Trying to make sense of the Islamist advance southwards
The situation along the demarcation line that separates Islamist-held northern Mali from the south of the country is agonizingly confusing. The Malian army claim to have recaptured the strategic town of Douentza, while the Islamist claim the complete opposite. According their spokesperson, the bearded Sanda ould Boumama, the combined forces of AQIM, Ansar ud-Dine and MUJAO have pushed the Malian army back at least as far as the small town of Konna, if not further. Meanwhile France has mobilised some elite troops from a base in Chad and sent them to Sevaré, the town on the main east-west highway that serves as a transport hub for the Mopti region. The idea of Islamists capturing Mopti itself, Mali’s second largest city which is now dangerously close to the frontline, would be an A-grade nightmare not only for Mali but also for France and the international community. France has spent the last few months trying to persuade the US and the UN that need for action in northern Mali is urgent, without a great deal of success. There are also reports of an aerial bombardment of Konna although whether it was carried out by France or by Ukranian mercenaries isn’t entirely clear. The latest new from AFP, no more than two minutes old, is that the Malian army has counter-attacked, and no doubt hopes to retake Konna by night fall.
Talking of mercenaries, a local man from Konna reported that most of the Islamist fighters he encountered in the town were darker-skinned Songhai or Fulani. Some also clearly belonged to other black African nationalities; Nigerian, Guinean, Senegalese, Ivorian, even Bambara and Malinké from southern Mali. In terms of the ‘lower’ ranks at least, this is no longer a clear cut conflict between ‘white’ Arabs and Touareg from the northern deserts and ‘black’ Songhai, Peul, Bambara etc from regions further south. It has become a great deal more ‘asymmetrical’ than that, with black Africans fighting both for and against the Islamists. Some of the mujahedeen at Konna were also very young, no more than in their mid-teens, if that. The International Criminal Court in the Hague is going to be busy if and when this conflict ends. My hunch is that the men who took Konna belong to the Ansar as-Sunna brigade, MUJAO’s recently formed unit designed to mobilize the local Songhai and Peul youth. Many of these young men will be from the Gao region and given the hitherto transparent will of the large majority of the city’s population to reunite with Mali at the earliest possible opportunity, the fact that they are now attacking the very country they purport to love so dearly indicates a severe case of either mass brain-washing or of desperate mercenary activity.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council met in emergency session to “express their grave concern over the reported military movements and attacks by terrorist and extremist groups in the north of Mali, in particular their capture of the city of Konna, near Mopti,” according to a Security Council press statement. The Council called for a rapid deployment of the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and the immediate issuance of an agreed political road map, which includes serious negotiations with non-extremist Malians in the north and presses for the full restoration of democratic governance. It seems that the EU, UN and USA’s preferred option of a slow careful build-up to an invasion of the north by a Malian lead force of ECOWAS, AU and French Special Forces, with D Day set sometime next September and plenty of negotiation in between, has proved to be all too leisurely and fantastical.
Granted, the world and his dog knows that the Malian are in no fit state to fight a war in the north of the country. A military establishment that was riddled with corruption and incompetence even before the current crisis began has been bought to a state of catastrophic unreadiness by the army’s defeat at the hands of the MNLA and the Islamist coalition last April. It must also be remembered that the Malian army hasn’t won a military victory in the north without the use of Arab and Touareg militia since the early 1960s. The idea that the Salafist coalition currently ruling northern Mali was going to patiently wait around until next September whilst the Malian army was rebuilt with funding and expertise from the European Union was wishful thinking. The last few months have felt like a phoney war. There’s been nothing phoney about the fighting in the last few days.
Talking about the Fog of War in relation to northern Mali would be meteorologically unsound. Fog is almost unheard of in the Sahel. Better to call it the sandstorm of war, a haze that is more impenetrable and dangerous than fog. The vastly conflicting accounts of victories, defeats, advances, retreats, casualties and captives that have come spewing forth from the mouths of the spokespersons on either side of the conflict in recent days illustrate the dire opacity of this conflict and the near impossibility for a journalist to find the copper-bottomed truth about what is going on. A friend who works for Al Jazeera recently told me that in her honest opinion, the war in Northern Mali is the hardest conflict to understand in the world. Even obsessives like myself, who spend more time reading reports and analyses about the crisis or talking to people closely involved than is strictly healthy, have to admit that more often than not we are enveloped in a sandstorm of supposition and guess work.
Such is the case with the recent Islamist advance. I’ll give you my hunch, but it’s only a hunch. Short of trading my safe European home for a god-forsaken AQIM hostage camp in the Tegharghar mountains, I can’t do any better. My guess is that the Iyad Ag Ghali, emir of the Touareg lead Islamist militia Ansar ud-Dine has become impatient with the Burkinabé sponsored mediation process between Mali and the two ‘Malian’ rebel factions, the nationalist MNLA and Ansar ud-Dine, which has been dragging on for a few months. The resumption of these talks that was due to take place on January 10th has now been pushed back to January 21st. Algeria has also re-entered the fray as a mediator, a role which it considered its own almost by divine right before it was taken off them by Burkina Faso at the beginning of the rebellion last February. This has no doubt taken the wind out of the Ougadougou talks and confused matters considerably. Both Ansar ud-Dine and MNLA signed an agreement to cease hostilities and pursue negotiation with Mali in Algiers on December 21st. It’s this agreement which Ansar ud-Dine are now reneging upon.
The belligerent talk coming out of Bamako following the guarded approval given to a military intervention in the north by the UN in December undoubtedly angered Iyad Ag Ghali and his Touareg side-kicks. You can feel this anger in the tone of the Political Platform which Ansar ud-Dine posted on their website on January 2nd. What Iyad and his ghostwriter are saying, in grossly simplified terms is the following: “I trusted you (Mali) at the end of the rebellion of the 1990s. You betrayed my trust by reneging on your promises and fomenting ethnic war in the north. This was gross ingratitude considering that it was ‘my’ rebellion that enabled you to overthrow your military dictatorship and bring back multi-party democracy in 1992. Now, once again, you’re double-crossing me. You persuaded us to agree to a cease-fire and to renouncing the armed struggle while you were busy importing tanks from Bulgaria and talking about war day in day out. Well if you want war, you can have it.” Iyad, a wily old jackal if ever there was, is no doubt gambling on the fact that the Malian army is too weak to offer any great resistance to his mujahedeen. He also knows that if he were to capture Mopti, the pressure this would then heap on the military junta and its political puppets in Bamako would be so immense that even if his Islamist army couldn’t hold such a large and hostile city for long, it might just afford him the time and strength to push through his demands for an autonomous Azawad modeled on the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. It’s a high stakes game but that’s nothing new. Ever since he launched the rebellion of 1990 with a handful of men and a few old Touareg swords, Iyad has proven himself to be a high-stakes player, at least in military terms.
The guessing game becomes even more enthralling when one tries to work out what’s happening within the Islamist coalition itself. There have been significant changes in the last few months, but owing to the standstorm of war it’s been extremely hard to make any sense of them. First the old desert fox, ‘Mr Marlboro’, Moktar Belmoktar was given his marching orders by the MUJAO command in Gao. Was his old adversary Abou Zeid, head of AQIM in Timbuktu, just too sick and tired of him? Was Belmocktar sick and tired of the more brutal and zany behaviour of the MUJAO chiefs in Gao? Was he just piqued that the emirship of Al Qaida in the Sahara was handed over to Yahya Abou El Hamam rather than to him? Who knows. After Belmoktar’s departure, there has been further splintering or atomizing of the Islamist movement, generally along ethnic lines. A notorious drug don by the name of Sultan Ould Badi has formed a new militia called the Katiba Salah Eddine, after the famous scourge of Europe’s medieval Crusaders. Salah Eddine members are mostly Tilemsi Arabs from the villages north of Gao. Ould Badi was apparently none too pleased when the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Gao decided to go and ‘clean up’ In Khalil, a notorious border town north of Tessalit, the Sahara’s very own Ciudad Juarez, which is an entrepot for every kind of illegal merchandising making its way north or south, east or west through the desert. Ould Badi obviously balked at the idea that his carefully constructed smuggling networks might be dismantled or taken over.
Also in December, a certain Abdullah from Benin took control of yet another Islamist militia called the Katiba Ousmane Dan Fodio, named after a early nineteenth century Islamic preacher and jihadist who founded the Sokoto caliphate in what is now northern Nigeria. Abdullah came from the ranks of the Nigerian Islamist Boko Haram to take over the Ousmane Dan Fodio militia, which is said to comprise black Africans from Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast. At around the same time MUJAO announced the creation of Ansar as-Sunna, a new katiba with four sub-brigades which, as stated earlier, is a vehicle for the scared and impoverished Songhoi and Fulani youth of Gao and its neighboring villages. Finally, in the last few days, the redoubtable Omar ould Hamaha, aka Red Beard, has created his own katiba called Ansar Shari’a north of Timbuktu. This militia regroups the Berabiche Arabs of Timbuktu, Araouane and the neighbouring desert.
Are we seeing a planned and strategic reorganization of the Islamist coalition or a messy disintegration along ethnic lines that mirrors the fate of the Touareg rebel movement in the early 1990s? I suspect it is the latter. The desert has a tendency to work against unity and federation. Groups with from different ethnicities and with different interests manage to come together under a common banner for short periods of time, but then invariably revert to their natural state of independence and isolation. Any strong man with a little money and influence can set himself up as a new katiba and thus ensure his own and his family’s share of the spoils of both the war and the peace that must follow it. It’s also possible that the current atomization has to do with finance. Perhaps AQIM’s coffers are running a little bare due to lack of ransom income and reduced smuggling revenue. Without money, it would be hard for them to maintain a unified coalition in the north and persuade go-it-alone hotheads to stay together.
If we are seeing a disintegration of the movement, then this would add substance to the arguments of those who favor negotiation and a wait and see policy rather than swift military action. Perhaps there’s no need to defeat the Islamists militarily. Perhaps they’ll simply implode under the pressure of their own internal bickering. Perhaps this splintering is also the reason why Iyad has now decided to push south. No one knows the fractious tribal politics of the Sahara better than him and memories of the disintegration of the Touareg rebellion following the signing of the National Pact in 1992 no doubt still rankle deep within him. He knows that inaction leads to disintegration. If you want to unite your troops, go to war, or else provoke your enemy into attacking you. You can probably find that somewhere in the writings of von Clausewitz, the German philosopher of war to whom Iyad himself is apparently quite partial. If this is Iyad’s strategy, it’s showing early signs of success. His offensive has indeed lured French special ground forces and helicopters into the region, both of which will be deemed a heathen provocation by the Islamist constituency ofNorth and West Africa. The French presence will also no doubt boost recruitment to the Islamist cause.
However, the question of exactly how Iyad Ag Ghali has managed to bring together these disparate Islamist forces to attack Konna and push south still remains to be answered. What deals have been done? How does Iyad’s stated desire to see an autonomous Azawad sit with Ansar as-Sunna’s Songhoi footsoldiers desire to avoid a Touareg-dominated state in northern Mali at all costs. What’s in it for MUJAO? They have never proclaimed the independence of Azawad, quite the opposite, and indeed only managed to rally the citizens of Gao to their side in their fight with the MNLA for the control of Gao back in June precisely because they claimed to defend the idea of a united of Mali. And what of Algeria, Qatar or those Wahabi Saudi magnates with their petro-dollars and all the other shadowy forces who may or may not be playing a part in the current conflict. But that’s another sandstorm, even more impenetrable than the one that’s currently heading south towards Mopti.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2013