SUMMARY: This post considers reports from the French press that Qatar has been funding armed groups in northern Mali in light of Algerian press coverage of the story and uncertainties in the region and strong claims.
Last week the satirical French paper Canard Enchaîné reported that Qatar has allegedly been funding armed groups in northern Mali made their way into Algerian and west African outlets. Suspicions that Ansar Ed-Dine, the main pro-shari’ah armed group in the region, has been receiving funding from Qatar has circulated in Mali for several months. Reports (as yet unconfirmed) that a ‘Qatari’ aircraft landed at Gao, full of weapons, money and drugs, for example, emerged near the beginning of the conflict. The original report cites a French military intelligence report as indicating that Qatar has provided financial support to all three of the main armed groups in northern Mali: Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). The amount of funding given to each of the groups is not mentioned but it mentions repeated reports from the French DGSE to the Defense Ministry have mentioned Qatar’s support for ‘terrorism’ in northern Mali.
Jeune Afrique mentions that the report is likely to increase tensions between Algiers and Doha, pointing to possible contention over hydrocarbons in northern Mali and disagreements over Qatar’s aggressive support for Arab uprisings, which has irritated Algiers. (The original report mentions discussions between Total and Qatar on energy in Mali.) The first question to ask about a story like this is what and where is the source for the French source on this? While knowledgeable sources in west Africa have alleged Qatar has been ‘supporting’ at least one armed group in Mali their reports tend to mention Ansar Ed-Dine specifically and not the secular MNLA, the well known al-Qa’ida affiliate AQIM or its splinter, MUJWA. That Qatar is backing all of these groups is new and unique to the Canard Enchaîné report. One wonders if Algerian reporting (the French had to have gotten this information from someplace) has to do with this particular accusation going beyond Ansar Ed-Dine. Even if this is not the case the Canard Enchaîné report is worth thinking about in the wider political context.
The aggressive coverage this report has gotten in the Algerian press fits strongly within a narrative that emerged chiefly in the context of the Libyan uprising, in which Qatar is presented as recklessly seeking to destabilise the broader region by financing and armed Islamist rebel groups. The Qatari objective in this narrative has something to do with so spreading fanatical Wahabi ideology and destablising oil and gas rich states as a means of gaining access to their resources. This is part of a larger narrative about the Arab risings, which presents Algeria as a bastion of stability being encircled by Islamist forces. This was evident, for example, in a significant part of the press coverage around the appointment of Gen. Bachir Tartag. Elsewhere, Qatar is presented as seeking to force an uprising in Algeria through foul means. El Watan, La Tribune, DNA, and a number of other outlets covered the Canard Enchaîné story as evidence of a large Qatari conspiracy against Algeria. El Watan’s 07 June report links the charges in the Canard Enchaîné report to Qatar’s supposed efforts to a wider ‘campaign to fund Islamist terrorism in the Muslim world,’ while noting that Doha’s supposed funding of the MNLA, AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine and MUJWA ‘is not accidental. It is aimed primarily at destablising Algeria, which has resisted until now the tide of the green peril.’ La Tribune‘s report includes the following lines:
Qatar wants to destabilize the entire region from North Africa to the Mashreq without worrying about the political and security consequences that result. Today, Libya has been delivered to itself, Egypt will not know stability any time soon, and Tunisia tries hard to silence its demons. As in Mali, it [Qatar] risks the implosion and the threat of civil war as well as in Syria.
DNA writes, ‘in short, the emirs of Qatar fund armed Islamists, who spread terror in Algeria and the Sahel, holding Algerian hostages and proclaiming an Islamic Caliphate on Algeria’s frontiers.’ The report repeats a mantra heard among many leaders in the Sahel that northern Mali is at risk of becoming ‘another Afghanistan’ (this is a common refrain in western circles too). DNA’s report also mentions Qatar’s supposed interest in ‘the oil of the Sahel’.
It should be noted that public reports of Qatari ‘support’ for Ansar Ed-Dine and other armed groups in Mali are almost always vague, imprecise and generally accusatory rather than empirical. In this way they are similar to accusations often heard in pro-MNLA and French circles that Algeria is secretly backing Ansar Ed-Dine, based on its past relationship with Iyad Ag Ghali prior to his transformation into a Salafi-jihadi. While these reports tend to point toward anecdotal evidence or gut feelings, such claims are similarly light in sourcing and similarly politicised, constructing grand designs for Algiers in northern Mali based on energy or Algeria’s own internal politics, or based on Keenanite theories of Algeria’s perception of the Sahel and its activities there.
There is also something to be said on style here. In evaluating reports of ‘Algerian support’ and ‘Qatari support’ for this or that organisation or group, one should be careful to note previous, established patterns of behaviour in Mali and elsewhere. The Algerians do not deploy forces outside their own borders for the sake of foreign proxies unless they feel there is something vital at stake; the only such example of this in Algerian history is Algeria’s participation in the Western Sahara conflict. Its involvement in northern Mali has not followed this model, where it tends to bring specific individuals under its influence through various means who are then instrumentalised in implementing Algiers-led negotiations or accords — agents in place and agents of influence. Algiers sent advisors to Kidal in late 2011 and pulled them out at very beginning of the conflict; their role was likely to assess the atmospherics in the area, gather intelligence not to be involved in combat. If the Algerians have used cash or the other means to establish agents in place within Ansar Ed-Dine or other groups is this utterly different than ‘controlling’ or ‘supporting’ an organisation (‘control’ must almost always be qualified because ‘control’ in the process of politics or war is almost always relative control). The MNLA was aggressively public in seeking Algerian support early on in the conflict, making more or less empty promises about fighting AQIM from the very start of the rebellion. The Algerians, uninterested in the MNLA’s independence agenda and probably also reluctant to become deeply involved in the conflict — as a means of trying to preserve their role as a mediator — rebuffed these overtures over time. Predictably, pro-MNLA and other interested media outlets have accused Algiers of taking the other side or of deliberately remaining aloof from the conflict as a means of expanding a zone of ‘hegemony‘ in the region.
In a hazy situation as in northern Mali, reporting is negatively impacted by information fed by biased sources seeking to discredit their foes, provide answers to questions they may feel they cannot otherwise explain due to poor information using extrapolation, rumours, and so on. People who are otherwise reliable may not have access or knowledge of the current situation in the ways they used to under previous conditions. Everything is turned inside and everyone wants answers. Strong claims make explanations easier in a climate of uncertainty.
Claims of Qatari support for armed groups in Mali are not preposterous though as yet unconfirmed. If there are Qatari princes who are providing money to groups in northern Mali and the government of Qatari is turning the blind eye or is unaware this is one thing; if the government of Qatar, as policy, is sending money to any of these groups this is something else. Right now little is known in public that is concrete and verified. If there is indeed Qatari money moving to the rebel groups in northern Mali it is more likely to be along the lines of the first scenario, rather than the second, based on the example of Qatari involvement with al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, where individuals who were also involved in aid or religious activities became close to al-Qa’ida operatives and similar organisations. Limited Qatari interest in northern Mali and the Sahel can be traced back at least to the 1980s when Qataris, with other Gulf Arabs, were active in helping to establish Islamic charities and relief groups which also tended to help spread these groups’ religious agendas. Similar activities continue in the region today. At the end of the day, though, there is still this report adding new variables and new questions — and there are still more questions than answers.