Robert Fowler got to know the Islamists now battling French and Malian troops in northern Mali pretty well during the 130 days he spent as their hostage in 2008 and 2009. Then the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Niger, he and fellow Canadian diplomat Louis Guay were kidnapped by al-Qaeda’s African franchise and lived with them in desert camps until they were freed.
Fowler describes men more single-minded than any he had previously encountered. Their devotion to Islam was constant, as were their attempts to convert them. They showed no interest in the usual concerns of young men: music, sports, fashion, sex. “The mujahedeen seemed perfectly content to talk and chant about Allah and their servitude to Him endlessly,” writes Fowler in a memoir. Life on Earth was a blink of the eye, and death was nothing when you would live in paradise forever. They hoped to die soon in the service of jihad, or holy war. Around the campfire, young recruits listened with wide-eyed wonder to stories of battles against Algerian soldiers that left a battlefield strewn with their apostate enemies’ blackened limbs—proof, if it was needed, that God was on their side. And yet for all their spiritual obsessions, Fowler’s al-Qaeda captors had practical strategies about how Islam’s victory in this world might be achieved.
“They wanted to create this zone of chaos and instability across the Sahel [the sub-Saharan region stretching from Senegal to Eritrea] in which their jihad would be nurtured and thrive,” said Fowler in a recent interview. “That was their objective.” For a number of years, North Africa’s Islamists have had reason to believe this goal is within reach. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—the group that held Fowler and Guay—along with affiliated Islamist groups, have challenged and often bested weak national armies from one end of North Africa to the other.
Plans had been brewing in Western capitals to help organize and train an African-led intervention in Mali, where Islamists had taken over the northern two-thirds of the country. But boots on the ground were thought to be many months away. Then, earlier this month, Mali’s Islamists pushed south toward the capital, Bamako. Mali’s fragile government, which had been cobbled together after a military coup last year, called on the country’s old colonial master, France, for help.
France still has emotional ties to its former African colonies, and many French citizens live in them. It also had military assets in the region, so was uniquely positioned to respond quickly. It did—with air strikes, attack helicopters, and hundreds of soldiers. Other nations, including Canada, chipped in with transportation and logistical help, but France is the only Western country now facing a significant risk of casualties. Everyone involved hoped the West’s intervention would be quick: a stopgap to allow Mali’s own army to regroup and troops from other African countries to take over.
“Our intervention is aimed at preventing Mali’s collapse. It is not our role to remain on the front lines,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also signalled the desired brevity of Canada’s commitment by lending France the use of a C-17 transport plane for only one week. (At press time, Canada was reportedly considering whether to extend its assistance.)
But wars tend to progress in unexpected ways. The Islamists have proven harder to dislodge than the French hoped. And the African troops now arriving are few in number and too poorly equipped and trained to take on Mali’s Islamists by themselves. French troop numbers increase almost daily, and the country’s stated goals grow progressively more ambitious.
France will stay in Mali as long as necessary “to defeat terrorism,” says French President François Hollande. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says France seeks the “total re-conquest” of northern Mali—“we will not leave any pockets” of resistance.
And as if to underline the expanding nature of this conflict, last week Islamist militants in Algeria, north of Mali, attacked a remote gas plant, taking hundreds of workers hostage and demanding the end of French military operations in Mali. Algerian special forces freed most of the hostages, but more than 30 were killed. They included foreigners from eight different countries. None of the victims was Canadian, but two of the hostage-takers reportedly were.
Suddenly, a crisis that only weeks ago appeared confined to a part of the world that epitomizes Western notions of exotic inaccessibility—Mali is home to the fabled city of Timbuktu—is pushing itself onto the agenda of strategists in Washington, Paris and Ottawa. Drained from more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, no Western government, including Canada’s, wanted another potentially bruising war in a poverty-ravaged Muslim country. But this one may not be avoidable.
The key question is the nature of the risk posed by Islamists in Mali. The obvious comparison is Afghanistan, where the Islamist Taliban movement provided shelter for al-Qaeda, which launched the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. that killed 3,000 people. There are differences. Al-Qaeda and its allies in Mali are fewer in number, and they lack the kind of neighbouring state support the Taliban enjoyed from Pakistan. Nevertheless, North Africa in recent years has been al-Qaeda’s safest refuge. “I think it is a serious threat,” says Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In a globalized world like this,” he adds, “if you have a safe haven in a remote part of the planet, that means you have real problems potentially at home. This is the lesson that we learned after 9/11.”
Not everyone agrees. U.S President Barack Obama’s administration, which has shown little reluctance to strike Islamist militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, has not done the same in Mali.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, says the militants’ reach outside Africa was limited and didn’t warrant the French intervention. “You can have lots of angry people running around, but there are only a handful who are truly dangerous and there are ways of dealing with them,” he says. “Their presence in northern Mali is brutal and nasty for those people unfortunate to have to live under them. But as far as their threat to the international community as a whole, it is much lessened if you eliminate certain individuals. But that was before this intervention. Now you’ve stirred things up.”
Fowler believes al-Qaeda’s presence in Mali must be dealt with, regardless of its ability to strike outside the region. He argues a spreading Islamist presence in Africa would provoke a humanitarian crisis. Failing to tackle al-Qaeda now will simply mean a bigger problem later on. This perception is widely shared in Europe, says Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former European Union ambassador to Tunisia and Libya.
France’s neighbours and allies have backed the intervention, as has the United Nations Security Council—at least with words. Missing so far are other Western countries that are willing to put their soldiers on the ground. There is, says Pierini, a culture of “risk aversion” in the West following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the exception of an early and short enthusiasm for surging troops into Afghanistan, the U.S. has preferred a light military footprint abroad. Its response to French request for help in Mali has been tepid. Washington initially wanted France to reimburse it for the cost of transport flights to Mali and only dropped the demand after France publicly complained. But countries—including Canada—that have expressed support for the French mission may find it harder to stay out of the war the longer it goes on. “Once you make it very clear that you in general support this, there comes a situation where military problems on the ground become too difficult for one to handle, then you can’t weasel out,” says Techau.
Harper has congratulated France on its intervention but has stressed that no Canadian troops will take part in direct action in Mali. Africans should lead the mission, he says—an assertion that requires a certain amount of wishful thinking. John Baird, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, has echoed these reservations. But he also describes the battle against radical extremists and international terrorists as “the great struggle of our generation,” raising the question of what is the appropriate commitment to meeting such a challenge.
Mali’s martyrdom-obsessed Islamists no doubt hope Canada and other Western nations will send troops to join the French. Late last year, one of Fowler’s captors appeared on an Internet video boasting that the mujahedeen were ready to fight all the countries in NATO. They may yet get their wish.