Understanding the conflict requires moving beyond the idea of the Islamists as a bunch of mindless barbarians whipping infidels and cutting off limbs.
Despite the large number of Islamists chased back into the heart of the Sahara, the situation in Mali is far from stable. The steady advance of French troops in the past ten weeks has brought them one “victory” after another. The three largest cities of the North — Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal — were captured with relatively little resistance from the Islamist fighters who quickly realized their military capacities were no match for the French army in an open war.
The Islamists have withdrawn back into the desert, into the brousse and to some small villages surrounding the cities where they can still count on some level of support from the local people. Initially, the urban centres of the North appeared to be under firm control of the “allied forces”, but recent fighting in and around Gao and Timbuktu, and several attacks with car bombs at the airport of Timbuktu and in the centre of Kidal, have showed that the battle in northern Mali is by no means over.
Regardless of the continued unrest, France’s campaign has been hailed as victorious. But what has been won? A military victory can only be considered a true victory when the enemy is defeated and prevented from achieving its goals. Only when one assumes that the Islamists wanted to capture Bamako and establish an Islamic state on Malian territory can the French conquest really be considered a victory. It is this mistaken belief that characterizes the the majority of popular analyses in the media. Crucially, however, the Islamists never aspired to rule over Mali. Ideologically, the Salafist rebels might be living in the past, dreaming of a utopian earthly paradise created by the most pious Muslims in the years after the prophet Mohammed’s death; politically and strategically they are firmly rooted in the present.
Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), anticipated that the major Western powers would never allow an Islamic state founded upon Salafist ideology on Europe’s doorstep. In documents that were left behind in Timbuktu after AQIM pulled out, it can be read that Droukdel had planned on forming a kind of shadow state in Azawad. The centre stage would be occupied by the indigenous groups Ansar Dine and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), but behind the scenes AQIM would run the show. Droukdel was cautious about his plans and warned his commanders about alienating the local population by implementing shari’a law too strictly and quickly while also antagonizing the indigenous MNLA by ousting them from power.
However, this is exactly what happened. The disconnect between Droukdel’s plans and the reality on the ground is exemplary of the fragmentation that exists both between the different Islamist groups — AQIM, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) — and between the different katibas within AQIM. This disconnect made it difficult, if not impossible, to follow a single strategy towards achieving, maintaining and consolidating power in the North. The main goal was not the establishment of an Islamic state, but controlling the territory to such an extent that it could be used as a base by AQIM to build up their power from which they could wage their global jihad. Recognizing this requires seeing beyond misinterpretations of Islamists as mindless barbarians or medieval illiterates, trying to cut out a piece of Africa while chopping off limbs and whipping the infidels.
The biggest mystery in the recent escalation of violence is why the Islamists pushed South in early January. This move triggered the French intervention and ended the lucrative status quo the Islamists had enjoyed thus far. The absence of any opposition forces provided the Islamists with the necessary time to consolidate their power and prepare for the intervention by troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), initially planned for later this year. There are several explanations, ranging from an attempt to lure France into a holy war, to a mysterious deal that was supposedly struck between Ansar Dine and Mali’s coup-leader Captain Sanogo.
In the ten months since they took over the North, the situation had changed for the Islamist groups — but not for the better. Cash flows from the Arab peninsula have dried up because, holy though it may be, a jihadi army is subject to the same rules as any organization depending on public funds: when you lose the attention of the media, your benefactors will find a better destination for their money — Syria, in this case. Kidnappings, too, proved to be less profitable than before. Formerly kidnappings had been a major source of income; France allegedly paid $17 million to AQIM for the release of four hostages kidnapped in Niger in 2010. But with the Islamists treading more in the open, France grew reluctant to pay ransom, afraid of accusations of funding terrorism.
Last December, Abu Zeid — AQIM’s emir who was recently killed by Chadian forces — even appeared in a video message claiming that they were willing to negotiate the release of hostages but that the jihadis were still waiting for a response from France. Realizing that their funds were running out and that they had to take action in order to secure the influx of money and men, one possible strategy was to trigger the French to intervene so that their struggle could genuinely be classified as part of the global jihad. Whether the large-scale French intervention was anticipated or not, by advancing South the Islamists definitely succeeded in placing their struggle at the heart of the global jihad, and were thus able to tap into the resources that inevitably accompany world fame.
French journalists Vincent Jauvert and Sarah Halifa-Legrand, writing for the Nouvel Observateur, support another theory. They point to communications between Ansar Dine and the frustrated military elite led by Captain Sanogo on the days before the former advanced South as an indicator of the possibility that some kind of deal was struck between the two parties. Sanogo and his companions wanted to get rid of interim-president Dioncounda Traoré. Supposedly, they assumed that Ansar Dine’s seizure of the strategic airport of Sévaré would provide them with enough of an excuse to oust Traoré from power.
Bordering on the conspiratorial, this theory does not sound all that improbable when France is left out of the equation and the high level of fragmentation between the different Islamist groups is taken into consideration. Be reminded, in this respect, that only weeks before Ansar Dine marched South, France had refused to intervene in the Central African Republic when its capital Bangui was threatened by advancing rebels. Moreover, Hollande had publicly declared on several occasions that although he supported an ECOWAS-led intervention, France would not have any troops on the ground in Mali. Ansar Dine had already turned its back on AQIM by taking a seat at the negotiation table and probably saw the offer made by Sanogo as a good opportunity to improve his bargaining position.
Whatever it was that made a coalition of Ansar Dine and MUJAO fighters jump in their 4×4′s and head South, fact is that they did. And in doing so they supposedly dug their own grave after “triggering” the intervention of French forces. But did they? True, the Islamist fighting force of the different groups combined has been reduced from a couple of thousands to several hundreds. A large number of the militants — mostly locals who were in it for the money — simply threw down their weapons and headed back home as soon as the first French fighter jets flew over. Several hundreds have been killed by aerial bombardment and in direct combat.
But still, a core of hardened and determined fighters have sought refuge in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, in the countryside around Gao, and most likely in neighbouring Niger, Algeria and Libya — possibly even as far as Chad and Sudan. Only the Islamists that willingly engage in combat with the allied forces can possibly be defeated. However, the ones that have decided to leave the situation as is and retreat into the heart of the desert will be very difficult to “bring to justice”. Droukdel’s use of the terminology of “planting a seed in fertile soil” suggests that his group’s strategy for northern Mali is a long-term one. It will take years for the seed to grow, but the more fighting, the more corruption, the more injustice done in the region, the faster and stronger it will grow.
With the North of Mali rapidly descending into chaos, the Malian army antagonizing the local Tuareg and Arab populations through targeted killings and extortions, and the increasing fragmentation of the different local, national, international, religious and ethnic groups engaged in the fighting, it is hard to imagine a peaceful country after the departure of the French. A civil war lurks if the Malian government remains unable to restore peace, order, and rule of law to the region, and address the grievances of the neglected population of the North that led to the insurgency in the first place. When the North descends into lawlessness and violence, the dusty plains of Azawad — bordering on the worthless sandbox conquered by the French — might actually prove to be the kind of fertile soil Droukdel was looking for.
This article was originally published at ROAR Magazine.