Despite various setbacks, al Qaeda continues to expand its global presence and establish new sanctuaries such as the one it currently enjoys in Mali. The nation’s drift toward state failure following a military coup in March 2012 facilitated the takeover of northern Mali by al Qaeda’s West African affiliate; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), along with militant groups Ansar al Din and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Northern Mali’s 240,000 square miles of sparsely populated desert is now the largest territory held by al Qaeda and its allies.[i] At the request of the interim Malian government, France commenced a military intervention on January 13, 2013 amidst a southward offensive by the militants aimed at overtaking the country.[ii] With the assistance of African forces, France has since reversed the rebel’s advance and now plans to withdraw troops next month.[iii] While these developments are encouraging, military operations in the northern region are ongoing, and declarations of success in irregular warfare campaigns often prove to be premature.
Based on the local and global damage al Qaeda has inflicted from its previous bases, France’s decision to intervene was not imprudent. However, if a swift resolution is elusive, sustained military operations must be conducted in a manner that will not be counterproductive. Previous over-reactions to jihadist operations and excessively blunt applications of force have proven ineffective and downright self-defeating in certain instances.[iv] Therefore a balance needs to be struck that will further impede the militants’ operational capacity without replicating the missteps of previous engagements.
Whatever France’s genuine motives may be, the forceful disruption of Mali’s jihadist network is a welcome development for a couple of reasons. While terrorist attacks are often carried out by individuals or small cells, remote sanctuaries still play an important role in the operations. The most sophisticated plots and attacks tend to originate from aspiring jihadists that have managed to make contact with al Qaeda instructors in one of their various retreats. As renowned al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen notes, “Effective jihadist terrorists are generally the graduates of training camps or war zones, rather than passive consumers of jihadist propaganda on the web.”[v] A cursory review of the most infamous cases corroborates Bergen’s observation. The perpetrators and conspirators involved in 9-11, the failed shoe bombing, the 2005 London transit bombing, the 2006 transatlantic flight bomb plot, the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt and the 2010 Times Square bomb plot, all directly received instruction from al Qaeda trainers in one of their sanctuaries.[vi] With that in mind, allowing al Qaeda and their associates to operate unencumbered in Mali seems less than optimal.
An additional concern arises from the fact that al Qaeda thrives amidst sectarian conflict and foments it when it suits their interests’. The presence of civil warfare creates a situation in which foreign jihadists are embraced by the faction most proximate to them ideologically. In Afghanistan for instance, the fundamentalist Taliban viewed the foreigners as allies in their ongoing war against the Northern Alliance and were willing to harbor them.[vii] Jihadists find internal conflicts so favorable that they often arouse or exacerbate them, as they did in Iraq when al Qaeda operatives targeted Shiites in order to incite a civil war. Subsequent bloodshed further solidified the alliance between al Qaeda and Iraq’s Sunni tribes who sought protection from Shiite reprisals.[viii] The resultant human cost was staggering as thousands of civilians became caught up in a self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence. While not as fractionalized as Iraq, Mali contains ethnic divisions that jihadists may seek to exploit, which would further destabilize the region and get a lot of people killed in the process. Considering the domestic and international violence that could potentially originate from northern Mali, the French-led intervention may very well be worthwhile.
Despite the practical benefits of unsettling the Islamist refuge in West Africa, several factors should endow the French and any future participants with a degree of caution. Mali is a land-locked nation nearly twice the size of Texas which shares very porous borders with seven countries. Sixty-four percent of Malians reside in rural areas, and the northern portion of the country consists of rugged hills where rebels have constructed defensible networks of tunnels and trenches.[ix] All of the preceding variables are likely to significantly obstruct large-scale counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations, and a realistic assessment of what can and cannot be accomplished in such an environment is warranted.
Operational conditions aside, any extensive deployment could still play into the Islamists’ hands. It should be reasonably obvious by now that the insertion of western or “infidel” militaries in Muslim nations is a potent rallying cry for a defensive jihad and corroborates al Qaeda’s narrative of victimization by the West. Moreover, any unnecessary use of force has the potential to radicalize Mali’s traditionally moderate Muslims. America’s heavy handed tactics in the early years of Iraq, for example, helped drive the Sunni population into the arms of the nascent insurgency.[x] Numerous other well-intentioned but poorly-executed counterterrorism offensives have also exacerbated the very problem they were intended to solve. This appears to be precisely what al Qaeda has desired and endeavored to provoke on several occasions. In 2004 Osama bin Laden mocked the ease with which he believed al Qaeda could bait the U.S. into self-defeating interventions explaining that, “All we have to do is send two mujahidin to the furthest point East to raise a cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and, political losses without achieving for it anything.”[xi] Al Qaeda personnel similarly anticipate that they will ensnare the French in Mali. Insurgent leader Oumar Ould Hamaha recently celebrated that France “has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.”[xii] Hamaha’s assessment may ultimately be correct. If military operations are not carefully calibrated, French forces may find themselves in an inhospitable environment pursuing a counterproductive campaign amidst a hostile population.
To recapitulate, rolling back Islamic extremism in Mali is wrought with potential benefits as well as difficulties. Given the lethality of operations that have emanated from jihadist sanctuaries in the past, the attention being afforded to Mali is merited. That being said, operational conditions in Mali present a host of obstacles to any military venture, and missteps that alienate the local citizenry will be promptly exploited by any astute practitioners of asymmetric warfare, which al Qaeda has proven to be. Therefore, any further military action undertaken by France and its allies must be done in a calculated manner that strives to degrade the militant’s functionality while avoiding the type of large-scale, open-ended and indiscriminate campaigns that play into the enemy’s hands.
[i] Rukmini Callimachi, “Al Qaeda in Mali: Islamist Fighters Carve Out New Country, “ Huffington Post, Dec. 31, 2012
[ii] AFP, “France Bombs Islamist Hideout as Mali Insurgency Deepens,” The Australian, Feb. 12, 2013.
[iii] AP, “Mali Crisis: France Host Talks on Post-war Development” BBC News Europe, March 19, 2013.
[iv] The U.S. military’s indiscriminate response to the killing of Blackwater contractors in Fallujah, Iraq in March 2004 serves as a good example of this predicament. While the subsequent offensive in Fallujah did eliminate some al Qaeda allied insurgents, the collateral damage alienated the population and facilitated al Qaeda in Iraq’s ascension in al Anbar province. See: Thomas Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. (New York: Penguin Group, 2009) 29. A further example can be found in the Pakistani Army’s efforts to pursue foreign jihadists in the country’s tribal areas. In this case heavy-handed tactics merely enraged tribesmen and precipitated a revolt in 2004. See: David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 238.
[v] Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al Qaeda. (New York: Free Press, 2011) 205.
[vi] Ibid., 205-213.
[vii] Although many Taliban leaders came to resent al Qaeda’s affiliation with them, the foreigners initially constituted a tactical asset. During their five year residency al Qaeda’s contributions included assisting in the recapture of Kabul, the taking of the Northern Alliance capital in Taloqan, a Massacre of Shia Hazaras and the assassination of the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massood whose irregular warfare acumen persistently outpaced that of the Taliban. See: Ahmed Rashid, Taliban, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) 139. See also: Peter Bergen, The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006) 161.
[viii] Fred Kagan, “Al Qaeda in Iraq—How to Understand It,” The Weekly Standard, Sept. 2007.
[ix] CIA World Factbook, www.cia.gov
[x] Thomas Ricks, Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq. (New York: Penguin Group, 2007)362.
[xi] Quoted in: David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 29.
[xii] Steven Erlanger, Alan Cowell and Adam Nossiter, “French Pledge More Troops for Mali as Airstrikes Continue,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 2013
Photo credit: French Ministry of Defense