Category Archives: Ansar Dine

The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership: Building Partner Capacity to Counter Terrorism and Violent Extremism in the Sahel & Maghreb

A few months ago, I published the study I had been working on during my IPA Assignment at the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University – The Trans Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership: Building Partner Capacity to Counter Terrorism and Violent Extremism. The study discusses the origins of TSCTP, which is rather unique by U.S. government standards, for its regional and interagency focus . It dissects the “anatomy” of the program (including which U.S. government agencies are involved, what their roles are, and who their partner nation counterparts are), and derives six functional areas of TSCTP engagement in order to better understand the program’s lines of effort across the various agencies. These are: Military Capacity-Building, Law Enforcement Anti-Terrorism Capacity-Building, Justice Sector Counterterrorism Capacity-Building, Public Diplomacy and Information Operations, Community Engagement, and Vocational Training. The study then discusses some of the planning and implementation challenges associated with a program of this nature, derived from the over 70 interviews I conducted across the interagency and in nine of the ten TSCTP countries (Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal) last year.

 The study contains a lot of information on TSCTP, but as it’s rather dense, I also published a handful of shorter articles that either summarize or draw out some of the more salient points of the larger study:

Happy reading!

In near term, containment may be the name of the game in Mali

If you’re following the news on Mali, you’ve no doubt seen the most recent developments in the political crisis in Bamako in which the military junta “encouraged” or “facilitated” the resignation of PM Cheikh Modibo Diarra on Tuesday. (For thorough roundup of analyses and reactions to this incident, I would refer you here).

Two months ago, I wrote a post called “UN inches closer to approving ECOWAS intervention in Mali” and I thought I’d add some additional insights to it in light of recent developments.

In recent months, there have been no fewer than a gajillion (to use an analytical term) reports of ECOWAS drafting a plan for intervention and the UNSC telling them they’re on the right track, but not quite there. Amidst reports that a military intervention is inevitable, some differences have come to light vis-à-vis how the international community should approach said intervention.

  • France favors swift approval by the UNSC of ECOWAS’ most recent intervention plan – a process complicated by the fact that Captain Sanogo has consistently been opposed to foreign intervention, and has successfully removed one of the key figures calling for such an intervention - PM Diarra.
  • The United States has been more cautious in its support, favoring a dual-phase intervention that commences in the south with the training of the Mali Armed Forces (MAF) that would ideally complement (an actual, rather than cosmetic) political transition in Bamako. The second phase would then involve a mandate for military intervention to reconquer the north.

The way I see it, the United States’ reticence to throw unconditional support behind an ECOWAS-led intervention is primarily influenced by two factors.

  • The first is the legacy of the arguably haphazard intervention in Libya that did not consider the broader regional implications of military intervention. I sense little appetite on the part of the United States to be held responsible for endorsing an ECOWAS intervention if it goes north and exacerbates the situation, or fails outright.
  • To understand the second factor, you really need to take a closer look at the lessons of the African Union intervention in Somalia. In particular, the United States touts the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as a potential model for an ECOWAS-led intervention in Mali. Notably, AMISOM came into being because of a regional and international demand signal for such an intervention force in Somalia. However, it was continually plagued with trying to determine how to achieve its objectives when troop contributions and funding were either unpredictable or altogether not forthcoming. As a result, it was only four and a half years into its mandate and over $385 million USD later that it started to see success. I think that although the U.S. sees AMISOM as a model for African-led conflict resolution supported by the international community, it simply lacks the time or the money to make the same mistake – in spite of a similar demand signal for intervention in Mali. Hence the requirement for extensive planning for concept of operations, troop commitments, and a resourcing plan prior to a mandate for intervention.

I think there’s a general consensus that Mali is a festering sore in the Sahel and that someone needs to do something about it, but the means and modalities are still TBD. In the mean time, I don’t foresee U.S. boots on the ground – at least the kind of boots you or I would even be aware of (wink, wink). But I would not be surprised if the U.S. approach to northern Mali is containment. Like in Somalia and the broader Horn of Africa, I see this as an approach in which the U.S. focuses on ensuring that the activities of AQIM, Ansar Dine, and MUJAO are confined to northern Mali and do not spread to Algeria, Niger, or Mauritania. I could also see this approach utilizing kinetic means (i.e., drone strikes) to disrupt terrorist operations in northern Mali, as well as non-kinetic means (i.e., public diplomacy programs) focused on countering violent extremism in Niger and Mauritania.

Until the political situation in Bamako becomes less unstable, the U.S. and European allies can agree on an approach to intervention, and ECOWAS can get boots on the ground (perhaps not until late 2013), I think containment is going to be the name of the game in northern Mali.

UN inches closer to approving ECOWAS intervention in Mali

Last week, the situation in Mali received some attention at the UN Security Council, which resulted in the council adopting Resolution 2071. However, if you look closely at the wording of the resolution, you’ll see that we’re still a ways from an ECOWAS-led military intervention in Mali.

You may recall that back in July, UNSC passed Resolution 2056 which expressed the council’s readiness to “further examine the request of ECOWAS once additional information has been provided regarding the objectives, means, and modalities of the envisaged deployment and other possible measures.” Later that month, the ECOWAS Technical Assessment Mission (TAM) that had been assembled to develop a roadmap for the restoration of Mali’s territorial integrity presented its findings to Mali’s Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra. ECOWAS Chiefs of Defense Staff (CHoDs) met in August and September – presumably to develop in greater detail a concept of operations (CONOPs) for an intervention in Mali, which according to Resolution 2056 would be a prerequisite for a UN resolution sanctioning such an intervention force. The CHoDs developed a three phase CONOPs for an ECOWAS Standby Force Mission in Mali (MICEMA) that would:

  1. Secure the transitional government institutions in Bamako;
  2. Train and reorganize the Malian Armed Forces; and
  3. Commence military operations to retake the north.

ECOWAS proposes that the force strength of MICEMA would be approximately 3,245 soldiers, of which, the majority would come from Nigeria (694), Togo (581), Niger (541), and Senegal (350). Unfortunately, I do not have visibility of the current status of the Malian Armed Forces, so I do not know how many troops might be available to work with the ECOWAS force for Phase III.

Like Resolution 2056 before it, Resolution 2071 again stops short of providing ECOWAS with a mandate for intervention. Instead, the Security Council asks the Secretary General to provide the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS with military planners to assist in efforts to respond to requests made by the transitional government in Mali for an intervention force, and asks the Secretary General to submit a report within 45 days that would include the “means and modalities of the envisaged deployment, in particular the concept of operations, force generation capabilities strength and support financial costs.”

Notice UNSC’s request for additional details on force generation capabilities and financial costs. If we, for a second, look across the continent at the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), in its recent resolution on Mali, the Security Council knowingly or unknowingly identified two key weaknesses that constrained AMISOM’s ability to be effective for the majority of the five and a half years it has been in Somalia. Thus, before it receives the blessing of a UN mandate, ECOWAS must provide not only a concept of operations, but must also demonstrate that it has incorporated future force generation and financial costs into its planning – especially if the intervention ends up being more complex than anticipated.

So, given what we know about the continuing development of plans for military intervention in Mali, here’s a few questions to consider:

  • How does an end to the transitional government and the return to constitutional rule fit into the equation? Clearly, national elections are impossible while the north remains outside of Bamako’s control, but there is simultaneous pressure for elections before military action. However, because the north is outside of Bamako’s control, it would not be able to participate in elections, which would then run the risk of making the de facto separation of the country more tangible. Talk about a Catch 22.
  • To what extent are the transitional government in Mali, the Malian Armed Forces, and ECOWAS on the same page vis-à-vis the three phase CONOPs for MICEMA? Although the transitional government requested foreign support to recapture the north, it has wanted that support to be restricted to the provision of equipment, intelligence, and logistics, and has resisted the deployment of foreign troops. (For a more thorough analysis of the government’s balancing act on foreign intervention, I refer you to a post by Alex Thurston)
  • Will Algeria and Mauritania play constructive, ambivalent, or spoiler roles in Mali? Algeria and Mauritania are not members of ECOWAS, but they are still key players in regional security. Algeria is in favor of a negotiated solution, in part because it is concerned about potential spillover from an ECOWAS intervention (See Peter Tinti’s excellent article on Algeria’s northern Mali policy). Meanwhile, Mauritania has ruled out military intervention in Mali because it’s too complex and they don’t have the solution. These countries may not sign on for an ECOWAS intervention, but they could play a constructive role by increasing surveillance and patrols of their own borders with Mali to cut off the supply of arms and manpower to the armed groups (Ansar Dine, MUJWA, AQIM, MNLA, etc) that currently occupy the northern part of the country.
  • What’s the timetable on intervention? This I am not sure of, although I doubt that ECOWAS would get boots on the ground in Mali before the end of 2012. A more important question to me, however, is how long might an intervention last, and is there a realistic chance that it may be taken over by the AU or UN? Your guess is as good as mine.

Calls Continue for Military Intervention in Mali

In June, the African Union (AU) Peace & Security Council called upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to endorse the deployment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Standby Force to ensure the security of the transitional institutions; restructure and reorganize the Malian security and defense forces; and restore State authority over the northern part of the country and combat terrorist and criminal networks. In response, the Security Council passed Resolution 2056 (2012) this past Thursday, but stopped short of authorizing an ECOWAS force to intervene in Mali. Instead, the Security Council expressed its readiness to “further examine the request of ECOWAS once additional information has been provided regarding the objectives, means and modalities of the envisaged deployment and other possible measures.” In other words, the UN has not ruled out endorsing military intervention in Mali with a UN mandate, but if it is to do so at some point in the future, it needs some sense that ECOWAS has thought through this rather complicated affair.

And the Security Council has a point. Amid concerns that Mali’s north may become the “next Somalia” or the “Afghanistan of West Africa,” groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Ansar Dine and MUJWA – Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) continue to hold territory – including major cities in the north. Meanwhile, the transition from military to constitutional rule in the south has largely failed, and there are few indications that the political vacuum that exists in Bamako will be resolved any time soon. These concurrent crises make a military intervention of any kind very complex.

Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal have pledged to provide most of the 3,300 troops that ECOWAS hopes to deploy. Their initial mission would be to bolster Mali’s armed forces and stabilize political institutions, and turn to retaking the north if ongoing negotiations with Tuareg rebels in Burkina Faso fail. However, they may not even get that far. Persistently opposed to foreign intervention, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has requested that Mali’s army receive foreign support – but not foreign troops – to restore Mali’s territorial integrity. But the small problem with this is that, at least for the United States, it is technically illegal to allocate security force assistance when a military has seized power by unconstitutional means. Furthermore, giving into Sanogo’s wishes means the international community would be, in essence, sanctioning his unconstitutional seizure of power, while diminishing its leverage to get him out of the picture. It’s a game of chicken – with each side seeing how bad things up north can get before the other gives in.

While the UN mulled authorization of an ECOWAS intervention this week, about 2,000 protesters demonstrated in Bamako, calling for a military intervention in the north. According to Al-Jazeera, a leader of a northern citizens’ collective was quoted as saying “If the army doesn’t want to go to war, then give us the means to liberate our territory!” Mali’s National Assembly joined in, issuing a statement calling for the “restoration of territorial integrity,” and calling on the Malian people for “implacable resistance to the occupation and boosting solidarity by all possible means.”

At least in rhetoric, the Malian army is on board with restoring the country’s territorial integrity. Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra conducted a review of the army in Ségou in early June, and military preparations were observed in Sévaré, which is just south of the de facto border of Azawad and what remains of Mali. Yet, just like before the coup, the armed forces will be unevenly matched in the fight for the north. In fact, one can argue that they are worse off than before – still lacking the training, equipment, and air support that contributed to their inability to defeat the Tuareg rebels before the coup. Except now, in addition to being cut off from security force assistance from foreign partners, it faces a plethora of armed groups – some of which possess arms not only from Libya, but also from the stockpiles abandoned by the Malian army as it fled south in late March/early April.

In closing, I would highly recommend reading two great sources on political/military intervention in Mali. The first is “Why Mali’s Path to Peace Must Start in the South” by Todd Moss. This is a brief post written about two weeks ago that lays out several helpful assumptions about Mali’s distinct but inter-related crises, and offers a sequenced approach to addressing these crises. It’s well-thought out and well-argued, and gets at some of the difficult issues that need to be resolved in order to improve the situation in Mali. The second is “Intervening in Mali: West African Nations Plan Offensive against Islamists and Tuareg Rebels” by Andrew McGregor. The most helpful parts of this article are where the author analyzes the likely current capabilities of Mali’s army, gives an overview of the various armed groups that are proliferating in northern Mali (aside from AQIM, MUJWA, and the MNLA), and offers a nascent concept of operations for how Mali would go about recapturing the north – and how foreign military support might fit into these plans.

History may judge the MNLA as lost opportunity

MNLA flag

Times are tough for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Only two months ago, the Tuareg rebel group was at its peak. Having possessed the strategic initiative in the aftermath of the Malian military’s March 22 coup against Amadou Toumani Touré, the MNLA had also been well armed with machine guns, mortars, antitank and antiaircraft weapons looted from the late Muamar Qadhafi’s arsenal in Libya. In a matter of days, the group swept across northern Mali, conquering its three regional capitals, and declaring northern Mali the independent state of “Azawad.” Having faced decades of marginalization, this secular movement had lofty principles for their new state, and in the hopes of gaining international support (or avoiding international condemnation), the MNLA had pledged to counter the influence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the region.

Flag Ansar Dine has been flying?

But as the dust settled from the late March-early April military offensive, the MNLA found it had to negotiate accommodation with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that sought to spread sharia across Mali and was suspected to have links to AQIM. As what little Malian government authority there was in the north eroded, there was evidence of a turf war between the groups, with each group vying for strategic territory and attempting to exert its authority. At the same time, there were stories of the MNLA and Arab militias looting areas now devoid of Malian government control and committing acts of sexual violence against women and young girls. Meanwhile, Ansar Dine sought to establish an element of legitimacy in conquered territories, but used violence and intimidation in order to do so. (See an earlier Alex Thurston post for an analysis of law-and-order Islamism in northern Mali.) The group began to impose a harsh version of sharia on the areas they controlled, to the chagrin of many of the residents who had previously practiced a moderate form of Islam.

Meanwhile, in Bamako, there was an unending political impasse between the military junta and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). During this time, there was a faux-transition to constitutional rule, the junta’s arrests of prominent politicians amid accusations of a counter-coup, an actual attempted counter-coup, and most famously, the beating of interim President Dioncounda Traoré in response to an agreement ECOWAS had brokered to would allow him to remain in power for a year and manage the transition to democracy. This political turmoil in the capital made it less likely that the Malian military would be able to regroup to establish the government’s authority in the north. In fact, one could argue that the junta (forgive me for not typing out their ridiculous name and lengthy acronym) was more concerned with undermining the transition than with restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. This potentially distracted them from understanding the rapidly changing dynamics on the north.

To the surprise of many analysts watching the situation unfold, the MNLA and Ansar Dine announced the creation of a Transitional Council for the Islamic State of Azawad on May 26. There have since been a plethora of reports that the agreement between the MNLA and Ansar Dine has fallen apart, stating that it would have been challenging for the secular nationalist MNLA and the Salafist Ansar Dine to overcome their politico-religious differences. But by this point, the MNLA was negotiating from a point of extreme weakness.

Somewhere between April 6 (the day the MNLA declared Azawad independent) and May 26, the MNLA’s fortunes changed. And when all is said and done – be it next year or in ten years – people should look back at this time period with an eye for indications of the MNLA’s waning power and the group’s shifting equities. Initially, the MNLA had three options to achieve independence for Azawad and a monopoly of violence in the state: A) Fight on its own against government; B) Ally with other armed group to fight government; and C) Negotiate with government. As its strength waned, and as the political melodrama on Bamako persisted, it became clear that the MNLA would have to align with a stronger armed group to achieve its objectives.

Ansar Dine is a less-than-ideal partner for the MNLA due to the groups’ differing strategic objectives. However, Ansar Dine is an opportune partner for tactical reasons, because according to Gregory Mann, the MNLA is apparently having trouble paying its fighters. Moreover, it had been unclear whether or not the MNLA would be able to maintain the supply of weapons that had given it the early strategic initiative. Ansar Dine, on the other hand, has been able to secure cash and weapons, and consequently  became the better armed of these two groups. Thus it would have been practical for the MNLA to seek an alliance with a stronger group – in this case Ansar Dine. However, in so doing, it would significantly diminish its secular credentials, including the idea that the MNLA could be counted upon to fight the expansion of AQIM in regions under their control.

Whether or not the MNLA and Ansar Dine are able to forge an alliance, I believe that if there had ever been an opportune moment to date to negotiate accommodation between Bamako and the “lesser evil” MNLA, it would have been the point at which the MNLA realized they were not powerful enough to secure independence, but before they got so weak they had to destroy their credentials and compromise their movement by seeking accommodation with Ansar Dine. We may never know if elements of the MNLA would have accepted regional autonomy in April/May in exchange for integration into the national military to fight Ansar Dine and AQIM, for example.

Considering statements that characterize the situation in northern Mali as “an early stage of Afghanistan and Somalia,” I think that the perpetuation of the political turmoil in Bamako over the past two months may have been a missed opportunity to dissociate the MNLA from Ansar Dine.

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