1:27 p.m. January 18, 2013

The War Nerd: There's Something About Mali

A year ago most people didn’t even pretend to know where Mali was. The only way you’d know about it is if you were a connoisseur of coups and insanely high birth rates, like me.

But around a year ago, this weird thing happened: normal people, people with lives, started talking about Mali. In the third Presidential Debate, Romney, a guy so America-centric he thinks Jesus will show up in Missouri when the trumpet sounds, kept bringing up “Central Mali” like it was the 51st state. Of course, that was the same debate where Romney said that Syria was Iran’s gateway to the sea, so you couldn’t take him too seriously--but it was still the first debate in history where Mali even got a mention. And this Mali fad is still growing. Go to any news site now and half the headlines are about the “developing crisis” in Mali.

Now, everything that happens in the Sahara is supposedly “linked to the crisis in Mali.” So when a Saharan Jihadist splinter group grabbed one of BP’s giant natural-gas sites in Algeria a couple of days ago, everybody assumed they did it to pressure the French Army to stop fighting the Islamists in Mali.

This hostage drama is playing out while I’m writing this, so nothing’s for sure. The Algerian Army has gone in blastin’, like they usually do, and it’s fairly clear a lot of people are dead. It's safe to assume double-figures casualties before it's all over.

I had a little twinge when I first heard about it, because people online are going, “Why would anybody from America or the UK be crazy enough to work in a place like Algeria?” Well, I was in a Saudi town a few miles from the Yemen border last year, getting into the first truck that stopped to get to work every day, and I can tell you the first reason: money. Not that I made as much money as these BP techs get—anybody in the oil biz makes more than mere humans. But the money was better than what I could make in the USA, and I’m sure that's the same reason most of those infidels went to Algeria.

One of the survivors of the Army raid was this Belfast Catholic electrician named McFaul. A Belfast Catholic; that’s the typical background for Westerners who go to the Jihad Zone—no-hopers, people from the wrong side of a dead town. His mom,“Marie,” did an interview with Ulster TV that provides the comic relief to this bloody mess:

"He phoned me at 9 o'clock to say al Qaeda were holding him, kidnapped, and to contact the Irish government, for they wanted publicity. Nightmare, so it was. Never want to do it again. He'll not be back! He'll take a job here in Belfast like the rest of us!"

With a mom like that, you can see why her son went to the Sahara. Not to mention the fact that any “job in Belfast” he’s likely to get will pay maybe 15% of what he’s making in Algeria. See, the great thing about these Middle-Eastern jobs is that they cover your housing, your transport, your flights. And in a hardcore Arab/Muslim town, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to spend your money on. So you make a ton of cash and you get to keep all of it.

And once you’re there, the boredom is so incredible that you can’t believe there’s any risk. It just seems impossible anything could ever happen. People die, sure; one of my fellow teachers was run down in the street, and there was a big gunfight between Saudi border police and Jihadis on the Yemen border a few weeks after I left. But this stuff doesn’t make much of an impression on you, because life is so dull. Dull and safe may not be the same thing, but they sure feel like it after a while. You count your money and sleep a lot.

And occasionally, one of these expat outposts runs out of luck, like the BP plant did. It's not clear yet exactly how the raid happened, but it is pretty clear that BP's local security guys didn’t put up a fight. I'm sure nobody on the jobsite thought they would. Would you defend a lot of overpaid, whiney foreigners with your life, for minimum wage? I’d put my hands up and start reciting Salat the minute I heard “Allahu Akbar.” In fact, it's a fairly safe bet the raiders had maps and schedules compiled by some ex-employees--those remote jobsites generate a lot of grudges.

But it's part of the deal; the high wages are like civilian hazard pay, combat pay. And I know from experience that it’s a lot easier to handle the possibility of getting killed in a jihadi raid than it is to be a poor schmuck in your rich homeland. I can't think of anything worse than being poor in a rich country--sweating out the rent, flinching at the mail, going around sitting up and wagging your tail like a dog to every Human Resources bitch in town. It’s a lot more fun to go to a Hellhole and complain about it with all the other expats.

So it's not the total tragedy they're making it out to be. And it's also not connected with Mali. I'd bet the rent that the BP raid had nothing whatsoever to do with Mali. I'd say Libya's a much likelier suspect. The BP plant is in Amenas, just a few miles from the Libyan border but more than 500 miles from Mali. The hostage-takers are an Algerian group, a few mangy survivors of the huge Algerian Civil War of the 1990s who call themselves the “Signed in Blood Brigade”—you just can’t break these Jihadis of their addiction to melodrama—who’ve linked up by marriage with the Tuareg tribes of the deep desert. Since their target is right up against the Libyan border, and Libya is a buyer's market for insurgents, full of out-of-work freelance fedayeen and overstocked arms dealers after NATO bombarded the place with weaponry in the Qaddafi takedown. Most likely, the raiders planned this attack way back months ago, before Mali was an issue, and relied on Libya for their supplies.

Naturally they included a "France out of Mali!" demand in their communique, but that's just last-minute improv. For both sides, Salafists and Western spokesfolk, Mali’s turned into one of those media black holes, sucking every story between Congo and Cadiz into itself.

The only real link to Mali is that the Sahara is a single, unified place, full of old trails linking up places and people who are officially divided by the borders the Europeans drew in the last quarter of the 19th century. Those borders never really counted for the few—real few—people who can stand living in it. You have to be a nomad to live in the deep desert, a smuggler or a herder or a trader--and nomads don't really believe in borders. In fact, they make their living by violating borders. If you're a Saharan, you don't have anything in common with the people of Southern Mali; they don't speak your languages, Tuareg and Arabic. They're farmers, not nomads; they speak French or one of the “African” languages of the South. So loyalty tends to be Sahara vs the South, not to any of the countries that pretend to divide up the big desert.

The heart of what’s going on in Mali now is this division between the deep desert and the semi-livable south. Look at Mali on a map: Mali is two triangles smashing into each other, a bigger one stabbing south and a smaller one stabbing up into it from the southwest. The fighting is happening right where those triangles mash together. The bigger triangle is the one that wedges deep into the driest, nastiest part of the Sahara, with the narrow end stabbing south to where the Niger River takes a northern turn, making a little chunk of desert semi-inhabitable.

This triangle is more than half the land area of Mali, but less than 10% of the population lives in it. And that 10% is almost all concentrated in a few towns along the river; only the Tuareg live in the desert proper. There are no towns in the true north of Mali, nothing at all but a few Tuareg clans moving around to find forage for their goats.

Now look at the other triangle, the smaller one to the South. You’ll see it stabs up from the wetter (and wetter’s better) land where the desert greens up, up into the desert, along the river. This triangle, you’ll notice, tilts to the west, toward the coast. It’s part of what they used to call “Sub-Saharan Africa,” and its people aren’t Tuareg or Arab herders but black African farming peoples like the Songhay and various Mande groups. This is what “Mali” actually means; this is where people live. Northern Mali is a wasteland, and “Central Mali” is, at the moment, a combat zone, or more like a tectonic plate where the desert clans, who have next to nothing in common with the French-speaking black people of the south, are pushing back, with some help from the momentum of all the quasi-jihadist wars of the Maghrib, the North African coastal rim. Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Chad, even frickin’ Mauritania; they’re all more or less at war, and that gives the desert clans, who have been on a long losing streak, a little window of opportunity. For now, the Tuareg, Moor and Arab clans up there in the big nowhere can punch above their weight, using imported wannabe-martyrs and imported guns.

The Tuareg owned the desert once; if you wanted to cross it, you paid them. Like a lot of warrior tribes, they’ve lost big in the last few decades, and they’re not happy. There have been Tuareg revolts right across the Sahara, from Mauritania to Chad. And most of the time, they’ve lost, because in contemporary war, money, connections and numbers count more than a warrior tradition. The Tuareg just don’t have the numbers to win; you can’t breed a lot of soldiers in a wasteland like theirs. They’ve fought Qaddafi and fought for him, and fought for or against all the other movements and regimes of the Maghrib to the North and the Sahel to the south. Now, they’re trying to deal with the Jihadis, which can’t be easy—because Taureg traditions are way different from the Arab-dominated Wahhabi/Salafist rules.

Tuareg men veiled themselves; the women went unveiled. Tuareg girls had a license to, ah, play around when they hit puberty. From that time until they decided to marry some dude, they could do what they wanted. Needless to say, this is kinda different from the Wahhabi rule, which is that women are better not seen and not heard and just plain not.

The Tuareg are Muslim, like almost everyone in the Sahara, but they don’t have anything close to Wahhabism, which comes out of the Arabian Peninsula, or the equally hardcore Deobandis, who started in the Muslim areas of the Raj. They’re dealing with the Jihadis now, but it’s not a very happy arrangement.

The biggest Tuareg armed group fighting for independence in Mali is the MNLA, which is the French initials for “National Liberation Movement for Azawad,” the Tuareg name for that big northern triangle. The MNLA started the current phase of this war but lost out to the Islamist groups, who have more combat experience and better weapons. The MNLA has maybe 3,000 fighters, which actually makes it one of the biggest rebel factions; most of these groups are real small, because there are only 1.5 million people in Northern Mali.

Now for the Islamists. They’re all over the map, dividing like cancer cells--which is standard for irregular war. When you get involved in this kind of war a lot of fierce egos rise to command, a lot of different clans and ethnic groups compete, and some groups specialize in one thing or another, anything from killing villagers to kidnapping rich people to smuggling cigarettes. Take one instance just at the moment: the leader of the Signed in Blood Brigade that pulled off the BP raid in Algeria. Know what they call him in the desert? “Mister Marlboro,” because his merry men went in for cigarette smuggling in a big way. Diversity, that’s the trademark of irregular forces—the kind of diversity where you’re at each others’ throats most of the time. They split faster than a convention of caffeinated Pentecostals arguing about Revelations.

One of the bigger “Islamist” groups is Ansar ad Dine, “Defenders of the Faith.” The interesting thing about these guys is that most of them are Tuareg or Arab—nothern people who don’t consider themselves “African.” Ansar officially puts religion over regional or ethnic loyalty, but it’s not totally sure about that, so, in one of the comic sidelights of this war, Ansar has generally refused to fight against the Tuareg group MNLA.

Then there are the genuine hardcore Islamist groups, which feature lots of foreigners and have no time at all for Tuareg nationalism. There are two main factions: Al Qaeda in the Maghrib (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). The word “unity” in this case means they have no tolerance for MNLA’s idea of making North Mali a sort of Tuareg refuge; for a true jihadi, the point is to make everyplace follow the one correct set of rules, and that doesn’t leave much room for nationalism or cultural sensitivity, etc. So these two groups, which beat MNLA in the Battle of Gao last spring and control most of the north now, have been pissing off the locals by smashing the cool-looking mud-brick tombs of Sufi saints in Timbuktoo, because elaborate tombs are one of the nine billion things forbidden by Wahhabism. (In the Saudi town where I lived, there was a big field full of rocks, with a fence around it; I asked somebody, “Why’d they fence in that rocky field at the corner?” and they told me, “Those aren’t rocks, those are graves.” Nothing but rough, unpolished rock is OK for the dead, by Wahhabi rules.

MUJWA is the fiercest of the Jihadi groups in Mali, and hates anything like Tuareg nationalism. They’ve taken the lead in attacking the MNLA, but there seems to be a lot of overlap between Ansar ad Dine, MUJWA, and AQIM. The truth is that there’s a limited supply of hardcore jihadis; most of them, like the leader of the BP raid, have been in the business since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which (with lots’n’lots of CIA help) was their biggest recruiting season. Since then, most of the stars have graduated to Paradise, and the new signees aren’t up to snuff. So the few quality freelancers around tend to lend each other a hand.

MUJWA’s greatest moment so far in Mali was the Battle of Gao. Gao is a town in Central Mali, along the big bend in the Niger that makes a small piece of the desert inhabitable. This is the zone where you find all the towns in combat now, like Timbuktoo and Konna.

The campaign started when Tuareg/Arab mercenaries who’d been fighting for Qaddafi drove home after he was beaten, taking all the vehicles and heavy weapons they could stow along with them. That meant that a huge pool of trained soldiery was unleashed on The Malian Army—pause for canned laughter here. The Malian Army did what it does best (not counting coups), executing a classic foutez le camp, if you’ll pardon my French. That meant that in early 2012, there was a huge power vacuum in Northern Mali.

You can imagine how excited the hard-luck Tuareg were. For a moment, it looked like they’d finally have that independent Tuareg homeland they’d fought for just dropped into their laps. But if there’s one thing that 20th century history teaches, it’s that God hates inland, landlocked tribes like the Kurds and the Tuareg. So what started off as a victory celebration by Tuareg antionalists and freelance jihadis turned pretty fast into a showdown between the MNLA and the Wahhabists of MUJWA, with Ansar ad Dine sort of queasily cheering for MUJWA while hoping none of their kinfolk in the ranks of the MNLA got hurt too badly.

The showdown happened in Gao at the end of June, 2012, and ended with the Wahhabists in control of Northern and most of Central Mali. That’s about all you can say for sure, because a lot of the info that came out after the battle hasn’t exactly turned out too reliable. For instance, the guy who led that BP raid? His name is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and he was officially killed in the Battle of Gao, which will be welcome news to all the hostages he captured yesterday. Like a lot of jihadis, he’s one of these guys who has to be officially killed two or three times before he’ll lie down, and at the moment, this handsome one-eyed devil looks good for another few wars.

In other words, I don’t know what the casualties were. My impression is, they were light, like a lot of battles in what they call “primitive warfare.” These are the kind of battles where the two sides measure each other up, and if one looks bigger, better-armed, and more in the mood to tangle, the other side very sensibly climbs back into their Toyota pickups and waits for a more favorable opportunity.

That’s what seems to have happened in Gao. The MNLA—remember, they only have a pool of about 3000 men, and can’t afford to waste them—saw that the MUJWA forces had brought a big contingent of Algerian jihadis all eager to die, and abandoned Gao. Casualties were light on both sides.

The wild card here, and this is real typical of contemporary war, is the civilian population of Gao itself. See, they aren’t Tuareg or Arab, most of them. They’re “black” Africans, French speakers from the south who’ve moved into the new towns that are popping up all over Africa. The big question was which side they’d back—and it turned out that they chose to side with the MUJWA. Not that they’re necessarily Wahhabists, but because the Wahhabists are against any Tuareg nationalism, and the people of Gao were scared about being stuck in a new Tuareg homeland that wouldn’t offer them, as urban, commercial folks, any future. They were for keeping Mali intact, and on that issue, at least, the Jihadists were with them.

So once the MNLA had run, the townspeople of Gao were celebrating, shouting “Vive Mali!” and such. The trouble is, they’re likely to find out that they don’t agree with their temporary friends on much else. The day after the Battle of Gao, the MUJWA/Ansar ad Dine pickup trucks zoomed into most of the other towns of the river region and started smashing up those ancient Sufi shrines. So they’re already pissing off the locals in their inimitable fashion.

The Wahhabists realized, just like the Tuareg had a few months earlier, that fighting the Mali Army was mostly a matter of fighting driver fatigue; the only limiting factor was how much gas you had in your Toyota Hilux. They’re already in Diabaly, only about 250 miles from Bamako and well into the Southern/”black”/French-speaking zone.

And that’s what made the French decide that it was time to intervene on behalf of their hopeless clients in Bamako, not to mention all those French companies that have spent the last 50 years worming their way into sweet bribery-heavy deals with the sleazes who run their former colonies.

At the moment France has about a thousand troops fighting in Mali. Word is, they’re finding the going tougher than they expected, just like Qaddafi did when he fought the Saharan Chadi rebels.

So in my next article on Mali, I’m going to go back in time to talk about how the French got there, how they think about the place, and then look at how they’re doing this time around.