Despite French and Malian government forces making steady gains against Islamist rebels, the conflict has rapidly caused ripple effects in Africa, Europe and beyond. Scores of foreign fighters have reportedly entered northern Mali to support the rebels. France’s involvement has “produced the fastest blowback yet in the war on terror,” wrote Guardian columnist and associate editor Seumas Milne.
The conflict has had serious and direct consequences for Mali’s neighbours, and the region as a whole. Contributing to tensions are a combination of anti-imperialist sentiment, accusations of further Western meddling in a Muslim country, existing regional instability, the electoral rise of Islamist parties in North Africa, and credible reports by human rights groups of abuses by Malian authorities - including killings - against Arabs and Tuaregs.
North Africa and the Sahel face “potential disaster,” Milne added. “The past decade has demonstrated beyond doubt that such interventions don’t solve crises, let alone deal with the causes of terrorism, but deepen them and generate new conflicts. More military intervention will bolster authoritarian regimes - and its rhetoric further poison community relations in the intervening states.”
The mission, “however necessary, well-intentioned and even wished for by the majority of Malians (to the extent the wishes of Malians can even be determined that clearly),” will “claim the lives of many more Africans, French, American and other Western citizens,” says Mark LeVine, professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Sweden’s Lund University.
Paris’s intervention raises the prospect of retaliatory attacks at home. France “has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” and has “opened the gates of hell,” said Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the rebel groups in northern Mali.
“France has attacked Islam,” added Abou Dardar, another MUJAO leader. “We will strike at the heart” of the country. Asked where attacks would take place, Dardar said: “Everywhere.” Such threats are being taken very seriously, and so they should be, given the proximity of Mali, the organisational and military capabilities of these Islamist groups, and the myriad French interests in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
“The official terrorist risk assessment across France has...been stepped up to its highest level,” wrote award-winning French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani. “Anyone visiting Paris today will see scores of soldiers guarding tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower. Terrorist targets including the Gare du Nord, the Eurostar hub to London, are also flooded with military personnel.
“The UK’s decision to provide RAF transport planes to fly supplies from France to Mali will potentially make London just as vulnerable.”
It is possible that some of the millions of Muslims in France (5-10% of the total population, and the largest such community in Europe) may see the intervention as yet another Western attack against Islam, adding to the existing sense of communal discrimination and disenfranchisement.
French officials have said about 10 of its citizens have so far been arrested trying to reach Mali to join the rebels. Others may try, and some may succeed, returning to France with military experience and violent intentions, much like the Tuaregs who returned to Mali and captured the northern two-thirds of the country after fighting for the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi against the revolution that led to his killing.
The ability of African Muslims, some of whom have dual nationality, to move between France and the region “is the number-one potential threat” to France, says Marc Trevidic, the country’s top anti-terrorism judge.
West Africa is in the midst of a refugee crisis. Some 375,000 Malians have been displaced so far, with the UN saying another 700,000 could be uprooted over the next several months. At least 10,000 Malians reportedly abandoned their homes in just the first four days of the French intervention.
“There are now more than 55,000 refugees in Mauritania, 53,000 in Burkina Faso, and an estimated 1,500 in Algeria, and some camps are already said to be dangerously overcrowded,” wrote Independent on Sunday reporter Emily Dugan. These poor countries are struggling to cope.
The deadly hostage crisis in Algeria, which has been dominating the news, was a direct consequence of events in Mali, with the hostage-takers specifically citing France’s intervention. Hundreds of workers, including Frenchmen, were kidnapped at a gas plant. The crisis resulted in the killing of 37 foreigners of eight nationalities, and one Algerian.
The al-Qaeda-linked militants reportedly comprised people from Muslim countries (Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Tunisia) as well as the West. Canada’s foreign minister says he is trying to verify whether two of his countrymen were among those involved. The hostage-takers were after “crusaders,” not Algerian nationals, who were treated better than foreigners, one of the released hostages told Al Arabiya.
However, the impetus to take hostages in Algeria likely came from that country reversing its initial refusal to get involved by allowing France to use its airspace for bombing missions over Mali. This decision, and a similar one by Morocco, have “proven to be domestically controversial,” said Tunisian former Communications Minister Oussama Romdhani.
The hostage crisis “was an unprecedented wakeup call,” he added. “It dramatically pointed to the vulnerability of North African gas and oil installations on which depends, to a great extent, the energy security of Europe.” North African gas is “a cost-efficient alternative to Russian energy exports. Algeria supplies Europe with 20 percent of its gas needs.”
Islamists in Morocco - which has also authorised over-flights by France’s air force, but like Algeria says it has no plans to provide its own troops - have been vocal in their condemnation of the intervention, and the monarchy’s support for it.
“No Islamic state should provide facilities, such as the use of airspace, to non-Muslims against a Muslim state. It is forbidden by Islam,” wrote Omar Haddouchi, a well-known Salafist who described such support as “ungodly.” Moderate Islamists - including the Attawhid wal Islah movement, which is behind the Justice and Development Party that heads Morocco’s government - also oppose the campaign.
To the anger of Libya’s government, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia have urged their citizens to leave the city of Benghazi due to a “specific, imminent threat” to Westerners that is linked to France’s intervention in Mali. More countries may follow suit - this will certainly be the case if the threat is carried out. Air Malta has also cancelled flights to Benghazi.
Somalia’s al-Shabab Islamists cited France’s intervention in Mali as a factor in their decision to execute a French agent held since 2009. The botched rescue attempt resulted in the killing of two French commandos.
“We do not accept at all the military intervention in Mali because that will fuel conflict in the region,” said Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi.
The government has condemned the “outrageous” attacks on Sufi Muslim mausoleums “in several regions and cities” in Tunisia, adding that such incidents “have increased recently.” These could be copy-cat acts of the destruction last year of Sufi shrines - UNESCO world heritage sites - by Islamist extremists in northern Mali.
“This is just the beginning,” says Mazen Sherif, deputy head of a Sufi union set up to counter the attacks in Tunisia. “They will go on to destroy the [Roman] sites in Carthage, El Jem and Duga. Then they will force men to grow beards and women to wear the full veil.”
Nigeria is sending 1,200 troops to join French and African forces in Mali. There is “every possibility” that the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram - responsible for numerous acts of terrorism in Nigeria - “will heighten their attacks,” says Colonel Mohammed Yerima, director of information at Nigeria’s Defense Ministry.
Some members of the group have been trained in northern Mali, and have links with rebels there, says Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru. Indeed, there are reports of Boko Haram’s presence and activity in northern Mali before France’s intervention, and reports that it is fighting alongside the rebels.
(Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash)