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If Mali doesn't get its act together and combat terrorism, years of good governance could give way to a hotbed of extremism.
Interestingly, the Tuaregs note that the Malians do not want to die fighting Al Qaeda because they see it as an Arab-Western issue.
Yet another factor must be taken into account. Cooperation with AQIM might not be limited to the Tuareg community. Indeed, AQIM has entered the very lucrative narco-business and has therefore attracted many recruits. For example, three alleged AQIM Malian associates were charged in December 2009 in New York with conspiring to smuggle cocaine through Africa and on to Europe.
According to the complaint, AQIM finances itself in part by protecting and moving loads along smuggling corridors that run through Morocco into Spain and through Libya and Algeria into Italy. One of the defendants, Harouna Toure, said that among other things he provided AQIM with gasoline and food. He said he “collects taxes from many rich Malian people throughout the region on Al Qaeda’s behalf.”
Another possible actor playing a troubled game is the Malian regime itself. For example, Algerian official media explains that AQIM kidnaps foreign citizens in other countries, and brings them right away to Mali where negotiations begin with the Amani Amadou Toure's government. The same media affirms that AQIM terrorists are protected by Malian authorities, like some Algerian extremists from the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and the GIA (Islamic Armed Group) have been in the past.
There are examples of Malian authorities treating arrested AQIM members with leniency. For example, one of the leading emirs in the Sahel, Osama el Merdaci, was arrested in Timbuktu en route to Somalia in 2008. Since then, Malian authorities have refused to extradite him or even try him, while two Libyan terrorists were arrested and extradited almost right away.
Mali is viewed as a haven because AQIM seems untouched there and its leader in the region, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has sealed alliances with four different tribes thanks to four separate marriages. In fact, part of the deal that got the hostages released in 2003 included the granting of asylum status for Mokhtar Belmokhtar — AQIM's emir for the Sahara — in Mali. Belmokhtar promised not to perpetrate any hostile actions on Malian soil, and the Malian authorities agreed to leave him alone.
Mali is very much at risk of losing its image of neutrality. Years of hard work and good governance could go up in smoke unless the current regime implements a true, cohesive counterterrorism policy.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. You can view his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html