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Turning Back the Islamist Tide in North Africa and the Sahel

by Patrick SealeReleased: 26 Feb 2013

France’s offensive against Islamists in northern Mali is approaching what it hopes is a final phase. Having driven Islamist fighters out of the main cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, French troops are now besieging the mountainous redoubt of Ifoghas close to the Algerian border, where Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other armed Islamists are said to be dug in. Right across the region, the Islamists are on the defensive, but they are fighting back with ambushes and sudden armed incursions deep into areas already captured by the French. The guerrilla war threatens to be long and hard.

An unforeseen consequence of the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi by the Western powers has been the return home to Mali and Niger and other countries of the Sahel of thousands of men -- many of them Tuareg-- whom Qadhafi had recruited into his armed services. Most of them returned with weapons plundered from Qadhafi’s arsenals. This is what triggered the crisis in Mali.

In early 2012, a Tuareg force, named the Azawad national liberation movement, or MNLA, chased out the Malian army and proclaimed independence in northern Mali, an area bigger than France, which they call the Azawad. The Tuareg, an ancient Berber-speaking race, have risen repeatedly in the past against the government in the capital Bamako, only to be crushed or fobbed off with empty promises of development. Had Bamako had the sense to concede autonomy to the Tuareg long ago, both the Islamist invasion and the war to oust them could most probably have been avoided.

But hardly had the Tuareg celebrated victory than they in turn were ousted by Islamist fighting groups, which had roamed the deserts of the Sahel living off large-scale smuggling and hostage-taking. French President François Hollande has vowed to destroy the Islamists of northern Mali – a task in which France is now receiving help from the United States and from West African troops. The United States has set up a new drone base in Mali’s eastern neighbour, Niger, to provide French troops with intelligence and keep an eye on regional threats, as well as on the flow of weapons from Libya. The French are also using Niger’s airport to fly men and equipment into Mali.

Mali’s Islamists have not yet been defeated but they are now on the run. Smashing them, however, will not resolve the country’s main puzzle, which is how to deal with the Tuareg’s demand for independence in their traditional northern homeland. When the Tuareg’s MNLA was overwhelmed by Islamist groups, Niger deployed 5,000 men along its 800 km border with Mali, and managed to prevent Islamist militants from entering its territory. It has now contributed 680 men to MISMA, the West African military force which has rallied to the support of France’s efforts in Mali

Niger, a vast poverty-stricken country of 15m people, has done its best to keep the Islamists at bay. As in Mali, many of its young men went to work in Libya or were recruited into Qadhafi’s forces. But, when they flooded back home after Qadhafi’s overthrow, they were not allowed to bring their weapons with them. Instead, they were disarmed by the Niger army at the border. This led inevitably to numerous skirmishes, but has greatly contributed to the country’s stability. Unlike Mali, Niger has managed to defuse the Tuareg problem by integrating them into political life. The Tuareg are said to number about 10% of the Niger population.

In several other countries, Islamists are in trouble. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime of President Muhammad Morsi is struggling to rescue the state from bankruptcy. In Tunisia, the Islamist party Ennahda is still in the driving seat, but is has faced enormous pressure from street demonstrations following the assassination on 6 February of a left-wing opposition figure, Chokri Belaid. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, himself the number two of Ennahda, resigned, after failing to persuade his party to allow him to form a government of technocrats. He has been replaced by a moderate Islamist, Ali Larayedh, who spent 14 years in Ben Ali’s jails, but who seems determine to keep Jihadi violence at bay, which he describes as the greatest danger facing Tunisia.

In Libya, hard-line Islamists are said to be on the defensive, although Ansar al-Sharia -- the Islamist militia believed to be responsible for last September’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in which the Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed -- is said to remain active among unemployed youth.

Resolutely anti-Islamist, Algeria is one of the last secular Arab nationalist regimes in the Arab world. Its army bears the scars of a cruel ten-year civil war against the Islamists which, from 1990 to 2000, killed close to 200,000 people. This prolonged ordeal conferred great powers on the country’s secretive Department of Intelligence and Security, headed by General Mohamed Lamine Mediene. When last January an Islamist group seized a major gas plant in Algeria’s southern desert, taking numerous hostages, Algerian Special Forces promptly routed the attackers, killing most of them. But many hostages perished also.

When the guns fall silent in northern Mali, the government in Bamako will have to decide what to do about the Tuareg and how to satisfy their longing for independence. In an interview with the French daily Le Monde on 22 February, the interim Prime Minister Diango Cissoko declared his firm opposition both to Tuareg independence and to Islamic extremism. “It is out of the question,” he said, “to speak of federalism” with the Tuareg population of the north. He rejected all discussion with “those who envisage the division of the territory.” The farthest he would go was to say that he was open to dialogue about local development and a measure of decentralisation. This is unlikely to satisfy the Tuareg.

One of the many problems Mali faces is the lack of a strong or united central government in Bamako. Power is shared between Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, a rebellious officer who toppled the government of Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra in a coup last year, and Prime Minister Django Cissoko who took office on 11 December 2012. Of the two, Sanogo is by far the stronger. He controls the Defence Ministry and intelligence agencies and has just been given the key job of overseeing the reform of both the army and the security agencies by the interim President Mahamadou Issoufou. Whereas the President and Prime Minister strongly support the French action against the Islamists, Captain Sanogo is on poor terms with the French and is opposed to foreign intervention.

One way or another, the Islamists in North Africa and the Sahel are being defeated, but only substantial international aid and real economic development will keep them permanently at bay. The truth is that the best defence against the Islamists is economic and social development. The real threats to the region come not from Islamists but from unemployment, poverty, banditry, the availability of weapons and the incapacity of governments to ensure their countries’ development and security.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

Copyright © 2013 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global

Released: 26 February 2013
Word Count: 1,169

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