The tragic attack in the West African nation of Mali on Nov. 20, which killed 21, was not just another front in the global war on terror. Rather, these were thugs, loosely affiliated with Al-Qaida, narcissistically bullying a longtime friend and ally. The framing of the attack matters in terms of the response it provokes, from reflexively lashing out as the terrorists want to defending a friend in need.
Mali is not Libya, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. While those countries aren’t known for their love of America, most Malians have an abiding respect for the U.S. We have been working together with Malians since their country gained independence from France in 1960.
Given that the country has traditionally been of limited strategic value, most of our engagement has been in the form of humanitarian assistance and cultural exchange. For example, over 3,000 American Peace Corps volunteers have served in Mali since 1971 (including myself in the late 1980s). Malian musicians — such as Salif Keita, Vieux Farka Toure and Habib Koite — regularly tour the U.S., engendering a love of African music. Finally, many African-Americans trace part of their lineage to the peoples of Mali and surrounding nations.
The terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali’s capital, shattered a fragile nation struggling to regain a sense of stability and forward momentum. While Mali is not wealthy in conventional terms, it used to be known as a peaceful place with amicable interethnic relations, a tradition of religious tolerance and a vibrant culture. That all unraveled in early 2012 following a coup d’état and a separatist movement in the north of the country. The country slowly began to put itself back together after the French military pushed rebel groups out of the country’s major northern cities in early 2013 and democratic elections were held later that year.
Since that time, the U.N. has worked with the Malian government to broker a fragile peace with rebel groups in the north. Furthermore, international donors, who had largely suspended aid during the crisis of 2012-13, returned to work in various parts of the country.
All this is in jeopardy following last week’s attack.
A group named Al Mourabitoun, led by the veteran one-eyed Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility for the attack. Since splitting with Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa in 2013, Belmokhtar and his followers have bombed a gas plant in southern Algeria in 2013, killing 48, attacked the La Terrasse nightclub in Bamako last March, killing five, and raided a hotel in the central Malian town of Sévaré in August, killing 17.
The motives for last Friday’s attack are likely mixed, ranging from a desire to destabilize the fragile peace in northern Mali, to creating an ungovernable space so Belmokhtar can continue to traffic drugs across the Sahara Desert, to a game of one-upmaniship between this Al-Qaida franchise its rival ISIL affiliates.
The Radisson Blu hotel was clearly chosen as a target for what it represented, a place of engagement between Mali and the outside world. At the hotel that day were Chinese contractors working to upgrade colonial-era railways, Russian employees of a freight airline company, officials working on the northern peace accords, an American public health professional, businesspeople from India, and staff members with Turkish Airlines and Air France. These outside connections will quickly fizzle unless the country’s security situation is stabilized.
We need to stand by Mali as a friend and ally that has long stood for secular governance, moderate Islam and religious tolerance. To not do so represents a betrayal of trust and further weakens a state that already struggles to govern a territory the size of Texas, creating a vacuum for lawlessness.
We cannot, however, operate in Mali as we have in other areas of the Muslim world, where our mere presence has often created more problems than it resolves. Given our deep knowledge of the country, and our many friendships, we are in a position to support the Malian state and its allies discretely, collaboratively and smartly.
To be clear, the Malian state is no paradigm of virtue. The Malian government has often lapsed into corruption, sometimes as donors turned a blind eye, and its army is known to have committed human rights abuses during its counterinsurgency efforts in the north. For that reason, our strong support for this ally must be conditioned on strict demands for clean governance, military discipline, fair treatment of all peoples in the troubled northern regions and strict observance of human rights.
While I am deeply suspicious of foreign entanglements, I also know that we cannot turn our back on an ally that is ruthlessly bullied for its religious tolerance, tradition of moderate Islam, and vibrant musical and artistic culture. Mali is not a pawn in the global war on terrorism, but a friend in need.
William G. Moseley, a professor of geography and African studies at Macalester College, has worked and done research in Mali for over 25 years. His latest book is “Land Reform in South Africa: An Uneven Transformation.” On Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley.