The Festival in the Desert organisers in consultation with the Burkina Faso government, have announced that the Festival In the Desert in Exile slot on the Caravan of Peace, 20-22 February 2013, has been moved to a location close to Ouagadougou to better guarantee the security of the festival.


The festival was to be held at Orsi in the north of Burkina Faso. 

While the islamists hold the region in Mali north of the Burkina border, an incursion into Burkina Faso by the islamists for an attack on the festival itself is unlikely (see below). However, Orsi was felt to be too close to the border with Mali and so to safeguard the festival it has been moved to a site close to the capital so the Burkina Faso authorities can better secure the festival.


This is a good move. Of all the sites of the caravan, Orsi was the closest to islamist territory. This makes the route of the caravan from Bamako to Segou and down to Burkina Faso for the Festival itself very secure all over.


Perhaps this is a good time to set out my thoughts on security issues in general for the route of the Caravan of Peace.


Of course I get asked a lot by friends and family why I am bothering to go to Mali and run a trip given that Mali is in political chaos and that a band of Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists control the north of the country and have a history of kidnapping westerners in the region?


The simple answer is that I am doing it because I feel safe. I have only felt unsafe once in Africa and I never want to go there again, and I certainly do not want to take anyone else there. If I didn’t feel the region of the caravan was safe I would not be running the trip.


The risk is undoubtedly there on paper, like the risk of a terror attack at a western airport is there. How significantly we assess that risk is largely down to our own perceptions and acceptance of risk.


Like at the western airport, the actual risk on the caravan of peace as I see it is small enough not to make me change my course. 


What is the threat?

Western tourists are warned not to go to the Sahara/sahel region of west Africa because there is the threat of being kidnapped by islamist groups who currently occupy the north of Mali. Since 2008 more than 20 westerners have been kidnapped. Currently there are 10 or so still being held.


My argument for why the caravan of peace is safe to join rests on my view that there is no longer a motive for the islamist groups to take more hostages. They have 10 that they are not getting money for and there are no negotiations on for ransoms as the game as changed and these groups now control the north of Mali. I will argue that their focus is now holding down what they have got against internal splits and preparing for a possible ECOWAS attack. Why risk potentially weakening themselves and inflaming the international perspective on Mali by taking hostages who will get them no money?


Hitherto nearly all the kidnappings have taken place in remote regions with no security, or where a couple of vehicles can go in and quickly take the hostages and flee back to the desert.  They have never attempted to attack festivals or to break through military lines to perform kidnappings.


Beyond the threat of kidnap there is no other significant threat to western tourists on the caravan of peace. Civil society throughout the route of the caravan is in tact, despite there being no real government in Mali and there has been no significant civil unrest.


Background to the kidnappings



I break the kidnappings that have taken place in the region since November 2008 into two groups. 


1) French nationals.

Roughly half of the hostages have been French. I believe that when French nationals are taken hostage the primary motive is political. There are currently 7 French hostages. There have been 4 or 5 other French nationals who have been kidnapped and either ransomed or they have died in rescue attempts.


The circumstances around French nationals being kidnapped are always a little murky and it seems that when French nationals are taken it is about the complicated relationships that France has in the region.


If I was French I would not be travelling in the region of the Caravan of Peace, even though I think the threat generally has eased off somewhat (see below), for French nationals the politics is too hot and so their security is too uncertain. I can still see a motive for islamists to take French nationals. My advice is stay away.


2) Other nationals. 

When other nationalities get taken hostage the motive seems to be money. It is this ransom money that has enabled these groups to amass weapons to be doing what they are doing now. Some European governments (Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland) have paid large ransoms. European nationals were reasonably high risk before the crisis but below I set out why I think they are less so now.


UK, USA and Australian nationals

These nationals are, in my view, the safest in the region as their governments do not pay ransoms. The UK has had one national taken – Edwin Dyer. He was in one of the first groups taken January 2009. A ransom was demanded, Britain refused and then the demand became release of prisoners in the UK, and still they refused, and Mr Dyer was executed. Edwin Dyer is the only hostage to have verifiably been executed. At this stage AQMI wouldn’t have known perhaps that Britain wouldn’t pay and to save face they had to go the distance – this was the beginning of their campaign and he was in a group with other nationalities whose governemnts did, it seems, pay ransoms. 


Since Dyer, no UK national has been taken. No USA or Australian national has ever been taken. 


I don’t think it is coincidental that it is these governments that do not pay ransoms. Together these nationalities, at a guess, probably make up easily half of the tourists and ex-pats in the region, so if the kidnappings were random or ideologically motivated then more of these nationalities, their governments being in the fore front of the war on terror, would have been taken one would have thought.


The problem for AQMI etc with taking one of these countries’ citizens is that it all becomes a lot more serious. The reality is take a Portuguese guy, no one hears about it, the money gets paid. Take an American and you’ve got a big issue on your hands. Not only can UK/USA/AUS not be seen to be paying ransoms to Al Qaeda affiliated groups, but it takes the game to another level politically and militarily. 


To understand the current threat we have tolook at what the islamists are focussed on?

AQMI’s focus before the Mali crisis was money and regional mafia politics, regional strategic positioning to protect their lucrative smuggling routes. The hostage taking coming in in 2008 was another way of making money, and it helped cut off the region and thus further entrenched their control.


It is unlikely that their focus has ever been expansion of an islamist agenda, rather the islamism is used to give credibility to their criminal interests. Politically really they are fighting Algeria’s war. Algeria’s bottom line at the moment is no international forces in Mali. But neither have an interest in a) expansion of the islamist territory b) provoking the international world beyond France. 


Their focus now is holding what they have got against the likes of the MNLA (Tuareg rebels) from the desert, the Malian army and/or ECOWAS to the south and east, the Mauritanian army from the west, a potential Ansar Dine split from within and internal divisions.


Currently they have 7 French nationals, a Dutchman, a Swede and a South African. 

No money is coming in for them nor is now likely to.


They’ve had them all for a long time. The last group (non French) taken was the Timbuktu three last November 2011, just before the crisis began. No negotiations are going on for their release. It is unlikely anyone is going to pay ransoms now. European governments have wised up that it doesn’t pay in the long run and the game has changed as these groups now control half a country. No one wants to fund or further arm them.


So when your shelves are well stocked but you can no longer shift your stock, why would you add to it?


Surely, with an event that is standing up to their sharia ban on music an attack could bring good publicity for a kidnapping?

But do they want publicity? Only if their motives are ideological, and no one is really suggesting that they are. I think they are doing nicely the more the situation remains on the fringes of the international agenda. Their only chance of being beaten out of the north now is if a UN/US/French force were to come in. There is nothing in any of the international discussions of a regional force that can really worry them at the moment on this. With talk that there is about a serious international force coming in, the forecasts are many months and possibly more than a year away. 


If you are AQMI, why would you do anything to potentially bring this forwards? The longer you stay in place, holding what you have, the more entrenched you get, the more time you have to bring in more support.


If you can’t get money from hostages, the only reason for taking them now would be political or ideological. Not much politics or ideology comes out from these guys – no great demands, no generalised anti-western rhetoric. The only rhetoric that does come from them is that the western world should stay out of this. Why do anything that could work against this? 


Why open your hand when you have all the cards?

If AQMI/MUJAO do want a battle they seem to want what they may well soon get: ECOWAS and/or Malian military. These forces are still completely unprepared, ill trained and unmotivated for a fight with mafia/islamists. If I were a betting man my money would be on the islamists to at least cause carnage before they retreat back to their safety in the desert and to their former lives.  


Why would they do anything that might begin to alter the balance of power away from this win win situation towards the one threat of force that could smash them apart – a UN/US/EU backed force? 


Notions of risk

My father asked me how, with no effective government in Mali, I could say I was safe on the streets of Bamako. I could only explain by comparing to awful massacre of children in Newtown in America. 


10,000 people a year get killed by guns in America. In terms of gun crime statistics, America is a very unsafe country to visit and yet it has a functioning government and a functioning society and none of us would really think twice about going there. Most tourists have no problems, some, occasionally, get caught up. Last year a British man was shot dead in a Texan bar. Would it stop me going to Texas? No.


Now clearly the threat of being kidnapped in west Africa and the threat of coming across gun crime in America are very different sorts of risk, but in terms of our assessment of the risks we take when we travel they are the similar. For both, the risk is of being caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is the greater risk? Statistically you’d have to say going to America and getting caught up in gun crime if over 10,000 murders happen a year.


Whenever we travel to another country we put our trust, first and foremost, in the community that we are in. The risk of gun crime in America comes out of something in its society and its laws that permit the place to be a wash with deadly weapons. The risk to the tourist is completely random, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as it was for those poor children. The risk has nothing to do with the effectiveness or not of the USA government, it has to do with the society, the community – these guns are out there.


The risk of kidnap in west Africa does not come out of the community. I have never seen a gun in Africa that was not in the hands of military or police. I have never seen a vehicle full of armed bandits. I have never heard a gun shot in anger. I have never seen conflict. Of course these things exist but they are not wandering around areas I go to and long before I have ever reached an area that is unsafe I have been warned away.


In the whole Mali crisis only a couple of hundred people have been killed, and they were mostly military in rebel attacks at the beginning. Throughout the crisis, despite rebellion, coup d’etat x 2, islamist invasion, no functioning government, no one clearly in control, a divided and bruised military, civil society has held together and zero crime rates pretty much maintained. All of this is not and never has been primarily down to the government’s control, just as gun crime in America is not to do with its government, it is down to the community, the cultures and their history of co-existence. 


Bamako still has loads of expats there and they don’t wander around with concern or extra security, there is no extra military presence on the streets, and yet the UK FCO will tell you Bamako is unsafe. Yes they may have to say this as there is no effective government, but this is not based on any statistics or realistic threat. If it was really the case these expats would have left.


Real security anywhere is not in the hands of the authorities but in the hands of the community. This is what makes Mali fundamentally safe away from the north, and what best assures the security of the caravan of peace.