The risk of a new war against Islamists, centred on the west African state of Mali, is rising rapidly as United States and French diplomats seek support for action from other states in the region. The move reflects a much wider concern over the rise of groups seen as embracing the al-Qaida vision, even if their focus is on their own countries rather than the "far enemy": the United States and its western allies (see Carol J Williams, "U.S., Allies marshalling African proxies for fight against terrorism", Los Angeles Times, 31 October 2012). .
The specific US concern with Mali follows the killing of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, on 11 September 2012. The group behind that assassination is believed to have had connections with Islamist paramilitaries in Mali. There is also a particular worry over the impact of the Boko Haram movement in Nigeria (see "Syria, Mali, Nigeria: war's paralysis", 11 October 2012).
The latter group has links with potential recruits in neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and has already conducted many attacks and operations inside Nigeria. The Nigerian government has directed the army and police to use very tough tactics to try to subdue Boko Haram, which have drawn condemnation in a new Amnesty International report. These tactics have so far both failed in their own terms and backfired by provoking more recruits to join Boko Haram, especially from the many tens of thousands of unemployed and underemployed youth in northern Nigeria.
Indeed, Boko Haram has undergone something of a transformation from its original support-base among relatively prosperous if alienated communities. A report from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says:
"…new recruits come most commonly from the ranks of northern Nigeria's disenfranchised unemployed youth. Aside from its religious message, the group has tapped into the grievances of the majority-Muslim population in the north, who feel marginalised by the Christian-dominated government from the south and that they are victims of social inequality and economic underdevelopment (see "Extremism spreads across West Africa and the Sahel", IISS, Strategic Comments, 31 October 2012).
The Malian vortex
Boko Haram remains primarily an internal issue for Nigeria, even if the leadership of Washington's Africa Command is concerned at the failure of the Abuja government to bring it under control. What is certainly not an internal issue is the existence of radical Islamist rule across most of northern Mali, a large if sparsely populated region where the government in the capital of Bamako, in the south of the country, now has virtually no influence.
As Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine consolidate their hold on northern Mali, so the concern grows that it has the potential to be as much a locus for al-Qaida-related movements as Pakistan in the early 2000s and, more recently, Yemen. The main advocate of intervention is France, with the United States, next in line; yet neither has any intention of overrunning Ansar Dine and occupying the region it controls with its own military.
Instead, what appears to be planned is a force of perhaps 7,000-10,000 troops drawn from members of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), with Nigeria being especially prominent. Support for action has grown steadily (see Adam Nossiter, "The whiff of conflict grows in Mali", New York Times, 23 October 2012). But there are serious doubts as to how soon an operation could be mounted and whether it would even be possible to get the required number of troops together, with all the necessary logistical support for operations across such dispersed territory (see James Goundry, "France claims action in Mali to begin within weeks", Jane's Intelligence Review, November 2012)
While arguing for action, France's president, Francois Hollande, is intent on keeping regular French army troops well away from Mali, and the United States is taking a similar view. For the Americans, especially, the prospect of thousands more "boots on the ground" is thoroughly unacceptable in the wake of the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet Mali is seen as a critical issue in terms of northern African stability.
It is for this reason that it is highly likely that Mali will be something of a trial run for the move towards "remote control", as analysed in the previous column in this series (see "Remote control, a new way of war", 18 October 2012). Although it may be expected that west African troops are deployed in the coming months, they will be the visible signs of a much more subtle involvement in which drones - both reconnaissance and armed - will be used intensively, along with extensive use of special forces (see "America's global shift: drone wars, base politics", 3 May 2012). Indeed, US and British special-force units are already reported to have been operating in the country.
Washington, building on its extensive use of armed drones and special forces in Pakistan and Yemen, is likely to lead the way. But there will also be a tendency to use private military companies, not least because their actions are so readily deniable, especially when operations go wrong.
The intervention blowback
That, though, is to see things very much from a western perspective. There are at least two reasons for seeing the prospect of fighting in northern Mali as a welcome boost for what remains of the diffuse al-Qaida movement.
The first is drones, which are singularly valuable in the propaganda war. Their frequent use in Pakistan, for example, may be little reported in the west, but the results are widely publicised through both the pervasive regional 24-hour TV news channels and the widely followed worldwide Islamist internet forums (see Ezzeldeen Khalil, "Jihadbook: the evolution of online Islamist forums", Jane's Intelligence Review, November 2012)
The second is intervention. If, as is now likely, west African military action in Mali evolves in the coming weeks and months, then there will in some form be extensive western participation. This may well fall short of deploying regular troops on the ground; but a "shadow war" involving drones, special forces and private military contractors will rapidly develop, backing up regional troops whose main functions will focus on garrisoning regained land.
This key western involvement is likely to have a definite untoward impact. Jihadist propaganda may appear shadowy and opaque to those beyond its reach; but it will persistently and effectively represent such involvement in Mali as yet another western assault on Islam, and link the phenomenon with the suppression of Boko Haram in Nigeria (see "Al-Qaida franchise: the Nigerian case", 25 August 2011).
This message will have an appeal across the region - and to northern Africa, the middle east and south Asia. The means of its spread, in the form of all the regular and irregular social media, are widely available. By small degrees, another phase in the evolution of the al-Qaida idea will then be underway.
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