African Islamist groups harbouring anti-Western grievances are not a new phenomenon. However, the sustained advancement of militant Islamists across much of northern Mali is cause for growing concern. The announcement early this month by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that they are to deploy some 3,000 troops to retake Islamist held territory in Mali, should be greatly welcomed by the wider international community. Despite taking time to initially react, ECOWAS’ announcement is also an example of African institutions showing initiative and taking responsibility for regional issues; something else that should be greatly welcomed by the international community.
Large parts of the Sahel, including northern Mali, have long been a dangerous area for Westerners. Most recently a French citizen was kidnapped in Mali near the border with Mauritania and Senegal, joining an additional six French nationals currently being held by kidnappers in the region. However, whilst the dangers posed to westerners in Mali are alarming, the greater concern lies in the danger posed by Mali based Islamists to westerners in their own countries. Whilst militant Islamist groups were present before Mali’s military coup in March, the resulting power vacuum and diversion of attention and resources away from the north has allowed such groups to establish greater autonomy and more of a foothold in this region. The risk is that this may provide a platform for Islamists from which to propagate their ideas and then to plan and export terrorism to foreign shores. In this respect it does have the potential to be likened to Afghanistan in the 1990s, where al-Qaeda were given freedom by the Taliban to build their military and ideological base, culminating in their capacity to launch international terrorist attacks. Islamist groups roaming and controlling much of northern Mali may not be well co-ordinate yet, but the current power vacuum, lawlessness and disgruntled population constitute ideal circumstances for a terrorist organisation to take root. As Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo recently said, “The situation is extremely serious. Mali is turning…into a terrorist territory like Somalia and Afghanistan.” This is why ECOWAS’ decision to send troops to combat Islamists groups should be welcomed.
Furthermore, if Islamist groups in Mali were able to fully take root, then this could help wider Islamist movements across Africa, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabab in Somalia, by acting as a base for military training and ideological inculcation – there are already reports that jihadist fighters from other parts of Africa are arriving in Mali to support the existing Islamists. If such an arc of Islamist movements were able to formulate into a cohesive block, this would pose unimaginable security problems, not just regionally but across continents.
The international community’s response to ECOWAS’ announcement has largely been positive. For instance, European countries have shown an appetite to contribute to a possible training mission to support the Malian armed forces. Implementation of ECOWAS’ plan to send troops into Mali now depends on the UN Security Council who must have to pass a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Whilst appropriate due diligence should be undertaken, the UN should mandate the plan as soon as possible so that the operation to disband the Islamic militants can start. The UN has an opportunity to support ECOWAS’ good initiative and to give the body credibility. Furthermore, despite Algerian terrorism and security advisor, Kamal Rezzag Bara, saying that “The question in Mali is an internal matter and there is no need to further internationalise it”, Mali now needs external assistance. Following the coup earlier this year, the country’s ability to solve the issue themselves has diminished, as trying to maintain law and order in the south of the country has required a level of resource and organisation which has stymied operations against Islamist groups in the north.
The need for external support makes ECOWAS’ role even more important. Ideally Malian’s would solve the crisis themselves, as external interference can cause tensions and unnecessary distractions. Second to Malians solving the crisis, an African institution is the second best option, as they at least have some legitimacy in involving themselves and having a say in Mali’s affairs. If the deployment and use of foreign troops were to be driven by western nations, then this could stoke the Islamist flame further and open the west up to accusations of interference in an African affair. That is why this scenario should be avoided; that is until the day ECOWAS’ mission is clearly not working, as the result of not disbanding these Islamist groups could result in western bound acts of terrorism. However, until this scenario arises, the mission should remain predominantly an African driven affair, which in turn western nations and institutions should endorse and support.
Mali’s meltdown is a stark reminder of the volatility of some of Africa’s states. The success of Islamist groups in taking swathes of northern Mali and even implementing Sharia law is also a timely reminder that Islamist terrorist threats are far from dormant but are constantly evolving and active. As most international troops get set to leave Afghanistan by 2014, the case of Mali is a clear example of when getting in early and disbanding militant Islamist groups with the potential to export terrorism is vitally important. Acting now, rather than when it is too late, is the right answer; all the better that it’s led by ECOWAS.