In Mali, an old war on terror reignites

Jan. 14, 2013 at 5:25 PM
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BAMAKO, Mali, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- French military operations in Mali against Islamist militants who have carved out a desert sanctuary in the north of the country could trigger a new wave of terrorist attacks on Western Europe, a war that began long before the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001.

What's happening now in a remote African country, whose only well-known feature was the legendary ancient city of Timbuktu, is the West's latest conflict with al-Qaida and its deadly offshoots, following Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

Syria's looking like a contender as Islamist groups, increasingly linked to al-Qaida, increasingly take the lead in fighting to topple embattled President Bashar Assad.

The Syrians have aided the jihadists when that suited the Damascus regime's nefarious purposes.

Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, may be paying the price of that folly as the jihadists openly admit now they're fighting to establish a radical Islamic state in Syria.

That could yet trigger military intervention by the West and its regional allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Muslim Persian Gulf monarchies.

They started out fighting to topple a regime that was Shiite Iran's key Arab ally, and could end up battling militant Islamists who despise Tehran as much as they do.

The Mali conflict, which will soon involve African states fearful of a jihadist haven in their midst, is the third in Africa to involve al-Qaida and its fellow travelers.

But it demonstrates how al-Qaida's tentacles now extend from the Middle East and South Asia into Africa as well.

Algeria fought a civil war throughout the 1990s against Islamist militants, who took up the gun after the military-backed government of the former French colony canceled parliamentary elections the Islamists were set to win in early 1992.

In Somalia, a little-known east African country torn apart by clan warfare since the dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, became a battleground in the jihadist wars way back in 1993.

That was when al-Qaida first locked horns with the United States, the Western power that had helped create it during the 1979-89 Afghanistan war against the occupying Soviets.

Al-Qaida cadres were involved in fighting the U.S. forces deployed in Somalia under Operation Restore Hope, a U.N. humanitarian mission to help Somalis starving because of the rampant lawlessness.

Indeed, the Islamist radicals drew first blood against the Americans when they killed 18 U.S. troopers in a running battle through the war-scarred streets of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, Oct. 3-4, 1994.

That was the Black Hawk Down episode which made the U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton shy of foreign military interventions, a paralysis that lasted until Sept. 11, 2001.

The Americans enlisted Ethiopia to invade Somalia to topple an Islamist regime in December 2006, and again in 2011, this time supported by Uganda and Kenya to crush the Islamist al-Shabaab group.

That took a year to achieve, but it could provide the template for Mali. Al-Shabaab, allied with al Qaida, has responded with terrorist attacks on Uganda and Kenya.

The French, who have eight citizens held by al-Qaida, fear a similar response to their intervention in Mali.

Leading French anti-terrorism judge Marc Trevedic warned Sunday that France, a former colonial power in Africa and with a 5 million-strong community of disgruntled North Africans, risks being the target for Islamic zealots as it has been since the 1980s.

Western Europe as a whole has been battling terrorism since the late 1960s.

Meantime, oil-rich Nigeria is increasingly locked in a savage struggle with Muslim extremists of Boko Haram.

It has links with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Qaida offshoot that emerged from Algeria's civil war.

It's now the region's dominant jihadist organization and played a key role in the April seizure of northern Mali, a territory the size of France.

The French have been pushing for military intervention in Mali since the U.N. Security Council approved military action in December.

The Americans say they won't get involved, although they recognize that a jihadist haven there poses a potential threat to Europe and U.S. geopolitical strategy.

Even so, President Barack Obama's been taking a growing interest in African security affairs, establishing the U.S. Africa Command in 2010 and deploying U.S. Special Forces units across the continent.

AQIM has vowed a long war.

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