James Robbins is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
Until recently, most Americans had never heard of the west African country of Mali. They may have heard of the Malian city of Timbuktu, but even then only as a byword used to describe the middle of nowhere. However, an Islamist insurgency has thrust Mali into the forefront of the national security debate, and highlighted the continuing complexities of the struggle against violent extremism.
Mali is divided between a French-backed military junta in the south and a coalition of Islamic militants in its northern desert. The country's current strife was the result of unforeseen consequences of the U.S.-assisted overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. In the spring of 2012, local Tuareg tribal mercenaries who had been hired to defend the Qadhafi regime returned to Mali, armed with heavy weapons taken from Libyan stockpiles. They joined forces with al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, and seized control of the northern two thirds of the country, declaring the independent state of Azawad and imposing an austere, uncompromising, interpretation of sharia law.
Two weeks ago, French and West African forces finally intervened to contain and push back the insurgency. But they found the Islamist fighters better armed than expected, and offering stiffer resistance. AQIM then shocked the international community by seizing control of a natural gas plant in Algeria and taking dozens of Westerners hostage, including at least two Americans. A botched Algerian military response left more than 80 people dead, including most of the people they were purportedly attempting to rescue.
The gas plant al Qaeda targeted in response to French military intervention in Mali is jointly run by British and Norwegian energy concerns, unconnected to Paris. This gives insight into the terrorist mindset: They consider an attack on any western assets in the region a legitimate response to French actions. All such foreigners in North Africa represent the civilization with which they are waging a holy war. The terrorists explicitly linked their operation to the United States by offering to exchange the American hostages for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the "blind sheikh" now serving a life sentence in North Carolina for plotting terror attacks in New York in the 1990s, and who was linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Freeing the blind sheikh has lately become a cause celebre among Islamists, ranging from violent groups like al Qaeda to Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi.
So far, the response from Washington has been muted. The Obama administration to date has refused to negotiate with the terrorists and has in general kept the Algerian gas plant drama at arms length. Yet the stakes are exceedingly high.
The situation in Mali illustrates the complex, evolving nature of the struggle against violent extremism. Al-Qaeda has turned a previously unimportant country into a safe haven for its pursuit of global jihad, and in the process created a jihadist safe haven covering an area larger than Afghanistan. The terrorists have demonstrated that they consider any westerners fair game for attacks in response to foreign intervention in Mali. These out-of-area terrorist operations, moreover, need not be limited to neighboring countries like Algeria; al Qaeda may take this opportunity to attempt to demonstrate whether it still has global reach.
This, of course, should matter a great deal to Washington, where the Obama administration doggedly continues to maintain that the war on terrorism is over. As Mali illustrates, however, the jihadists apparently did not get the same memo.