Less than four minutes into last night’s presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney listed northern Mali as one of the hot spots affected by the proliferation of international terrorism.
Romney’s mention of a country in a region of Africa (the Sahel) that few Americans have heard of had many viewers scratching their heads. One of Google’s top searches of the night was “Mali.” Romney’s reference to the Sahel, and northern Mali in particular, highlights the broader implications of the “Arab Spring.”
Following the fall of the Muammar Qadhafi regime in Libya last October, Tuareg rebels, once loyal to the regime, left Libya and returned to their homelands in Mali and Niger. In Mali, fighters equipped with arms looted from Qadhafi’s stockpiles and quickly organized the separatist group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Supported by the Islamist Tuareg-led group Ansar Dine, militants launched attacks on Malian military targets. In March 2011, the Malian military launched a coup, ousting the democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré.
Weeks later, the MNLA declared northern Mali, known as “Azawad,” an independent state. This victory was short-lived, as the ties between the MNLA and Ansar Dine quickly deteriorated. Sidelining the MNLA, Ansar Dine partnered with regional Islamist militants, including Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and hundreds of foreign fighters from Sudan, Yemen, and even Pakistan. Together, these groups occupied Mali’s northern territory (an area the size of France), enforcing sharia law and meting out brutal punishments to those who resisted.
The Arab Spring created a number of unintended consequences, including a power vacuum, which provided al-Qaeda and its affiliates with an opportunity to expand their influence. This resurgence of international terrorism contrasts with the Obama Administration’s narrative that al-Qaeda’s influence is on the “decline.” While Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is quickly adapting to the challenges created by the loss of its leader.
The failure to contain this threat could result in new terrorist havens that serve as launching pads for attacks against the U.S. and its allies. U.S. leadership is required to develop a proactive strategy to counter the changing face of terror. Dithering will result in fewer and more difficult options.
For more information, see “Fixing Mali: Stabilized Governance Should Be the Priority” and “A Counterterrorism Strategy for the “Next Wave.”