Mauritanian Islamists Reject the Idea of External Intervention in Mali

Amid Mali’s ongoing crisis, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed to send some 3,000 troops there to help Malian government forces retake the Islamist-held north. Other external actors, such as France, have indicated that they would support such an intervention logistically. Talk of interventions is drawing reactions within Mali but also from its neighbors.

Reactions in Mauritania, Mali’s neighbor to the west, are worth watching. Mauritania sent troops into northern Mali on several occasions in 2010 and 2011 pursuing fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This August, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz stated that his country will not intervene militarily in Mali. Mauritania is not a member of ECOWAS. Last week, Abdel Aziz met with General Carter Ham, head of US AFRICOM, to discuss the potential for intervention in Mali, but few details of the meeting are publicly available.

Some constituencies inside Mauritania strongly oppose an external intervention. One such constituency is the segment of Islamists represented by the political party Tewassoul (“The National Rally for Reform and Development”; Arabic site here). Yesterday, the party released a statement against intervention in Mali (Arabic). The statement partly blames Abdel Aziz’s regime for the current crisis in Mali, and has several key planks, paraphrased here:

  • The party supports the territorial integrity of Mali.
  • The party calls on neighboring countries, the African Union, and the United Nations to support negotiations and a non-violent solution to the crisis.
  • The party warns of “disastrous and negative consequences for the region as a whole from any foreign intervention guided by Western countries on the basis of their agenda and their interests.”
  • The party opposes any Mauritanian support, military or logistical, for a military intervention in Mali.

Mauritanian Islamists are far from being the dominant political players in the country – in the last presidential elections, Tewassoul’s candidate Jamil Mansour placed fourth in the official results, with around 5% of the vote – yet they have at times acted as a significant pressure group, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Analysts have cited Islamists’ street demonstrations and political mobilization as a factor in prompting Mauritania’s decision to suspend relations with Israel in 2009. Mauritanian Islamists have been effective in articulating popular sentiments against forms of perceived neo-colonialism in Mauritania and the region.

Tewassoul’s statement, then, has significance for understanding how Islamists of different stripes are reacting to the situation in Mali and how the issue is playing out in Mauritanian domestic politics. I don’t want to overstate the influence Tewassoul has, especially over Abdel Aziz. But Tewassoul may have some success mobilizing around this cause.

Mali: Islamist Politics in Gao and Timbuktu

The term “Islamist” has become so broad as to be meaningless, but for the present we are stuck with it. A simplified definition for “Islamism” might be an ideology that seeks to bring Islamic values into policymaking at the micro level – ie, not just saying, “The spirit of Shari’a guides our constitution,” but rather, “X, Y, and Z law, regulation, or policy will be explicitly grounded in perceived Islamic doctrine/s.”

If we count groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah as Islamists, which most standard definitions would, then we could say that many of the most famous Islamist groups in the world have built much of their popular support by providing services to ordinary people: health care, food, etc. Islamists have sometimes attempted to step into the gaps left by various states – as do many other different kinds of religious actors – and meet people’s needs, whether out of religious conviction, political calculation, or both.

In attempting to understand what “Islamism” is we have an important case underway right not in Gao and Timbuktu, northern Mali. The situation in northern Mali, since the outbreak of a Tuareg-led rebellion in January of this year, has been complex. The Moor Next Door and Andrew Lebovich have recently analyzed the proliferation of armed groups in the region, and I suggest reading their work for more background information. To cut a long story short, Timbuktu and Gao are two of the three regional capitals of the “Azawad,” the territory that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) claims to have liberated. Yet it appears that Ancar Dine (Arabic: “Defenders of the Faith”) and even Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have the greatest sway in Timbuktu at the moment, and perhaps in Gao as well. Ancar Dine in particular is establishing a political administration based heavily on offering services to civilians, especially but not only in the realm of security.

The Washington Post reports:

[Ancar Dine] is stepping up efforts to provide law and order as it tries to gain recruits and the support of local residents.

They’ve even set up a telephone number that residents can call in case of an emergency.

[...]

When bus passengers called the emergency telephone number in Gao a week ago after attackers attempted to rob their bus, the Islamists came, repelled the attack and cut the throat of one of the bandits.

From Timbuktu, there have been reports of Ancar Dine distributing food and offering care (French; h/t Andrew Lebovich).

How these efforts fit with the larger aim of instituting “shari’a” in northern Mali remains to be seen; the immediate aims seem to be (1) recruitment, (2) staking out political turf, and (3) attempting to establish long-term relationships with local populations. Imposing law and order is, of course, not just a means of outreach to locals but also a requirement for solidifying control over an area.

The next step the Islamists want to take seems to be fleshing out their administrative structure. Magharebia reports that Ancar Dine “plans to install Algerian national and al-Qaeda emir Yahya Abou Al-Hammam (real name Jemal Oukacha) as the local governor.” From the rhetoric quoted in the article, it sounds like law and order will continue to be the emphasis for both groups.

Ancar Dine, according to almost every report, has a real partnership with AQIM. But in light of the efforts at law and order and providing services, how compatible are the two groups, really? And how compatible is the goal of establishing political control with the goals of a terrorist organization? As Magharebia points out, AQIM still holds several Western hostages. On top of that, a Swiss woman was kidnapped over the weekend in Timbuktu by unknown gunmen. Ancar Dine may find that such incidents threaten its political aims. Perhaps hardliners would argue that kidnapping outsiders has no bearing on the security of locals or locals’ perception of the would-be administrators, but it seems to me that the violence, secrecy, money, and outside attention associated with kidnapping could easily disrupt larger efforts at stability. Ancar Dine may well be quite unhappy with the kidnappers, whether they are AQIM or not.

Stepping back, Ancar Dine certainly has a strategy for establishing a durable presence in northern Mali. One of their biggest problems, though, is time. The Malian national army or an outside military coalition hope to return to northern Mali at some point soon, while MNLA hopes to establish its own supremacy. And locals may soon – or already – be disillusioned with the fighting, the uncertainty, and the attempts to turn ideology into policy.

Quick Items: Mauritania’s Islamists, Jeffrey Gettleman on African Wars, Al Shabab Offensives in Somalia

Three quick items may interest readers.

MAURITANIA

First, a report I authored on Islamists in Mauritania was published yesterday by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The PDF version is available here. If you read the report, please stop back by and let me know your reactions in the comments section.

WARS

Second, a piece in the New York Review of Books by Jeffrey Gettleman, “Africa’s Dirty Wars,” received a great deal of attention yesterday on Twitter and elsewhere. The reviewed work is Warfare in Independent Africa, by Professor William Reno of Northwestern University. Reno (whom I believe I have never formally met, though we are both at Northwestern) is a distinguished scholar of rebellions and conflict in Africa, with a tremendous amount of fieldwork experience and publications on Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Nigeria, and elsewhere. You can view his vita here (.pdf). I have not read his latest book, but I intend to. What I have to say below is not a reaction to Reno’s work.

What interests me about Gettleman’s piece is how much of his own views and experiences he injects. Without having read Reno’s book yet, it seems to me that Gettleman’s line differs somewhat from Reno’s. Reno, as quoted and summarized by Gettleman, is keen to historicize African rebellions (particularly by assessing the impact of the end of the Cold War) and to subdivide them into different categories; Gettleman, for his part, seems keen to generalize patterns of conflict and to suggest that the nature of violence in Africa today mostly has to do with what he sees as the pettiness of the actors involved:

This is the story of conflict in Africa these days. What we are seeing is the decline of the classic wars by freedom fighters and the proliferation of something else—something wilder, messier, more predatory, and harder to define. The style of warfare has shifted dramatically since the liberation wars of the 1960s and 1970s (Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau), the cold-war wars of the 1980s (Angola, Mozambique), and the large-scale killings of the 1990s (Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Liberia). Today the continent is plagued by countless nasty little wars, which in many ways aren’t really wars at all. There are no front lines, no battlefields, no clear conflict zones, and no distinctions between combatants and civilians…

Today, we see dozens of small-scale, dirty wars in Congo, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, from east to west, from some of Africa’s mightiest nations to its smallest and least significant. The specific situation in each of Africa’s fifty-five different countries varies widely. But it is safe to say that many of the rebels are simply thugs.

The adjectives he chooses – “nasty” “dirty” “little” etc – merit further scrutiny, as does his decade-by-decade style of categorization. And the caveat that “the specific situation in each of Africa’s fifty-five different countries varies widely” deserves expansion. Is it the case that all of the conflicts going on in Africa now are slight variations on the same theme? I think not, but I would like to know what readers think too.

SOMALIA

Third, Somalia’s rebel movement al Shabab is showing that it can still go on the offensive. The BBC reports on a “surprise attack” the movement perpetrated against Garbaharey (map here), “a south-western town used by Ethiopian and Somali government-backed troops as a base to launch assaults.”

BBC Somali Service analyst Abdullahi Sheikh says the Garbaharey attack was a major military operation – and a strong indication that the movement’s retreat from key positions does not mean it has given up the fight.

He says al-Shabab, which recently announced it was joining al-Qaeda, may be weakened – but it is far from a spent force and still controls swathes of territory in south and central Somalia.

IRIN, meanwhile, details the complex situation in Mogadishu, where al Shabab’s withdrawal has not meant an end to violence – some of it allegedly committed by “defectors” with ambiguous loyalties.

Mauritanian Imams and Government Control

From Magharebia’s Jemal Oumar comes an interesting article on the Mauritanian government’s new program for training imams:

Mauritanian authorities kicked off a month-long training programme for imams at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Nouakchott last week as part of a push to encourage moderate beliefs.

[...]

More than a hundred imams are expected to take part in the programme. The Islamic affairs ministry said they “will receive presentations and training on topics in various areas relating to the interests of the people and management of their religious and daily life removed from extremism and delinquency”.

Mohamed Lemin Ould Emahoud, President of the National Union of Imams in Mauritania, praised the government support, saying that the training session was the “fruit of a programme of ambitious co-operation between the Union of Imams and the ministry to organise more training sessions for imams with an aim toward expanding their scholarly horizons in the performance of their noble mission”.

Participants in the seminar said it was important to educate imams so that they understand modern issues, including the threat of terrorism.

I am not surprised to see a program like this. Given its struggle with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Mauritanian government has a clear interest in trying to control the field of Islamic discourse in the country. Training imams – and therefore attempting to manage their pronouncements to some extent – is a logical place to intervene, given that other areas, like the internet, are less amenable to central control.

But I worry sometimes about the word “moderation,” because it seems to be used so often as a cudgel against Muslims, in a game whose rules are controlled by governments or outsiders, and which Muslims cannot win. For example, when American conservatives ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” over and over again, I get the sense that the question is not meant to be answered concretely, but rather to be used as a rhetorical weapon to define “good” and “bad” Muslims. So what does “moderation” mean in Mauritania? Presumably the government and almost all imams can agree on the goal of countering extremism, but if it is the government that defines “moderation,” that definition could quickly rule out non-violent forms of religio-political dissidence. On the whole it seems that these kind of efforts in Mauritania are a good complement to the use of force against AQIM, but the political consequences of this kind of government supervision could be larger than anticipated.

True, Mauritania has a decades-long tradition of government involvement in Islamic affairs, but that involvement has sometimes produced a backlash, or at least greater activism than the government has desired (for example, many of the country’s leading non-violent Islamists are products of government institutions of higher Islamic learning, yet the Ould Taya regime spent a lot of time jailing those Islamists in the 1990s and early 2000s). So perhaps it is best to say that the government has a balancing act to perform here: looser government involvement in the training of imams could allow violent ideologies to proliferate, but overly tight government control in this area could generate resentments and backlash.

Mauritania, Islamism, Jihadism, and the Internet

Magharebia published an article several days ago about Mauritanian youth and jihadist websites:

Since the As-Sahab Foundation, al-Jahafel, al-Andalus Media and other websites linked to al-Qaeda organisations are now readily accessible throughout the capital city, parents have begun monitoring their children’s activities and online friendships.

“I noticed a change in my son,” Alnina Mint Al-Nahi, tells Magharebia about 16-year-old Al-Saalek. “Especially in his daily addiction to watching religious channels, to the point of becoming furious when we wanted to watch news or entertainment programmes. He even accused us as being misguided,” the 52-year-old says.

“Facing my son’s hard-line behaviour, I decided to remove the television from the house once and for all, and that led him to replace it with an addiction to internet cafes,” she continues. “This is causing me to fear his falling into the hands of extremist groups.”

In the Arafat neighbourhood of Nouakchott, many young people endure idleness and poverty. And this makes them particularly susceptible to online recruiters.

The whole article is worth reading.

The argument that poverty leads to extremism is widely debated, but let’s leave it aside in favor of another issue: the relationship between non-violent Islamism and violent jihadism.Mauritania has both, which makes it a relevant case study.

It is interesting that the article singles out Arafat as a center for jihadist recruitment. Arafat is the neighborhood that elected Jamil Mansour as its mayor in 2001; Mansour is today Mauritania’s leading Islamist politician. Mansour and his fellow mainstream Islamist leaders denounce jihadi violence, and it is tempting to conclude that in a neighborhood where political Islam is clearly a force, Islamism is a (the most?) compelling and constructive alternative to jihadism for youth. In other words, the youth reached by Mansour’s Tewassoul party may be less likely to join jihadi movements than the politically unaffiliated.

This is speculation, and I would need data to back the theory up. But the point is that Islamism is not necessarily the first step to extremism. For many it can be a completely different path.