indicated Ansar al Dine moderates would throw in with the secularists if Mali made the autonomy deal. This would split the rebellion. The Tuareg are also wise to the stiff price in mortality paid by al-Qaida's tribal allies.
In this context, the AQIM-led offensive into southern Mali makes sense as a battlefield attempt to avoid a political defeat. France, however, decided to counterattack, to blunt AQIM's desperate move and buy time for diplomacy. The stage is set for another bitter, chaotic al-Qaida defeat. The sad thing is, many indigenous Muslim tribespeople exploited by al-Qaida will die in the chaos.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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