With the still-dramatically unfolding hostage-situation in southern Algeria, the fallouts of the French military in Mali have not been in the Maghreb’s backyard only, but in this region’s very midst.
Until last week, nobody expected the current turn of events. The game-changer was the decision taken by the largest Jihadi formation in northern Mali, Ansar al-Dine, to give up on negotiations with the central government and end its rapprochement with the more moderate Tuareg group, the MNLA. It Joined ranks instead with its old allies, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAW) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in their push southward towards the city of Konna, 600 kilometers north of the capital. Unable to halt the Jihadi advancing tide, Malian authorities called on France for help. For Bamako as well as for Paris, it was definitely out of the question to wait till next September for a West African force to be trained and readied for intervention. Time was of essence.
Maghreb countries endeavored to take the necessary precautions in the face of the impending war. Algeria and Mauritania closed their borders with Mali. Libya had, since December, preemptively closed its borders with Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan, declaring the south a “military zone”. Although Libya shares no borders with Mali, Tuareg fighters who fled Libya after the fall of the Gadhafi regime, had made it to Mali last year with a huge arsenal and eventually took control of the northern two thirds of Malian territory (known as “Azawad”).
Since the end of the NATO-led campaign and the collapse of the Qadhafi regime, North African governments had been in fact alarmed by the spillover of weapons and fighters in the region. For North Africa, the security problem caused by the flow of weapons from Libyan arms depots was compounded by the emergence of Jihadi Salafists from the underground after the “Arab-Spring.”
During a meeting held last weekend, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and his Tunisian and Algerian counterparts, Hamadi Jebali and Abdelmalek Sallel, reviewed these concerns. They announced afterwards that they will step up border control and intensify cooperation with neighboring countries over the Malian crisis.
The three Maghrebi prime ministers tried to be reassuring after their meeting. "We would like to send a message that we will not allow anyone to use our countries for terrorism or use our borders for weapons trade, drugs smuggling or illegal immigration," said Libyan premier Ali Zeidan.
Even before the launch of the French military campaign, there were warnings about the security risks that might be incurred by Maghreb countries if war erupted in Mali. Oil installations and tourism facilities were seen as possible “soft targets”. With over-flight authorizations granted by Rabat and Algiers to French planes heading to Mali, the situation gained in complexity.
Moroccan authorities went on high alert in anticipation of terrorist reprisals that could target tourism installations or diplomatic missions. But it was in Algeria, however, that the first serious blowback materialized. On Wednesday, an al-Qaeda off-shoot, “the Signers-with-Blood Brigade”, attacked a gas plant jointly operated by British Petroleum, Statoil of Norway and Algeria's national oil company Sonatrach, in Ain Amenas, 1,150 kilometers (720 miles) southeast of Algiers. More than 40 western employees, including 7 Americans, were taken hostage. In a statement put out in Arabic (but also in English), the group said the hostage-taking was in retaliation for Algeria’s “conspiracy with the French to strike the Muslims in Mali and its closure of the borders before the people of Azawad that fled from bombardment”.
There are no firm facts about many aspects of the hostage crisis. But Algeria security sources are already disclosing that among the hostage-takers killed during the stand-off there are Arabs and Africans of various nationalities. This fact alone is a worrisome reminder of the trans-border nature of Jihadi activity and of the fact that the Mali crisis is less a country-specific issue than a regional problem. Chatham House expert Jon Marks says the Algeria attack “shows the degree to which the events in Mali are an international Sahel and Sahara-wide issue”. Narco-trafficking, arms smuggling and hostage-taking have become lucrative businesses bankrolling the activities of many of the region’s terror groups. Such groups as “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”, the “al Shabaab al Mujahideens” movement in Somalia and the “Boko Haram” group in Nigeria have “links” together, according the General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Region-wide ramifications are likely to render the Mali crisis dangerously unpredictable, not only for North Africa but also for Europe, and France specifically. Opinion polls show that no less than 75 percent of French public fear terrorist retaliation at home because of the war in Mali. Former White House advisor Bruce Reidell even sees a scenario of a “mass casualty attack in France itself.” He speculates that “French intelligence services are closely monitoring the more than 5 million Algerian émigrés in the country.” This time, black Africans are also on the “terrorism watch-list”. Marc Trévidic, France's top anti-terrorism judge, noted: "For the first time there is a 'black jihad': a jihad done for blacks by blacks," he said. He pointed out that members of this “Jihad” are both West Africans and dual citizens. "That is the number one potential threat. It is the number one enemy to France," he emphasized.
Barely a week since the start of the Mali military campaign, non-partisan support in France seems to be eroding. Right-wing figures are already expressing anguish over the war. Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé complained :” We are confronted with extremely high risks and we are alone”. Former French president Valery Giscard D’Estaing warned against the “neocolonialist” connotation of a prolonged French involvement. He also cautioned against French raids causing civilian casualties in northern and western Mali. That, he said, “would repeat the same useless destruction provoked by the war in Afghanistan and would have the same political consequences.”
For North African nations, already struggling to cope with the various pressures of the post-“Arab Spring” transitions, the Mali crisis is an added source of anxiety. Without a quick and successful resolution of the conflict in Mali, there is bound to be lots of criticism and even tensions over this issue, in France, North Africa and elsewhere. Only time will tell if France is able to garner sufficient support from its African partners and western allies to decisively get the upper-hand in its current military campaign. And even if that happens, it remains to be seen whether that can pave the way for a political process, which restores democratic legitimacy and stability in Mali, and takes into account the demands of ethnic and religious groups there.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. A former Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University in Washington DC, he served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. Appointed as minister in 2009, he is known as one of the best Tunisian communication specialists. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.