Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Article on AQIM in Mali

I was first notified of this article on the website of the Boston Globe, but it was written by authors from the Associated Press, and I have since located it on the Washington Post and other major news websites. The paragraph below summarizes what I consider to be the primary contribution of the article. In this post I have highlighted some of the most relevant passages and included my thoughts and comments.
With almost no resistance, al-Qaida has implanted itself in Africa's soft tissue, choosing as its host one of the poorest nations on earth [Mali]. The terrorist group has create a refuge in this remote land through a strategy of winning hearts and minds, described in rare detail by seven locals in regular contact with the cell. The villagers agreed to speak for the first time to an Associated Press team in the "red zone," deemed by most embassies to be too dangerous for foreigners to visit.
In comparison with my readings about AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) so far, this is indeed a rare look at the opinions of the Malians who live in close contact with the organization. I believe it is significant that the authors use the term "winning hearts and minds" when referring to the strategy AQIM has taken in Mali to gain acceptance from the local population. Yes, it is a phrase that has been around for quite a while, but readers of my generation I think associate it with the semi-successful attempts by the United States military to win over the civilian populations of Iraq and Afghanistan. I can't help wondering how well AQIM is doing in the region compared to the US military in the Middle East. Some of the same general strategies are used: painstakingly approaching locals with respect and culturally appropriate greetings, handing out candy to children, and funding projects important to the local community.

The article continues with a quote by former jihadist Noman Benotman,
Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida, now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation. "We used to teach our people about this. It's part of the military plan -- how to treat locals. This is the environment that keeps them alive," said Benotman, who first met bin Laden in Sudan and who spent years fighting alongside al-Qaida in Afghanistan. He said bin Laden gave his fighters specific instructions on how to conduct themselves: Don't argue about the price, just make the locals happy. Become "like oxygen" to them.
This strategy sounds eerily familiar, well-conceived, and, according to the interviews in the article, somewhat successful. If AQIM sticks to this plan, it is easy to imagine a continuation of their successful integration into Malian communities. However, given certain ideological differences as described below, I think there are limits to the degree of integration that AQIM can experience unless it radicalizes (essentially from scratch) the whole region. The success that the group has had so far is nonetheless disquieting. 

The authors emphasize the disparity between the ideology of AQIM and the moderate Islam practiced in Mali as presented to them by Malians:
One thing still stands in al-Qaida's way: Its hardcore ideology does not gel with the moderate Islam practiced by Mali's nomads. Most of them said they were afraid, caught between need for the money al-Qaida offers and wariness of its extremist beliefs. When bin Laden died, the members of the local cell went from well to well to ask people to pray for his soul, according to Amaye ag Ali Cisse, an employee of the Ministry of Husbandry who travels twice a month to the wells to oversee the vaccination of animals. "Everyone is uncomfortable," he said. "This is a religion that doesn't belong to us."
This is entirely consistent with my experiences in Mali so far and the experiences of current volunteers with whom I have spoken. In any country, pockets of individuals or small groups of more radical religious followers can be found. This is not restricted to Islam, either. Most of the world's religions have at least a small extremist element somewhere, which one should be careful to disassociate from the religion and followers as a whole. My point, however, is that in Mali, those who sympathize with AQIM are a small minority in the country, and often they are motivated by poverty and the resources that AQIM offers them.

Lastly, the ever-present fears about the Malian government's relative inaction on the AQIM issue continues to be a focus. The authors speculations on the issue:
In 2003, the group kidnapped and transported 32 mostly German tourists from southern Algeria to Mali, where, according to a member of Mali's parliament, they struck a deal with local authorities that is still in effect today. "The agreement was, 'You don't hurt us, we won't hurt you,'" said the parliament member, formerly involved in hostage negotiations, who asked not to be identified because of the danger involved. The government of Mali denies these accusations, but officials cited in diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks make the same assertion. The president of neighboring Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, told his American counterparts in 2009 that Mali is "at peace with AQIM to avoid attacks on its territory." Whereas the al-Qaida cell has captured more than 50 foreigners in Algeria, Niger and Mauritania, hardly any of the violence has touched Mali.
 In attempts to bolster the military capacity of countries in the region to fight threats from AQIM, Canada is the most recent country to send military advisers, who according to the article "are providing training in basic soldiering, including communications, planning, first aid and providing medical aid and support to civilian populations." It is important to note that these trainers do not participate in combat operations.