Of all the security threats Americans did not expect in 2013, a military breakthrough by Islamists into the heart of West Africa is the most urgent. At this writing, Malians are fleeing the Niger River hub of Mopti, and elements of a French airborne brigade are deployed nearby to reinforce Malian infantrymen, as Islamist fighters advance. Last month, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force to rescue northern Mali, which fell under the control of several al Qaeda affiliates in March 2012.
The French-sponsored plan, for which the United States has expressed lukewarm support, is being jump-started by the terrorists’ preemptive use of force. They have had a year to strengthen their position. An individual with a keen interest in the alarming strategic situation is the Islamists’ arch-foe and Mali’s neighbor, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, president of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. While acknowledging that the crisis calls for an immediate reaction on the part of Mali and its friends to keep the Islamists north of the Niger River, he stresses that there is no longer any excuse for not taking a hard look at the whole Sahel region and its persistent problems.
So little known is Mauritania that few Western news outlets bothered to report the wounding of its president last October. Victim of a reportedly accidental shooting while passing an army guard post on a desert road outside this capital, Abdel Aziz required surgery and weeks of convalescence in France, during which neither the White House nor the State Department called him directly. He does not bring this up during a conversation in his office at year’s end, but goes straight to the point he wants to get across: The terrorist groups and criminal gangs in northern Mali must be eradicated.
Having watched jihadists establish sanctuaries in the Sahara for over a decade, Abdel Aziz is wary of quick fixes. He fought them alone early last year, vainly urging his neighbors to join him in coordinated action at a time when, he still believes, the problem could have been dealt with by a terrible swift and well-aimed sword. “There were only a few hundred armed men back then,” he says, adding, “Even during the Tuareg war, we could have intervened and solved the problem.” Last year, a secessionist movement among Tuareg nomads routed the U.S.-trained Malian Army and was in turn chased out of the north by better-equipped jihadists who entered the fray.
In the first three months of 2012, the Mauritanian Army entered Mali on at least two occasions, using ground troops and airpower to dissuade the rebels from any idea of moving toward their frontier. This was in keeping with a policy adopted after Abdel Aziz came to power in 2008. Its main components include modernization of his forces and a willingness to engage in hot pursuit of the troublemakers by crossing the 500-mile border his country shares with Mali.
This earned Abdel Aziz a high place on the hit list of the Saharan branch of al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also got results. AQIM, which had viewed Mauritania as the weak link in its campaign to break into the Sahel and thence black Africa, no longer threatens this country. Abdel Aziz, with unspoken contempt, contrasts his policy with the passive attitude of his neighbor.
It is a position of no small importance to the United States, in a period of change of foreign policy leadership at home and Islamist ascendancy in North Africa. Last year saw the arrival of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Islamists are a strong factor in Libya and contenders for power in Algeria, which awaits the ailing President Bouteflika’s departure. And, with all due respect for the differences between Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political parties and al Qaeda, the radicals conquered a Texas-sized territory north of the Niger River, 60 percent of Mali, and will be hard to dislodge.
“The previous Malian regime’s mistake was to share power with the terrorists and the criminal gangs. Doing so, Mali’s government helped destabilize the region,” asserts Abdel Aziz.
Absurd though it seems in retrospect, Mali was until last year America’s poster-country for liberal democracy in West Africa. Amadou Toumani Touré, known as “ATT,” was planning to step down in April after reaching the constitutional limit of two terms as president. The campaign to succeed ATT had already begun when the latest avatar of the Azawad (“homeland,” derived from the word for pastures in the Tuareg language) national movement overran garrisons of the Mali Defense Force in the north.
The gruesome massacre in late January 2012 of a unit that reportedly had laid down its arms should have alerted the once-popular president, who governed by consensus and accommodation, that he had to shift gears. Instead, ATT tried to appease the rebels, even as it became evident that the national movement, which openly proclaimed its secessionist aim, was being reinforced by AQIM and its affiliates. The northerners benefited from returning mercenaries who had served deposed Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and who brought with them large surpluses from his upscale arsenal.
They also benefited, Abdel Aziz observes, from years of neglect of the north by the Malian government: “ATT’s problem is that he did nothing to maintain security in the north or to encourage economic and social development. Rather, he had been sharing power with the terrorists all along.”
“Abdel Aziz is too polite to say so,” a Mauritanian journalist told me, “but he means not only that outside Timbuktu and other cities, the Malian government had little or no authority; ATT and his entourage were sharing in the ill-gotten gains of the gangs up there.” Lawless activities included drug smuggling, gunrunning, and the lucrative kidnapping racket that financed the 2012 war, according to observers in Bamako, Mali’s capital. One northern drug kingpin, detained by Malian authorities, was freed even as the fighting raged.
“We tried to warn him,” Abdel Aziz says quietly. “We knew who the brokers were. We caught some of them.”
“He means,” my journalist source amplified, “there were guys up there—Mauritanians, Malians, Algerians—who set themselves up as go-betweens. ATT knew, and he almost surely profited in everything from the ransoms to the drug money.” This grave charge has not been proven in a court of law. But, according to sources in Mauritanian security, marked currency from Germany’s central bank, used in one of the most notorious ransom payoffs, was later found in Paris. It was being used by ATT’s entourage, including his wife, on a shopping spree.
By a bitter irony, northern Mali was seized by rebels practically under the noses of a U.S. military training mission that was based in Mopti, one of the Niger River towns near Timbuktu. The mission itself, part of a multi-year program under our Africa Command to train African militaries and improve the security of the sub-Saharan countries, went very well. Unfortunately, ATT was overthrown by angry soldiers less than a month after the Americans went home, causing the United States to suspend all but humanitarian aid. This left the Islamists to spend the next 10 months consolidating their position unimpeded, recruiting and training fighters from the terrorist internationale and equipping them with good weapons.
In Bamako the soldiers soon relinquished formal power to a transitional government, but they remain the rump country’s power brokers. In December they replaced the prime minister without asking anyone’s permission. With no money or Western aid, they could do nothing to reinforce their own defensive positions, a fact painfully demonstrated in the past week.
Abdel Aziz recites the unhappy recent history in a few terse sentences, speaking in a quiet voice that is just this side of impatient. He does not look like a man recovering from a bullet wound in the abdomen. At 56 he has the lean straight build of the professional soldier he was until he resigned his commission as a general officer (his country’s first) in order to run for president in 2009.
The Mauritanian election that year required political and diplomatic finesse, because it was occasioned by the coup Abdel Aziz and his fellow generals organized against the sitting president in 2008. In support of an African Union rule against coups, the United States (and France, the former colonial power) several years ago adopted legislation that forbids top-level relations with (and most aid to) coup-born regimes.
The move against President Sidi Ould Cheik Abdalhahi was occasioned by security concerns. It was bloodless, and the ousted head of state eventually entered the transition process. Full diplomatic ties with the United States were restored after the 2009 election.
“So,” I ask the president, “you have constitutional rule, if a little frayed, in both Mauritania, which repulsed AQIM, and Mali, which lost 60 percent of its country to the jihadists. The Security Council gives you a green light. ECOWAS [the West African Union] pledges men, France and the United States pledge equipment and advisers. But you say no?”
“I don’t say no. I say not now.”
Abdel Aziz’s position, overtaken by events, underscored the gaps in our own understanding of the Sahel’s fragility. He knew very well the Malians were in no position to fight off a renewed onslaught by the highly motivated Islamists when the winter fighting season began. What he feared was that the Western powers, if they reacted, would throw the Islamists back into their desert sanctuaries and leave the region’s problems unaddressed.
Only a ew weeks earlier, Abdel Aziz lay on a bed in a French military hospital, thinking about the war plan the French wanted the Security Council to approve.
There had been a dramatic automobile race across the dunes, as the accidentally wounded Abdel Aziz piloted his own car—he had been on a private excursion—back toward a hospital in the capital. Reaching his military staff by phone, he ordered a quick deployment toward the desert check point from which the shots that hit him had been fired. Seizing the opportunity to demonstrate that his security policies were effective and that terrorists were not involved (as the first rumors had suggested), the president accepted a young lieutenant’s apologies, though he adds laconically, “He is not fit for command.” Significantly, neither AQIM nor any other armed group tried to gain publicity by claiming credit for the shooting.
While recovering in Paris, Abdel Aziz discussed the security situation with French officials and reiterated his view that it was better to wait than to go for half measures. He offered his own version of what used to be called hearts-and-minds.
“Since last April,” Abdel Aziz explained, “when the rebels occupied all the north, they began terrorizing the population with the strictest application of sharia law, destroying ancient treasures of great cultural and historical significance, shooting couples for holding hands in public, and amputating the hands of bread thieves. They can be defeated, but if you go in with a massive assault,” as has been proposed, “all you will do is unite the different factions and drive the captive people into their arms for protection. It is not only a handful of Westerners who are being held hostage in northern Mali, it is the whole north Malian population that the terrorists are holding hostage.”
Meeting with Mali’s prime minister in the first days of 2013, Abdel Aziz indicated Mauritania was prepared to help its neighbor, and he reiterated this when the fighting began last week. Reports from Bamako had French helicopter gunships engaging Islamist fighters north of Mopti on Friday; it may be possible to stabilize the front in the coming days or weeks. But the long-term need is for a pan-Sahel strategy more consequential than the one that so dramatically failed last year. This includes taking the vexing issue of development in a very poor region seriously—something ATT never did, according to his neighbor. While Abdel Aziz insists on security as a government’s first duty to its people, he sees development as a close second.
Mauritania enjoys not only a share in the current West African oil boom, but also significant deposits of gold, iron ore, copper, and phosphate, as well as uranium. “With security and stability,” a business source notes, “our mining and petroleum sectors can turn us into the locomotive of the Sahel, a region that long has needed one. We are not only the ‘safe port west of the Nile’ of oil men’s dreams, we are attractive to investors and a job magnet for our neighbors.” This is confirmed by the presence of a large migrant labor force, notably in Mauritania’s expanding construction industry.
Abdel Aziz does not view his role as vaunting his country’s merits to investors, but he does insist that international contracts here are inviolable. “Despite having several regimes since independence, we always honored our contracts.”
“Descendants of nomadic traders,” another business source explains, “the Mauritanians were the traditional commercial leaders throughout the Sahel and much of West Africa. They understand markets and trading.”
Many years ago, John F. Kennedy, who had never heard of Mauritania notwithstanding his support, as a senator, for decolonization, met at the White House with the newly independent country’s first president, Moktar Ould Daddah. Kennedy was impressed with the strategic location of Mauritania, straddling North Africa and black Africa. He said, according to Ould Daddah, they should stay in touch. That was in October 1963, the first and only conversation between American and Mauritanian presidents. A few weeks later, Kennedy flew to Dallas, and the day after that, Ould Daddah, as he recounts in his memoir, formally went into mourning. Ould Daddah’s experiment in one-party rule ended badly, but he did name one of his capital’s three paved streets John F. Kennedy Avenue.
It is, of course, easy to say we should pay more attention to this country or that, just as it is easy to say we should show concern when a head of state takes a bullet. So many countries, so little time. But there has been a bad streak lately in this part of the world. Islamist parties are in power or in positions of great influence all across the Maghreb, while the countries of the Sahel fear the presence of a terror state in their midst. They also worry about the consequences of a poorly conceived rescue. In these circumstances, it may be the better part of prudence to think our strategy through fully—and perhaps begin with a simple phone call.
Roger Kaplan reported from Mali for The Weekly Standard last year.