Trouble in the Sahara

On February 26, DCFR had the honor of hosting Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs. Ambassador Huddleston spoke about the jihadist takeover of Northern Mali and why and how the U.S. should be involved. The Al-Qaida faction in Mali was a derivative from the Algerian Civil War, the first time Al-Qaida attempted to take over a state. Remnants of the Islamic army headed to Mali after the war.

Mali is a “battleground between Islam and the West.” Huddleston highlighted the key players in the conflict: the nomadic north, the Malian state, Al-Qaida, and the West. Though one of the most culturally diverse states in the world, Mali and its surrounding countries are also some of the poorest around the globe. Additionally, the lack of infrastructure, including roads, makes containing borders nearly impossible and leads to an abundance of “ungoverned spaces” where extremist groups can congregate.

Without the recent intervention of the French, 12 million people would be under jihadist control. However, in order to keep Al-Qaida at bay in the region, formerly (and potentially still) under the direction of head terrorist Belmokhtar, the West must defeat the terrorists, secure the North, and train local militias to guard and protect their territory. In the end, however, an enduring solution must be an African one, supported by the West helping build capacity.

Africa is one of the fastest growing areas in the world economically, but the Sahara is a nexus of religious extremism, terrorism, and crime, funded by smuggling and kidnapping. Without intervention from the West, oil supplies will eventually be disrupted and the area could fall into chaos. If the terrorist influence in the Sahara spreads, the West will be further drawn into a sprawling, hard-to-contain series of conflicts with great harm to global security.

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