Al-Qaeda Runs Free in Area the Size of Texas
A Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee learned at a hearing this week that not only is al-Qaeda not on the run, but it controls a huge chunk of west African territory as a safe haven and possible launching pad for attacks.
Earlier this year, a military coup deposed Mali's government, leaving the country split by ethic fighting and an area the size of Texas under control of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
It's now the largest territory controlled by an Islamic terrorist group in the world. To make matters worse, over the summer U.S. Africa Command noted that AQIM was inviting terror groups Boko Haram of Nigeria and Somalia's al-Shabaab to come hang, train, and join forces in this haven of plenty.
With an interesting choice of words, Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) said at his Subcommittee on African Affairs he's concerned that the U.S. approach to Mali might not be "forward-leaning enough" to address the security, political, and humanitarian crises there, despite the U.S. freezing assistance to the country.
"With growing ties between extremists and terrorist groups in Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia, and beyond, there's growing concern AQIM will leverage its new safe haven in Mali to carry out training, and advance plan for regional, or transnational terrorist attacks," Coons said.
"I also have concern any time al-Qaeda takes advantage of a vacuum, or flows into an area because of poverty, or because of lack of governance," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the subcommittee's ranking member.
The UN Security Council is expected to vote in the coming weeks on authorization for regional military intervention by the Economic Community Of West African States and the African Union.
Still, a State Department official testifying before the panel ranked terrorism as the "third challenge" in Mali, after detailing concerns about the coup itself and territorial integrity.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said AQIM, in conjunction with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in west Africa (MUJOA -- listed by the State Department today as a foreign terrorist organization), has crushed much of the country "to impose their ideology on local communities." A Department of Defense official later clarified this as "a harsh version of Sharia law."
Cities controlled by the terrorists include historical Timbuktu, where Islamists have destroyed mausoleums, shrines, amulets, ritual masks, and other items of immense significance.
"Any attempt to militarily oust a AQIM from northern Mali must be African-led. It must be Malian-led. It must be well-planned, well- organized, and well-resourced to be successful," Carson said. "…Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger are all deeply concerned that any military intervention in northern Mali will cause a spillover of extremists into their own countries. These governments strongly favor exhausting all political dialogue before any intervention."
"Beyond the obvious threat to Mali's citizens and its neighbors, the growing terrorist presence in Mali also threatens U.S. citizens and interests in the region, to include the ability to attack embassies and conduct kidnapping operations," testified Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory. "Although AQIM has not demonstrated an ability to attack targets in the United States homeland, it does have a history of attacks in the Sahel and Maghreb and has expressed an intent to target Europe."
Under questioning from Isakson, Dory conceded AQIM "played a role" in the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, but "the rest is better left to a closed session."
The administration strategy is basically to encourage restoration of a democratically elected government, as existed for 20 years before the coup, in hopes that this puts pressure on AQIM.
"We are continuing to push as hard as we can for political negotiations between Tuareg groups and non-terrorist groups in the north, with the government," Carson said.
Coons noted that AQIM is reported to be "the best-funded, best-equipped, most potentially lethal A.Q. affiliate in the world" with sophisticated weaponry (including support from Iran) and juicy revenue from drug trafficking and kidnapping. They're also believed to receive support and funding from Algerian expats and AQIM members around the world.
"Can we afford to wait a year for a regional solution?" the senator asked.
"On the other hand, can we afford not to wait to allow the political environment to be more conducive to a successful military intervention, and to allow the process of force generation to proceed, which does take time to train, equip, develop a force before it's employed," Dory responded.
Corrine Dufka of Human Rights Watch told the Senate panel that Malians have suffered at the hands of the Islamists "frequent, often severe beatings, arbitrary arrests against those engaged in haraam or forbidden behavior such as smoking, drinking, watching television, listening to music, or having music on one's cell phone."
"Countless women that I have interviewed have been beaten and detained for failing to adhere to their dress code. The Islamists have also carried out summary executions, including the January execution in Aguelhok of some 70 Malian soldiers, which is to date, the single most serious war crime of this conflict," she said. "Also in Aguelhok the Islamists stoned to death a couple for adultery. A witness I spoke to described seeing the -- the man and the woman crouched, hands bound in a hole as the Islamists hoisted large rocks, shattering the skulls of first the woman, and then the man. As well they have carried out eight -- at least eight limb amputations, as punishment for theft."
Hundreds of child soldiers as young as 11 years old have been recruited into training camps and to carry out Sharia punishments.
Dufka quoted one witness as telling the human rights group, "They have erased our history. They have taken all of the joie de vivre from our lives."
The Algerian-based terror group Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) joined forces with al-Qaeda in 2006 and changed their name the following year -- a "blessed union," as declared by then-No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who took over al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death.
The May 2011 assassination of bin Laden was lauded as the beginning of the end of the terror group by President Obama, and "al-Qaeda is on the run" was a staple of his campaign trail message.
And they have plenty of room to run -- and train, and grow -- in an unstable region of Africa.
UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said this week he expects no military intervention before at least September or October of next year.
"It won't be a peace operation," Ladsous told a conference in Paris. "It will be a war operation and that poses difficulties to the UN's way of thinking."
"If this spreads across boundaries, and if al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb becomes more and more powerful in the neighborhood partners surrounding -- it will be a significant problem not just for the United States, but for all of West Africa," Isakson said.