The best chance for breaking the extremists’ hold on northern Mali may be persuading the region’s moderate Tuareg people to reconcile with the military-controlled South of the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Algeria this week seeking the country’s support for a West African force to help Mali’s military regain control of the north. And her talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika were dominated by the issue of how to deal with the terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists who took control of more than two-thirds of Mali after a coup toppled the government in Bamako last March.
Since then, the extremists have allowed the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, to extend its already-considerable reach throughout the Sahel region.
Secretary Clinton says AQIM is working with other extremists to undermine democratic transitions in North Africa. She adds that the group was part of the attack on the U.S. mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in September.
One possible approach to countering the extremists and their terrorist allies came up during Secretary Clinton’s meeting with Mr. Bouteflika — that Algeria might intercede with the Tuareg people of northern Mali, many of whom have allied themselves with the extremists. The idea was that without help from the Tuaregs, the extremists would lose their support, allowing Bamako to re-establish its control of the north.
The ECOWAS Force
A military approach also is in the works. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is working with Mali’s military-backed transitional authority in Bamako on plans for a 3,300-strong military force to help retrain the army and retake the north.
Like the East African AMISOM force in Somalia, that West African force will depend heavily on international support for military intelligence and logistics. So Algeria’s help is crucial.
“A whole range of countries in the region really look to Algeria for leadership on this,” says a senior U.S. official traveling with the secretary of state. “Obviously, they’re not ceding sovereignty, but they know Algeria has unique capabilities that no one else in the region really has — the strength of its military forces, its intelligence-gathering capability.”
Greater U.S. involvement in that effort should go some way toward soothing Algerian unease about the prominent role that the French are playing in preparing the ECOWAS force. That U.S. involvement is an extension of Washington’s existing counterterrorism cooperation with Algiers.
“The whole reason to have ECOWAS out front along with Malian forces is to have an African lead,” says a senior U.S. official. “So the question then for the United States, for France, for Algeria, for other interested states, is how to support that force.”
Recognizing the security threat along its own 2,000 kilometer border with Mali, Algeria is looking for a political solution.
In his talks with Secretary Clinton, President Bouteflika spoke of Algeria’s historic role as a mediator between Bamako and the Tuaregs, an ethnic Berber people who inhabit parts of Mali and other nations in the Sahara region. He also spoke about how the extremists in northern Mali are trying to exploit Tuareg grievances.
With this in mind, Secretary Clinton says the counterterrorism efforts and a political process must therefore be mutually reinforcing.
“We need to ensure that the political process within Mali addresses the legitimate grievances of the moderate faction of the Tuaregs so that they see their future as lying within a democratic, unitary Mali, and to reduce the space for extremists to act,” says a senior State Department official.
The targets for that effort are more the moderate elements in the Tuareg rebel militia, Ansar Dine. It is believed these elements may be more approachable than more extreme factions such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.
U.S. officials say there is also a push to counter the way the extremists are financing their activities through kidnapping for ransom. Efforts are being made to cut links between the Mali extremists and organized crime and drug cartels, the officials say, and to have Algeria’s foreign ministry organize more regular contacts with counterparts in Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, and Tunisia.
“We have an awful lot at stake here, an awful lot of common interests,” says a senior U.S. official, “and there’s a strong recognition that Algeria has to be a central part of the solution.”