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Yesterday evening, SAIS’ African Studies Program convened a stellar panel on “Understanding Who’s Who in Northern Mali: Terrorists, Secessionists, and Criminals”.  I must confess that unlike my DC blogging colleague Lesley Anne Warner, I do not have a specific interest in military affairs in Africa.  Consequently, I will shy away from analyzing this event as critically as I would like, as I am in danger of wading out into uncharted waters (though I lived in the Sahel for 2 years, I know little about who’s who in Northern Mali).  The panel convened Michael Shurkin from the Rand Corporation, Larry Velte of the National Defense University, and Rida Lyammouri of the Navanti Group.

I arrived late, just after the opening remarks from the moderator, Eamonn Gearon, an Adjunct Professor at SAIS.  I departed just before the Q&A.

Shulkin spoke first, sounding a note of caution on the recent French intervention in Mali, stating that the current state of affairs was ‘not mission accomplished.’  He added that the factors driving Islamic militancy remain, arguing specifically that contrary to popular opinion, moderate Islam in Mali is being subverted by an indigenous brand of militant Islam.  I’m inclined to agree that this may be the case to a degree, but I would posit that external influences (especially those based in oil rich Middle Eastern countries) are contributing to this militancy and I would also suggest that Islam as practiced in neighboring Niger is much more austere than in Mali (just compare the musical output of the two countries).

Shulkin praised the French for the clever application of divide and conquer best practices during the colonization of Mali (particularly the north) in the late 19th century.  He indicated that the present government in Bamako pursued governance policies in the north that fall far short of the complex understanding of the local context that the Colonial French exhibited over 50 years ago (again, I don’t have much background here, but that sounds like quite a claim to me and I hope that someone pushed him on it during the Q&A).

Larry Velte of NDU followed (though the NESA Center logo appeared on the bio sheet that was distributed, he stated that his comments were his personal views).  He appears to have spent most of his career focusing on the Middle East and North Africa and seems to be fairly representative of the individuals who have turned their attention to the Sahel in recent months/years.  Nonetheless, he enlightened me on the origins and development of AQIM and MUJAO, implicating the latter as being heavily involved in cocaine smuggling.  While his description of AQIM fit the media description of the Islamists in Mali as being foreigners, he stated that MUJAO (which also focuses on the sub-Saharan west Africa) is primarily populated by Mauritanians and Malians.

Rida Lyammouri of the Navanti Group rounded out the trio.  His remarks primarily focused on the MNLA and its Islamist offshoot, Ansar Al-Din (and the Islamic Movement of Azawad, an offshoot of Ansar Al-Din).  He particularly focused on the MNLA.  It was interesting to note that their VP is not a Tuareg at all (a Songhai) and that their Head of Information and Communication was educated in Belgium.  Much attention has focused on weapons that have flowed into Mali from Libya.  Intriguingly, Lyammouri claimed that Ansar Al-Din was able to quickly emerge as a major player as many of its members had deserted from the Malian army (Shulkin said that the US had unfairly taken heat for training Tuaregs in the army, I guess this is who he was referring to) and had taken significant quantities of weaponry with them.  Lyammouri also argues that the common ethnic heritage (Tuareg) linking MNLA and Ansal Al-Din kept them from engaging in any violent confrontation.  The MNLA is currently collaborating with the French to patrol Kidal, so this would seem to open up the possibility of a reconstituted MNLA – Islamist alliance in the north that would threaten the territorial integrity of Mali.

The event was extremely well attended, almost a full house (showing that guns trump events on non-violent governance), and the 90 minutes allotted was certainly not enough to explore the situation in all its complexity. The event was explicitly billed as an investigation of the situation of Northern Mali and I suspect that is how many of the key decision makers are approaching it (especially in light of the incident at the In Aminas gas plant in Algeria shortly after the French intervened in Mali).  I would urge policymakers not to lose sight of the fact that if not for the turmoil in the south of Mali, the Islamists would have faced a much more difficult time in making the advances that they did.  More importantly, any advances that are made with French and west African support will be hard to maintain until the situation in Bamako improves.

Chad, Burkina Faso, and Togo, all nations governed by oppressive regimes that came to power through armed insurrection against the state, are supporting the AFISMA mission in Mali.  The role of these powers in pacifying Mali may very well contribute to the concerns of ethnic groups in northern Mali who feel left out of the nation-building process being led by Bamako.  I hope that the end of the current military operation will not lead to an end of the current interest in Mali.

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