In recent weeks, Mali, a democratic West African nation, experienced two events that threaten the stability of the country: a military coup and a rebellion that took over a significant portion of the country. Although this may not seem like such an abnormal event, given the seeming regularity of coups in Africa, it is in fact a sign of the changing nature of the war with al-Qaeda and its growing umbrella of affiliated groups. The terrorist organization may be weaker than it was a decade ago, but it is less centralized and is spreading into an increasing number of ungoverned areas. The problems in Mali represent the long term issues we may be facing in regards to al-Qaeda.
It was understood that the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi would have unpredictable consequences for the region. Mali is one such case. The Tauregs, a nomadic ethnic group native to northern Mali and southern Libya, have been resisting the Mali government for years. However, they werre active in the war in Libya:
“Many of the rebels had fought for Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, equipping themselves extensively from his armories before returning home and joining the rebellion against the Malian government.”
Since the rebels were now better equipped than many of the Malian soldiers fighting them, some officers staged a coup because they felt the government wasn’t doing enough to help them. In the wake of this coup, the rebels have taken full advantage of the fragility of the state and captured large portions of the northern expanse of the country in a blitzkrieg campaign. They are attempting to turn their captured territory into a state called Azawad. As the rebels (the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) take over the north, there is a growing fear that al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will make this region a safe haven. AQIM representatives met with a radical group within the Taureg rebellion (Ansar al-Din) this past week:
“Three Algerians–named as Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Yahya Abou al Hammam–held talks with the Taureg rebels who had captured Timbuktu the previous day.”
It is known that AQIM has worked in this region before, with the Mali government acknowledging that ”several hundred fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have found sanctuary in its desert reaches.”
Mali is just one example in a trend going through North Africa. Al-Qaeda, now weakened by the war in Afghanistan, is aligning with rebel groups that have been operating in the region for years. The most notable examples are al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and now Ansar al-Din in Mali. While these preexistent rebellions have been formidable in the past, they demonstrate a shift in tactics, strategy, and language as they are involved with and trained by al-Qaeda. This is highly evident with the Pakistani Taliban:
“[Al-Qaeda] has been instrumental in the Taliban’s consolidation of power in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in the Northwest Frontier Province. . . . They are also behind the Taliban’s successes in eastern and southern Afghanistan . . . . It is considered a status symbol for the groups to be a part of [al-Qaeda]. . . . The radicalization of the Taliban and their conversion away from Deobandism to Wahhabism under Sheikh Issa al Masri and other al Qaeda leaders is a clear sign of the al Qaeda’s preeminence.”
The relationship between al-Qaeda and the rebel groups is beneficial to both parties. The rebels receive training and an elevated status, while al-Qaeda receives a safe place to operate. Although al-Qaeda is severely weakened ”from a quantitative and qualitative perspective (p. 3),” it is more widespread and arguably harder to eliminate.
Al-Qaeda’s spread across North Africa is becoming a greater security threat to the West. Instead of having one or two theaters of war for domestic jihadists to fight and train in, as was the case a decade ago, they now have multiple areas to work in, such as Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, and now possibly Mali. The various rebellions create weak areas where they are largely the only authority.
“These groups are located in countries which resemble pre-2001 Afghanistan, with no viable central government capable of exerting authority on its own territory. It is harder for intelligence agencies to keep track of specific individuals and it is therefore impossible to rule out that some of these will eventually come off their radar (p. 4).”
As this trend in North Africa continues, that of rebellions becoming radicalized, a strong level of attention needs to be given to the region. However, this may be a slow process:
“Western intelligence and security services understand what is happening in Pakistan, in the Maghreb and in Yemen, even if they cannot do very much about it. But counter-terrorism officials privately acknowledge that they are unsighted, and are working hard to try to understand how far the jihadist challenge may be migrating to Somalia, Kenya, north Nigeria and the borderlands of some of the vast territories of West Africa.”
Western and African authorities should take serious consideration for and strong, multilateral action against this developing trend, or else this may become the long-term state of affairs for the region.