Incident: Islamic militants generally based in Mali launched an attack on Monday/Tuesday on a BP-operated gas field in the neighboring Algerian Sahara desert. They took over 600 hostages from 10 different countries. The bulk of the hostages appear to have been freed by the militants just ahead of an Algerian Special Forces raid, which itself killed some 35 hostages and 15 of the estimated 20 militants. A number of hostages remain unaccounted for, including Americans and Britons.
Bottom Line: While this crisis went down over 1,000 kilometers from the Algerian capital, Algiers, and is about Mali—not Algeria—it will reverberate throughout Algeria, on to Niger and across the Sahel. But it benefits the French, who now control this area of Algerian airspace and will likely look to securing their significant uranium supplies in Niger.
Analysis: Nearly two-thirds of Mali’s entire territory is now occupied by armed Islamists. The Mali military staged a coup in March 2012, timed one month before presidential elections. They ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure on the pretext that his administration had failed to deal with the Tuareg, who have been pursuing independence for “Azawad” (Northern Mali) since the 1960s.
The coup leader was Pentagon favorite Amadou Haya Sanogo, who was trained in the US and by AFRICOM and was viewed in Washington as a strong ally in the fight against terrorism and particularly against the solidifying interests of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The crisis in Mali can be traced back to Libya. Specifically, it can be traced back to the removal of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s support for the Tuaregs with his fall from power. Without Gaddafi, the Tuaregs had to make a move on their own. And following the March coup, they came very close to fulfilling their goals. Tuareg took over some key government buildings and announced the creation of independent Azawad in April. But their victory was elusive and they were soon sidelined by three Islamist groups: Ansar ed-Dine, MUJAO (the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and AQIM.
In June, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA—a secular Tuareg outfit--were forced out by MUJAO (whose fighters are almost all former AQIM) and took over the city of Gao, enforcing Sharia law. MUJAO are the key target of the French bombing campaign.
The Salafi insurgents fighting this war are heavily weaponized—funded by cocaine smuggling from South America (via Mali) to Europe-bound markets. Some 60% of cocaine that enters Europe transits Mali (according to a UN investigation).
The arrival initially of 1,400 French troops to launch an offensive against Islamist forces in Mali led to the current hostage situation in Algeria.
The Tuareg, however, do not appear to have been forced out by MUJAO without help from the Algerians. Algeria has long feared the Tuareg and when they began to gain ground following the coup, Algeria helped to destroy their credibility by bolstering the three Islamists groups to dampen their progress. This has backfired. And now—despite the betrayal—the NMLA has announced it is prepared to cooperate with French forces. The Tuareg see another window of opportunity after having been ousted by the three Islamist groups.
Mali is a key aspect of Washington’s new “US National Security Strategy in Africa” (circa June 2012). What Washington would most like to see in Mali is a partition—like North and South Sudan. In December, before the French campaign, the Pentagon was already talking about a war in Mali.
The most significant fact the media has gotten wrong is that the hostage situation is the work of MUJAO, not AQIM. MUJAO—led by Belmokhtar, who has defected from AQIM.
This incident will also benefit the US’ Africa strategy and allow it to reinvigorate the global war on terror from the African stage.