Al Qaeda has a new stronghold in Africa in northern Mali, its largest since the fall of Afghanistan in 2001. It has successfully gained the support of a local jihadist group, Ansar Dine, much as it partnered with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Algeria, Mali’s biggest neighbor, which has a long border with the new jihadist emirate, seems curiously unwilling to take action to address in the problem.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a franchise of the Al Qaeda global terror organization, has successfully aligned itself with a local extremist group in Mali named Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, and together they have effectively taken control of the northern two-thirds of Mali. The new alliance now is destroying the Islamic heritage of the fabled city of Timbuktu, much as Al Qaeda and the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s historical treasures in the years before 9/11.
AQIM has long been among Al Qaeda’s weaker franchises. Created from an Algerian terrorist group in 2006, it had some early success blowing up the United Nations headquarters in Algiers, but for most of its existence it has been confined to kidnapping Westerners traveling in the remote deserts of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger as well as other criminal enterprises. But this spring, after a military coup in Mali, AQIM found a partner in Ansar Dine. Together they swept out government forces from the north of Mali, then turned on a Tuareg independence movement that initially had been their partner and now control a vast Saharan stronghold the size of France.
Ansar Dine is led by a former Tuareg rebel, Iyad Ag Ghaly, who was a diplomat for Mali in Saudi Arabia from 2008–2010. The Saudis expelled him for contacts with extremists in the kingdom. Ghaly’s goals are probably mostly local, but he has established extensive contacts with the AQIM leadership. He has helped negotiate the release of foreigners kidnapped by Al Qaeda for years. AQIM leaders are now openly living in Mali’s towns and cities and strongly supporting the destruction of the Islamic heritage of the country, which they see as a deviation from the path of true Islam. AQIM fighters are working with Ansar Dine to terrorize and control the local population.
The combustible mix of AQIM, Ansar Dine and Tuareg rebels is very complex and dangerous. They are all very well armed thanks to looting Libyan arms depots after the fall of Qaddafi. AQIM has acquired weapons from Libyan caches that probably make it the best-armed Al Qaeda franchise in the world today.
Most of Mali’s neighbors are horrified at what is taking place in the North. Islamic extremists from across the region are finding a safe haven in Mali that allows them to train and operate. The Moroccans have said the jihadist emirate is the greatest threat to regional stability in over a decade. Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Morocco all have expressed concerns about the danger of an Al Qaeda safe haven in the region.
Mali’s northern neighbor, Algeria, has been at war with AQIM since its creation and has violently repressed the group at home. The generals who run Algeria, a secretive group referred to as le pouvoir, have been at war with the country’s Islamists since the Islamists won an election in 1992 and the army prevented them from taking power by staging its own coup. Most of the rank and file of the AQIM are Algerian citizens.
But Algiers has taken a curiously passive approach to the crisis in Mali. It withdrew its military advisors from Mali when the conflict began and cut off military assistance. It refers to the issue as a purely internal one. It has pressed for a political solution—not a military intervention. In turn, the jihadists have praised their restraint. The Algerians were against the NATO operation in Libya, which they feared would unleash Al Qaeda in the area. They are especially anxious that a potential intervention in Mali not include French or other Western forces.
There have also long been rumors and reports that the Algerian generals have back door connections with elements in Al Qaeda. Algeria’s intelligence chief General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene, the most powerful man in the country, allegedly encouraged AQIM’s growth to create a bogeyman to justify the secret police’s control of the country. An extremely secretive man, Mediene, was trained by the KGB and has run the intelligence service for over twenty years. Ghaly is said by some experts to be very close to Mediene’s spies. Algeria’s curious role will revive speculation about its secret connections in the Sahara.
Today, AQIM is the fastest-growing Al Qaeda franchise in the world. It now has a base in two-thirds of Mali and is well armed. Previous lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are clear: once Al Qaeda establishes a presence in a failing state, it becomes very difficult to root it out entirely.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues on the staff of the National Security Council.
Image: emilio labrador