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North Africa hit the headlines last month with the hostage crisis at a BP gas works in Algeria, and the deepening conflict in neighboring Mali that has now committed over 1500 French troops as well as an assortment of UK transport provisions. These are not coincidental or unilateral events; rather they are symptomatic of an escalation of al-Qaeda activity in North Africa. The effective use of American drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan has dampened al-Qaeda’s ability to train and organise its soldiers effectively along the “Af-Pak” borderlands. Pentagon figures suggest that the “Af-Pak” threat and terrorist activity has fallen by over 60% since 2010. However, as Daniel Byman, professor of security at Georgetown University, puts it: “ It is more than 18 months since Osama bin Laden was killed, but now it seems like al-Qaeda is everywhere.” Has the threat simply moved?
Less than 3 hours from Heathrow, one can leave Amenas, the site of the Algerian hostage crisis, and quickly find a swathe of emptiness that is only broken up by the occasional sign “route frequemment ensablée” (road often covered by sand). The Sahara is now the new hiding place for extremism. It provides the perfect terrorist cocktail of geographical proximity to Europe, extreme remoteness and corruptible political structures that offer amenable and often willing accomplices to acts of terror.
Mali provides a case example of how AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), amongst other al-Qaeda affiliates, could find itself controlling a territory along the shores of the Sahel that spans 5 countries and is the size of Spain. Mali has undergone a number of political setbacks in the last year. Junior army officers, with US support, overthrew the government, led by President Toumani Toure, in April 2012. There was no doubt that members of the Mali government were corrupt but the situation has now worsened. Officials acted as go betweens to negotiate ransoms of AQIM hostages. One Malian development worker notes, “We used to have usually very tolerant brand of Islam, but bad governance is pushing people into embracing militant causes.” Many join local militia groups that are delineated by ethnic and territorial divides; the light skinned Tuareg separatists in northern Mali fall into this category. They have a fraught relationship with the black Africans of the south and capitalised upon the turbulence created by regime change and the ill-equipped army. Upon returning from fighting as mercenaries for Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the better armed Tuareg militants made vast territorial gains in the north of Mali.
The Sahara is now the new hiding place for extremism. It provides the perfect terrorist cocktail of geographical proximity to Europe, extreme remoteness and corruptible political structures
However, The Tuaregs then lost to the Tuareg separatist militia, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, more commonly known by the French abbreviation of MNLA, and fighters known by the more sinister acronym AQIM. These al-Qaeda affiliates then staged their own coup, turning, as Colin Freeman writes in The Daily Telegraph, “Timbuktu not into a Tuareg homeland, but into a mini-caliphate”. They operate under the mandate to institute sharia law in the whole of Mali. A sign outside Timbuktu now reads “Welcome to the city of sharia.” Whippings, punitive dismemberment of thieves and stoning to death for adultery now form the basis for law in places such as Timbuktu and the northern Malian city of Gao.
Northern Mali is the heartland of the “ungoverned space” that Mr Cameron refers to in his recent statement on the Algerian crisis. It is an area that has schools, hospitals and designated world heritage sites, yet it is now largely in the hands of militant gangs and rebel opportunists. This is not a coordinated movement but made up of a hotchpotch of militant groups. It is this aspect that should give African people and the international community the hope that they can defeat this threat. Into this category falls the group believed to be behind the Algerian attack led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Pointedly, however, Gen Carter Ham, commander of US Africa Command, says: “What I worry about more than anything, rather than each of these individual organisations, is a growing linkage, network collaboration, organisation and synchronization amongst them, which poses the greatest threat to regional stability and ultimately to Europe.”
For Europe and for North Africa this is a tipping point of conflict. A coordinated and effective African response with international support must be the primary objective in Mali or we risk al-Qaeda laying down a network of communications and support that, as in Afghanistan, could lead to decades of brutal guerrilla warfare and severe oppression for local populations of tolerant and peaceful Muslims. Europe cannot risk their disillusionment and potential radicalisation because of a lack of international intervention now. That is why we must welcome the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) decision to follow in the footsteps of the African Union’s choice to approve a plan for military intervention in the region. According to the plan, 3,300 soldiers would be dispatched to reinforce the 5,000 Malian troops already in place.
Europe cannot risk their disillusionment and potential radicalization because of a lack of international intervention now
Alongside logistic and technical military support the UN must work to put Mali back on the road to fair and open democratic elections scheduled for early 2014. A clear mandate from a legitimate Malian government concerning the removal of these terrorist cells will give the international community and the Malian people the impetus they need to take back their land and reject a life under sharia law and its brutal overlords.
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