Halting the Islamist Threat
Western democracies are no longer facing a shadowy enemy. Now that jihadist militants, many of whom are al Qaeda linked terrorists, have for more than a year have launched successful aggressive action against both Africans and Westerners in Mali and in Algeria, the international community has finally become aware of the threat of resurgent Islamist terrorism. The jihadist campaign has spread throughout the world from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the African continent, portending ambitions for conquests in the Western world.
The threat became clear when Islamist terrorists, after conquering and controlling the northern part of the country of Mali, advanced even further south and captured the city of Konna, about 400 miles from the capital Bamako. The various radical Islamist groups, some of whom had fought in Libya, were well supplied with arms which they had taken from Libya after the Gadhafi regime collapsed.
Jihadist success led to an imperious ultimatum that the government of Mali agree to its demand that Sharia law be enforced in the areas of the country still under government control. The jihadist demand resulted from the delay by the international community in coming to the aid of the Mali government. This action had been authorized on December 21, 2012 by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 which called for the deployment for one year of an international force, the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) “to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups.” However, implementation is not likely to take place until the fall of 2013, and it appears improbable that this force by itself could have reduced the threat.
Similarly, the African regional security federation, the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), had pledged a force of 3,300 men to fight against the Islamists but so far less than half have arrived in the country and they had little success. In addition, and not unexpectedly, NATO also decided to take no military action.
The successful surge of the Islamists in Mali forced the United Nations Security Council in an emergency session on January 10, 2013 to express “its grave concern” as more than 400,000 people were forced to flee the northern section of Mali. The UNSC confined its conclusion to the statement that the terrorist action constituted a direct threat to international peace and security.
In spite of this “concern,” most countries ignored or were reluctant to take part in military action. Finally France, the former colonial power in Mali, which had gained independence in 1960, answered the call for help by Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, the 70-year-old former parliamentary speaker now head of a transitional government, who was aware of the real threat that Mali as a whole might fall into the hands of radical Islamist groups.
On January 11, 2013 President François Hollande, taking unilateral action, ordered Opération Serval, starting with air strikes by fighter jets and attack helicopters against the Islamists, with the goal of destroying their bases and their training camps, and recapturing territory held by them. Hollande understood, as he made plain in a speech last year, that the Islamists had created a reign of terror in the areas of Mali they controlled, and he realized that the capital Bamako was now in danger. The Islamists are well armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, and armored personnel carriers.
The French are now involved in counterinsurgency operations to eliminate the al Qaeda threat to Mali. Irrespective of the discussion of the continuing role of France and the length of time it intends or expects to be in Mali, or the accusations of French “neo-colonialism” the more important question is appreciation of the continuing danger of Salafist Islam not only in the Sahel (Africa from Senegal to Eritrea) but elsewhere, including Europe.
Terrorism has been internationalized. The response to the French action in Mali was the attack on January 16 on a gas plant facility in Amenas in Algeria by an al Qaeda group that took more than 40 Westerners as hostages. Algerian forces attacked the terrorists who had assault rifles, antitank weapons, mines, and C5 missiles. Little support for Algeria came from other countries, except Britain and Belgium. In supine fashion the EU in general talked of the need for “long-term political stabilization.”
A specious argument for lack of Western response is that the government of Mali has no democratic legitimacy. It is true that the country has been troubled since the coup in March 2012 that overthrew President Amadou Touré. The picture is complicated by the coalition of Islamic militants, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formed in 2007, Ansar Dine, and Mujao (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), along with secular groups. The Islamists in the north of Mali were joined by the secular Tuareg ethnic group, thousands of whom as mercenaries had assisted Gadhafi in his attempt to retain power in Libya. After Gadhafi’s fall, the Tuareg fighters returned to Mali with considerable arms caches. There, in October 2011, they established an entity, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and became allied with the Islamists.
The Islamists, who have been in the business of kidnapping Westerners and holding them for ransom, established in 2012 a semi-autonomous Islamic state imposing sharia law in northern Mali, controlling an area of about 700,000 square miles.
How should American policy deal with this spread of Islamic extremism?
The U.S. did launch airstrikes in Libya in 2011 which helped overthrow Gadhafi, and has provided some aid to train and equip forces in North and Central Africa, including Malian infantry troops, aimed at containing Islamist aggression. It has also given some logistical support in helping refuel planes for the French forces in Mali. But it has urged restraint in this conflict and, as in other foreign conflicts, is reluctant to become involved. It has unlikely that former Senator Chuck Hagel, if appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense, will agree to the use of American troops or any considerable U.S. assistance in this case. His policy will be limited to a “light footprint.” It is equally unlikely he will acknowledge the error of his view that the core of the instability and conflict in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The destiny of Mali after the French intervention is problematic, and the ability of the forces of Mali on their own to defeat the Islamist extremists is questionable. Can Mali become a viable state, capable of defending itself against internal dissent and Islamic extremism and building its political institutions? More important for Western democracies are two issues. The first is to recognize that the threat of terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel is increasing and may well affect southern Europe. The second is the question of whether there exists the will in democratic countries to resist the threat.
In addition to AQIM, threats come from a number of sources. There are individuals such as Moktar Belmokhtar, who led the attack on the gas field in Algeria, and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, a leader of al Qaeda’s North African branch. There are groups such as the al-Shabaab militia in Southern Somalia, al Qaeda in Yemen, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Masked Brigade in Algeria, Ansar al Sharia in Libya, and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa. The area is already troubled by drug trafficking and piracy, which threatens international shipping off the coast of Africa and which undermine security. Now, the greater danger is that Islamists who have become more active in efforts to infiltrate and destabilize other areas in North Africa pose a threat to southern Europe.
It is time for the UN Security Council and all democratic countries to realize that actions limited to expressions of “grave concern” are insufficient responses to the growing crisis, and to take appropriate action.