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Niger, Mali, and the Confluence of Salafisms in North and West Africa

July 9th, 2013 No comments
The Nigerién mission to the UN on East 50th Street in Manhattan.

The Nigérien mission to the UN on East 50th Street in Manhattan. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With the immediacy of the tactical success of the French military campaign in northern Mali beginning in mid-January combined with the aggressive Nigerian offensive in that country’s northeastern Borno State that began in mid-May, the Republic of Niger is wedged between two presently expanding salafi-jihadi conflicts. Niger with its vast uranium reserves, chronic food insecurity and immense poverty has emerged as the newest locale to suffer salafi martyrdom operations a.k.k.a. suicide bombings. I published a report in late June for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst looking at the extension of kinetic militancy into Niger. While Niger is accustomed-like its neighbor Mali-to intermittent Tuareg rebellions and a minor degree of homegrown Islamism while having had several high profile kidnapping incidents in the last several years, neither Niamey or Bamako was adequately prepared for the ramping up of ideologically-driven insurgencies as compared to the veteran (in relative terms) security apparatuses helmed in Algiers and Abuja.

Screen shot 2013-07-03 at 10.24.02 AMWhile most of the conflict in Mali in 2012 consisted of a series of rebel advances and government retreats followed by a drawn out stalemate period, it seemed certain that once some form of military intervention was inevitably launched, the jihadis would surely begin a more asymmetric campaign that would feature suicide bombings and fidayeen-style raids on the forces of state actors be they indigenous, regional, or Western.

Less than a month after Operation Serval began, Mali experienced its first suicide bombing in Gao Region when on February 8 militants attacked a Malian Army checkpoint on the Gao-Bourem road. The attack was immediately claimed by MUJAO’s spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui. As if the first explosive message was insufficient, it was immediately followed up by a second attack on the same checkpoint the following day.

Then on February 10,MUJAO  jihadis launched a rather reckless raid on Gao’s centre ville. Despite MUJAO’s aggressive asymmetry, most of its operations resulted in tactical failures in terms of what were presumably hoped for mass casualty events. The strategy-at least in terms of branded messaging-was, however, somewhat successful. The two nodes of salafi-jihadism in North and West Africa i.e. Algeria to the north and northern Nigeria to the south, were being bridged with the gradual expansion of militancy in the broader Sahel region.

The Sahel has traditionally served as a natural geographic and cultural buffer zone which is being eroded by rapid advances in mobile technology and social media which have the means to both disseminate radical thought among susceptible populations that are woefully underserved  by feeble central governments as well as connect militant groups with traditionally localized or divergent agendas to one another.  For several years analysts have speculated whether there were or could be links to AQIM in Algeria-Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria.Even the head of AFRICOM stated: “linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome.”

These claims were oft criticized by what were believed to be the very different aims of AQIM and Boko Haram. AQIM which is firmly rooted in the GIA and GSPC of Algeria’s 1990s civil war was an Algerian movement (albeit a quite fissiparous one indicated by the GIA-GSPC split) seeking mostly to create an Islamic state within Algeria’s borders-although undoubtedly some of these salafis were adherents of a borderless ummah ideology. But when the GSPC renamed itself AQIM in 2007, in the form of AQIM as a matter of strategic survival it broadened both its operational geography–which the GSPC had already begun in its final phase–in places like Mali and Niger while making inroads amongst those populations who harbored their own long-held grievances against their respective central governing institutions.

Meanwhile in the Hausa-dominated states of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram–Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da`wa wa al-Jihad for those in the know–maintained as its primary goal the formal introduction of sharia law throughout Nigeria. But when Ansar Eddine, AQIM, and MUJAO gained power in northern Mali in 2012, locals who had fled Gao described to TWD the presence of Hausa speaking, Anglophone militants operating alongside MUJAO in Gao ville and its immediate environs. For Boko Haram to be present in Gao it would likely have had to pass through southwestern Niger, skirting around its capital Niamey. But several Malian intellectuals who spoke candidly with TWD in 2012 stated that they firmly believed Boko Haram already had a presence in southern Niger including with Niamey itself and therefore the movement of Nigerian militants into Mali was not as improbable as some Westerners might assume just by looking from afar at perceived vast distances on a flat map.

As nation-states occupying transition zones connecting the dry Sahara to the more verdant sub-Sahara, Mali and now Niger have manifested clearly as conduits between these what are often thought of as disparate  regions of Africa. When movements like AQIM, MUJAO and Boko Haram graft themselves onto deeply held provincial tribulations beyond their traditional realms, the threat to the respective wobbly regimes squeezed in the middle is heightened more so.  Thus we may see suicide bombing spread even farther to poorly protected targets in N’djamena and Nouakchott, perhaps even Dakar. None of these movements appears to pose a specific threat to the West itself–at least for the time being–but they threaten Western interests and allies which may pull Paris and Washington in only deeper into a widening crisis.

Though the jihadis were forcefully ejected from Mali’s northern and central cities mostly by French air strikes followed by ground columns and Abuja is touting that it has reached a truce of sorts with Boko Haram, the troubles for Niger and Mali, and possibly Mauritania, Chad and other regional states may be far from over.

The Nigérien tricolor wilts in a New York Heat wave. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

With all the grim talk of relgio-political or inter-communal violence and such mentioned above, I thought it would be good to balance out this post with something a bit more relaxed. I attended a fantastic concert on June 21 where Bombino, a mezmerizing Tuareg guitarist from Niger’s uranium rich, politically troubled Agadez Region. Bombino sings in Tamasheq, the language of the Sahara-Sahel area’s indigenous Tuareg people who refer to themselves as the Kel Tamasheq.

I have no clue if there was any intention of this by the concert’s organizers but it was great to hear Saharan Tuareg rock in the same venue as the venerated Amadou and Mariam who sing in Bambara, the predominant language of southern Mali and in the areas surrounding its capital Bamako, but it seemed symbolically poignant if it the result was unintentional. One of the more simplistic perceptions of Mali’s internal war-which has since affected Niger as the salafi-jihadi militants sought safe ground from French air strikes-is that it had an implied north-south dynamic in which impoverished or resentful northern ethno-linguistic groups felt underserved by and underrepresented amongst the southern-dominated political circles in Bamako. Some of the same can be said for Niger where northerners feel Niamey is a far off kleptocracy that undermines their own economic and political interests.

Bombino

Amadou and Mariam

Unending Troubles in the Sahel-Sahara

May 23rd, 2013 No comments
Children who fled the town of Gossi, Mali haul well drinking water back to their parents' tent at a camp for internally displaced people in Sévaré on June 4, 2012. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Children who fled the town of Gossi, Mali haul well drinking water back to their parents’ tent at a camp for internally displaced people in Sévaré on June 4, 2012. The elder men didn’t want me intrusively photographing in or around their tents and asked to me to keep a good distance while shooting a handful of photographs. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out today on the French-led external military intervention in central and northern Mali which began in mid-January. I woke up this morning excited to have a new piece out only to see that there had been a double suicide bombing in neighboring Niger. MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui claims to have carried out simultaneous attacks in the distant towns of Arlit and Agadez.

UPDATE-Today Mokhtar Belmokhtar  released a statement that the attack was a joint operation by MUJAO and his Signatories in Blood katiba (unit) “in the name of [the late] Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid.” He then said that his salafi-jihadis had decided upon a “military withdrawal” in response to the French intervention.

Screen shot 2013-05-23 at 1.20.45 PMThe attack on Nigerien troops and the French uranium mining consortium AREVA does not come remotely as a surprise for several reasons. As I noted in a post on this blog last spring, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou was coming out as particularly vocal among regional heads of state in West Africa–obviously concerned that the instability in northern Mali would likely affect a vulnerable Niger that has already been saddled with its own internal challenges for many years.

Like Mali, Niger has faced its own bouts of Tuareg rebellion-most recently with le Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice-MNJ led by former Qaddafi ally Aghaly ag Alambo. Ag Alambo was arrested in Niamey in March 2012 over a June 2011 Libyan arms explosives episode he was accused of being involved in as Qaddaffi’s regime crumbled in Tripoli and war materiel began flowing in much larger quantities throughout the wider Sahara.

Though certain conspiratorial-minded critics have speculated that France’s intervention in Mali was motivated by crass economic interests in that country (often with scant data on the true value of untapped resources in Mali’s north), in terms of French industry at home, Niger is far more important.

China likely has a larger economic stake in Mali than does France if not in aid than purely large scale in infrastructure projects.Beijing may even put PLA boots on the ground in the name of UN peacekeeping as it presently  has in Sudan’s Darfur region.

France does have genuine interest in Niger’s uranium resources and which local communities of Tuareg, Toubou, Arabs and Fulani feel they should be genuinely benefitting from economically. There is deep resentment among Niger’s ethnic minorities in the country’s north over economic grievances and environmental degradation  related to French doings in their bomeland as well as a startling lack of development in the Agadez Region and its Arlit Department.

And like Mali, Niger has been suffering from a persistent food crisis in recent years but to a much more severe degree than Mali to the west whose whole “Azawad” region has been deemed a humanitarian emergency by a host of NGOs. Not to mention that Nigerien citizens crossed the border into Mali to take part in MUJAO’s foothold in Gao Region. One of the lower tier MUJAO commanders in Gao Ville was reportedly a Nigerien national.

Secondly there were the reported developments of the U.S. setting up a drone facility in Niger that was very much welcome by Issoufou and word that French Special Forces were coming into their spartan former colony to protect the uranium extraction operations that would both make poorly defended targets while stoking jihadi ire. The Arlit AREVA mine is estimated to provide 40% of metropolitan France’s nuclear energy which is 80% of the power consumed in France.

On top of all that Nigerien troops are stationed in Mali as part of the AFISMA intervention force in towns like Ansongo and Menaka. Then there is the fact that French and Chadian troops have pushed the jihadis out of their camps in Kidal Region in the Ametetai and Terz valleys and in the overall Adrar des Ifoghas area (although the Elysée does not want independent observers up there on the ground apparently-and hasn’t allowed an journalist embeds with non-French passport holders as far as I know). So the surviving men of MUJAO and AQIM who were not killed in French airs strikes will have to have gone somewhere, non?

Lastly on this though, AQIM has breached the Nigerien capital of Niamey in the past with a bold kidnapping of two Frenchmen in January 2011 which ended with the hostages being killed rather than ransomed. In the wake of a disastrous rescue attempt by French Special Forces, it seemed as if the kind of trouble we see in that country on this day was well on the horizon.

French troops may have merely been the catalyst for such salafi-jihadi expansion rather than the sole driver of today’s tragedy that killed 26.

A Sotrama (shared minibus) makes its way toward Mopti in central Mali. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A ubiquitous Sotrama (shared minibus) makes its way toward Mopti in central Mali after Mali’s north had been captured by Tuareg separatists and Salafi Islamist fighters. The Mopti area was at the time the front line of government controlled Mali. Civilians were allowed to travel back and forth between the massive partition but as a journalist I could go no further north at the time. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Mali in Chaos

October 25th, 2012 No comments

New York- Although interest in Mali has been partly piqued in the American polity from facile, puppet-like foreign policy comments by Mitt Romney in a recent debate with President Obama, for genuine students and scholars of foreign policy Mali has been of grave concern since late March with the fall of Gao if not mid-January when the MNLA launched an attack on Ménaka. For specialists in the Sahel region bridging north and west Africa, Mali has been of note since time immemorial. I’ve long had a general interest in Malian history and politics inasmuch as I devour everything I can on virtually all of the history and conflicts of present day ‘Afro-Euraisa.’

Boys in Bamako’s Badalabougou district playing football at dusk near the banks of the River Niger with the BCEAO tower looming off in the distance. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

After working in the Libyan war during 2011 in both its east and west theatres of conflict–Cyrenaica and Jebel Nafusa–I had planned to focus some of my efforts in 2012 on the Sahel. I had been contemplating working in Niger this year (before the Mali crisis began in earnest) in part because of hysterical front line Libyan rebels telling me they were fighting against Nigerien, Chadian and other sub-Saharan African ‘mercenaries’ who were allegedly being airlifted in by the Antonov into Sebha in the Libyan Sahara. (See the story of Qaddafi’s Nigerien Tuareg confidant here)

I’d been wanting to go to George W. Bush’s “Africa” i.e. Niger for quite some time to investigate the French-led uranium extraction industry in that country’s Aïr Massif in the sprawling northern Agadez Region and exploring the rebellious political dynamics of the adjacent Ténéré Desert and the Tuareg-dominated Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice (MNJ).

‘Africa is a continent.’ T-shirt detail, Le Grand Marché, Bamako. @2012 Derek Henry Flood

But Niger was not meant to be, at least in terms of my own 2012 reporting priorities, so off to Bamako I went. I realized after I had already gone to some trouble to acquire my Malian visa that the only viable way to visit the short-lived Azawad state would to have actually queued up for a Nigérien or Mauritanian visa instead to visit either rebel-controlled Timbuktu or Gao respectively.

Plan A of interviewing the MNLA or Ansar Eddine was a pipe dream. I would quickly come to learn to my Plan B of hoping to somehow embed with the Malian army would not be doable either (although the BBC with its clout and/or connections managed to do so months later). The door would be then shut in my face upon attempting Plan C which was to visit the no-man’s land between the last government-held area of Mopti Region yet before the rebel or militia held areas of Douentza. Sometimes life is about Plan D I suppose was the take away from all this–accomplish whatever I could in the face of all these obstacles.

Moonrise over a concrete block village mosque built with money from the United Arab Emirates in the Malian Sahel. These rectangular houses of worship built with Wahhabi money from the GCC states were often the only painted structures for miles around, standing out amidst the dull mud brick villages dotting the Malian bush. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Mali is now undoubtedly going to face some form of military intervention to counter the Salafi-jihadi groups occupying its three northern regions and parts of northeast Mopti region. France currently has six hostages being held there beyond its more obvious political and economic interests in Mali. Three additional Western hostages plus the fear of blowback on the European heartland means that the EU views further consolidation of radical Salafi power in northern Mali as a threat to the EU itself.

France knows all too well that nihilistic terror wars in North Africa can reverberate back to the metropole with deadly effect evidenced by the Christmas Eve 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 and the 1995 Paris Metro bombings carried out by al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha-better known by known by its Francophone name, the Groupe Islamique Armé or GIA. The GIA–a precursor to today’s AQIM in Mali–was one of the principal non-state belligerents fighting the Algerian government and security apparatus during the worst of the civil war years in the mid-1990s.

We still don’t have an accurate picture of precisely how this roughly proposed intervention will take place and likely won’t until something is already underway. Whatever the outcome, it will continue to have humanitarian repercussions across the entire region perhaps well beyond the massive refugee and IDP outflow we have already witnessed. It all remains to be seen at this point.

Categories: Africa, Mali Tags: , , , ,

Niger’s President Issoufou-An Accidental Hawk?

June 17th, 2012 No comments


Barcelona- Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has come out as the most hawkish of the ECOWAS leaders on the Azawad issue as of late. To frame things in somewhat simplistic terms, Issoufou perhaps better than any other head of state in West Africa understands the challenges Mali currently faces.

For Niger was in a coup and constitutional crisis loosely from 2009-2011 triggered by the previous president Mahamdou Tandja’s trying to alter the constitution to potentially remain in power for life. To make a very long story short, Issoufou and the democratic opposition eventually prevailed (though it took a coup d’êtat replete with gunfire to do so). The junta that took power in Niger eventually allowed for elections in early 2011 which has so far has not happened in Mali (though the junta there is ‘officially’ no longer in power).

The reason I’m really posting the AJE interview though is the very end of the segment where the interviewer tacks on the subject of Bush’s ludicrous 16 words in which “Africa” was actually Niger and the greatest fraud of the early 21st century was perpetrated on the world stage. Issoufou has rather specific knowledge of the subject due to his having been National Director of [Niger’s] Mines in the early 1980s. Of all of Mali’s neighbors, Niger has the most to lose the longer the Azawad secession festers in northern Mali unabated. Issoufou is using the Azawad/Islamist-AQIM issue as a platform to boost Niger’s profile on the world stage. His recent speech at UK think-tank Chatham House is the first visit of a Nigerien leader to London. Issoufou came to power challenging dictatorial tendencies and militarism in his own country. Circumstances have him now strongly advocating for some form of military intervention to break apart the gestating salafi-jihadi haven on Niger’s northwestern border. Very interesting stuff in my view.

Categories: Africa, Mali Tags: ,

Mali Malaise

June 13th, 2012 No comments

Mali’s deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré, well known for his close ties to Qaddafi, was apparently in bed with another one of the world’s late dictators, Kim Jong-il. I happened upon this in a new area of Bamako at the end of a lengthy Chinese-built bridge. There I found an area out of character with the rest of the city called Army Square with a cluster of monuments that looked more at home in Pyongyang than Mali’s capital. Upon doing just a little digging, sure enough, they were built by a North Korean front company called Baikho S.a.r.l. that was doing projects for ATT right up until the March 22 coup d’etat. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

I have an article out today on CNN.com’s World page from my trip to Sévaré.

Barcelona- Wanted to post some more images from my two weeks in the broken, beautiful Malian republic. I’ve noticed that there seem to be two black-or-white schools of thought on Mali: it is painted as either not nearly as bad as some media reports and politicos have been suggesting or as Mahamedou Issoufou, president of neighboring Niger has recently stated “It [Mali] is not just a threat for the region, but the world.” The ‘West African Afghanistan’ meme has thus been circumambulating the web. There are a couple of problems with the writing and reporting situation on Mali.

One is that the majority of reports about this troubled state are written by those who are either not in the country at present, or as I suspect, certain think-tank types who have never been there in the first place, instead relying on a mix of regional state media sites and rebel statements via their own sites to inform them of what is going on there.

The other issue is that it seemed to me after going to the trouble and expense of actually going to Mali, the CNRDRE junta does not want journos in their midst whatsoever.  My first day in Bamako I went out cautiously with a very small camera to try and feel out the city. I approached what appeared to be a small pro-junta gathering on an open, public street in front of the National Assembly.

Before I could even raise my lens to take a single frame, a pair of plain clothes Sanogo guys promptly escorted me out of the area, telling me that one cannot simply begin shooting photos in Mali of anything remotely political in nature without first seeking permission. Doesn’t sound like the echo of a functioning democracy, does it? According to a good many Bamakois, not only is the north lost, but no one knows when the democratic process will return to Mali.

In sum, Mali is simply a difficult place to both write about and report from.

The FT’s Xan Rice did a nice little article about the weeping Mali billboards dotting Bamako’s roadsides. I featured one of them in my Christian Science Monitor piece which is linked two posts down from this one. Oh and you are interested here and hereare links (en Français)  about the North Korean firm that was (or is?) active in Mali under ATT. Wonder if Sanogo will maintain ties with Kim Jong-un?

In unrelated business I’m cited by UPI in their article “U.S. risks getting dragged into Yemen war” stemming from my Fahd al-Quso piece in Asia Times Online last month.

This is a bronze of General Abdoulaye Soumaré courtesy of Pyongyang. Soumaré was Mali’s first chief of army staff after independence from France in 1960. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Hideous, unfinished LAICO (Libyan Arab Investment Corporation a.k.a. Qaddafi clan) hotel on the northern bank of the Niger River, Bamako. The hotel apparently was being built by a Chinese outfit but the project appeared to be stalled for quite some time. Not surprising considering Qaddafi met his maker outside Sirte last year and ATT is in exile. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

The Statue of the Victory. Not sure what victory it is referring to but it caught my eye because of the Kalashnikov. I never stop being fascinated by the concept of the Kalashnikov-once a symbol of a creeping Red Army-as an icon of Third World liberation. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Everything that you take for granted in the West, even the smallest thing, is a challenge of some sort in Mali. Everyday when walking around the city I found myself leaping over these open sewers while taking the shortest routes from A to B. Here, my taxi driver jumps an especially big one after leaving the cab to relieve himself. The roadsides make convenient commodes. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Trucks heading south after getting through the checkpoint outside Sévaré. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

 

Heat

May 28th, 2012 No comments

A lone fisherman plies the River Niger at dusk with the neo-Sudanic Banque Centrale des États de l'Afrique de l'Ouest (BCEAO) tower looming in the background. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Bamako's central market. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Bamako- Between a Lisbon airport strike, a Tunis one, and other obstacles, I finally reached the Malian capital a few nights ago. It’s hot as blazes here and quite friendly overall. A low lying city of red, dusty sprawl, I decided to take a long walk around the central market and the Saudi-financed grand mosque yesterday to try and get a feel for the street. I was met with overt hostility in the courtyard of the masjid which wasn’t terribly surprising. I think I’d read before leaving that visitors were not particularly welcome in Malian mosques. I figured it might have to do with the legacy of French colonialism But I thought I’d try it anyhow.

“Musulman? Non? Interdit!!” So much for that.

I stumbled back into the street as touts harked their trinkets and treasures at me. I noted a pair of Chinese women casually shopping as if they were in Flushing, Queens. They didn’t seem to be of any interest to local parties in the way that I was. One of the first things I noticed on the way in from the airport was a shiny car dealership called Great Wall Motors.

Mon chien Malien. Time to take a break from the omnipotent sun. Sleep time. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Across the road there was some sort of small pro-junta gathering in front of the national assembly. Within the span of 10 minutes I managed to stir up a bit more ire. A couple of plainclothes men approached me with what I supposed were stern gazes behind their wrap around sunglasses. They instructed me to carry proper journo identification at all times if I’m to delve into the local political scene. With that, I toured the serpentine back lanes of the market to try and arouse slightly less suspicion. I ended the day cooling  my heels in the shade on the earthen banks of the Niger and walking over Martyr’s bridge back to the guesthouse in Badalabougou.

Meanwhile the supposedly secular MNLA rebels appear to have let their agenda become subordinate to Ansar Eddine’s according to an AFP report. If indeed the case, then that about does it for my idea of meeting the MNLA I suppose… In other news I was quoted on cnn.com while en route to Bamako in their report “Impoverished, fractured Mali struggles to return to civilian rule.”

Studying a parched koran in front of the grand mosque in Bamako. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

"Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip! No time to argue!" Traditional Malian wood carving in the garden outside my room. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A Qaddafi sticker in Bamako, Mali. Want to look into 'The Guide's' legacy here. Note the psychedelic Kalashnikov motif. Nice touch. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

The Cathedral of Bamako. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A visage of Thomas Sankara, "Africa's Che." Sankara was a radical anti-imperialist and Burkinabe nationalist who was responsible for changing the name of the country from the colonial Upper Volta to the indigenous Burkino Faso. He was subsequently killed in a 1987 coup after particular interests saw him as a direct threat to their inherited power. It seems Che Guevara himself is still a popular figure here. His decals adorned about 1/4 of the city's minibuses yesterday. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood