The hostage crises in Algeria and Mali are linked to President Barack Obama’s failed Libya policy and could quickly metastasize across North Africa transforming it into the world’s epicenter for Islamic extremists.
The Islamist group that stormed the Ain Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria claims it was responding to Algiers’ support of the French military invasion of neighboring Mali. The French went to the aid of Malian forces to battle rebels – mostly ethnic Tuaregs, nomadic Berber people who inhabit the Saharan interior of North Africa and allied with Islamic extremists – who now control much of that country and threaten, according to French authorities, to radicalize the entire region.
Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest magazine and a North African expert, explained in his blog the Tuaregs are the main group that has been in periodic revolt against the Mali government for decades. Garfinkle states the “catalyst” for the Mali rebellion was the Obama administration’s decision to start a war in Libya as well as our bad judgment about the Tuaregs.
For years the U.S. military provided counterterrorism training to Malian forces and it helped select Tuareg officers to command Mali’s northern units. Once Obama launched operations against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi many heavily armed Tuaregs, who were Libyan mercenaries, returned to Mali with truck loads of weapons. Then the American-picked Tuareg commanders with the help of the returning Tuareg mercenaries seized the northern half of Mali.
Now the Tuaregs with their Islamic partners, Ansar Dine and the Algerian al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who also fled Libya, threaten the Malian capital. That is the reported reason the French government sent jet fighters and ground troops to the rescue. But those French forces are totally inadequate for the mission.
There are an estimated 1.2 million Tuaregs living in the region that includes land of several nations, which cover an area several times the size of Texas. Garfinkle estimates that if only 5 percent of the Tuaregs mobilize to fight that translates to 12,500 “bad guys” which doesn’t include their Islamist allies, which number in the few thousands. That is why the 800 French now in Mali which is expected to quickly grow to 2,500 are totally inadequate for a classic counterinsurgency mission and the promised 3,300 African fighters from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which are poorly trained and organized won’t help either. A classic counterinsurgency mission requires 20 troops to each 1,000 population.
Therefore, unless something totally unforeseen derails the current momentum, expect the Tuareg/Islamist rebellion to spread to Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria and Libya. Further Western intervention will only stimulate recruitment and resistance. Worse, if other Islamist groups like Boko Haram (Nigeria which shares a border with Mali) and Ansar al-Sharia (Libya) join the fight, which are aided by Somalia’s al Shabaab and the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the entire region could blow up.
That threat is especially likely given the regional demographics which favor instability. Fifteen of the top 20 failed states in the world are in Africa and the continent’s growth is above two percent, and it includes job-poor economies where half of the unemployed are between 15 and 24 years old. That cohort is especially vulnerable to rebellion and politically inspired Islamic extremism as evidenced across the troubled Middle East.
That is why it is possible Islamic terrorist networks could soon engulf the entire Sahel and sub-Sahara, the area of North Africa running 3,000 miles across the continent from Mauritania and Nigeria on the west to Sudan and Somalia in the east. That outcome has significant implications for the West.
U.S. General Carter Ham, the top American commander overseeing U.S. operations in Africa, said these Islamist groups subscribe to al Qaeda’s ideology which includes the intent to attack Westerners, overthrow apostate governments like Algeria, encourage local affiliates to take advantage of failed states and install fundamentalist regimes based on Islamic law or Sharia. Of course, Islamist threats already materialized with the deadly attack in September on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya and Islamic law is already a reality in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
Further, Islamists will use the region as a sanctuary from which to threaten neighboring countries and reach global targets as has al Qaeda from places like Pakistan. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI.), chairman U.S. House Intelligence Committee, warned the success extremists have had in Mali will likely attract extremist militants from other parts of the world as we saw in Iraq and now in Syria, often performing suicide bombings. “They are very good at selling their success stories,” Rogers said.
So what can we do?
Our ally British Prime Minister David Cameron says the West must direct more of its diplomatic, military and intelligence resources to the intensifying threat emanating from the “ungoverned space” and treating that threat with as much concern as the terrorist challenge in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That effort translates into at least three immediate initiatives.
First, the French already joined the fight and need our help. The U.S. should provide specialized assistance that includes airlift, logistics and intelligence. However, Washington and Paris must realize that driving Islamists out of Mali and the greater region should be done by Africans, not the West but with our support. Otherwise, the fight will become protracted as Islamists flood into the region.
Second, the U.S. must push ECOWAS – ready or not – to join the fight immediately and we must provide help delivering those forces to the battlefield. Further, the West must be prepared to support ECOWAS’ intervention for years. Expect this fight to last many years similar to the Somalia war against al Shabaad which currently occupies thousands of troops from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union with the approval of the United Nations.
Finally, enlist Algeria to join the anti-Tuareg/Islamist campaign by taking over from France, a recommendation advanced by Vicki Huddleston, the U.S. ambassador to Mali from 2002 to 2005 and former U.S. defense department official.
Algeria is best suited for the task for two reasons. “Algeria is the only country on the continent with the military capacity, seasoned officers, counterterrorism experience and geographic proximity to take over from France,” Huddleston wrote for the New York Times. Further, the Algerians previously negotiated peace with the Tuaregs in northern Mali and it helps that some Islamists have already abandoned the Tuaregs.
The brewing crises in North Africa have American fingerprints thanks to President Obama’s misguided Libya war support. Now we must act to mitigate the blow-back effects of that failed policy by supporting the French, ECOWAS and encouraging Algeria to take a regional leadership role. Failing on any of these points could spell a very dangerous future for the region and American security.