The ongoing crisis in Mali, a poor, landlocked country in northern Africa, continues to sow devastation and displacement.
Mali’s current troubles began in earnest following the 2011 fall of Libyan tyrant Muammar Qadhafi. Armed mercenary fighters from Mali in Qadhafi’s employ, mostly ethnic Tuaregs (Berber nomadic tribes), returned to northern Mali and launched a rebellion against the central government in Bamako to the south. Calling themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the rebellious Tuaregs provoked a coup within the ranks of the national army.
In March 2012, disgruntled military officers, including the shadowy leader Captain Amadou Haya Songo, protested and within hours toppled a fragile 20-year-old democracy. While the U.S. ceased military-to-military links with Mali’s army, the deaths of three U.S. special operations troops in an automobile accident on April 20 are drawing attention to the Pentagon’s counterterrorism efforts in Mali. Although a transition government is in place in Bamako, it has been unable to address the situation in the north.
Out of the ranks of the rebellious Tuaregs has emerged a radicalized splinter element that proclaims itself Ansar Dine (Protectors of the Faith). These Islamic extremists are being compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan and attracted international condemnation following wanton destruction of historic mosques in Timbuktu.
Ansar Dine is a concern because of its affiliation with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb and its readiness to impose repressive Sharia law and implement a reign of terroristic zealotry.
Ansar Dine’s expanding presence has sent streams of refugees pouring out of Mali into neighboring nations, many fleeing extreme religious intolerance.
“In Islam, you don’t kill your own brother,” said an elderly refugee from Mali, “In Islam, you don’t drive your brothers out of their country and turn them into refugees.”
It is also feared that Ansar Dine will be able to exert control over enormous tracts of “ungoverned space” and serve as a magnet for remnants of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists.
As these tragic events unfold in Mali, the region of the Sahel also faces emerging famine conditions.
The lines of connectivity and instability spread across the Sahel and dip down into northern and central Nigeria, where the radical Islamist insurgency Boko Haram continues targeting government forces and Christian faithful, exacerbating longstanding tensions between Muslims and Christians and leading to escalating violence.
The combination of radical Islam, religious intolerance and violence, and globally linked terrorism constitutes a multi-pronged flashpoint in northern and western Africa. This arc of instability represents a growing, if largely unaddressed, challenge to the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Africa.