Fighting al Qaeda in the Post-bin Laden Era

The United States must reach out to both allies and locals when fighting terrorism in North Africa.

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Chadian soldiers assisted by Malian gendarmes, patrol the streets of Gao, Northern Mali, Monday Jan. 28, 2013.

Aki Peritz is the senior policy advisor for national security at Third Way.

It's welcome news to hear French and Malian troops have almost fully liberated northern Mali from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, and the other jihadists who turned much of the country into a neo-Taliban state. Let's take this opportunity to reflect on how to wage war against al Qaeda in the post-Osama bin Laden era.

1. Let our allies shoulder the security burden. For more than a decade, the United States has led the world's efforts to crush al Qaeda. But let's be honest: The United States has little experience in the vast, lawless Sahel, despite the much-ballyhooed stand-up of the Pentagon's Africa Command a few years ago. America's knowledge of the region remains sparse—chances are you can probably count the number of Bambara or Tuareg speakers in the U.S. government on one hand, if you lop off a few fingers.

Other allies—most notably France, but also Great Britain—know more about the region, the turf, and locals than we ever will. And remember: French and Malian soldiers are doing the fighting, the killing, and the dying. So in this fight, America should support them and provide them with assistance: reconnaissance drones, advanced munitions, refueling capacity, intelligence support—you name it.

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They certainly need it. In this hot war, Paris has struggled to move men and materiel to the front lines. And Mali's army is beset by numerous problems. But let's not criticize our allies; now is the time to help them. After all, if we can hammer another nail into the coffin of an al Qaeda franchise, it's certainly worth leasing France a few more C-17s.

2. Build local capacity—today. Terrorist and extremist groups often thrive in places where government control is weak or nonexistent. Hence, North African nations must develop the capacity to make their internal security services more professional and their long, porous borders less leaky. They need help to achieve these goals.

It's not just about building up military capacity—it's about shoring up local governance as well. Everyone hopes France's incursion into Mali will be successful, but it is unclear whether a post-conflict strategy to strengthen Mali's secular, civilian government is in place for once the shooting stops. This much-less-flashy effort requires both rebuilding civilian institutions and reaching out to aggrieved ethnic groups.

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This transition will occur sooner rather than later. The locals may be crying "Viva la France!" now, but if France overstays its welcome, Malians will quickly sour on their former colonial masters. As the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual states, "Eventually all foreign armies are seen as interlopers or occupiers; the sooner the main effort can transition to [local] institutions, without unacceptable degradation, the better."

3. Let the locals handle it, if they can. After an al Qaeda-linked commander in January seized a remote Algerian gas plant, Algiers's subsequent military response killed scores of hostages. Afterwards, other governments grumbled that they should have been consulted prior to the government assault. This foreign second-guessing reportedly infuriated the Algerians, who have decades-long experience in brutally but effectively suppressing insurgencies.

Counterterrorism is often a gruesome affair, and it's easy to lob criticisms from the sidelines. But this event shows Algeria can and will project power to the edge of its desert border. This is certainly better than the alternative of weak states unable to handle their own internal crises.

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4. Follow the money. AQIM receives a majority of its funding from kidnapping wealthy westerners whose countries cough up hefty ransoms. This is not chump change—AQIM has generated some $90 million over the last decade through such methods. While the United States, Great Britain, and other countries have long adopted a "no ransoms" policy, other countries—including France—are more willing to provide funds, causing the kidnappers to abduct more westerners. But as the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin noted, if governments stopped paying ransoms, and engaged in more aggressive law enforcement and intelligence work, this would make hostage-taking "a much less attractive line of work." We should pressure other countries to stop paying off terrorists.

Finally, the United States must realize the limits of its military and intelligence capabilities. The Sahel stretches over 3,000 miles, covering some of the most unforgiving, inhospitable terrain on earth. America will never "control" it to its satisfaction. We should exercise humility and appreciate that we shouldn't rush headlong into yet another conflict in a region about which we know little. Let those who know more—the French, the Algerians, the Libyans, the Malians—take the lead and handle their affairs as they generally see fit.

That may be the most important lesson of all—despite our massive resources, we can't battle al Qaeda alone.

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