International Policy Digest

James Richardson/U.S. Air Force
World News /15 Jan 2013
01.15.13

The Mali Intervention: France, Islamic Fundamentalism and Africa

“I have agreed to Mali’s demand, which means French forces provided support to Mali this afternoon…The operation will last as long as is necessary.” – French President François Hollande, January 11, 2013

The French government has decided to take it upon itself to intervene in the conflict-plagued state of Mali to stop the advance of the Islamic Jihadi. On Monday, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, explained that France had received UN Security Council approval to intervene. An aerial campaign on Thursday had commenced at the request of Mali’s government against al-Qa’ida linked rebels marching on Bamako. The fears from France and her allies is that the al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) poses a grave threat in its efforts to create what would amount to a Taliban styled regime.

It has been pointed out by such sharp students of international affairs as Patrick Cockburn that such action resembles that of the “protective” intervention by the French against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi two years ago. For that reason, the implications for the implementation UN resolution 2085, which charts the legal boundaries of military assistance designed to restore Mali’s government, are dangerously unclear. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sees the move as limited and controlled. The Mali intervention was only taking place to restore “Mali’s constitutional order and territorial integrity.”

That AQIM is itself a threat to France, however, is a matter of dispute given that it has not launched any attacks against its interests let alone European ones since it was established in 1998. It has Algerian foundations and is a splinter of yet another fundamentalist group rumoured to have links with Algerian intelligence.

Its activities have been localised and narrow – smuggling (cigarettes, cocaine) and kidnapping. Interestingly enough, it has chosen not to embrace the cultural program of other groups in cleansing the areas under its control of music.

The political and cultural activities of this seemingly eclectic mishmash of Islamic groups have been vicious – banning music, something seemingly unthinkable in Mali, and engaging in that all too familiar pattern of destroying Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. Mali is fast becoming another “Afghan” experiment in Islamic nation building (or sheer deconstruction). But the other side of the experiment is less the matter of Allah than the issue of money and basic greed. Power and finance come before the establishment of caliphates for some of the vying groups. That side of the equation is neglected in the Western security debate.

Look for fundamentalists, however, and you will find them. The born-again Salafist Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Tuareg Islamist movement Ansar-ud-Deen, exemplifies this. For him, the word of God does matter – a great deal. Long gone is the man who used to smoke and keep company with the musicians from Tinariwen. As the director of the Festival in the Desert Manny Ansar explains, “He believes in what he’s doing. And that’s what frightens me.” The musicians have gone underground. Last year, on August 22, Gao received a governing decree banning all Western music.

Andy Morgan, writing for The Guardian, noted one striking example of this in the Malian desert town of Kidal in October last year. Seven militiamen sporting AK47s were on the search of a local musician. He was not found, but the message to his sister was unmistakable: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The Mali intervention, however, is not premised on cultural salvation but political order. If Mali falls to Islamism, a haven will be established though it’s bound to be confused and bloody. And what will come out of that “haven” is anybody’s guess. The U.S. support for the French in this is premised on the simple basis that Islamic “terrorists” are involved, plain and simple. “We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven,” explained US State Department Official Victoria Nuland.

Mali, to put it bluntly, is in a mess. Such messes, when they take place in former colonial bastions – notably those with strong historical ties to powers such as France – invite more than a spectator’s interest. That interest tends to come in the form of guns and material when the natives misbehave. Countries in Africa, such as Algeria, oppose French involvement, seeing the shackles of both oppressor and policeman. The concern from their side is more with ethnic separatism (the MNLA) than fundamentalist Islam. French officials beg to differ.

Two Tuareg groups feature in the conflict – to Ansar-ud-Deen, said to be linked to the al-Qa’ida franchise, can be added the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Both groups made their mark on the conflict when they took control over northern Mali in April 2012. This in itself was not cataclysmic to Mali’s security, given that the fighters number in their thousands and the majority of the country’s 15 million-strong population live in the south.

With their current resources, a conquest of Mali is highly unlikely. Neither group is friendly with each other, with Ansar-ud-Deen keen to muscle past the nationalist MNLA with the help of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).

So, we are back to the usual debates about international intervention – to curb an untested, unclear threat, with motives that are themselves historical, ill-directed and disingenuous. We can dismiss the altruistic motive from the start, despite the icing of legalism. The Mali conflict, fought by its various players, is based on a bloody challenge for control, and no side, at this point, will gain ascendancy.