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Responding to Mali’s Islamists: Why simplistic counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures will not work – Professor Hussein Solomon

June 5, 2017


Responding to Mali’s Islamists: Why simplistic counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures will not work

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 11 (June 2017)

On the 1st of June came news of yet another attack on French soldiers in Mali – this time in Timbuktu. Paris has deployed approximately 1600 troops as part of Operation Barkhane to rid the Sahel of the Islamist threat. These French troops, in turn, are cooperating with the UN mission in Mali or MINUMSA. In response to the June attack, the French have launched several offensives in which scores of jihadists have been killed. In truth, however, these deadly cat and mouse games between intervention forces and the Islamists in Mali have been going on since 2013 – the year Islamists were ousted from their northern Mali stronghold by a French-led intervention force.

Whilst such military operations are an important element at ending the Islamist threat in Mali, more long-term measures are needed to eradicate the scourge of terrorist violence. Some measures which have already begun include deradicalization – focusing on promoting tolerance and respect for the proverbial other whilst embracing a more moderate Islam. The noted Dutch counter-terrorism expert, Alex Schmidt, however reminds us of the limits of such an approach:

“A number of analyses have observed that the study of radicalization on the micro-level has, to some extent, become a substitute for a fuller exploration of the causes of violent extremism and terrorism. So long as the circumstances that produce Islamist radicals’ declared grievances are not taken into account, it is inevitable that the Islamist radical will often appear as a `rebel without a cause’. It appears that by excluding potentially politically awkward factors like `counter-productive counter-terrorism’ from research – especially government-funded research – too much weight has been put on the `radicalization’ of individuals and the micro-level as an explanatory variable”.

To put it differently, not much attention is being paid to the structural reasons giving rise to the radical Islamist phenomenon. With regards to this, consider the fact that the post-independent Malian state has been dominated by the Bambara dominant ethnic group. Indeed, the Bambara effectively control all levers of government – resulting in other ethnic groups feeling left out. This was echoed in a study by the Rand National Defense Research Institute which noted that other minority groups feel left out of Malian national identity. An Arab community leader, for instance, stated, “We need a new definition of the nation that includes us”. This sense of alienation is also felt amongst the Songhai who have formed various organizations to promote their ethnic community interests in opposition to the Malian state. The sense of alienation is felt most acutely amongst the KelTamasheqTuaregs who were construed as the “savage other” in the narrative of the dominant Bambara and Mande.

In such circumstances is it any wonder that these Tuaregs seek to create their own independent homeland of Azawad. In the absence of an overarching Malian national identity, is it any wonder that minority groups have begun to stress that which affirms their own unique identity – ethnic and religious markers. The spread of Islamism can thus be better explained by means of these structural considerations as opposed to radicalization on the micro-level.

The prevailing counter-terrorism and deradicalization discourses also seem oblivious of how a state gains the loyalty of its citizens. Service provision, the Rand study opines, is the primary means by which states legitimize themselves. The failure of Bamako to enhance the socio-economic lives of its citizens therefore is one of the primary reasons for its loss of legitimacy in northern Mali where poverty levels is highest. In this context, Islamists in the form of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa have made great advances as they provide rudimentary services in the areas they control.

Unless greater attention is paid to these structural issues, any intervention force no matter how well-resourced or how robust their mandate will fail to eject the Islamists from Mali.

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