As it now appears, the recent terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was not an anomaly but rather the tip of a growing iceberg.
President Obama can continue to tout his elimination of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and the scheduled pullout from Afghanistan while downplaying the significance of the Benghazi attack. But events in Mali and Algeria are drawing increasing attention to a growing and more elusive al Qaeda on the rise in certain parts of the world. The fight against al Qaeda is not even close to being over.
Those following the Mali/Algeria events were doubtless surprised to learn that early last year an al Qaeda offshoot had taken effective control of Northern Mali, known as the Maghreb, an area twice the size of Germany, and that last week’s events grew out of France’s efforts to stop the group from extending its control to other parts of the country.
When France, which controlled Mali during the colonial period, sent in military forces, the al Qaeda group engineered the kidnapping of nationals from ten countries – including the U.S., Britain, France, Austria, Japan and Malaysia – working at a natural gas plant in the Algerian desert.
The terrorist group, known as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) warned of more attacks of this kind if its attempt to take over Mali is further challenged.
Since the beginning of the Algerian hostage situation Islamists from across North Africa and the Middle East have rallied in support of AQIM. A Facebook message posted by an Egyptian Muslim organization calling the Western challenge to AQIM in Mali a “religious war against the Muslims…. We call upon all Muslims in Egypt and the world to stand on the side of their mujahideen brothers in northern Mali and support them with all they can….”
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had this to say about the French intervention in Mali to rout AQIM: “I would like to confirm that we do not agree, ever, to military intervention in Mali because this would inflame the conflict in this region. The intervention must be spent on development….”
Jaret Brachman, a government consultant on terrorism and director of a security-studies program at North Dakota State University, said the violence in Mali and Algeria has energized key figures in the Islamic community that see Mali as a primary battlefield, with AQIM in the lead. Mr. Brachman said that “Internet jihadists are demanding blood, urging one another to attack French embassies and companies, kidnap and kill French soldiers, and launch a wave of lone-wolf terror attacks inside of France.”
Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that events in Mali and Algeria show that the West faces the threat of virulent new al Qaeda efforts. In an interview with the Washington Post, Rep. Rogers characterized the attack on the energy plant in Algeria as a strategic victory for AQIM and likened it to the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which the American ambassador and three other Americans were killed. “It shows that they can strike Western targets and gives them a confidence level.”
The so-called Arab Spring has contributed to the problem. As Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group, told The New York Times:
It’s one of the darker sides of the Arab uprisings. Their peaceful nature may have damaged Al Qaeda and its allies ideologically, but logistically, in terms of the new porousness of borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganization of police and security services in all these countries – it’s been a real boon to jihadists.
Ironically, the late Moammar Khaddafi made a similar point when his overthrow was imminent, warning that if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa. “Bin Laden’s people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea,” he said. “We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats.”
Sensing the brewing threat, British Prime Minister David Cameron, commenting on the events in Mali and Algeria, said that an extended and international response to terrorism was required: “This is a global threat, and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months.”