Monday, January 21, 2013

Algeria, Mali, and deals with devils

In the early morning hours of January 16th--less than a week ago--a heavily armed group of (on the eastern edge of Algeria, very close to Libya) terrorists took control of the Tigantourine gas facility just outside of In Aménas, Algeria . These terrorists were under the command of one Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a native Alegerian, a supporter of the Afgan mujahideen, and a former al Qaeda  leader (in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM). Belmokhtar spilt from AQIM to form his own terror-group, the Mua'qi'oon Biddam Brigade (westernized as "Those Who Sign in Blood" or "The Signatories in Blood"), though he continues to claim allegiance to the international al Qaeda, proper.

Belmokhtar's reasons for the attack and subsequent hostage-taking at the facility were expressly given as a response to French intervention in Mali, for the "humiliation of the Algerian people's honour...by opening Algerian airspace to French planes." For war-torn Mali has its own problems with AQIM, one of the principal groups at the head of the Islamist rebellion there.

But aside from this link--the Islamist one--there are other connections between Belmokhtar and Mali, between Algeria and Mali. The chief one is the ethnic group known as the Tuareg, an historically nomadic group of the larger Berber peoples who populate much of the Saharan regions of Africa, including parts of Algeria, Libya, Mali, and Niger. Belmokhtar has several Tuareg wives and recruits from them heavily.

Why? In Mali and other nations, the Tuareg have been actively calling for a Tuareg state for decades. And truth be told, the Taureg are one of those groups victimized by European Colonialism. As the map indicates, there is a very definite region populated by the Tuareg, a region needlessly fractured by European-drawn boundaries. In Mali, proper, Tuaregs--under the leadership of The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (the MLNA)--successfully took control of the Northern half of Mali in early 2012, naming it Azawad.

But the success of the MLNA came with a price: the group accepted the assistance of Islamist groups like Anser al-Dine and--ultimately--AQIM whose goals were about the establishment of a strict (Sharia-based) Muslim state, not a Tuareg homeland. And the Islamists ultimately wrested control from the MLNA, prompting a more aggressive government response. It was at this point--in late 2012--that France decided to intercede on behalf of the internationally recognized Malian government.

This article from Aljazeera breaks down the primary factions currently active in Mali. As it notes, the MLNA has become exceedingly weak, barely a significant player after successfully leading the initial rebellion. Why? Because the religious--Islamist--groups are not only better funded, thanks to their links to world-wide terror groups like al Qaeda, they are also better at recruitment. Their takeover of the Mali rebellion was a consequence of recruiting within the MLNA, itself. The Tuareg who simply want a Tuareg homeland are becoming steadily outnumbered by the Tuareg who want a Tuareg Islamic state, under absolute Sharia law.

And the still-deteriorating conditions in Northern Mali only add fuel to this fire. Moreover, the cause lends itself to support throughout Tuareg-dominated regions: people predisposed to support the Tuareg call for a homeland are easily turned to support the Islamist cause, as if they were one and the same thing. Hence, Belmokhtar's success in drawing support for his group in Eastern Algeria, seemingly a world away from Northern Mali.

Details on the specifics of what went on at the gas facility in In Aménas are now emerging. It's not a pretty tale:
The charred bodies of victims were discovered as the terrorists either blew up or burnt their captives – some in retaliation for the Algerian offensive to try to free them.  
One witness told how a Briton was forced to call out to colleagues to entice them from their hiding places before being shot dead in cold blood.  
Another Westerner was shot while trying to give first aid to the injured.  
Others were killed as they tried to flee while survivors spoke of having Semtex and other explosives strapped around their necks or bodies.
And despite the horror of these actions by the terrorists, the story represents another recruiting tool for Belmokhtar and others like him. Algerian forces will be blamed for the carnage and the deaths of the terrorists will be mourned, while the deaths of foreign nationals--Brits, French, Japanese--will be looked at as a kind of just end for people conspiring against Muslims and Tuareg.

The idea of self-determination, the idea that ethnic populations have some sort of inherent right to establish their own state is one often championed in places like the UN, particularly when the groups involved can be portrayed as a down-trodden and victimized people. And as I noted previously, the Tuareg were needlessly splintered by arbitrary boundaries imposed on them from without (boundaries which many of them have, it is true, largely ignored).

Still, we cannot--as a world--continuously go back in time and fix every injustice that has occurred (or supposedly occurred) with regard to every ethnic group that currently exists (or claims to exist). I fear the continued lip service to the idea of self-determination provides ammunition to groups like those involved in Mali whose goals are really unrelated to "ethnic justice," but are more about power and control over others, whether justified by religion or some other ideology.

Those who fall in with these groups--like the MLNA did in Mali--end up getting burned. Badly.

Cheers, all.