While it is generally true that the US-led coalition force in Afghanistan dealt a powerful blow against Al Qaeda, the transnational Islamic terrorist organization is far from dead. In the Sahara of northern Mali, they’ve actually grown stronger. Fueled by income from kidnapping European diplomats, they’ve taken hold of the northern parts of the country and are threatening to continue their push south into the country.
The violence and incredible barbarity has sparked international alarm, and prompted a number of countries to take direct military action against the Islamist forces. France sent troops and bombing aircraft to the region, and was actively fighting within hours of arrival last Wednesday. On that day alone, 35 hostages were killed in the crossfire. Further support has been offered from Denmark, Germany and more recently, the United States.
What exactly are they fighting against? Headlines from the Spiegel, the France24, CNN and The Washington Post speak of mass-rape, amputation, torture and murder as Al Qaeda drives south. In an interview with the Guardian, one man fleeing from his hometown of Gao described the punishment of a man convicted by the soldiers of Tobacco use. “…[T]hey chopped off his hand. They wanted to show us what they could do,” he said. The hand was then boiled and sewed back on to the man’s wrist.
In response to France’s military intervention, Al Qaeda has pledged retaliation. Abou Dardar, a leader of the group, said “France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France.” Already, the militants have taken eight foreigners as hostages.
Robert Fowler was one such hostage, who was kidnapped for nearly five months back in 2008. A Canadian diplomat, Fowler was taken in what he later described as a “slick, violent, well-coordinated and impeccably executed grab.” He described his experience of exposure to snakes and scorpions, meals of rice mixed with sand, and theological instruction mixed with torturous conditions. The fact that such diplomats have, in recent years, been “bought” back by their home countries for prices growing in excess of $5 million per person has only increased the frequency of such tactics. Estimates put Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s income over the last decade somewhere between $90 and $150 million.
The violent and unsettlingly successful offensive of the Islamic militants doesn’t only threaten Mali though; experts think the violence could threaten the stability of the entire region, which includes Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. With several years of lucrative kidnapping income to fund training, arms and logistics, it may not be terribly long before we see such forces closer to our shores, or perhaps even within. If nothing else, this should give pause to people who claim violence is never the solution, and that foreign intervention is always the greater of evils in foreign policy.