In the half-month since France went into Mali pretty well unilaterally, some of the bigger news out of there is that, for the number of international journalists who made a beeline for Bamako, there isn’t any news in the sense of ‘reporting from the war zone’ as we’ve gotten used to it via mainstream and social media. The French have done an amazing job of clamping down on media access to anything imminent, resulting in repetitious interviews with displaced northerners in Bamako (everybody apparently found and interviewed the same singer who had fled Timbuktu), and plaintive wails on the Twitterverse (with pictures!) from immense columns of journos who can’t get anywhere near the ‘front’. The clearance of the main towns of Northern Mali hasn’t seen an improvement, since Internet access is slender to none in the area.
The silence is at least as loud from the bad guys. Apart from the noise made by the Balmokhtar group at the time of the In Amenas gas plant hostage-taking itself, there hasn’t been much by way of jihadist propaganda – and the In Amenas attack seems to have had nothing to do with Mali in its inception. There may be big recruiting activity on Arab language jihadist websites but there are not the usual ‘atrocity reports’ from Mali that you’d expect. Since there are almost certainly assorted nastinesses happening in northern Mali these days that is surprising and may show that there’s real disarray among the extremists, as the French Government is now claiming. ‘Vanishing into the desert’ sounds catchy in a blog, but – it’s still a desert. Which, as the Economist puts it in the current issue, is probably the best place for them to be.
And we are not seeing any flashy toys from Gadhafi’s alleged hoard. No doubt there was a flood of military hardware, mainly light arms, and of trained mercenaries into the ‘ungoverned lands’ of the Sahara, but the more sophisticated weaponry that Gadhafi may or may not have had is almost impossible for insurgents to maintain let along resupply and exploit. If functional MANPADS were loose, they’d be being used.
With the French and their African allies in Mali, Mali now seems likely to become a sideshow in the extremist issue. It was a target of opportunity, it didn’t work, and it seems likely that the schwerepunkt will now shift elsewhere. It will remain trans-national in an area where borders have very little meaning.
Since the In Amenas incident, it seems to this department that Algeria is going to be playing a pivotal role in counter-jihadist activity in North Africa. British PM David Cameron just concluded a visit to Algiers – what was discussed remains unspecified – and both Britain and France were quick to support the Algerians on the hostage operation. Algeria cooperated with France in the use of its airspace for the Malian operation.
Algeria is an uncomfortable but highly effective and totally compunctionless ally to have in this business. At the moment, it is also the only really functional regime in the region. The Algerians’ habitual refusal to communicate much with anyone, is also extremely useful in the circumstances. If a counter-jihadist entente among France, Britain and Algeria arises, it can be expected to be an ‘entente muette’.
Eric Morse is Vice-Chair, Security Studies at Royal Canadian Military Institute and a writer of op-eds on foreign relations