Category Archives: France

And now once again, all together now: what is terrorism and who becomes a terrorist?


The recent killing of the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo and of four French Jews in Paris has again brought the debate back over what terrorism is and who becomes a terrorist. The questions are, obviously, not new and it might be seen as a sign of a vibrant social science debate that they have not been satisfactorily answered (see for instance this interesting row of articles in the Journal of Social Philosophy). In the meanwhile, the space for ideologization and politicization of these questions from all sides remains open with the troubling consequences we can already see in France, from increased securitization and surveillance to mounting racism.

There is an intuitive understanding of ‘terror’ as arbitrary and gratuitous violence that aims at spreading fear and insecurity among a population. However, with this in mind drone attacks are, quite obviously, as much terrorism as the killing of cartoonists and supermarket costumers (a good discussion how the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are politically constructed and disputed in the case of US-Israel-Palestine relations can be found here). The question what terrorism is and who the terrorists are goes deeper because it touches the much more fundamentally political question of legitimate uses and users of violence; hence, any intuitive answer will be unsatisfactory.

Debating the question becomes all the more complex in an age of transnational violence. In the 1970s and 1980s when left-wing extremists killed politicians and industrial leaders in Westeuropean states, they did so within a neatly circumscribed political field with a so-called military-industrial state complex on the one hand and a so-called revolutionary cell on the other. The question of what terrorism is became subsumed in the question whether the Red Army Fraction’s (in Germany) killings were politics or not (and the imprisoned RAF members treated as political prisoners or as common murderers). Although in theory the RAF’s members appealed to an abstract idea of world revolution, the RAF’s act were not committed in the name of some far-away imagined community but self-assumed in their own interest as revolutionaries within Germany; the aim was to kick off a revolution in Germany first not in any other part of the world.

This is different to the current attacks. Here, there is also a very abstract idea of a Muslim community in the background and which, by definition, includes French Muslims, but importantly there is the very concrete objective of destabilising Western military policies in far away countries. The strategic target of the attacks was, if the communique of the Yemenite Al Qaida is to be believed, actually not in Paris but in Syria, Afghanistan, Mali, Tchad and other ‘holy lands’. The killers did not aim at changing French politics in France. Yet, the killers were French as French can be, apparently not particularly religious themselves and rather socialized in the petty criminal and drug dealing milieus of France’s marginal zones; they were neither Palestinians nor Libyans who have to deal daily with the terror of Israeli or French bombings.

With RAF killings, the answer one gave to the question what terrorism was (murder or a political act) automatically included the answer to the question what a terrorist was (a murderer or an insurgent against social injustice). Now, this has become more complex. One could for instance acknowledge that some armed groups are resistance movements to occupation (as many do for Hamas in Gaza) and acknowledge their legitimacy to use violence.

However, it is then difficult to see what French marginalized, disenfranchised youth has to do with it. In order to make this argument, one needs to create a connection between Gaza or Syria and Corèze (where the Kouachi brothers apparently grew up). This is what a number of texts circulating on the internet actually try to do by postulating a general oppression of all Muslims, in France and in Iraq alike, but the link remains unconvincing per se. There are many marginalized, disenfranchised and frustrated youth in France; yet, not all of them are Muslims and not all Muslims are marginalized and disenfranchised. As Olivier Roy points out correctly the very idea of a Muslim ‘community’ in France is factitious. It might well be that it was one objective of these attacks to create such communitarian antagonism, exactly because it does not exist in the facts of French society.

It is more promising to separate the motivations of the killers from the motivations of the killing. The debate over who becomes a terrorist is often represented as opposing the hypothesis of individual mindsets to the hypothesis of strategic, well-calculating political networks. Yet, there is no reason other than the observers’ own ideological goggles not to assume that both can be true. One can perfectly well see the three young men as mere tools of a larger, transnationally calculating strategy of violent confrontation, and as subjects who act out their own individual social and, eventually mental, troubles within their very own realm. Young men and women have to  be socialized into networks of violence (as summarized here) and these structures of socialization are, indeed, ‘homemade’. (I find it noticeable for instance that the Kouachi brothers staged their attack like a headshooting video game which is much more symptomatic of French youth culture and not in the Hamas or Chechen style of a suicide bombing.)

If, indeed, both were true then the political responses, too, have to be kept separate. ‘Standing the ground in Syria’ as the French President took his mouth full the other day or bombing Yemen will not stop the French marginalized zones of society to produce young men and women who are willing to let their lives to kill others; and starting (finally) to work seriously on the issues of daily racist prejudice, of rampant exclusion and marginalization, of urban decay and (most important of all in my eyes) educational misery might not have much effect on Palestinian statehood or peace in Syria. Yet, the realization that one has maybe very little to do with the other would, very importantly, open space for a democratic debate whether the state’s money should to go into more bombs on far-away places or is better spent on education, culture and employment, in France’s marginalized zones in particular but in the entire country in general.

So far for politics…but on the research side of things, separating the individual terrorist from the greater question of transnational terrorism paradoxically requires an inter-disciplinary approach. Academically, the question of the terrorist’s mindset has been kept at arm’s length by political science research out of fear that any investigation into the subjective experience of terrorism (and the corresponding debates about deviance or not) would delegitimate the assessment of its economic, social and political causes. If one argues that the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza is causally the same as the oppression of ‘muslims’ in France and that therefore the three killers of last Wednesday have acted out of the identitary humiliation that Muslims apparently feel all over the world, then, of course, any psychological or socio-psychological explanation of terrorism is inacceptable. On the other hand, if one argues that terrorists are purely the product of dysfunctional socialisation processes, examples of delinquance rather than politics, or simply psychopats, then any further investigation into the causal connections with wider world politics is inacceptable. In both cases, the reaction would be to fend off inter-disciplinary approaches out of ideological fears or egoistic fencing off of research claims.

If, however, one accepts that there is a missing link between individual mindsets (which still then need to be more clearly defined) and greater globalised schemes of oppression (which then still would need better explanation than simply ‘oppression’ or ‘imperialism’), then social sciences working on the individual and micro-cosmen of terrorists (psychology, socio-psychology, anthropology, sociology) need to be integrated with those social sciences who work on the dynamics and pitfalls of globalisation (international relations, comparative politics, international political economy).

That is easier said than done. Apart from a host of practical problems (the competitive nature of funding that incites in-disciplinary research or simply the physical non-dialogue between the disciplines), there is a row of serious epistemological and ontological questions that need to be cleared. Obviously, there is the agent-structure problem and, if one thinks in terms of linear causality, the what/who causes what/who? Yet, this could be solved with an approach that disposes of linear causality and accepts the relational assumption that socialization is a two-way (or even multi-way) process, in which agents continously participate, by their very lives, in the reproduction of structures, which, in turn, condition the individual’s agency. Yet, the greater problem is that these dynamics of reproduction-socialization-reproduction are not linear and direct, and maybe not even coherent. In the end, the question which structures produce which kinds of agency and vice-versa can be only answered empirically, and that is probably the most frustrating part for all those who want social science to produce ready-made answers immediately when disaster strikes.


One intervention, two winners, tout bénéfice!


Despite their January promise to be out of Mali within a couple of weeks, France is still engaged in chasing alleged terrorists through the Atlas mountains. Yes, remember! The war in Mali. Well, the French are still there (and the fifth French soldier has been killed just a couple of days ago). Yet, after having bombed out and killed the presumable leadership of AQMI (Al Qaeda in Mali) the war could be declared over. After all, it is already obvious who the main winners of this intervention are: the French Légion Etrangère and Mali’s putshist president Traoré. The former has successfully proven worthy of its long tradition of chasing natives in Africa. Relying on Chadian auxiliary forces with their exotic camel scouts and the Malian army which was given the honourable task of terrorising the population, the Légion Etrangère showed that good old school tactics of hunting down the ennemy are still more effective at keeping unorderly rebels at bay than drones and waterboarding. One could, disrespectfully, argue that blowing up so-called terrorists in the desert by the aid of hundreds of men, drones, telecommunications, satellites and camels, and, not to forget, more than 100 million Euro, constitutes in the end a rather meager victory yet! compared to US efforts to hunt down Bin Laden and to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, the French excursion in Mali does seem quite successful. Those French nationalists who still believe that the world would be better off if it were ruled by them and not those uncultured Americans have had their most gleeful moments in the past couple of weeks.

The greatest winner of this war, is, however, without any doubt, Mali’s President Traoré. He won on every front: The French have kindly bottled up the Touaregs and chased away other rebellious elements in the North of the country, so he’s rid of that problem; Traoré showed the rest of the world and most notably the big money givers how decisively anti-islamist Mali is; he also has successfully convinced the rest of the world that his army needs better equipment and training and more money, which is something that a former general who putshed himself to the president’s office should always be pleased about; furthermore, he has gained international legitimacy for his regime by talking the international community’s talk of elections and reconciliation missions and he has successfully set into motion the rally-around-the-flag effect within Mali by first scaring Malians in the South ouf of their socks and then reaping the fruits of their excitement that their former colonizers still have such an efficient Légion Etrangère. And if Traoré is lucky and the international community decides to reward him for all these brownie points, he’ll get a real UN mission in his country with all the UN agencies, NGOs and other elements of the emergency caravane. What an economic booster that will be! For him, this intervention clearly was “Tout bénéfice”!



Touché! Operation succesful, patient dead.


Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, or AQMI by its acronym has been in the past designated as France’s new public ennemy no. 1 and so President Hollande might have opened a nice bottle of champagne when the Algerian television anounced that the Tchadian desert troops had tracked down Abou Zeid, the leader of AQMI and French airforces had bombed him and 40 of his collaborators to death. They even assert having killed the infamous Belmokhtar who is seen responsible of the kidnapping of In Amenas. However, the French ministry of defense is for the moment not confirming this. Now, the death of Abou Zeid and of Belmokhtar is certainly nothing to be sad about. Zeid, too, is allegedly responsible for the kidnapping of tourists, journalists and humanitarian workers and supposedely killed the Briton Edwyn Dyer in 2009. No, they were certainly not the kind of man you would like as your next door neighbour. Some say Abou Zeid strangled Dyer to death with his own hands although very few of reports wonder how we can know this if there is not even a reliable photo available of him. He has, indeed, all of a mystic figure: neither his age nor his correct name are known, there is no reliable picture available, in some reports he is described as ferocious and vicious, in others as cold and determined…Yet, now that he’s dead this does not really matter anymore. What does matter and what has, however, been much less discussed in the media is his capacity to build up, lead and actually quite succesfully lead an armed group in the desert. From where is he recruiting? How are these men trained? What ARE, once again, their goals, their politics?

If there is anything that is coming out of this desert crusade it is slightly more information about these kind of groups. Following the flight of AQMI from Timbuktu several papers have been unearthed which outline the strategy and politics of this group. Interestingly, these papers seem to be a far cry from simple propagandist babbling and resemble any typical bureaucratic policy document with clearly outlined and structured chapters, lessons learnt, procedural guidelines and recommendations for action. The document shows that Abou Zeid was not an illuminated madman or simply a bandit but well a leader who used violent means strategically to realize a political project. This, in turn, means that AQMI’s attractiveness for potential recruits stems less from material gains (which anyway given the hardships of desert fighting is a flawed argument) but from a political vision that is shared by a wider population. As we might further assume it is attractive because it is a response to a deep social conflict in those countries (Mali, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger etc.).

This is the crucial to understand why even this killing will not fundamentally change the situation on the ground. If AQMI is a political response to a social conflict it will remain attractive beyond the conjectural leadership of a certain Abou Zeid. Of course, another leader might not be as skilled and successful in finding finances through kidnappings, another leader might not be as a good a military strategist as he was but another leader might also be even better. Leadership is important yet the phenomenon AQMI might be more founded by underlying social and political conflicts than by momentanous and sporadic movements.

If France and Mali were out to eradicate such movement they will need to consider more than police actions which, apart from being only partially successful in terms of ridding the country of “terrorists”, also have the effect of undermining any potential for democracy, law and justice. At least if these are understood to be protecting citizens against state violence, to be assuring a minimum of fair process, and to be making legality a higher value than vengeance and arbitrary killings on suspicion. Killing the AQMI leadership and its fighters does not solve the political problem; it actually risks rather igniting more and new fighting as state suppression most often radicalizes opposition movements and provides new justifications for radicalisation.

In a talk at Oxford University, Alan Kuperman makes this point which he has developed in several articles under the title of “the moral hazard” of interventions. In his talk, Kuperman meticulously pulls apart the disinformation on the Libyan crisis and intervention. He then compares the casualties and dead of the fighting going on before the intervention and the estimated casualties and dead accounted for due to the intervention. He concludes that the intervention has not only prolonged the fighting but also aggravated the violence, spoilt the post-conflict environment and led overall to more unrest, misery and plight than Khadaffi’s suppression of the rebellion of spring 2011 did. Instead of saving lives, the intervention had cost lives and created greater instability, among other by dragging Northern Mali into war. The moral hazard of the Mali intervention is yet to be determined. Human Rights Watch has been documenting abuses and summary executions by Malian soldiers in the wake of the French intervention as have newspaper reports.

And what is it all for? This the French government has still not convincingly explained. Over 100 Million Euro to track down 40 men, holed up in a desert mountain, several thousand kilometre away from France certainly do not represent a major terrorist threat to Paris. For the time being, the economic interest hypothesis remains the more convincing one; after all, it is the French company Total that has the priority right for oil, gas and mineral prospection in exactly that area…Add a good dosis of neo-colonial disciplining of developing countries, uhm, sorry, support for friends…and a quick fillip in direction of the US that yes, France, can still tidy up its own backyard…then probably we’re closer to the reflections of the French ministry of foreign affairs, its ministry of defense and the presidential advisers than following up on the terrorist argument.



L’aventure continue…France’s Mali intervention not over soon


About two months ago, the French Defense Minister had anounced that French troops would be back home within a couple of weeks, three or maybe four, and when they took three major cities by storm he seemed to be absolutely right. Yet, until two, threes weeks ago they had been fighting nobody, really…the “islamist terrorists” had vanished into the desert. And so the French went after them and then…well, then… we don’t really know. French and international media seem to have lost their interest after the big party in Timbuktu and instead of having daily fat headlines on missiles, terrorist nests and shoot-outs there is only an occasional short note somewhere. Meanwhile, the cost of the operation has doubled from the initial 50 Million Euro to 100 Million — a “flash éco” news in the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, that’s all.

Le Drian justifies this pretty expense by pointing out that the French troops are now finally doing what they were sent in for: killing islamists. He doesn’t know how many they are killing but he reassures everyone that they are doing their job properly as they kill several every day. If they really do so and under what circumstances nobody acutally knows, however. Concrete information is confused and contradictory: suicide bombings in towns that had been “cleared” of terrorists, mountain battles with or without success and casualties…. Various sources juggle numbers of islamist casualties ranging from 15 to 20 in a recent shoot-out to hundreds. But who cares actually when the important thing is that “our” boys kills terrorists without being killed. It’s the two French soldiers (legionnaires, more precisely) being killed that make the headlines, of course.

What is relatively well known is the number of displaced and refugees: 6,500 from the North since the French marched in and the fighting began; 240,000 since the Northern insurgency began a bit more than a year ago. But they don’t make the headlines either. After all, the French did not march in heroically to be associated with ragged homeless IDPs and refugees…

The French intervention is far from being the neat and simple march-through they had anounced back in January; it was never really declared a humanitarian intervention which, in the end, is good as it dispenses the government from trying to explain why it is creating more violence, misery and havoc than there was before. But then, there has never been a declared goal anyway except to kill terrorists and this, at least, the French are now doing! But as those islamists don’t want to be so easily killed, it seems that the French are there to stay and continue their cat-and-mouse game. And as this war has moved out of the news, hence the public consciousness, just as the Afghanistan and Iraq intervention have, it can continue for a loooong time. The hopes of a clear victory and an easy little army work out are already shattered and with it any potential homegrown political solution.


Just imagine you had 50 million Euro …


… all the things you could do, all the places you could go! All the council housing you could build, all the teachers you could pay, all the children and youth clubs you could set up, all the jobs you could create, all the nurseries you could equip, all the books you could buy, all the theatres you could have play, all the concerts you could show, all the…ah!… just imagine!

And what did the “socialist” President do? Play tin soldiers in the desert.


Sandcastles and dustclouds in Mali in the aftermath of France’s intervention


In his novel “Desert” the noble prize winning French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio describes the two waves of destruction to which nomad cultures in the Sahel have been subjected in the past 100 years: French colonialism on the one hand, and modern labour migration to metropole and the alienation that goes with it, on the other. Whereas French immigration policies since the 1980s have ever more drove the latter to its climax, the arrival of French troops in Timbuktu has signed off another chapter of the first. In fact, French troops had taken Timbuktu already in 1894. In Le Clézio’s novel, the link between the two narratives is the family and love story that connects the main characters. However, from a political history point of view the connection of both is the ways the Western, in this case the French state has appropriated, used, abused and pushed around the political entities in the Sahel and its people, whether by subjugating them to colonial rule or by exploiting them as cheap, immigrant labour. The current intervention of France in Mali has all of perpetuating this pattern. What is at stake in the North of Mali? As before the groups that the French were (supposedly) battling were constituted of people whose primary objective was to extract themselves from the state and its characteristics, whether imposed nationality and “national culture” or taxation and rules. As before their way of living and making a living, does not fit the state’s aims, whether the Malian or the French. Remember that it is the state’s costums booth that transforms long-distance trading into trafficking and smuggling. Yet, contrary to Le Clézio’s novel and the impression one could gain from past events, most often these groups seek to evade the state and its forces rather than to fight them directly. Using their intimate knowledge of the extremely difficult terrain as well as their capacities to survive in this hostile environment, these state-evading groups have commonly retreated into the desert, away from the  grip of the state.

When France started marching on Timbuktu last week much of this hide-and-seek game seem to be repeated. The French met no resistance when they “took” one city after the other…the “terrorists” had evaporated. Finding them is an almost impossible task if the sheer vastness of the territory is considered. However, searching them is a perfect excuse for the US to send in their drones for surveillance of the vast Sahel desert. What exactly they are seeking and who these people are and what kind of threat they represent other than not accepting the state (which is for a state, of course, bad enough)…nobody yet knows.

If the French intervention has confirmed the Malian government in its belief that only force can hold the country together and keep whatever rebellious group out and down, it has not solved any political problem at all. Although Mali has anounced that it would take up negotiations with those groups who have abstained from violence, there is a large array of indicators that such initiatives are bound to fail. In fact, during all this marching and winning battles, no one, neither the Malian government nor the Western decision-makers have proven that they actually knew who these groups are, by what they are motivated and what kind of modus vivendi could be found. France, by the way, happily makes known that they actually never cared, they just intervened to show who the strong man is (by the way confirming Jean-Louis Arcand’s argument that the whole operation is a marketing campaign to rid President Hollande of his marshmellow image) and now that this is done, they’ll go home as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius declared: “Maintenant, c’est aux pays africains de prendre le relais. Nous avons décidé de mettre les moyens en hommes et en matériel pour réussir cette mission et frapper fort. Mais le dispositif français n’a pas vocation à être maintenu. Nous partirons rapidement”. (Now it’s up to the African countries to take action. We have decided to provide men and equipment to make this operation a success and to show strong muscles. But the French mission is not meant to stay. We will leave quickly.)

Yet, there are quite some things happening which clearly should not be part of any “liberation” or intervention to save civilians and which legitimately raise doubts over the Malian goverment’s willingness and capacity to negotiate successfully a political solution. In Gao and in Timbuktu, Arabs and Touaregs or people who were said to be Arab or Touareg were violently attacked, their shops plundered and cases of lynching were reported. Furthermore, past experiences with African “peacekeeping” troops leave little hope that they can decisively advance a protracted conflict towards resolution. Not only have African troops (albeit others, too) been involved in many cases of abuse, extortion and violence, they also represent a bunch of autocratic governments that barely agree among themselves and who certainly have not shown any particular sensitivity or capacity to deal with non-state and secessionist groups and claims. As Jeffrey Herbst has pointed out long time ago there is nothing more stable and immobile in Africa than the state borders set by the colonial powers, and this is so particularly at the wish and travail of the African, metropolitan and elite governments themselves. The metaphore does not quite fit the climate but sending in African peacekeepers sounds very much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The paroxysm is reached when the Malian’s government sole plan for pacification is to propose elections. Not only do we know from sufficient scholarly research (let’s just mention Snyder/Mansfield’s study) that elections tend to exacerbate tensions and may actually lead to escalation, this proposition comes additionally from a putshist government! It’s now one year that the “interim” President Diokounda Traoré has promised elections, there is little reason to believe that they will live up to this promise now. Last november he showed his discontent with the prime minister by having him simply arrested by the army and, after a short stinch in an army camp outside town, declare his “resignation”.  Clearly a sign that this President is committed to peaceful deliberation and dialogue, and predisposed to give up power when elections or constitution require him to do so…What will happen is that with an extended network of UN agencies, African Union institutions and NGOs the government will be able to stretch its bureaucracy into these regions which are far removed from the political centre, hence, extending a little bit farther its claim to statehood without having actually to provide any state services…

World literature is usually recognized as such because the stories told and the way they are told go beyond the national or cultural particular identity of the story teller. They speak, so to say, to the whole world as they sublimate the specific themes into more general, timeless and ahistorical narratives which can be recognized by many more than the culturally initiated. The great dust cloud stirred up in Mali has only re-ignited a circular movement where colonial power, oops sorry former colonial powers work together with local sedentary chiefs to establish and uphold a mirage of stateness by the way criminalising, marginalising and radicalizing those groups whose mode of life, culture and production evade the categories of the state. Their violent and radical reaction serves as excuses for expanding again statist security and surveillance, hence pushing these groups again further into the desert, hence marginalising them even more, hence….and the wheel keeps on turning….



Wouldn’t it be nice…?


if the Malian’s defense minister’s optimistic prediction became true that the war would be over in a couple of days? Yet, one does not need to be a great military strategist to be suspicious of the easiness with which the French troops are advancing. The armed groups in Northern Mali certainly are not so silly that they would throw themselves against the French upfront, lined up and in proper Clausewitzian combat formation? They certainly know better and are patiently hiding out in the “backland”. But let’s just assume that they were really, fully defeated. What will happen next? What are the plans for post-intervention Mali? The Touareg conflict is as old as Mali’s statehood and will flare up again. Given that the Malian army is already accused of exactions, it might flare up extremely quickly. And what deeper problem has this military intervention solved? None, as Rue89 argues and they have a couple of points to make, most notably that this military intervention has rather added another layer of hatred and complication to the already nasty relationships between the North and the South, and that the President has very little, if nothing to say about the day after. Après nous, le déluge…


Mali…a couple of updates


France has since long preferred to use state resources for their economic interests and so it is not surprising that instead of calling upon private military firms as most American and British mining companies do in Africa, the extraction sites of the French company Avera in Niger will be protected by French special forces, as reports the Journal du Siecle.


A lot of questions are asked with respect to Qatari involvment in Northern Mali. Following an article in the French journal “Le canard enchainé” which is a satiric as well as an investigative weekly newspaper (which does not put its articles online so I can only link up to reports about their report), a number of observers are wondering not only if and how deeply Qatar is involved in financing various groups in Northern Mali but also why. Highly interesting, yet little discussed is the question of the arrangement between France and the Qatar if the latter indeed is active in Norther Mali. Given that Qatari activities in Libya and Syria have been seen rather favourably, that French president Hollande just returned from a visit joined by the biggest French companies to other Gulf states with which he has quickly restablished good relations after a couple of naughty comments during his electoral campaign, that anyway Gulf states seem to be allowed to do whatever they want if it’s only securing Western oil interests and is somehow hostile to Iran, it appears unlikely that there would be a major confrontation between the two.


The strategy of the US to get the UN involved seems to work also well for France. The recipe is simple: first get a sufficiently vaguely formulated resolution which you, the state which wants to intervene, can interpret as authorization to use force; send troops which are sufficiently strong to  stirr up a lot of dust but not strong enough to finish this off quickly (if this would ever be possible with assymmetric wars, yet strong beliefs die hard); then call in the UN. If that does not work, call your friends for help.


France in Mali…. le bordel, quoi!


Like every socialist French government of the post-Cold War era, president François Hollande had pledged to set an end to French interference in African affairs, to end “la Françafrique”. Like it happened with every socialist French government, it took merely a couple of months to set an end not to Françafrique but to pledges of ending French fumbling around in their African “précarré”. But even if this intervention is consistent with France’s general interference in this region, the question which concrete motives have pushed the president to send in the troops now comes up (in this interview the former Director of the Collège Interarmées de Défense Vincent Desportes speaks of 3000 men to be in the region soon).  In the French media, there is a lot of speculation but little confirmed information. The president’s declarations are not very elucidating or helpful, either, as he speaks of helping a befriended country (“pays ami”) or forestalling an islamist threat on Europe, both of which are not only contradictory motives to invoke (wouldn’t there be the risk that French islamists get upset over their government right now?) but also not very convincing. The armed conflict in Northern Mali has been dragging on since almost a year, the Malian government is barely legitimate as it has come to power by a coup d’Etat and what kind of islamists actually are involved in the conflict, where they come from, how many they are and what their goals are is, for the time being, still cloaked in dust and vagueness. As for the other motive invoked, namely “saving French citizens” one wonders if a simply evacuation operation would not be more appropriate, cheaper and less, how to say, raising dust?

Several analysts speculate that the motives of securing and maintaining access to valuable natural resources in the triangle Northern Mali, Mauritania, Niger are the most important. Indeed, a large part of the uranium of French nuclear power plants comes from this region and French companies are heavily involved in the extraction of gas, oil and minerals. A propensity of supporting conservative but secular authoritarian regimes like Boutelfika’s Algeria suits well with such a strategy of using French military to secure the access to mineral resources as the past has shown that these governments rely heavily on the export rent and are, consequently, “manéable à merci”. Like the US, France always had much better relationships with authoritarian dictators in Africa than with popular or even democratic regimes, and in the case of Algeria this is certainly the case since the Algerian people were unfortuante enough to vote for the FIS (Front islamique de salut) in their first and subsequently stolen elections in 1991. Indeed, France’s schmoozing with Algeria has since always been disquieting given the latter’s way of fighting its own “war on terror”. For Algerians, the regime’s friendliness with whatever French government must have been even more disheartening given the latter’s sometimes hysterical immigration policies, growing and ever more visible islamophobia and mischievous treatment of anything related to its colonial past, whether apologizing for the Parisian “ratonnade” of 1960 or the compensation of Algerian harkis. For both, taking action against long-declared ennemies of the state, the Touareg and its new allies, must be a most useful propaganda campaign.

The islamist threat is another route to go down if one is looking for reasons of this intervention and it is the reason French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had put forward in an interview with radio “Europe 1”. Yet, what remains largely unclear is what is actually meant by “islamism” in this context. Of course, the one-size-fits-all label of “Al Qaida” appears now and again, and, of course, all these islamists are all salafists. The problem is simply that both labels don’t tell us an awful lot about what these people want, who they are, where they come from, what they are fighting for or against and so on and so on. The British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan goes that far to simply deny that radical islamism exists in the Sahara and claiming that this is all a set-up of the Algerian secret services.

This is, obviously, an unevidenced and hardly provable conspiracy theory yet it points to the utter ignorance and confusion once more serious questions about the programme, identity, organisation, or even nationality and support of these so-called islamists are asked. Some of them seem to be Touareg, some not. Some seem to have been financed by Qatar, some not. Some seem to be “left-overs” of the Lybian war, some are coming apparently from Algeria, and others are “Malian” by name although not by allegiance. Indeed, as this analysis makes believe there internal dissensions and distinctions make these groups appear less unified.

Since In Amenas it is obvious that some of these groups do represent a major threat to econmic interests in the region and to the people and living in their way, yet, even with the claim of  Mokhtar Belmokhtar to be representing Al Qaida. According to Jeremy Keenan’s “The Dark Sahara”, Belmokhtar was in the past rather involved in smuggling and trafficking than in radical Islam although he has been listed in 2003 on the UN black list of Al Qaida members. As of most terrorists, very little is known of this man, his intentions and workings. Al Qaida also does not seem to be the principal group in Northern Mali that promotes the instauration of Islam as political system but Ansar Dine which up to now has not been engaged in fighting and killings. How are the two related, if at all? No clear information available on this.

Hence, there is much more speculation than secure knowledge about the various armed groups, their finances and financiers, the sources of their armement, and their goals and aims. Even more confusing is the question whether they are allied with the Touareg forces, namely the MLNA (mouvement pour la liberation nationale de l’Azawad), or not, and if this is an alliance of convenience or of a more durable kind. Just now the MLNA anounced that it would fight back the “islamists”.

Given that little is known about these groups and that they are rather represented as terrorists in order to make up for this little and uncertain knowledge,  the argument that they represent a threat to Europe is, to say the least, surprising. The right wording does seem to be rather that they are threatening European economic interests in the Sahara. They are also threatening a political order which is certainly not democratic or free but determined to protect their “good relations” with France. And this is why they are considered dangerous by the French government. Hollande is leading a very simplistic, post-colonial and short-sighted intervention, that’s all. And that will probably soon be too much. Just as other operations of this kind, France is actually risking to make the situation more complicated and to engage in a much more protracted and long-lasting war of attrition than they expect.  Critical and notably self-critical reflections on how and why France has contributed to “terror” in the world are indeed not the most obvious characteristic of this or any other French government. It is dragging other countries like the Chad into this operation, thereby legitimizing their anything but democratic governments, it is polarizing even more the antagonism between the Touareg and the Southern Malian population making any political solution to the Touareg’s claim to autonomy (or even independence) move far away, it is conferring unwittingly a legitimacy to the radicalization of Islam in the region, it is reinforcing fears of islamist terorrism in France and in Europe hence playing into the hands of its own right-wing xenophobic parties and probably generally intesifying islamophobia in France, it is intensifying the guerilla tactics of those armed groups hence offering more opportunities for small arms circulation and, if Stathis Kalyvas “Logic of violence in civil war” is to be believed creating more situations of brutal exactions as uncertainty of the population’s loyalty is increasing, and as one common consequence of most assymmetric and guerrilla wars of attrition is the mushrooming of camps and detention centres with their practices of surveillance and torture, it is pushing even more the war in the shadows…in short it will be creating a much bigger mess than what it can fix.