The Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) hosted a pair of expert panels February 6, 2013, that examined the actors and drivers of instability in northern Mali and the requirements for stabilizing this territory beyond the near-term military intervention. The roundtable, attended by more than 200 people in Washington, D.C., sought to highlight the complexity of the stabilization challenge in northern Mali.
“Beyond the Islamic militant groups, there are challenges of narcotics trafficking, the influence of criminal organizations, endemic corruption that has stymied development efforts, lack of trust of government, land disputes, longstanding perceptions of marginalization, and ethnic tensions,” said Dr. Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Africa Center.
“Permeating all of these challenges is a recognition that Malian government institutions had grown increasingly hollow, in large part due to corruption and cooption by the narcotics networks,” said Dr. Siegle, who organized the nearly four-hour event and moderated one of the two panels. “The weakness of the Malian military in fighting the militant threat, accordingly, is more of a symptom than a cause of the instability in the region.”
The event took place at facilities of the National Defense University and was attended by international diplomatic, military, and academic officials, as well as by representatives of nongovernmental organizations.
The first panel, “Clarifying the Forces of Instability in Mali,” examined the groups and events that led to deteriorating security and international intervention in northern Mali. Dr. Djallil Lounnas, Professor of Insurgency and Transnational Radicalism at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, provided an account of the armed actors in Mali as well as their agendas and motives. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the most well-known militant Islamist group active in the Sahel, was created in Algeria in the late 1990s by militant jihadists who broke away from the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA), which sought to overthrow the government of Algeria. Initially, he said, the goal of this group was to unite all of the militant jjihadist groups in the region, to transform Algerian into an Islamic state, and to attack the West.
AQIM began to operate in the Sahel in 2003, devoting a significant amount of resources to engaging directly with Muslim communities in the Sahel and adapting to local practices. Members of AQIM purchased food from local markets at inflated prices, extended loans and financial support to locals, and even married women from local communities in order to forge alliances. In spite of these efforts, Dr. Lounnas said that AQIM has failed to garner significant support from local populations and has failed to unify militant Islamist movements in the region under its umbrella.
Since deploying to the Sahel a decade ago, AQIM’s relationship with jihadist organizations in the region has been characterized by factionalism and rivalries amongst the leaders of many such groups, Dr. Lounnas said. Numerous groups of militant jihadists, he said, have even split away from AQIM to form new terror cells. These groups include Ansar al Dine, an Islamist group that seeks to strictly impose Shari’a law in Mali; the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MAJOA), an armed Islamist group with the goal of spreading Jihad across the West African region; and the “Masked Brigade,” the militant group led by former AQIM commander Moktar Belmoktar that undertook the January 2013 assault on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.
Rida Lyammouri, Northern Mali Analyst at Navanti Group, warned that the increased presence of transnational organized criminal groups in the region is empowering militant Islamist groups. While subject matter experts and intelligence agencies initially stressed that ransoms collected following abduction of Westerners were the main sources of financing for militant Islamist groups, Mr. Lyammouri stressed that militants are increasingly looking to illicit trafficking as a major source of income.
According to Mr. Lyammouri, illicit narcotics traffickers have thrived in West Africa in recent years because of widespread poverty and the region’s geographic location as a transit hub between South America and Europe, as well as pervasive corruption and governance failure. Northern Mali, he said, is no exception—and transnational organized crime is intimately linked to Mali’s crisis. “Drug money has played a major role in destabilizing northern Mali,” said Mr. Lyammouri. “If the Sahel and northern Mali continues to be a transit point between South America and Europe, instability will continue to grow, conflicts will happen one after the other [and] allegiances between militants and illicit traffickers will continue to flourish.”
Kidnappings for ransom, he said, will likely decrease as a result of the declining presence of foreign nationals in the region. Militants, however, will look for alternatives, including increased engagement in the illicit trafficking and the illegal trade in narcotics.
Drawing on past experience in Mali and from stabilization experiences elsewhere in Africa and around the world, experts on the second panel discussed the priorities for stabilizing Mali moving forward.
Colonel Patrick de Vathaire, Senior French Representative at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies stressed the importance of developing the capacity of Malian government and security sector institutions to address the challenges within its borders. “The most important thing, in the military field, is not the ongoing French operation but how it will be coordinated with [the European Union] EU training mission and ECOWAS mission,” said Colonel de Vathaire. “That is, how to build the capacity of the Malian security sector so that it can provide long-term stability in the north.”
He said that French officials understand that the military intervention is merely the first step in a much larger effort to restore stability in Mali. “I think French officials understand that the first step on the path of recovery is done,” he said, “but now all parts of Malian society should share the burden and implement Malian solution to solve Malian issues.”
Johanna Mendelson Forman, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), stressed the role that the marginalization of Malians living outside of Bamako has played in the ongoing crisis. “This conflict is a rural conflict. This is symptomatic of what happens when countries with poor rural areas that are left off the development map,” she said. “Jihadists are going to continue emerging in the space that is available as long as there is a lack of governance and a lack of opportunities in those areas.”
According to Ms. Mendelson Forman, the French military intervention may have been necessary in this situation, but it will be insufficient in addressing the underlying grievances that made Mali fertile ground for instability in the first place. “These situations do not lend themselves to military solutions in the long run,” said Ms. Mendelson Forman. “Assistance at the local level—microcredit, health care, energy security—are going to be essential.”
Ms. Mendelson Forman also insisted that women need to play a greater role in the resolution of the crisis in Mali. “We know…that it’s not about women as the ends but as the means towards peaceful resolution of these conflicts,” she said, insisting that plans should be developed to better integrate women into the political process as well as the police and military.
Sharon Bean, Development Advisor to the USAID’s Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Program, posited that instability and insecurity in Mali ultimately result from governance failure in Bamako. “Ungoverned spaces have proven to be sanctuaries for terrorists,” she said. “Governance fills the void, and good governance provides citizens with the goods, services, and infrastructure needed to lead productive lives. The lack of state authorities is a major driver of underdevelopment and insecurity.”
She insisted that any long-term response to instability in northern Mali must focus heavily on improving governance and effectively communicating with and consulting stakeholders in the region. However, she said that the Malian government has, in fact, developed plans to improve stability, governance, and development in the North in the past—but these plans have often been developed in Bamako without any meaningful discussion with citizens living in the North. Furthermore, Ms. Bean said that the government has gained a reputation for failing to deliver on promises. She suggested that the government should revisit these plans but should engage in long-term consultation with stakeholders in the North before implementing any stabilization and development program. Consultation with northerners and, perhaps more importantly, ensuring that promises made to northerners are realistic will help overcome skepticism of solutions developed in Bamako.
“To stabilize the north, information circulation and consultation are essential,” she said. “Taking control of the message is part of what the government needs to do to ensure stability.” She noted that northern Mali is home to more than 50 community radio stations, which are the primary means by which people receive their information on current events. Therefore, she insisted that policymakers should incorporate radio programming into their strategy. Not only is community radio a highly effective means of communication amongst dispersed and largely illiterate populations like that of northern Mali, it has also proven to be an effective means of promoting multiple viewpoints, empowering marginalized segments of the population, and providing alternatives to extremists’ narratives.
“Radio has proven to be extremely effective in conflict and post-conflict settings,” she said. “Community radio has the potential to make linkages within and across communities and the potential to weave communities into national dialogue and give youth a voice in the debate.”
Ultimately, experts agreed that military intervention cannot be a substitution for the development of institutional capacity and broader structural change in Mali. “The issue is not just one of improved train-and-equip initiatives to support an under-resourced military,” said Dr. Siegle. “Instead, larger issues of establishing a professional military culture and an integrated Malian force that can maintain a presence and provide security in the north are needed. In short, the focus needs to be more institutional than tactical.”