Mali and the al-Qaeda Trap

By Paul Rogers

A series of events and statements in the early weeks of 2013 suggests that the "war on terror" declared in 2001 is entering a new phase. The escalation of war in northern Mali and the siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, followed by the sudden advice from several European governments that their citizens in Benghazi should leave immediately, all focus security attention on northern Africa. At the same time, there are signs of an increase in Islamist influence among the opposition forces in Syria's ongoing war, and of an intensified bombing campaign against government and Shi'a sites in Iraq.

All this found little echo in Barack Obama's second inaugural address on 21 January 2013, where the re-elected United States president even declared that "a decade of war is now ending". The day before, however, Britain's prime minister David Cameron had - in the wake of the Algerian emergency - characterised the region's Islamists as a "large and existential threat" that would require a response "that is about years, even decades, rather than months". His government's view, Cameron went on, is that "[what] we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaida-linked terrorist group. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in north Africa".

The domestic audience was doubtless foremost in Cameron's mind at a moment when six British citizens had just been killed. His assessment was further influenced by the major French intervention in Mali to halt the Islamist advance there, and supported by Canada and other western countries which share the view that the prospect is of another extended war. The rhetoric is similar to that produced by state leaders a decade ago, though it is worth noting how great the contrast between expectations and outcomes then turned out to be.

George W Bush's state-of-the-union address on 29 January 2002 portrayed the "war on terror" against al-Qaida and the Taliban as a global crusade against an "axis of evil". The president's "mission accomplished" speech on 1 May 2003 address from the flight-deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln followed the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in just three weeks, and took for granted that the Afghan Taliban had been vaporised. The US was on its way to total victory.

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Instead, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went on for years and took an immense human toll (over 200,000 killed, hundreds of thousands wounded, nearly 8 million refugees), while costing many trillions of dollars. The sheer weight of this legacy, and all the destruction, suffering, injustice and bitterness inflicted and ongoing, make it vital to ask whether a new generation of leaders is right this time in its strategic assessment. Is there, for example, really an "existential" threat to European states from Islamist groups in regions like the Sahel, which must be countered by military force?

The ground

A recent column in this series examined the overall status of al-Qaida and concluded that it has metamorphosed into an entity resembling more an idea than a movement (see "Al-Qaida, idea in motion", 4 January 2013). This idea, however, translates on the ground into a sense of common transnational identity and potency in various theatres.

Thus, the idea's affiliates can be found, albeit in a much diminished form, in northwest Pakistan and (more actively) in Yemen. In Somalia, al-Shaabab retains huge influence in the rural south even after its ejection from Mogadishu and other urban centres, and there are stirrings down the "Swahili coast" in Kenya and Tanzania. In southern Russia, the Caucasus Emirate is a persistent irritant to the authorities.

The Islamist element in Syria's civil war is also of great concern to Washington and London (if not to Riyadh and Doha). Indeed, an important development on 11 January 2013 - the rebel takeover of the Assad regime's air-base at Taftanaz in Syria's north, after ten days of fighting - reflects the determined contribution of Islamist paramilitaries to the opposition struggle.

Algeria too has its internal Islamist factions, and their many cross-border connections make parts of the broader region unsafe for western nationals. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram rebellion continues, and Mali is effectively divided as the French attempt to force back paramilitary advances across the north.

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England.

This article was originally published on openDemocracy and is republished here under a Creative Commons License.

(AP Photo)

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