WEST PALM BEACH, Florida, January 18, 2013 ― Islamic terrorists responded to France’s military incursion into Mali by attacking a BP-owned facility in Algeria. They kidnapped hundreds of workers, including numerous foreign workers. Algerian troops launched an operation against the kidnappers, successfully freeing some hostages. However, other hostages died during two rescue attempts and Islamists continue to hold others.
The latest information from the Algerian state news service says Islamists from the al Qaeda-affiliated Khaled Abul Abbas Brigade took more than 700 oil workers hostage. They report that at least 650 were rescued, including 573 Algerians and about 100 of the 132 foreign hostages. At least 30 hostages were killed in the first recue attempt, including one American. Another 20 foreigners are believed to remain in the hands of the terrorists.
The leader of the Brigade, Moktar Belmoktar, is an Algerian who until recently was a senor commander in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Although he reportedly left the group after a falling out with AQIM leadership, he retains close relations with al Qaeda. Belmoktar lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan when he was a teenager, and spent time in Libya working with local Islamic groups and acquiring weapons.
According to statements from the terrorists, they took the action to retaliate for French participation in attempting to remove Islamists from northern Mali and for Algeria’s decision to allow France to use its airspace for that intervention. The group issued a statement demanding the West end “brutal aggression on our people in Mali” and noted the “blatant intervention of the French crusader forces in Mali.”
Mali has been in turmoil since last March, when a US-trained soldier launched a military coup against the country’s elected president. Ethnic Tuareg fighters, who believe northern Mali is part of the Tuareg homeland, used the distraction to take control of northern Mali. To bolster their forces, the Tuaregs joined with radical Islamists in the area who were well armed and well trained.
Weeks after taking control of northern Mali, the Islamists banished the Tuaregs and declared strict Sharia (Islamic) law in the region. They destroyed ancient United Nations World Heritage Sites which they say are idolatrous, publicly beat women who did not cover their heads and amputated limbs of suspected thieves. The various groups in northern Mali, including Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness in Jihad, have strong ties to al Qaeda and have been reinforced with fighters and jihadists from around the region.
International observers worry that Islamist control of northern Mali creates a jihadist safe haven and allows radicals to freely plot attacks. There is increasing evidence that the radical Islamic attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed five Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, was planned by Islamists resident in Mali.
Mali, which now has an interim president but remains politically unsettled, resisted international assistance in removing the rebels in the north for months, saying Mali’s military could handle the situation on its own. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) cobbled together a plan where regional troops would remove the militants, but that effort was stalled in the planning stages. In December, the United Nations approved a plan for African-led military intervention to remove Islamic radicals, but also insisted on political reconciliation, elections and improved training of Mali’s security forces before any action. The resolution also urged diplomatic attempts to resolve the conflict before resorting to military action.
Finally, on January 11, Mali’s former colonial ruler, France, sent troops to support Mali’s efforts to oust the rebels. The surprise move came after Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Taore, asked President Hollande for help. In his request, Taore said rebels were moving toward Mali’s capital, threatening the entire country.
Routing the Islamists is proving more difficult than initially expected. France, which said it would only be in Mali a few weeks, is now looking at an extended deployment. Although the combined Malian, African and French forces are making military gains, the rebels are well-armed and well trained.
Ultimately, Mali and France are likely to remove the Islamists from the north. It will be a hollow and temporary victory, however, as the military win will not eradicate the terrorists or even significantly hamper their activities.
The military action in Mali is necessary to return the country to central government authority and to at least disrupt the militant safehaven, but it is merely a dent in terrorist action. The radicals will simply flee Mali and return to their camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, the Sinai, or other vast uncontrolled areas of Africa, and will continue their operations.
Moreover, Western intervention in Mali is likely to create even more fertile recruiting ground for radicals, who will build on French presence in Africa to cultivate supporters.
The international community must help Mali regain control of its territory and at least make the statement that the world will not allow radical Islamists to seize lands and implement their own laws.
However, we need to be realistic about what the Mali action, and the correlating Algeria attack, means.
Driving the Islamists out of Mali disperses but does not defeat them.
Radical terrorists retain the ability to target and attack Western targets throughout the world.
As the attack in Algeria shows, terrorists can strike at any time, in small groups, at any target. They can kidnap foreigners from oil fields or corporations, from homes or businesses, and even from embassies and consulates.
The military operation in Mali is necessary. It will cost the lives of many soldiers, but eventually, Mali will regain control of its territory.
The military operation will not, however, defeat the terrorists. It is simply the latest battle in the ongoing war.
For the Islamic terrorists, losing control of northern Mali is not a defeat. It is a temporary setback, but not a debilitating one. They are more than capable of undertaking large-scale assaults on Western targets, as they did effortlessly in Algeria. The Algeria kidnappings also show that at least for now, the West is unprepared to stop them.
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