Mali: French intervention may awaken jihadi sleeper cells

Muslim rebels in Mali impose martial law, cut off hands, and forcibly impress children into combat roles. Qatar is entwined with the rebels, hoping to extend Islam and its own regional power.

Reports are circulating in France that Qatar, the wealth petroleum-state on the Arabian peninsula, may have sided with the Islamist insurgents currently wreaking havoc in the central African republic of Mali. Last week, two members of the French parliament accused Qatar of providing material support to Malian Muslim terrorists, thus throwing gasoline onto the flames of speculation over the raging conflict that now involves the French military. 

The odd-couple accusers, rightist Marine Le Pen and leftist Michelle Demessine, are demanding answers from Qatar, small in size but huge In terms of oil reserves.  “If Qatar is objecting to France’s engagement in Mali it’s because intervention risks destroying Doha’s most fundamentalist allies,” Le Pen said in a statement on her party’s website, following  Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani’s demand for dialogue with the Islamists.

Accusations about Qatar’s romance with ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamists stem from a June 2012 article in the French weekly, the Canard Enchainé. The magazine alleged in an article, “Our friend Qatar is financing Mali’s Islamists”, that the oil-rich Gulf state was financing the separatists. Quoting an unnamed French intelligence source, the article said “The MNLA [secular Tuareg separatists], al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine and MUJAO [movement for unity and Jihad in West Africa] have all received cash from Doha.” In July, Mayor Sadou Diallo, of the north Malian city of Gao [which had fallen to the Islamists], said in an RTL radio interview,  “The French government knows perfectly well who is supporting these terrorists. Qatar, for example, continues to send so-called aid and food every day to the airports of Gao and Timbuktu.”

Qatari NGOs operate openly in north Mali. Following Islamist military success in the vast northern region of Mali,  the Qatari Red Crescent was the only humanitarian organization granted access. A member of the Qatari humanitarian team told AFP at the end of June that they had “come to Gao to evaluate the humanitarian needs of the region in terms of water and electricity access.”

Mehdi Lazar, an expert on geopolitics,  wrote in French weekly news magazine L’Express in December 2012 that Qatar’s relationship with predominantly Muslim north Mali is deeply rooted. Said Lazar, “Qatar has an established a network of institutions it funds in Mali, including madrassas, schools and charities that it has been funding from the 1980s,” while adding that Qatar would be expecting a return on this investment.

 
France wants 'total reconquest' of Mali
 
France’s Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian said on January 20 he intends on “total reconquest” of Mali. “We are not going to leave pockets” of resistance, he vowed. Meanwhile, French opposition leader Jean-François Copé asked President François Hollande on January 21 to come clean about his government’s goals in the central African nation. “Mali has huge oil and gas potential and it needs help developing its infrastructure,” said Le Drian. “Qatar is well placed to help, and could also, on the back of good relations with an Islamist-ruled north Mali, exploit rich gold and uranium deposits in the country.”
 
Analyst Lazar also pointed out that Qatar’s foreign policy is also motivated by Islam, in addition to its desire to  “greatly increase the Emirate’s influence in West Africa and the Sahel region”. Writing in L’Express, Lazar noted “If the Qatari influence in the current situation in Mali turns out to be real, it must be seen in the context of two branches of a global competition” 
 
“Firstly, competition with Saudi Arabia to be the centre of Sunni Islam; secondly, in terms of competition between the Sunni and Shiite branches of the Muslim faith. “
“It would be an extension of the effort Qatar is already making in Egypt, Libya and in Tunisia.”
 
Lazar does not believe that Qatar will become mired in conflict between French troops and Malian Islamist separatists, theorizing that the emirate will try to position itself as mediator in future negotiations between the Malian government, the various rebel groups in the north of the country, Algeria and France. 
 
Growing numbers of refugees
 
Tens of thousands of refugees have streamed out of the areas where Malian and French troops and air forces are combating Islamist separatists. Some are headed to neighboring countries. More than 2,500 refugees have streamed across the border into Senegal, for example,since France began a military intervention in Mali on January 11. UNHCR spokesman William Spindler says refugees share “horrific” stories of life under the Islamists’ occupation.
 
Moreover, humanitarian organizations such as Caritas have been largely denied access to war zones in central and northern Mali. Refugees have provided a glimpse into the horror imposed by the jihadis operating in Mali. Tales of extortion, children pressed into combat, and the severing of hands, have emerged from the barren wastes of the conflictive area. There are fears that the number of refugees could top 400,000.
 
In an interview with France 24, Spindler said that UNHCR documented 2,744 new refugees in neighbouring countries, including 1,411 in Mauritania, 848 in Burkina Faso and 485 in Niger 485. Said Spindler, “In total, since jihadists overran northern Mali last year, we estimate the number of Malian refugees at 147,000, with 55,000 in Mauritania, 39,000 in Burkina Faso, 53,000 in Niger and 1,500 in Algeria. We fear the figure could rise by as much as 400,000 refugees.”
 
Speaking to the issue of human rights abuses, Spindler said “The stories from refugees are horrific. Some were whipped by Islamists, others saw rebels cut off hands. Children under 12 are being recruited by the rebels. The refugees also speak of abuses by the Malian army against people they suspect of being Islamists. The situation is very worrying. Spindler cited the imposition of sharia law as one of the principal reasons why Malians are streaming away from the Islamist rebels. 
 
Worsening security in Mali
 
According to Executive Analysis, he security situation will only worsen because of growing difficulties in transportation, especially between the cities of Mopti and Gao. The London-based firm averred the fears of the UNHCR about an ever-growing stream of refugees. “We also fear an increase in the number of internally displaced people, which we currently estimate at 229,000. Despite ECOWAS military intervention, the combination of a political requirement for low-capability Malian forces to take a leading role, limited manpower available to ECOWAS, and the distances and desert terrain involved makes the removal of jihadis from northern Mali a formidable task,” according to a special report released by Exclusive Analysis. In his report, Senior Africa Forecaster Murtala Touray said, “French intervention has impaired significantly the militants' capability to advance further south, where the majority of mining firms operate.”
 
 Jihadi sleeper cells 
 
“However, there is a high risk that jihadi sleeper cells in Bamako will now be activated, with government, military and Western assets and personnel at highest risk. While French targets will be most at risk, any Western countries, especially those supporting or suspected of supporting the military action would face opportunistic attacks,” according to Touray. The analyst continued, “such risks will rise to severe if the negotiations between the Malian Army and the MNLA Tuareg secessionist group stall. The red line for the MNLA is likely to be a ground offensive by the Malian Army into the Azawad region (Gao, Kidal, and Timbucktu) to confront the Islamist militants and/or the targeted killing of numerous Tuaregs.”


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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