Mali Security 2012

Talk something up enough and it will surely happen.

This season has been dominated by the kidnapping of 3 tourists in Timbuktu in late November 2011. Finally, after three years of western government warnings of a “high risk of terrorism” in Mali, the first ever kidnappings, and thus the first ever “terrorist” attack on Mali soil has happened.

This event has brought into sharp focus many of the issues surrounding security and travelling. Over the coming weeks, as a way of introducing my blog site, I am going to be posting articles on security in the region. What is going on in the Sahara? What is it all about and what does it mean for travellers?

After the initial shock and concern for those kidnapped, which was compounded by the fact that I had met some of the victims and had been in Timbuktu with a group a week or so prior to the kidnappings, my subsequent reaction was, surprisingly, of relief. Relief that at last the thing that was being held up as high probability had happened, now we can stop speculating and start dealing with the issue in hand, now we can stop talking probability and focus on reality. 

I have been arguing that the British government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and other western government travel warnings on Mali are overstated, politically motivated, and have more to do with western governments’ own interests and propaganda with respect to the “war on terror” than with “protecting citizens abroad”, which we are told is the only motivation behind the warnings.

Now perhaps they will turn to me and say “told you so”.

But I have some questions: has three years of “warnings” prevented anybody being kidnapped? Were the 3 people kidnapped in Timbuktu protected in any way by western government travel warnings on Mali? Have the warnings themselves helped create the very situation they are warning about?

To put this in another context – imagine you are about to fly off on holiday to Spain. As you buy your flight ticket, there is a warning posted across your ticket: “Travel warning: international terrorism has used the public transport systems – buses, trains, underground, planes and airports – to launch its campaign of terror. Thousands of people have been killed. There is a high risk of terrorist attack in any western country and airports are a particular target.”

Do you need to be told this? Does this warning affect your decision to fly to Spain? Say you decide to stay at home for fear of attack, when finally an attack happens in a random western city, perhaps one you were thinking of going to, do you sit back and think “thank god I heeded their warning and stayed at home”? Or do you put the risk into context and realise it is a game of lots, there by the grace of God go I?

On the domestic front the Mali government now has to face up to a security issue on its northern border with Algeria. There has been an easy truce between AQIM and the Mali government whereby AQIM are allowed to camp up on Mali territory but do not act within Mali. Now that truce has been broken, Mali has to face up to the reality of the cancer it has tolerated out of weakness in the face of regional and international interest to exaggerate the Al Qaeda threat in the desert issue.

With the recent resurgence of a sector of the Tuareg rebellion, seemingly taking on the Malian army at will and winning hands down, change of some kind is inevitable for the region. This rebellion is in part a response by the Tuareg to the insecurity in their region that the Malian government has tolerated. Mali is trying to say that the Tuareg rebellion is supported by AQIM, the rebels are saying that part of their grievance is the presence of terrorists in their land, destroying the local economy and leaving the Tuareg youth with little option of employment other than with terrorists, armed gangs, or rebels. The Malian army have shown over recent days that it is incapable of protecting its own let alone Malian citizens. Thankfully the Tuareg rebellion have never targetted citizens or tourists as they know this will play into the hands of their detractors. Consequently, while the Tuareg are battling the Malian army, AQIM’s activities will quieten down, and ironically Mali is now arguably safer for tourists than it was before.

In the wider context we could be emerging into very interesting times for West Africa. There is a generation coming through, educated but with no jobs, restless for change, seeing governments topple in north Africa and no longer afraid to dream or ask “why not us?”.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be discussing these questions. Please feel free to comment.