Back in September, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a paper arguing that trans-Saharan smuggling of goods like cigarettes, and kidnapping for ransom, where far more central to the breakdown of order in that part of the desert than were desires for a terrorist base from which al Qaeda could attack Europe. The mess in North Mali was about corruption and money, argued the endowment's Wolfram Lacher:
Over the past decade, the United States and Europe have become increasingly focused on security in the Sahel and Sahara region—defined here as Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, as well as adjacent areas in Algeria and Libya—for fear that the territory could become a new safe haven for extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda…
Meanwhile, the growth of organized criminal activity in the region received much less attention….Western policymakers primarily perceived the regional al-Qaeda franchise as a terrorist group, despite the fact that its most notorious activity consisted of abducting foreign nationals to extort ransoms. In order to understand the crisis in northern Mali and more broadly the growing instability of the region it is necessary to go beyond the role of AQIM and other jihadist organizations.
The key to the illegal economy is cigarettes, which themselves are imported legally to sub-Saharan states, then get run via old desert caravan routes to active markets along the Mediterranean coast. The point of the extraordinary end-run is to get past taxes or into tough markets controlled by local distributors with monopolies.
The key actors in this trade are legal cigarette importers and distributors, who import their merchandise from free trade zones such as Dubai. The trade is therefore best interpreted as a deliberate strategy by tobacco companies to circumvent tax regimes or break North African state monopolies on cigarette distribution.
Adding to the sense that there's more going on here but ideology, a report from Megharabia, a local news site, argues that the northern militias are already suffering desertions, not out of fear of France's better weapons and technology, but because the terrorist militias are too racist to successfully recruit in Africa.
Reporter Jemal Oumar quotes a locally famous commander who defected from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, one of the forces France has targeted in northern Mali. He told reporters on the ground that the group's rulers weren't religious enough and didn't like sub-Saharans:
These lunatics from MUJAO are not children of God, they are drug traffickers. They do everything which goes against Islam and to them, a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white. For them, blacks are less valuable than white Arabs. This is what has made hundreds of black Africans recruits defect. They say that if there is a war they will put all the black fighters in the front as cannon fodder.
Oumar's version of the situation goes on to describe other, black-majority militias from towns also having problems keeping white Arab soldiers.
The Carnegie reports and the local reporting suggests the war could be about, and could affect race relations in southern Algeria and the price of Marlboros in Morocco at least as much as anything else. At minimum, the reports provide a very different image of what's happening in Mali from the usual vision of armed zealotry.
UPDATE: And now we learn from Peter Beaumont at The Guardian that the reputed mastermind behind the Algerian gas plant raid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, cut his militant chops by smuggling cigarettes—so much so that he earned the nickname "Mr. Marlboro."