Extremism and political instability in North and West Africa

 Written evidence from Dr Benjamin Zala and Anna Alissa Hitzemann, Oxford Research Group

1.0 Introduction

1.1 Oxford Research Group (ORG) welcomes the Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry into the UK’s response to extremism and political instability in North and West Africa. Due to the current crisis in Mali, UK foreign policy is increasing focus on the whole North and West African region and this is an important time to think through the UK’s response to political violence and instability in light of the experience in other parts of the world over the last decade or more.

1.2 Much of ORG’s work focuses on conflict analysis (including in North and West Africa) and analysis of Western policy responses. Given the importance of recent events in Mali and what this signals for the UK’s response to the region more widely, this submission will focus on both the underlying drivers of the current crisis in Mali and the response of the UK and its allies. We argue strongly that a military-dominated approach that does not tackle the root causes of instability and conflict, will at best be unsuccessful, and at worse counterproductive.

1.3 The Western-led military intervention in Mali is only one of many in a growing list of attempts to control outbreaks of political violence and religious extremism with military means. From the UK’s involvement in interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq to the wider US-led attempts to control Islamist-inspired political violence in Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia, the resort to military force has singularly failed to achieve the aims set for it. Common to all of these examples is the reluctance to match military operations with serious, long-term efforts to address the factors that trigger the feelings of resentment and marginalisation that drive such conflicts.

1.4 Fighting continues in Mali and suicide attacks are on the rise. France and Chad have started to withdraw their troops, the UN Security Council decided to send in a peacekeeping force and British troops are now on the ground as part of an EU military training mission.

1.5 News commentary on the early military successes of France, and its other Western and African allies, has turned to reports of the suicide attacks in the country’s north, the deadly attack on the Algerian gas plant In Amenas, the kidnapping of French tourists in Cameroon and the recent bombing of the French embassy in Tripoli, as well as on-going concerns about the threat of a terrorist attack in Paris.

1.6 The majority of commentary and debate about recent events in Mali have focused on the military dimension. However, the continued insecurity in spite of the military intervention highlights the need to go further and examine the political, socio-economic and cultural divisions that have sparked the instability.

2.0 Background to the Northern Uprising

2.1 The factors that led to the current Malian crisis are complex but can broadly be attributed to the continued failure to resolve tensions with the Tuareg population in the north coupled with the unintended consequences of the global ‘war on terror’ and the Western intervention against Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.

2.2 It is clear that the 2011 crisis in Libya, followed by NATO’s military involvement, and the consequent fall of Gaddafi’s regime, had a crucial role to play. After losing the war in Libya, hundreds of Malian mercenaries, many of whom had been recruited from former Tuareg rebels, returned "home" to the north of Mali. They brought with them an arsenal of weapons, ammunition and fighting experience, and were confronted with the realities of living on the economic, political and social margins of a weak and corrupt state – a state that had been hailed as a development ‘success’ by many in the West

2.3 These soldiers from Libya played a key role in the formation of the largely Tuareg-led secular MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement), which in a matter of months, took over several key towns in the north of Mali, declaring an independent Azawad state.

2.4 The situation in the north led to widespread frustration within the military over the government’s incompetence or unwillingness to deal with the issue and reclaim their territory. Ultimately, it led to the April 2012 military coup by Capt. Amadou Sanogo against Mali’s elected government and President. Interestingly enough, Capt. Sanogo himself had received extensive training by the USA as part of the roughly US$520-600 million spent by the US government in the region, of which the majority went to efforts to train militaries to combat Islamic militancy. [1]

2.5 The actions of the separatist MNLA group and the consequent military coup, and inability of the Malian government and military forces to control the situation, led to a violent conflict in Mali’s north which includes several key actors such as MNLA, AQIM (Al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine and MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), as well as numerous splinter groups and ethnic militias.

2.6 The UK’s strategy to fight extremism and political instability needs to, among other things:

· Understand the international links that make it possible for terrorist groups to receive financial support.

· Help increase and provide economic opportunities for the majority of populations living on the margins.

2.7 The rise of Islamism in the West and North African region is not solely, perhaps not even mainly, linked to religious fundamentalism. Increasingly, networks such as AQIM and Boko Haram tap into social grievances and present themselves as champions of mainstream causes such as unemployment, health care and education, in order to attract followers.

2.8 In order to effectively fight extremism and political instability, the UK must seriously help governments in the region to develop strong political institutions and offer social and economic opportunities to their citizens.

3.0 The Tuareg Rebellion and the Paths Not Taken

3.1 The formation of the Tuareg-led MNLA movement and its desire for an independent Azawad state has deep roots and a history going back to the first Tuareg rebellions (in Mali and Niger) of 1960s. Tuaregs led significant armed struggle and resistant movements against colonisation by the French and later the central government.

3.2 Long-term sustainable security and stability for Mali will not be possible without seriously addressing the long-standing and deep-seated grievances that stem from the marginalisation of the northern territories and their peoples. With the effects of climate change, increasing desertification and the government’s reluctance to implement meaningful development programmes, Tuareg and other nomadic communities, as well as agriculturalists, see no viable future and feel abandoned by the state.

3.3 Grievances also stem from past brutal repressions of Tuareg movements, as well as the state’s failure to adhere to the promises of former peace agreements between rebels and the government (increased autonomy, political representation and economic development of marginalised communities). Even after the Tuareg rebellions of the early to mid-1990s, the Malian government still remained unwilling or unable to implement the education programmes and development projects that were promised and are necessary to alleviate poverty and a deep sense of disenfranchisement in the north.

3.4 It would have been wise for the central government in Bamako to negotiate and come to an agreement with the MNLA at the early stages of the current crisis. Both Burkina Faso and Algeria, as well as other West African countries, pushed for a diplomatic solution to the Malian crisis instead of military intervention.

3.5 We welcome the recent decision by the Malian transitional government to establish a national commission for dialogue and reconciliation. The UK should support all efforts and activities that build trust between the stakeholders (government, military, armed and marginalised groups) in order for the dialogue to be successful.

3.6 The UK needs to:

· Support sustained efforts of institution and capacity building at the state and regional level

· Invest in the development of education and health initiatives

· Assist Mali in developing and implementing economic development plans

· Encourage political processes that are inclusive of historically marginalised groups

3.7 The UK should lead by example and support conflict prevention methods rather than military intervention. While military intervention may seem expedient in the short-term, over the longer-term, it is highly unlikely to be an effective way of achieving our stated aims of ensuring Mali does not become a haven for criminality and terrorism.

4.0 Lessons Learned : Balancing Prevention and Reaction

4.1 The central lesson of the western interventions and small-scale military operations (including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere) of the post-9-11 era, has been that reacting to the symptoms of insecurity once they are deeply manifested is a fundamentally flawed strategy for global security. This means that in Mali for example, a serious commitment to assisting the Malian government to go much further in addressing the marginalisation of the north will be crucial.

4.2 During the Chilcott Inquiry, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fry (Deputy Chief of Joint Operations 2002-3) was asked about the kind of warnings about blowback to the military occupation in Iraq that were being considered in the run-up to the invasion. Sir Robert Answered that:

4.3 "We thought we would be talking about the immediate outcome of battle -- so displaced people, no water supplies, lots of casualties, these sorts of things that might be a significant challenge but would be non-enduring. What we didn't see was the -- you know, these huge tectonic political events that subsequently took place. And I think that one of the most egregious mistakes of the entire enterprise was not seeing that that would happen." [2]

4.4 Not only did we fail to anticipate and plan for the potential blowback of the military campaign in Iraq, even when faced with such a situation, the major focus of the UK’s response was to meet force with force. As Sir John Sawers (who was at the time the UK government’s Special Representative in Baghdad) told the Inquiry:

4.5 "In the months after the fall of Saddam, we saw the re-emergence of former elements of the regime, Ba'athist groups, former members of the special forces and so on, who started to organise and cause difficulties. We saw, with the assassination of Sergio de Mello, the arrival of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and their growing presence…both the former regime elements and the Jihadists under the broad umbrella of Al-Qaeda…were becoming more potent, more violent and it was sometimes difficult to tell which was responsible for which atrocity or which attack, but they were both clearly present.

4.6 And on the Shia side there was also growing militia capability led primarily by supporters of Moqtadr Al Sadr…So we saw these three various elements combining to aggravate and worsen the security situation, and our response to that was a series of military steps…to accelerate and achieve a higher level of Iraqi security capability, primarily in the army but also in the police and other agencies." [3]

4.7 The problem with placing overwhelming emphasis on the use of military force in responding to insurgency and political violence is that the presence of troops introduces certain cultures and logics. One of the most comprehensive and honest reflections of the UK’s recent experience in responding to extremist violence in Iraq and Afghanistan is Frank Ledwidge’s 2011 book Losing Small Wars. In the book Ledwidge, an experienced military intelligence officer who has served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, observes that:

4.8 "There is also a more rarely mentioned cultural issue: soldiers want to fight. This is in no way palatable to the cosseted civilian, but the bare reality is that fighting and killing is what infantrymen do. Young men join the army for action and, as in any contentious profession, generally speaking they feel a great desire to test themselves against opponents." [4]

4.9 Ledwidge makes the crucial point that "In an environment that requires finesse and judgement, and sometimes where ‘doing nothing’ is, in every possible sense of the word, the most courageous option, the prevailing ethos of the army remains one of combat, and the prevailing culture remains aggressive and ‘decisive’, with the concept of ‘cracking on’ at its core." [5]

4.10 The importance of this lesson from Afghanistan and Iraq for the Committee’s inquiry is that it raises the question of how far a military-focused approach to extremism and political instability in North and West Africa is likely to create more problems than it will solve. Currently the UK is focusing on a "tough security response" with specific efforts including:

· Assisting French efforts through logistical and surveillance support and the sharing of intelligence.

· Support to the European Union Training Mission in Mali, which launched on 18 February 2013. The UK will deploy an infantry team and a mortar and artillery team to train the Malian Armed Forces.

· Support to English speaking AFISMA (African-led International Support Mission to Mali) nations. The UK has provided logistical support to enable a Ghanaian company to deploy to Bamako, and are using UK air assets to assist the Nigerians.

· The UK has pledged £5 million to two new UN funds to support the strengthening of security in Mali. £3 million of this would be directed to AFISMA and £2 million to activity in Mali that would help support political processes and build stability. [6]

4.11 This is also matched by an impressive aid commitment including assistance to refugees and IDPs and providing emergency healthcare. [7] However all of this is still fundamentally reacting to a crisis. What is now needed is a similarly detailed plan on how the UK aims to support "an effective, inclusive and sustainable political process that leads towards elections and the restoration of full democratic rule in Mali." [8] While the rhetoric is encouraging, there appears to be little in the way of concrete evidence as to how the UK intends to back people "in their search for a job and a voice" and work "to resolve long-standing grievances." [9] We encourage the Committee to seek clarification from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on precisely how the "tough security response" is being "matched by an intelligent political response." [10]

4.12 Conflict prevention is not done with battalions of troops or armed drones hovering in the sky but with diplomacy, development and building sustainable political institutions. One of the central reasons the Islamist rebels in Mali were able to make the gains that they did is that early on they joined with the ethnic Tuareg separatists who were fighting the Malian government after years of neglect and marginalisation. [11] While many Tuaregs subsequently split with the Islamists, it was by then too late and AQIM, Ansar Dine and others were able to make considerable gains. The education, economic and social investments in the Tuareg communities of the north were not made by the Malian government or its Western backers. Instead the serious resources were channelled into the Malian army (some of who ended up defecting to the Islamist rebels). As a recent report by International Alert has pointed out, "the governance deficits in Mali were overlooked over time by the international community and corruption and inequitable economic development were not sufficiently challenged. This is partly because Mali ostensibly provided an African example of somewhat successful democratisation and at the same time showed good aid absorption – factors which made Mali a so-called ‘donor-darling.’ In addition, security interests pushed by the international community to a large extent distorted and drove the Malian government’s approaches in the north following 9/11." [12] In terms of anything other than rhetoric, there appears to be little appreciation of the need to reflect carefully on the role of outside forces in relation to Mali’s recent history and what the lessons are for our approach to the North and West Africa more generally.

4.13 While bringing to justice the leaders of terrorist groups may be a legitimate tactic, the longer-term strategy must be to remove the incentives to join such groups in the first place. From Mali to Nigeria to Somalia to Zanzibar, the al-Qaeda franchise still holds considerable appeal to a cohort of angry young men. Ignoring the reasons why this is so failed in Afghanistan and Iraq, is still failing in parts of Pakistan, Yemen and Syria and it will undoubtedly fail in Africa.

4.14 If the intervention in Mali really is the beginning of the next chapter in the ‘war on terror’ it is time for a radically different approach to political violence if we are to avoid repeating the failures of the last eleven years.

30 April 2013

[1] Adam Nossiter, Eric Schmitt a nd Mark Mazzetti , “ French Strikes in Mali Supplant Caution of U.S. ”, New York Times, 13 January 2013, available at: < http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/14/world/africa/french-jets-strike-deep-inside-islamist-held-mali.html?ref=europe >. see also Walter Pincus, “Mali Insurgency Followed 10 Years of U.S. Counterterrorism Programs”, Washington Post , 17 January 2013, available at: < http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/mali-insurgency-followed-10-years-of-us-counterterrorism-programs/2013/01/16/a43f2d32-601e-11e2-a389-ee565c81c565_story.html>.


[2] Lt Gen Sir Robert Fry, Evidence to The Iraq Inquiry, London, 16 December 2009, transcript available at: < http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/41894/20091216amfry-final.pdf>, p.53

[3] Sir John Sawers, Evidence to The Iraq Inquiry, London, 16 December 2009, transcript available at: <http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/45005/20091216pm-sheinwald-sawers-bowen2-final.pdf>, pp.36- 37

[4] Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan , New Haven & London: Yale University Press, p. 180.

[5] Ibid., p. 191.

[6] Ministry of Defence, “Top Level Messages April 2013”, available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/183382/tlm_april2013.pdf>, p. 4.

[7] See Department for International Development, “Overview of UK Aid for the Crisis in Mali and the Sahel Region”, 18 February 2013, available at: < https://www.gov.uk/government/news/overview-of-uk-aid-for-the-crisis-in-mali-and-the-sahel-region>.

[8] Ministry of Defence, “Top Level Messages April 2013”, p. 4.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] As Peter Pham from the Atlantic Council has observed, “it must be recognized that the Malian crisis has its roots in politics, or rather, the failure of politics … A military intervention that shores up the current Malian regime without pushing it to focus on moving towards a restoration of constitutional order will be very limited in what it can achieve . ” J. Peter Pham, “Mali: No Way to Go to a War Going Nowhere”, The Atlanticist , 14 January 2013, available at: < http://www.acus.org/new_atlanticist/mali-no-way-go-war-going-nowhere>.

[12] Katrine Høye, “Crisis in Mali: A Peacebuilding Approach”, Peace Focus March 2013, London: International Alert, available at: < http://www.international-alert.org/sites/default/files/publications/Mali_2013_PeaceFocus_EN.pdf>, p. 3.

Prepared 29th May 2013