Despite withdrawals of our combat troops, the United States has ensnared itself in a self-perpetuating Long War now spreading to Mali. North Africa currently is the "central focus" in the War on Terror, according to Bloomberg. (July 31) Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is "strengthening its hold in Northern Mali," and from there increasing its recruiting in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and is perhaps the best armed and financed Qaeda "franchise" in the world, according to Gen. Carter Ham. (New York Times, December 3, 2012)
The State Department says that northern Mali is a "safe haven for AQIM and other extremist groups who may prove increasingly effective at targeting Western interests or aligning themselves with those who do so," according to official government testimony before a House subcommittee last June 29. No evidence was presented, however, that the insurgents have the capacity or interest in targeting the West from sanctuaries in Mali any time soon.
The main Western economic interest in Mali is in its gold mines. The United States spends an approximate $150 million in bilateral economic aid and another $87 million in emergency humanitarian assistance there. Counterterrorism programs are run through the Trans Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) encompassing the West Africa region, and which received $52 million in U.S. funds this fiscal year. The Concerned African Scholars organization criticizes the TSCTP for militarizing US policies. (Congressional Research Service, August 16, 2012)
Just six months ago, the Pentagon and media were fretting that the "center" of the terror war had shifted to Yemen. How has the center now shifted to Mali, a country the geographic size of its former colonial master, France, with a population of 15.5 million? The answer sheds light on how the Long War is partly spread by Western intervention itself.
Until last March, the State Department considered Mali a shining example of democracy and economic growth in Africa, and a "leading regional partner in counterterrorism" (Congressional Research Service, August 16, 2012) Then came the Libyan War, in which Gen. Ham led the U..S air support, and which caused the nomadic pro-Qaddafi Tuareg Arabs to flee back to their region in northern Mali equipped with heavy Libyan weaponry. There they linked up with Islamist groups connected to AQIM to stage a successful coup in March. The Islamist groupings, some of them exiles from Algeria, then routed the Tuaregs to take power in Mali's capital of Bamako. (New York Times, December 3, 2012)
To summarize: every U.S. and Western intervention in the Long War has resulted in pushing Al Qaeda "affiliates" like AQIM into new territory with angry, restless and anti-Western Muslim populations. What became known as Al Qaeda was born in the torture cells of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; festered under Saudi dictators; took root in the U.S.-supported jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; grew in Iraq only after the U.S. intervention; appeared in Pakistan when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan; then spread across North Africa under a reign of dictatorships. Terrorist conspiracies among displaced Muslims are a constant worry for officials in the United States and Europe, justifying massive anti-terrorism budgets and a thick blanket of surveillance.
The recent partisan controversy about the Libyan militia attacks which killed several U.S. diplomats and CIA operatives should be understood in this light. In the context of U.S. presidential politics, it was critical for the Obama administration to promote their narrative that America was safer because Osama bin Laden was dead and Al Qaeda decimated. For opportunistic reasons, the Republicans and the Romney campaign wanted to claim that the consulate attacks in Libya were proof that Al Qaeda was still an immanent threat and worse, that the Obama team was covering up the problem for political gain.
If the terrorism debate is de-politicized, it is clear enough that bin Laden is dead and the original Al Qaeda structurally fragmented and weakened. But as many analysts, including Mohmedou (2007), Pape (2005) and Burke (2004) have written, "Al Qaeda" is more a resilient insurgent network than a centralized bureaucracy capable of constant regeneration under conditions of foreign occupation. This is the alternative narrative, which the Obama administration may suspect is true, but cannot admit because it calls into question the utility of drone attacks and U.S. special operations across the globe. The administration hopes it can keep the recurring terrorist threat at bay, while recognizing that its very own policies -- from drones over Pakistan to support for Israeli hardliners against Palestinians -- constantly rekindle the risk.