Scheherazade S. Rehman is a professor of international finance/business and international affairs at The George Washington University. You can visit her homepage here and follow her on Twitter @Prof_Rehman.
What has happened in Africa? Africa was on the brink of being reborn. Africa was on its way to becoming the roadmap for humanity's future. Especially what is happening in North Africa? In Mali? The African continent has incubated and suffered some of mankind's most dreaded plagues. There is a new one…this time it's in the north of the continent—Islamic extremist groups, specifically al Qaeda.
The U.S. intelligence experts have been worried about North Africa for sometime now. It turns out they were right to worry. We know economic deprivation and lack of rule of law is a breeding ground for extremist movements. Not only is extreme poverty and lawlessness the hallmarks for many countries in North Africa but this new breeding ground for extremists also features strife, famines, pestilence, corruption, and lack of education. Now throw in cachets of weapons streaming across chaotic borders. If you were an ousted Islamic extremist group from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia where would you go? Some place where borders are porous, weapons are easy to find, political systems are fragile, large deserts that are difficult to navigate, and where the U.S. military and their drones are absent—presenting Mali, Algeria, Libya, and Niger. (It should be noted that the Syrian and Iraqi border area is also experiencing a boom of extremists).
While the United States has been busy trying to root out Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan others extremist groups have had a resurgence in North Africa. What was unanticipated to some extent and perhaps poses the biggest threat according to U.S. national security experts is the “cross-pollination” amongst the various fractions. North Africa's extremist groups tend to be a bit different than the groups that are found in, for example, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These North African groups are organized around a more loose networking system than their cousins in Afghanistan and Pakistan (where the original al Qaeda was much more of a rigid hierarchical organization). They also have are more miscellaneous membership of not only local North Africans but also foreign extremist fighters. The North African extremists are readily seeking alliances with foreign extremist groups in their eagerness to expand their reach and have an impact beyond their borders while their Pakistani and Afghani cousins tended to be far more insular.
The unexpected mutation of North African extremist movements attracting more and more foreign membership was perhaps foreseeable. Displaced extremists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Sudan needed a home. Moreover, while it is difficult not to participate in the celebration of freedom that Arab Spring brought, the dark side of that equation was that it pushed newly freed extremist groups out into the open. These groups where previously suppressed by their Middle East (i.e. Egypt's Mubarak) and North African (Libya's Gaddafi) autocratic regimes. These newly freed extremists are now mostly free to move about and as a result there has been an increase of foreign extremists from Sudan, Libya, Egypt and Mauritania—flowing into Mali, the current hub for North African extremists.
The North Africa network of extremist groups is often referred to as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM. The base off this North African militant nexus is in Mali. Initially many of its members were either from Mali or Algeria next door. This branch of extremists were originally Algerian antigovernment rebels who spilled over into Mali and then about five years ago saw an opportunity and decided to pursue a much wider agenda off “global jihad” and open their arms to displaced jihads fighters from the east. They have virtually free access to weapons streaming from a chaotic Libyan border and their leadership is made up of experienced war veterans from Afghanistan. AQIM is also very well-funded with cash from a long history of smuggling, crime, and kidnapping. AQIM feels poised to be the next force to take on a global jihad against the West.
AQIM has spillover across many boarders in North Africa and is steadily becoming larger. While the United States has been trying to diplomatically encourage the North African's to form a coalition and a joint African nation antiterrorist armed force to address the AQIM threat, the Algerian natural gas station attack where 37 foreign workers died a few weeks ago fast forwarded the timeline and threat level.
Due to the recent escalation of Islamists in Mali, the French have acted fast to stem this new ruin in North Africa. While the public face of France has given the appearance of the resurrection of an old Western powerbroker back in charge of North Africa, there are skeptics on the ground. Frist, while the Islamist extremist threat in North Africa, and in Mali in particular, is real, President Hollande of France is facing his lowest domestic popularity since he came into office last year. France is also an embattled Eurozone member whose near-term economic future promises zero percent growth, double-digit unemployment, severe austerity measures with a controversial wealth tax agenda, a budgetary crisis, and deep social unrest. Nothing like a nice quick little war to boost popularity and show strength for the embattled left of central French president. Skeptics believe that President Hollande is too optimistic that the Mali invasion and liberation will be a short quick victory. Many critics believe intervention in Mali is going to haunt the French government back on the home front with possible retaliatory attacks and unrest amongst the large French North Africans and Muslim populations all set within a long historic background of the French government's harsh crackdowns of people of North African descent.
One has to begin to wonder if the French are underestimating the enemy. For an economic battered eurozone member, France is currently monetarily and emotionally ill suited to have a protracted armed engagement in North Africa. This will not be pretty for President Hollande if Mali becomes France's Afghanistan. The question, more importantly, is what happens when the French leave Mali…we only have to look 4,527 miles to the east of Paris to see what is happening with the American withdrawn from Afghanistan.