Terrorist Classification Could Prompt Mali Drone War

New terrorist classification could give U.S. drones 'green light' to strike.

A French soldier guards a Hartford drone in Niger. Drone makers are worried about the negative stigma attached to the technology.

A French soldier guards a Hartford drone in Niger. Drone makers are worried about the negative stigma attached to the technology.

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The United States might be poised to ramp up its presence in Mali in the coming weeks following news Thursday that it has classified one of the militant groups fighting there as terrorists.

The State Department's decision to add Ansar al Dine to its list of terrorist organizations grants the U.S. the political and legal authority to pursue directly the al-Qaida affiliate, says J. Peter Pham, a senior advisor to U.S. Africa Command.

[READ: 10 Years of Counterterrorism Efforts in Mali: Was it Worth It?]

The move is an "important housekeeping detail" for the U.S., which is prohibited by law from intervening militarily in Mali after rebels successfully overthrew the democratically elected leader a year ago.

"We continue humanitarian assistance to Mali, but we certainly can't engage in direct military assistance with the Malian military, which was behind the coup," says Pham, an Africa expert with the Atlantic Council. "It provides the basis [that] as a designated terrorist organization, U.S. military and intelligence resources can be brought to assist those fighting [Ansar al-Dine]."

President Barack Obama announced in February that U.S. forces would establish a drone base in neighboring Niger to stage flights over the arid Sahel region, the area of operations for groups such as Ansar al-Dine and al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Those drones are to be used purely for surveillance purposes, though Pham says this new classification could lay the groundwork for that to evolve to other missions.

[READ: Senate Weighs Benefits, Privacy Concerns of Domestic Drones]

A coalition of African troops, largely from Chad, continues to fight alongside French troops in the northern reaches of Mali against Ansar al-Dine and its affiliate forces.

A presence on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations allows the U.S. government to seize any assets those groups have under American jurisdiction, and bans American citizens from contributing money or other resources. Experts say Ansar al-Dine's funds are likely centralized to northeast Africa, where the group operates, and derive mostly from criminal enterprises.

These new financial sanctions will likely have little effect on this group, but rather will capitalize on Ansar al-Dine's wavering support from those who signed up to fight for an extremist Islamic ideology. It broadcasts, Pham says, that it is no longer a "respectable option."

[ALSO: So Why Did France Invade Mali Anyway?]

"The line is clearly drawn and serves as a warning," he says. "They've been losing support and having defections, and this would encourage any of those losing doubts to reconsider whether they want to pursue any grievances they have."

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