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The French Method: How Africa’s Old Colonial Nemesis Fights Terrorism in the Sahara

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Posted on Oct 23, 2013
AP/Jerome Delay

French troops gather in a hangar at Bamako’s airport.

By Susan Zakin

Since 2001, Susan Zakin has lived and worked in Madagascar, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Kenya, and recently completed a novel set in West Africa and suburban Virginia. Her previous Truthdig articles about Mali can be found here and here.

Few Americans outside the Pentagon have been watching Mali, where a midsummer election marked the end of a painful year of civil war and incendiary Islamic radicalism. What happened in Mali, one of West Africa’s most vibrant nations, is a primer on containing radical Islam. But it wasn’t the U.S. that got it right. It was Africa’s old colonial nemesis, France. 

In foreign policy circles, it has become a truism that failed states are breeding grounds for terrorist recruitment. Yet when it comes to intervention abroad, the U.S. has veered between extremes of caution and blind optimism. In Mali, a country well on the way to becoming a failed state, the U.S. hung back while France intervened swiftly and efficiently. On Aug. 11, seven months after French troops landed on the ground, Mali peacefully elected a new president, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Keita faces daunting challenges, but democracy in Mali had been restored, at least for the moment.

It almost didn’t happen. But the lessons of Mali could help us contain terrorism in the future—and they just might offer insight into the real risks of defunding government.

The official breakdown of Mali’s civil society began in early 2012, when Tuareg fighters trained by Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi returned to Mali bearing gifts: AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and, according to some reports, SA-7 surface-to-air missiles. The Tuareg militants, fighting under the banner of the MNLA, the Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad, rapidly gained control of Mali’s north. The Tuareg, whose survival skills in the desert are legendary, claimed a right to national sovereignty, or at the very least, full participation in Malian society. But it is worth noting that the militants were seasoned fighters who had spent the majority of their adult lives not in Mali, but in Libya.

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To complicate the situation, armed Islamic radicals who had been plying the Sahara for years, smuggling drugs and arms across the borders of Mali, Algeria and Mauritania, made a temporary alliance with the Tuareg separatists. That alliance quickly disintegrated, and the region fell into violence and chaos, with the jihadi groups, AQIM (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine and MUJAO (the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) instituting brutal Shariah law. The MUJAO were notable for implementing a strategy now seen across the African continent, rebranding radical jihad as a “black” or “sub-Saharan” movement.

While public attention focused on the radicals’ desecration of ancient treasures in Timbuktu, the MUJAO was creating a new definition of Islam, reportedly under the strategic guidance of AQIM. The strategy of promoting armed jihad as homegrown African Islam was so elegant, it seemed inevitable—and it was frightening.

On March 21, 2012, a Malian army captain staged a coup in the capital city of Bamako, citing frustration with the government’s inability to control the rebels. Corruption and crippling foreign debt had contributed not only to a demoralized military but to a decline in basic social services coupled with a deepening income inequality. Although many people in Mali remained committed to civil society, Brig. Benjamin Barry, senior fellow at the London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was already calling the West African nation, “a classic example of a failed state, a clear security challenge.”

France and the West African nations in ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States) pressed for rapid military intervention. Reportedly, so did the Pentagon. But the administration balked. Critics on the left expressed concerns about French influence in the Sahara, which contains reserves of gold and uranium. Others were concerned about the possibility of another Iraq or Afghanistan, fearing an engagement that would drain U.S. resources and provoke a backlash.

As the conflict intensified in 2012, Human Rights Watch and other organizations documented human rights violations by every faction. The Malian army executed 16 Muslim preachers from a fundamentalist, but nonviolent, sect in central Mali, while amputations and beatings were becoming commonplace among jihadis. The MUJAO was using its contacts in remote Muslim villages to recruit child soldiers. The Tuareg fighters of the MNLA were implicated in abductions and rape. A respected local rights group in Mali documented 51 cases of sexual violence, including gang rape, perpetrated against girls as young as 12.

Observers warned that MUJAO radicals were extending their recruitment efforts into southern Mali, where neither the Islamists nor the Tuareg separatists had previously reached.

Without U.S. support, the debate over intervention was stalemated until the election of French President Francois Hollande. In early 2013, when armed Islamic groups crossed the line into central Mali, attacking the city of Konna, several kilometers from a strategic airbase, they gave the Hollande government justification for airstrikes. France followed up with the deployment of nearly 4,000 troops, joined by 2,000 soldiers from African Union countries.


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