Sexton: Al Qaeda’s Mali Operations Could Ignite a Broader Jihad

French soldiers prepare to depart for Bamako, the capital from Mali, at Kossei camp in N’Djamena, Chad, Jan. 11, 2013, in this picture released by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD). (R. Nicolas-Nelson/ECPAD/AP Photo)

 

Watch Buck Sexton and the Real News team discuss the situation in Mali and the Obama administration’s policy towards continued Al Qaeda threats on TheBlaze TV tonight at 6pm.

Few outsiders gave much thought to Mali when a military coup toppled the impoverished state’s government last April. But fast-forward to the present, and Mali has become home to an Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) franchise that operates freely, deeply entrenched in the local population, and flush with weapons. It acts as part of a coalition of Jihadist militants and separatist Touareg rebels that together have already seized an area the size of Texas and gained enough strength to overrun the whole country.

Mali’s insurgency also poses a threat beyond its borders. The presence of French troops on Muslim soil could incite an international call to Jihad. Foreign fighters currently bound for Syria or Libya may join the Malian Jihad. Entrenched Jihadists in neighboring countries- Boko Haram in Nigeria, AQIM and other aligned factions in Libya and Algeria- could view the French intervention as perfect timing for their own attacks. And as we saw in Yemen, there is always the possibility that one cell in Mali, operating with little fear of penetration or arrest by security services, tries to bring down a plane, bombs an Embassy, or even manages an attack on the U.S. Homeland.

The first phase of AQIM and its allies’ plan— collapsing Mali’s interim government and consolidating power in the aftermath—was nearly complete before France’s recent unilateral military intervention. Jihadists had already bisected the country, but with the capture of the city of Konno, defeat for the central government in Bamako appeared within reach. Only the arrival of French Special Forces, Mirage fighter jets, and helicopter gunships seemed to turn the tide—for now.

Now France has been reluctantly drawn into the lead role in its own theater of operations for the global war on terror. President Francois Hollande had hoped that a 3,300 strong force from the Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS) would take on the stabilization role in the Mali. But those troops are slated to arrive later this year when the fight would be long over, with Jihadists firmly in charge.

So France has moved in, and from a U.S. perspective, this is a good thing. France has economic and cultural connections to Mali that give its intelligence and military better insight into what’s happening on the ground than any other western power. And despite the French penchant for sending troops to any African country once part of its colonial empire (Cote D’Ivoire, Chad), France’s multilateral, pro-U.N. credentials give it a certain leeway in the international community for such expeditions.

The extent of America’s role remains an open question. U.S. logistical assistance to French forces in Mali appears a foregone conclusion. Should the Malian Jihad drag out, however the U.S. will have to decide whether shouldering the majority cost of yet another counterterrorism intervention is worth it. With French backing, Mali’s government troops may be able to retake ground and pacify the country, town by town. Until that happens, the momentum lies with AQIM-Jihadist-Touareg alliance that has promised to make France suffer a protracted battle. And so far they appear to be dedicated to the fight and growing in strength.

The near future for Mali looks bleak and bloody. AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the rest of the Malian Jihadist rabble could have as many as 15,000 fighters. They are stocked with weapons from the looted Libyan stockpiles after Qaddafi fell (yet another unintended consequence of that NATO intervention). The Jihadist coalition is operating in a vast Saharan desert region, mixed in or allied to the local population. Stopping their advance is one thing; defeating them on their own turf will be another.

Al Qaeda is very much alive, and in few places are its ranks swelling more quickly than Mali. We may never stamp out Al Qaeda from every outpost around the world, and perhaps it is folly to try. But if America is going to have a lighter footprint in Mali, we had better hope there is a competent power to fill our shoes.

Buck Sexton is a Former CIA Officer in the Counterterrorism center specializing in Africa.