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Restoring Order in Mali: The West vs. Radical Islam
The Washington Diplomat / November 2013

By Larry Luxner

In January 2012, Ambassador Al Maamoun Baba Lamine Keita arrived in Washington, eager to promote bilateral ties between the United States and Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries. Two months later, military troops ousted Keita’s boss, President Amadou Toumani Touré, complaining that the government was not supporting them in their fight against a rebellion by nomadic Tuareg rebels in the north.

Taking advantage of the power vacuum, Tuareg separatists belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seized control of the north, rupturing a nation once seen as a beacon of stability and democracy in the region. Things rapidly went downhill from there.

Islamic radicals affiliated with al-Qaeda hijacked the Tuareg rebellion, quickly imposing Sharia law on a vast swath of territory and brutalizing civilians, especially women and children, for the slightest infractions. Public amputations in the largely secular society suddenly became commonplace. Ancient tombs of great historical value were destroyed in Timbuktu and elsewhere, on the grounds they were anti-Muslim. Fanatics also smashed musical instruments and threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who sang in public, turning once-musically rich northern Mali into a cultural wasteland.

Frustrated with this turn of events, the MNLA broke with its one-time Islamic comrades in the terrorist group Ansar Dine (which in Arabic means “defenders of the faith”) in a dramatic struggle for influence. But as the Islamic jihadists gained the upper hand and inched closer to the south, the desperate Malian government in Bamako finally asked for foreign military intervention.

The United States, however, already mired in war in Afghanistan, was reluctant to involve itself in yet another conflict — even though it had spent more than half a billion dollars over the last four years to stop the spread of Islamic militancy across North Africa. As a result, the Obama administration could only watch as elite commanders the Pentagon itself had trained defected to the rebel cause, joining heavily armed radical fighters returning from combat in Libya and elsewhere.

Tired of waiting for the world to act, France, Mali’s former colonizer, stepped in. In early January, French President François Hollande sent fighter jets as well as 4,500 troops to prevent the bloodshed from spinning out of control. Neighboring countries joined the effort and within a month, Mali was able to reclaim the territory it lost to the Islamists. By mid-June, the government had signed a peace deal with the Tuaregs and a month later, voters elected a new president.

But while the coup is over and democracy has been restored, the ambassador says Mali’s problems are far from over. In late September, the rebels pulled out of the peace accord, claiming the new government hadn’t respected its commitments to the truce — only to return to the deal a week later after Malian authorities fulfilled a key rebel demand by releasing nearly two dozen prisoners. The peace agreement remains tenuous at best, and many southerners are wary of making any overtures to the rebels who plunged the country into chaos.

The Malian army has struggled to control sporadic clashes, and many experts say the Islamists have simply melted into the desert and mountains, biding their time until French forces leave. On Oct. 8, for example, the morning we interviewed Keita at the Malian Embassy just off Dupont Circle, rebels belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, also known as MUJAO) attacked the city of Gao, just 50 kilometers from Mali’s border with Niger, blowing up two bridges.

MUJWA and Ansar Dine, along with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), all oppose the Mali government, and all have been declared terrorist organizations by the State Department. AQIM in particular has been linked to a string of car bombings, kidnappings and attacks, including the assault on an Algerian natural gas facility that left nearly 40 hostages dead, many of them foreigners. The U.S. Department of Justice later charged Mokhtar Belmokhtar in absentia with the murder of three Americans during that attack, which AQIM launched in retaliation for the French military invasion of Mali.

“We were hoping these guys would disappear already, but they’re still there, even after the French operation,” Keita told The Washington Diplomat as he smoked a Cohiba cigar, glancing periodically at a TV monitor on his desk.

The issue has taken on new urgency in the wake of al-Shabab’s late September assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. The siege — launched in retaliation for Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia — killed at least 67 people, many of them foreigners, and injured more than 150 others.

“These kinds of terrorist groups have already infiltrated into the population. They all have their own agendas, but at the same time they are responding to all directives coming from al-Qaeda. So they are working on two levels at the same time,” Keita warned. “We have discovered that there are lots of connections between al-Shabab, Boko Haram and MUJWA. Al-Shabab is funding these other groups, and Boko Haram is sending fighters from Nigeria to northern Mali, and they all have common training programs.”

It didn’t help that parts of northern Mali were already fertile ground for extremist views, the ambassador argues.

“For the past three or four decades, some of the population in northern Mali — but not the majority — have already been expressing some form of Islamic radicalism, long before the creation of AQIM. So the environment was already favorable for this kind of extremism,” he said. “It’s only in Gao where we can find this extremist population, but in general, the Malian people are very moderate Muslims.”

Yet Keita dismissed the idea that Islamic terrorism stems from poverty, even though his country ranks 178th out of 182 countries on the 2012 Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Program.

“Terrorism is not a poverty issue at all,” he insisted. “We have to ask ourselves why Somalis in Minneapolis could leave everything they have in the United States to go back and fight for Sharia law? It’s a problem of thinking.”

Keita says he’s not related to Mali’s new head of state, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, even though the two men share the same last name. President Keita, a veteran Malian politician and one-time prime minister, was inaugurated Sept. 19 following the August runoff election, which he won by a landslide. Among the dozens of dignitaries attending the festivities in Bamako was Hollande, who used the occasion to announce the official end of the French military mission to Mali. French troops will gradually withdraw from the nation as a U.N. peacekeeping mission increases its presence there.

The ambassador said that considering everything that’s happened over the past 12 months, the situation in Mali is relatively calm.

“Since the elections, I can say that we are again on the track to democracy. The election process was very successful, transparent and credible — and was recognized by the entire international community,” Keita told The Diplomat. “We have a new president, a new cabinet and a new government implementing a very ambitious program of development.”

Those elections — along with parliamentary elections scheduled for Nov. 24 — are the key to unlocking more than $4 billion in humanitarian assistance pledged during a Brussels aid conference in May. France and the United States are the biggest single donors, offering $200 million and $188 million respectively. Keita said other significant funding will come from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

The 58-year-old diplomat, who was born and raised in Egypt, has strong ties with the Arab world. Educated at Cairo’s Lyçée Français, he holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from Cairo University, along with various diplomas from the U.S. Department of Defense, USAID and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in London. He joined Mali’s diplomatic service in 1979 and served in Mali’s embassy in Cairo from 1989 to 1995.

In 2001, Keita was appointed Mali’s ambassador to Ethiopia, with concurrent accreditation to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Djibouti. He remained in Addis Ababa until 2007, returning to Mali as secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation until taking up his current post in Washington last year.

“Mali is not an Arab country, but there are huge connections between what’s happening in Egypt and the situation in Mali,” claimed the ambassador, who’s been back home four times since his appointment nearly two years ago. “Just after the attacks in Boston, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood said that what happened there was a response to the French military intervention in northern Mali, because the French killed four Egyptian members of MUJWA.”

Asked if such claims are a bit farfetched, Keita responded with utter seriousness.

“We have to take all their statements very carefully,” he said. “Just after the beginning of the Tuareg attacks in the north and the proclamation of an independent state called Azawad, [former Egyptian President] Mohamed Morsi made a statement supporting the Tuareg and the creation of this new state. He was a threat to Mali’s territorial integrity. What Morsi supports is all part of this global Muslim Brotherhood seeking to install Islamic states throughout the region.”

Keita also said he’s a supporter of “targeted killings” — even though the idea of pinpointing terrorists for assassination, especially under the Obama administration’s amped-up drone campaign, has sparked outrage at home and abroad.

“It’s a big controversy here in the United States, especially when you talk about drones,” he said. “But this is one of the most important instruments to fight terrorism. For countries like the U.S., which are not willing to put boots on the ground, it’s a very efficient way to pursue leaders of al-Qaeda everywhere. We support it. As you know, after the French military operation, the United States decided to deploy drones in eastern Niger. We hope this program will be intensified.”

Vicki Huddleston, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002 to 2005, suggested that “if drones are used to actually take out people, that has to be done with the agreement of the region as part of a military campaign and not a unilateral strike. The first line of resistance has to be the region; it can’t just be the United States or France.”

In a phone call from New Mexico, the retired diplomat described what’s happening in Mali today as “the first real confrontation on the battlefield between the West and radical Islam, with France intervening at Mali’s request.”

“Mali and the West won, but there are still many problems,” she said. “The new government [in Bamako] must resolve its differences with the northern population. This is a second chance, and hopefully this time Mali will make a huge effort to bring the country together.”

Huddleston (who was profiled in the March 2013 issue of The Diplomat in “Former U.S. Ambassador to Mali Warns of North African Dangers”) noted that historically, Mali has been much more concerned about the Tuareg rebel movement than about the threat of Islamic extremism — particularly since 2005, when the current strife began.

“That’s when the remnants of the Islamic Army [from Algeria’s civil war] came over into Mali with 15 German hostages. Ransom was paid for them, and at that time we did the right thing: We helped the region to defeat them. But then a new leader was chosen, AQIM developed, and they began to get more and more ransom money. There was never any effective military pressure against them.”

She added: “The problem for the West and the United States is that in this region, radical Islam is not defeated. They’ve just moved into southern Libya, northern Niger and Chad. They’re much stronger than ever in northern Nigeria, and AQIM — if not resurgent — is still in way too good health. We cannot pretend like it doesn’t exist. There is still a major threat.”

In the wake of last year’s coup d’état in Bamako that precipitated the Islamist takeover of the north, Washington suspended military relations with the Malian government. But those ties have since been restored, and Congress sent two missions to Mali this year.

“I think we are progressing very well actually, even with the two [recent] al-Qaeda attacks in northern Mali. These attacks will not defeat our determination to go forward,” Keita said. “On the political level, we are preparing legislative elections for the National Assembly in November. With this election, we will re-establish democratic institutions in Mali.”

Meanwhile, Keita hopes northern Mali will soon begin luring back the European and American tourists who used to explore the ancient ruins of Timbuktu and enjoy the traditional music festivals for which Mali was known before the recent fighting silenced everything.

“It’s all paralyzed now,” he said. “These people are suffering. They don’t have any revenues or resources. We must secure the northern part of our country so tourists will be confident to come back. But this will take time. It won’t happen tomorrow.”

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