Despite Interventions, Libyan, Malian Islamist Threat Rising

Governments in the Maghreb seem unable to contain the regionwide insurgency.

Soldiers from neighboring West African countries deployed to Mali, January 29
Soldiers from neighboring West African countries deployed to Mali, January 29 (EMA/Ministère de la Défense)

Despite Western military interventions in both African countries’ civil wars, the Islamist threat in Libya and Mali is rising, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported on Sunday.

According to Afua Hirsch, the paper’s West Africa correspondent, “The security problems in northern Mali, where militants have lost their grip on towns but large weapons caches are believed to be hidden in the desert, have dampened the jubilant spirit that arose when French forces swept into the region in January.”

Timbuktu and other towns in the north of the country, where Islamists, in alliance with local Tuareg secessionists, carved out an independent state last year, are regularly rocked by suicide bombings, “previously unheard of in the country.”

The national army is struggling to suppress the violence. The head of the European Union’s training mission of Malian soldiers told France’s Le Monde newspaper last week, “They’re managing misery.” He complained of corruption, nepotism and theft in the armed forces and urged foreign powers to expand their support.

France intervened in its former colony earlier this year when insurgents appeared to advance on the capital city of Bamako. They were forced out of the cities and major towns in the central and northern parts of the country by airstrikes and sought refuge in the deserts and mountains of the far north, near the border with Algeria. France later deployed some 4,000 troops to the country while a West African peacekeeping force, supposed to be twice the French deployment in size, is mobilizing to prevent the rebels from resurging.

“Many accuse the Tuaregs,” whose independence struggle was hijacked by more radical factions, including Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, last year, “of continuing to wage armed conflict,” writes Hirsch.

Some mainstream Tuareg secessionists have joined the counterinsurgency effort against the Islamists but Ansar Dine, an extremist faction, hasn’t given up the fight. Nor have the Muslim fanatics. Unlike the Tuareg, they have less interest in the region and can easily cross the border to continue their jihad from neighboring Algeria, Mauritania or Niger.

Hirsch and Chris Stephen write in the same newspaper that Libya, where Arab and Western countries intervened in 2011 to help topple Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, is another destination for these militants.

“There are established links between groups in both Mali and Libya,” one Western diplomat told The Guardian. “There is an anxiety among the political class here that Mali is blowing back on them.”

That anxiety was heightened last week when a car bomb exploded outside the French embassy in Tripoli, wounding two French guards as well as a local student. The American diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi was stormed and set ablaze by gunmen last September. Four were killed at the time, including the United States’ ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens. Dozens more were killed in January when Islamists linked to Al Qaeda attacked a gas plant in Algeria’s In Amenas, near the Libyan border.

Foreign intervention in Libya originally pushed Tuareg soldiers who had been employed by Gaddafi out while Algerian counterterrorism operations in recent years have driven religious fanatics into countries such as Mali.

The continued movement of insurgents across the Maghreb’s porous borders suggests a regionwide insurgency that often weak governments there, recovering from civil war, hamstrung by internal political divisions or both, seem unable to contain.