Monday, August 27, 2012

Ansar Dine: The Taliban of Northern Mali

It reads like a description of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the 1990s: music banned, temples and monuments destroyed, women beaten in the street for failing to wear hijab, people stoned to death for having extramarital sexual relations. Yet this is not Kabul; this is Timbuktu, an ancient cultural center located in Northern Mali (Azawad) nearly 5,000 miles away. Despite the distance, in Azawad Aghan history is repeating itself, and it is unlikely that external intervention by the United States will put an end to the brutal extremist regime that has taken up residence in the cities and towns of the north.

Areas held by rebels. Source: Orionist.

Mali has been caught in a state of chaos since a Tuareg rebellion began in the north in January following the fall of the Qaddafi regime in nearby Libya. As fighters, weapons, and money poured over the border, what began as an ethnic nationalist movement was hijacked by extremists groups like the Salafist Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In March, the government in the southern capital Bamako was overthrown in a military coup, further destabilizing the country. Today, Islamist groups have declared the northern state of Azawad to be independent and have turned on their former allies the Tuareg and the MNLA.

The consequences for the local people have been tremendous and heartbreaking. Aid has virtually ceased to flow to the north following a looting of a UN World Food Programme warehouse containing over 2,000 tons of food. A worsening drought has left residents without food or fresh water and without any resources to obtain them. Rebels have taken to stealing from the people they claim to govern and protect and families must hand over scarce food stores or face harsh reprisals. As a result of the violence, extremism, and hunger, more than 200,000 people have fled the north thus far, a number that will likely only climb higher.

For those that cannot leave for whatever reason, they now live in a region known as the Tora Bora desert. The similarities of Ansar Dine and AQIM to the Taliban and the Afghan Al-Qaeda are difficult to not seize upon. Religious extremism is now the rule, not the exception. This clashes with the Islam practiced by most Malians: Sufi Islam is a sect based on mysticism, introspection, and respect for peace. Sufis also regularly visit shrines and other holy sites condemned by Salafists as blasphemous and heterodox. In a move that recalls the destruction of Afghanistan’s famous statues of the Buddha, the rebels are systematically destroying Timbuktu and other cities’ ancient and culturally irreplaceable monuments, temples, shrines, and even mosques. The UN estimates that at least half of the World Heritage sites in northern Mali have now been eradicated, driven back into the desert sands from whence they came.

Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu. Photo by Senani P.

The cultural cost to the country is insurmountable and has been mourned by people worldwide who understand the historical importance of a site like Timbuktu that was once the “Oxford of West Africa.” Neighboring states have also expressed their concern that the extremist views of the rebels could spill over into their countries and as a result have been supporting the government in the south. Although sanctions were imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) after the military coup in March, since then the attitude of Ecowas has been more conciliatory as the priority shifts to quelling the northern rebellion. To strongly encourage the southern interim government to form a permanent administration, Ecowas threatened Mali with expulsion in July. The move appears to have worked, with a national unity government formed in August. Ecowas has also approved 3,300 soldiers to be sent to Mali to aid with the battle in the north, an offer that has not received approval from the U.N. or the southern government in Bamako.

Western nations have been mixed in their responses. The civil war in Syria has absorbed the world’s attention for now, but some nations have been pitching in to help the southern government. France and the U.K. have been building runways in Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso to facilitate aerial strikes and military intervention if the time comes for that. The U.S. has refused to recognize the rebel government in the north; however, they also cut off all aid to Mali following the military coup in the south. A mysterious car crash in northern Mali in April in which three U.S. Army commandos were found dead has also suggested that Special Operations forces have been operating the country covertly.

The next step will have huge implications for the northerners currently living under the thumb of Ansar Dine and AQIM. Whatever form the next battle takes – be it an indigenous strike launched by Bamako, a regional force sent by Ecowas, or a full military intervention by global powers – it is almost certain to be drawn out and bloody due to the large stockpiles of arms controlled by the rebels. Yet the violence may be a price northerners are willing to pay; Timbuktu mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse called for intervention before it is too late, because “We cannot cook omelettes without breaking eggs.” If the “omelette” is the democratic future of the region, it may be worth breaking a few extremist eggs to achieve it.

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