Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Mali, Algeria, and the Significance of Extremists in Western Africa

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Oh boy, the situation in Mali has certainly not gone as we may have hoped. A day after French forces used aerial attacks against Boko Haram extremists in Northern Mali, those same extremists moved further into southern Mali with apparently renewed resolved (retaking two key towns Konna and Diabaly).

The UN now warns of a refugee crisis in Mali: “The United Nations believes that more than 400,000 refugees could flee to neighboring countries and that 300,000 more are likely to be displaced internally in the next few months, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees…. These will be in addition to around 376,000 who have fled the turmoil in the past year, she said, including 147,000 who went to Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso and 229,000 the Malian government estimates are displaced within the country.”

In addition to the conflict in Mali, a new conflict has erupted in Algeria. Islamic militants seized an international natural gas field, holding by some estimates over 40 hostages from the U.S., U.K, Japan, Algeria, and a number of other nations. Attempts to peacefully resolve the standoff are in full swing, and some hostages managed to escape when extremists tried unsuccessfully to move the hostages to a more secure location. It is hard to get exact numbers of hostages and casualties due to conflicting reports, although two were confirmed dead in the initial attack on the field. Adding to the chaos, militants have vowed to take further violent action against international intervention.

“But that still left many people unaccounted for, adding to the global concern about the fate of the hostages, who come from as many as 10 different nations. Estimates of the foreign casualties have ranged from 4 to 35, though the Algerian government has still not released any official tallies, leaving governments around the world scrambling for information…Intensifying the uncertainties, a spokesman for the militants, who belong to a group called Al Mulathameen, said Friday that they planned further attacks in Algeria, according to a report by the Mauritanian news agency ANI, which maintains frequent contact with militant groups in the region. The spokesman called upon Algerians to “keep away from the installations of foreign companies, because we will suddenly attack where no one would expect it,” ANI reported. “

“The gunmen, fighters with a group called Al Mulathameen, said they were acting to avenge the French intervention in nearby Mali, Algerian officials said. But there were indications that the attack had been planned long before the French military began its offensive to recapture the northern half of that country from Islamist insurgents.” It is unclear whether the timing of the attack, in relation to French airstrikes in Mali, was in direct response to the French offensive or merely coincidental. Either way, it provides the militants with a convenient “justification” for their actions.

The NYT attributed the attacks to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or “The Prince” as he is known to his followers.

The most immediate concern is the safe return of the hostages in Algeria. Algerian officials and military personnel are working closely with all countries involved. Hopefully, the issue will be resolved quickly and with as little bloodshed as possible. After the hostage situation is resolved, the U.S., France, and the rest of the international community will have to decide how they wish to continue with respect to intervention in Western Africa.

There are no easy answers here. Mali certainly needs help, but any foreign intervention costs money and could also lead to retaliation from militants in the region.

America has historically taken an interest in Western Africa for geopolitical and national security reasons. Early in our countries history, the U.S. colonized Liberia in order to have a foothold in western Africa. More recently, western and northern African nations have been, for the most part, on friendly economic and political terms with the “Western World”. Instability in the region could pose a much more immediate threat to American and European security interests than instability in the Middle-East due to the proximity of the nations involved.

Western Africa is not at the point where Jihadists can operate openly (or are even celebrated), as they sometimes can in the Middle-East. However, if governments remain unable to provide security and social services to their citizens, this is not an unimaginable future. The Western World has great interest in the outcomes of conflicts in Mali and Algeria. “There is also a risk that the conflict will spread, becoming a threat to regional — and even global — peace and security.”

Hopefully it is not to late for peace, democracy, and modernization to prosper in Western Africa. It is imperative, now more than ever, for friendly northern and western African countries and governments to know that they have allies in the Western World.

How best to ally ourselves, however, is certainly open to debate.


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