Loser in Mali presidential race vows to create opposition

Reuters reports: Soumaila Cisse, loser in Mali’s presidential elections, vowed on Tuesday that he would build the country’s first proper opposition in years, as Malians applauded his concession to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita which dispelled fears of fresh conflict.

Cisse conceded defeat late on Monday as it became clear that former prime minister Keita had swept Sunday’s second round vote. Keita has promised to restore the pride of a nation riven by a military coup and an Islamist revolt last year.

On the streets of the riverside capital Bamako, residents heaped praise on Cisse’s gesture, which avoided a potentially lengthy and acrimonious battle in a country already weary of turmoil.

Television showed Cisse going in person with his wife and children to congratulate Keita and his family at their home.

“Soumaila’s conduct was truly impeccable,” said Aissata Camara, a pharmacy lab technician. “It was very impressive and very democratic as well. It was a relief for all of us.”

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Libya faces growing Islamist threat

The Guardian reports: Diplomats are warning of growing Islamist violence against western targets in Libya as blowback from the war in Mali, following last week’s attack on the French embassy in Tripoli.

The bomb blast that wrecked much of the embassy is seen as a reprisal by Libyan militants for the decision by Paris the day before to extend its military mission against fellow jihadists in Mali.

The Guardian has learned that jihadist groups ejected from their Timbuktu stronghold have moved north, crossing the Sahara through Algeria and Niger to Libya, fuelling a growing Islamist insurgency.

“There are established links between groups in both Mali and Libya – we know there are established routes,” said a western diplomat in Tripoli. “There is an anxiety among the political class here that Mali is blowing back on them.”

That anxiety escalated last week after militants detonated a car bomb outside the French embassy, wounding two French guards and a Libyan student, the first such attack on a western target in the Libyan capital since the end of the 2011 Arab spring revolution.

“The armed groups we are fighting are fleeing to Libya,” said Colonel Keba Sangare, commander of Mali’s army garrison in Timbuktu. “We have captured Libyans in this region, as well as Algerians, Nigerians, French and other European dual-nationals.”

France sent troops to Mali in January after an uprising in the north started by the ethnic Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), named for the independent state it hopes to create.

The impetus for this uprising came from ethnic Tuareg soldiers who had fought alongside Muammar Gaddafi and fled south when his regime fell. They were later augmented by jihadists from Libya and across north Africa, who triggered international condemnation for their destruction of ancient Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu. The fear across the Maghreb is that the French operation that has pushed them out of the northern cities has inadvertently compounded problems elsewhere in north Africa as jihadist units disperse.

“If you squeeze a balloon in one part, it bulges out in another,” said Bill Lawrence, of International Crisis Group, a political consultancy. “There’s no question that the French actions in Mali had the effect of squeezing that balloon towards Algeria and Libya.” [Continue reading...]

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France wants to keep 1,000 soldiers in Mali permanently

Reuters reports: France has proposed keeping a permanent force of 1,000 French troops in Mali to fight armed Islamist militants, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Friday.

Fabius, on a visit to Bamako, said France was pushing ahead with plans to reduce its 4,000-strong military presence from the end of this month but planned to keep a combat force in Mali to support a future U.N. peacekeeping mission.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called last week for the deployment of a U.N. mission of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in Mali once major combat ends.

This would include thousands of African troops already in Mali in support of France’s three-month military campaign, which has swept Islamist rebels out of the towns of northern Mali and into remote desert and mountain hideaways.

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Mali insurgency endangers French pull-out plan

Reuters reports: France wants to cut its forces in Mali sharply by the year-end and is urging its ex-colony to hold elections in July, but an Islamist insurgency is threatening that timetable.

Many people in northern Mali who lived under the rebels’ brutal form of Islamic law last year are apprehensive about French plans to leave just 1,000 of the current 4,000 troops in the country by December, with U.N. peacekeepers filling the gap.

“The Islamists are waiting for the French to leave to open the gates to hell. Let’s hope the U.N. will take over quickly because the Malian army alone cannot face the terrorism threat,” said Alhassane Maîga, a teacher in the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.

Last weekend Islamist militants launched their second attack on Timbuktu in a fortnight, shortly after French President Francois Hollande insisted the elections must take place as scheduled and unveiled the plan to slash troop numbers.

Launched in January, the French-led offensive quickly succeeded in pushing a mix of Islamists out of their northern strongholds and remote mountain bases, hitting the local leadership of the al Qaeda-linked groups.

But new clashes have followed a handful of suicide attacks and raids on towns won back from the rebels, underscoring the task of securing the country as France prepares to hand over to the Malian army and a 7,000-strong regional African force.

The nightmare scenario is that of a repeat of the Afghan war, where Taliban insurgents have prevented a full pull-out of NATO-led troops after a 13-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

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Mali’s army shut out of the north

Bruce Whitehouse writes: Mali’s armed forces have been almost shut out of military operations in the northern-most combat zone. Since late January Malian troops, alongside counterparts from France, Niger and Chad, have occupied Gao, Timbuktu and other towns along the Niger River; Malian soldiers were patrolling jointly with French counterparts near Tin Keraten, according to the Associated Press. But further north, in the region of Kidal (birthplace of many rebellions over the years), the fight against Islamist rebels is being waged by troops from France and Chad, who have now been present there for more than a month. The Chadians have taken heavy casualties, with at least 27 dead thus far. Occupying Kidal alongside these forces are fighters of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg separatist rebels who a year ago were allied with the Islamists. But the Malian army is not there, at least not in force. (A handful of Malian troops are reportedly in the area: last week Malian Army Col. El Hadj Ag Gamou told the French newspaper L’Humanité that 19 of his men, all Tuareg, are there acting as guides for the French and Chadians.)

“It’s the lack of means that explains the absence of the Malian armed forces in Kidal. If they give us the means, we’ll go beyond Kidal,” the deputy director of Mali’s armed forces public information bureau told a press conference in Bamako. Public reactions among Malians have been skeptical of this claim; army spokesmen have little credibility with the Malian people these days.

The truth is that France and the MNLA don’t want Malian troops in Kidal. Given the army’s track record over the last several weeks — torture and summary execution of prisoners, plus recriminations against alleged “collaborators” — Tuareg residents there have every reason to fear a massacre. The army, no doubt under pressure from France, recently arrested some of its own soldiers suspected of carrying out abuses against Arab civilians. The Malian armed forces may lack the means to send their troops to Kidal, but more importantly, they lack discipline and a credible command structure to keep their men in line.

Still, the Malian army’s absence from Kidal rankles some Malians, who see it as an affront to national sovereignty. Bamako newspapers routinely cast the MNLA as an unreformed terrorist organization. “The MNLA’s presence today in Kidal not only contradicts the principal of Mali’s territorial integrity, but also calls into question the reconquest of northern Mali,” wrote an editorialist in today’s Le Flambeau. “And from this endorsement flows, on the one hand, the MNLA’s legitimacy in Kidal, and on the other the Malian state’s disinterest toward this part of its territory.” Other papers have accused the MNLA of continued collaboration with Islamist groups. [Continue reading...]

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When the jihad came to Mali

Joshua Hammer writes: The town of Konna lies along the eastern bank of the Niger River in central Mali, a semi-desert, speckled with thorn trees, that turns vibrantly green during the brief summer rains. For nearly a year, since rebel Tuaregs—the nomadic Berber people who live in the interior Sahara region of North Africa—and Islamic militants seized control of northern Mali, this settlement of 20,000 marked the limit of government-held territory. Five hundred troops in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns stood guard in the bush just north of the town. Beyond lay empty scrubland and a paved road to Timbuktu and Gao, the two main population centers under the jihadists’ control.

On Wednesday night, January 9, forty pickup trucks filled with Islamist fighters and heavy weaponry descended on Konna. Taken by surprise, government forces managed to repel the initial onslaught. Around midnight, however, another 150 armed jihadist vehicles arrived. A thousand fighters attacked the town’s defenders from three sides, using rocket-propelled grenades and large-caliber machine guns. After an eight-hour battle, the government lines broke. Hundreds of soldiers retreated in panic through the dirt streets of Konna, some of them stripping off their dark-green camouflage uniforms and begging locals for civilian clothes.

Ousmane Bah, a truck driver, watched the Islamists roll into town at 3:45 on Thursday afternoon. Dressed in desert khakis, they blew up a handful of military installations, and herded people to Konna’s mosques. A local street preacher who had joined the militants last year commanded them to gather the corpses of government troops. “Bury your dead dogs,” he told them. The jihadists ordered Konna’s imams to inform the people, Bah said, that “Sharia law is now introduced in Konna, and all women must be covered.”

On Friday morning, according to Bah, the chief jihadist arrived to claim his prize. Iyad Ag Ghali is a burly Tuareg whose black-bearded face is well known in the country. A former diplomat, smuggler, and hostage negotiator, Ghali had now taken on a new identity: the founder and commander of Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, a radical Islamist organization allied with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a force financed partly by the ransoming of Western hostages. “He was wearing a black turban, and a long blue robe,” Bah told me. “He gathered people together and declared that Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda would run things now.”

Until recently Mali, a nation of 15.8 million people in the Sahel—the arid belt that extends across North Africa—was widely viewed as a gentle if very poor democracy, a favorite of low- budget tourists and world music fans alike. The Festival in the Desert, a kind of African Woodstock in the dunes near Timbuktu, drew thousands of Western and local visitors every January. Timbuktu itself, in the last few years, underwent an unlikely renaissance as a cultural oasis in the Sahara, with half a dozen libraries that preserved a trove of Arabic manuscripts from a millennium ago that had recently been rediscovered.

But the country has long combined poverty, radical Islam, and tendencies to armed rebellion. Mali ranked 178th out of 182 countries assessed by the United Nations Development Program for a World Development Report in 2009. According to UNICEF, it had a 26 percent adult literacy rate in 2010, and a per capita annual income of $600. The Sahara desert, beset by droughts and avoided by governments, is a zone of discontent and lawlessness. Between 1963 and 2006, the region’s Tuareg population mounted four armed uprisings. Each time the government promised more development projects, but the pledges fell short. The Sahara also became a sanctuary for outlaws—including narcotraffickers, cigarette smugglers, and, in the last ten years, jihadists bent on creating a Caliphate across the desert. [Continue reading...]

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Understanding Mali’s ‘Tuareg problem’

Bruce Whitehouse writes: Last week I took part in a “teach-in” organized by Michigan State University devoted to the ongoing crisis in Mali. A half-dozen Africanist scholars joined a pair of retired U.S. ambassadors to discuss the origins and consequences of that country’s state collapse, ethnic tensions, the rebel takeover and French military intervention. The audience, mostly MSU students and faculty, included several Malians. One recurring subject was the Tuareg people and their place in the Malian nation. Various non-Malian participants spoke of the need to grant the Tuareg some kind of autonomy, while Malians in the room rejected such an arrangement. At one point a Malian graduate student in attendance stated flatly, “There is no ‘Tuareg problem’ in Mali.”

This remark reminded me that listening to Tuareg and non-Tuareg Malians talk about their intertwined history can be like listening to Israelis and Palestinians talk about theirs: the two groups’ respective visions of the past they share are fundamentally divergent, with each group casting itself as victim.

Plenty of analyses by Western officials and journalists these days are structured around simple binaries dividing Mali’s population into north and south, white and black, North African and sub-Saharan, good guys and bad guys. Such crude dualisms need to be dispensed with. Below are a few facts about northern Mali generally, and the Tuareg specifically, that can help in this regard. [Continue reading... and don't miss a useful exchange in the comment thread between Bruce and Andy Morgan who offers a more Tuareg 'aligned' perspective.]

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Islamist rebels recruited child soldiers from Mali schools

The Associated Press reports: The radical Islamic fighters showed up at Mohammed Salia’s Quranic school, armed with weapons and demanding to address his students.

The leader, named Hamadi, entered one of the classrooms, took a piece of chalk and scrawled his message on the blackboard.

“How to wage holy war,” he wrote in Arabic. “How to terrorise the enemy in combat,” the lesson plan continued.

Then his mobile phone rang, and he stepped away to answer. Mr Salia urged his students to pose some questions of their own when he returned: Where had he come from and what did he want with a bunch of young people?

Hamadi told the students that people didn’t ask questions like that – where he was from.

Islam knows no nationality, he replied and then left – and did not return before the French-led military operation ousted him and his fighters from power last month.

“I told my students to be careful: that these men may be well-versed in the Quran but their Islamic point of view is not the same as ours,” the teacher recalled.

Nearly a month after the Al Qaeda-linked militants were driven out of Gao and into the surrounding villages, students are now returning to the city’s Quranic schools.

Many classrooms, though, are still half full, as tens of thousands of people fled the fighting and strict Islamic rule the extremists.

However, other pupils left Gao not with their families but with the Islamic fighters when they retreated, say human rights activists and local officials. [Continue reading...]

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Mali: Why the hardest part is yet to come

Imad Mesdoua writes: Retaking the north was the easy part. Now Mali faces guerrilla attacks, reportedly increasing cooperation between rebel groups, ‘the Tuareg problem’, and a divided government.

Early on during the French intervention which began in January 2013, many journalists in the international press were quick to note that Islamist militants had just “melted away” into the vast desert regions of northern Mali. As French jets attacked key strongholds, hundreds of Islamist fighters prepared convoys, which would escort leaders, weapons and fighters away from major towns.

Eye witness accounts confirmed suspicions that the militants’ departure was “orderly” and well-prepared. Their planned withdrawal may indicate their clear intention to redefine the nature of the conflict in Mali on their terms. Indeed, in a document allegedly left behind by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Timbuktu, a senior commander admits that an international intervention would exceed the group’s capability and that they ought therefore to retreat to their “rear bases” for the time being.

Recent events have also shown that local and international troops should prepare for increased resistance and a protracted campaign. Malian soldiers faced the first wave of attacks when various suicide bombers targeted Malian army bases and checkpoints in the city of Gao. A day later, two militants (one Arab and one Tuareg) were intercepted with explosive belts strapped to their bodies. Malian troops were also tested by a significant counter offensive led by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in the same city on 10 February.

As Mali’s northern provinces become more secure, Islamist militants will increasingly engage in targeted attacks, using asymmetric warfare to test international troops and regain the upper hand. The caves and mountains of the Adrar des Ifoghas region, for example, are ideal locations for militant groups to hide and prepare hit and run operations. [Continue reading...]

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Heavily armed Mali rebels spreading across Africa

Toronto’s Globe and Mail reports: When the 13-vehicle convoy of Malian rebels crashed through the Libyan frontier, armed with anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons, the Libyan border guards were soon overwhelmed.

They managed to arrest five of the insurgents, but dozens escaped and headed north into the lawless desert of southern Libya, where they quickly melted into the dusty terrain.

This account of a border clash late last week, reported by a Tuareg activist in southern Libya with sources at the remote border posts, is part of the growing evidence that the retreating Islamist radicals of northern Mali are now migrating across a vast region of the Sahara, taking advantage of porous borders and finding shelter in a widening swath of dysfunctional states.

France’s relentless campaign of air strikes and ground assaults in Mali has forced the Islamists to retreat northward into the desert. But the latest evidence of their new strongholds – from mountain caves in northern Mali to desert sanctuaries as far away as Libya and Sudan – suggests that the insurgents are regrouping in safe havens as they bide their time for a future counterattack when targets are softer.

It also suggests that the weak states of North Africa are becoming a valuable corridor for the Islamist fighters, allowing them to recuperate and rebuild in places French warplanes cannot reach. [Continue reading...]

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A mother’s tale of crime and punishment in northern Mali

Aman Sethi writes: There are some decisions that a mother hopes she will never have to make: for instance, would she accept blood money from the man who killed her son?

Hadi Maiga was certain that money would never be able to assuage her grief; and so there she was — a slight woman in a flowing headscarf — in the middle of a vast sun-drenched square on an October evening in Timbuktu watching as the Islamic police led out Moussa Mohammed, the man accused of shooting her son Ibrahim.

Once unshackled, the accused fell to his knees and prayed for what seemed like a long, long time. An Islamic walked up to Ms. Maiga and offered her a gun. She refused to touch it. The gun was handed to her younger son Abdullah who declined as well.

The prisoner stood up from his prayers; an order was given, and a guard from the Islamic police shot him in the back. The prisoner collapsed but staggered back up to his feet so the police shot him again. And to the sand he fell, and there he lay till that night when they brought him to the local hospital.

“Praise the Lord,” said the commander of the Islamic police as the body was wheeled into the morgue. Outside, the rain suddenly pelted down on this town — renowned for its earthen mosques, mausoleums, 333 saints and the solitary djinn.

Before French and Malian forces reclaimed swathes of northern Mali from a ten-month Islamist occupation in January this year, the militants had gained universal notoriety for their radical interpretation and harsh implementation of sharia law.

There is no one universally accepted set of sharia as jurisprudence is drawn from the Koran, the word of God; the Hadith, which describes the way of the Prophet; and fiqh, the human interpretation of divine texts. In the post-colonial period, Muslim communities have tended to adopt aspects of sharia into personal and civil law, rather than criminal law.

In Timbuktu, the militants interpreted the sharia as divine sanction to destroy the medieval mausoleums of venerated Muslim saints, burn rare treatises on religion and science, and impose a regime of flogging, amputations and public executions.

Documents recovered from abandoned Islamist buildings, hospital records, and interviews suggest the 10-month occupation was not a descent into anarchy but a lucidly planned, and often terrifying, attempt at realising a vision of a more just, pure, and orderly society. [Continue reading...]

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Mali troops attack rival red beret camp in Bamako

The Guardian reports: Fierce fighting between rival army factions broke out in Mali’s capital Bamako on Friday, in an ominous sign of the military’s weakness and amid further attacks from Islamist rebels.

At least one person was killed and five injured when forces loyal to Mali’s unelected government stormed the camp of the “red beret” presidential guard. Residents fled in panic as heavy gunfire echoed from the Djikoroni-Para paratrooper base on the Niger river.

Witnesses reported smoke rising from the base. The “red berets” are loyal to Mali’s former democratic president Amadou Toumani Touré, who was deposed in a coup last March. The elite paratroopers refused to be redeployed to the north of the country, where French and Malian soldiers have been battling Islamist rebels.

Troops loyal to Mali’s new government – led by interim prime minister Dioncounda Traoré – encircled the base with armoured vehicles early on Friday, witnesses said. The soldiers opened fire on women and children who had gathered near the camp gates, killing one and injuring two children, it was reported.

“Since 6am the soldiers arrived in armored cars and pickup trucks, all of them armed to the teeth to attack our base. The women and children tried to stop them from entering the camp. They shot tear gas at us and started shooting volleys in the air,” Batoma Dicko, a woman who lives in the military camp, told Reuters. The camp includes housing for military families. Doctors said that the dead man, in his 20s, was shot in the face.

The incident bodes badly for Mali’s future after French forces pull out. France and Malian troops have succeeded in swiftly recapturing the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, seized last year by al-Qaida allied jihadist fighters. France’s defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, indicated earlier this week that he wants to reduce France’s military presence in Mali, and hand over “in a few weeks” to an African contingent.

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Mali soldiers arrest 2 men with explosives day after suicide bomb attack at checkpoint

The Associated Press reports: Two men with explosives were arrested trying to enter the city of Gao on Saturday, the Malian military said, a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack that has fueled fears of a militant insurgency in northern Mali.

The two suspected jihadists were in Malian military custody after being arrested at 7 a.m. on a road that leads into northern Mali’s largest city, said military spokesman Modibo Traore.

“The men were stopped at a checkpoint on the road from Bourem,” Traore said of a village that is northwest of Gao.

While Friday’s attack killed only the bomber, it has raised concerns about the future strategy of the militants, who initially appeared to put up little resistance to the French and Malian military advance.

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Letter from Mali: life is beginning to return to normal

Luke Harding writes: Last year Suleiman Kané hid his radio under several crates of fish. He also buried his satellite dish at the bottom of his fishing boat. The Islamists had swept into Gao, and were advancing rapidly across northern Mali. And so Kané stopped listening to music – an offence under sharia law – and avoided the rebels as far as possible.

A year later he and his large family are waiting to go home. The satellite dish is back in its old position, hooked up to a solar panel on the roof. Next to it is a bike, some firewood and a folding chair. His 15-metre-long floating home is moored at Mopti, Mali’s biggest river port. Kané’s two wives, five grownup sons and innumerable grandchildren – two with hacking coughs – are camped on the bank.

It is at Mopti that the shimmering Niger, west Africa’s great river, converges with its tributary, the Bani. West is the languid town of Ségou; north, and a three-day journey by boat, Timbuktu. On the turquoise water, fishermen in wooden pirogues are casting nets. Eagles whirl in the haze. Closer to town, people are washing clothes, mopeds and a shiny blue Mercedes.

French and Malian forces took Timbuktu 10 days ago, turfing out the jihadists who had run the Saharan town since last March. Paris also freed Gao and Kidal. Kané welcomes the return of the French, Mali’s old colonial masters. “I was born in 1939 and I remember the colonial period,” he says. “The French did a good job back then. They were fair.” He adds: “So far as I’m concerned they can stay.”

Everyone here has tales of rebel rule. Isate Kané (no relation to Suleiman) says one of her relatives was killed in Gao by a stray bullet. Kané says she was forced to wear a veil, but didn’t mind too much, since she kept her hands warm under it on chilly mornings. Far worse, she explains, was the predatory sexual behaviour of the jihadists. Most were lighter-skinned Tuareg or Arabs, with one or two black Malians. “One woman crossed the riverbank to bring her fish to market. This was in Gao. Two rebels chased her,” she says. “They wanted to rape her. She ran back to the bank so they shot her with a sniper rifle. She was pregnant.” The rebels took other women as sex-slaves, she says, sometimes killing them. She adds: “Whenever we saw them, we hid.”

Kané and her relatives – about 55 people, crammed on to one slow-moving barge – are waiting to travel north. The women are preparing lunch: a paste made from baobab tree fruit, millet and fish. “We eat fish and sell fish to buy rice,” she says. Nile perch – the Niger’s most delicious variety, known as capitaine – costs 1,500 CFA a kilo (£2); carp is 300 CFA. The Dogon, a tribe of animists, trade fish for baobab fruit, she says.

The river’s inhabitants tend to do the same things their parents have done, with jobs passed down along family lines. The fishermen are Bozo; the boys herding cattle across the waters Fulani; the rice planters Songhai. The Tuareg – blamed by many Malians for the country’s post-independence woes and a series of bitter rebellions against the capital Bamako – are nomads. How can Mali achieve peace? “By killing all the Tuareg,” Kané replies. [Continue reading...]

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Deconstructing the claims that Qatar is supporting al Qaeda in Mali

RUSI Analysis: Claims that Qatar is supporting a range of Al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups in the Sahel are not new. In June 2012 the French satirical magazine Canard Enchaine quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting various groups such as Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports are vague but usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes landing at Gao disgorging arms and even Qatari Special Forces entering the fray.

None of these accusations ring true given the general thrust of Qatari foreign policy. Ironically, however, it is Qatar’s recent actions particularly in Libya that make these accusations seemingly plausible.

Qatar is one of two states (the other being Saudi Arabia) who officially espouse the austere doctrines of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Al-Wahhab, and last year named its state mosque after him. But Qatar is a box full of contradictions. Alcohol is easily available as is pork. Women can drive (nor has this been an issue) and Qatar has the most visible, outspoken and influential female consort in the history of the Arab world. Western education systems are at the heart of the state and there is not even an official mosque in the entire propose-built, multi-billion dollar ‘Education City’ campus housing six American Universities as well as University College London.

Externally Qatar’s policies can appear confused. Support of America by virtue of the two huge US bases in Qatar and significant (usually unwelcome) outreach to Israel in recent years is contrasted with seemingly amicable relations with Iran and support for Hamas and Hizbullah. More recently a record of enormous investment in London and Paris has been contrasted to escalating support of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and seemingly murky support of groups in the Sahel. Moreover, Qatar has been outspoken in its sub-state support of various groups in Mali’s regional neighbourhood in the last eighteen months.

A loose narrative has built suggesting that an ever increasingly confident Qatar is now beginning to support a range of ever more extreme Islamists across the region.

Examining exactly what Qatar is doing in Mali is difficult. Qatar never enlightens anyone of its foreign policy strategies or tactics and nor are there sufficient reliable sources of information in and around Mali.

The best one can say is that in addition to a lengthy history of interaction in the region, the Qatar Red Crescent Society increased its capabilities in Mali in 2012 evaluating the state of the plight and the their potential response. This occasionally involved entering Mali from Niger to get to the critical city of Gao. According to an AFP article this in and of itself involved seeking safe passage from the MUJAO, an Al-Qa’ida offshoot.

The very fact that the two organisations came to this safe passage agreement may well be a root cause of much of the subsequent supposition, with many assuming the transit agreement to be a signal of deeper connections. Yet this is what the Red Cross/Crescent does; it sticks to its central tenet of neutrality in a conflict and deals with the realities on the ground by making tactical deals to obtain access when it can. [Continue reading...]

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France’s next move: With Mali’s Islamists on the run, time to talk to the Tuaregs

Bruce Crumley writes: Though long hostile to allied Islamist groups across the Sahel region, Tuareg nationalists have struggled for decades for more freedom and autonomy. Boosted by an influx of weapons from the looted arsenals of slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, they accepted the help of Islamist militias when wresting control of half of Mali last year—only to then see the radicals unilaterally impose their own brand of brutal Sharia rule over stretches of the breakaway region. But with those extremists now scattered and in retreat, calls are now arising for the central government and Tuareg leaders to link up against the common jihadi foe.

“We understand the resistance in Bamako to dealing with Tuareg forces that participated in the recent southern offensive, but the long-term stability of Mali relies on the central government and the Tuaregs negotiating and coming to certain agreements,” says a French government official who declines to be quoted by name. “The Tuaregs made a terrible decision in banding with the Islamists, and Malian anger over the consequences is understandable. But our view is all Tuareg leaders who renounce violence and accept the territorial integrity of Mali should be considered legitimate interlocutors in the political rebuilding process.”

That thinking may take some time to sell—particularly among southern Malians resentful of the Tuaregs separatist insurgency that enabled the Islamists’ rise in the power gap that followed a March 2012 military coup in Bamako. Now, there are already accusations of summary executions and rights violations by Malian forces during France’s anti-Islamist counter-offensive. Following the liberation of northern cities like Gao and Timbuktu, meanwhile, reports circulated that armed forces and locals had begun attacking other residents suspected of having supported or prospered under Islamist rule. As a result, once French forces freed the Tuareg-held town of Kidal Wednesday, military officials called in support of 1,400 Chadian troops—not Malian soldiers—to police the areato avert any vengeance killing.

That precautionary move is doubly significant in Kidal, given the complex Tuareg situation there. The Islamist group Ansar Dine had claimed to control Kidal—though there were no signs of any Islamist fighters when the French arrived there. The previous week, meantime, an influential Ansar Dine leader, Alghabass Ag Intalla, announced he’d bolted the al Qaeda-allied group to found the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA)—a nationalist Tuareg force renouncing “extremism and terrorism.” Shortly after, the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) offered to assist French troops continue the battle against jihadi militias.

Both the IMA and MNLA also say they’re ready to partake in talks towards a north-south political settlement capable of restoring peace and stability to Mali. Traoré and other central Malian leaders say they may accept negotiating with the MNLA, but have ruled out any cooperation with the IMA and any other Tuareg with past or present ties to extremists. That’s a position Paris is hoping to shift.

AFP reports: France said it carried out major air strikes Sunday near Kidal, the last bastion of armed extremists chased from Mali’s desert north in a lightning French-led offensive, after a whirlwind visit by President Francois Hollande.

An army spokesman said 30 warplanes had bombed training and logistics centres run by Islamist extremists overnight in the Tessalit area north of Kidal, where French troops took the airport Wednesday and have been working to secure the town itself.

Residents said French and Chadian soldiers had patrolled the town for the first time Saturday as the rest of the country feted Hollande on his tour, a victory lap that came three weeks into a so far successful intervention to oust the Islamists who occupied northern Mali for 10 months.

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Jazz warrior defending Mali’s values

The New York Times reports: Cheick Tidiane Seck played a concert in Bamako last Saturday, the capital of his native Mali, just before he returned to his home in Paris.

A war was raging in the north of the country, as Malian and French troops bore down on the fabled desert city of Timbuktu that had been held by Tuareg rebels and their Islamist allies since spring. The jihadist fighters, as they retreated, set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless manuscripts dating from as far back as the 13th century, according to reports that emerged later.

But in the concert hall that night, Mr. Seck, on the piano, made music with other well-known stars of Mali’s jazz scene, playing to an audience of people from all over the country. “There were Tuaregs in the hall, and out in the streets,” Mr. Seck recalled, “and nobody threatened them.”

Sitting at a corner table in the basement of a cafe below his Paris apartment, Mr. Seck was unmistakable: A young Malian waiter stopped by to pay his respects to the 59-year-old music legend. A large man, Mr. Seck looked larger still in a flowing brown robe, upon which he had purposely hung a colorful beaded purse. “It’s Tuareg,” he said.

If Mr. Seck has a message today — a rare moment when the world can locate Mali on a map — it is that his country’s culture must endure, as it has for thousands of years.

But until France intervened last month to stop Islamist forces from moving south to Bamako, Mr. Seck was not so sure Mali itself would survive.

“I was afraid for my country,” he said. “Once I knew that they had conquered all the cities in the north, a chill went down my spine. It was an unspeakable wound.”

In his view, the Islamists’ acts of violence — against people, but also against the ancient culture of Timbuktu — were crimes against humanity. A 15th-century Malian proverb proclaims: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.”

According to some reports, much of the precious collection of manuscripts assembled in the Ahmed Baba Institute was saved by archivists and local residents before Timbuktu was seized by Islamist rebels last April; the documents remain hidden for fear that the jihadists will return.

But the wanton destruction of the graves of Timbuktu’s Sufi saints, considered idolatrous by orthodox Salafists, is undisputed, like the banning of music, the enforced veiling of women, the floggings and the amputations.

“A people has the right not to be ruled by violence,” Mr. Seck said. “They were going to impose Shariah across the whole country. They were going to destroy what was left of the harmony in the country.”

Now, he believes that danger has receded thanks to a decision by President François Hollande of France to intervene on Jan. 11. “The French knew that they had to do that in order to block this Islamic fundamentalism,” Mr. Seck said. “It must be stopped; they must be stopped.”

“So I say, ‘Bravo, Hollande,”’ he said. “I say, ‘A big bravo,’ and I am not the only one to say that. You can see French and Malian flags flying together all over Bamako.”

Now comes the hard part, as a fragile country tries to pull itself back together. Mr. Seck said he remained optimistic. [Continue reading...]

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Video: Malians welcome French president to Timbuktu

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