Ossie Makepeace writes from Mauritania: Is Mali the new Afghanistan? That’s the big question for US intelligence analysts as the CIA redraws the map of the West African state. And the picture that emerges shows that more than half the country is now controlled by the Islamist army, Ansar Dine, that translates as Defenders of the Faith.
The military commander of Ansar Dine is Omar Ould Hamaha and his message to the West is simple: the sun will never set on Islam. In other words, his cause is to overwhelm first France, then the United Kingdom (two countries with large Islamic populations) and eventually the United States.
But maybe Ansar Dine is just another Islamist group and maybe Omar Ould Hamaha is just another slogan-strutting Islamist taking advantage of a collapsed civil state. They do not think that at Langley. The CIA state board on Mali is a fast changing information platform. The scary bit for the US is that Ansar Dine is thus far firmly linked into Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb and they have a hold on three important centres: Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit. They have also established a weapons and support supply network that includes an air bridge through at least two important airfields. If that runway control persists then an offensive against Omar Ould Hamaha’s territory is harder. On the other hand, without outside intervention, an internal counter offensive looks unlikely.
Ansar Dine’s ambitions do not rest in Mali. They follow the threat patterns that were seen more than a decade ago coming from Afghanistan. To indicate the seriousness outsiders take those threats, French Intelligence also has dedicated resources to track day-to-day events in Mali. This is because Omar Ould Hamaha’s threat lecture to anyone who will listen – and plenty do – is that France is the number one external target.
At this stage, few but alarmists would see a military offensive spreading from Mali to France. But standard terrorism against France and its overseas possessions including territory, commercial enterprise and embassies and individuals, is taken very seriously. The north African émigré population in France for example, is an unknown quantity. French Intelligence is perfectly aware that terrorist and would-be terrorist groups in the United Kingdom come mainly from British nationals. So it could go in France with the al Qaeda inspired support from Mali.
Within Mali, there is a further terrorist threat. This is seen largely emanating from Nigeria and the Boko Haram jihadists, a sort of Taliban equivalent. Such Islamist created disorder and collapse of the national security authority suggests it is hardly surprising that jihadis from other African territories including Somalia and some as far afield as Pakistan are making for this revolutionary territory. Just as happened in Afghanistan.
None of this is an overnight phenomenon. Africa has long been ungovernable in its remoter regions – neighbouring Nigeria is an example of civil war and Islamist discontent. Mali has in 2012 had the additional pressure of the Tuaregs who fought for Gaddafi arriving in the country demanding they be given a state of their own in the style of Palestinian and Kurdish demands in the Middle East.
What has the Mali government been able to do? The answer: precious little because there is no proper government. The authorities in the capital Bamako display a very African style of corruption and one consequence is an unreliable army inclined even to mutiny. It was one such mutiny that brought down the government and thus allowed the jihadis to gain such huge swathes of territory without any practical opposition.
The Afghanistan pattern is clear. The north is now under Sharia law with all its uncompromising demands. The population is on the run – literally. Hundreds of thousands are attempting to escape the area causing an uncontrollable instability in the country and among neighbours ill-equipped to cope with such an influx.
Contingency plans for outside intervention suffer three difficulties. No foreign military force can legally enter Mali until asked to by the government. The only rule in Mali is from those who set up the military coup. That government is not internationally recognised and so the United Nations Security Council that would have to produce a Resolution supporting outside intervention, cannot move.
A West African brigade is on standby to go in, but cannot for the same reason. The so-called governing army council is reluctant to call for outside help because the first task of an intervening army would be to take control of the capital.
Few doubt that Mali is Africa’s Afghanistan. Perhaps Somalia may be a better comparison because it’s easier for the jihadis to control. Whichever model is chosen – and a combination of the two is about right – Mali faces the bleakest of futures. If the threat of exporting terrorist values persists, we should expect terrible times far from Mali’s borders. This is because disconnected peoples in Europe especially are looking for a banner under which they can express their frustrations. Hence the Afghanistan comparison stands up to scrutiny.