Al Qaeda has a new stronghold in Africa in northern Mali, its largest since the fall of Afghanistan in 2001. It has successfully gained the support of a local jihadist group, Ansar Dine, much as it partnered with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Algeria, Mali’s biggest neighbor, which has a long border with the new jihadist emirate, seems curiously unwilling to take action to address in the problem.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a franchise of the Al Qaeda global terror organization, has successfully aligned itself with a local extremist group in Mali named Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, and together they have effectively taken control of the northern two-thirds of Mali. The new alliance now is destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as Al Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s historical treasures in the years before 9/11.
AQIM has long been among Al Qaeda’s weaker franchises. Created 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 it has been confined to kidnapping Westerners traveling in the remote deserts of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger as well as other criminal enterprises. But this spring, after a military coup in Mali, AQIM found a partner in Ansar Dine. Together they swept out government forces from the north of Mali, then turned on a Tuareg independence movement that initially had been their partner and now control a vast Saharan stronghold the size of France.
Ansar Dine is led by a former Tuareg rebel, Iyad Ag Ghaly, who was a diplomat for Mali in Saudi Arabia from 2008–2010. The Saudis expelled him for contacts with extremists in the kingdom. Ghaly’s goals are probably mostly local, but he has established extensive contacts with the AQIM leadership. He has helped negotiate the release of foreigners kidnapped by Al Qaeda for years. AQIM leaders are now openly living in Mali’s towns and cities and strongly supporting the destruction of the Islamic heritage of the country, which they see as a deviation from the path of true Islam. AQIM fighters are working with Ansar Dine to terrorize and control the local population.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.