Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists killed at least 27 hostages in a Radisson-Blu hotel in the Mali capital of Bamako on Friday, before U.S. special forces backed by French and Malian military and police intervened to stop what would have been an even worse carnage. At least one hundred hostages, including hotel guests and staff, are wounded and three of the assailants are reported shot dead.
Soon after the attack on Paris and the extreme threat to Brussels, core cities of the West, Islamist, or Islamist-inspired, terror struck at the periphery of our global friends-network. Touted as a poster-country of America’s democracy-export industry, Mali nearly succumbed to an onslaught of al Qaeda-affiliated fighters-cum-desert highwaymen in 2012-13, and remains completely dependent on foreigners for its security and any chance of political progress and economic development.
The Bamako Radisson-Blu, which belongs to the high end chain owned by the Minnesota-based Carlsson group, is a popular stop for foreign visitors to Mali. At least nine of the confirmed murdered hostages as of Sunday evening are foreign nationals, including one American health-care manager, several Russian air-freight employees, and three Chinese railroad executives involved in billion-dollar projects to link the land-locked country to Dakar on the Atlantic coast and Conakry on the Gulf of Guinea.
Security at the hotel appears to have been deficient notwithstanding murderous attacks by other groups linked to AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) only a few months ago, one at a restaurant popular with expats in Bamako and the other at a hotel in Sévaré, further north on the Senegal River, which divides the country between the predominantly forested and largely agricultural south, and the savannah and desert north.
Virtually all Malians are Muslim, but the tribal, or ethnic — the word, despite its distasteful Soviet-era sound, is in common use — composition of the country is characterized by sharp divisions. These have produced recurring bouts of fighting since independence in 1961. The last campaign in what can be, imprecisely but not incorrectly, described as the Tuareg Wars, differed from the previous ones by the decisive presence of the veteran Tuareg fighter Iyad Ag Ghali on the side of the jihad boys, as the head of a force called Ansar al Dine (“defenders of the faith”).
Ag Ghali in the early 1990s fought with the mainstream, explicitly secular, Tuareg national movement, and he accepted a truce that promised some chance of resolving longstanding Tuareg complaints about their treatment by the government, dominated by southerners. Justifiably or not, the national movement found progress too slow in coming. In 2011, in the wake of the Anglo-French-American-Qatari intervention in Libya, with reinforcements in men and modern arms which Gaddafi’s Tuareg legion took with them when they ditched the Tripoli tyrant, the national movement broke the truce.
A presidential election was scheduled for April, with U.S. favorite Amadou Touati Touré (“ATT”) retiring after two allegedly successful (“democratic”) terms. Instead, U.S. trained army officers overthrew him on the pretext that he was responsible for the spreading rout in the north. The putschists, however, did not leave the government offices and palaces they took over in the capital, and with Ag Ghali’s forces reinforcing, and soon brushing aside, the secular nationalists, the major cities of the north soon fell to ferocious, salafist barbarians who raped, murdered, and destroyed the priceless libraries of Timbuktu, all in the name of a pure version of Islam. The most accessible — and moving — description of what happened is shown in the 2014 film by Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, Timbuktu.
The ordeal of the northern peoples, Solinke, Peuls, and other groups additional to the Tuareg (who do not constitute a majority), ended the following year when, in a case of over-reach, Ag Ghali sent his troops across the Senegal River toward Bamako. The secularist Tuareg opposed this strategy, as they only wanted out of Mali, but they were by then secondary as a political or military force.
French airborne and assault troops, pre-positioned in Niger and Burkina Faso, intervened just in time and then proceeded to cross the river in the other direction to liberate the north. Eventually a pan-African force of UN blue helmets, with French and U.S. support, took over the task of maintaining order, but intermittent fighting punctuated by terrorism has persisted, as underscored by the attacks leading up to last Friday’s massacre at the Radisson.
Credit for which was taken not by Ansar Dine or the other Islamist fighting groups, but by Al-Mourabitoun (“the Sentinels”), an al-Qaeda in the Maghreb offshoot led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian bandit and jihadist no less feared than Ag Ghali. Mokhtar’s history of jihadist activity in his own country, in Afghanistan, and in Mali has put him on several must-kill lists, and he was twice reported dead, once following the raid on the Algerian natural gas complex of Tigantourine in 2013, during which at least 50 oil field workers and Algerian security men were murdered, and more recently in a U.S. Air Force strike in Libya in which he was the primary target.
These details are of some operational importance, to the degree they point to the continuing ability of the Islamist internationale to make use of varied assets. The core of the squads that attacked Paris last week and last January were Algerian and Moroccan and Malian in background, but as our colleague Daniel Flynn observed in a recent analysis, these are essentially French and Belgian-grown young men, several Euro-born, and they are educated, if that is the word, to feel neither here nor there. They are the nowhere men of our times, and organizations like the caliphate and al-Q give them somewhere to kill and die.
On the ground in Africa, we and the French and our African allies likely are doing about as well as we can in the circumstances — the circumstances including short-sighted strategic thinking on the part of our elected leaders as well as the geography of the region and its, to our way of thinking, alien political cultures.
There is no question that the thinking about post-Gaddafi — if thinking of any kind there was — failed to anticipate not only the wreckage of Libya, to the benefit of the Islamists, but the chaos and violence it would add to a region already wracked by chronic low level warfare and terrorism.
It is difficult not to see in the fickleness of the Obama-Clinton manner of directing foreign policy a line, perhaps a jagged one but still a line, between the disaster at Benghazi and the spread of Islamist violence in the Sahel. Suckered into wrong policies, they proceeded irresponsibly and then refused to either acknowledge the lesson or learn from it. Were it not for military assistance programs in place long before they entered office, it is quite possible assaults all across the Sahel would be daily news.
Certainly, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, Ansar Dine in Mali, the bands of sometime holymen, sometime highwaymen commanded by the likes of Moktar Belmoktar, roamed the Sahara long before the American offensive against Islamic terrorism began, just as the evil offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood were in action in the Middle East and North Africa long before most Americans ever heard of them. Our country entered the fray upon being attacked, but it is like entering a theater in the second or third act, and sometimes it seems we have still not caught up. We are lucky our forces and those of our French and African allies have sustained their morale and carried out the missions entrusted to them.
What we need is for a message to get through:
“Mission control, we have a problem: you.”
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