As outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the 23rd of January, the country is reminded of a sobering truth: the chaos in North Africa spells bad fortunes for the United States. Four months have passed since American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in a jihadist attack in Libya. Just as Clinton gives a testimony taking responsibility for the security failures in Benghazi, France continues to be engaged in a ground conflict by the side of the Malian government. Regional turbulence threatens to expand northwards as the aftermath from the Algerian hostage crisis unfolds. With the US renewing its vows to find those responsible for the Libya attacks, and French military engagements deepening in Mali, these crises show no signs of letting up.
Conservative pundits heavily criticized Hillary Clinton for what was dubbed the “immaculate concussion” as she fell ill before she was due to testify back in December. Even as the Secretary of State returns to Capitol Hill to explain the security failures in Benghazi, the country cannot afford to lose site of the troubles brewing in North Africa.
The tragic hostage crisis in Algeria directly concerns the United States: the spokesperson for the Islamist militants spoke out to Paris Match magazine of “the crusaders and the Zionist Jews [who] will pay for its attacks on Muslims in north Mali, but not alone, its vassals also“. Insiders from Libya seemingly supported the attacks, as sources say the militants entered Algeria in official Libyan vehicles. The fact that the Algerian crisis has ties to Libya, as well as being framed ideologically by the conflict in Mali, is a clear message that the region which fought so hard to liberate itself during the “Arab Spring” is still very much engaged in a war for its identity. This war, which will decide the path the region will take, is one the United States and the West cannot afford to ignore.
Some would say the French response in Mali is not strong enough, and that the purported 450 troops being sent in February for training purposes will not suffice to quell the jihadist surge. On the American side, the country is divided over how it should proceed. North Africa is very much on the verge of becoming a critical Al Qaeda base of operations – no longer just a stepping-stone to the more volatile regions further east. On one hand, some close to the US government say the conflicts are still mostly local and do not pose a threat to the country or the West at large. On the other hand, however, it is hard to imagine the conflict in Mali ending any time soon, and should Algeria be further pulled into it, the West will quickly have an entirely new jihadist stronghold to defend itself from.
Since the fall of the brutal regime of Colonel Qaddaffi, the different groups of regional insurgents are no longer held down by the force of a powerful head of state. They are freer to cross national borders, communicate, and join causes, as nascent national governments struggle to find security and stability. Still, the fall of Qaddaffi served only as a spark, since Islamist militants are far from being new threats in the region. They have been flying their jihadist flags for many years, but only now have the breathing room necessary to band together and stage major attacks, such as the hostage situation at the Algerian gas plant.
Ag Ghali, the Tuareg leader of Ansar Dine, one of the central Islamist threats to North Africa in Mali, has not shown any faith in negotiations with the Malian government or France. From this, the West must conclude that negotiations may not be forthcoming, and what they are left with is an armed strategy. Though the last thing a politically fragile United States wants is a new divisive military commitment abroad, it may have no choice but to somehow engage itself in the defense of its citizens who are openly threatened by these Islamist groups. France will undoubtedly continue to scale-up its operations in Mali, and the United States needs to seriously weigh the long-term risks of letting the region fall further under the influence of violent Islamist insurgents.
– Alex Moon
(Featured photo: U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos Creative Commons, Flickr)