I’ve been slow to discuss the fascinating turn of events in the Sahel in recent months. Mali, considered by some a great hope for democracy in West Africa, has fallen to pieces in a combined resistance effort from the Tuareg rebellion and AQIM affiliated groups heavily-armed by weapons proliferating from the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya.
In general, I turn to @tweetsintheME, @themoornextdoor, Dr. Geoff Porter, @tommymiles and @Hannahaniya to keep me informed on the daily fluctuations and insecurity of the Sahel and recommend their blogs and Twitter feeds to all those wanting to stay up to speed. However, I’m reading a group of interesting articles and analysis to get a better handle on the situation. Here are some of my general thoughts and recommended readings linked in each section.
- Thankfully young AQ upstart/affiliated groups haven’t read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Ansar al Sharia in Yemen and al Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Dine has decided to make a harsh environment, Northern Mali, even harsher by instituting a tyrannical form of Sharia governance. A refugee quoted in The Washington Post notes:
“First they ordered women to cover up. Then they ordered us not to enter the market,” said Yatara, a food seller, her voice rising. “ I could not make money to feed my child. This is against our traditions. This is against the Islam we know.” So what’s Ansar al Dine’s endgame, if it is not to win popular support? Here’s another quote: “There’s no work, no food. And they are restricting our freedoms,” Maiga said. “Why should we stay?” Strategically, for Ansar al Dine, I can’t understand what is to be gained by seizing and holding Timbuktu only to destroy some Islamic shrines, displace all the residents and stunt the economy – which was likely a source for Ansar al Dine to generate operational funds. I would hope residents of Northern Mali and competing groups will soon stand up to this group. We’ll see as the land holds little value for refugees to return to.
- Geography matters: Ansar al Dine is “out in Timbuktu” after all. Some have begun speculating about whether Ansar al Dine is building a terrorist safe haven comparable to what is occurring in Yemen. At this point, I’m skeptical as the center of the Sahara is a harsh geography from which to operate. Westerners often speak unflatteringly about places difficult to reach as “being way out in Timbuktu”. This isn’t just a joke! Timbuktu is a harsh geography; a difficult place to project terrorism, generate revenue, resource operations, and attract recruits. Sure, terrorist attacks can be generated from here, but it’s not the easiest nor best safe haven for executing global terrorism.
- Impacts of no detention policy – Two weeks back I discussed the progressive limitations placed on U.S. counterterrorism policy and the implications of these decisions. Well, again the lack of a detention and extradition policy/program has come to haunt the U.S. This past weekend, Mauritania, for reasons I can’t grasp, reportedly released Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (alias Abu Hafs al-Mauritani) al Qaeda’s Grand Mufti and one of the remaining AQ senior leaders with some connection back to Zawahiri and AQ Central in Pakistan. Again, a U.S. counterterrorism “Partner” has released a key prisoner. Much like we’ve seen in Yemen with prison escapes and AQAP strengthening, I expect al-Mauritani has or soon will join AQIM in the Sahel and strengthen the groups connections with other AQ affiliates, provide some leadership and potentially inspire some recruitment. Bad news all around, begging the question about how the U.S. works with CT partners moving forward. If the U.S. can’t detain AQ operatives, U.S. partners can’t detain operatives, and drones are bad, what should the U.S. do? Train and equip partner armies and militias? Oh yeah, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative? Right.
- Great Info Map of Current Sahel: Lastly, I saw this post at the Arabist, which shows an excellent map from Monde Diplo diagramming current Sahel related activity. I’ll repost it here.