Why Mali matters

A recent UN report warning of a severe food shortage across the Sahel, combined with the rise of Islamic militancy in northern Mali, poses a direct threat to regional stability in West Africa. According to a report released on August 16 by the United Nations office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “refugees and internally displaced persons in Mali and neighboring countries are in urgent need of food, shelter and water.” The report warns that the food insecurity situation is deteriorating as a severe drought, spanning from Senegal to Chad, plagues the Sahel, leaving bones scattered in its path. The proliferation of armed groups and political instability is a direct result of this humanitarian crisis, and the ripple effects will be felt everywhere.

In March, a coup d’etat in the capital Bamako left a security vacuum in the north and allowed al-Qaeda linked militant groups to exploit the situation and take control of northern Mali, an area the size of France. A reported 435,000 inhabitants fled to Mauritania, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and to southern Mali as Islamic fundamentalists Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa imposed strict Sharia, or Islamic law, in the cities of Gao, Kidal and historic Timbuktu.

Under their rule, which effectively goes unrivaled, music, soccer, smoking cigarettes and playing video games are all banned activities. Harsh sentences have been carried out against an unmarried couple, who were stoned to death, and a thief, who had his hand hacked off, all in the name of Islamic justice.

Sahelian countries rank among the poorest in the world. The added strain of refugees on these failing economies creates a crisis that requires international attention and assistance. Refugee camps are nearly full to capacity and food is scarce. Clashes with locals over food, water and possible employment opportunities are likely as both sides are struggling to survive in this arid region.

Additionally, locals fear that militants will attempt to penetrate refugee camps and recruit individuals to their cause. Given the many dire problems plaguing the region, such initiatives will likely be lucrative. Furthermore, there are reports that militant groups operating in the Sahel are now recruiting children to join their operations. Herding cattle on the brink of death is not as appealing as carrying a weapon and fighting for a higher cause. Militancy pays.

The situation is compounded in that the borders between these African countries are merely lines in the sand and flow with the wind. Due to non-existent border security, militants travel freely throughout the region. The combination of the two allow criminal activity to go on unchecked.

For these reasons, a web of criminal activity has taken form across the Sahel. Criminal and militant factions are being merged together through common interests. Those familiar with West Africa’s famous trading routes are now linking up to smuggle weapons, drugs, contraband, and food across the region.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been involved in the trade for some time now. UN Reports dating back to 2008 indicate that they have forged ties with Latin American cartels to transport cocaine to Europe. AQIM taxes the cartels per kilo and provides them with security on their journey.

This industry is far more lucrative than kidnapping westerners whose presence is virtually non-existent since the hostile takeover of northern Mali. All organizations, whether peaceful or militant-related, need cash to survive. Mastering smuggling techniques provides an added advantage to these extremists.

But while American media largely ignores developments in the Sahel, the situation will likely come to affect the US in the long run. Moreover, what is troubling about the drug connection is the fact that planes transporting cocaine to West Africa, travel back to Latin America. They can very easily transport militants to the West, who could then travel to Mexico and infiltrate the United States through existing drug tunnels. They, like the international spy agencies tracking them, understand that if you can smuggle cash and drugs in and out of Africa, you can do the same with an anti-aircraft missile.

While AQIM has not yet attempted to enter the United States, members do travel to Europe. On August 2, three men linked to AQIM were arrested in Spain with bomb making material and were believed to have been planning an attack inside Spain or elsewhere in Europe.

Foreign intervention remains unlikely at this time. Any outside force, including ECOWAS, will require the participation of the Malian army, which is still dealing with ramifications of the coup from March in Bamako. The army staged the coup because they felt as though the Malian government was not sufficiently supplying them to fight the rebel Tuaregs up north. Little has changed. The army still remains poorly funded, trained and still has insufficient arms to battle to better equipped and highly trained Al Qaeda linked militant groups up north. Outside intervention also poses serious consequences. The Islamic militants would use the opportunity to tighten its ranks and increase its recruits in the name of jihad against infidels.

In 2012, wheat and grain shortages due to drought in North America and Russia have affected everyone globally. This shortage has driven up the price of food and its long term effect could mean a drop in food aid to those who desperately need it. Coupled with militancy, criminal activity, and an estimated 435,000 refugees, the Sahel is bound to explode. The food shortage in West Africa is a serious threat that affects the world over. Desperation breeds lawlessness, and extremism thrives on both. In Mali, an estimated 4.5 million people are in need of food. Regionally, that number could top off at 10 million – creating an international crisis.

Let’s just hope help arrives before it’s too late.

About the Author
Samantha Benitez is a master's candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University where she specializes in Islamic militancy in North Africa, as well as a former intelligence analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geo-political risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel