On October 29, 2012 the State Department gave a briefing on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s visit to Algeria. The focus of the trip was on “counterterrorism cooperation and Mali.” The concern was dealing with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist organization that originated in Algeria, and is actively training in Mali; now has spread across the vast Sahel. The UN also had not authorized the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to send troops to support the Malian military, and subdue these Islamists embedded in northern Mali. In the meeting with President Bouteflika, Secretary Clinton was seeking support from Algeria for an international effort to drive out the radical Islamists that control two-thirds of Mali. Bouteflika has previously not supported military action, fearing AQIM’s retreat could put Algeria at risk.
In fact AQIM had for years been trying to overthrow Bouteflika’s regime, and create an Islamic state. The New York Times article on October 30 noted that Algeria has waged a war against these militants for some time. Malian leaders however, do not believe Algeria has done enough to capture the AQIM, since their movement across the porous borders has taken pressure off their military. The Times article noted that “Algeria…has not always been supportive of an international effort in Mali…since the prospect of a military campaign in Mali risked pushing militants north into Algerian territory…”
The AQIM was the outgrowth of several dissident groups in Algeria, who in the 1990’s were attempting to overthrow the government. In 2003 they moved some of their operations into Mali’s northern frontier. They became affiliated with Ansar Dine, ultraconservative Tuaregs who previously had led the separatist movement (MNLA). This desert region has become a safe haven for Islamists with links to al-Qaeda. U.S. intelligence and military sources have known for a long time that northern Mali was becoming a breeding ground for terrorists.
In 2005 the U.S. launched the “Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative,” a military training program in Mali, which included the twelve neighboring countries. Additional training was undertaken in 2007 by Special Operations Forces. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had considered a base in northern Mali, but the idea never materialized. Our lack of continued military support in the Sahel left countries unprepared to deal with the growing threat from well-armed and financed Islamists. Northern Mali has become the ‘epicenter’ for radical Islamists, many coming from Niger, Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On July 5, 2012 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2056, to deal with the Islamists in northern Mali. Tuareg fighters returning home from Libya, after the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, brought with them a large cache of arms. They became associated with the Ansar Dine and AQIM Islamists. In a power struggle the Tuaregs were pushed aside, and the Islamists took control of the towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, and are expanding further into the region. To stop their advance the UN needed to support military action, when Mali asked for it in March 2012. Instead the UNSC wanted more studies on the justification, and the U.S. insisted the stalled presidential elections take place first, before giving approval for the ECOWAS military to intervene in Mali. Now 120 days later, the situation in Mali has only become more acute.
On September 10, 2012, I visited the Mintao Refugee Camp in Djibo, Burkina Faso. The Tuareg leaders there told me about the numerous atrocities, and Sufi shrine destruction, taking place in their communities. Almost 500,000 Malians have escaped to camps in neighboring countries. The Malian diaspora just want to go home, but fear for their safety. They were dejected and felt neglected. The Tuaregs further believed they had been disenfranchised for a long time. But on population ratios, I was told by government leaders, they were fairly represented in the parliament. Still there is a need for jobs, education, healthcare and adequate food sourcing.
In my September 2012 meetings with the Minister of Foreign Affairs H.E. Tieman Coulibaly, Minister of Administration H.E. Moussa Sinko Coulibaly and Minister of Defense H.E. Yamoussa Camara, there was a consensus, they all “wanted Mali united, and put an end to the terrorists in northern Mali.” The leaders stated it was important that the Tuaregs in the north take part in uniting the country. In my correspondence with Minister Coulibaly on October 30, he noted, “We are ready for dialogue with those who want to share values of democracy and unity. We need Mali free from terrorism.” The Mali leadership has been ready to move forward for some time, but needs the U.S. to help press the UNSC to authorize military action.
Secretary Clinton’s meeting with the Algerian president should have been held shortly after the March 21, 2012 military coup by Captain Amadou Sanogo, in which President Amadou Toure was deposed. Toure had not supported the military, which was outgunned by the Islamists. Many soldiers were slaughtered in January 2012, causing the Malian military to withdraw from the northern region. Since then Mali’s situation has only become more unstable. Secretary Clinton, during her August 2012 trip to Africa, should have stopped in Mali, after visiting its neighbor Senegal, before continuing onto the other eight sub-Saharan African countries on the itinerary.
In the October 29, 2012 meeting in Algeria with President Bouteflika, Secretary Clinton would have been well-served to invite President Dioncounda Traoré of Mali, since the issues involved action by the international community, against the Islamists embedded in northern Mali. No such invitation was extended, as was related to me in correspondence on October 31, by a Malian leader. An inclusive meeting would have shown U.S. support of this beleaguered country. If the U.S.does not help to establish security soon in Mali, we can expect to see more attacks by the AQIM and affiliated Islamists in North Africa and across the Sahel.
The Congressional Hearings regarding the U.S. Consulate attacks in Benghazi have exposed the failure by the State Department to protect our diplomatic presence abroad. The Benghazi debacle, hopefully will serve as a wake-up call for immediate action to subdue the AQIM and other radical Islamists in northern Mali, and bring security to the Sahel region. We must stop the Islamists from reaching their goal of establishing Islamic states, ruled under Sharia.