Expert Commentary

Mali, terrorism and conflict: Research roundup

2013 review of scholarly literature and think tank reports on conflict in Mali in the context of deeper history, and related issues.

The conflict in the West African nation of Mali, a former French colony with a majority-Muslim population, came to sudden prominence in the West when France intervened at the request of Malian authorities. But the country and its complex dynamics have been scrutinized by scholars for many years.

Behind the recent fighting are nuanced factors that have deep roots in the nation’s history, as well as regional forces that have negatively affected the nation. As a 2013 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report notes, “Mali’s instability stems from both internal and external factors. These include poor governance, the corrosive impact of drug trafficking and other illicit commerce, military fragmentation and collapse, limited implementation of previous peace accords with Tuareg rebel groups, and an uptick in regional arms and combatant flows from Libya since 2011.” (See at bottom for more useful background in the CRS report.)

Despite a relatively small population — 15.8 million — the country occupies a vast, landlocked area, with a huge northern region about the size of Texas. Prior to a 2012 coup and the neighboring Libyan conflict, Mali had seen reasonably strong economic growth in the past few years, and there have been positive signs among development measures such as school enrollment and poverty rates, according to World Bank data. But drought has also meant that parts of the country have continued to see significant food shortages.

There continue to be some criticisms of Western media coverage of the conflict; the main charge is oversimplification. The Guardian provides useful perspective on these points of criticism in an article titled “Mali: Five Key Facts about the Conflict.” Also see the New York Times‘ news overview of the country for a detailed sense of Mail’s recent history and politics.

Below is a selection of papers, studies and reports that can provide further perspective on evolving dynamics in Mali.



“Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in the Sahel”
Larémont, Ricardo René. African Security, Vol. 4, Issue 4, 2011.

Excerpt: “The civil war in Libya has destabilized the region and gives the small number of persons who are involved in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] a ‘perfect storm’ to become more active in a third theater (beyond Afghanistan/Pakistan and Yemen/southern Saudi Arabia/Somalia) for their insurgent and terrorist operations. More important, if AQIM were to enlarge because of recruitment among the Tuareg and by linking more formally with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the threat to regional governments and to Europe would be enlarged. With AQIM and LIFG now armed with munitions acquired from looting President Muammar Qaddafi’s arms depots and with their ample cash acquired from kidnapping, narcotics trafficking, and contraband cigarettes, AQIM and LIFG would have both the armaments and the financial resources to be a considerable threat in the region and also in Europe, given the proximity of North Africa to Europe. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the destabilizing effects of the Libyan civil war have created a very favorable environment and impetus for the growth of terrorist groups.”


“A Social Network Analysis of Islamic terrorism and the Malian Rebellion”
Walther, Olivier; Christopoulos, Dimitris. CEPS/INSTEAD, November 2012.

Excerpt: “Gone are the days when the presence and danger of Islamism terrorism in the Sahara-Sahel region could be contested. The recent conflict in North Mali explicitly shows that several well-equipped and ideologically motivated extremist groups have established dominance over a large portion of Malian territory, ruling the main cities and progressively introducing Sharia law. The success of such groups has been made possible by a temporary alliance between the terrorists of AQIM, Mujao and Ansar al-Dine on the one hand and the Tuareg-dominated MNLA rebels. Following the eviction of the MNLA fighters from most of the Malian cities, the failure of the Malian government to rebuild solid institutions and the current unlikelihood that the Malian army can reconquer the lost territory, terrorist leaders enjoy a freedom of movement that is nearly unrivaled elsewhere in the world…. Using publicly available data, this paper outlined the potential value of social network analysis to study the network formed by terrorists and rebels in this part of West Africa. We found that Islamists and rebels are interconnected through powerful brokers who, as Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar al-Dine, have passed from the rebellion to radical groups. These findings contradict the common idea that Tuareg are reluctant to engage into extremist religious activities.”


“Desert Insurgency: Lessons from the Third Tuareg Rebellion”
Emerson, Stephen B. Small Wars & Insurgencies, Volume 22, Issue 4, 2011.

Abstract: “This article provides an in-depth examination and analysis of the 2006-2009 Tuareg rebellion in Mali and Niger. It identifies the underlying reasons behind the rebellion, explores contrasting counter-insurgency (COIN) strategies employed by the two governments, and presents some lessons learned. While both COIN approaches ultimately produced similar peace settlements, the article argues that the Malian strategy of reconciliation combined with the selective use of force was far more effective than the Nigerien iron fist approach at limiting the size and scope of the insurgency and producing a more sustainable peace. It concludes by looking at the role of external actors, particularly the United States, and how the failure to internationalize the conflict was actually more beneficial to the local COIN effort, as well as to the longer strategic interests of the United States in the region.”


“Criminal Networks and Conflict-resolution Mechanisms in Northern Mali”
Sidibé, Kalilou. IDS Bulletin, July 2012, Vol. 43, Issue 4, 74-88.

Abstract: “Northern Mali faces three principal, intertwining security threats: trafficking, rebellious uprisings and terrorist activity. Any attempts at maintaining law and order are undermined by the fragility of state structures. These threats also weaken the socioeconomic fabric of local communities and Malian national and territorial unity. The Malian government endeavours to address these challenges by adopting and implementing security and anti-terrorism policies, as well as social and economic development programmes. External partners support the Malian government in its efforts through a variety of joint anti-terrorism and development policies aiming to strengthen the state’s operational capacity in the region. Furthermore, local communities work alongside state actors in the development and securitisation of Northern Mali by employing traditional conflict-management mechanisms (intercommunity and interclan solidarity systems). This strategy may considerably reduce the risk of open conflict and contribute to the establishment of a multilevel shared governance system.”


“A Decade of Kidnappings and Terrorism in West Africa and the Trans-Sahel Region”
Ewi, Martin. African Security Review, Vol. 19, Issue 4, 2010.

Abstract: “The scourge of international terrorism has been widespread, sparing no region in Africa. International terrorism here refers to violent acts of intimidation that involve more than one country in either the context of victims or perpetrators. This definition is not concerned with the political context, reasons or milieu in which the acts are committed. Although the dynamics and frequency of international terrorist acts differ with each region, however, in the age of globalisation this threat cannot be taken lightly as terrorist networks seize every opportunity to attach soft targets. In West Africa, three key factors have influenced the commission of international terrorist acts in the last decade. These include the conflict in Sierra Leone, where the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invariably used gruesome terror tactics against foreigners; conflict in the Niger Delta, where militants employ terror tactics including acts of sabotage against foreigners and their interests; and the Trans-Sahel region, where the Selafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), renamed Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is vying for control to create a corridor for transnational organised criminal networks. The purpose of this article is to list some of the significant international terrorist acts that have occurred in West Africa in the last decade.”


“The Sahara-Sahel Quagmire: Regional and International Ramifications”
Zoubir, Yahia H. Mediterranean Politics, 2012, Vol. 17, Issue 3.

Excerpt: “The U.S. involvement in the Sahel began soon after the 9/11 attacks. The first concrete action was the launching of the Pan-Sahel Initiative in 2002, initially limited to the Sahel countries. Later, it co-opted the Maghreb and other sub-Saharan states into the successor organization, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (2004), whose proclaimed objective was protecting borders against arms and drug trafficking and terrorist organizations, and foster military cooperation with the members of the TSCTP, which also involved some civilian activities, such as education and airport security, among other activities. This has led to voices being raised in Washington, suggesting that this was nothing less than militarization of U.S. foreign policy…. The U.S. has since 2005 conducted annual joint military maneuvers, known as Flintlock, in the framework of the TSCTP. While the stated objective is to build a coordinated response to counter terrorist activities, other geopolitical reasons underlie U.S. motivations. The U.S. justifies its presence, arguing that AQIM poses a threat to its interests; in fact, while U.S. military presence in the Sahel began in 2002, AQIM did not come to life until 2007, although it had conducted operations, such as the kidnapping of European tourists in 2003. Actually, one of [the] U.S.’s objectives is the training and supply of local forces considered politically reliable and potentially capable of undertaking counter-insurgency operations. Another one is weaving bonds with military officers who could support U.S. interests, a policy reminiscent of that it pursued in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s or more recently with Morocco and Egypt. Undoubtedly, one of the long-term strategic objectives of the U.S. Command for Africa, AFRICOM, created in 2007, is winning friends and exerting influence on the continent, which boasts important mineral resources. It also seeks to incorporate AFRICOM into the militaries on the continent….

“But perhaps the major U.S. strategic intent is to hinder the advance of China in Africa; the Chinese presence on the continent has grown very fast and its trade with and investments in Africa have grown exponentially, China’s trade with Africa surpassing that of the U.S. with the continent. China has secured access to many African countries, including the Sahel, for the extraction of badly needed raw materials and energy sources for its development. In the Sahel, the Chinese have been active in the exploration of oil in Chad, iron ore in Mauritania and uranium in Niger, where the French through their company Areva, which buys about 50 per cent of Niger’s uranium, have hitherto held a monopoly. Predictions are that in a few years Niger will be the second largest producer of uranium in the world.”


“Sahara or Sahel? The Fuzzy Geography of Terrorism in West Africa”
Walther, Olivier; Retaillé, Denis. CEPS/INSTEAD, Working paper, November 2010.

Abstract: “Since the mid-2000s, terrorism has pushed the peripheries of West Africa into the news and the public eye. While the political implications of this phenomenon have been extensively documented, most commentators have adopted a zonal approach to terrorism in which the Sahel and the Sahara are usually confused. This paper assumes that this confusion dramatically highlights the failure of academic and common geography to think beyond territories in West Africa, and to move away from a „sedentary‟ vision of West African societies. The paper contributes to an understanding of the geographical locations of terrorism in West Africa by showing, firstly, what the main reasons behind the current confusion between the Sahel and Sahara are. Secondly, we show that this confusion arose from a territorial vision of space, which has important implications not only for local economic activities, but also for our own understanding of the spatiality of networks in West Africa.”


“The Al Qaeda Threat in North Africa”
RAND Corporation, January 24, 2013.

Excerpt: “Al Qaeda has not moved from Afghanistan to Africa. Rather, the challenges posed by al Qaeda’s global enterprise have become more diffuse. Al Qaeda’s central command structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been decimated. Under continuing pressure, al Qaeda today is more decentralized, more dependent on its affiliates and allies…. But al Qaeda has proved to be resilient and opportunistic. Its ideology transcends its organization. Organizationally, al Qaeda survives by insinuating itself into local conflicts which have deep roots…. Al Qaeda did not lead the Arab uprisings, despite its subsequent claims that its 9/11 attack set in motion the events that led to the Arab Spring. However, al Qaeda has been able to exploit the turmoil created by the uprisings to gain new footholds, especially in the Sahel, Sinai, Yemen, and Syria.”


“Addressing an Imploding Mali”
Campbell, John. Council on Foreign Relations, Expert Brief, August 3, 2012.

Excerpt: “In northern Mali, Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group with claimed ties to al-Qaeda, has turned against the principal indigenous Tuareg separatist movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA). For now, Ansar Dine has the upper hand but with shallow indigenous roots. Thousands of Malians are fleeing the fighting and Ansar Dine’s harsh regime. In Bamako, Mali’s capital, a brokered settlement between the military junta and an interim civilian government of the elites is not working. Throughout the country, drought and a plague of locusts are adding to the humanitarian disaster. A way forward would include a political settlement between the junta and the elites in Bamako and between the capital and the indigenous secessionists. That would require Bamako to drive a wedge between the NMLA and Ansar Dine. For now, rather than support military intervention in the North, the international community should move quickly to address the immediate humanitarian needs.”


“Crisis in Mali” (PDF)
Arieff, Alexis. Congressional Research Service, January 2013.

Excerpt: “The United States is the leading provider of humanitarian aid in response to the regional food security crisis, and has allocated $119.3 million over the past year for drought- and conflict affected Malians. The issue of humanitarian access could rise on the international policy agenda if armed groups in northern Mali turn against aid agencies, or if concerns arise over the potential diversion of aid to terrorist groups. Prior to direct French intervention, humanitarian and human rights groups had warned of the potential negative humanitarian consequences of a military intervention by neighboring states in northern Mali…. Before the coup, successive U.S. Administrations and many nongovernment observers viewed Mali as a democratic success, despite governance challenges — particularly in the north — and indications that the Malian public increasingly resented perceived state corruption and cronyism. Mali has been a longtime recipient of U.S. development aid, with modest gains achieved by health, education, and food security programs. U.S. military professionalization training emphasized civilian control and respect for human rights. Developments over the past year may bring into question the effectiveness of these programs and have jeopardized joint U.S.-Malian accomplishments in all of these areas.”

“There are three main armed Islamist groups in northern Mali: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM; Ansar al Deen (alt: Ansar al Dine, “Defenders of the Faith”), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, a.k.a. MUJAO after its French acronym). AQIM grew out of Algeria’s civil conflict of the 1990s, and has been present in northern Mali for at least a decade. It has kidnapped Westerners, primarily Europeans and mostly for ransom, in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria. AQIM has also carried out a number of bombings within Algeria, including against a U.N. office in Algiers in 2007. AQIM’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, is reportedly based in northeastern Algeria, although his whereabouts are uncertain; a news reporter claimed to have seen him in Timbuktu in mid-2012. The group has been a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization for a decade. MUJWA, which emerged in late 2011 as a splinter faction of AQIM, has also carried out kidnappings in the region and terrorist attacks in Algeria. In December 2012, the United States named MUJWA and two of its leaders “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” under Executive Order 13224.29 Ansar al Deen, the third main extremist group in Mali, has not been designated as a terrorist group in the United States, and in 2012 U.S. officials expressed support for negotiations with its leaders. However, the U.S. assessment of Ansar al Deen may shift given the group’s reported role in leading insurgent advances toward the south in January 2013, which prompted France’s decision to launch military strikes in northern Mali.”


Tags: war, terrorism, research roundup

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