When most Americans think of al Qaeda, they don’t think of Africa. But they should, especially considering a country called Mali, where Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies are attempting to build an Islamist state.
One the size of Texas.
And AQIM, which has been implicated in the Benghazi attack, isn’t only interested in establishing a caliphate in Africa: It has America in its cross-hairs, too.
It has plenty of pro-al Qaeda friends who are helping, such as Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which has reportedly promised to attack the West.
The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that, according to knowledgeable US and French diplomats, these terror groups plan to use “Mali as a base for attacks throughout Africa, and beyond.”
Basically, al Qaeda now has a new safe haven for its African allies and its foreign-fighter friends (from reportedly as far away as Afghanistan), a place where they can recruit, plan, train and operate — essentially unfettered from outside interference.
Just what we need.
This, of course, is in addition to the al Qaeda affiliates already established on the continent like Boko Haram, which operates in and around Nigeria, and al Shabab, which has long found a home in Somalia.
Al Qaeda and its wings clearly aren’t just a Middle Eastern, South Asian or even Southeast Asian problem any longer; the network is spreading like a cancer — now across Africa.
So how did we get to this point?
There’s little question that what is happening in Mali is an offshoot of the Arab Spring in Libya last year, where weapons loosed by the fighting between rebels and Khadafy loyalists made their way to Mali with ethnic Tuareg mercenaries.
Returning Tuareg “mercs” joined the ranks of local Tuareg separatists in Mali’s north (who had grievances with the central government in Bamako) and levied heavy losses on the Malian army. In March, the unhappy, defeated army conducted a coup in the capital, dissolving the democratically elected government.
By April, an opportunist AQIM & Co. pushed the victorious Tuaregs aside, seizing control of the vast Northern region, including cities like Timbuktu. Today, the area is under Islamist control and sharia law; stonings and mutilations — not to mention the conscription of children — are “widespread,” according to the United Nations.
The international community wants to do something to address the increasingly dire situation in northern Mali, which a UN official recently called “one of the potentially most explosive corners of the world.”
But aside from some initial talks between African diplomats and Tuareg separatists and Ansar Dine — plus some chatter about political reconciliation, elections and military interventions at places like the UN — there’s no coordinated strategy to retake the North.
Indeed, the Associated Press reports that the UN bureaucracy doesn’t expect to be able to put together an African intervention force until next fall — if it even decides on that route. Next fall? A lot of bad things can happen in a year, especially at the hands of a terror group like AQIM.
Adding to the troubles, Mali’s interim prime minister was arrested and forced to resign yesterday by the army, which is still calling the shots in Bamako. This complicates any effort to get a new government to retake the North from the extremists.
When President Obama told us during this year’s campaign that al Qaeda was “on the run,” everyone thought he meant al Qaeda was on the road to defeat. Instead, it seems the terror group was on the run — to Africa.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in New York Post.