What does extremism in Mali tell us about the success of interventions?

Development Policy,Sahel Watch10 Dec 2015Karlijn Muiderman

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The Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, was recently the target of an attack and hostage taking. The incident seems to signal the disappearance of what the media had dubbed the last ‘safe haven for foreigners’ in the country. How can we interpret this event in relation to the conflict in Mali? And what does the persistence of extremism in Mali tell us about the success of the military interventions?

Extremism versus separatism

Since the attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel, a favourite haunt of both Malians and westerners, some details have come to light. Al-Mourabitoun and AQIM, the North African branch of Al-Qaeda, have both claimed responsibility. IS has also been linked to the attack. Such linkage is not unusual as many groups in the region, mainly in Libya and Nigeria, have claimed solidarity with IS when they have needed the leverage. However, this was clearly the act of Al-Qaeda and should, therefore, not be seen as part of the IS ‘takeover’ of the Sahel.

Last May, another attack was carried out by Al-Mourabitoun on a restaurant in Bamako. At the time, some claimed that this was an isolated incident, however, the latest attack shows that such extremism continues to be a persistent force. With the Radisson Blu attack, it is clear that extremism is keeping a foothold in the south of Mali.

Mali has been unsettled since 2012, but the war that broke out in northern Mali was initially started by groups wanting an independent state (the so-called Azawad territory). In the chaos created by the civil war, extremist groups sensed an opportunity to promote their ideology. After initially working with independence fighters, they later dismissed their former partners. Hence, it is important to distinguish between the national struggle by independence fighters against the government and the violence perpetrated by extremist groups that we are now seeing in Bamako.

Challenges in combatting extremism

At the invitation of the Malian government, French troops came to dislodge the extremists. The former colonist still maintains a strong military presence in West Africa. The French intervention was viewed as a success and was followed by the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA. The UN also took part in the peace talks, which resulted in a peace deal in Algiers in June 2015, also hailed as a success.

Despite all of this, there is plenty of reason for concern, as shown by this attack. First of all, many Malians do not understand the UN’s involvement. While, on the one hand, the UN plays a mediating role between all parties, on the other hand it has supported and strengthened the government. As a result, people feel that the UN is biased and there to profit. Moreover, much of the population is disappointed with the government because of its failure to improve living conditions. At the same time, they do not support the independence fighters, who were traditionally their slave masters. Caught in the middle, they do not feel represented and are, therefore, very receptive to the relative certainty that the extremists promise to deliver.

Second, the extremists form part of a transnational network that stretches right across the Sahel region and beyond. Situated south of the Sahara, the Sahel is a desert region where borders are porous. Few border checks exist in the area and the state is hardly present. As a result, groups can easily cross national borders and enter neighbouring countries to which their extremist networks stretch. This is why extremism is also a big problem in these bordering countries, as we saw with the 2013 attack at the gas facility in In Amenas, Algeria and the chronic unrest in Libya, which is now a breeding ground for extremist groups. Such a transnational problem is difficult to tackle with just a national mission, such as MINUSMA. This is why the French are now part of a regional mission called Operation Barkhane, but they are still encountering plenty of problems in tackling the root causes of extremism.

Regional and local strategies

The attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel shows that extremist groups remain strong and that transnational extremist networks are difficult to eliminate. To understand the role of these groups in society and to remove the grey zones in which these groups operate and regroup, new approaches are needed with both regional and local components to supplement the current national strategies. To be truly successful, the UN peacekeeping mission must not fall into the so-called ‘territorial trap’. Problems do not manifest themselves neatly within national borders, nor do their solutions. Instead of focusing on countries as defined entities, we have to recognize that problems and, hence solutions, present themselves on a cross-national, cross-border playing field. Furthermore, achieving peace must start by more effectively involving the local population. After all, local people understand and are part of the local, formal power structure. The need for the UN to communicate better with the local population and with the various countries taking part in the mission is constantly acknowledged. Without their involvement, initiatives for peace and stability will lack the stable foundations they so badly require.