The Threat To Timbuktu
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, cities around the country are mandating calorie counts and banning large soft drinks, but new laws don't always lead to healthier choices. Food Wednesday explores food policy and behavioral economics, but first, global cultural treasures under attack. For the last week Islamic militants in the ancient desert city of Timbuktu in the north of Mali in West Africa, have been methodically destroying that city's cultural treasures, taking pick axes, shovels and machetes to historic mosques and shrines that date back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
The international criminal court has called it a war crime. UNESCO has called it an attack against humanity, but the international community has been mostly forced to watch in horror, unable to directly influence the situation. For many it harkens back to an infamous episode in Afghanistan when Taliban forces destroyed ancient Buddhist statues. But the cultural crisis in Timbuktu is really a story of overlapping political crisis in the entire region along the edge of the Sahara.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI
And it raises pointed questions about what Washington is doing in the region. Joining us in studio is Todd Moss. He is vice president and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development where he directs the Emerging Africa Project. He was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa in the State Department between 2007 and 2008. Todd Moss, good to see you again.
MR. TODD MOSS
And joining us by phone from Minnesota is Cherif Keita. He is a professor of French and Francophone studies at Carlton College in Minnesota. He is from Mali and has published books and articles on social and literary problems in contemporary Africa. Cherif Keita, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. CHERIF KEITA
Thank you so much, Mr. Nnamdi. And hello, Mr. Moss.
Hi. For centuries, Cherif, Timbuktu has existed at the crossroads of trade across the Sahara and served as a major intellectual and cultural hub of Islam. Three mosques in the city are UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back to the 15th and 16th century. It features libraries that reveal rich details about history, Islamic theology, mathematics, subjects like botany. Well, this week, militants from a radical Islamic militant group called, I think, Ansar Din began...
Ansar Din, yes.
Ansar Din began systemically attacking those sites. Why would militants professing their commitment to Islam attack sites that are revered by the Muslim residents in this city?
Well, you want me to start?
Okay. Well, I think it's a very, you know, ignorant, you know, understanding of Islam and intolerant understanding of Islam which is antinomical to the Islam that Mali has known for centuries. And Mali has been at the center of the culture of Islam for centuries and centuries. And it has always coexisted with, you know, local traditions. It has been accepting of different variations. And mostly it has been a cement for social cohesion.
So when a few hundred people come from outside with heavy weapons and with a very checkered past -- because we know that most of these guys were drug traffickers. I mean much of their money came from drug trafficking and also from hostage taking. So when they come and decide that they want to go against this, by committing this kind of barbaric act, again, I mean, you know, I think we are all horrified by it, again.
I would like to invite members of our audience to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. How should the international community respond when cultural treasures are threatened? What is your reaction on the threat to Timbuktu's libraries and its tombs? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Kojo@wamu.org. Or go to our website, Kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Todd Moss, as we said, this may be a global cultural crisis, but it's really a series of converging crises in March. Mali went from poster child of U.S. military and civilian aid to becoming a failed state seemingly overnight. Can you give us some context here?
Sure. You know Mali's had really two decades of strengthening democracy, making a lot of progress on development. Of course Mali's one of the poorest countries in the world, but it had been doing very well. It was a very close ally of the United States. And it was really seen as an example for both democracy and economic progress in the region. They were coming up to an election in just a couple of week's time. And a combination of factors came together, most notably the collapse in Libya.
A number of very well armed, highly motivated fighters came down into Mali. And what had been a local rebellion turned into a very serious fight. And in March, the president was overthrown in a coup. And so today there is no legitimate government in the South. And that created a window where a combination of Tuareg separatists and Islamic radicals who seized the opportunity of chaos in the South to take control of the North, including Timbuktu.
Cherif, even though Mali was seen by...
Yes. Could I add...
...many as a model of democracy, there were obviously undercurrents of significant discontent, correct?
That's right. This is exactly what it is. See, Mali seen from outside really was, as you say, the poster child of democracy. But I was in Mali the whole of winter from end of December to mid March. And so...
Oh, we seemed to have lost Cherif for the time being. As we try to get back with him, you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, Kojoshow.org. Do you have family or friends in Mali who have been impacted by this coup? What do you think the U.S.'s role should be in Mali? 800-433-8850. Todd, this city, Mali, has been a crossroads for trade and intellectual traditions for centuries. Give us a sense of why it's so important from a historic and cultural perspective in Africa.
Well, it's been a very important Islamic center. It's right in the middle of the Sahara desert. So it was an important trading post, people trading from the north down to the southern coast. And as Professor Keita suggested, it has always been a center of tolerance, as you can imagine, where different people had come together to trade and interact and where scholars came to study. It was a place that accepted a wide range of different cultures. And that's really the shame of today is that we're seeing such intolerance and such extremism that is quite foreign to what I think most Malians would recognize as culturally legitimate today.
This also raises some very pointed questions about U.S. foreign policy, does it not? Mali has received hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and military assistance based on the premise of its strategic importance in the region and the idea that foreign assistance would stabilize its institutions. Clearly, I guess, that didn't work. In fact, the rebel forces took most of the major cities in the north in a matter of days. What does this say about U.S. foreign policy and the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid?
Well, I think the U.S. has several interests in Mali. Most importantly the whole north of Mali which is as big as the country of France, but has very few people in it, is a very difficult place to monitor or govern. And that has created space for extremists groups to move in. A little bit like Afghanistan, a little bit like Somalia. And over the last couple of years, we've seen some groups from Algeria and neighboring countries using northern Mali as a safe haven. And that's something that the U.S., France and Mali's neighbors would seek to prevent.
Clearly, we had been closely engaged with Mali for two decades. Clearly things weren't going as well as we thought they were. But I still am relatively hopeful that the foundations in Mali for recovery are still there.
Mali is about twice the size of Texas and yet its military numbers less 7000 people in a country of over 14 million people. Taken from a regional perspective, the situation in the north of Mali actually involves some pretty interesting forces beyond its borders. You mentioned this earlier. The country has been destabilized by forces and weapons from both Algeria and Libya. It's also said to be a conduit -- and I guess Cherif mentioned this -- in the global drug trade and a major front in the war on terror. Why Mali?
Well, again, it comes back to this idea of having a large space with very few people and very little government activity. I mean we could look at a map of Mali and see that it's very large, but it's really big pieces of Mali are a vacuum. And that just creates space for groups and people that wanna act in a way out of sight of governments, out of sight of law enforcement, out of sight of military forces. They gravitate toward these places where there's virtually no government.
We're talking with Todd Moss. He is vice president and senior fellow at the Center For Global Development where he directs the Emerging Africa Project. He was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa in the State Department from 2007 to 2008. If you have questions or comments about the situation in Mali, how do you think the international community should respond when cultural treasures in places like Mali are threatened? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet @Kojoshow.
Mali may not be on the radar of most people in Washington, but Nigeria certainly is. And many people in Washington have been alarmed by the rise of a militant Islamist group called Boko Haram across that country. Nigeria and Mali don't actually share a border, but there seem to be parallels between the professed goals of Boko Haram and this group that we're talking about in Mali, Ansar Din. What do you think?
Well, you know, I think there are some modest parallels in that you have groups that feel disenfranchised. They feel isolated from the government and they have found Islamic radicalism, imported from the outside, to be attractive. And they've staged attacks against the authorities. I don't think that the parallels go too far between Nigeria and Mali. The situation in northern Mali is particularly complicated because you have groups like Ansar Din which are Tuareg led, which is a domestic Malian group that has been trying to gain some sort of autonomy from the Malian government for many years and has had several piece deals that have fallen apart.
But you also have foreign terrorists groups, including one that calls itself al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, that have come down and have been engaging in primarily kidnapping and drug trafficking in order to raise finance.
What are the tools that are at the international communities' disposal to address the situation in Timbuktu and, for that matter, that entire region?
Well, normally the bedrock of a strategy like this would be to work with the Malian security forces to make them stronger and enable them to control and patrol their own territory. That clearly wasn't working very well and right now that's not an option because of the coup in the capitol. There is no legitimate government. In fact, U.S. law would prevent us from working with an illegal government.
And while that transition is -- we're sort of stuck in limbo in the south. It's fallen onto the neighbors to try to seek a diplomatic solution and also to try to have a security solution to try to contain any of the chaos or any of these Islamic groups that are threatening, not just Mali but some of the neighbors.
Let's go to the telephones now. The number to call is 800-433-8850. Here is Brian. Brian in Charlottesville, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
Hi. I really want to know, what are the origins of these Islamic extremists in this area of the world? I mean, when did they originally move in? And, you know, and yeah, you know, why did they come there in the first place?
Well, there've been Islamic groups in Mali for centuries. There haven't been extremist Al-Qaida type terrorist groups in Mali until very, very recently. And the first group really that came on the U.S. radar was a splintered group from Algeria that had come down -- very small numbers that had come down and used Mali as a -- Northern Mali as a base to attack back into Algeria. Much more recently, only within the last couple of years have we seen any success of these Islamic groups to gain some Malian participation. And most recently this is a handful -- I should stress, an extreme minority of Tuareg leaders that have jumped on this Islamic extremist bandwagon.
I would say by all the evidence we have the vast, vast majority of Tuareg are not interested in anything like this. They're trying to seek a political accommodation with the government of Mali.
Cherif Keita is back with us. He's a professor of French and Francophone studies at Carleton College in Minnesota. He is from Mali. Cherif, in recent years you've led a group of students from Carleton College on a trip to Mali. It's not like this was the safest or easiest place to travel even before the coup in March. But from a cultural perspective you say it's a real tragedy that tourists cannot be exposed to places like Timbuktu. Tell us about the cultural and historical significance, especially in terms of Islam.
Okay. First of all, Mali really had been very safe frankly, you know. I started this program in 2000 and we were able to travel all over the place. And as I say, to go to Timbuktu because we, you know, when we think of Africa, we think of oral cultures. But this was a place that really symbolized the highly literate culture of Africa, the past of Africa that has been, you know, written down and that we're still waiting to be rediscovered. So as part of my program in Mali, we were looking at the oral culture with the, you know, beautiful music, you know, coming out of Mali, the oral traditions.
But when we went to Timbuktu, there we could see those very valuable manuscripts that came -- you know, that were from as far back as, you know, the middle ages dealing with all kinds of topics that you usually don't associate, you know, with African thinking. So again, the fact that this renaissance that Timbuktu was going through, which was, you know, attracting so many tourists to Timbuktu and serving as the basis of tourist economy for Mali, that was really helping the country, to sustain the country for the past years.
The fact that this is coming to a halt is a terrible tragedy. I mean, I feel that, you know, my program is poorer for that. And I think the community -- the International Community will be poorer if we let these treasures be destroyed. So that's why I launch an appeal to the International Community and maybe the politicians to see if there is a possibility of intervening. So maybe you discuss that with Mr. Moss who has serious reservations about intervening. And I do too but I believe that, as you said very correctly on his blog, the problem -- the solution to the problem has to start in the south because the southern politicians are the ones that created all this mess already.
And the gods of democracy, they became clepto-crats and have siphoned away the money that was going to be used for northern development, it was siphoned away and spent right there in Bamako. And it's not just the politicians from the south. It's the so-called Toureg leaders who were supposedly presenting the communities who were siphoning the money and spending it in Bamako.
In fact, I have called -- rebellion -- just a month-and-a-half before the coup that the rebellion had become an instant banker for the Touregs, who -- whenever they were -- they ran out of money, you know, in Bamako, they would go back to the north and call rebellion. And the government of (word?) would just, you know, give them millions and millions. So this is how this problem was maintained. And (word?) wanted to use a similar rebellion to gain a few more months in power and (unintelligible) . So it eventually backfired and it blew up in his face. And today this is where we are.
We're running out of time very quickly, but, Todd Moss, ever since the coup by junior officers in March, the U.S. has officially seized all military training in Mali. But this week, The Washington Post reported on a mysterious traffic accident in the capitol of Bamako involving three members of the U.S. Special Forces who were not supposed to be there. Some people have interpreted this story and they think it could indicate that U.S. forces are a little more engaged there than Washington has acknowledged. What do you say?
Well, I saw the story in The Post. You know, when the U.S. pulls troops out, you know, after the coup, the military cooperation would automatically be suspended. It takes a little while. You don't just fly everybody out. So, you know, I'm not surprised that there were some Special Forces guys still in Bamako. I don't have any other further details about it but I wouldn't see any grand conspiracy in that quite intriguing story.
And is this a case, Todd, of fact emulating fiction? It's my understanding that you recently completed your first novel and it's a work of fiction. It involves a coup in Mali and it features a militant Islamic group very similar to Ansar Din and you even got the name pretty much right, it's my understanding.
Well, you know, when I left government I thought, you know, truth is stranger than fiction. And I had lived through a coup in Mauritania in 2008. And I thought, you know, the best way to talk about how crazy it is inside the U.S. government was through fiction. And so I put it down and, you know, I decided I'd put it in Mali 'cause I didn't think there would be a coup in Mali in the next couple of years, which shows what I knew.
But, yeah, it's a story about a -- you know, an accidental American diplomat that finds he has 100 hours to reverse a coup, to rescue a Senator's daughter who's been kidnapped by radicals and to prevent a terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy. So we'll see how that turns out.
It apparently predicted incidents that have now occurred. And I know, Cherif Keita, this is difficult for you to watch from afar but we'll be keeping in touch with you as developments take place. I'm afraid we're out of time. Cherif Keita is with us...
And I'm sorry that the lines didn't work well. So I would have liked to contribute more but, you know, that (unintelligible) ...
Well, thank you very much. As we say, it is what it is. Cherif Keita is a professor of French and Francophone Studies at Carleton College in Minnesota. Todd Moss is vice-president and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development where he directs the Emerging Africa Project. Todd, thank you so much for joining us. Cherif, thank you for joining us. We're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.