The next war against terrorism is taking shape in this West African country, as African nations backed by the United States and France are readying a force to recapture Mali’s north from extremists linked to al-Qaeda and prevent another haven for jihadists from taking root on the continent.
But whether a military intervention can defuse such a complex crisis remains in doubt. Mali’s transitional government, installed after a military coup earlier this year, is weak and lacks legitimacy. Its poorly equipped army is in disarray.
African and Western powers are already in disagreement over the timing and goals of a military strike. Also unclear is whether regional African forces are strong enough to defeat well-armed militants in desert terrain the size of Texas without help on the ground from Western armies.
Johnnie Carson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said this week that “the military concept proposes an Africa-led effort, but several key questions must be answered to ensure that this effort is also well-planned and well-resourced.”
Nevertheless, after months of hesitation, the momentum for a military intervention has surged in the region and among Western powers, as the radical Islamists and al-Qaeda militants have deepened their grip over the north.
Analysts and U.N. officials say that any military strike is still months away, but the United States and France are playing an active diplomatic role in it and encouraging African nations to take the lead — a model used most recently in Somalia, where Islamist radicals also seized much of the country. Last month, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) approved a 3,300-member force for northern Mali.
Thousands of Malians have fled to this capital to escape the Islamists’ brutal rule, and many say military action is the only way to liberate the north. “It’s the only solution,” said Aziz Maiga, a 27-year-old rapper who recently left the north. “Negotiating with the Islamists will not work.”
The American role has intensified since U.S. officials implicated al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the terrorism network’s North and West Africa affiliate known as AQIM — in the September assault on a U.S. mission in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. AQIM is one of the three major groups that now control northern Mali.
In a telephone interview, a senior Islamist leader denounced the United States, declaring that its people are “against Islam” and that superstorm Sandy was “a punishment from God.”
“If the Western countries send troops, that will be fine. We are prepared for war,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJWA, which is an offshoot of AQIM. “If they don’t come here, one day we will attack them. If we cannot do this in our time, our sons and the next generation will attack the West.”
Coalitions and factions
This landlocked former French colony, much of it in the Sahara Desert, is one of the world’s poorest countries despite an abundance of natural resources, including gold and uranium.
Long before the seizure of northern Mali, AQIM kidnapped Westerners and operated a drug pipeline to Europe and other criminal enterprises to finance its operations.
In March, the group and other radical Islamists joined forces with secular Tuareg separatists, angered by decades of political marginalization and neglect by the central government. They overran the north, taking advantage of a power vacuum that followed the military coup in Mali’s capital, Bamako, in March.
The Islamists then seized control from the Tuareg rebels. They imposed Islamist sharia law on a moderate Muslim population and began enforcing it with public beatings, amputations, stonings and prison sentences.
Initially, there were two main groups of extremists — AQIM and Ansar Dine, or “defenders of the faith,” which is led mostly by Malian hard-liners and linked to AQIM. But by September, MUJWA — which splintered from AQIM late last year — seized significant territory. Despite their differences, all three groups remain loosely linked. They have been joined by some fighters from Boko Haram, an Islamist force in Nigeria, according to the United Nations, Malian and regional African military officials.
French President Francois Hollande recently cited intelligence that some French Muslims had joined the jihadists and could perpetrate terrorist acts upon their return to France. Mali’s neighbors are also worried about radical Islamists spilling across their borders.
“They have killed so many of our soldiers, our sons,” said Sadou Diallo, the former mayor of Gao who fled to Bamako. “They have abused our sisters. They have destroyed 50 years of development in the north.”
‘Forging national consensus’