Tag Archives: Terrorism

Mayhem in Mali

“There is no alternative. For some of these more radical groups, it’s going to take military force… We shouldn’t be optimistic that this is going to be a one- or two-week surgical strike, and then we go home.” – Jack Christofides, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The president has had his hands full these days. Problems at home and abroad are pressing from all sides, and even though he no longer needs to worry about his re-election bid, Barack Obama has plenty of other worries to keep him up at night: A quickly-approaching fiscal cliff, yet more fallout from September’s Benghazi attacks, the appointment of the next Secretary of State, uncertain outcomes from the latest conflicts between Israel and Hamas, continuing violence in Syria, and a still-unresolved nuclear bone to pick with Iran, just to name a few. But one story that hasn’t gotten much attention, from president or press, is the ongoing violence and chaos that has gripped Mali for the past eight months.

A satellite image of Mali. Radical Islamists have taken over the northern desert region (known as the Azawad), an area roughly the size of France. (public domain)

Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Back in March, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, seizing the presidential palace and dissolving the government. In the aftermath of the coup, a group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA, in the French acronym) unilaterally declared that northern Mali, an area known as Azawad, was to be a free and independent state. The rebels backed their words with deeds, taking the northern Malian cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal in a matter of days. After these gains, the MNLA was joined and eventually sidelined (or fought) by militant Islamist groups, a number of them with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

These Islamists are now the effective rulers of northern Mali (and have dropped the MNLA’s calls for secession), enforcing a brutally repressive regime on its inhabitants. The groups, rather than hoping to split northern Mali off from the rest of the state, are instead looking to enforce their radical view of Shari’a law on the entire nation, putting the still-unstable south at risk as well. Reports coming out of northern Malian cities like Gao and Timbuktu tell of public beatings, stonings, and amputations, forced marriages, and threats of grisly violence toward those regarded as “unholy,” such as unmarried pregnant women. Death tolls are uncertain, but with the region gripped by conflicts between and within rebel groups and radical mob “justice” occurring on what seems like a daily basis, the anarchic north may have seen hundreds killed so far.

Mali’s is more than a humanitarian and moral crisis, though it is both of those things. It could also quickly become a strategic crisis for the region, the Mediterranean, and even the US. Without forgetting the real human suffering happening daily in this desert, the West should recognize that, if left unaddressed, northern Mali could easily become “Africa’s Afghanistan,” a safe haven for radical Islamists and terrorists. We know already that a number of groups in the Azawad have affiliations with Al Qaeda, whose heart in Central Asia may have been destroyed but whose arms could still have far-reaching and deadly power. The Malian government is certainly ill-equipped (and not particularly willing) to evict the radicals from the north. So who should do it?

The United Nations Security Council has already given the go-ahead for foreign military intervention, but not many powers have stepped up to the plate. There is a lack of willingness on the part of the West, particularly the United States and France, to become very involved militarily in Mali. Both countries have significant interests at stake in the region, and so would benefit from driving out extremists. France has had a number of its citizens kidnapped by the radicals, and the United States certainly won’t be better off for allowing a pocket of Al Qaeda influence to fester and grow, especially in light of September’s Benghazi attacks.

But neither country seems willing to acknowledge that the chaos and violence incited by the Islamist regime will not be limited by borders, especially in the sweeping deserts and largely un-policed region of West Africa. Mali shares huge borders with Mauritania and Algeria, both of which could be vulnerable to attack and both of which could certainly suffer from refugee overflows and uncontained extremism and violence. If nothing is done to remove or reduce Islamist influence in northern Mali, it could become a launch pad for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to wreak havoc across the region and even into Western Europe. Hillary Clinton herself said that northern Mali has become “a larger safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

This seems like a very contradictory approach. Even as the US says that terrorist factions based in northern Mali could become a grave threat if allowed to remain in power unchallenged, it refuses to commit militarily, and is reluctant even to commit to using attack drones in the future, a tactic problematic in our supposed ally Pakistan but likely to be much more straightforward and successful in the flat desert of northern Mali (see map).

This hesitation could be ascribed to a noble refusal to expand the so-called War on Terror into yet another country, but such praise would be misplaced. Unlike past actions in Iraq, Pakistan, or Yemen, military action has the go-ahead in Mali, not only from the national government of the country itself, but from the UNSC and the region more broadly. The US wouldn’t be haphazardly dropping missiles on a dubious international mandate, but rather would be cooperating with an overwhelmed and desperate government.

I’m not saying that the West needs to send 10,000 of its own soldiers (the rough UN estimate of the number of troops needed) into the fray, or even that it needs to send a fraction of those. Regional powers like Algeria, Nigeria, or Mauritania (not to mention Mali itself), perhaps along with the African Union, could take the lead, and the UN could contribute peacekeeping forces to make peace stick once it’s achieved. But the United States and France, both with a significant interest in excising the Islamists, can’t sit back and wait for others to solve the problem.

There isn’t just a moral incentive to dismantle this regime; there are strategic motives as well. The US should step up and use its technology and military power to help the international force that may soon take shape. We don’t need to have “boots on the ground,” but drones in the sky might not be a bad place to start. We can’t afford to wait for Mali to become another Afghanistan. North Africa seems only to be growing in significance, and American leadership would be wise to recognize this.

But this problem will require more than military might. If there’s anything that the West should have learned from our military excursions of the past decade, it’s that regional divisions and local grievances can’t be sorted out with airstrikes and Predator drones. Armed force will be needed to cripple the radical regime in the north, but ultimately Mali needs reconciliation to solve this problem. Foreign intervention should weaken the Islamists to the point that they have no choice but to join in real dialogue, and should protect the fragile interim government until it can get back on its feet and give the Azawad the attention it needs.

For that matter, the international community should give Mali the attention it needs as well. We’ll all be better off for it.

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Clashing Dreams in the Middle East

As revolution rushes through the Middle East, radical Islam and democratic secularism will clash and confront one another. (Source: beforeitsnews.com)

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his dream lives on. His was a dream of violence, bloodshed, and sectarianism, one in which a new Islamist caliphate could take power, and his repressive ideology would flourish.

Bin Laden also envisioned a Middle East that would be sympathetic to his ideas and ideals. And while most people are repulsed by his beliefs, there are a frightening number of people who hold the same bloodthirsty views as him. Many of these are already involved in al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other distinct terrorist entities. But this mindset can be found all throughout the Middle East and beyond. It is an idea that advocates the violent enforcement of one’s own beliefs, and is not only a grave danger to lives, but an offensive and woefully misguided interpretation of the otherwise peaceful and fairly welcoming religion of Islam.

Yet the Arab Spring, as it is now known, is seriously calling into question the efficacy and popularity of bin Laden’s violent Islamist vision for the Middle East. Unlike the religious revolution al Qaeda dreams of someday bringing about, the Arab Spring which brought down both Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was almost exclusively secular, and motivated by secular desires and aspirations. It’s democracy that the Arab people seem bent on achieving, not an Islamic state or caliphate.

So there seem to be two conflicting viewpoints in the Middle East right now. On the one hand, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and all who share their twisted views see a future in which their own beliefs about religion and society are paramount. On the other hand, a powerful new youth movement is swelling in the Middle East, a movement that, despite al Qaeda’s fondest wishes, is a secular one.

The stage seems set for yet more tension in the Middle East. Even as a new dream of freedom and democracy builds momentum in places that previously suffered under terribly repressive states, a different kind of repression, this time of a religious variety, is still in the arena. As these two dreams of the future, one of religious nationalism and the other of secular democracy, face off over the coming years, the people of the Middle East will have a choice. They must make it wisely.

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Yet More Pakistani Complications

Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in this compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1. (Source: talkingpointsmemo.com)

The news of Osama bin Laden’s death sent shockwaves through the United States. Barack Obama’s announcement of the mass killer’s demise was amazing and exhilarating to most Americans, and gave the President strong new legitimacy as the country’s leader and commander-in-chief.

But it also presents a tricky and troubling question: If bin Laden has been hiding in a compound in Pakistan (see picture) for quite some time now, how did Pakistan not notice? Or more worryingly, why did they not tell the US if they knew where bin Laden was hiding?

Osama was tracked down to a modest city in Pakistan called Abbottabad. It’s not particularly surprising or alarming that bin Laden was found in Pakistan. What is frightening is that he was hiding in the middle of a good-size town that is only around 50 km away from the capital of Islamabad. What’s more, the compound in which bin Laden concealed himself was only around half a mile away from a major military training academy.

All of this adds up to yet more turbulence in the already complex and conflicted relationship between the United States and Pakistan. As I mentioned in a previous post, things have been tough between America and Pakistan as of late, and the discovery of bin Laden is unlikely to help things much.

So far, Pakistan has played a key role in counter-terrorism operations and provision of intelligence to the US. Since the alliance between the two countries began after the September 11 attacks, Pakistan has generally assisted American forces in the fight against terrorism in the area. So the question of why they did nothing and said nothing about bin Laden is an important one. Bin Laden’s compound, which burned trash, had holes rather than windows, and featured walls up to 18 feet high, is hardly covert or discrete. And being just down the road from the Pakistan Military Academy, and located in a town known as a military stronghold, it seems ludicrous to say that no one in Pakistani law enforcement had any idea.

Which leads to two possible answers as to why Pakistan’s lips were sealed about bin Laden: Either the Pakistani military and intelligence officials were incompetent, or they were intentionally harboring the most notorious terrorist in the world. Both possibilities are grim ones. Pakistani officials have also been questioning why the United States didn’t give them some warning or wait for permission to carry out such an operation within Pakistan’s borders. This is an understandable desire on that country’s part, but there are good reasons why they weren’t told.

As I also mentioned in the above previous post, a serious trust gap is widening between the US and Pakistan. While neither side is directly scorning or condemning the other at this point, both sides are uncomfortable with one another. American leaders feel that Pakistan is not consistent in their handling of terrorism and in their alliance with the US. Pakistan, on the other hand, sees America as overstepping its boundaries with civilian collateral from US drone strikes, the discovery of a number of CIA agents operating in secret within their borders, and a general distrust of Pakistan’s leadership, especially the ISI.

This led US officials, and rightly so, to refrain from informing Pakistan about the operation to take out Osama bin Laden. To inform any Pakistani leadership would be to take away the security of the operation; this would perhaps even have allowed bin Laden to slip quietly away from Abbottabad, even as American forces closed in on him. The simple fact is, the US simply does not know enough about Pakistan’s desires and goals as they relate to al Qaeda and the Taliban. It’s apparent that at least some factions of Pakistani leadership seek to keep certain terrorist cells and organizations in existence, as this could presumably offer them some benefit. It’s unclear whether keeping bin Laden alive was intentional on Pakistan’s part, or whether they were simply worryingly ignorant of his presence.

Neither reason is likely to do much to help ease tensions between the US and Pakistan. With many questions yet to answer about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, Pakistan is finding itself under pressure to explain things. Whether Osama’s conspicuous living in Abbottabad was allowed by Pakistan or simply overlooked, this revelation adds another strain of unease between these nascent allies.

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