French arrival in Timbuktu welcome but it may be too late

French forces have continued their seamless northwards progress through Mali, capturing Gao on the weekend and now poised to retake Timbuktu, one of the Middle Ages’ preeminent cultural centres. I wrote recently about the dilemmas posed by French intervention in their former African colonies. Nevertheless, the swift advance of French troops in their bid to oust the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine from North Mali has potentially served a crucial historical purpose.

French progress in Mali has been aided by militant withdrawals
French progress in Mali has been aided by militant withdrawals

A major centre of Islamic learning and academia between the 13th and 17th centuries, Timbuktu is (hopefully) home to vast collections of priceless tomes, treatises and creative arts, all painstakingly preserved in a series of vaulted libraries. Ansar Dine is known to have burnt many important works, some held at holy shrines, although the extent of the damage is unknown. It might just be possible that the French arrival has secured the future for some of the many books and manuscripts stored in underground vaults throughout the city.

Timbuktu was once seen as a golden city in the heart of barbarous Africa
Timbuktu was once seen as a golden city in the heart of barbarous Africa

Removing Ansar Dine from Mali’s cities is one thing; defeating the group across the vast desert landscapes and dry plains is another challenge altogether. As Al-Shabab has shown in Somalia, the tactical withdrawal of militant forces from the cities to the countryside has obvious benefits. Firstly, the poor rural areas often serve as potential recruiting grounds for militants, whose promise of food and glory is enough to convince many a starving person. Secondly, militant cells can move more fluidly in rural areas and are unconstrained by having to defend strategic checkpoints in towns and cities. Rather than engaging in the conventional warfare which has seen them defeated by trained armed forces in the past, Al-Shabab has resorted to more traditional terror tactics. Namely, indiscriminate bombings of civilian centres, hijackings and armed robbery.

It is very possible that Ansar Dine will pursue a similar policy, clear in the knowledge that armed confrontation with French forces can only result in their defeat. Given this, the security of Timbuktu and Mali’s other urban centres is far from assured. Whilst the country’s historical and cultural heritage has been offered succour by the French arrival, the days of fear and threat are still not over for those people dedicated to maintaining the riches of Timbuktu.

It is to be hoped that the French are in this for the long haul.

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French Fears: Algeria-Mali Border Fluidity and the Spread of Terrorism

Ever since the Al-Qaeda linked Ansar Dine group ousted Taureg rebels from Northern Mali last year, fears of a terrorist “domino effect” across the Sahel region have mounted. Last week’s hostage crisis in Algeria saw those fears heightened, as rumours persisted that the terrorists responsible for the seizure of the In Aménas gas facility recruited and held bases in restless Mali.

The Algerian hostage crisis may have been facilitated by the fluidity of the Malian border
The Algerian hostage crisis may have been facilitated by the fluidity of the Malian border

At the start of the year, France agreed to send 2,000 troops to fight Ansar Dine in Northern Mali, as part of a cooperative military intervention organised by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There success in halting the advance of the terrorists has been immediate. Nevertheless, intervention by a European power in one of its former colonies was always likely to be a touchy issue. This seems to have been proven by the motives of Katibat al-Multahemeen (The Masked Brigade), the perpetrators of the Algerian hostage crisis. Terrorist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar demanded an end to French military intervention in Mali as a prerequisite for releasing hostages.

The French intervention in West Africa is now under intense scrutiny. With the desert wastelands of Southern Algeria a perfect location for terrorist training camps and a potential breeding ground for “Jihadists”, the possibility of the War on Terrorism crossing into Algeria looks increasingly likely. This is all the more so given the Ansar Dine control over the Northern Mali border, raising the prospect that they will act as cross-border facilitators of Islamic terrorism.

Should a similar group to Ansar Dine take control of Southern Algeria, what would the French do then? They have seemingly set a precedent by intervening in Mali. Would it not be hypocritical to abstain from an intervention in Algeria should it be required? Of course, historical factors must be considered. Between 1954 and 1962, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) and French troops fought one of the bloodiest wars of independence in history. Horrific atrocities were committed by both sides and, since the French withdrawal in 1962, lasting enmity between the contesting nations has persisted.

The horrors of the Algerian War remain engrained in the memories of French and Algerians alike
The horrors of the Algerian War remain engrained in the memories of French and Algerians alike

Given this recent history, French intervention in Algeria would be at the very least awkward, if not downright suicidal. There are likely to be few welcoming arms amongst the history-conscious Algerian populace. However, these historical considerations must be balanced against contemporary reality. The Sahel region is becoming infected with terrorist influences, with weak governments and impoverished populations providing excellent territorial opportunities and recruiting grounds for terrorists.

The West African region is one of traditional European influence, particularly French and British, and it might be expected that these two nations lead the fight against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and their allies. Whether a French intervention in Algeria is necessary remains to be seen but it could either help eradicate or intensify the terrorist plague infecting the Sahel region. Such are the contradictions of history and the present day.