Of all the security threats Americans did not expect in 2013, a military breakthrough by Islamists into the heart of West Africa is the most urgent. At this writing, Malians are fleeing the Niger River hub of Mopti, and elements of a French airborne brigade are deployed nearby to reinforce Malian infantrymen, as Islamist fighters advance. Last month, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force to rescue northern Mali, which fell under the control of several al Qaeda affiliates in March 2012.
The French-sponsored plan, for which the United States has expressed lukewarm support, is being jump-started by the terrorists’ preemptive use of force. They have had a year to strengthen their position. An individual with a keen interest in the alarming strategic situation is the Islamists’ arch-foe and Mali’s neighbor, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, president of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. While acknowledging that the crisis calls for an immediate reaction on the part of Mali and its friends to keep the Islamists north of the Niger River, he stresses that there is no longer any excuse for not taking a hard look at the whole Sahel region and its persistent problems.
So little known is Mauritania that few Western news outlets bothered to report the wounding of its president last October. Victim of a reportedly accidental shooting while passing an army guard post on a desert road outside this capital, Abdel Aziz required surgery and weeks of convalescence in France, during which neither the White House nor the State Department called him directly. He does not bring this up during a conversation in his office at year’s end, but goes straight to the point he wants to get across: The terrorist groups and criminal gangs in northern Mali must be eradicated.
Having watched jihadists establish sanctuaries in the Sahara for over a decade, Abdel Aziz is wary of quick fixes. He fought them alone early last year, vainly urging his neighbors to join him in coordinated action at a time when, he still believes, the problem could have been dealt with by a terrible swift and well-aimed sword. “There were only a few hundred armed men back then,” he says, adding, “Even during the Tuareg war, we could have intervened and solved the problem.” Last year, a secessionist movement among Tuareg nomads routed the U.S.-trained Malian Army and was in turn chased out of the north by better-equipped jihadists who entered the fray.
In the first three months of 2012, the Mauritanian Army entered Mali on at least two occasions, using ground troops and airpower to dissuade the rebels from any idea of moving toward their frontier. This was in keeping with a policy adopted after Abdel Aziz came to power in 2008. Its main components include modernization of his forces and a willingness to engage in hot pursuit of the troublemakers by crossing the 500-mile border his country shares with Mali.
This earned Abdel Aziz a high place on the hit list of the Saharan branch of al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also got results. AQIM, which had viewed Mauritania as the weak link in its campaign to break into the Sahel and thence black Africa, no longer threatens this country. Abdel Aziz, with unspoken contempt, contrasts his policy with the passive attitude of his neighbor.
It is a position of no small importance to the United States, in a period of change of foreign policy leadership at home and Islamist ascendancy in North Africa. Last year saw the arrival of Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Islamists are a strong factor in Libya and contenders for power in Algeria, which awaits the ailing President Bouteflika’s departure. And, with all due respect for the differences between Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political parties and al Qaeda, the radicals conquered a Texas-sized territory north of the Niger River, 60 percent of Mali, and will be hard to dislodge.
“The previous Malian regime’s mistake was to share power with the terrorists and the criminal gangs. Doing so, Mali’s government helped destabilize the region,” asserts Abdel Aziz.
Absurd though it seems in retrospect, Mali was until last year America’s poster-country for liberal democracy in West Africa. Amadou Toumani Touré, known as “ATT,” was planning to step down in April after reaching the constitutional limit of two terms as president. The campaign to succeed ATT had already begun when the latest avatar of the Azawad (“homeland,” derived from the word for pastures in the Tuareg language) national movement overran garrisons of the Mali Defense Force in the north.