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TWD Mali Media Offensive

January 16th, 2013 No comments

Screen shot 2013-01-16 at 3.44.55 PM

New York- In the wake of the French military intervention in Mali late last week, I felt like it was time for TWD to kick into high gear. On Monday, I appeared on BBC Arabic’s News Hour programme from the beeb’s Manhattan studio (which was actually the NYC AP bureau). The show was hosted by Lebanon’s lovely Fida Basil and featured Mohamed Larbi Zitout, a one time Algerian ambassador to Libya-turned outspoken Algerian dissident in exile in the UK and Akli Shaka, the Leeds-based spokesman for the Imohag (alt. Imuhagh–the endonym of the Tuareg people) and myself. I also did a piece for CNN.com (pictured above) synthesizing recent developments with my work on the ground there in 2012.

Mohamed Larbi Zitout. left, and Akli Shaka, right.

Mohamed Larbi Zitout. left, and Akli Shaka, right.

One of the topics I fielded during the segment was whether or not there would be a Salafi blowback on the French metropole or in amongst any of Mali’s neighbors where security is already inherently sketchy and AQIM essentially has freedom of movement across several over the borders. As I was answering an email to colleague this morning, I cited the GIA’s hijacking of an Air France flight 8969 heading from Algiers to Paris’s Orly airport on Christmas Eve 1994 and the Paris metro bombings in 1995 (as with all terrorist related events related to Algeria’s bloody civil conflict there of course is an alternate theory that the DRS-Algeria’s all-knowing intelligence service-was behind some or all of these events). Not suggesting the GIA in the 1990s is a precise direct analogy but the experience offers some insight. Monday I thought it all but assured that Mali-based Salafi-jihadis would strike in a neighboring state in the very least. Whether they have the capability to strike on French soil remains to be seen I suppose. Let’s hope that is not the case.

In the immediate aftermath of the largely successful raid on the jet at Marseille’s airport in which the four GIA operatives were killed by French commandos, four Catholic priests were murdered in in the immediate aftermath in retribution in Tizi-Ouzou east of Algiers in the Kabylie region which has remained a locus of conflict in some degree or another until the present.

The destination board at the Sévaré bus depot. Destinations to contested, ungoverned spaces. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

The destination board at the somewhat forlorned Sévaré bus depot. The prices for these arduous rides are listed in BCEAO CFA francs. Destinations to contested, ungoverned spaces await weary travelers already having come all the way from Bamako in many cases. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

As soon as I hit send on said email, I then checked the news to see something that seemed like the logical next step: a massive raid was launched on a sprawling energy installation’s complex today in which an estimated 41 expatriate workers were taken hostage by men believed to be under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s (a.k.a. MBM, a.k.a. Belawar) AQIM faction “La katiba des Moulathamine” (or is it al-Mouwaqiin bi Dam-”Signatories in Blood battalion” a constituent of or breakaway from the “Masked Brigade”-it seems there is no agreement/too little information at the time of this writing) or AQIM itself depending on reports.

In what was likely a carefully planned assault, militants struck the Ain Amenas liquified natural gas field project being operated by BP, Norway’s Statoil, and Algeria’s state energy concern Sonatrach on Algeria’s eastern border with Libya due south of the triple border with Tunisia.Many believe that Belmokhtar was behind the audacious raid in Algeria’s Illizi Wilayat (province), bringing a flurry of attention to a character generally little known in Anglophone media circles.

There had been speculation last fall that Belmokhtar had been dismissed as commander of his men by AQIM’s overall Algeria-based emir, Abdekmalek Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) which Droukdel reportedly later denied.

The biggest story suddenly surged from the war in Mali to one of the biggest terror attacks on Algerian soil in many years. Just like that, the news cycle had to catch up to speed on events to Mali’s north in the chaotic midst of learning about Mali itself. As with its captured diplomats in Gao, Algeria taking its characteristically hard line, claims it categorically will not negotiate-much less pay ransoms for-hostages, foreign or indigenous.

Walking along Sévaré blistering hot main drag in June. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Walking along Sévaré’s blistering hot main drag in June. As a desert-modified pick-up truck of Malian troops whizzed by, my cautious fixer urged me not to attempt to photograph them for our own good, much to my disappointment. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Just before the start of the Mali conflict in December 2011, I edited a report by Dario Cristiani entitled “Mixing Ideological and Pragmatic Jihad: A Fresh Look at Mokhtar Belmokhtar.” If you are following me on Twitter, you can DM for a PDF if interested.

UPDATE: In keeping with Algiers’s stated no-negotiations position (despite the fact the government said talks were attempted), Algerian forces launched what could be called a disastrous ‘rescue’ mission. Reports right now are conflicting about whether the operation is still ongoing or whether it has already concluded. Whatever has happened, it has likely been quit bloody.

Myself and

Myself and presenter Fida Basil. Uttering ‘Jamaat at-Tawhid w’al-Jihad fi Gharb Ifriqiyya’ is a hell of a lot more of a mouthful than MUJAO!

Before the current phase of the conflict kicked off, a photo from this blog was used in a report by the International Peace Institute in mid-December.

Before the current phase of the conflict kicked off, a photo from this blog was used in a report by the International Peace Institute, a UN-linked think-tank, in mid-December.

UPDATE: Friend and colleague, the Toronto-based analyst Andrew McGregor appeared on CBC News to talk about the history of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the impact of the Ain Amenas raid, its sophistication and beguiling logistical improbabilities. He also discussed the possible long term effects on Algeria’s energy industry, a key source of that country’s GDP. Click play below.

 

Dear Azawad, What’s Going On?

April 6th, 2012 No comments

New York- Confusion and lack of clarity is mostly what is emanating out of northern Mali’s three rebel controlled regions after the principal secularist rebel outfit, the MNLA, declared independence from the Malian republic today. The current situation is definitely one that begs more questions than provides answers.

The lightly populated northern regions which border Mauritania, Algeria and Niger take up far more land area than the more populous southern regions of the country where the capital Bamako lies. What I am finding interesting are two things: first, I haven’t seen anything from any international journalists who have actually traveled to Mali’s north to meet the MNLA and have a look at the situation for themselves and second, no one in the twitter/journo/wonk-o-sphere no matter how much authority they may try and write with, really knows what is going on amidst the chaos.

The main dispute is just which rebel/jihadi faction is either driving or in control of this logistically immense territorial takeover. Is the MNLA or the salafi Ansar Dine (alt. Ançar Dine, Ansar Eddine) really in control of Timbuktu? Are leaders of AQIM with Ansar as reported? Is the Harakat al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad fi Gharbi Afriqiyya (Movement for Monotheism/Unity and Jihad in West Africa-MUJWA) also involved in the takeover and ejection of Malian state forces? I think part (or perhaps largely) what answers my first question is that the hype of AQIM involvement–a group mostly gaining headlines for kidnapping Westerners–may keep journos and other assorted war tourists away from the area for now.

It certainly is possible or even probable that non-Malian nationals are tagging along with Ansar fighting groups but the ‘liberation’ of Azawad we are seeing is the result of an ethno-nationalist agenda. Maybe when the dust has settled we will see a internecine conflict between the MNLA and Harakat. If their various statements are to be believed, theirs may have been a marriage of convenience whereby the two groups were drawn together by a temporary convergence of strategic agendas. If so, this will certainly end in bloody divorce as a fight for the region’s control begins. To me this is evidenced by an Ansar statement to AFP today decrying the MNLA’s Azawad move.

Their high degree of difference in their outlooks is illustrated by the fact that the MNLA has a suited Paris-based spokesman while Iyad ag Ghaly’s Ansar has reportedly cut off a hand or two in their hasty implementation of Islamic law in Timbuktu. The two movements have entirely different approaches to how they communicate with the outside world. A British couple that fled the guesthouse they ran in Timbuktu credits the MNLA with aiding in their dramatic escape to Mauritania while the city’s tiny Christian minority reportedly fled in their entirety as Ghaly’s sharia-bent forces advanced.

Within the study of AQIM as a movement, there are so many questions as to whether AQIM is a legitimate salafi-jihadi group driven by ideology, is it a front for drug running, cigarette smuggling and other criminality in the Sahara? Or as some conspiracy types have posited, is it connected to or front for Algeria’s DRS intelligence service?

The MNLA and Ansar state they have widely divergent agendas. The MNLA has repeated that they seek a politically independent Tuareg homeland with democratic mechanisms. Ansar Dine say they seek not independence but the implementation of sharia law in the areas under their control. And then on top of all that AQIM and Harakat supposedly seek a pan-Sahel caliphate.

The recognition of Azawad in the near term is entirely unlikely by any regional or international powers and will be discouraged less it cause or encourage the splintering of Niger, Nigeria, Algeria etc. Unlike, say, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, the Tuareg rebels in Mali do not have any known external political supporters. They may have had one in Libya had the eternally meddlesome Qaddafi survived last year’s war in that country. The main regional powers in Algiers and Abuja have no interest in seeing the situation in Mali worsen.

The Nigerian state is currently threatened by an increasingly emboldened Boko Haram movement in that country’s north while Algeria has seen no end of troubles since the beginning of the civil war there in 1992 and the ensuing GIA-GSPC-AQIM evolution. The United States waded into the mess that is France’s near abroad in 2002 with the beginning of counter terror training throughout West Africa that was meant to serve American interests in eliminating a then rather non-existent al-Qaeda threat to the region. One that has now manifested itself as a reality according to Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler’s account of his AQIM ordeal in the Telegraph.

For now I can only do my own armchair analysis from afar as I don’t have the means to zip over to Bamako at the moment. Hopefully that will change.

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