Mali is a landlocked country, with poorly secured borders, almost twice the size of France and is by and large an ungoverned space -- sound familiar? Like pre-9/11 Afghanistan, Mali offers a perfect convergence of conditions that enables al Qaeda to fund, train and prosecute terrorist operations -- but it also offers the West an opportunity to apply a more efficient and less divisive approach in tackling the global war on terror.
The demands of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the warlord that operates under the umbrella of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and is allegedly behind the Amenas gas facility raid in Algeria, should be a very clear indicator to the West on the importance of Mali as an al Qaeda haven. Belmokhtar's conditions for the release of hostages are that France withdraws from an offensive against Mali Islamic rebels, and Algeria ceases all cooperation with France in conducting its operations (Algeria has granted the French airspace access to enable surveillance operations in support of ground operations). The message is quite clear.
The absence of governance in Mali and, therefore, effective police and security forces, combined with its proximity to the doorstep of Europe, enables the Islamic rebels to train unhindered, and bankroll operations through the trafficking of drugs, contraband and even humans. The West African country has also become a hub for the entry of South American narcotics for onward dissemination to Europe. As with Afghanistan, the reliance on drugs to enable al Qaeda's terror campaign is pivotal, but from the West's perspective that is where the comparisons should stop.
This latest hostage crisis is a real opportunity for Western governments to initiate an evolved approach to al Qaeda's campaign of terror. One that doesn't seek to rebuild Mali through occupation, implement an effective corrupt-free political structure, or fund and train an indigenous army and police force. The tactical supremacy of Western covert operations capability is undisputed, striking at the heart of al Qaeda in the months after 9/11 and forcing a large part of the terrorist leadership across the border into Pakistan, successfully eliminating the head of the organization in 2011. The ensuing NATO-driven occupation of Afghanistan crystallized another conflict against a resilient, organic militia (the Taliban) that rapidly complicated the initial foundations for kinetic activity in the country -- an oversight that France and the West would be wise not to repeat in Mali.
Western covert operations capability has been a rapidly expanding area of defense since 9/11, demanding greater expenditure from government budgets but proving decisive in targeting AQ across the globe. The use of clinical and swift action by Special Forces units appears to be less controversial than prolonged invasions and occupations that test the boundaries of international legitimacy. Successful interdiction of al Qaeda in Mali and throughout West Africa would require a comprehensive approach by the Algerian, UK, U.S. and French governments -- who just happen to have a significant corporate footprint in the region, also.
Subscribing to the adage that 'less is more,' a joined-up international operation that places discreet but decisive covert operations capability at the heart of its strategy could be the key to disrupting, deterring and defeating Islamic fundamentalists in North Africa. Targeting illicit trafficking, terrorist training bases and bolstering the security of economic infrastructure in the region would undermine al Qaeda's critical capability to destabilize the region but, more importantly, it would strike at the terrorist organization's nerve center -- the ability to finance its ideology.