Sunday, October 23, 2011

What's going on in Mali?

Note: I've thought long and hard about whether/how to publish this post, since some of the information can seem rather intimidating. However, I have full confidence in the Peace Corps and their ability to evaluate the situation on the ground and to choose a safe site for me to work at. I also know that in situations where a threat arises, PC evacuates its volunteers for their own safety - no questions asked - at a moment's notice, so no need to worry. I'll be in good hands. In light of this, it seems appropriate to make a stab at putting recent/potential future developments in context as best I can.

If you've been watching the security situation in Mali over the past couple of months, you might be asking yourself a lot of questions right now. That is, if you were one of the two groups that actually pays attention to security in the Sahara, an underreported topic in the United States. As far as I can tell, there are only two groups of people who have a clue what's going on out there in the middle (and edges, sometimes) of the desert - the military and aid/development workers. I proudly consider Peace Corps volunteers to be among the latter, and thus I've been scanning the available news for reliable reports on a (relatively) new phenomenon in Mali: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The precursor to AQIM was not, in fact, linked to the Al Qaeda Americans know and hate but instead is rooted in armed Islamic groups in the Maghreb (Northern Africa). Al Qaeda joined this organization, which was at one time called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, in 2006. They bonded over their love for jihad and their hate of France, among other things, and have been in union ever since.

I like to tell people that Mali is an remarkably stable country compared to others in the region, that it is in many ways a model of religious tolerance (as is its neighbor, Senegal). I emphasize that despite being one of the poorer countries in the world, Mali has relatively little armed violence. Even the requisite coups (they've been all the rage since post-independence in the 1960s) have been mostly bloodless. However, Mali has not been without its demons. The nomadic Tuaregs who live in the Sahara desert in northern Mali have mounted three armed rebellions since 1962, the most recent ending in 2009, although some say that the rebellions never really end. Mali has had an awful time controlling the north because, well, it looks like this:

Try regularly patrolling that desert in 120 degree weather. In large part, thanks to the relative "lawlessness" of the region, radical Islamic groups have been able to come in and set up shop in such remote areas. Sometimes the areas aren't too remote, either - but I have yet to hear about Malians openly welcoming terrorists, there's just an open question of how to get rid of them.

Mauritania, on Mali's western border, has had significantly more problems with armed Islamic groups such as AQIM than Mali has. A few days ago Mauritania announced that thanks to a raid, it had killed a senior AQIM commander. However, where did this raid take place? In the Wagadou (Ouagadou) Forest, in Mali. Despite the modern marvels of satellite imagery, Ouagadou is a difficult place to track down on a map. What is certain, however, is that it is disquietingly close to Bamako - only two to three hundred kilometers away, depending on what roads you take. One thing is clear: AQIM is within striking distance should its strength grown and it choose to make Mali a primary target.

The fact that several recent military operations against AQIM in the area have been led by Mauritanian troops may be telling. It may be that Mali does not want to use its relatively poorly-trained and ill-equipped forces to further provoke the existing extremist presence, letting its neighbors do the heavy lifting instead. This reluctance to intervene is understandable given the example playing out in East Africa at the moment. Shortly after the Kenyan military launched an aggressive attack on Islamic militants who struck within Kenya (the most involved Kenya has been in the fight against the foreign extremist group Al-Shabab so far), CNN announced yesterday:
The U.S. Embassy in Kenya warned it has credible information of an imminent terror attack, days after the east African nation announced it is sending troops to Somalia to battle Islamist militants. The attack is likely to target places that foreigners congregate in Kenya, including malls and night clubs, the embassy said. The U.S.Embassy did not offer details on who might carry out such an attack, but said it has taken measures to limit official U.S. government visits. It urged its citizens to consider deferring travel to Kenya.- CNN
The several key differences between the cases of Mali and Kenya aside, I think the applicable comparison, and the relevant danger, is clear - Mali is probably toeing the line with AQIM because it fears heavy-handed intervention will only make the situation for them worse. There is little question, based on the millions spent in foreign military aid and the increasing presence of US military trainers on the ground in these countries, that the United States is interested in containing the spread of extremism in the region.

So what does all this mean for my work in small business development in Mali? It means that unless the situation dramatically changes or I find out once I'm in the field that the extremist presence has been exaggerated, I will be exercising caution while traveling within the country. It also means I'll hopefully be talking with Malians once I arrive about what they know about the situation and learning what I can. Not only would I like to stay safe, but I find it a fascinating situation and I am interested in knowing what, if any, national consciousness there is on the subject. In my experience, in Senegal ideas about extremism were spread anecdotally, as jihadism was nonexistent in the country. What stories or rumors are circulating about AQIM in Mali? What is the perception of Mauritanian or even US involvement? Hopefully I'll be blogging with answers to some of these questions soon!