Will Mali become a ‘land of terror?’ Long before the current war broke out, events were shaping up in north of the country toward this outcome. However, the present campaign launched by France, Mali and other governments of Africa is expected to thwart this prospect, if not eliminate Al-Qaeda altogether from the country. To achieve this objective, the military campaign has to be complemented by an active political process that is fair toward the Azawad Tuaregs. The success of such a process would undermine the danger of the ‘Afghanization’ or ‘Somalization’ of the country and help establish stability both in Mali and the countries adjoining it.
However, such a political process is not in place yet. In fact, the situation in Mali is worsening and this is giving rise to several serious and ominous signs. The first concern relates to the presence of terrorist organizations that have been conducting their operations in the country for several years. It is said that the civil unrest in Algeria along with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq forced thousands of terrorists to enter this region. For a long time their presence in central Sahara was ignored, as it was thought that the harsh climate and terrain would eventually drive them away. However, millions of dollars gained in ransom money through kidnappings strengthened terror outfits and helped them dig deep in the region. Confusion regarding demarcation of borders between countries of central Sahara and the lack of proper supervision of these boundaries only helped terrorists in getting well-entrenched.
Despite several plans and attempts to coordinate with each other, governments of the region have failed to put in place effective surveillance and hot pursuit systems due to lack of necessary resources and personnel and because their military and security forces are mostly preoccupied in settling their internal problems that keeps them from tackling the terrorist threat. Another important factor that has not received due consideration has been the nexus between terrorism and illegal drugs trade. It is well-known that the threat of terrorism has grown in step with drug smuggling operations in the region. Initially, the terror outfits began to intercept drug convoys on Saharan routes and extorted protection money from them. Over a period time, government officials were found to have connections with drug-peddling gangs, which in turn had links with terrorist groups. A clear example is the case of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose ‘Signed in Blood’ group is believed to have recently held hostages in the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Naturally, the existence of such corrupt linkages has sapped the region’s morale in the fight against terrorism.
The second ominous sign springs from the recent war in Libya, which coincided with emergence of terrorist groups having ideological affinity, if not clear links, with Al-Qaeda. The large-scale smuggling of weapons from the arsenals of Gaddafi’s regime, prompted terror outfits to forge alliances with Tuareg groups that had fought alongside Gaddafi’s forces. Later, the new government in Libya entered into negotiations with Tuareg groups to put an end to the fighting and in the process allowed them to hold on to their large cache of weapons, vehicles and money. It was clear to NATO, even at that time, that this concession could upset the security scenario in many neighboring countries. Still, Western governments did not initiate any plans in late 2011 to address the issue. Within a few months (i.e. on March 21, 2012), Mali witnessed a military coup and with it the loss of its northern region to the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). This was the first step toward the region’s secession and the realization of a long cherished Tuareg dream. The situation was further worsened when Al-Qaeda elements entered the ranks of Azawadi separatists and forged an alliance with Ansar Dine. In another twist, the religious fanatics removed the MNLA elements from their fold and changed the mission to the setting up of an Islamist emirate in northern Mali.
Nevertheless, it was widely believed that terrorists could be left unchecked in that area at least until preparations for their expulsion is completed. Western countries also showed no urgency as they were not willing to enter a new front in the war on terror. However, the growing danger posed by the terror threat was only felt on September 11, 2012, when the US Consulate in Benghazi was attacked and four US diplomats, including the Ambassador, were killed.
The third serious sign relates to growing evidence that terrorist organizations in central Sahara have managed to establish a communication system with their affiliates in neighboring countries, such as in Somalia, Tunisia and Libya. It is believed that the menace of terrorism has now spread to nearly 15 countries. Al Qaeda elements from Somalia started migrating to northern Mali after the Somali political process started making progress and forced the radical Harakat Al-Shabab movement to recede. As the war in Mali escalates, a number of Al-Qaeda elements are now said to have moved to Darfur in Sudan and to Niger.
International efforts to improve the current situation in northern Mali depends on the training of African troops as well as supporting them logistically and by providing them good intelligence. Nevertheless, this process is not moving fast enough and its funding is witnessing delays. Even the situation on the military front is getting worse. French forces prefer to lead from the rear to avoid the criticism of being heavy-handed as was faced by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Again, to assume that the mission to fight terror will remain limited to Mali is wishful thinking. Terrorist organizations are adept at shoot-and-scoot tactics, hibernating and then resurfacing at a convenient time.
What is new about the Mali situation is the way regimes formed after the ‘Arab Spring’ are dealing with this phenomenon. They had difficulties in assessing the threat, mobilizing their security apparatus to face the challenge, and even carry out the necessary policies. It should noted here that moderate Islamist groups did not consider events taking place in Mali as a ‘terrorist’ situation and criticized “foreign intervention” to restore this situation. In wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ fervor, it was believed that popular uprisings would establish regimes that respect freedoms and rights and so the phenomenon of terrorism would wane and put an end to the menace of Al-Qaeda and similar terror outfits as the causes for their emergence would disappear. But events have since shown that terrorism has taken a new life, as democratic methods have not proven successful yet. Besides, the grim situation in weak and failed states is considered as one of the factors contributing to the continuation of terrorism.