Leading from Even Farther Behind in Mali

By EWI BLOG | by Rachel Ehrenfeld, Ken Jensen
Wednesday, March 6th, 2013 @ 5:00PM

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The U.S. continues to pretend that al Qaeda is no longer an existential threat to Americans, that our “leading from behind policy” on terrorism and its state- and nonstate sponsors needs to be “leading from even farther behind,” and that, by all means, we should never be seen as an effective enemy of terrorist groups larger than those that can be taken care of by a single drone.


The U.S. policy regarding al Qaeda in Africa and, especially, in Mali, is nothing short of tragi-comic.  We learned just the other day that U.S. drones are now helping target militants in northern Mali. Also, the Obama administration has agreed to provide tankers to refuel French warplanes taking out rebels. This is described as “sharply expanding the level of U.S. involvement in the [French] campaign.”
Reporting on these developments, the Western media says this came after a “lengthy” and “agonizing” debate inside the Obama administration on what to do next regarding Mali.


This tragic “arrangement represents a test of President Barack Obama’s new strategy for dealing with the growing terrorist threat in Africa. Instead of sending American ground troops and armed drones to take direct action, the U.S. where possible will try to provide logistical, technical and intelligence support to enable local and regional partners to pull the trigger, officials say.”
Leading from behind again? Of course, but even farther behind than, say, in Libya. Active upfront involvement against al Qaeda in Africa? Not on your life.

In his State of the Union Address last month, Obama talked about “remnants of al Qaeda” and “al Qaeda affiliates.”According to Obama, decimated al Qaeda is “a shadow of its former self,” and “on the run.” Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other Americans who died in Benghazi would have probably challenged this view. Latest reports on acongratulatory phone call to al Qaeda’s leader in Mali shortly after they were tragically deserted by the administration and left to be killed proves the president wrong.

The comic part of the administration’s Mali debate is how the U.S. intelligence agencies and administration lawyers argued for weeks whether providing actionable intelligence to facilitate French airstrikes would make the U.S. a “cobelligerent” and would lead to al-Qaeda attacks on American interests in the region. Clearly the parties to the debate still don’t realize that what’s going on in Africa, to wit, a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. Finally, the administration finagled the meaning of “cobelligerent,” deciding we weren’t cobelligerents because the U.S. was merely “supporting the French rather than joining the campaign.” As incredible as it may appear, the administration seems worried that al Qaeda might consider the U.S. as an enemy!

It seems that while approving drone assistance to the French, the administration concluded that al Qaeda will not care much about the U.S. deal with Niger to fly the drones from its soil. Collecting his courage, the leader from behind, Obama, in a large gesture, recently approved sending an additional 40 U.S. troops to Niger, bringing the total there to “approximately” 100.

Back to the tragic reality, the following typifies the Malian reaction to U.S. policy toward the country to date:

“‘Well,’ Mr. Boubacar [a Gao utility worker] says finally, ‘I have to tell you, we weren’t even expecting the French to come. We were expecting the Americans. America–you were here, in Mali, training soldiers! You’re supposed to be this big powerful friend of Mali–and then you just left. No one here understood that at all.’

“I [WSJ reporter Anne Jolis] recite Washington’s reason for ending the training mission in Mali after the coup last March: U.S. law prohibits direct assistance to junta governments. This explanation doesn’t impress Gao’s locals, who seem more concerned with electricity and security than if or when their country holds an election to satisfy Washington.”

Meanwhile, the war goes on and not well for the French, with al Qaeda vanishing into the desert and Adrar Tighargharmountains of northern Mali but still conducting hit and run raids on Gao and other “liberated” places.
Forces from Chad have joined the French in fighting. Inasmuch as Chad had its own Islamist “incursion” experience in the Reagan years (1983) and got real U.S. help, it’s no surprise that training from U.S. Special Ops forces has made its troops willing and useful. Maybe not as useful as they’d like us to think they are, however: no one has been able to verify their recent claims to have killed both Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the commander of al Qaeda in AQIM’s Mali wing, and leader of the Algerian kidnapping at In Amena, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.


It’s no wonder that Mr. Boubacar would like the French to stay forever. That’s what fighting al Qaeda in the hugeness of the desert may take. There are reports that, apart from their air assets, the French are outgunned by the rebels.
The French have announced that their troops will stay in Mali until at least July, when they hope Mali can hold elections. They also have said that they may be withdrawing some of their troops in March, but this seems to be contingent upon their replacement by “African troops” (which ones unspecified). As for the elections, it would seem that the French are hoping that the creation of a legitimate government in Bamako would allow someone else from the international community to pick up the ball (e.g., the U.S.). At the same time, the French are not entirely sure about their commitment to the Mali project.  Some anonymous officials say that France is in Mali “to the bitter end.”  While others, equally anonymous, say they can’t see France in Mali for more than six months.

As if U.S. policy and conditions on the ground weren’t enough, there is also the problem of meddlers on the side of the rebel forces. The most accusations are directed at Qatar. The first accusations came in June 2012 in the French weekly Canard Enchaine, which quoted a French military intelligence source as saying that the Tuaregs, Ansar Dine and MUJAO had all received cash from Doha. A month later, the mayor of Gao said “The French government knows perfectly well who is supporting these terrorists. Qatar, for example, continues to send so-called aid and food every day to the airports of Gao and Timbuktu.”

The accusations have continued since the beginning of the French incursion in Mali. Qatar continues to deny them. But Qatar, since the 1980s, has established a network of institutions in Mali: madrassas, schools and charities.  As themayor of Gao has said:

“‘Mali has huge oil and gas potential and it needs help developing its infrastructure. Qatar is well placed to help, and could also, on the back of good relations with an Islamist-ruled north Mali, exploit rich gold and uranium deposits in the country.'”


The French didn’t imagine that the Emir of Qatar, to whom they awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour would twice (in 1980, and again in 1998) fund his jihadist brethren. Perhaps they should consider reclaiming the medal to regain some “honour.”
Apart from the analysis of the usual experts on Qatar’s presence in Mali is the argument that supporting jihadists is part of Qatar’s strategy to keep them from making the emirate itself a target, as well as to gain more influence among Sunni radicals. This is suggested by their funding of Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.


And, of course, pursuing economic interests is part of Qatar’s modus operandi. Wherever there’s a soft target, Qatar has become proficient at getting there early, and not only in North and West Africa. It recently bought the failing Current TV from Al Gore to give another outlet in the U.S. to al Jazeera, the mouthpiece of the likes of Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf Qaradawi. The good businessman he is, the Emir recently snapped up six Greek islands “for a bargain basement price” of €8.5m.


Qatar has the means to play both ends against the middle until it sees who might win out in Mali’s conflict. Evidence of this comes from what Qatar Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani had to say about the presence of its Red Crescent charity in northern Mali: “We are totally impartial, with no leanings whatsoever. Our intention is to interact with everyone concerned and help restore peace and normalcy in Mali.”


Foreign economic and political interests are important to consider when looking at Mali.  The Independent, in an otherwise tendentious article pitting French against Chinese “colonial” interests in Mali, has rightly pointed out that China has made a substantial investment in Mali over the years.


In 2011, China presented Mali with hundreds of millions, partially as a gift, to “help improve Malian living standards.” Like Qatar, China obviously wants a return on this sort of investment and may well be playing both ends against the middle, too.

Iran has gotten into the act as well.  From the beginning of the French incursion, Tehran has made all sorts of noises about it’s willingness to be help between the parties to the conflict and repeats its offer of humanitarian aid. Given the reports on the ubiquity of Iranian ammunition in the Mahgreb and Sahel, which has made its way from East Africa and the Sudan to as far west and south as the Ivory Coast, it’s role as an al-Qaeda munitions supplier has to be strongly suspected.


But the U.S. is worried not about what the Qataris, the Chinese, and the Iranians are doing there, but about someone’s thinking it’s a cobelligerent in Mali.




1. On Terror’s New Front Line, Mistrust Blunts U.S. Strategy

2. First came the jihadist leader seeking treatment. Then came the guards with thieves whose hands needed cutting off.


3. Smuggled Out: Most Timbuktu Manuscripts Saved from Attacks


4. WSJ: Algeria Attackers Came From Across Africa’s North


5. FT: Islamists threaten to kill French family  


6. FOX NEWS: Covert auctions in Egypt put arms that freed Libya into hands of terrorists  


7. DOHA NEWS: Guest post: Here’s what Qatar is doing in Mali – and why   

8. Joseph Siegle: Overcoming Africa’s Democratic Setbacks


9. DER SPIEGEL ONLINE: ‘Lion of the Desert’: Ex-Partner of Germany Leads Malian Islamists  
10. RIA Novosti: Hollande Thanks Moscow for Mali, Afghanistan Support

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