Shortly before he was engulfed by the Libyan Revolution, Colonel Gadaffi warned that his fall would lead to chaos in North Africa. According to Gadaffi (quoted in the “International Herald Tribune”), “Bin Laden’s people will come to impose ransoms by land and sea. We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms”.
The dead dictator’s warning seems eerily prescient in the aftermath of the attempt by extremists to takeover Mali and the attack on the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria led by the one-eyed Islamist bandit, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Gadaffi was correct in that his fall has added to the insecurity in the desert areas of Southern Algeria and Northern Mali by releasing an influx of extremist fighters and weapons into the region. But Western governments and security analysts have in fact been quietly concerned about the build-up of Islamist terrorist and organised crime groups in the barely governed wilderness of the Sahara Desert for many years. Their concerns were first aroused by the remnants of the extremist Islamist groups defeated in the Algerian Civil War that raged through the 1990s. These groups retreated to the vast, sparsely populated desert of Southern Algeria and Northern Mali, where they loosely affiliated themselves to Al Qaeda under the title of “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)”.
Over the past decade, the factions under the AQIM umbrella have launched sporadic terrorist attacks. They have also built up a substantial treasury and arsenal through kidnapping Westerners for ransom and large-scale tobacco and drugs smuggling into Europe.
Until 2011, AQIM was at least largely being confined to the desert by the authoritarian Algerian government and its tough armed forces. But a series of events over the past eighteen months has dramatically changed the situation. In late 2011, the Islamists joined forces in Northern Mali with nationalist Tuareg rebels.
The Tuaregs are nomads, ethnically distinct from the Arabs to the north and Africans to the south, and they have been fighting since the 1960s for greater autonomy. The new Islamist-Tuareg alliance received a boost in March 2012, when Malian soldiers staged a coup against their democratic government in protest against its weak handling of the Tuareg rebellion. The coup backfired badly because it further weakened the already fragile Malian state and opened the way for the rebels to seize control of all of Northern Mali, including major cities such as Timbuktu. The Islamists have imposed strict Taliban-style sharia law there whilst, according to some of the 400,000 plus Northern Malians who have fled, indulging their criminal side by robbing the local populace.
International initiatives to train the Malian and other neighbouring African armies to tackle AQIM have been in progress for several years. Indeed, a Western-trained joint African force was being prepared to liberate Northern Mali in the autumn. But the jihadis and Tuaregs pre-empted these plans by launching a surprise attack on Southern Mali in early January. They were days away from seizing the capital, Bamako, when the Malian President, Dioncounda Traoré, requested French assistance to save his country.
Faced with the prospect of an Al Qaeda affiliate taking control of a failing state (a scenario chillingly reminiscent of pre-9/11 Afghanistan - only this time closer to home), the French had little choice but to accept the request. They quickly obtained the support of various African and Western allies, including the UK, and the first phase of the French-led military operation has successfully forced the insurgents to retreat. The awful side effect was the attack by Belmokhtar’s AQIM faction on the In Amenas gas plant in Southern Algeria, which AQIM claims was launched in retaliation for the intervention in Mali.
The rapid reaction of the French to the Malian request for assistance indicates that they are implementing a long-standing contingency plan. The challenges for the French-led alliance now are to fulfil as many of the plan’s objectives as possible before the onset of the inhospitable Saharan summer and to avoid getting bogged down in Mali. Eliminating the jihadists in their entirety may well be impossible but inflicting substantial damage on them and pushing them back into remote desert areas is achievable. Doing so will require continued strong support for the French from their existing allies and coordination with the Algerians to squeeze the Islamists from the opposite direction in the north.
In addition to military action, an urgent diplomatic effort to detach the Tuaregs from the Islamists is believed to be underway. The success of this initiative is also crucial to the campaign.
A successful military and diplomatic operation will buy time to carry out the long-term work of improving governance, military capabilities and border security in the Sahara region that is needed to extinguish completely the threat posed by the extremists based there. As Prime Minister Cameron has pointed out, this will be a long haul and Western countries need to be prepared to work with their regional allies for several years to come.