As the so-called “war on terror” grinds into its 12th year, it’s the duty of every intelligent person to occasionally take a step back and remind ourselves that the “terrorist threat” today is vastly bigger than it was on September 11 2001. The Neocon “war on terror” turned a small group of fanatics into a global threat, firstly, in the minds of a gullible public, and then (via the Iraq War, kidnap, illegal imprisonment, torture and drone strikes) in reality.
Now, we’re told (by salivating warmongers), that a “new front” has opened in the Sahara. Mali has collapsed into civil war. The average war-loving moron hasn’t heard of Mali, let alone could find it on a map; they tell us that this is about the expansion of militant Islamism. Yet, they don’t seem to understand that Mali has seen Tuareg rebellions before, in the early 90s, and in the 60s.
I visited Mali four years ago, to attend a music festival, and see/photograph some of the country. It is perhaps the most dreamily beautiful place I’ve visited, and I’ve wanted to go back ever since. The map is key to understanding what is happening there. Like most African countries, its borders are a colonial creation. Most of the population is black, and lives in the bottom-left part of the map. The largest part of the country, in the top-right, is in the Sahara desert. The Sahara is sparsely populated by nomads from the Tuareg and others tribes. Most desert-dwellers are of “white” North African origin.
When the European powers carved Africa into nations, they ensured that in states like Mali, the Tuaregs would become a small racial minority, governed by very different people and cultures located hundreds of kilometers away. To the Malian government in the South-West, the Sahara is only of interest for its mineral wealth. To the Malian Tuaregs, they are people of the Sahara, with kin spread across Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. The outcome is obvious: who can be surprised that the Tuaregs, seeing little in common with Mali, have repeatedly tried to gain independence?
When I was in the country, it was largely peaceful, although tourists had occasionally been kidnapped, usually for financial gain. In the unofficial Tuareg capital, Timbuktu, I visited a peace monument made of destroyed guns from the 90s uprising, set into concrete. It was clear to me, even as an outsider, that Tuaregs and other Malians weren’t always on the best of terms – centuries of history between the groups, including slave-taking, have left them still uneasy with each other. Yet these problems are in the distant past – Tuaregs have become increasingly assimilated into urban Malian society. But as we know by looking at other societies with old racial divides (USA, anyone?) a calm surface can hide division and bitterness.
During my trip, I made friends with a Tuareg man, who I’ll call M, a middle-class university graduate. We kept in touch since then, mostly exchanging small-talk about London, Bamako and Timbuktu. Then early last year, Mali’s peace collapsed. A coup in Bamako, the capital, triggered the current problems, and as had happened before, some Tuaregs used the chaos to restart their war of independence. The Malian nationalists united with Islamists. The response was vicious – Tuaregs were attacked from the air. From the very start of the current problems, the Malian army made little distinction between any Tuareg, whether civilian, nationalist rebel or Islamist. Murder and rape of Tuaregs became widespread, and my friend M fled into a neighbouring country, where he slept rough and looked for work, then eventually managed to reach Europe – where he now faces a new set of challenges, new forms of racism.
The rebels quickly stalled Mali’s army. Islamists seized control of the North and East; tragically, in Timbuktu, once a Western outpost of the Arabic Empire, many ancient treasures were damaged or destroyed by Islamist hard-liners (West Africa’s version of Islam differs from the Arab version, and fundamentalists reject the African modifications).
Mali’s troubles give weight to “war on terror” propagandists who claim Islamism is a global “threat” to the West – without pointing out that the rise in hardline Islamist groups such as those fighting in Mali can be linked to the “war on terror” itself; their roots are in the US war in Afghanistan/Pakistan in the 80s, in the Iraq War, in missile strikes on Yemen and Somalia, in the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya.
I didn’t support the attacks on the oil states Libya or Iraq – these were both functioning, if repressive, states. Mali is a different issue – the state was weak, even in peacetime. The case for intervention is stronger – to restore rule to Bamako and to free northern and eastern Malian towns from the control of Islamist hardliners.
The Malian army, too weak to react, had been stalled, but with French support in recent weeks, has quickly regained the initiative. However, sections of the Malian army have used their new advantage to declare war on the Tuareg civilian population – the French and their European/American supporters appear to be turning a blind eye. Under the mythical “war on terror” banner, an apparent genocide is being perpetrated. Unless the French now use their presence to prevent it, the support for extreme Islamist groups, far from shrinking back, can only grow. Very few modern military interventions achieve their objective – let’s hope this French action doesn’t end up the way of Iraq or Libya.
The following is a brief Facebook conversation I had with M yesterday
M: In Mali very bad
MW: Do you think the French army will help?
Will the French make it better or worse?
M: So many touareg has been killed by malian army in the last days
Now France are making tuareg situation worse
Now malian army are just killing tuareg people
We don’t understand why france don’t say for malian army to stop killing civilans
MW: Do you have contact with people in Mali?
M: Yes in Timbuktu erea
my small brother