Terror in Timbuktu

What if al-Qaida had its own country? It doesn’t take much to imagine what that would mean: commandeering a nation’s resources to establish a permanent, self-sustaining base for terrorist operations, along with applications for full membership in the U.N., UNESCO and the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

Until now, while terrorist organizations have managed to carve out large swaths of territory for themselves in various countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, the prize of a complete national takeover has eluded them.

However, in Mali, the specter of a country-wide radical Islamic sweep was imminent until just a few days ago, before France intervened. Indeed, it was a near thing.

“Today you have both France and some elements of the Malian army. They are doing the job, because if they had not done the job, there would no longer be a free country called Mali. Terrorism would be there,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said over the weekend.

Fabius was speaking at a summit with African leaders in Ivory Coast where an emergency plan was being worked out for a multi-national campaign to rid Mali of al-Qaida–linked forces. Some 5,000 African soldiers from Nigeria, Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad are expected to join over 2,000 French troops and planes. Appeals have gone out for Western powers to provide financing and logistics.

The U.S. is already providing intelligence assistance and may soon offer transport or refueling planes. The Obama administration will be redirecting about $8 million in unused aid and will ask Congress for additional money to help France, though direct military involvement was explicitly ruled out.

African leaders in the region seem to share France’s clear view of the danger. “We must intervene because no economic revival, no region in the world will be safe if the Sahel goes over to the wrong side,” said Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara.

But such clarity about the dire situation in Mali is not universal. As one
major newspaper observed, “officials in Washington still have only an impressionistic understanding of the terrorist groups that have established a safe haven in Mali, and they are divided about whether some of these groups even pose a threat to the United States.”

No doubt, part of the haziness is due to geography. “Where’s Mali?” is probably the question going the rounds in Washington these days.

Well, if you can find Timbuktu — virtually a synonym for geographical remoteness — you can find Mali. That impoverished city of about 50,000 is a regional capital of the west African country, and lately a battleground in the war between government and anti-government forces.

Separatist rebels who launched the fighting were soon sidelined by the terrorist alliance of al-Qaida’s AQIM and indigenous Malian groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA. But a BBC correspondent deplored the French intervention in an opinion piece, characterizing it as a return to the former discredited policy of acting as “the gendarme of Africa.”

To be sure, France does not come into this with clean hands. French colonial exploitation of countries in Africa and Southeast Asia dates back to the 19th century. Even after France acceded to African independence in the 1960s, it continued to pursue its economic interests on the continent, sometimes backed by force.

But the current situation in Mali is different. In recent years, France has officially repudiated its post-colonialist policy. Prime Minister François Hollande, like his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, has pledged to downsize France’s military presence in Africa. He said that he hopes to withdraw as soon as the Africans themselves can exercise control and the several thousand French nationals in Mali are safe.

“The terrorists must know that France will always be there to support a population that lives in democracy,” Hollande declared.

Even French public opinion, which tends to identify with revolutionary movements, no matter how fanatical and well-armed, has in this case rallied to Hollande. Over 60 percent support the intervention, and Hollande’s approval ratings have jumped 17 points overnight.

Malians in France are repelled by the savagery of the terrorist groups. “They are thugs and murderers,” the Mali-born deputy mayor of Montreuil, a Paris suburb, told reporters. It was certainly an apt description of the behavior of Islamist gunmen who used the French intervention as a pretext to seize hostages in neighboring Algeria. In an army rescue attempt, 23 hostages and 32 terrorists were killed.

Actually, Reuters reported that “32 militants” were killed. International news organizations persist in referring to the kidnappers in Algeria and their comrades in Mali as “militants” — this, despite the clear-cut language of Hollande, Fabius and other officials who have dropped that repugnant euphemism, at least for the time being.

This too contributes to a certain obscurity. Are we faced with a bunch of local militants rebelling against their government? Or, is it a terrorist uprising with regional — even global — implications?

We think it is the latter. And we applaud François Hollande for the bold action which surprised many people in France, Mali and elsewhere — and for calling a terrorist a terrorist.