Coalition of the Oblivious

Prominent French academic Olivier Roy suggests that the invasion of Mali was launched with nebulous goals and a poor understanding of the conflict’s roots.

Officially, France’s war goals in Mali are to fight “Islamic terrorism” and to restore the country’s territorial integrity. It is difficult to understand the connection between the two goals. Is Mali’s territorial integrity threatened by “Islamic terrorism”?

This depends on what we mean by “Islamic terrorism”: clearly we still haven’t escaped from the semantic and political confusion introduced by the Bush administration with its post-September 11 “War on Terror” slogan.

The expression ‘Islamic terrorism’ can be stretched to cover all sorts of things: Al Qaeda of course, but also political parties that are first and foremost nationalist, like Hamas in Palestine, and local movements that want to establish the rule of the Sharia, as in the cases of the Afghan Taliban or Mali’s Ansar Dine, and on down to any little religious group calling for the Sharia.

But this confusion keeps us from defining clear, long terms strategies, because it does not allow us to distinguish between legitimate actors–with whom we can and should negotiate, even if they are opponents of the West–and terrorists whose sole objective is confrontation, and who lack a social base.

Mali’s territorial integrity has long been threatened by Tuareg movements in the north of the country, who claim – rightly or wrongly – that Tuaregs have never been treated well by the Malian government, which is mostly in the hands of black Africans from the south. The Tuareg demand dates back 30 years, and is a consequence of the colonial division between North African states, run mostly by Arabs, and central African states, run by black Africans.

The Tuaregs are few in number, but they occupy a large territory at the edge of these two regions. They were the losers in the colonial division, though for decades, they have asserted themselves in Chad, Mali, Niger and sometimes even in Algeria and Libya.

Excluded from power, they have found new ways to survive, via cross-border smuggling; warriors by tradition, they have taken advantage of regional conflicts (including the Libyan revolution) to arm themselves. And now the appeal to Islam allows some of them to portray themselves as messengers of a universal cause that goes beyond their tribal identity, and even to find allies among the African populations. But ultimately the Tuareg issue arises from nationalist and ethnic tensions, and not from Islamism. It is a problem that can only be solved with political negotiations and a more just division of territory and power.

Furthermore, in order to restore Mali’s territorial integrity, there must be, in the first place, a solid, stable and recognized Malian central state, something which does not (or no longer) exists. The risk of the French intervention is that instead of restoring a state for all, it will restore power to a faction that is uninterested in sharing it, and that ethnic tensions will worsen.

A second problem, and this one is not restricted to Mali, is the religious radicalization of movements that are primarily ethno-nationalist. Tuareg movements have generally been led by secular groups – like the Mouvement National Pour la Liberation de l’Azawad, the MNLA, which started the Mali revolt. But they are being undercut by Tuareg salafi movements like Ansar Dine who want to establish the rule of the Sharia and build an Islamic emirate-incidentally in the same regions claimed by the nationalist movements.

Since the 1980s, this has become a recurring phenomenon in the Muslim world: the Afghan mujahedeen, followed by the Taliban, the Palestinian Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollah, all of them epitomize the Islamization of a nationalist or regionalist claim.

Oddly, this mutation of regional movements into Salafi movements is strongest in tribal zones – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen. The autonomist or ethnic claim is bolstered by the pursuit of an “Islamic emirate.” Southern Afghanistan is a good example of a tribal society (the Pashtun) which has chosen a religious movement, the Taliban, as a way to express its ethnic identity.

Undoubtedly, this is the case because only by alluding to the Sharia can these movements supersede tribal divisions, without trying to abolish tribes. This is an enduring way to mobilize tribes – as in the case of the Sudanese Mahdi of the 1880s or the (Moroccan) Rif War of 1920 to 1925. Labeling these movements “Islamic terrorism” is absurd and dangerous.

The recent split in Mali – announced on January 24, 2013 – of Ansar Dine between the Salafi faction [remaining Ansar Dine]and the faction that puts its Tuareg identity first (Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad) is a clear indication that all three layers – Islamic Sharia, tribal coalition, and ethno-nationalist – can be juggled and repositioned around one element or another.

What does Al Qaeda have to do with any of this? The fact that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the MUJAO [Mouvement pour l’Unicite et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest] or any number of tiny internationalist jihadi groups move around freely in the Sahel is nothing new. Groups linked to al-Qaida are nomads par excellence, but they move around in a globalized world, not truly anchored in the societies where they operate; they draw together rather rootless people who are often foreigners. And these groups are by definition extremely mobile, particularly since their memberships are small.

For some twenty years now, the pattern has endured: Al Qaeda is made up of internationalist jihadis, and never expresses itself as a local social or political movement. The group that attacked the In Amenas natural gas plant in Algeria is a good illustration of this: it was composed of men of numerous origins and races, including converts.

AQIM has no sociological anchoring in the Sahel, but it embeds itself thanks to alliances with local forces, usually with the Salafis but also with criminals.

This was the case in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Al Qaeda generally acts on the periphery of the Muslim world – Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Sahel – and rarely in the heart of the Middle East (except for the brief episode of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq).

Al Qaeda is not a political movement that seeks to concretely establish local Islamic emirates: its primary target is the West, as again demonstrated in the attack against the Algerian gas plant, where only the non-Muslim expatriates were targeted. The strategy of Al Qaeda is global and territory-less: it multiplies its confrontations, having always as a target the West.

In a word, Al Qaeda leeches off of local conflicts that have their own internal logic, seeking to radicalize them in an anti-Western direction and attract the West into the trap of intervention.

The Bush administration did not understand the territory-less aspect of Al Qaeda, and it tried to destroy potential safe havens through the control of territory, by deploying troops on the ground (the Afghanistan intervention in 2001, and of course Iraq in 2003).

But such a strategy is pointless. In order to occupy the territory, there is a need to send in hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and once they are there, Al Qaeda is already gone-as in Afghanistan in 2001, and it will be the same in Mali. In this regard, Obama’s antiterrorist strategy – not committing the army but using drones, intelligence and special forces – whatever the legal, or certainly the moral, doubts one might have about it, is more efficient and less costly because it is better adapted to the nature of Al Qaeda.

If France is hoping to put an end to Al Qaeda’s safe haven in the Maghreb through a territorial occupation, it is acting absurdly; the group will simply depart and rebuild itself a bit further away.

If the goal is to destroy these groups, it is equally absurd: given the small numbers of the fighters (a few hundred) and given the groups’ international recruiting, it is a simple matter for them to move on, cross a border, or return to Toronto or London clean shaven and wearing jeans.

Al Qaeda is a nuisance but it is not a strategic threat. One good way of reducing its power is to make sure that any local forces that it might seek to leech off of, have no good reason to protect it.

This failed to happen in Afghanistan in 2001, when Mullah Omar, against the opinion of his advisors, refused to extradite Bin Laden. But it is what happened in Bosnia and Iraq, where local fighters themselves ended up hunting down the foreign jihadis. This could be the outcome in Yemen and Syria, and it is what should happen in Mali if we negotiate with local forces.

But in that case, they should not be labeled as “terrorists with whom we do not talk”. So far, nothing has been said to them directly and openly; we can only hope that behind the scenes, channels of communication are open.

Beyond the rhetoric of ‘War on Terror,’ a political solution needs to be in the works.

Olivier Roy