Many will argue, rightfully in our opinion, that the West has done too little and too late to effectively counter al-Qaeda (AQ) in Mali. Nearly three weeks into the conflict with forces led by France, the Islamist militants that have controlled northern Mali for a year are in limited retreat, and the areas in the south of the country previously controlled by AQ have been retaken by Malian forces. While the outcome is far from certain, it is questionable that French forces will be successful in expelling Islamic insurgents from northern Mali with the limited ground forces it has committed.
Indeed, at this juncture it appears likely that other states in the region may soon fall victim to the chaos that has plagued Mali. If Boko Haram (BH) in Nigeria and the plethora of militant groups throughout Libya are any indication, North and West Africa are the new front lines for AQ. Mali provides some insight into what may be expected as failed or failing states in the region fall victim to the rise of extremist groups.
As a stateless people who have spent the last half century fighting for national independence, the Tuaregs have waged numerous failed uprisings against the central governments in Mali and Niger. During his reign, Muammar Gaddafi fostered cooperative ties with the Tuaregs. When anti-Gaddafi rebels commenced their uprising in 2011, Mali's Tuaregs took up arms to support him. As the uprising shifted in the rebels' favor, Tuareg factions seized much of the loose weaponry from Gaddafi's arsenal and returned to northern Mali to initiate their own uprising, beginning late in 2011. So the seeds of the spread of jihadism in Mali are a byproduct of the Libyan uprising, which the U.S. and NATO supported.
The militant Tuareg faction the Movement for National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) overpowered the weak and corrupt Malian military, precipitating a military junta in Bamako in March 2012. Shortly after Mali's civilian leadership was ousted, three Islamist factions -- AQ in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Al-Dine (or "Defenders of the Faith"), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) -- hijacked the Tuareg uprising. Until the commencement of the French/ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) campaign this month, the Islamist factions maintained firm control of a portion of Mali nearly equivalent to the size of France.
Under Islamist control the northern Malians have been subject to a harsh version of sharia law, where television, music, cigarettes and alcohol have been outlawed. Widespread stonings, floggings and amputations have been documented by numerous authoritative human rights organizations. This interpretation of religious law is totally contrary to the religious and cultural traditions of most northern Malians, who practiced a very tolerant and moderate form of Islam for centuries. Northern Mali under AQ has attracted Salafi jihadists from a variety of nations, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies are well financed, having raised funds through kidnappings, drug trafficking and the sale of tobacco across the Sahara. Now that the Islamists are entrenched in northern Mali, the French are going to have a difficult time dislodging them.
While early signs of this month's conflict suggest that AQIM is losing ground to France/ECOWAS forces, other variables will have a profound influence over the conflict's outcome. Some Salafi/Wahhabi circles across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have condemned the French involvement; an influx of additional foreign jihadi militants in northern Mali seeking to wage holy war against France/ECOWAS may soon follow. The alleged atrocities recently committed by Malian troops against Arab/Tuareg civilians have the potential to transform the conflict into an ethnic bloodbath, which may well result in unintended consequences for France and ECOWAS.
Some analysts speculate that the Islamists' strategy is to retreat to the north, wait for the French/ECOWAS forces to assert control over the land, wage an insurgency to weaken their morale, and drive them out of northern Mali. While reports of dissent within the ranks of Ansar Al-Dine (between those committed to war and those determined to negotiate with France/ECOWAS) have raised hopes about the group disintegrating, it is possible that moderate voices within the organization are just buying time, and no real divisions or intention of a diplomatic compromise truly exist within the organization. Evidence to date suggests that more radical Islamists are running the show and there is little reason to expect political compromise going forward.
That so many states in the region are either failed, failing, or ungovernable has created a real opening for AQ. The prevalence of high rates of poverty, droughts, porous international borders and a plethora of armed conflicts has created a ripe breeding ground for extremists. Throughout the past decade North and West Africa have witnessed the rise of a variety of militant Islamist factions. As much of the Sahel's terrain is nearly ungovernable, and large flows of weapons transit across the Sahara desert, armed groups have had little difficulty challenging state authority. AQ's ability to attract devotees from across Africa and the Middle East has given it a strategic advantage over governments and multilateral efforts to fight it, which are by nature not nimble or naturally responsive to evolving threats.
Beyond Mali, AQIM's reach has extended into Morocco, the Western Sahara, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, where it has waged attacks against Western targets and held foreigners hostage for large ransom payments. Militant Islamist extremists operating under the title "Ansar Al-Sharia" have made headlines by advancing their ideology through violent tactics in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. BH desires to overthrow the Nigerian government, transforming the country into an Islamic theocracy. However, unlike AQIM, many analysts believe that BH's agenda is primarily domestic, and the organization is not fighting to advance a pan-Islamist agenda, instead exploiting northern Mali as a safe haven, and to train. Regardless of BH's ambitions, the region's governments perceive AQIM and its affiliates as a major threat to regional stability.
The ongoing conflict between North/West African states and armed jihadists cannot be expected to conclude any time in the near future, regardless of how events in northern Mali unfold, and there is a better chance that things will end badly for the West than not. Forced to operate with limited financial and military resources, disappointed in how the Arab Awakening has evolved, and recognizing that it must make difficult choices in the future, the West faces the disturbing reality that AQ and other radical Islamist organizations may in some cases have a tactical and strategic advantage over their opponents, and it will be difficult to counter.
The longer-term lesson for the West, ECOWAS, the UN, and the African Union is that it is unwise to let insurgencies fester, wherever they may erupt. Mali's remote location and the fact that it was not a 'front line' state prompted other forces in the region to become complacent. Resource rich countries such as Mali ordinarily do not escape the West's attention -- yet in this case it did. The 'new normal' -- wherein failed, failing or ungovernable states that may not otherwise have mattered, now do -- has turned the pyramid on its head and changed the strategic calculus. Today it is exactly those countries that were considered of relatively less strategic importance to the West that are becoming the focus of AQ and other Islamic extremists. The West would be well advised to think about how best to fight them in an equally counter-intuitive manner. In that regard, Islamist extremists appear to be ahead of the curve.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management firm based in Connecticut, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington.