Potential Hot Spots: Mali, the Tauregs and al Qaeda

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April 6, 2006: The Tuareg tribes are again in rebellion against the Mail government. One of Africa's few real democracies, with more than a decade of orderly elections and presidential successions, Mali has about 12.3 million people, but is nearly twice the size of Texas, and sprawls across the Sahel and parts of the Sahara. Although most of the people are Moslems, religious radicalism does not seem to have put down any roots.

The desert regions of the far north of the country, up against the Algerian frontier, are not only the most thinly populated region, but also the least well-controlled by the central government. Banditry and feuds among the largely Tuareg Berber tribes are common in the north. In addition, the region seems to have attracted Islamist fundamentalists fleeing defeat in Algeria, who have reportedly set up base camps in order to regroup. This is causing concern not only in Mali, but also in Algeria and nearby Mauritania. All three countries have recently reached a number of agreements to promote greater security in the region, and these include rights of "hot pursuit" during operations against extremists.

To strengthen its control of the north, Mali is preparing to deploy a major part of its small armed forces to the north and asset government control, in cooperation with Mauritania, which has pledged to provide some personnel and other support. Peace has been made with the rebellious Taureg tribes twice (in 1995 and 2001) in recent history. But these deals never last, mainly because old habits are hard to break.

The Taureg tribes have, for centuries, had a hostile relationship with the peoples to the south. The Tauregs, who are lighter skinned (they are distant cousins of the ancient Egyptians and Semitic peoples) than the sub-Saharan Africans, speak different languages (again, related to ancient Egyptian, not the Bantu, and other language groups found to the south) and have a different lifestyle.

The sub-Saharan governments, especially in Niger, have played up the racial differences, tagging the Taureg as evil "whites" and urging the destruction of the hated nomads. The southerners do have a beef, in that the nomadic Taureg have been raiding the more settled blacks for a long time (like thousands of years.) So the animosity is nothing new. But Islamic terrorists taking advantage of Taureg hospitality is.

That hospitality may not last forever. The Taureg take their Islam in a decidedly Taureg fashion. That is, many ancient religious practices were incorporated into the Taureg version of Islam. This sort of thing is anathema to al Qaeda, in particular, and Islamic radicals in general. Leave the Taureg and al Qaeda together long enough, and you can expect some homegrown Taureg counter-terrorist action. But the Mali government doesn't want to wait, for they know that al Qaeda might get into some local mischief first. And the Western nations don't want al Qaeda to have a sanctuary, not matter how transitory, anywhere on the planet, even in the middle of the desert.

 

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