Situation report for Friday, 18 January

Today’s post offers no analysis, just some pointers and recommendations for more reading into the most recent developments in Mali. The English-language press having stepped up its coverage, most of the links below are from anglophone sources.

  • The International Criminal Court in the Hague has opened an investigation into war crimes committed in Mali since the beginning of 2012.
  • On Thursday, Malian troops were said to have deployed to the Banamba area, some 150 km by road northeast of Bamako, to counter a possible incursion of Islamists from Diabaly. The Malian press reported on Friday that this was a false alarm, but I’ve heard an unconfirmed report that three men were arrested there for attempting to bribe a soldier to let them pass through a checkpoint. The fear is that they were they gathering intelligence for the Islamists.
  • In the Segou region, unconfirmed reports carried by the BBC and AFP claim that French and Malian troops have retaken the small town of Diabaly, occupied by Islamist forces since Monday. These reports have been contradicted by the French defense minister. For an insight into Islamist tactics, I strongly advise reading Alan Boswell’s reporting on how the Islamists took Diabaly in the first place. Camilla Toulmin’s reflections on her time near Diabaly over the years offer an historical counterpoint.
  • Andy Morgan analyzes historical tensions in northern Mali on, and has posted an excerpt of his forthcoming book, entitled “Guns, cigarettes & Salafi dreams: the roots of AQIM,” to his blog.
  • What do Malians living in the contested territory between Islamist and government forces think about how their country should be governed? Political scientists Jaimie Bleck and Kristin Michelitch provide fascinating answers in the results of their survey in the Mopti region, conducted both before and after last year’s military coup (the most recent data were collected in July 2012).
  • Looking Ahead in Mali,” by Scott Straus and Leif Brottem, is among the best reflections I’ve yet seen in print about how Mali got to this point and how it might get out.

The graphic below is from the website of The Atlantic, adapted from one created by France24 on 16 January.

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11 Responses to Situation report for Friday, 18 January

  1. Hi,

    Recently read your whole blog (I grew up in Ghana, and travelled across Mali in the early 1980s, including spending some time in Bamako, hence the interest); and something here is intriguing me.

    As recently as just before the March 22nd coup, your own analysis and several others I read indicated that the northern rebellion was an MNLA / Touareg nationalistic project, with a vociferous but increasingly marginalised jihadist / AQIM component. Most of Mali is both pluralistic and, even among its Muslims, relatively tolerant and liberal.

    Somewhere during the coup period when commentary focussed on the capital, this seems to have changed, and *all* commentary I’ve read since about Sept. 2012 discusses the northern revolution solely in terms of a Jihadi insurgency led by AQIM and its expatriate cadres of Algerians, Libyans and other imported revolutionaries. This map indicates pretty clearly that the MNLA are territorially irrelevant to the main struggle and actually control very little of the Azwad region they set out to claim.

    So the first question I have is did this thing actually happen? Is this a real power shift in the region or a relflection of western commentator’s prejudices being imposed onto the region with wider geo-political motives?

    Assuming for the moment that something *did* happen, and that the Azwad project has been converted into a jihadist insurgency, I have seen no-one so far address the process by which the status quo ante morphed into the status quo. There must have been some fairly radical political and/or military evolution in the north during the coup period which effectively reversed the power balance within the Azwad. If the apparent dominance of the AQIM is accurate and they have in fact commandeered the Azwad project, wtf happened and was it the fault of Western hysteria about Islamicist expansion being projected into the conflict from without?

    I’ve really enjoyed both your political and your slice-of-life writings about a country I remember with fondness (particularly, I still have photos from Bamako Zoo, such as it was, in 1984), and I’d be very interested to know if you have any idea on this issue.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      The MNLA had a marriage of convenience a year ago with the Islamist groups in northern Mali. The MNLA wanted an independent, secular state, but the other groups wanted sharia law, not independence. My impression was that the boundaries between all these groups were quite fluid back then. Despite their differences, the MNLA and Islamists controlling the north managed to get along more or less until last June, when the Islamists confronted the MNLA militarily and drove them out of the towns they’d occupied. Andy Morgan would be a better source to consult in terms of the power balance between these groups in northern Mali today, but it is undeniable that the MNLA has taken a huge hit politically and militarily since then, and it’s not clear just how relevant they are anymore. The Islamist expansion in northern Mali is a real phenomenon and I’ll be writing about it in a future post.

      • o.0

        Right, so at some point there was a direct confrontation between the nationlist and religious elements of the loose alliance which resulted in the AQIM & co. fundamentally winning. This is what I deduced must have happened at about that time, but hadn’t seen anything on how, when, or who did it.

        So, the next questions of interest would be;

        1. Does this correlate with a spike in expatriate insurgents coming in from elsewhere in the Sahel / Libya?

        2. Does it connect causally with the earlier charactarisation of the Azwad rebellion as jihadist, even before that was actually true?

        It’s possible, even likely, that these are questions that will be addressed more easily by historians than current affairs commentators, but I’d be *really interested* to know if the inclination of Western, and particularly American, observers to call any such conflict Islamist even when it isn’t, had a measurable effect in terms of attracting the attention and involvement of real Islamists to a conflict they didn’t, in fact, start. The WoT is to a very large extent a saga of the USA and its allies engaging in a global demonstration of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

        Thanks for the high-speed response!

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        I’m not the best authority on this topic, but I know jihadi groups have been active in northern Mali since at least 2003, engaged in kidnapping for ransom, smuggling, and occasional confrontations with the Malian armed forces. These groups are transnational, mostly originating in Algeria but operating throughout the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad. Mali just happened to provide the largest safe haven for them in recent years, and once fighters & weapons started coming in from Libya in late 2011 these groups all benefited (as did the MNLA, which was founded around that time). To me it doesn’t look like a case of Western labeling of the region’s tensions becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know some people are trying to pin the whole thing on blowback from Libya & US involvement, but that story just doesn’t hold up. The Libyan factor was just one out of many factors that helped bring the Malian state down last year.

  2. elizabeth says:

    The map above shows MNLA presence along eastern border – but also a pocket on western border w/ Mauritania. Why this pocket? Does it just indicate an unpopulated area? Or is there actually an enclave of MNLA/Azawad?
    Your blog is a primary source for me these days – thank you!

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  4. Vicki Rovine says:

    HI Bruce–Just wanted to send appreciation for the great resources you’re sharing in this an other blog entries. We’re all out here trying to absorb this ever-more-complicated situation–I am really grateful that you take the time to assemble both summaries and links to others! Best,
    Vicki Rovine

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  6. Ruti Bamba says:

    Hello Bruce, found your blog recently – don’t know if you remember me, I was one of the few toubabou deni in Kadiolo. 😉 After your post about Tiken Jah, thought this might interest you too…

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Nice to hear from you, Ruth! How are your folks and Raymond? Since yesterday I’ve been working on a post about that song you linked to, stay tuned.

  7. Pingback: Mali News #5 – Forces enter Diabaly and Douentza | Mali Interest Hub

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