Conflict in West Africa not as simple as it seems

Mali is one of the larger countries in western Africa, but I’m guessing most NAU students couldn’t find it on a map. As a nation, we’re pretty ignorant about Africa and this national ignorance becomes a real problem when we attempt to express our views on an issue like, say, terrorism. The past decade has seen the typical American response to any sort of terrorism question essentially boiled down to, “terror: bad, killing terrorists: good.” Unfortunately, the situation is usually more complicated than that. In the case of Mali and the recent Algerian hostage crisis, it’s extremely complicated, and deserves complex examination.

In the smallest of nutshells, this is what’s been going on. Early in 2012, Mali was rocked by the rebellion of the Tuareg people, an indigenous ethnic group (not a religious group) that has long claimed the region of northern Mali, which they call Azawad, as their homeland. Backed by an Islamist organization called Ansar Dine, the Tuareg rebels began taking control of city after city in northern Mali. After a March 2012 military coup within the Malian government left the nation even more unstable, the rebels controlled the entire northern region by April. On April 6, 2012, they declared the independence of the nation of Azawad.

Since then, the situation has changed. While attempting to establish their own statehood, the rebels soon found themselves in conflict with Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups who had previously supported them. The Tuareg were largely expelled from their newly-liberated state, while their conquerors took control of the area and began imposing strict Sharia law. In response to the perceived threat of terrorism, French president François Hollande ordered a series of airstrikes against the Islamist forces earlier in January of this year, reportedly killing several civilians, including children, in the process.

In response to France’s strike, another Islamist group attacked a gas complex in neighboring Algeria, taking a number of hostages including British, Japanese and American civilians. On Jan. 17, without consulting any of the governments involved, Algerian troops stormed the complex, resulting in the deaths of 48 people, three of whom were Americans. Since the poorly-handled resolution to the hostage crisis, France has launched a ground offensive, joining with the Malian army to retake the northern part of the country. The U.S. has supported this counter-terrorism endeavor, primarily through intelligence and transportation.

Regardless of how we may feel about any one aspect of this sequence of events, it’s important we know and understand what is happening and why it’s happening. Terrorism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. This conflict has its roots in the French colonialism that originally created the state of Mali and, while the violent tactics employed by terrorists everywhere are deplorable, they are almost always a direct result of the incursion of some Western power into other parts of the world. Just as the U.S. had a vested interest in controlling Iraq’s natural resources, France (a country run almost entirely on nuclear power) has a vested interest in controlling the uranium reserves in Mali and Niger. The Tuareg people, meanwhile, have been fighting for self-determination since 1963 and have never had any reason to become invested in a stable Malian nation. The internal warfare in Mali has led to a plethora of human rights atrocities on both sides, including rape, torture, executions and the use of child soldiers, all documented by Amnesty International. The French bombings and foreign escalation of the conflict has only added to the chaos, and it’s the civilians who are suffering, not the generals.

Unlike most Americans, university students have the unique opportunity to learn about places like Mali. We owe it to ourselves, and our country, to be as informed as possible on what’s happening in the world. If we want to talk about terrorism, we should know where terrorism comes from. Ignorance is the easy way out. We’re here for an education.

Originally published in The Lumberjack (


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