France has taken up the challenge of defeating Al Qaeda’s new stronghold in northern Mali, its largest since the fall of Afghanistan in 2001. Paris has taken on a well-armed and well-funded group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which poses a serious threat to Africa and the West. The US has a backseat role in this fight, but a big stake in the outcome. AQIM has already demonstrated it can strike back by taking hostages at an oil installation in Algeria; it may be capable of attacks in Europe as well.
AQIM was for long among Al Qaeda’s weaker franchises. Emerging from an Algerian terrorist group in 2006, it had some early success blowing up the United Nations headquarters in Algiers, but for most of its existence has been confined to kidnapping westerners traveling the remote deserts of Algeria, Mali, Mauretania and Niger as well as other criminal enterprises. It amassed a sizable war chest, more than $200 million according to Algerian sources, from the ransoms paid. Then it accumulated huge amounts of weapons from Libya after Gaddafi’s fall.
Last spring after a military coup in Mali, AQIM found a partner in a local jihadist group in Mali, Ansar al Dine, and together they swept out government forces from the north of Mali, before turning on a Tuareg independence movement, the predominant ethnic group in the north and initially a partner. AQIM and Ansar al Dine now control a vast Saharan stronghold the size of Texas.
Together, they began destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as Al Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s historical treasures in Bamiyan Valley the years before the 9/11 attacks. Jihadists from across Africa and as far as Pakistan are flocking to Mali for training, money and weapons.
Ansar al Dine is led by a former Tuareg rebel, named Iyad ag Ghaly, who was a diplomat for Mali in Saudi Arabia, 2008 to 2010. The Saudis expelled him for contacts with extremists in the Kingdom. His goals are probably mostly local, but he established extensive contacts with the AQIM leadership, helping negotiate release of foreigners kidnapped by Al Qaeda for years.
The combustible mix of AQIM, Ansar al Dine and Tuareg rebels is complex. AQIM itself has split in to factions with different leaders but the same general agenda. All are well armed, thanks to looting of the Libyan arms depots; indeed AQIM has acquired so many weapons from Libyan caches that it’s the best armed Al Qaeda franchise in the world today.
Almost all of Mali’s neighbors, except initially Algeria, are horrified at what’s taking place in the north. The Moroccan foreign minister told me recently the jihadist emirate is the greatest threat to regional stability in north and west Africa in more than over a decade. Today, AQIM is the fastest growing Al Qaeda franchise in the world. Based on previous experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere once Al Qaeda establishes a presence in a failing state it becomes difficult to root it out entirely.
So Paris, Mali’s former colonial ruler, stepped into the breach. This month it stopped an advance by the jihadists on the capital in Bamako. Now it’s attacking their bases in the north. The French know more about Mali than other major powers do. The French should – it’s their creation, an artificial state known as French Sudan with borders created by Paris created 1880. French intelligence has better insights into Tuareg and jihadi militants than the US or UK. But it also has baggage from the colonial era, with many Africans and Arabs resenting French interference.
Algeria, Mali's big neighbor to the north with the largest army in Africa, 150,000 strong, a defense budget of more than $10 billion annually, and extensive spy networks across the Sahara, is especially nervous about French actions. Algiers opposed NATO's role in Libya, blaming it for starting the Mali mess. But the Algerians did allow French fighter jets to overfly Algerian territory to bomb AQIM targets in Mali. In response, an AQIM affiliated force attacked a natural gas installation along the Algerian border with Libya,1000 kilometers away from Mali. The resulting carnage killed dozens of terrorists and hostages. It was also AQIM’s first attack on an energy facility in Algeria.
Ironically, the attack probably will push Algiers off the fence about the war. The generals who run Algeria, called collectively “le pouvoir” in Algeria, or “the power,” were reluctant to push AQIM out of Mali, fearing it would only move north to Algeria. Now they have no choice. Since Algeria is Africa’s largest country, with a GDP of $260 billion and a ruthless intelligence service, it can do more to fight AQIM than any other African country. The head of Algerian intelligence, Mohammad Mediene, has a long track record of eradicating terrorist groups using extreme methods. KGB-trained, rarely photographed, he has run Algerian intelligence since 1990 and is known for his professionalism and determination.
Washington can help with diplomacy in the UN and elsewhere. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in with a visit to Algiers last year and Ambassador Susan Rice has secured UN blessing for fighting AQIM. The French will require munitions and logistic help in addition to the US drones and other surveillance assets already in use.
We can expect Al Qaeda to strike back even more desperately. The worst case would be a mass-casualty attack in France itself. French intelligence is monitoring the more than 5 million Algerian émigrés in the country. Al Qaeda Amir Ayman Zawahiri has called for a 9/11 in Paris since 2006. AQIM sleeper cells, if any in France, could be activated. France may also see more lone-wolf attacks like those carried out by an Algerian origin citizen in Toulouse last year.
The Al Qaeda stronghold in Mali is only one of the group’s new safe havens developed in the last year since the wave of Arab revolutions sweeping across the region. The so-called Arab Spring removed some of the old police states that ran the Arab world, but also removed many of the counterterrorist professionals like Mediene, creating failed states and lawless areas where local Al Qaeda franchises could take root and operate.
This is Al Qaeda 3.0, the third generation in effect, a more decentralized movement that’s learned from many of the mistakes of the earlier generations of Al Qaeda operatives. They’re more local in orientation and more willing to collaborate with other Sunni Muslim groups and operate without the Al Qaeda brand name. The Al Nusra front in Syria, for example, is a group that avoids the title to avoid outside attack.
The franchises still pledge their loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri, who’s hiding in Pakistan. Zawahiri remains the unchallenged leader of Al Qaeda across the Muslim world, and his periodic public messages provide broad spiritual and strategic guidance to the movement.
Al Qaeda safe havens in Mali, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Iraq and Syria pose separate challenges and must be dealt with on their own merits. In each case the terrorists thrive because the local government is weak and lacks legitimacy. The French, Americans and others can help provide intelligence and weapons, but there’s little we can do to ensure good governance and political legitimacy. Hence, we’re in for a long fight.