Mali is in al-Qaeda’s Cross-Hairs

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s February 19, 2014 blog post.

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On Friday February 7, 2014 near the northern Mali town of Tamkoutat, thirty-one people were killed in two ambush attacks by Islamists. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) was responsible for the attacks, according to Mali’s interior ministry. Last week near the Niger border there was a clash between Tuareg villagers and Islamists—seventeen civilians and thirteen MOJWA were killed. In Niger, Boko Haram based in Nigeria was recently staging an attack–more than twenty of the Islamists were captured. In January eleven Islamists preparing for a mission were killed by French troops in Mali, and a large cache of weapons seized. In another incident a UN military vehicle struck a land mine near the town of Kidal—injuring five soldiers.

These attacks have all occurred since the French-led troops drove the Islamists from Mali’s northern towns. In January 2013 the incursion had stopped the Islamists’ advance from Konna to Bamako, the capital, a distance of 300 miles. By March most of the Islamists had been dispersed into the vast desert and mountainous region. MOJWA, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Ansar Dine Islamists have since carried out targeted attacks against Malian, French and UN troops.

Last March while visiting the northern town of Timbuktu, Islamists attacked a military base near the Colombo Hotel where I was staying. A suicide attack followed at a nearby checkpoint, killing one soldier and wounding six. I luckily was evacuated on a UN aircraft with several French media correspondents. A week later the Islamists returned and overran the hotel, and attacked the military base again.

France’s 3,000 troops will have left Mali by March 2014, with 1,000 remaining to undertake counterinsurgency operations. Mali’s vast northern desert is where many of the Islamists are hiding. Other Islamist fighters have gone to Libya, Tunisia and Algeria to join al-Qaeda affiliates. They can easily return and infiltrate the region, bringing with them large caches of weapons, to underpin the Islamists embedded in the desert.

Gerard Araud, the French permanent representative to the UN, said that MOJWA and other al-Qaeda affiliates could likely undertake attacks in the future against Mali. Although the core strength of the insurgents has been weakened they have not been defeated, he noted. The current UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) may not be able to stop the Islamists, he added.

Since independence from France in 1960 the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a separatist movement, has led several rebellions–their aim being independence. The MNLA which controls the northern town of Kidal reluctantly signed the June 2013 cease-fire accord, ahead of the July presidential elections. The Tuareg and Arab clans were promised they would be included in the governing process, but left open the issue of an independent homeland. The MNLA ended the ceasefire in December, claiming that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has not lived up to the conditions of the June peace accord, and will press for independence.

In January 2014, an Algerian delegation held talks with the MNLA attempting to revive the peace agreement, at the behest of the Malian government. The Algerian’s wants to find a political solution to bring peace and security to the region. Algeria was embroiled in a civil war with the AQIM in the1990’s, with many of the insurgents fleeing to Mali. The concern is that the MNLA could affiliate with the AQIM which created chaos in 2012 when they attacked a major gas plant in Algeria—killing thirty-nine workers.

At this point Mali needs to avoid any potential conflict with the Tuareg and Arab dissidents by including them in the governing process. Mali cannot risk fighting on two fronts—one with the MNLA and the other with al-Qaeda linked Islamists. The Malian military coalition may be stronger today, but the MNLA and Islamists have proven in the past that they can be a formidable force.

Any escalation in the conflict could require up to 20,000 UN troops, experts say. Every effort must be made to prevent the Islamists from returning and infiltrating the northern towns. Current food shortages in the region add to the security concerns, since almost 800,000 Malians are at risk. It is paramount that President Keita reunites the country, bringing together all the ethnic factions to start the healing process. The al-Qaeda linked Islamists must not gain the confidence that they could return in force.

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