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The Conflict In Mali

The storm over Mali. Al Qaeda in Africa. The French in Mali. And the stakes for all.

Malian soldiers helped by French troops, move a broken helicopter out a hangar to make room for more incoming troops at Bamako's airport Tuesday Jan. 15. 2013. (AP)

Malian soldiers helped by French troops, move a broken helicopter out a hangar to make room for more incoming troops at Bamako’s airport Tuesday Jan. 15. 2013. (AP)

If you can draw the African nation of Mali on a map of the continent, you’re probably in the top .01 percent of the geography-aware.  But the world is talking Mali right now.

A big, poor, arid country.  Half in the Sahara Desert, half in West Africa.  Home to Timbuktu, and the Tuareg “blue people,” who know the desert.

Home lately to Al Qaeda, fighting for a new base straight south of Europe.  Target right now of French troops fanning out across the desert to fight.

This hour, On Point:  It’s 2013 and we’re talking about battles over Timbuktu, Al Qaeda, the world, and Mali.

-Tom Ashbrook


Adam Nossiter, reporter for the New York Time, he’s been on the ground in Mali covering the conflict.

Assoumane Maiga, native of Mali, he returned from Mali in August after a year of working in humanitarian aid. Graduate research associate in agricultural  communications at Oklahoma State University. (@assoumane)

Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation. (@sethgjones)

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “France carried out new airstrikes overnight against Islamist fighters in central Mali, as Paris pledged on Tuesday to commit more troops to a potentially protracted campaign against extremists pressing south from a jihadist state they have forged in the desert north of the country.”

Reuters “France will end its intervention in Mali only once stability has returned to the West African country, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday, raising the prospects of a costly, drawn-out operation against al Qaeda-linked rebels.”

The Christian Science Monitor “French airstrikes in Mali last week have jolted the West’s attention. The strikes and more planned deployments by France and other African states, are designed to halt the progress of Islamist rebels in Mali, and deny radicals an Afghan-style haven for jihad against Europe. Journalist Peter Tinti has lived in West Africa for the last three years and arrived in Bamako today. Here’s his first briefer from the capital.”

Photos From Mali

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  • Gregg Smith

    Kudos to On Point for this topic. Al Qaeda is not dead, the war rages on. God bless France for taking a stand but the world needs US leadership and it’s not forthcoming.

    • Shag_Wevera

      It seems outside of the usual M.O. of Al Qaeda to try to conquer a nation.  Being stateless has always been one of their best defenses.  It is also possible these people are just being lumped in under the general heading of Al Qaeda (black or brown from the third world and against our interests).

      • Ray in VT

        They certainly seemed to be attempting to take land in Yemen.  I think that generally, though, that you’re right.  If they plant roots and hold land, then that gives their enemies a target, so logistically it’s probably more desirable to remain stateless.  If their ultimate end is to spread and install some sort of Sharia based fundamentalist state, then they’ll need to take land at some point, although it might be more useful for them to try to back friendly regimes rather than to be the ones directly in charge if possible.

      • anon

        They are being lumped together. There’s an article at Al Jazeera by May Ying Welsh called ‘Making sense of Mali’s armed groups’. She mentions three different religion-based groups and four other groups.

    • 1Brett1

      I thought you said before that you didn’t know whether God exists or not? Hedging your bets? Doesn’t one have to actually be a believer to ask God to bless something for him/her? Asking for a favor without investing in the commitment part? What would Ed (and Jesus) say?

      • Gregg Smith

        I meant it in a “Bless their pea-pickin’ hearts” kinda’ way.

    • Ray in VT

      We can’t be bothered to take a leadership role in West Africa to fight Islamic extremists.  We’re too busy killing Christians in East Africa:


      • Gregg Smith

        Brilliant point but don’t underestimate Obama’s ability to start wars in Africa.

        • Ray in VT

          I know.  The king of all conservative media really nailed it there.  And just look at Obama’s record.  Four years, and he’s managed to start zero wars in Africa.  What a warmonger.

          • Gregg Smith

            Libya ain’t chopped liver. I didn’t see what Rush got wrong. I’m just happy OP is reporting own this important development, that’s all. Al Qaeda is on the move, it matters.

          • Ray in VT

            It certainly isn’t, but Obama didn’t start a war there.

            So, you don’t see what Rush got wrong?  Seems like a fairly rosy picture of the LRA that he’s giving in his comments there, at least early on.  He gives a pretty uncritical reading of their stated objectives.  He blabs about them while seemingly being ignorant of their crimes.  He also says that Obama is supporting wiping out Coptic Christians, and that it is a “new war” against the LRA.  Providing the sort of assistance that we provided is a pretty low bar for war.

            I am also happy that On Point did a show on the subject, and it is very important.

          • Gregg Smith

            I’m not going to argue with you about Rush. He was making a different point. It’s out of context and irrelevant. 

            I don’t think the American people are being told the truth about the terrorist threat and the state of the Middle East.

          • Ray in VT

            What was his point then?  His point very much seemed to be that he was criticizing Obama for giving support to a nation that was going after a known terrorist group, whose crimes he later admitted that he didn’t know about (which I find incredible for someone so brilliant and worldly and whose job it is, in part, to comment on national and world affairs)

            Sure, he was taken out of context.  There were some pretty big blocks of text there, but you can go straight to his site to get a fuller view if you like.


            I don’t think that his comment is very relevant to the situation in Mali, but I just like to, on occasion, draw attention to some of the dumber things that come out of the mouths of people like Rush, and for that Media Matters is an invaluable source.

            I don’t think that his comments are worth arguing over.  He said something stupid and misleading.  End of story.

            As for the terrorist threat, there are plenty of reputable news sources whereby people can get information about what is going on on that front.  People need only search for it.  I was glad to hear them mention Boko Haram on the show.  I don’t think that they get much play in the U.S., but thankfully we are providing support to Nigeria to assist them in combating that extremist group as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

    Al Qaeda was a creation of the CIA to rid the Russians from Afghanistan.   This has since become a loose coalition of extremist islamists, still manipulated by the CIA and Mossad.  Al Qaeda is used as the excuse for the west to invade and destabilize islamic countries in order to desperately expand control of resources, markets for western goods, and dollar hegemony.  Iraq. Afghanistan, Libya,  Syria, Iran, and now Mali all have been plagued by this “Al Qaeda”.  

    Al Qaeda eventually morphs into PIZZA HUT and KFC employees.

    • stephenreal

      That’s the nuttiest analysis I’ve ever read. no offense

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

        Hey Stephengetreal, FYI 

        “All truth passes through three stages.
        First, it is ridiculed.
        Second, it is violently opposed.     
        Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”   

        Arthur Schopenhauer

        • stephenreal

          “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” 
          Arthur Schopenhauer 

          just saying…

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

            And indeed Mr. Schopenhauer would think you quite limited.

    • anon

      They were not created by the CIA. And Pizza Hut and KFC are already all over the Muslim world.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

        It’s already well known fact about the CIA and Al Qaeda.

        Just go ask your boss, the Colonel…Sanders that is.

        • anon

          At the time, the US supported the same aims as the mujahideen – i.e., defeating the Soviet Union, and the CIA gave their support. They did not create Al Qaeda themselves.

  • Steve_in_Vermont

    Let’s see, France in Vietnam in the 50′s. Lost public support and were being defeated militarily. Enter the US that, after over 55,000 American dead, withdrew. Flash forward to 2013 and France is in Africa looking for help from America. The question was then (and not considered) and is now, how much treasure, in lives and money, can we afford? It seems this question is only answered in hindsight.

    • anon

      Don’t forget France in Algeria. (“The Battle of Algiers” is definitely worth watching.)

  • Sawyerfarm2006

    Please stop just taking the Al Qaeda statements without any question. Islamic militants are not automatically Al Qaeda. Please use a grain of salt and question the goverment statements.

    • stephenreal

      The Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),(Arabic: تنظيم القاعدة في بلاد المغرب الإسلامي‎ Tanẓīm al-Qā‘idah fī Bilād al-Maghrib al-Islāmī) is a Mali-based Islamist militant organization which aims to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic state.
      To that end, it is currently engaged in an insurgent campaign.
      The group has declared its intention to attack Algerian, Spanish, French, and American targets. It has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State, and similarly classed as a terrorist organization by the European Union.

      AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud appeared in the video, calling for Islamic sharia law to be established in Tunisia. Al Qaeda has begun recruiting anti-government demonstrators, some of whom have previously fought against American forces in Iraq and Israeli forces in Gaza.

      • anon

        But it is not the only group involved.

  • stephenreal

    Is the Mali government, which is known for it’s corruption, worth the West defending it?

    Send in the clowns…I mean send in the drones!
    (Apologize for the snarky, cavalier attitude Tom.)

    Thankyou On Point Radio!
    The kids are alright.

  • stillin

    I follow all African countries through the site..allafrica.com and Mali I always followed for their music. Africa never fails to mesmorize me, but my concern is not only for the locals and the natives of Mali but also always for wildlife. What does wildlife do when bombing happens?

    • Matthew Heberger

      There is not much wildlife to speak of in Mali. Lots of cattle, goats, and sheep. Source: I lived in Mali for two years, and have traveled around the country.

      • stillin

        Thanks I was not aware of that…interesting.
        Subject: [on-point] Re: The Conflict In Mali

  • David_from_Lowell

    We just read to our kids the story “Sundiata”, set in Mali, which the story “Lion King” was based on. It gives a good basis of geography about the country, and is about battles for territory. Strange timing.

    • stephenreal

      The story takes place in a kingdom of anthropomorphic lions in Africa, and was influenced by the biblical tales of Joseph and Moses, and the William Shakespeare plays Hamlet and Macbeth.

      • David_from_Lowell

        Its an oral tradition story with many variants, though based on a real story from the 13th century

        • stephenreal

          Not according to Disney friend. And you really think the people whom work at Disney even heard of Mali? Really dude? really? no offense…it just seems a wee bit of a stretch (of the truth).

          • David_from_Lowell

            OK “dude”. Research Sundiata, if you can manage to pull yourself away from online commenting.

          • stephenreal

            The idea for The Lion King was conceived in late 1988 during a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney and Peter Schneider on a plane to Europe to promote Oliver & Company. During the conversation, the topic of a story set in Africa came up, and Katzenberg immediately jumped at the idea. Producer Thomas Schumacher, who had just completed The Rescuers Down Under, decided to attach himself to the project “because lions are cool!”

            Katzenberg decided to add elements involving coming of age and death, and ideas from personal life experiences, such as some of his trials in his bumpy road in politics, saying about the film, “It is a little bit about myself.”

            I see similar elements in the story but you credit too much to these kats…just saying

          • http://twitter.com/en_b ian berry

            Katzenberg once saw Osamu Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion”, he had it rehashed and called it Lion King.
            No suprise, Tezuka was a master storyteller.

      • anon

        Just a note that the stories of Joseph (Yusuf) and Moses (Musa) are also found in the Quran.

  • jefe68

    Mali is not half the Sahara desert. It’s a large part of it but Alergia, Libya, Mauritania, Chad and Niger are also apart of this huge desert. Alergia and Libya are smack in the middle of the Sahara, which is more territory than Mali.

    The thing I know about Mali is how great their music and culture is. These extremist are outlawing music, which is the soul of the nation. Al Qaeda are destroying this nations identity and culture.

    • Ray in VT

      I thought that they were saying that half of Mali is comprised by Saharan desert.

      • jefe68

        Actually it’s about 65%, but I see that I have misread the lede. 

    • anon

      Actually, most orthodox Sunni scholars prohibit music (string and wind instruments – not drums). Funny, though, that that dislike of music is what seems to get people so riled up and supporting military intervention… (I know that you didn’t say that yourself.)

      • Ray in VT

        There should be plenty of reasons for the international community to be concerned regarding the spread of these militants, including the assaults on native culture, traditions and history, such as the reported destruction of centuries old Muslim tombs.

        • anon

          destroying tombs and banning music? That deserves intervention… rather than Syria, for example, where tens of thousands of actual, living PEOPLE have been killed and so many living in misery in the cold as refugees?

          • Ray in VT

            I think that Syria, which is indeed a place where a great deal could and should be done at assist those affected by the civil war, is a whole different ball of wax.  Mali has a few hundred to a couple of thousand Islamic militants with some capabilities (they did shoot down a French helicopter I think), largely operating in relatively open territory.  Syria’s military has much greater capabilities, and the terrain poses significant challenges in some areas.  I think that in practical military terms it would be a massively more complex and costly undertaking.  I am not making a judgement about the merits of such an intervention, however.

  • http://twitter.com/en_b ian berry

    Just because Al Qaeda is mingling with local forces doesnt make Al Qaeda the masters of the desert. Without local support Al Qaeda is nothing in the Sahara.

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.burke.1422 Patrick Burke

    I agree with stephanreal about sending in drones. This is a perfect use for that technology, but I want to add that what is needed is a seige. If the Islamist jehadists can be isolated without draining the coffers of several nations (and drones are an obvious way to do that) then the situation can be addressed.

  • nj_v2

    Add to the “reading list”:


    The bombing of Mali highlights all the lessons of western intervention

    The west African nation becomes the eighth country in the last four years alone where Muslims are killed by the west

    As French war planes bomb Mali, there is one simple statistic that provides the key context: this west African nation of 15 million people isthe eighth country in which western powers – over the last four years alone – have bombed and killed Muslims – after Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and the Philippines (that does not count the numerous lethal tyrannies propped up by the west in that region). For obvious reasons, the rhetoric that the west is not at war with the Islamic world grows increasingly hollow with each new expansion of this militarism. But within this new massive bombing campaign, one finds most of the vital lessons about western intervention that, typically, are steadfastly ignored.…


    • stephenreal

      “The toppling of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship had consequences that Western intelligence services probably never even bothered to imagine. Tuaregs – who traditionally hailed from northern Mali – made up a large portion of his army.” -Guardian UK

      This Mali intervention partly stems from the consequences of Libyans freeing themselves from tyranny. This action forced Quadaffi’s Tuareg army and military supplies to shift south into Mali.

      • Ray in VT

        Gotta love those unintended consequences.

        • stephenreal

          True that

    • Ray in VT

      I did hear it reported either yesterday or the day before that the Western intervention was sped up due to changing events.  It was not supposed to start until the fall, in part because the U.S., being sensitive to some of the concerns that you mentioned from the article, was attempting to have regional forces take the lead so that this wouldn’t look like a Western invasion, but a more local response.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=69305441 Robin White

    Jeff, caller who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, could you please get in touch with me:  robinanitawhite@gmail.com. I was a Peace Corps Mali/konna volunteer 20 years ago. I would love to speak with you and try to learn more about what is going on there.

    • JBK007

      Robin, thanks for reaching out, just sent you an email.

    • http://twitter.com/jeff_collijm Jeff Collins

      Robin, JBK, I was PC Cote d’Ivoire mid-70s and have visited Mali many times, then and since (’07)

  • stephenreal

    Great analysis by Tom’s guests. Absolutely fascinating!
    (How does Tom know all these weird facts?)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso


    “All truth passes through three stages.

    First, it is ridiculed.
    Second, it
    is violently opposed.     
    Third, it is
    accepted as being self-evident.”  


  • Michael Bristol

    If the manufacture of consent were outsourced to the Tuareg
    we’d likely hear that their arms came not from Gaddafi
    but rather from those provided by NATO and the US
    in the recent takeover of Libya. 

  • JBK007

    This opinion piece states more eloquently than I about potential blowback from the recent French intervention in Mali:


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