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A New Line in the Sand Against Terror? Four Experts Weigh In – New York Times

Islamic rebels have controlled northern Mali since March 2012. France is trying to stop the rebels from expanding into the south. Romaric Ollo Hien/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Islamic rebels have controlled northern Mali since March 2012. France is trying to stop rebels from expanding into south. AFP

J. Peter Pham, Atlantic Council
Anouar Boukhars, Carnegie Endowment
Robert R. Fowler, author, “A Season in Hell”
Mark Schroeder, Intelligence analyst

**”Morocco has the will, the influence and the capability to contribute to conflict resolution in the region” Anouar Boukhars, Carnegie**

New York Times, Opinion (Jan. 15, 2013) — The arid northern African state of Mali once seemed like one of the continent’s rare stable democracies. But a coup, an influx of Libyan arms after the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, and an uprising by well-financed militants have led to Islamists controlling the north. Even as they face off against French troops protecting the south, the stronghold raises the specter of a new base of terror just south of the Sahara.

With Islamist groups in Mali connecting with militants from Libya, Nigeria, Algeria and elsewhere, how can northern Africa avoid fostering terrorism and becoming the next Afghanistan?

Four experts on North Africa and security issues offer their views:

Look to the More Stable Neighbors

Anouar-Boukhars-thumbStandardAnouar Boukhars, Carnegie Endowment

The fragile states of the Sahara and just below the desert pose significant challenges — not just for the United States and Europe, but also for the North African states themselves. The sources of their instability and conflict are complex and deeply rooted. Internally, they include institutional weakness and corruption, endemic poverty, sociopolitical tensions, unaddressed identity-based grievances, legacies of past abuses, and religious radicalization. External stresses include transnational organized crime and terrorism, weapons proliferation, foreign meddling, cross-border conflict spillover, and global economic shocks.

Nations in this region are ill equipped to deal with these problems. In fact, in most countries of the Sahel (the belt across Africa, just south of the desert), local governments have exacerbated conflict, either through inept responses or, in some cases, active collusion with criminal networks, Islamist militants, or ethnic dissidents.

International actors can play a crucial role in helping fragile states address their internal stresses. But assistance programs should be tailored to fit the specific needs of each country. In cases like Mauritania, where social and ethnic polarization is high and is conducive to violence, the focus should be on adopting and implementing legal frameworks that ensure inclusive political participation and equal access to economic resources and services.

In situations of high criminality, like in Mali, professionalization of the police, prosecution and other actors in the criminal justice system is a must. But state actors must also thwart the criminal marketplace and the financial flows of the proceeds of trafficking. Otherwise efforts to empower the executive branch and prop up the military, police and judiciary are counterproductive, as was the case in Mali before the coup.

The international community can also help mitigate external pressures by promoting regional cooperation in sharing intelligence, monitoring financial flows from drug trafficking and conducting joint military operations. International efforts have been hindered by several factors. Western governments and international donors have focused more heavily on propping up the capacity of individual fragile states, but largely ignored that insecurity is often multifaceted and is a product of both internal and external factors. The competition and different perception of threats among regional neighbors also hinders regional cooperation.

For example, Algeria is distrustful of its neighbors, especially the so-called pro-French axis, led by Morocco and the weaker states of the Sahel. This distrust is a serious obstacle for the region, because Algeria today has the power to be influential. The country has the largest defense budget on the African continent ($10.3 billion in 2012), far-reaching military power (because of its large fleet of aircraft) and recognized counterterrorism expertise. It also serves as a founding member and leader in several regional and global counterterrorism forums.

If Algeria refuses to engage in the conflict in Mali, then the international community must look for leadership in Morocco, the other North African heavyweight directly affected by the chaos in the Sahel. Morocco has the will, the influence and the capability to contribute to conflict resolution in the region.

Anouar Boukhars, a nonresident scholar in the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East program, is an assistant professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Maryland and the author of “Political Violence in North Africa: The Perils of Incomplete Liberalization” and “Fighting the Growth of Terrorist Networks in the Maghreb.”

Parallels In More Ways Than One

Peter_Pham-thumbStandardJ. Peter Pham, Atlantic Council

Analogies in international affairs are fraught with peril, but there is no denying the parallels between the situation in Afghanistan in the months and years leading up to 9/11 and recent developments in Mali.

Rebels in Mali — a loose coalition of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and the local Islamist group Ansar Dine — seized control of three northern provinces, an area roughly the size of Texas, after the March coup. Since then, the region has become a magnet for militants from across Africa and beyond, including Nigerian, Sudanese and Sahrawi fighters, drawn by the prospect of a safe haven where they can train and operate freely.

These extremists forcibly sidelined the largely secular Tuareg nationalists in the region and imposed a harsh religious totalitarianism reminiscent of the Taliban, banning alcohol, smoking, music and other “un-Islamic” behavior, instituting brutal punishment like floggings and amputations, and razing Sufi shrines and other monuments deemed idolatrous, including half a dozen World Heritage sites in Timbuktu.

To make matter worse, the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leadership in the region spent much of the last decade engaging in criminal activities — kidnapping for ransom, protecting narco-traffickers and smuggling — from which they built up a significant war chest. That came in handy when the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime flooded the black markets with weapons and newly unemployed fighters willing to use them.

And, as with Afghanistan and Pakistan, potential militants are being attracted to the area. Last month, the F.B.I. arrested two U.S. citizens from Alabama and charged them with conspiring to join up with the extremists in northern Mali.

Thus, at a certain level, France’s case for intervention presents a variant of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. But it is sobering to consider that the parallel does not end there.

In wading into the fight against Al Qaeda and its cohorts in North Africa, French leaders have yet to articulate their objective.

Is it to prevent the extremists from expanding the area they control? If so, the intervention has failed, since the rebels, galvanized, have bypassed the French force and gone on the offensive in places they had previously not been active. They’ve even captured a town 200 miles from the Malian capital.

Is it to push back the Islamists and liberate the region they took over? If so, the number of troops France has said it will deploy, combined with the African force authorized by the United Nations Security Council (when and if it gets assembled), will still be less than what is needed for the task.

Is it to rebuild what is essentially a failed state in Mali? In that case, far more resources will be required, especially on the political and economic fronts, than anyone has thus far volunteered.

France’s allies, including the United States, should carefully reflect on these points as they consider how they will respond to requests for military assistance. As is the case with the original, in dealing with the African Afghanistan, a finely calibrated and carefully sequenced approach — to which all those with a stake in preventing the spread of violent extremism ought to contribute — is key to the viability and sustainability of any solution.

J. Peter Pham is the director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

What I Learned as a Hostage

Robert_Fowler-thumbStandardRobert R. Fowler, author, “A Season in Hell”

Algeria has been fighting Islamic fundamentalism for 20 years, and in that struggle some 200,000 people have been killed. The jihadis have fought under many names since 1992, becoming, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in January 2007.

What is new, is their push into the vulnerable and impoverished sub-Saharan region, and we in the West helped. By making possible the wholesale looting of Qaddafi’s arsenals, we have facilitated the Algerian militant’s plan to turn this strip across Africa, from Mogadishu on the Indian Ocean to Nouakchott on the Atlantic, into a chaotic and ungovernable zone in which they believe their jihad will flourish. Should they even partly succeed – in concert with their murderous brothers in Boko Haram and Al Shabab – it will create an economic and humanitarian disaster of barely imaginable proportion. Thus, they can only be defeated now, or later at a much greater cost in blood and treasure.

As a captive of this Al Qaeda affiliate, I learned of their implacable hatred of all things Western, of the extent to which they despise the ideals we hold most dear: freedom, liberty, democracy, equality, human rights. They won’t be talked out of their jihad. They won’t compromise, and as they made clear, we too are squarely within their sights.

An important military adage I learned as deputy defense minister in Canada is “maintain the aim.” But we didn’t in Afghanistan. If Mali and the wider Sahel region is to be freed from the jihadi scourge, we will have to better remember this hard-learned lesson. This must be about so damaging and degrading the capabilities and numbers of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its clones that they won’t soon again threaten the peace and stability of our friends across this vulnerable region; nothing else.

Robert R. Fowler, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, was a Canadian diplomat and public servant for 38 years. He is the author of “A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda.”

No Refuge in the Desert

schroeder-thumbStandardMark Schroeder, Intelligence analyst

For a brief time Mali might have been a threat to become a base for terrorists, namely Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

But unlike Afghanistan, with its mountainous terrain, Mali, and other areas of the arid Sahel, are easy to surveil and thus poorly suited to host terrorist training camps. With Western and African military forces converging on Mali, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will struggle to survive.

The Malian army and government collapsed — leading to a coup in March 2012 and paralysis the rest of the year — because of the deep stresses they faced in battling a rebel insurgency. Were it an ordinary indigenous insurgency, the international community would have left it to Mali and perhaps its neighbors to manage. But when ethnic Tuareg militias joined forces with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and especially when the latter hijacked the rebellion and claimed authority in northern Mali, Malian forces proved incapable of responding to the breach of not only national security, but international security as well.

France is capturing the headlines for its intervention in Mali, with images of troops landing in Bamako and Rafale and Mirage fighters bombing militant positions in towns like Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. France was instrumental in repelling a fresh advance by the jihadist fighters, who aimed to capture the whole of the country.

In the coming weeks, contingents from more than a dozen Western and African countries will arrive in Bamako to support the French and Malian forces. Once these multinational forces, intelligence and logistics elements are deployed behind French lines and establish secure and reliable lines of communication, they will then move into northern Mali to seize and hold territory that had been taken by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The militants need sufficient stocks of not just ammunition but also water, food and fuel, none of which is abundant in northern Mali. Militants in Mali’s north have historically gotten these supplies by smuggling them in along ancient trade routes that cross the Sahel region from countries like Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and Libya. However, each of those countries is hostile toward Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, especially right now, given the intervention and threat of potential spillover. France and others are pressuring government and security officials in those countries to interdict shipments bound for Al Qaeda forces. To make matters worse for the jihadists, the French are attacking known supply depots in northern Mali.

Local citizens will be affected, but the intervention forces will try to minimize the impact. And the jihadist groups have already affected the local population to a great degree, enforcing Shariah law among other harsh restrictions.

Though there are varying opinions on the nature of the threat in northern Mali, Russia, the West (including the United States) and Africa — especially Mali’s neighbors — agree that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb cannot remain in Mali.

Mark Schroeder is the vice president for Africa analysis of Stratfor an intelligence consultant company.

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