Mali: Is France entering a desert quicksand?

This conflict could prove far more intractable than Western powers and West African backers anticipate.

As French troop reinforcements pour into Mali, there is concern in Western capitals that the engagement in this vast desert country could be more difficult and more protracted than many imagine.

At present the French have deployed 1,400 troops. France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told journalists: “There was combat yesterday, on the ground and from the air. There was more overnight and it is continuing at this moment.”

Their troops have the backing of the United Nations, as well as the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS.  Soldiers from the region are – after considerable delay – finally being deployed. Some 2,000 are promised by Chad and the first of Nigeria’s contingent of 900 troops are expected to arrive on Thursday.

When they can be readied, 3,300 West African troops should join the French in bolstering the poorly motivated, poorly led Malian army in their fight against the rebels. A range of European countries, Britain among them, have promised logistical support and training.

This appears to provide the French with the overwhelming force needed to take on the Islamists rebels, who now control Northern Mali.  But some in the diplomatic community worry that this may prove illusory.

The three rebel movements, Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) are tough, mobile and well-versed in desert warfare.

They have also considerable resources at their disposal.  Between them they are estimated to have extracted €40m over the last three years from a series of kidnappings.  Tobacco smuggling has bolstered their funds. This has provided them with the funds to purchase weapons from international suppliers.

It is not clear which source they turned to, but the usual channels are suspected. Former Eastern block countries head this list. These include Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir Peftiev, who previously headed the Beltech Holding, a group of Belarusian arms producers and traders, last year had his assets frozen in Europe and was barred from entry. Iran, recently named as an exporter of ammunition to Africa, could be another source.

Military analysts are concerned about the downing of a French helicopter in Mali. The French military have so far refused to explain how it was destroyed, but there are suspicions that it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. If this is true, then the rebels pose a threat to French air-superiority.

But perhaps the most worrying element of the rebel strategy is their ability to blend into the local population. There are suggestions that the Islamists have begun to move families out of their homes in areas they control, so that they can assume the guise of local civilians, if the towns and villages are overrun.

Islamist fighters are deploying child soldiers and using the population as a shield against the offensive, a Malian army source told Agence France Presse. These people (the Islamists) have two strategies: using the population as a shield and child soldiers as fighters," the military leader said on condition of anonymity.

The vast wastes of the Sahara and the mobility of the fighters will make the rebels a tough enemy to dislodge. France, and its Western and West African backers, may have to prepare themselves for a long, difficult conflict.

 

A picture taken with a mobile phone reportedly showing Islamist insurgents in Gao. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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There is one thing Donald Trump can't build a wall against

Muslim immigrants don't bring terrorism - ideology does. 

Rather than understanding the root of the Islamist extremist issue and examining the global scale of the challenge, one US presidential candidate has decided to pin his domestic security hopes on the demonisation of a particular group of people. 
 
The arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami over the recent New York bombing, an Afghan-born naturalised US citizen, proved too tantalising an opportunity for the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to once again conflate terrorism and immigration. Taking aim at his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed that she “wants to allow hundreds of thousands of these same people", people who he described as having hatred and sickness in their hearts.
 
It is unclear who exactly Mr Trump is referring to here, one can only assume that it is a reference to Muslims, more specifically those not born in the US, and their apparent deep-rooted hatred for all things American. These comments will no doubt strengthen support for his campaign among those who have remained supportive of his overtly anti-Muslim stance, but the reality is that Mr Trump is rather missing the point.
 
Trump’s insistence on profiling Muslims as a measure to curb terrorism is not merely offensive; it reinforces the "us versus them" rhetoric used by the very terrorists he is trying to defeat.
 
The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this year was described as the deadliest mass shooting by a single attacker in American history. Omar Mateen, the perpetrator, was not an immigrant. Born in New York, Mateen was an American citizen by birth. This, however, did not stop him from killing dozens of innocent people and wounding many more. 
 
One of the most influential jihadi ideologues, certainly in the Western world, was in fact an American. Not a naturalised citizen, but a born American, Anwar al-Awlaki was a central figure in the propaganda output of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki’s ideas are reported to have been a significant factor in the radicalisation of the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. 
 
Putting the spotlight on immigration as the most effective means to curb terrorism ignores the real problem; the ideology. The poisonous, divisive, and intolerant mindset that is at the heart of the matter is the real culprit. This ideology, which presents itself as a "true" reflection of Islam is nothing more than a politically motivated worldview that seeks to spread hatred and violence. 
 
Research from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics has shown that those individuals who buy into this worldview come from a multitude of backgrounds. Some are from poor backgrounds while others are from more affluent ones, some are well-educated while others aren’t. The truth is that there is no prototype terrorist - the common denominator, however, is that they share an ideology. Focusing on immigration as a source for terrorists fails to acknowledge the wide and varied pool from which they recruit.
 
The ideology, which perverts the shared religious heritage that 1.6bn Muslims around the world hold dear, is not simply a threat to the US, but to the world over. There is no wall high enough, no trench deep enough, and no bomb big enough to destroy this ideology. 
 
While the focus on Isis conjures images of the Middle East, this year alone we have witnessed deadly attacks committed by the group including Indonesia, Bangladesh, France, Germany, and Belgium. The ideology that drives the violence is transnational; it’s a global threat that necessitates a global response.
 
The transnational appeal and threat of this ideology is evident with the recent phenomena of online radicalisation. Men and women, boys and girls, have been lured by these ideas from the safety of their own homes, with these powerful ideas moving some to join causes in lands they have never visited. 
 
Recent attacks in France, Germany, and indeed the US, have demonstrated how items that can be obtained ordinarily, such as vehicles and knives, are being weaponised to cause maximum damage. But would a ban on knives and trucks be the solution? The only effective means for defeating terrorists is by challenging and dismantling their ideological appeal, effectively sapping the substance that fuels the violence.
 
Mr Trump, who may become Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most formidable army, must recognise that we are engaged in a battle of ideas, similar to that of the Cold War. A battle in which opposing worldviews are key, words are important, and taking control of the narrative is paramount.
 
In this battle of ideas, Mr Trump is not only hampering the global efforts against groups like Isis and its ilk, but actually reinforcing the ideas put forward by the extremists. Our leaders should not mirror the intolerant attitudes of our enemies or echo their binary worldview. 
Though, when it comes to the Republican candidate, his past statements on the topic indicate, perhaps, that this aim is overly ambitious.
 
Our response must be clear and robust, but we must first acknowledge who, or what, the enemy is. Muslims coming to the US are not the enemy, Muslims born in America are not the enemy, the enemy is the poisonous ideology that has manipulated Islam.
 
Defeating this transnational ideology requires alliances, not alienation. Mr Trump has expressed his commitment to work with allies in the Middle East to fight terrorism, but it is just as important to foster good relations with American Muslims. They can, and should, play an integral role in defeating Islamist extremism at home.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. He tweets at @MubarazAhmed.