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An Islamist takeover offers terrorists a safe haven—and a launching pad for future attacks- in Northwest Africa.


On September 30, 1938, Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the infamous Munich Agreement that sacrificed Czechoslovakia in what ultimately proved to be a vain attempt to appease Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s rapacious aggression. During a radio broadcast to the British public three days earlier,  Chamberlain had explained why: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here [in England] because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” To the leader of one of the world’s great powers, tiny Czechoslovakia was merely “a faraway country” that simply didn’t matter. Yet, encouraged by Britain’s (and France’s) cowardly behavior at Munich, Hitler continued his aggression, invading Poland in September 1939 and starting World War II that unleashed Nazi terror against all of Europe. In hindsight, it is clear that Chamberlain was tragically wrong – “faraway” Czechoslovakia mattered very much indeed.

Fast-forward 75 years. To most Americans today, the Republic of Mali, a former French colony in West Africa, is “a faraway country” beset by a quarrel “between people of whom [they] know nothing.” Yet, like Czechoslovakia in 1938, “faraway” Mali matters. Here’s why.


Terrorist organizations around the globe today – whether they be drug lords, smugglers and pirates seeking ill-gotten wealth or, more dangerous, Islamists waging jihad – cannot thrive without safe havens. The groups need secure, remote locations where they can plan, organize, recruit, train and build weapons arsenals, and from which they can launch attacks to strike distant targets. For Hezbollah it is eastern Lebanon’s Beqaa (Bekka) Valley; for the Taliban it is the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan; for alQaeda in Afghanistan it is the mountainous Pakistani tribal regions; and for al-Shabab it is the desolate Somalia hinterlands. Mali’s vast northern region, composed of the Sahel (south Sahara desert) and the rugged Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains, is a devil’s playground that can support the manning, training and equipping of a veritable legion of terrorists that could strike forth from Mali to all points of the compass.

Of all the terrorist groups that might covet northern Mali as a perfect safe haven, none poses more of a threat to Western security and values – and U.S. national interests – than Islamist jihadis. The principal strategic goal of the jihadis is to reconquer the Late Great Caliphate. According to their pan-Islamic vision, any land conquered by Muslims must remain Muslim or be returned to Muslim rule. At its peak a millennium ago, the Caliphate ranged from Morocco and Spain in the West to India in the East, and from the Balkans in the North to Yemen in the South. The extent of the Caliphate rivaled that of the Roman Empire at its height, and Muslim armies very nearly overran Europe more than once were it not for timely defeats inflicted by Charles the Hammer at Tours (732), Don John of Austria at the naval battle of Lepanto (1571) and the Holy League at Vienna (1683).

By A.D. 670, the Caliphate encompassed all of North Africa (beginning in the Middle Ages, represented by Ottoman Empire rule); but in the 19th century, Muslim control was lost to European colonizers (France, Britain, Spain and Italy). Today, Islamist jihadis want it back. Remote, ungoverned northern Mali offers the safe haven needed to host jihadists’ efforts to destabilize North Africa – and, not incidentally, bring them ever closer to Europe.


Americans today likely know only one thing about Mali – the country’s most famous city is the exotic, almost mythical Timbuktu. As the epitome of any far distant or outlandishly remote place at “the end of the Earth,” it has become immortalized in the commonly used phrase “from here to Timbuktu.” Located on the southwest edge of northern Mali, Timbuktu (population 55,000) is the capital of Mali’s Tombouctou administrative region, containing the entire western half of the potential terrorist safe haven in northern Mali. Timbuktu is, indeed, physically remote from the United States and the West; yet, if northern Mali becomes an Islamist jihadi safe haven and launching pad for terror attacks, Timbuktu is going to feel a lot closer to home. Americans, for their own good, need to know much more about Mali than merely Timbuktu.

LAND: Mali is landlocked and is bounded by Algeria in the North; Guinea, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso in the South; Mauritania and Senegal in the West; and Niger in the East. (See Mali map, p. 45.) It is the world’s 24th-largest country – double the size of Texas, Afghanistan or France. About 65 percent of Mali (northern and eastern portions) is dry and arid desert or semi-desert, while the country’s much smaller wet, tropical region is in the southwest along the Niger River. Less than 4 percent of Mali is arable land suitable for growing crops. Although a poor country, Mali has substantial deposits of salt, uranium (at least 17,400 tons are known) and gold (Mali is Africa’s third-largest producer of gold).

Northern Mali is ideal guerrilla country, comprised of the Sahel (southern Sahara desert ecological transitional zone) and the rugged, 3,000-feet-high Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains. It is figuratively “Lawrence of Arabia meets Bin Laden of Tora Bora.”

PEOPLE: Mali’s population is 14.5 million, with most living in rural areas with a sizable nomadic minority in the North. More than 90 percent of Malians live in the lush South in and around the capital, Bamako. Bambara or “black” Malians are Mali’s largest ethnic group (37 percent). Their language is Mali’s “lingua franca” (80 percent of all Malians speak Bambara), although French remains Mali’s official language. Nomadic Tuareg (10 percent of the population) are Arab Berbers seen as “white” Malians. Recent persistent droughts forced the Tuareg to temporarily abandon their nomadic life as many of them fled to Algeria and Libya. Other ethnic groups include Fula, Voltaic and Songhai (totaling 35 percent of Mali’s population).

Longstanding ethnic tensions pit “white” Tuareg of the North against “black” Africans of the South. The animosity dates back to the Caliphate-era slave trade – Arab Berbers kept and sold black slaves until stopped by early 20th-century French colonizers (although there are claims that some black Malians are still enslaved in the North). Given this history, coupled with the backlash against the Tuareg after Malian independence, both groups complain of racial discrimination.

RELIGION: Islam came to West Africa in the 11th century and remains the region’s dominant religion today, with 90 percent of Malians being Sunni or Sufi Muslim. Five percent of Malians are Christian (Roman Catholic and Protestant) and the remaining 5 percent are animist. The Malian constitution provides for a secular state and freedom of religion. Yet, that is under fire by Islamists seeking Wahhabi-style Sharia.

HISTORY – FROM FIRST TO WORST: One must travel back seven centuries to Timbuktu to find history’s wealthiest man – Mansa Musa I. He ruled the Malian Empire 1280-1337 and grew fantastically rich on the salt and gold trades. Things have changed. Mali today is one of the world’s poorest countries, with an average annual per capita income of only $1,500. In 1892 Mali became a French colony and for the next 68 years supplied France’s labor needs along the West African coast. Mali gained its independence in 1960 and quickly emplaced a one-party socialist state. Mali withdrew from the French Community and built a close relationship with the USSR-dominated Communist Eastern bloc.

POLITICS – FROM COUPS TO INSURGENCIES: Economic woes caused Mali to rejoin the Franc Zone in 1967 and to initiate economic reforms. Mali’s first military coup came in 1968. Its leaders attempted economic reform but failed in the face of internal struggles and devastating drought. They intended to install civilian rule but the military stayed in power. Mali stabilized in the 1980s and economic reforms were resurrected under an austerity agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The populace resented the austerity measures, believing the ruling elites didn’t share their sacrifices.

Calls for a multiparty democracy intensified in 1990 and opposition to one-party rule emerged; yet, so did ethnic violence in the North. Large numbers of Tuareg, who had fled the droughts, returned from Algeria and Libya, sparking unrest in the North. Fearing Tuareg secession, the Mali government imposed a state of emergency to put them down. Rioting in 1991 triggered yet another military coup. This time a majority civilian body was established to appoint a civilian-led government. In 1992 a free election led to the inauguration of Alpha Oumar Konaré as Mali’s president. Konaré stepped down after his mandated two-term limit, and the 2002 election became a first when Mali transitioned from one democratically elected leader to another.

In January 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) rebelled (Azawad is the Tuareg name for northern Mali). Although expected, the Tuareg insurgency came as a double surprise – its timing and alliance with the Islamists were unforeseen. The Malian Armed Forces (MAF) were soundly beaten in the initial engagements. Given the years of training and support the MAF had received from the West in preparation for this very event, its losses were also unexpected. The MAF’s poor performance cast doubt on the government’s effectiveness.

In March 2012, amid the panic and confusion of a mutiny at Kati military camp 6 miles from the Bamako presidential palace, MAF officer Captain Amadou Sanogo joined the mutineers and led another coup. Rebel MAF soldiers appeared on state-run television announcing the overthrow of the government due to its mishandling of the conflict in the North. In response to the coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) froze Malian assets and imposed an embargo. The new government promised but found no answer for combating the insurgency as the rebels seized Timbuktu and took northern Mali without serious resistance. Apprehension turned to panic when news arrived that Islamists were marching on Bamako.


In December 2012, a day after Konna (360 miles north of Bamako) fell to the Islamists, French forces intervened with their launch of Operation Serval. Mali had been a French colony for nearly 70 years and its connection with France runs deep (French is Mali’s official language and French nationals still live there). Operation Serval’s multiple aims were to block the Islamist advance on Bamako; regain control of northern Mali; secure the lines of communication all the way to the Algerian border; and then hand off stabilization operations to the African force fighting alongside French troops. To accomplish these ambitious aims, France fielded a versatile 4,000-man force that included mobile infantry, paratroopers and special forces, backed by Mirage fighters in close air support and U.S. surveillance drones.

Realizing the importance of putting an “African face” on the effort, the French quickly went to work recruiting African partners from their former colonies, with Chad leading the way by pledging 2,000 troops to the mission (other countries contributing include ECOWAS members Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Niger). Ultimately, the French would leave and Africans would fulfill a U.N. peacekeeping role. This was a smart move: when Westerners keep the peace in Africa, it feels like imperialism; when Africans keep the peace in Africa, it feels like teamwork.

French forces proceeded systematically by securing the chokepoint in the Sahel connecting northern and southern Mali, thereby blocking the invasion route to Bamako. Next, they recaptured two key northern cities, Timbuktu and Gao. They then worked their way north, securing the lines of communication between Bamako and the Algerian border while retaking Kidal and Tessalit along the way. Finally, the French gradually put the African ECOWAS forces in the lead. All the while, the French nurtured a new partnership between the MAF and ECOWAS.

The French exploited their overwhelming tactical firepower and superior mobility by employing the Véhicule Blindé de Combat d’Infanterie (VBCI, armored vehicle for infantry combat, similar to the U.S. Stryker) supported by AMX 56 Leclerc tanks and 155 mm Caesar self-propelled howitzers to dominate the road networks. They also capitalized on superior operational mobility through the use of paratroopers and air-inserted special forces to rapidly seize remote locations in the North. French forces achieved their objectives quickly and with ease – perhaps too much ease.

It is entirely possible that Mali’s insurgents were repeating the tactics Lawrence had taught Arab insurgents fighting the Ottomans nearly a century earlier: fade into the desert when the enemy is strong and attack when he is weak. When fighting an insurgency in its infancy, it is common for counterinsurgency forces to gain the upper hand. But the difficult part is maintaining the upper hand after the guerrillas fade away and before they are defeated – they come back. Insurgents seek protracted conflict to wear down the government’s will and exhaust the people’s patience. Suicide bombings are already taking place in the newly recaptured northern cities. If this continues, it will widen the gulf of mistrust between Mali’s urban population and the desert and mountain nomads.


If one or more of Mali’s Islamist insurgent groups manage to regain and maintain control of northern Mali, they will have captured their largest safe haven ever. (See “Mali’s Militants,” p. 47.) The Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains are the perfect guerrilla stronghold and hideout, essentially Mali’s Tortuga, Fallujah or Tora Bora. The mountains are the region’s historic “bandit badlands” (the home of drug smugglers, gunrunners and bandits for decades), made even worse by having a porous Algerian border nearby that facilitates the flow of weapons and supplies to the insurgents. These mountains are riddled with caves formerly used as shelter from sandstorms. Now they provide shelter from counterinsurgency drones and helicopter gunships.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and their Islamist allies know the area well. AQIM set up shop there in 2003, using the mountains and the Sahara desert to hide hostages and to train recruits such as Niger’s Boko Haram jihadist organization. The largest town in the area, Kidal (population 25,000), has been the epicenter of every Tuareg rebellion since 1962 – tellingly, it is also home to a 90-year-old French Foreign Legion fort, a lasting symbol to the longstanding danger of this remote center of resistance. Larger than other terrorist safe havens such as Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, Afghanistan’s Tora Bora, and Pakistan’s tribal regions, the area is rife with potential Islamist terror clients. In addition to Mali’s “homegrown” insurgents, these include Boko Haram from Niger and Burkina Faso, Islamists from Algeria and Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt, and al-Shabab from Somalia.

There are plenty of weapons to be had as well from Libya’s abundant stocks captured in the wake of dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s fall. Insurgents based in northern Mali can also count on political top cover from sympathetic North African regimes in Islamist Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Already, Egypt has condemned France’s military intervention in Mali, while a wary Algeria will most likely keep quiet in the hopes that its own Islamist tormentors will stay “south of the border” in northern Mali.

That’s why Mali matters – and why it compels U.S. policymakers to develop and implement a strategy to do something about it.


If northern Mali continues to live up to its historic reputation as a safe haven for bandits and guerrillas, it will remain a magnet for North Africa’s Islamists, particularly AQIM. After having lost its 10-year insurgency against Algeria as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the newly branded AQIM is seeking a home. Northern Mali more than fits the bill. Moreover, AQIM has ready clients with deep pockets like Boko Haram, masters like al-Qaeda with decades of experience planning and executing deadly strikes, and a clear, if nonetheless apocalyptic, vision – restoration of the North African Caliphate. AQIM has an “arms room” called Libya and enjoys the support of the sympathetic regional states Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. If the northern Mali safe haven is permitted to exist, North Africa – and the West, including the United States – will be at great risk. U.S. strategy, therefore, must address Mali’s key players and most compelling issues.

The Tuareg are the key to the security of northern Mali. If the Tuareg reject the Islamists, the Islamists will be gone. If they embrace Islamists, the Islamists will stay. The Malian Tuareg are much like the Afghan tribes in the wake of 9/11. When the Afghan tribes turned on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2002, the terrorists were defeated. Likewise, the rejection of the tribals in al-Anbar in 2006 had the same effect on al-Qaeda in Iraq.

One of the most profound observations of Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the famed philosopher of war, was “Everything in war is simple; but the simplest thing is difficult.” This dictum applies to the problem confronting U.S. policymakers in Mali. The solution to the problem presented by northern Mali is simple to define yet difficult to execute. The tension between the former slave-owning white Arab Berbers and their former slaves, the black southern Malians, is longstanding. The sedentary Northerners and the nomadic Tuareg also distrust one another. Add the Sunni/Sufi Muslim sectarianism antagonisms exemplified by the insurgents’ destruction of the Timbuktu Sufi Temples and rampant banditry and one ends up with a complex problem set. The United States must build up and professionalize the MAF while weakening the Islamists and, simultaneously, begin bridging the political gap between the Tuareg and the rest of the Malian population.

The U.S. objective must be to rid northern Mali of Islamists while forging long-term solutions to the region’s political, social and economic problems, arrested economic development, poverty, institutional chaos, government power vacuum and ethnic tensions. Specific actions to achieve these goals should include:

  • Allow semi-autonomy for the Tuareg in the North – perhaps a provincial governorship.
  • Ensure Tuareg political representation in Bamako.
  • Upgrade and maintain the North’s deteriorating infrastructure.
  • Provide basic government services in the North.
  • Arrange political mediation between sedentary and nomadic Northerners.
  • Discredit Wahhabism – most Malians already oppose Sharia.
  • Crack down on drug running, kidnapping and smuggling in the North while providing viable economic alternatives.
  • Improve MAF professional education to decrease the likelihood of future coups.
  • Restore the Mali population’s democratic spirit that flourished 1992-2002.

On October 22, 2012, during the U.S. presidential election’s third candidate debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney stated: “Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali, by al-Qaeda type individuals.” Yet, since then Mali has largely dropped off the American public’s radar. Mali matters and it needs to reappear on the U.S. radar screen – soon.


 John Sutherland is a retired U.S. Army infantry lieutenant colonel, a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s School of Advanced Military Studies, and currently a senior operations and intelligence analyst at the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) group in the Joint Staff. He was a senior analyst and contributor on the June 2012 JCOA “Decade at War” study, which can be read online at

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.