Hillary’s West African Footprint

By now, it’s no secret that Hillary Clinton, along with advisors Susan Rice and Samantha Power (then the Obama administration’s ambassador to the United Nations and a senior advisor to the National Security Council, respectively), took the lead in drumming up support for the 2011 NATO campaign to oust Moammar Qaddafi from power in Libya. From the beginning, top Pentagon officials warned that such a move carried with it the potential for disastrous consequences. In an attempt to undermine her march to war, these officials, along with Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich, opened their own backdoor channels of negotiation with the Qaddafi regime – a move former Secretary of State James Baker III called "highly unusual" in conducting U.S. foreign policy. Undeterred by these efforts, however, Clinton and her lackeys in the State Department continued to insist that the Libyan intervention was humanitarian in character and necessary to prevent impending atrocities by Libyan military forces. Over and over, hawks repeated dubious claims that Qaddafi ordered systematic rape, a Rwandan-style genocide in Benghazi, and used attack helicopters to fire on peaceful protesters, an accusation to which Admiral Mike Mullen, backed up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, admitted there existed "no confirmation whatsoever." Despite warnings by Saif Qaddafi that opposition to government forces consisted of "terrorists and thugs," and top Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal’s own admission that the National Libyan Council (also known as the National Transition Council) was composed of of members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the push for Qaddafi’s ouster continued. On March 17, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, establishing a no-fly-zone over Libyan airspace and authorizing member states to take "all necessary measures" to "protect civilians" and enforce the flight ban. Two days later, the air campaign against the Libyan government began when French fighter jets fired on government forces entering Benghazi. By late October of that year, Qaddafi was dead and the NTC assumed governing duties.

That deposing a (mostly) secular authority in concert with a jihadist rebellion ran counter to the aims of the global War on Terror should have been confusing to no one, but convergent political ambitions often cloud rational thought in the echo chamber of diplomatic group-think. Tired of being relegated to "rinky-dink do-gooder stuff," Samantha Power saw Libya as her chance to reassert her position in the Obama administration. Not wanting to go down in history as having been entirely on the side of tyranny during the Arab Spring, Hillary Clinton perceived a chance to side with a popular uprising after learning that the Arab League would support the revolution against Qaddafi. She, in turn, convinced Obama that this course of action would prove a globally popular foreign policy move. French President Nicholas Sarkozy had, since 2008, alluded to expanding the French military presence in Africa, seen in domestic politics as that nation’s last remaining sphere of influence outside of Europe and overseas French territories. Recently released e-mails from Clinton’s time as Secretary of State have also revealed his desire to preempt a move by Qaddafi to create a pan-African currency backed by hidden Libyan gold reserves to undermine the dominance of the Franc in Francophone Africa. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir agreed to arm the rebels as retribution for Qaddafi’s support of past Sudanese insurgencies, calling it "an opportunity to reciprocate." Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who had crushed their own uprisings during the Arab Spring, saw it as a chance to kill three birds with one stone: at once they could oust a leader who had long drawn the ire of the Gulf sheikdoms, support a militant Islamist revolution to the delight of their domestic Wahhabist supporters, and drive oil prices up by interrupting the Libyan supply. Suddenly, the otherwise divergent political interests of each of these varied actors had come together in a way that spelled disaster for stability and peace in North and West Africa.

Almost immediately, the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime blew back in the faces of the powers who had supported it. Within a month, Mokhtar Belmokhtar gave an interview to the Mauritanian news agency ANI proclaiming that his group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had been "one of the main beneficiaries" of weapons smuggled out of Libya’s abandoned stockpiles. For years, nomadic ethnic Tuaregs from Northern Mali and Niger had migrated into Libya during droughts and famines to join the ranks of Qaddafi’s Islamic Legion in exchange for a steady paycheck, or to flee government forces after unsuccessful attempts at rebellion. Post-revolution, however, their old loyalties made them enemies of the new regime, and they fled back into Mali. Many of them brought their weapons with them. With a long and storied history of nationalist rebellions – taking up arms against the French colonial government from 1916-1917, the Malian government from 1962-1964, and the Malian and Nigerien governments from 1990-1995 and again from 2007-2009 – these fiercely independent people capitalized on their opportunity. Forming the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (the Tuareg name for the Saharan region of Northern Mali), former rebel leaders began jockeying for positions of power in the organization. One such leader, the infamous Iyad ag-Ghaly, labeled the "undisputed leader" of the 1990 rebellion by Radio France Internationale, was rebuffed over questionable loyalties and Islamist leanings, breaking off instead to form Ansar Dine to compete for power in the contested region. The MNLA began engaging in open revolt in January of 2012, running roughshod over a Malian army wholly unprepared to stand and fight against a well-armed resistance movement motivated by nationalist fervor. Citing the Malian government’s failure to effectively put down the rebellion, Captain Amadou Sanogo led a military coup in the capital city of Bamako on March 21st, further jeopardizing the army’s already tenuous hold on its Saharan territory. By April 1st, the MNLA had taken advantage of the situation and succeeded in taking control of northern Mali’s three main cities. Five days later came the declaration of independence of Azawad, in which their spokesman, Mossa ag Attaher, emphasized the secular, democratic nature of the newly-declared state. On the very same day, Ansar Dine began vocalizing their own objections to this arrangement.

Up to that point, there had been some semblance of grudging cooperation between Ansar Dine and the MNLA. Though both groups denied any formal coordination in military operations, their aims in opposing the central government in Bamako and establishing control of the country’s Saharan north had run largely congruent. After driving the Malian forces out of the territory, however, their differences became tripwires for escalations in violence. While the MNLA wanted an independent, secular state and self-determination in the Tuareg homelands, Ansar Dine viewed the establishment of their authority in Azawad as a gateway to imposing their version of Sharia on the entire country. One of the group’s officials had even stated explicitly that "Our war is a holy war. We are against rebellions. We are against independence." In an effort to secure some of the weaponry smuggled out of Libya, Ag Ghaly had entered Ansar Dine into a marriage of convenience with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Under this framework, the two groups would take great care to ensure the public appearance of distance between their organizations. In effect, this cooperation would provide Ag Ghaly with the men and munitions he needed to contest the control of Azawad by the MNLA. By May 26th, Ansar Dine had gained enough traction to force the MNLA’s hand in signing an accord in which the two sides would meet halfway. The Islamist rebel factions would accept the independence of Azawad, while the secular factions would agree to the imposition of a Sharia interpretation which was only slightly less strict than the one Ansar Dine had originally fought for. A week later, the MNLA renounced the deal. By June 9th, the two sides clashed openly in Kidal, one of Northern Mali’s three largest cities. On Tuesday, June 26th, tensions between the groups came to a head in the city of Gao, where the largely non-Tuareg local population opposed the partition of Mali and rose up in support of the jihadists, culminating in a gun battle which left 20 people dead. On Thursday, Ansar Dine issued a two-hour ultimatum to the MNLA in Timbuktu to leave the city and its environs. By Friday, Mokhtar Belmokhtar had entered the city to join Iyad Ag Ghaly for his victory lap.

From then on, Tuareg hopes for an independent Azawad began to fade. Beginning in September, French President Francois Hollande began requesting an authorization to intervene militarily in Mali from the United Nations, receiving vocal support from Hillary Clinton. By this point, however, the Malian government had only been willing to request military help from the Economic Community of West African States, calculating that the Malian body politic might be averse to military intervention by its former colonial rulers. By November 28th, the MNLA had effectively lost control over the entirety of Azawad to Ansar Dine and their allies. Realizing the futility of the situation, the junta in Bamako sent an official request for military assistance to officials in Paris, which was granted in UNSC Resolution 2085. Flying from Epervier air force base in N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad, another former colony and strong French ally, the French air force began assaults on Ansar Dine-controlled cities on January 11th. Some more astute French officials cautioned that this could trigger a new wave of retaliatory attacks, this time from black sub-Saharan Africans – a group who had not previously been associated with terrorism against French targets. These warnings, however, did not deter Clinton’s push for further US escalation of the conflict, committing American forces to logistics support within days of the first French operations. This support was further expanded by the administration only a few weeks later.

As to be expected, it did not take long for the French military force of 4,000 troops to drive Ansar Dine from formal control of all of Northern Mali’s main cities. However, in the tradition of modern Islamist guerilla movements, the group simply shifted back from a governing body to an insurgency, and intermittent violence continued in spite of the French presence. Having expected a quick rout and summary withdrawal, French authorities appeared surprised to find themselves bogged down in a complex civil conflict which they were entirely unprepared to resolve, and removing military forces soon proved a more difficult task than anticipated. Instead, a-la-Iraq, they began a (very) partial withdrawal amidst insurgent violence, with no effective framework for Malian security in place. In fact, the conflict had already begun to spill over into neighboring Niger, another country with a long history of French military and economic presence, in retaliation for their cooperation with the French foray into Mali. Promising to be down to 1,000 troops in Mali by the end of 2013, 3,000 remained in mid-July of the following year. In light of the dispersal of the conflict and militant Islamist resistance to the French military presence, Hollande instead elected to reorganize his ground troops across all the former French colonial states in the Sahel. Now, instead of merely stoking anti-imperial resentment in Mali and Chad, French forces – supported by the United States – would be able to fan the flames of tension in Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso as well.

Fast forward to 2015, and the abject failures of Operation Barkhane and its American counterpart AFRICOM to bring peace to the Sahel was obvious. Violence in Mali continued intermittently, spiking in January of 2015. For the first time, Boko Haram spread their anti-Western agenda to countries outside of Nigeria and began their own attacks on Niger (on February 6 and July 17) and Chad. An AQIM affiliated group from Algeria, Al-Mourabitoun, carried out an attack in a district of Bamako known for its popularity among European expats, struck again in Sevare in August and returned to the capital on November 20th to attack another target popular with Westerners – the Radisson Blu hotel – killing 21. All three attacks, the group claimed, were in retaliation to Western intervention in North and West Africa. By the close of 2015, however, tiny Burkina Faso (another key French ally) had managed to dodge most of the violence – save for a lone kidnapping of a Romanian national in the country’s far northern regions. In fact, this small nation with a 61% Muslim majority and sordid history of resistance to Western colonialism was entirely without a homegrown Salafist movement. This, despite a failed coup attempt that had carried with it a potential to jeopardize the state’s security force, proved to be something of a miracle. Less than three weeks into 2016, however, a US military air base and a French special forces contingent proved too much of a provocation for AQIM affiliates to allow Western targets in Burkina Faso to go untouched. On January 15th of this year, three militants carried out a mass shooting on a Ouagadougou hotel popular with foreigners, following the pattern of the previous attacks in Bamako and Sevare. American and French troops were close enough to provide "logistical support" while the siege was under way. By the time the attack was over, twenty-nine people of at least nine nationalities were dead, including seven native Burkinabes. AQIM’s press release claiming responsibility for the attacks alluded directly to Western military involvement in the Sahel, calling the hotel a "den of global espionage."

To any informed observer, the motivation for the increased frequency of these attacks, and their growth into new countries, is abundantly clear. Western imperial ambitions, especially those in Islamic-majority countries, lead to a perceived lack of self determination on the part of the body politic of those people living under dictators friendly to Western governments. When attempts to resist authoritarian leaders beholden first to foreign interests fail, frustration within the social order builds among members of that nation’s populace. This, in turn, validates the narratives of the most violent groups opposing Western rule, and attracts the young, the restless, and often the jobless elements of society most hungry for change and willing to take the most dramatic steps to initiate it. This is a phenomenon that Chalmers Johnson labeled"blowback" in a now-famous article published in The Nation in late September of 2001. Its existence has become an accepted fact in the realm of military planning, and Hillary Clinton herself warned of its possibility in March of 2011. More important to her, however, were her political ambitions, a chance to grease the palms of friendly arms dealers, and a good deed done for the domestic politics of the Clinton Foundation’s gulf supporters. If there is any action an American Secretary of State ought to take in attempting to quell violence aimed at Western targets, it is to facilitate peace talks rather than engage in fruitless military escapades overseas to intervene in conflicts about which American bureaucrats understand nothing. And, even then, such enterprises carry with them the threat of backfire. In tracing the footsteps of unrest across the whole of North and West Africa, one finds that all roads lead to Hillary Clinton and her Libyan regime-change operation. The best of all solutions is the complete withdrawal of Western military forces from the foreign lands they occupy. Only under these conditions will peace in the Sahel become an achievable outcome; and until then, the peaceful citizens of the tiny nation of Burkina Faso will be asked to foot her bill.

Adam Hosey is an independent historian based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who fights to counter the mainstream narrative, particularly as it pertains to Africa and Russia.