Fighting in Mali Adds Chaos to Troubled African Region

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Horand Knaup, May 11, 2012. (Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein). See also the Photo-Gallery.

The military coup and ensuing fighting in Mali has resulted in the deterioration of an already bad situation in Africa’s Sahel region. Islamist extremists have gained the upper hand in northern Mali and now control Timbuktu. Al-Qaida and other militant groups now have free reign across vast swaths of Africa … //

… Ungovernable:  

That same fear drove the Malian soldiers who carried out the March 21 coup against the country’s president of many years, Amadou Touré. The soldiers, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, rebelled in the hope of improving their desperate situation in the fight against the Tuareg, accusing President Touré of “incompetence in the fight against Islamic terror.”

Thus far, however, coup leaders have achieved precisely the opposite of what they had hoped. Just days after Touré was ousted, Tuareg and Ansar Dine fighters rolled into Gao and Timbuktu, black Islamist flags flying from their all-terrain vehicles, and now control those cities completely. Overnight, the withdrawal of government authority in Mali has rendered ungovernable an area four times the size of France, spread across the Sahara Desert and the Sahel zone. Islamist groups now move nearly unchallenged across a territory that stretches from Tindouf in western Algeria to the border between Libya and Chad in the east, and into the northern part of Nigeria to the south.

These groups move weapons and drugs, take hostages and plan attacks. In February 2011, they attempted to bomb Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz out of their way with over a ton of explosives. They kidnapped two Canadians in Niger and also tried to abduct a German diplomat in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

At the moment, it’s impossible to say how the new state of Azawad plans to assert itself, or who exactly will rule there: the al-Qaida supporters, who immediately declared Sharia law to be the legal basis for the state of Azawad? Or the secular Tuareg, who have gathered under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)? And what of the splinter group known as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which specializes in kidnappings and is currently holding at least 10 hostages?

The chaos in the northern part of the country, the rebels’ advance, the ousting of President Touré — none of this came as a great surprise to Western diplomats and intelligence services. US embassy documents released by Wikileaks in the fall of 2010 revealed just what a hopeless battle Mali’s army was fighting within its own country.

Two Pick-Ups and a Minivan: … //

… Impossible to Pinpoint:

Kidnapping is the other lucrative trade plied by al-Qaida terrorists and extremists in the region. Currently, a dozen Western hostages and 7 Algerian hostages are being held. These gangs are believed to have taken in over €100 million in ransom so far, and MUJAO kidnappers are now demanding €30 million for the return of one Spanish and one Italian hostage. The kidnappers are familiar with the territory and highly mobile, capable of moving their hostages 1,000 or 2,000 kilometers at a time, at night if necessary. They get their bearings from rocks and dunes, keeping their satellite phones switched off and making it impossible to pinpoint the location of such convoys.

A German civil engineer is also presumed held by al-Qaida, after being abducted from Kano, Nigeria, in late January. Not until late March did his family receive proof that he was alive – a video in which the exhausted prisoner begged the German government to save his life. Most of these hostages are believed to be held in the area around Taoudenni, located in Mali’s far north near the borders with Mauritania and Algeria. There are few water sources in this rocky desert region, and temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade.

ECOWAS leaders now want to send troops into this Tuareg region, but it would be a suicide mission, with the opponents holding too great an advantage. They know the desert better than almost anyone, and likely possess better weaponry as well. Gregory Mann, the West African history professor, is skeptical about whether it will be possible to save the region. “It will be a long road back — for the North, for all of Mali, but also for the idea of representative and inclusive government,” he says. (full text).

Link: Afrika, ein hoffnungsloser Kontinent? November 1, 2006.

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