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Blue Man Coup, Part 2: War for God, Country and Cocaine

Posted on May 16, 2012
AP/Jerome Delay

People gather inside a Tuareg clansman’s tent in Koygma in northern Mali in this 1997 photo.

This is Part 2 of an in-depth look at the rebellion in Mali. Tuareg rebels, known as the blue men of the desert, seized the north of that country in March, throwing a relatively stable nation into chaos. As Susan Zakin explains, the conflict reveals a complex web of culture, ambition and unintended consequences. Read Blue Man Coup Part 1: How Gadhafi’s Mercenaries Broke Mali. In Part 2, Zakin discovers what the rebels, smugglers and terrorists are really up to in the desert, and why U.S. counterterrorism types don’t really get it.

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The belief that “ungoverned spaces” such as the Sahara provide “safe havens” for terrorist groups to flourish resulted in several major changes in U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. In 2002, the U.S. set up the Pan Sahel Initiative, renamed the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative in 2005. The aim was to train the military from seven “willing” Saharan countries and partner with them to fight terrorists. In 2007, the Pentagon set up a separate command structure for Africa, signaling a new focus on the continent.

Initially, the Trans-Sahara effort received $500 million in funding over a five-year period. Most of the money was for military training and weapons, but a portion was dedicated to a “hearts and minds” campaign: revising textbooks, paying for schools teaching a “tolerant” ideology and running moderate radio stations, according to Vijay Prashad, a professor of South Asian history and international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

But a gap in funding in the program’s second year excised the “hearts and minds” part. As “counterterrorism” dollars flowed to the Bamako government, and the rebel-held north remained without basic health and education services, both the Tuareg and “young Fulani, Bellah and Songhai scholars from Timbuktu, Gao and Mopti ... transferred blame for local conditions in radio programmes and sermons ... to the U.S. and its Malian sycophants,” wrote David Gutelius, a development economist who worked in the region, in ISIM Review in 2006.

According to Gutelius, this is just one of many ways that U.S. counterterrorism efforts have backfired.


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It’s become a truism to say that border zones comprise a “third” country, shifting ground where cultures hybridize. With power and money concentrated in the south of Mali, the northern Sahara region has largely been left to itself—or, rather, to neighboring Algeria, a richer country whose infrastructure is located closer to the desert. In the past, Bamako’s cash-strapped governments made settlements with the Tuareg by giving them slots in the military, but little else. The solution’s shortcoming became glaringly apparent this spring when, according to Jeremy Keenan, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who has spent much of his career in the Sahara, as many as 1,500 Tuareg deserted the army and joined the MNLA rebels.

Professor Peter Chilson, who first lived in West Africa more than 20 years ago and traveled to northern Mali this spring on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, extolls the improvements in Mali’s transportation system as key to the country’s economic growth in recent years (along with gold mining fueled by child labor in the south). But the three main cities in northern Mali—Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu—are still remote and extremely difficult to reach from southern Mali and Bamako.

With bad roads and little government infrastructure, most day-to-day necessities come from Algeria. But there are no formal trade agreements in place between Algeria and Mali, so the only way to obtain these items is via smuggling.

Smuggling is a time-honored tradition in the Sahara, with social and even spiritual overtones. But in the 1990s, smuggling in the Sahara became part of the global economy, as the trade shifted to smuggling cigarettes into Europe via Italy.

For the U.S., it was hard to tell the difference between smugglers and terrorists. This wasn’t just the usual American thickheadedness; many of the “emirs” who headed smuggling operations were affiliated with the GSPC (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), an Islamist militia. The group was fairly low profile until 2003, when Amari Saïfi (aka Abdelrezak el-Para) kidnapped 32 European tourists in Algeria’s southern desert massifs. After the German government reportedly ransomed the hostages, the perpetrators were tracked down in Chad with logistical support by U.S. military forces.

This dramatic four-country chase across the desert helped build support for American involvement in the region. Lost in the excitement were the assessments of experts who described the GSPC as primarily a business operation. That’s not to say the group had no political ties. While cigarettes moved north, guns traveled south. One of the best-known leaders of the GSPC, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had two nicknames: One-Eye, because he lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and “Mr. Marlboro.”

The best evidence that the GSPC had drifted away from its revolutionary roots was the formation, in 2007, of a GSPC splinter group called AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb). The group had reportedly allied itself with the original al-Qaida at the personal invitation of Osama bin Laden. On April 4, the French foreign minister warned that the group’s involvement in the Tuareg MNLA rebellion could strengthen the terrorist threat worldwide, and urged countries throughout the region to take action.

The reality is that in impoverished, marginalized places with weak governance, people will support virtually anyone who provides jobs, schools and health care, whether through legal or illegal means. Salafist preachers from Pakistan arrived in northern Mali in the 1990s, making inroads in both the GSPC and among some Tuareg. But old habits die hard, and longtime observers believe that the business of AQIM, and that of the less well-understood Islamist splinter group Ansar Dine, which espouses the institution of Shariah law throughout Mali, still comes down to business—controlling, or at least getting a good hunk, of the Sahara’s trade.

Only now the business of the Sahara is smuggling cocaine, human trafficking and, increasingly, kidnapping.

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By Guy, May 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is a well researched and accurate assessment of the Tuareg dilemma.

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By omop, May 17, 2012 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

Some years ago heard that the emir of the Tuaregs claimed that he was the
supreme ruler of all the Tuaregs regardless of the country they happened to
be in [Libya, Chad, Mali, etc, etc,.].

It now seems that the neocons in DC want to decide who is in charge in
those respective countries. While at the same time DC is incapable of
controliing the banking system in the 50 states.

Report this

By omop, May 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment

Some years ago heard that the emir of the Tuaregs claimed that he was the
supreme ruler of all the Tuaregs regrdless of the country they happened to
be in [Libya, Chad, Mali, etc, etc,.].

It now seems that the neocons in DC want to decide who is in charge in
those respective countries. While at the same time DC is incapable of
controliing the banking system in the 50 states.

Report this

By jimmmmmy, May 17, 2012 at 9:23 am Link to this comment

An interesting but pointless article .  Probably would read better in National Geographic. Pull back the blankets any where on earth and you’ll find Christo-capitalists fornicating with the natives.

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By Darwin26, May 17, 2012 at 7:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

i appreciate Susan Zakin’s review of Mali’s crisis. And i despise Neo-libs more and more everyday.
    If only we could crush the IMF and World Bank. Why can’t the Tuareg kidnap officials from these orgs? Or the US State Dept? the world would be a better place minus all of them.
    My heart goes out to the Malians as it does the Palestinians.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, May 17, 2012 at 3:30 am Link to this comment

Another prime example of U.S. meddling in a region where the centuries old dynamics are not understood.

It would be different if we were providing only well drilling equipment, food and building materials but the U.S. exports arms and military training which these folks don’t need.

The overgrown military establishment is in the process of cultivating future hotspots where they are planting the seeds of discord and assuring future business.

They will not go gentle into that good night.

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