Mali: French Embassy Attack Undercuts Confidence on Security Progress

Yesterday, Mali made news twice for stories related to terrorism: first, for Malian Tourism Minister Ndiaye Bah’s statement that “security issues are contained in northern Mali”; and second, for a bomb attack on the French embassy in Bamako. The juxtaposition of the Malian government’s confidence with this incident suggests that it is too early to say whether Mali is making progress on security.

Bah’s remarks in context:

Mali’s Festival in the Desert, starting on Thursday in Timbuktu, will show that the threat from al-Qaeda in the region has been contained, the tourism minister said on Wednesday.

“We will be at the festival with a few thousand people, including many tourists, to show that security issues are contained in northern Mali. The tourists come from everywhere, even Australia,” Tourism Minister Ndiaye Bah told AFP.

Yesterday’s bombing, in which “a Tunisian man who claimed to be an Al-Qaeda member exploded a gas cylinder in front of the French embassy,” belies the idea that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been contained. Even if the bomber proves a mere wannabe, the attack offers AQIM an opportunity to claim another blow directed at the Malian government.

The contradiction between Bah’s confidence and the embassy bombing is clear, but I should point out that Bah’s perspective is not the only one Malian government officials offer regarding AQIM. At least two other perspectives are evident. One is that other countries’ problems are causing Mali’s terrorism problems:

Mali does not deny that an estimated 200 to 300 fighters from [AQIM] have found a perch in their desert, although most are believed to be Mauritanians and Algerians. But Mali often depicts the terrorists as a problem generated elsewhere.

“We are hostages to a situation that does not concern us,” news reports quoted President Amadou Toumani Touré as saying.

The Tunisian origin of the bomber could reinforce this narrative.

The second perspective is that Mali needs more help from the West:

As part of its broader efforts to counter extremism in northern Mali, the United States also underwrote a series of radio soap operas whose plot twists emphasized the dangers of extremism.Beyond that, Washington provides basic military training, sometimes even more basic than envisioned. An exercise on what to do when the driver of a vehicle is shot dead revealed a startling truth — most Malian soldiers did not know how to drive. Lessons were instituted. But Malian officials want more.

“How many people in the north listen to the radio? That is never going to be strong enough to change their views on A.Q.M.I. or religious fundamentalism,” said Mohamed Baby, a presidential adviser working on fixing the northern problem, using the initials of the French name for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “We need to deal with development, with the lack of resources.”

Behind the scenes, President Toure himself has acknowledged the inroads AQIM has made in the north. The public statements and leaked discussions, then, indicate that Malian officials are actively debating how to handle AQIM, and that some officials are more optimistic than others about anti-terrorism efforts.

Where does Mali go from here? What lessons, if any, does this attack offer? Madmen with guns and grievances are a perennial problem for many societies today, and it may turn out that this Tunisian was simply a lunatic. In that case, the only way to foil such attacks is through vigilance and a degree of luck. But should it turn out that he truly is part of AQIM, Malian officials and authorities throughout the Sahel will likely be asking themselves how much progress has really been made against AQIM.

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