France has been fighting in Mali for a year now. There were 4,500 French troops a year ago, now there are only 2,500 and that will be reduced to 1,600 within a month. There are 12,600 peacekeepers in Mali, most of them African and most of them in the north. For the last month French troops have also been doing peacekeeping work in CAR (Central African Republic) far to the east. While the Mali operation had popular support in France (where Islamic terrorism has been a deadly problem for decades) the CAR operation does not involve an Islamic terrorists (although there is some fighting between Moslems and Christians) and is much less popular.
French casualties in the last year have been low (about 20 including seven killed) but French voters resent the billions spent in Africa, what with all the economic problems at home. Less discussed is the realization that this year of military effort is not likely to make a permanent change in Mali. The government is still corrupt and not likely to change. The black majority still dominates the government and is still not willing to grant the autonomy the Tuaregs and Arabs in the north want. The problems of tribalism and ethnic strife have been around for thousands of years and getting Africa to catch up with the Eurasian nations has been slow going. It was only in the last few centuries that European nations got past tribalism and it took two World Wars to suppress a lot of the ethnic stress. Progress has been slow in Africa, but it is happening. In Mali reformers have another opportunity to reduce the corruption and tribalism, but no one is expects a big change.
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 was 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, or hiring, 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 and it paid well. 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, a license to kill or loot and regular pay. 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) whenever the opportunity presented 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 said they were 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 majority 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 and imply that black Moslems will play leading roles. 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.
January 12, 2014: Mali and Mauritania signed an agreement on counter-terror operations. Both nations promised to not offer each other’s rebels sanctuary. Allowing rebels from a neighboring nation to have sanctuary is a common technique worldwide to persuade a troublesome neighbor to cooperate. Both nations will also more closely coordinate intelligence work and border security to better detect and catch Islamic terrorists. Mauritania has been very active against Islamic terrorists since 2010. That’s mainly because the al Qaeda drug smuggling operation runs through Mauritania on its way to Algeria and Europe. The local Islamic terrorists have long sustained themselves moving South American cocaine
Guinea-Bissau after it has been flown in from South America.
January 10, 2014: In the north three Chadian peacekeepers were wounded when they clashed with armed men. It was unclear if these were Tuareg rebels or Islamic terrorists.
January 4, 2014: One of the more active Islamic terrorist groups,
Al Mourabitoun, issued threats against France via the Internet. This group is seen as more of a threat than AQIM
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which has suffered greatly during a year of French attacks and has also gone through an internal split. Some AQIM dissidents went off to found Al Mourabitoun last August. These AQIM dissidents merged with MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, largely composed of black African Islamic radicals and led by Mauritanians) to form Al Mourabitoun.
MOJWA is unique among Islamic terrorist groups because its leadership is black African and the merged unit is led by Arabs. Al Mourabitoun appears to be mostly operating outside Mali (in Niger and Libya) but AQIM is still in northern Mali and French troops are looking for them. While not numerous, Al Mourabitoun has some imaginative, aggressive and energetic leaders. But this group has not yet been detected outside of North Africa. Because of this latest threat everyone will keep looking.
January 1, 2014: The government ordered its citizens out of CAR because of the continued violence there. About 500 Malians were in CAR and the government made arrangements to bring most of them home.
December 30, 2013: Near the northern town of Kidal peacekeepers found a stash of 5.6 tons of explosives (ammonium nitrate), enough for twenty or so car bombs. Also found were 40 hand grenades, another favorite terrorist weapon. Ammonium nitrate is a powdered fertilizer that, when mixed with diesel or fuel oil, can be made to explode with a detonator. While only about 40 percent of the power as the same weight of TNT, these fertilizer bombs are effective as roadside bombs. But they are bulkier, and a slurry is usually mixed in a plastic jug or a barrel to produce a bulky liquid bomb. Moreover, the fuel oil must be mixed thoroughly and in exactly the right proportion, otherwise the explosive effect is much less than expected. Islamic terrorists have been using ammonium nitrate more frequently because military and commercial explosives have been harder to get.
France has begun operating one of its new RQ-9 Reaper UAVs in Mali. Earlier in 2013 France decided to buy two RQ-9s and by the middle of the year had upped the order to a dozen. This was apparently with the understanding that one or two would be available for French use in Mali before the end of the year. This was less of a problem than it appears because the U.S. was already (since January 2013) been operating RQ-9s in Niger, next door to Mali and the British have their own RQ-9 operations center (where satellite links allow UAV operators to control RQ-9s anywhere on the planet) in Britain that could be used to quickly train French operators. Facilities are also available in the United States, which is also where RQ-9 ground crews are trained. The U.S. apparently delivered on its end of the deal and France got its operators and ground support personnel up to speed on time. Currently two French Harfang UAVs are present in Mali (operating from neighboring Niger) along with some American RQ-9s. The Harfang is based on an Israeli design and is similar to the 1.1 ton U.S. Predator. The larger RQ-9 weighs 4.6 tons.
December 28, 2013: Former president Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military coup in early 2012, will be tried for treason. The army rebelled in reaction to the corruption and ineptness of the Toure government. The army blamed this on their early 2012 defeats in the north.
December 24, 2013: The government is negotiating a peace deal and amnesty with
Islamic terror group Ansar Dine (which controlled Timbuktu in 2012). This is the only Islamic terror group native to Mali and is led by Tuareg Islamic radicals who have long sought autonomy for the Tuareg in the north. These peace talks have been going on since early 2013 and have resulted in Ansar Dine halting terror attacks over the last few months.
December 23, 2013: The former Islamic police chief of Gao, Aliou Mahamar Toure, was arrested outside Gao where he was hiding. Toure was in power for most of 2012 and run out of Gao in January 2013 by French troops. Toure was noted for his harsh application of Islamic law and destruction of “un-Islamic” antiquities and shrines.
December 19, 2013: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's RPM party won 67 of 147 seats in the recent legislative election and thus is assured of controlling parliament with a coalition it will dominate. These recent elections are the final condition for releasing $3.25 billion in foreign aid.