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Mali's two-pronged approach to combating Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

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Mali is often seen, by analysts as well as its neighbors, as something of an outlier within the Sahel in terms of its government’s approach to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In February 2010, Mali effectively swapped hostages with AQIM, angering Algeria and Mauritania, who withdrew their ambassadors for a time (Algeria and Mauritania favor attempts to neutralize AQIM through force). Mali does not reject the use of force: it has attended regional counterterrorism summits, and recently participated in Mauritania’s campaign to clear militants out of the Wagadou Forest in the Mauritania-Mali border zone. In addition to force, however, Mali is moving forward with an initiative to address underdevelopment and marginalization, problems the government believes help drive AQIM.

Mali has launched a 32 billion CFA franc [$69 million] programme to try and restore the government’s authority in its desert north where a mix of rebels and criminals have fomented insecurity through kidnappings, smuggling and uprisings.

The government is hoping to develop the north, which is potentially rich in resources and was once frequented by foreign tourists but remains impoverished and awash with gunmen, including groups linked to al Qaeda.

Having lost some $110 million in revenues from tourism over the last two years, President Amadou Toumani Toure said the government would hit back by redeploying some administrative offices and providing infrastructure and development.

As Jeune Afrique (French) details, the development program (Programme spécial pour la paix, la sécurité et le développement au Nord-Mali, “Special Program for Peace, Security, and Development in North Mali” or PSPSDN) was part of the national security strategy Mali adopted in 2009. So the program is not an ad hoc attempt to throw money at a problem, but is rather a plan carefully devised by the president and his advisers.

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Toure, for his part, speaks of a “security-development binomial,” in which force is a necessary but not sufficient element in ending terrorism. Only an enduring commitment to development, Toure believes, will address the root causes of violence. To that end the government will construct new garrisons in the north, but also new health centers, food banks, schools, and more. The program will last until the end of Toure’s mandate next summer. It has funding from the World Bank, the EU, the US, and various other donor countries and agencies.

I think this program could prove helpful not just to counterterrorism aims, but to the people of northern Mali. I do not believe in the equations “terrorism=poverty+Islam” or “development+counterterrorism=peace,” but the approach Mali’s leaders are taking strikes me as more sophisticated than that – at the very least, they have a multi-faceted development approach.

One area that may not fall under the rubric of the northern development program, however, is ideological struggle. Recent reports from Magharebia have highlighted a new video from AQIM, which “prominently features fighters from Mali and Mauritania” and a new preaching campaign by AQIM along the Mauritanian-Malian border. Development efforts alone, even if they have an ideological valence, may not be enough to compete effectively on the ideological plane. Terrorist recruitment is a complex phenomenon, and whether people in northern Mali are receptive to AQIM’s outreach will depend on a host of factors, but it would seem worth the regime’s while to partner with local Muslim scholars or take other steps to spread a counter-theology.

Malian journalists and politicians are already turning their gazes toward the 2012 elections but Toure, even though he is term limited from running again, is not an irrelevant “lame duck.” A year’s time may prove short, given the ambitions of the northern development program, but there is still time to make a substantial difference. If the program works, it will have implications for Mali’s future and for other countries trying to control, help, and influence remote territories.

Readers who want more background on northern Mali can check out this dated, though still informative, USAID report (.pdf) from 2004.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.