Extremist groups like Al-Qaeda are no strangers to the African continent with operations in Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, most notably through the militant group Al-Shabaab. Their growing prowess, especially in Northern Africa, was illustrated by Al-Qaeda’s recent involvement in the Malian coup d’état. Al-Qaeda’s naturalization in Africa has been perceived as a threat to not only regional security, but also global security. Stabilizing the region and containing the influence of extremist groups will depend on the international community’s ability to work with regional partners.
From Touré to Traoré
The March coup d’état in Mali spurred the resignation of president Amadou Toumani Touré a month before the scheduled presidential election in which he vowed not to participate. The coup was largely led by the disgruntled Mali army, which was critical of Touré’s handling of the Islamist-lead insurgency in the northern parts of the country. Touré was forced to resign and hand over the presidency to the army captain and leader of the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State, Amadou Sanogo. After stringent economic and political sanctions from the United States, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States, Sanogo ultimately allowed the democratic process to take its course, leaving Dioncounda Traoré, the president of Mali’s national assembly, to act as the interim president.
The insurgency in Northern Mali, which ultimately led to the political coup, was precipitated by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and by Ansar Dine, a suspected Al-Qaeda affiliate. The main objective of the two groups is to achieve independence for the northern region of Azawad. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad is a secularist group lead by the Tuareg people, an indigenous and nomadic ethnic group with a population in Mali exceeding 400,000. Ansar Dine, on the other hand, is a jihadist group that intends to implement sharia law in Mali.
In the midst of the instability created by the coup, another group, the Islamic Maghreb, has created a stronghold in the region and intends to spread a stringent version of sharia law throughout the country. The group has seized power in three major cities in the north, Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. The group is also accused of committing serious human rights violations, of propagating terror amongst the local population, and of desecrating important cultural monuments.
The President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation, Robert Roberg, stressed in an interview with the HPR that the international community “cannot let the people of northern Mali cut off hands and stone adulterers for much longer,” without suffering great consequences. Likewise, advocacy groups, foreign governments, and even the United Nations have expressed concern over the growing humanitarian crisis in Mali.
France Leads the Charge
In response to the Islamic Maghreb’s threats to execute six French hostages it currently has under its control, French President François Hollande is emerging as a leading force encouraging military action in the region. Although this initiative is encouraging, recent comments by Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defense minister point to a slight change of tone from France, with a stronger emphasis on prudence and caution. Mali’s long collaborative history with France, a legacy of its former status as a French colony, explain France’s responsive attitude with regards to the Islamic Maghreb’s rapid ascent to regional dominance.
The UN Security Council’s decision to grant Mali and the Economic Community of West African States, its principal continental ally, forty-five days to present a credible and detailed military plan to reclaim the northern Mali exemplifies a bilateral effort designed to grant more authority to the African leadership. However, doubts still remain about the intervention. Algeria, the predominant military force in the region, favors a diplomatic solution to a military one, as evidenced by a reported meeting with Ansar Dine on Algerian soil. The prospect of a military intervention without Algeria’s support seems unlikely. Additionally, the fragile political situation in the Ivory Coast and the internal conflict created by Boko Horan, another jihadist organization, in Nigeria further weakens the coalition. The logistical and material limitations of Mali’s military limit Mali’s ability to act on its own.
As a global leader advocating peace and democratic stability, the U.S. would do well to mark the current situation in Northern Mali as a top foreign policy priority. Rotberg emphasized that “any destabilization of even a remote part of Africa is of concern to the United States’ program to encourage peace and stability everywhere.” Before the recent instability, Mali’s democratic governance was seen as a model of development in the region. Particularly concerning to the United States, Mali is a member of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a program led by the United States to fight terrorism in Northern Africa. While the American public has generally devoted most of its attention to terrorist groups in the Middle East, failing to diversify its efforts to prevent the next wave of extremist movements could be a grave mistake. Strong logistical and intelligence support in Africa could symbolize a lasting statement of U.S. support on a continent whose development and security could be put at risk by Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
With a rapidly growing population that boasts a median age of roughly twenty years old, the continent’s human resource wealth should not be underestimated. In addition, the continent’s remarkable economic growth, as evidenced by the presence of African countries such as Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana amongst the fastest-growing economies in the world, highlights the continent’s economic importance. However, such development is not possible without a stable political atmosphere, an area that the United States must focus on. Collaborating with the continent’s leaders and supporting regional antiterrorism efforts exemplifies a course of action that could guarantee multilateral success.