West Africa and the battle against al-Qaida

Mali is a launching pad of radical Islamist terror on Western society.

French soldiers heading to Mali, January 2013. (photo credit: Reuters)
French soldiers heading to Mali, January 2013.
(photo credit: Reuters)
There is a long battle ahead in the West African country of Mali, according to French President Francois Hollande. This week, Hollande said that French troops would remain in Mali until the threat of Islamist extremists was eliminated. French forces on the ground will triple in the next few days from 700 to approximately 2,500 troops in order to stabilize the former French colony. Malian troops and other West African countries, such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, will now become part of a much larger French involvement in Mali.
The response from the leader of the Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa Omar Ould Hamaha, one of the three Islamist groups operating in Mali, is that “France has opened the gates of hell.”
Earlier indications that French involvement would be limited, focusing primarily on airstrikes and defending the capital of Bamako, have been revised due to changing events on the ground. The Islamist militants are still advancing south towards Bamako. Government forces have been unable to respond effectively to the three separate groups operating to undermine the central government authority. In addition to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Ansar Dine are gaining ground in the north of the country.
The rebels are well trained and well armed. They possess Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and multiple-grenade launchers. Some experts fear that even surface-to-air missiles may have been smuggled into Mali from Libya. Many rebels were trained as mercenaries in former colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, returning to Mali after the civil war led to Gaddafi’s overthrow. Despite a series of French airstrikes that have hit rebel positions in the cities of Gao, Lere and Douentza, rebel troops continued their advance and have taken the initiative with attacks on a garrison town 200 miles from the capital.
Hollande’s intervention in Mali is also motivated by the unpleasant fact that Islamist militants are holding eight French citizens hostage. Approximately 6,000 French currently live in Mali. Hollande has made clear that the wider security of Mali will directly assist in securing the release of the hostages. Unfortunately, Hollande has also recognized publically that the militants have access to modern, sophisticated weaponry that have allowed them to put up a robust and effective resistance to French forces.
Assisting the French military is Britain’s Royal Air Force, transporting their soldiers and armaments into Bamako. Currently only a handful of British personnel are in Bamako coordinating logistics and intelligence. British drones are reportedly on stand-by, ready to aid the French and international forces operating in Mali.
However, British officials are insistent that their forces will play no combat role in Mali, although Prime Minister David Cameron has boasted of his government being the first to support France in their intervention efforts. France and Britain recently signed a treaty in October 2010 promising closer integration of their military capabilities.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has even made a formal request to US President Barack Obama’s administration for surveillance support. US officials have made clear that they are committed to preventing al-Qaida forces from gaining permanent bases in Mali.
The dangers in allowing a terrorist safe haven to develop in northern Mali are tangible and real. Mali is a vast, impoverished country and the area in the north where Islamist militants are based is bigger than the entire country of Afghanistan. Instability in West Africa could have serious repercussions for decades.
Mali first gained its independence in 1960, and despite battling low literacy and life expectancy rates, managed to have a functioning democracy that was the envy of much of Africa. Today, the International Criminal Court is pursuing an investigation into allegations that Islamists have massacred civilians and committed other atrocities. The international press has also reported numerous acts by militants to destroy and desecrate religious sites of the rival Muslim sect of Sufism, a mystic religion centered in Timbuktu.
Some might criticize France for engaging in some sort of post-colonial adventure to prop up a failing regime that has lost popular support. But the reality in Mali is quite different. Radical Islamist groups are taking advantage of the Mail’s poverty, weak governmental organization and vast distances to undermine security in the country and across West Africa.
Mali cannot be allowed to end up like Afghanistan in the 1990s, a failed state that provided a safe haven for global terrorism, exporting violence and death around the world.  Americans in particular suffered from the chaos and destruction that was unleashed by the Taliban, when they decided to allow al-Qaida to operate within Afghanistan.
The eventual targets of al-Qaida groups that find freedom of operations in an Islamist-controlled northern Mali will no doubt be the same as their past targets - liberal Western democracies whose positions on women’s rights, religious tolerance and individual freedom are an anathema to their extremist beliefs.
As a result, it is important that adequate steps are taken now to ensure that stability is preserved in this strategically important region.  A failed state in West Africa, attracting terrorist groups from around the world to set up camp, could have deadly ramifications for years to come.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.