Barkhane vs Mali : the Unsaid Tuareg Issue (I)
For years, France has failed to fittingly assess informational risk in Africa, from the Central African Republic to Mali. The spreading of access to social media has enabled some actors, notably Russians, to seduce an African public opinion that is vulnerable to online deception. In the Sahel-Saharan strip, if the looming French geopolitical failure is logical, the countries of the Gulf of Guinea risk suffering the consequences. A crucial strategic element that led to this development can no longer be evaded: the unsaid Tuareg issue.
Second-order cindynical analysis was designed to go beyond the concept of resilience, which is inoperable in conflict situations, and to specifically consider complex and conflictual situations. Three fundamental notions operable in conflict situations were modelled: conflictuality as an ex-ante propensity, prospective divergences, and perspective disparities. The very first step when analysing a complex situation is to choose an actors' observation granularity. Then it is to assess disparities between actors' perceptions.
This step has generally been neglected in strategic analysis of the Malian then Sahelian crisis : from 2013, and then for years, until today with the Malian junta. This has led to steadily overlooking the Tuareg issue or the Azawad status issue and to the current deterioration of the Sahelian situation.
The first step in cindynical analysis is to choose an observation granularity, so as to obtain a good resolving power in the observation while not being flooded by an unmanageable volume of data. At strategic scales, it is therefore counterproductive to choose an individual scale and it is more appropriate to observe state actors, or actors with a strategic impact at state scales. However, in this case it is wise to also include some individual actors, including strategic leaders. This leads to observe so-called "hybrid" situations spectrums, where collective and individual actors coexist, and to observe 'diagonal' relationships between these types of actors.
Before the Malian crisis broke out, the MNA brought together young people from the Azawad region with a political independence project, following repeated exactions1 by the Malian army. Then the situation deteriorated, the MNLA took over from the MNA, and Ag Ghali, disappointed that he could not become the leader of a n-th Tuareg rebellion, created the Islamist movement Ansar Dine. When the MNLA started to run out of material resources, many of its members moved to Ansar Dine. This leads to questions about objectives and values: did these young Tuaregs who initially demanded autonomy for Azawad really suddenly discover a Salafist or Tablighi vocation?
While these strategically important issues naturally come into view with the right analysis granularity, some actors have from the outset made the mistake of lacking finesse when describing actors topology, or have deliberately conflated distinct actors, which has serious consequences.
As early as May 20132 I warned of the consequences of this kind of mistake, mentioning a dispatch from the Xinhua agency which illustrated the need to model the cindynical notion of topological disparity as a complement to the notion of systemic disparity. This dispatch, which was issued on 29 March 2013 and has since been removed from the Radio China International website, conflated Ansar Dine and MNLA, describing the MNLA rebels as 'terrorists'. No doubt this was also done in Bamako. However, the inability to establish an adequate observation topology masks the real prospective divergences between different actors, and therefore masks the solutions that would enable conflict to be reduced. Another important point: the Chinese dispatch insists on the fact that the Malian armed forces (FAMA) have not yet regained control of Kidal, and that "voices are beginning to be heard demanding the arrival of the Malian army and the public administration in Kidal". This, as early as March 2013.
There is an initial ambiguity about the perceptions of the objectives of the Serval operation. And the consequence is that, paradoxically, French policy is now being criticised for not having interfered in Malian internal politics: the objective of Serval was the fight against terrorism, not the fight against the Tuareg rebellion, which - in essence - is an internal Malian matter. In early 2013 the MNLA took over Kidal, which had been occupied by Ansar Dine since 2012, and collaborated in the fight against Ansar Dine and AQIM. The objectives of Ansar Dine and the MNLA are different. Close to AQIM, and supported by Algerian services, Ansar Dine was created by Iyad Ag Ghali who, while known to be a bon-vivant, surprisingly became an Islamist, to the point of being expelled from Saudi Arabia where he had been appointed diplomat by ATT. His aim is to impose a Sharia-based theocracy on Mali. The MNLA is not Islamist, and only demands autonomy for Azawad, which it sees as the independence it did not get in 1960.
But by conflating the MNLA, Ansar Dine, and "terrorists", which was taken up by the Chinese press agencies, Bamako dreamed to kill two birds with one stone: eliminate Islamist terrorism, and have the French army crackdown on the Tuareg rebellion instead of striving to find an inter-Malian political solution to the Tuareg issue.
Later, after annexing Crimea, Russia began a return to Africa. After conducting social media manipulation operations to influence the US elections, the Prigozhin conglomerate turned its attention to Africa, sending political advisors, mercenaries, and geologists. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group set up shop in the Central African Republic in 2018. Three journalists from Dossier (Досье, financed by Russian oppositionist Khodorkovsky) are then murdered while investigating the activities of the Prigozhin conglomerate in Central Africa. Prigozhin quickly invested in propaganda (including in schools) and media control, and conducted pro-Russian and anti-French manipulation operations on social media. In addition, journalists investigating the murder of Russian journalists are pressured or molested.
Russian propaganda keeps with its reputation: rustic and unsubtle. When Russian journalists investigating Wagner and Prigozhin's mining activities in the Central African Republic are murdered, Russian propagandists blame a French security expert for these murders. And the Central African President himself relays this claim. The Russian journalists were investigating Wagner, so unlike Russia, France had a vested interest in having them publish their investigation. But it doesn't matter to Russian propagandists: if they think the public is gullible enough to believe nonsense, they will spread it.
On social media, Facebook took down trolls accounts relaying pro-Russian propaganda in Africa first in 2019, then in 2020, this time taking down counter-influence accounts attributed to France or to users described as close to the French army.
In Mali, in 2017, the "Patriotes du Mali" group called for Russian help. Then in April 2019 the Russian ambassador to Mali, Alexei Dulian, responded to these demands in a press conference in which he offered Russia's help and claimed it was committed to "the unity of Mali". Russia seems to have noticed that some Malians were disappointed that the French army did not also aim to fight the Tuaregs, and that this could become their axis of manipulation of Malian (and sub-regional) opinions, thus in fact taking up the path initiated by the Xinhua agency in 2013.
From a cindynical point of view, the process can be described very simply: increasing topological prospective divergences between Mali and France through informational flows blaming France for "supporting terrorists" or for wanting to "divide Mali" among a growing number of Malian actors by fuelling and fostering perceptions conflating Tuaregs and terrorists.
Next : Barkhane vs Mali : the Unsaid Tuareg Issue (II) : Barkhane Hijacking & Geopolitical French Failure
"Depuis l’indépendance du Mali en 1960, plusieurs vagues de rébellions lancées dans le Nord du pays se sont succédées. En 1963 puis en 1990, les forces maliennes avaient adopté une stratégie de répression par la terreur, visant principalement les civils. Un exil massif s’ensuivit et de nombreux rebelles retournèrent en Libye"
"Les créateurs du MNA sont des individus âgés de 20 à 35 ans. Jusqu’en 1997, ils vivent dans des camps de réfugiés installés dans des pays limitrophes ou cachés en brousse avec leurs familles. Témoins directs des exactions commises par l’armée malienne et nourris par les récits de leurs parents, ils entretiennent depuis l’enfance un rapport de méfiance vis-à-vis de l’État central. De cette période, les jeunes militants d’aujourd’hui partagent la même expérience de l’exil, la peur, l’exclusion, et la violence, déterminante lors du passage à la lutte armée."