Friday, March 28, 2008

The Banana Theory: Are Tuareg rebels in Mali (and Niger) in cahoots with Al-Qaida?

A recurring theme has sprung up regarding the up tick in violence in northern Mali: Are Taureg rebels connected to some broader terror movement? More worrying, are they somehow aligned with Al-Qaida? It’s a theory that has been debunked many times before, but continues to crop up every few months.

In a recent report from VOA, London based human rights activist Ibrahima Kane, says that with instability in the northern lands growing, you cannot miss the parallels.

"There are many rebel groups in that part of Africa. Some of them are supposed to have very strong links with al-Qaida, and there is lots of arms trafficking, many traffics in that part of the region," said Kane.

It’s true that Al-Qaida's north African wing, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is believed to be holding two Austrian tourists they nabbed in Tunisia at a hideout in northern Mali (or Niger or Algeria).

On the other hand, Anthropologist Jeremy Keenan has long played down the idea of any fruitful relationship between Malian rebels and al-Qaida. He’s brought on to VOA to do the same:

"This is connected geographically but that is totally separate from this rebellion. In other words, the Tuareg rebellion and the Austrian hostage situation are not connected in any way. They just happen to be in the same area, but that is coincidental," he said.

He says links between different armed groups in the region do exist, such as between the Malian and Niger rebels, but they are difficult to define.

"The linkages are very, very complicated.... They involve a lot of history and quite detailed micro-politics and micro-sociology, and so forth but one thing I think I will probably say is the situation in Niger up until these last couple of weeks by and large has been worse than in Mali," he said.

Keenan says he believes the situation in both Mali and Niger has been aggravated by raids by government militaries on civilian areas. The two militaries have been receiving U.S. aid and training to combat terrorism and trafficking in the area.

(He gets so much time airtime compared to Ibrahima Kane that one get’s the idea the “London based human rights activist” was solely contacted for his role to start an empty debate, only to have it debunked. Nonetheless, he was kind enough to oblige.)

Here’s a take from author Sharon Chada (admittedly from September, the last time the Tuareg = Al-Quaida connection was made):

[I]t is the Tuareg, after all, who host the Festival of the Desert every year. And I have to say, I could never quite square reports about them being allied with Al Qaeda with all the music they make, their lifestyle (the men veil, the women don't), not to mention their fierce independence (they've run the desert caravans across the Sahara since Biblical times). I could never quite imagine Bin Laden and company suddenly being enthroned in Tuareg lands…

Anyway, the Iraqi Sunnis get it, and it appears the Tuareg do too: that this, that these Al Qaeda people are never happy just being offered refuge, or someplace to live and educate their kids in safety and prosperity, what they also want is to rule, and in their particularly obnoxious way.

Isn't there something else at work here? It’s the responsibility of any government to secure its borders – however hazy they may be – and insure the respect of its territorial sovereignty. Tuareg rebels may not be terrorists. Fine. But what is their knowledge or connection with the smugglers moving drugs, weapons and people (and cigarettes!) through the desert? In Niger, at least from what they say, a lot. (“…not even a mouse could get through the desert without their knowledge…”) A Tuareg rebel leader from Niger told another VOA reporter that for information regarding smugglers, governments have to come clean with Tuaregs and other nomads and bring them on board as partners.

So far, this isn’t happening. Perhaps that’s the debate we should be having.

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