Mali’s irrepressible musical spirit resounds after jihadi-imposed silence

The Guardian reports: n the courtyard of a colonial villa in Bamako, four young men crouch around a tiny camping stove. The Malian tradition of simmering tea for hours is as old as the ancient trade routes crossing the Sahara desert. There is even a saying behind the practice, says Aliou Touré, a singer in the Mali band Songhoy Blues.

“Here in Mali we say that the first cup is bitter like life, the second is sweet like love and the third is soft like the breath of a dying man,” he says.

Songhoy Blues are one of the latest musical acts to emerge from the west African country that has produced artists such as Salif Keita and Toumani Diabaté – both multiple Grammy winners – Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré, Bassekou Kouyaté, and Rokia Traoré.

The band is one of a dozen acts at this week’s Bamako acoustic festival, the first major music festival in the capital since 2012, when Islamist extremists seized northern Mali and imposed their hardline interpretation of sharia law that, among other things, banned music. [Continue reading…]

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Burkina Faso attack demonstrates al Qaeda revival in Africa

CNN reports: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, often seen as a fractured and undisciplined group, apparently has carried out its second major terror attack in two months — claiming more than 20 lives in the assault on a luxury hotel and two other targets in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The gun attack on the Splendid Hotel bears many similarities to that on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, on November 20 in which 22 people were killed.

Both targets were popular with Westerners and international (especially U.N). officials; they were “soft,” rather than military installations or police stations. The attackers (two in Bamako, possibly four in Ouagadougou) were armed with automatic weapons, their aim to kill and then take as many hostages as possible.

And both operations apparently were carried out by an AQIM group called Al Mourabitoun.

The group’s statement after the latest attack claimed the Splendid Hotel was “frequented by staff of the nations of global disbelief;” the attack was “to punish the cross-worshippers for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali, and other lands of the Muslims.” [Continue reading…]

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Paris attacks and other assaults seen as evidence of a strategic shift by ISIS

The New York Times reports: The recent attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt were the first results of a centrally planned terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State leadership that oversees “external” targets, according to American and European intelligence officials.

The Islamic State’s overseas operations planning cell offers strategic guidance, training and funding for actions aimed at inflicting the maximum possible civilian casualties, but leaves the task of picking the time, place and manner of the attacks largely to trusted operatives on the ground, the officials said.

Carrying out attacks far from the Islamic State’s base in Iraq and Syria represents an evolution of the group’s previous model of exhorting followers to take up arms wherever they live — but without significant help from the group. And it upends the view held by the United States and its allies of the Islamic State as a regional threat, with a new assessment that the group poses a whole new set of risks.

Debris from a Russian airliner downed in Egypt in October, killing all 224 people on board. The downing and the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut were the first results of a terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State, according to American and European intelligence officials. Credit Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
“Once the Islamic State possessed territory that provided them sanctuary and allowed them to act with impunity, they like other jihadist groups inevitably turned to external attacks,” said William Wechsler, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and until last January a top counterterrorism official at the Pentagon.

One possible motivation of the change in strategy by the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, is to seize leadership of the global jihad from Al Qaeda — from which the Islamic State broke away in 2013. The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali on Friday was probably carried out by two Qaeda-linked groups, suggesting, as one senior European counterterrorism official put it, “The race is on between ISIS and Al Qaeda to see who can attack the West the best.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS vs Al Qaeda

The attack in Mali’s capital Bamako has been claimed by Al Mourabitou, a North African militant group linked to Al Qaeda. It was another Al Qaeda affiliate which said it was behind the attacks in Paris in January this year. But Islamic State seems to be eclipsing Al Qaeda. Fawaz Gerges has written about Islamic State and began by discussing Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader behind the Bamako attack.

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Explainer: What is going on in Mali?

By Paul Jackson, University of Birmingham

After a week in which Europe was rocked by terrorism on the streets of Paris, gunmen entered the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. A hostage situation unfolded and French and Malian security forces battled for control of the building. It is a hotel that is known to be frequented by foreigners and represents an escalation of violence that has been building in Mali during 2015.

Islamist attacks have been concentrated in Mali’s north, but spread during 2015 to the centre of the country – and then to the south and the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. On March 6, there was a terrorist attack on the restaurant La Terrasse in Bamako, in the south-west of the country. Five people were killed and nine were injured.

On June 10, there was an attack by armed men on Malian security forces in the town of Misseni, near the border with Ivory Coast. And on August 7, armed men attacked the town of Sévare in the Mopti region, north-east of Bamako. The attack lasted several hours, including a siege at a local hotel. Twelve people died, including two foreign nationals.

[Read more…]

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Jihadists destroy proposed world heritage site in Mali

The Associated Press reports: Jihadists have destroyed a mausoleum in central Mali that had been submitted as a U.N. World Heritage site, leaving behind a warning that they will come after all those who don’t follow their strict version of Islam, a witness said Monday.

The dynamite attack on the mausoleum of Cheick Amadou Barry mirrors similar ones that were carried out in northern Mali in 2012 when jihadists seized control of the major towns there. The destruction also comes as concerns grow about the emergence of a new extremist group active much further south and closer to the capital.

Barry was a marabout, or important Islamic religious leader, in the 19th century who helped to spread Islam among the animists of central Mali. One of his descendants, Bologo Amadou Barry, confirmed to The Associated Press that the site had been partially destroyed in Hamdallahi village on Sunday night.

The jihadists left behind a note on Sunday warning they would attack all those who did not follow the teachings of Islam’s prophet.

“They also threatened France and the U.N. peacekeepers and all those who work with them,” Bologo Amadou Barry said. [Continue reading…]

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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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