France is finding that getting Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali, and the Sahara Desert in general is very difficult. A large part of the problem is the past refusal of Western nations to pursue Islamic terrorists defeated years ago in places like Algeria, Morocco and Libya. The survivors of these 1990s defeats went south into the desert and established lucrative smuggling (of drugs and people) and kidnapping (of Westerners) operations that brought in over $10 million a year. This enabled hundreds of hardcore and experienced Islamic terrorists to continue recruiting and planning new terror attacks against Moslem and Western nations. While a lot of that money was diverted to operating expenses (including bribing locals) and corruption (al Qaeda documents captured over the years indicates this is still a problem) there was enough left to buy more weapons than they needed and spreading the word that Islamic terrorism was the way to go. This appealed to a lot of young men who had bleak economic prospects and were always up for some adventure, especially if it involved getting a gun and a license to kill.
Another thing that kept the Islamic radical pot boiling was the existing ethnic and racial tensions in the region. There was a lot of ethnic and racial animosity in the southern Sahara, especially in northern Mali. It was most intense in the major cities. Black Africans living in the north, usually in the cities, are often eager for revenge against Arabs (the most violent Islamic terrorists were Arab) and Tuaregs (the lighter skinned tribesmen of the north who have been regularly rebelling against the rule of the black African majority) if the opportunity presents itself. When French troops moved into northern Mali in January 2013 to shut down what had been an Islamic terrorist sanctuary for most of 2012 the local black Africans got a chance for some payback. For months French troops were not able to stop revenge attacks. Black Africans in the north would single out “light skin” (Arab or Tuareg) neighbors who had been too friendly with the Islamic terrorist occupiers and demand that these people be punished. Malian troops have arrested hundreds of these collaborators, who are usually eager to cooperate. But some of the “lights” were tortured and at least a few killed. The Mali soldiers say they are punishing murderers and rapists but mainly they are out to torment the hated “lights”. Despite efforts by foreign peacekeepers to halt the ethnic and racial violence some of it continues in the north and it is not unknown throughout the southern Sahara when the conditions are right.
This sort of animosity between dark skinned Africans and lighter skinned people from the north has been around as long as the two groups have been in contact. Arabs first moved south of the Sahara in large numbers over a thousand years ago and often came as conquerors and slavers. Although many of the black Africans encountered converted to Islam, the lighter skinned Arabs (including the Tuareg and Berbers of North Africa) considered themselves superior. This racist attitude has persisted and the black Africans often reciprocate. This is one reason why the largely Tuareg of northern Mali constantly rebel. Not only is the Mali government corrupt but it is dominated by black Africans, which is what 90 percent of Malians are. Officially, Islam and most African governments deny that such ethnic tensions exist. This in itself is progress, but the animosities remain and often become quite deadly. The slaving also continues and sometimes gets into the news. This happened a lot in Sudan since the 1990s as the government encouraged Arabized tribes to raid non-Moslem black African tribes and take slaves. In northern Mali retreating al Qaeda men sometimes took newly enslaved blacks with them.
Many such ancient customs die hard in this part of the world. Yet there is also a tradition of tolerance between the blacks and the lights, but the corruption of the black dominated elected government has caused growing resentment among the Tuaregs of the north. Al Qaeda does not openly preach racism but it implies that Arabs and other “lights” will prevail over blacks in areas where the two groups are present. In all black countries like Nigeria, all black Islamic terror groups like Boko Haram promise that Moslems will dominate non-Moslems.
For decades Western aid groups have been agitating for the African governments to pass laws criminalizing slavery. While the Mali constitution bans slavery (a clause inserted to appease foreign donors) laws making slavery illegal were never passed. So over 200,000 Malians (mostly black Africans) continue in bondage, mostly in the north where their owners tend to be Tuareg or Arab. The slaveholders insist that this is all an ancient tradition that is being misinterpreted by foreigners. But it is slavery and it still exists throughout the Moslem world. The anti-slavery movement, which is backed by a large minority of Malians, may encounter difficulty in the north where the Tuareg majority is still pushing for autonomy. That would probably include more tolerance for slavery and Islamic radicalism.
Islamic radicals are an ancient Moslem custom that flares up every few generations, makes a mess and is rejected for a while. Only some fundamental changes within the Moslem community will banish this deadly custom forever.