If Mali feels somewhat far away or less than important, consider this: Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world, an area a little larger than France itself. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that Mali could become a "permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks." In December, Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, warned that al Qaeda was using northern Mali as a training center and base for recruiting across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Jihadists operating in northern Mali have been linked to Boko Haram, the violent Islamist group based in northern Nigeria, and to Ansar al-Sharia, a group in Libya which has been linked to the attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Until last week, Mali appeared to be in a state of semi-permanent standoff, split between the jihadists in the north, and what remained of the Malian army and government in the south. But a sudden jihadist advance into the south shattered the fragile equilibrium, drawing France into the fray. On Jan. 10, jihadist rebels overran the strategic central Malian village of Konna, then the northernmost outpost under government control. The rebel forces had been spotted leaving Timbuktu days earlier in a long column of some 100 vehicles and 900 rebel soldiers.
For the French, the fall of Konna proved not only that the Malian army has not recovered from its March defeat by Tuareg rebels and jihadists in the north, but also that it cannot protect the rest of the country. Faced with this reality, the French launched an air campaign to drive the jihadists back, and dispatched ground troops -- soon to number 2,500 -- to secure Mali's capital, Bamako, and to reinforce Malian army positions bordering the north. By Jan. 12, French airstrikes had driven the jihadist rebels out of Konna.
The French government has repeatedly said that the Malian government asked for its help after the fall of Konna. But there is also a less selfless reason for Paris's urgency: fear that a growing al Qaeda presence in West Africa will make France itself more vulnerable to terrorist attack. French President Francois Hollande said as much on Monday, warning that the jihadist groups in Mali pose a threat that "goes well beyond Mali, in Africa and perhaps beyond."
France's decision to lead the intervention in Mali ended months of handwringing over how to implement the Dec. 20 U.N. Security Council Resolution, which established an ill-defined "Mali Support Mission." The resolution approved a force of 3,300 African troops to be raised from Mali's neighbors -- mainly Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger, as well as Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast -- which were expected to take on the rebels toward the end of 2013. But the resolution provided no timetable for an invasion of the north and no way to pay for it or to equip and train the African troops. France and the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have been slowly securing help from Britain, Germany, and the United States for training and logistics help. But the fall of Konna and fresh worries about the vulnerability of the rest of Mali to jihadist takeover forced the hands of both France and ECOWAS.
· 7 years ago