An al-Qaeda linked militant group killed 77 Malian soldiers and security personnel and injured hundreds with a suicide bombing in the northern Malian city of Gao on January 18 in the latest of a series of deadly terrorist attacks across the region. The slain soldiers and police had been working side by side with United Nations Peacekeepers, who themselves have lost 110 soldiers in Mali since being deployed there nearly four years ago.
As Donald Trump assumes the presidency with a pledge to crack down on terrorism and "decimate al-Qaeda," and Governor Nikki Haley assumes her role as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, the insurgency in Mali and surrounding countries is an early foreign policy challenge. But it's also an important reminder to the incoming Administration and to Members of Congress who have proposed cutting all funds to the UN that UN Peacekeepers are an important partner in the global battle against terrorism.
Let's take a step back to appreciate the significance and barbarity of this recent terrorist attack. Al-Qaeda aligned Islamist militias (AQIM) joined with the Taureg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in 2012 to overrun northern Mali, including Timbuktu and Gao, before being repelled by French soldiers. Since being forced from the cities, AQIM and related groups have conducted a series of deadly terrorist attacks against Malian military forces, UN Peacekeepers, and civilians across several countries in the region.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), has responded to repeated terrorist attacks on its forces by supporting the training of former rebels and pro-government militias to become front-line forces fighting extremism. As these soldiers were assembling for joint patrols with UN Peacekeepers on Wednesday morning, militants drove through security and into the compound, detonating an explosive device near a housing complex for soldiers. Just last month, the same terrorist organizations had nearly struck the offices of the MINUSMA mission.
MINUSMA is currently the deadliest UN Peacekeeping mission, with 110 peacekeepers from countries such as China, Togo, and Netherlands losing their lives. "If the security situation continues to deteriorate, then soon there won't be any peace to keep in Mali," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said at the UN Security Council. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita declared three days of national mourning following the attacks.
MINUSMA operations in Mali are complicated by additional terrorist activities in the region. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian jihadist veteran of the Afghan and Algerian civil wars described as "one of the most elusive and deadly terrorists in North Africa" by Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA), has directed another terrorist organization, al-Mourabitoun, in a series of attacks across West Africa in the past several years as part of regional insurgency featuring both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Al-Mourabitoun attacked a Uranium mine in Niger in 2013, took hundreds of hostages and killed 40 at an Algerian gas plant later that year (including 3 Americans), and killed 20 in an attack on the Radisson hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako. In January of last year, AQIM-linked militants killed 30 at a hotel in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, and nineteen in an assault on beachgoers at an Ivory Coast resort in Grand-Bassam in March.
The U.S. government has announced a five million dollar reward for the location of Belmokhtar and has targeted him with airstrikes in Libya several times over the past two years. Belmokhtar had reportedly been killed several times over the past couple years, but American military officials have not been able to confirm his death.
MINUSMA, with a mandate limited to Mali, faces the challenges of porous borders and militant safe havens in neighboring countries. Al-Mourabioun and AQIM represent a transnational threat and have engaged in attacks against targets in other countries in the Sahel region such as Mauritania. Other terrorist groups, including a branch of the Islamic State, are also taking advantage of the lack of security to operate in the region.
In light of bipartisan agreement that the U.S. has a central role to play in battling terrorism, it's surprising that some Members of Congress have introduced legislation to cut off all U.S. funds to UN Peacekeeping, including the anti-terrorism mission in Mali. Fortunately, Ambassador Nikki Haley repeatedly pledged her opposition to a "slash and burn" approach to UN funding and promised to address "terrorism in Africa" in her confirmation hearings. The recent attacks demonstrate all the more clearly the necessity of continuing American support for UN operations in volatile regions vulnerable to terrorism rather than paring down funding for political purposes. President Trump himself has advocated using UN resolutions to suspend terrorist financing and impose sanctions to terrorist-supporting nations.
As the new Trump Administration seeks to fulfill its pledges to defeat global terrorism, the Sahel desert region of West Africa represents one of the most pressing challenges outside of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Cutting funding across the board to the United Nations could severely hinder the struggle by MINUSMA to stabilize Mali and hurt the United States' ability to defeat al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the region.