Terrorists, guns, and cocaine: Why Northern Mali matters

Malian people wave to French soldiers as a convoy of armored vehicles leave Bamako and start a deployment to the north of Mali as part of the 'Serval' operations on January 15, 2013.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Battle-hardened Islamic militants are now fighting to maintain control of northern Mali. Their domination of the vast area -- the size of Texas -- has for months facilitated the free flow of fighters, weapons, and drugs across northern Africa, turning the territory into an ATM of sorts for radical Islamic groups and creating a safe haven not unlike Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule.

The Malian government's complete lack of control in the north led to the region becoming a potential launchpad for future terrorist operations aimed at the U.S. and Europe. Now, France is leading a military operation to try and reclaim the territory, with mixed results so far. French ground forces were heading to confront the radical Islamic fighters on Wednesday, and a coalition of West African forces has been given approval by the U.N. to join the ground war. France says it is hopeful the African troops will join the fight within a week. The U.S. government is providing technical and logistical assistance, but President Obama has ruled out U.S. ground forces.

After almost a year during which the al Qaeda-linked militants have taken root -- largely uncontested -- in the region, the West and its allies seem to have accepted that northern Mali matters, and the fight could not wait any longer.

Western trepidation has been rooted in the logistics of policing such a huge swath of sand and rock that has little in the way of natural resources, with towns often hundreds of miles apart and connected only by dirt roads. Merely surviving the elements in northern Mali is a feat, let alone waging war there.

Yet in the last two decades or so, militant Islamic groups that formed out of the detritus of various purges and wars in North Africa have learned to take refuge and thrive in the Sahara desert, which runs through several countries and envelopes all of Northern Mali. Their leaders have learned that fighters can arrive and train and plot with little to no fear of harassment from drones, let alone soldiers. In the Sahara's minimally policed waste, they can arrange for the purchase, sale, and gathering of weapons, either through the black market or from arms plundered during events like the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in nearby Libya.

There is also the money to worry about. More than a decade ago, Latin American drug cartels began exploiting weak governments in West Africa to gain a reliable route for cocaine, cannabis and other drugs to the European market. In addition to narco-states like Guinea-Bissau, the cartels have found a trade partner of sorts in some of the militant groups working the Sahara's expanse. On top of the massive cash flow that could represent for them, militants have for years been taking advantage of adventure-hungry tourists (PDF link), kidnapping them and demanding hefty ransoms, which are often paid.

The non-centralized enemy, the resources available to them and the massive logistical challenges of the region leave few good options for solving the wider crisis.

Complicating matters is the fact that Mali, as a soverign country is still a mess. Western militaries and their allies have had at most a small official presence, and no official operations there until very recently because the country is still sorting through the after-effects of a March 2012 military coup. If you don't know who's in charge, how do you negotiate cooperation?

"We must be honest: The military is still there pulling the strings," Ivorian Ambassador to the United Nations Youssoufou Bamba told CBS News in the Autumn of 2012.

The president of Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara, is the current chairman of ECOWAS, a coalition of West African nations that tried to assert a leadership role in the Mali crisis before the French took the lead, including advocating the use of a combined force of 3,300 regional troops to lead the military operation.

At the start of talks on intervention, Bamba said, "there will be no European troops, there will only be African troops, because this is an African issue," but the encroachment of the extremists on Mali's capital turned that idea on its head, and France decided further delay was untenable.

France's offensive reversed months of rhetoric in which France and African leaders had said the West would only provide aerial and logistical support for a military intervention. The change came after al Qaeda-linked fighters captured a town close to the southern part of the country, despite bombardment from French warplanes.

The good news for the ongoing intervention is that the three main Islamic militant groups in Mali don't necessarily share the same interests.

The one garnering the most attention is al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), which has the strongest ties to al Qaeda's weakened central leadership. AQIM was born out of the Algerian civil war in 1990s, and originally sought only to overthrow the government there, but in 2007 a "blessed union" was announced between them and al Qaeda's core. The group has been credited primarily with Mafia-like activities such as money laundering and smuggling in North Africa. AQIM had been seen as the al Qaeda franchise with the most money-making potential.

The other large group involved in Northern Mali is Ansar Dine, which was founded by a former Malian rebel leader who allegedly has family ties to AQIM. Ansar Dine is in control of the largest territory in the north. They appear to be the most aggressive in imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic "Sharia" law on locals, and also appear to be most interested in establishing an Islamic state there.

Finally, there is the MUJWA, a somewhat murky militant group allegedly born in Mauritania that some believe has the strongest ties to the international drug trade. Some have suggested they are a dissident faction of AQIM, others that their Islamic fundamentalism is merely a front for criminal activities. Their mission has been hard to pin down.

Exactly what each of these groups control, and what they're objectives are or were, remains unclear.

"The groups are still struggling amongst themselves," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, late last fall. "That's kind of one of the possible ways this might go: They're all kind of opportunistic, all have their own personal ambitions."

Still, many experts warn that optimism is unwarranted.

Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropology professor and Africa expert at Lehigh University who was living in Bamako during the military coup, said even if, for the sake of argument, Mali gains a permanent, legitimate government soon, and the West succeeds in freeing the main towns in the region from the grip of the militants, the future for northern Mali remains dim.

"No central government has ever controlled the hinterland," Whitehouse said. "Whatever happens, it's gonna face a long-running insurgency up there."

  • Joshua Norman

    Joshua Norman is a Senior Editor at CBSNews.com.