Some short weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal filed a report regarding the spread of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The report was timely, coming on the heels of Mauritania’s first suicide bombing and an uptick in the group’s attacks in Algeria and its activities elsewhere. The report noted that its newest recruits were coming especially from the peoples of northern Mali and Mauritania, people linked by their Arabic dialect (Hassaniya) and kinship. The report notes that AQIM is attempting to recruit both “the young Muslims of the region — white ones and black ones,” but seems to indicate that it is having greater success with the “white” Muslims from the Mauritanian Arabophone majority and the Arab minorities in Mali and Niger. See here for alle’s criticism and commentary on the WSJ piece.
While AQIM was founded on the infrastructure of the GSPC, an Algerian rebel group whose leadership hailed almost entirely from the northern, sedentary and urban metropole, its metamorphosis in the Sahara has meant that its most recent classes of foot-soldiers have been local to that region, thus complicating things not only for those interested in combating it, but also for its leadership. The situation raises important questions as to the extent and meaning of AQIM’s appeal to young Arabs in the Sahel, mostly of bidhani (lit. “white”; more eloquently called “Moorish” in English) stock. Before this can be addressed it must be said that while, like many nomadic and semi-nomadic populations (including their non-Arab Tuareg neighbors), the Arab bidhan have a traditional social division between “warrior” and “zawiyya,” or religious tribes, with the former traditionally responsible for the protection of the latter. While this means that there is a martial tradition among the tribes in the region, it does not mean that their traditional Islamic canon, based on the Maliki madhhab is at all proximate to the variety of Salafist-ideology carried by AQIM. While there is a history of the bidhan practicing martial jihad against other local Muslims and non-Muslims (mostly to the immediate south), the local mentality discourages violence against Muslim leaders and views outside ideologies and Arabs with, if not suspicion, then certainly with a grain of salt (or, perhaps more fittingly, “sand”). The tendency away from violence against Muslim rule (one might call it fitnaphobia) is stronger among Moors than Tuaregs for a whole complex of reasons that are best explored in another instance. Furthermore, the bidhan/Moorish groups outside of Mauritania must be viewed in the context of a minority population that, much like the Tuareg, views their sedentary, southern, Francophone and black central governments (e.g. Mali and Niger) with suspicion, as antagonistic elements threatening to their way of life as pastoralists. This has been a fundamental element in the tension between the Tuaregs of Mali and Niger and their central governments since independence till the present; it has also been a bone of contention with the Moorish communities, who have often held affections or sympathies with Mauritania, the Moorish dominated state presently suffering rule-by-general and a rather active AQIM infection. Analysis of AQIM’s appeal to these populations must necessarily, then, consider the place of historically pastoralist/semi-nomadic peoples in the political economy of the Sahel, an area where settled and roaming people are both by and large Muslim.
In any case, AQIM may appeal especially to the Moors of the Sahel for the following reasons, though this is surely not an exhaustive or perfect survey. The reasons are, as anywhere, complex, but are basically logistical, situational and fiscal in nature. [ This writing does not propose to assume that the Moorish communities in the Sahel are at all predisposed toward collaboration with AQIM on a communal or tribal basis any more than others. It intends to focus specifically on one element of the problem broadly, and if it seems the emphasis is too specific on the particular issue it is not to discount other important questions or challenges. ] Readers ought to keep in mind the dutiful and wonderfully useful analyses of AQIM’s appeal in the region here and here.
- Geography: Simply, AQIM has not extended its theatre of operations beyond the Sahara — yet. Its main locus of activity since re-focusing south has been in areas with large Moorish populations, the so-called trab el-bidhan (domain of the Moors), thus making this population the obvious pool of recruits. Northern Mali, where AQIM has set up training camps, has a significant Moorish population (e.g., Azawade). What is more is that this region, part of Mali largely as a result of the lazy French cartography at end of the colonial era, has been contested between Mali and Morocco and Mauritania since 1960, and even before. It makes up the area known in pre-colonial times as bilad as-siba’, or the dissident territories beyond the direct control of sultans and kings in the north or the Sahel (the bilad al-makhzen or bilad al-selim, the lands of government/order/peace). The locals were at one point so disinclined to be included as a part of Mali that the Malians felt it necessary to operate a radio service in Hassaniya specifically to compete with Moroccan and Mauritanian broadcasts aimed at winning the affections of the Moors there. They even fought against the central government, with Libyan support, while the Tuaregs struggled similarly. For whatever reason, likely for financial or technical limitations, AQIM has spent much time in the general vicinity of these people, and has brought to the area peoples related to the locals, mainly from Mauritania. Thus, AQIM has not had direct or intimate contact populations farther to the south yet.
- The decline of traditional Moorish culture: As a result of the consolidation of the Malian state, settlement and restrictions on the activities that most readily express bidhan values and identity have weakened traditional pillars of authority and prestige. The state’s hostility to slavery, an activity still practiced in much of the region and a bone of contention between the state and both Moors and Tuaregs, has earned it the skepticism of the northern peoples. In addition, economic difficulties caused by drought have made the pastoral lifestyle difficult to maintain. In a culture where tribes often measured their wealth or power by head of livestock and slaves, this leads to a crisis of identity, particularly for “warrior” tribes who are concentrated in the area with some strength. The modern unitary state, the model used at first shot (and maintained more or less however imperfectly) by most states in the Sahel is antagonistic to the raiding and grazing culture found among Moors and Tuareg. Thus, the strength of the state is seen to come at the expense of both Moorish freedom in general and tribal prestige. AQIM’s warrior culture fits into Moorish cultural constructs of masculinity, and power. In challenging a state that is seen to sap the life out of Moorish society, AQIM offers the Moors a way of regaining a nomadic culture they new less than one hundred years ago. The jihadist cause AQIM touts likely recalls, to some extent, folk mythology that Moors grow up with. That is not to say that AQIM has fully connected Moorish religious or cultural tradition to its brand of Salafism, as there is little evidence of this; it is, however, to say that to a Moor in a depressed region of Mali or Algeria (and even Mauritania, though the dynamics are different there), may put AQIM’s crusading message into this cultural schema and milieu, and that his circumstance perhaps makes the group more appealing than it might be otherwise, especially among wealthy or middle class young people. It also means that religion is unlikely to be the primary factor driving recruits interested in the organization from an ideational standpoint. In the same way that a POLISARIO guerilla is appealing to many boys in the desert, his turban waving behind him in his AK-47-mounted Land Rover, the image of the veiled AQIM warrior surely holds a folkloric appeal to some. These are, after all, the people who gave us the Almoravids. It would be interesting to analyze the tribal origins of AQIM recruits from the Algeria-Mali-Niger border area.
- Money: The Sahel, and most everyone in it, is quite poor. Smuggling is a popular activity in all the border regions, and cartels and gangs have graduated AQIM recruits in Mauritania and Algeria. AQIM is increasingly active in the illicit cigarette, drug and weapons trades along the region’s borders. To the many jobless young men in the area this makes joining the “cause” very appealing. This also makes the potential for collaboration between AQIM and local military forces a possibility, if it is not already a reality (and there is some evidence that it is).
These elements then pose challenging questions, such as:
- As AQIM becomes more active in the region (assuming local efforts are not enough to keep it at bay, which is the current trend), is there a possibility that black Muslim populations will come to see it as another manifestation of northern, “white” dissidence? What aspects, beyond poverty or political discontent (as in, say, Niger), might make AQIM appealing to the black populations of the region who do not hold the minority and/or historically marginalized positions, as do the Moors?
- To what extent do central governments and affiliated forces/networks (such as Tuaregs or Western militaries) face if they put down fighters related with strong kinship ties to the Moorish communities? What is the risk that counter terrorism/anti-AQIM operations will deepen tribal antagonisms within the Moorish communities and between those communities and central governments?
- To what extent has AQIM recruited locals into leadership positions, or leadership-track positions? Are there perceived or/real “glass ceilings” for a Malian, Nigerian or Mauritanian or south-Algerian (black or Moorish or Tuareg) within the AQIM hierarchy? Historically AQIM’s emirs, throughout the region, were Algerians, though they have intermarried with locals (Tuaregs, etc.); how long is that set-up viable?
- What about AQIM attracts Moorish vs. Tuareg vs. black recruits in the region? In what ways can the state alleviate social or economic pressures that might cause these peoples to see the state as their enemy? What lessons from the Tuareg experience, both in how to and how not to address these issues, might be helpful?
- What is the role of Western governments in assisting local governments combat AQIM in areas at high risk for recruitment, if any at all?
- How successful can efforts to recruit Malian Arabs to fight AQIM be? How can such success be measured?
- What elements within Moorish society, religiously, socially, etc., might help to combat the spread of Salafist ideology? What are the “keys” to building (or maintaining in for instance, Mauritania) a local resistance to AQIM in tribal areas?
- It is also interesting to consider that many of the states in the region keep up ready camel corps, comprised of soldiers from the local Moorish and/or Tuareg tribes. This is certainly the case in Mauritania and Algeria. One is inclined to note that, in Mauritania, these men are often armed only with walky-talkies and rifles. Their AQIM counter parts, however, are armed with trucks and more advanced weapons and technologies and much more money. In Algeria, they are now part of mechanized units. To what extent are these forces liabilities and to what extent are they pluses, logistically, militarily and politically with regards to the area in question? How can border forces be strengthened to deal specifically with AQIM and related threats? Should they?
Again, this is an informal and admittedly incomplete look at the situation, and hopeful it sheds light and triggers useful thought for those interested in the problem at hand. Thoughts and suggestions from the informed and rational are encouraged and welcome.