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Latest Battle In Mali Has Deep Roots


For some historical context on the fighting in Mali, we spoke with Gregory Mann. He's an associate professor of history at Columbia University and he's an expert on North Africa, including the area in northern Mali now controlled by insurgents.

GREGORY MANN: It is a vast territory and it is a territory that is rather sparsely populated. It is a territory that is very difficult to control both because of the harsh terrain, because part of it is mountainous, part of it has significant caves, and it is a territory that would take enormous military and economic investment to actually kind of surveil and control.

MARTIN: Northern Mali is also home to the Tuaregs, an ethnic minority and one of the original combatant groups in this conflict.

MANN: Well, the Tuareg are a historically nomadic people. They for a long time ran the trans-Saharan desert caravans, the camel caravans, and they would like to have greater autonomy from the Malian nation-state.

MARTIN: The Tuaregs have been fighting for autonomy for decades, but this latest round can be traced back to the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

MANN: Well, there are two important connections with Libya. I mean, they're related. There's the deeper, longer historical connection of the fact that many Tuareg young men went in the 1970s and '80s to fight with Moammar Gadhafi. They were trained by Gadhafi. They were sent to fight in different places. In fact, different places around the Muslim world - in Chad, Lebanon, etc. And a core and important part of Moammar Gadhafi's security forces was in fact Tuareg. At the time of Gadhafi's fall, many of those people left Libya and they returned to Mali. Some of them returned with their arms and munitions and weapons, and various factors that have created a very combustible mix.

MARTIN: So, one of those factors has been the infiltration of Islamist militias into northern Mali. Are they aligned with the Tuareg or do they have a separate agenda?

MANN: Well, there's an important split. There are Tuareg separatist nationalists, who now are largely marginalized and don't control very much territory at all in the desert. But it's they who launched the original struggle about a year ago. Then the larger category, the more important category at the moment, is those who are Islamist fighters or jihadi Salafist fighters, some of whom are aligned with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, some of whom are part of other organizations. Many of them are foreigners. That is, they're from Algeria, the Western Sahara, Mauritania, etc. But some of them are Malians as well.

MARTIN: You mention that these Islamist groups, some of them are affiliated with al-Qaida and they come from abroad. What was attractive about northern Mali? Just that it was unstable or that it had this preexisting conflict that they could kind of coopt and leverage to their own ends?

MANN: Well, part of what brought them to northern Mali is that in the core of it, in its DNA, the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb organization is an Algerian insurgency, but they were pushed out of Algeria over the last several years. And in Mali, in northern Mali, the great expansion of the Saharan Desert there, they found a space that was very poorly governed, very poorly controlled. And they had a loose kind of modus vivendi with the former government in Bamako, apparently, by all accounts, which let them operate there with near impunity.

MARTIN: Are we talking about religion or resources to some degree in terms of what's motivating these insurgencies, or both?

MANN: Well, we're talking about both, and it's a very paradoxical combination. On the one hand, we're talking about important cocaine-smuggling routes and other drug-smuggling routes - there's smuggling routes even for cigarettes and whatnot. We're talking about the competition for the resources produced through that kind of criminality - hostage taking and drug smuggling. And also, it has to be said, a very peculiar and non-representative version of Salafist Islam which wants to see an imposition of this strict sharia rule in the desert.

MARTIN: So, how does the civilian population in northern Mali view these militias? I imagine they're the victims of what can be a very extreme brand of Islam sharia law.

MANN: Yes. And the primary victims of this are, of course, Muslims themselves. Many of them have fled to neighboring countries - to Niger, to Burkina Faso, or they've taken refuge with family members in southern Mali.

MARTIN: And then this drugs component - has northern Mali been an important drug route for a long time?

MANN: Well, smuggling and trafficking have long been parts of the economy of northern Mali. The drugs are new and the drugs came in over the last few years - something like the last five or six years, as far as we can tell. And this is mostly Latin American cocaine that comes in through West African ports and is smuggled through the Sahara Desert up into Algeria, or formerly into Libya and then into Europe. So, Europe is the market in which these drugs would be sold, and the Sahara is simply a place through which the drugs transit. All of it, of course, is produced in Latin America.

MARTIN: So, where does this go? Can you foresee this insurgency expanding and spreading throughout the region so it becomes more of a regional dilemma, a regional problem?

MANN: Well, it's certainly a combustible situation. In fact, it's in flames already, so we can recognize that it's combustible. There are other states that are weak that are in the region - notably Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania. They all feel a threat from what's going on in Mali. They all share borders with Mali. They all share some of the kind of social and political conditions that make Mali a particularly difficult place to govern. Algeria also sees a threat from what is going on in northern Mali. So, all of Mali's neighbors, but also the European Union, France in particular, and increasingly, the United States recognized that the situation in Mali is a dangerous one, not only for Malians and the Malian Muslims, who as I say are the first victims of the Salafists, but for also Muslims across West Africa, other West Africans and then people abroad.

MARTIN: Gregory Mann is an associate professor of history at Columbia University. He joined us from our New York bureau. Professor Mann, thanks so much for talking with us.

MANN: Thank you.


MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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