January 9, 2013: The army has moved hundreds of additional troops to the northern town of Mopti
(450 kilometers northeast of the capital). Several hundred al Qaeda gunmen showed up on the outskirts of the town two days ago, halted when troops opened fire, and began establishing themselves within sight of soldiers. Mopti is a market town at the junction of the Niger and Bani rivers and has become the base for efforts to retake control of the north or keep the rebels from moving south (where most of the people, water, and national wealth are). In the last few days al Qaeda gunmen have taken control of a village of Bourei which is 40 kilometers north of Mopti. Before that the closest al Qaeda controlled territory was about a hundred kilometers north of Mopti, although al Qaeda gunmen would sometimes move south to look around and retreat at the sight of any army troops.
To the north of Mopti the terrain becomes drier and, after a hundred kilometers or so, desert. The city has also been the destination of many of the northerners who fled their homes to escape the violence. Over 300,000 have fled the north so far.
The army has been in a state of disorder since the first coup last March, when about half its 9,000 personnel deserted. For months many senior officers were uncertain of the loyalty of subordinate officers. The leader of the coup was a low ranking captain who was able to motivate a lot of dissatisfied (by corruption and mismanagement in the military) officers and troops to rebel. The army has recovered from the coup-related confusion nine months ago and enlisted two thousand new recruits to bring its strength up to 7,000. The army is still able to maintain control of the government as well as garrison Mopti with over a thousand troops who will fight, or at least not flee at the sight of the enemy. The army has replaced the government leadership twice in the last year, once in March and once in December. The army was forced to give up control in April but now has pro-army politicians in charge again.
In the north the Islamic radical groups are spread thin but have been able to terrorize the remaining population into submission. About a quarter of the two million people in the north (a year ago) have fled, most of them south to Mopti and beyond. Few of those still in the north support the Islamic radicals but are too terrified to fight back. The Islamic radicals hold public punishments of “thieves” (often just people who openly opposed them) and whip them or cut off an arm or leg. In some cases the civilians have resisted attending these public punishments but relented when threatened with mass violence against them. This Islamic radicals claim they are on a Mission From God and cannot be argued with. The Islamic radicals have also destroyed most of the tombs of honored ancient Moslem local holy men. Al Qaeda considers openly honoring these holy men in this way to be blasphemous. The locals are appalled by the destruction of their shrines and resentment is building up. To counter this, al Qaeda is offering local teenagers cash and a gun to join them. This recruiting program has worked. While the new recruits are somewhat unreliable and have little experience, they help maintain order. Each week more Islamic radicals get into northern Mali, slowly increasing the number of experienced Islamic terrorists in the area.
Although Algeria has so far refused to join in an invasion of northern Mali, they are finding growing al Qaeda presence among refugee camps on their Morocco border. There, an al Qaeda splinter group, MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), kidnapped three European aid workers (a man and two women) in one of those refugee camps last October. MOJWA is unique because its leadership is black African. There has long been a lot of tension between Arabs and black Africans. The Arabs disdain the blacks and that causes a lot of tension and resentment. It appears that MOJWA is striving to show they can be more extreme and effective than the Arab dominated al Qaeda. MOJWA claims inspiration by 19th century West African Moslem leaders, who fought European colonial powers. The appearance of MOJWA presents the possibility of a war among Islamic radical groups. MOJWAs three captives were taken at a Polisario refugee camp near the Moroccan border. The three European aid workers may have been taken with the help of some Polisario officials. This may have something to do with the declining prospects of Polisario, which has been in bad shape since 1991. Back then Morocco finally won its war with Polisario Front rebels, who were seeking independence for the Western Sahara (a region south of Morocco). Polisario remained powerful in Mauritania, where the rebel group has official recognition and maintains several more refugee camps. Because Polisario was so well-subsidized by Algeria, back when Algeria was a radical state, Polisario still has enough diehards out there to keep a lot of people in Western Sahara unhappy. This was known to provide recruits and sanctuary for al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals. For two decades the UN has been trying to work out a final peace deal between Polasario and Morocco. In the 1990s, Algeria cut off all support for Polasario. But that, and UN efforts to mediate the differences, have just not worked. The contested area is largely desert with a population of less than 300,000. Logic would have it that the area is better off as a part of Morocco. But there are still thousands of locals who would rather fight for independence than submit to Morocco. Some resistance is tribal and cultural, with the Moroccans seen as another bunch of alien invaders (the area was administered, until 1976, as a Spanish colony). If the fighting breaks out again, possibly inspired by Islamic radicals, it could go on for years, just as it does in many other parts of Africa and the immediate neighborhood. Getting involved in the cocaine smuggling provides money, some of which goes towards guns and vehicles, making the Polisario fighters more formidable. Mali and Mauritanian police are increasingly arresting members of the Polisario Front who are involved with a major drug smuggling operation (moving cocaine from Guinea-Bissau, where it is flown in from South America, to the Mediterranean coast). Polisario Front members have long been involved in smuggling and other illegal activities but their involvement in moving cocaine is relatively recent. This implies cooperation with al Qaeda, which apparently has worked out deals with Polisario. There are over 160,000 Polasario controlled refugees living (many since the 1970s) in these Algerian refugee camps. Young men in these camps see opportunity in Islamic terrorism and recruiters are finding more volunteers.
The other two nations with long borders with northern Mali are Mauritania and Niger. Both these nations have sent more troops and police to their Mali borders and tried to keep Islamic terrorists from getting in or out. That is difficult because the borders with northern Mali are long (1,376 kilometers with Algeria, 1,200 kilometers with Mauritania, and 821 kilometers with Niger) and mostly desert or semi-desert and thinly populated. Anyone with a guide and transportation (four-wheel drive or four footed) can sneak across. The more daring can dispense with the guide and try it just using GPS, but that can be dangerous because of unknown natural or human hazards.
January 7, 2013: Troops in the central Mali town of Mopti fired warning shots with machine-guns and mortars at an approaching column of al Qaeda gunmen. The Islamic radicals turned around and moved back a bit.
January 3, 2013: Ansar Dine has cancelled its ceasefire with the government in response to UN approval of an invasion of northern Mali, to oust Islamic radicals (including Ansari Dine) occupying the area.
For over a month the West African nation of Burkina Faso has been hosting talks with MNLA (Tuareg rebels) representatives and members of Ansar Dine, another al Qaeda-linked Islamist group (composed of Tuaregs) occupying parts of Mali's north. This has been an effort to negotiate an end to separatist rule in the north. Groups that agree to a negotiated deal would be spared from the planned African offensive against MUJWA and AQIM (al Qaeda's North African wing which it operates alongside). The Tuareg groups want al Qaeda out of northern Mali and don’t consider any of that negotiable. Ansari Dine also wants Islamic law applied in the north and would not consider any compromise on that.
MUJWA and AQIM threaten “another Iraq” (in terms of terror attacks) if the planned international force invades northern Mali. That invasion is now scheduled for next September or even later. MNLA and Ansari Dine have offered to work with the Mali government to destroy al Qaeda control of the north in return for autonomy for the Tuareg tribes that predominate up there and the continued use of Sharia (Islamic) law. The southerners are willing to discuss the former but are hostile to the latter. Meanwhile, MNLA and Ansari Dine have discovered that they lack the firepower to defeat al Qaeda. Meanwhile the UN continues to believe it’s still possible to settle all the problems in northern Mali through negotiation and authorized the use of force, in part, to spur negotiations. That has not worked in the case of Ansari Dine.