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Hostage Crisis in Northern Africa: Is al Qaeda Involved?

After months of indecisiveness, government leaders in Mali excepted European intervention in order to address the onslaught of Islamist violence.

For 20 years, Mali was considered a model of democracy in Africa. Then, in March of 2012, junior officers, dissatisfied with the government’s way handling of a rebellion by Tuareg tribes, staged a coup d’état. Mali’s 20-year-old democracy fell and Tuareg rebels and Islamists took over the northern part of the country, an area as big as France. An alliance of jihadist groups, including Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) imposed the rule of Islamic law on northern Mali — reports have emerged of people stoned to death for public displays of affection — and retook Timbuktu, vowing to destroy its storied mausoleums.

The Malian government have been indecisive about receiving international aid to fight the jihadists. Then, on January 10, jihadists made a sudden advance into the southern part of Mali and seized the central village of Konna. Last week, French President Francois Hollande sent in 2,500 ground troops and launched an air attack.

By January 12, French troops had retaken Konna. But the intervention of the French — who fought against the jihadist Tukulor Empire in the 19th century — has set off a new crisis, the taking of more than 40 hostages, including citizens of Japan, Norway, the U.K. and the U.S., from an oil facility in Algeria on Wednesday. Initial reports said that a Briton and an Algerian had been killed in an ambush on a bus bringing workers to an airport. The media have since said that 34 hostages and 14 kidnappers have been killed, though there has not yet been official confirmation of any deaths, says the BBC.

The gas field is operated jointly by BP, Algerian state oil company Sonatrach and Norwegian firm Statoil.

Northern Mali: Now “the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world”

According to Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kablia, the kidnappers are Algerian and under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was a senior commander of AQIM until last year. A statement said to be from the kidnappers calls for an end to the French military intervention in neighboring Mali.

Peter Chilson writes in an article entitled “Al Qaeda Country: Why Mali Matters” in Foreign Policy:

If Mali feels somewhat far away or less than important, consider this: Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world, an area a little larger than France itself. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that Mali could become a “permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks.” In December, Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, warned that al Qaeda was using northern Mali as a training center and base for recruiting across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Jihadists operating in northern Mali have been linked to Boko Haram, the violent Islamist group based in northern Nigeria, and to Ansar al-Sharia, a group in Libya which has been linked to the attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

The French government has said that the Malian government requested its help after the jihadist incursion on January 10. But behind this is a “less selfless reason,” says Chilson, a “fear that a growing al Qaeda presence in West Africa will make France itself more vulnerable to terrorist attack.” France has said it will remain in Mali until it is stable again; Chilson says that will not be any time soon:

Taking back Mali’s northern cities, such as Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, may be the easiest task. Mali’s vast northern desert is a hard place to live, not to mention wage war. For eight months a year, the daytime temperature exceeds 120 degrees Fahrenheit in a vast and unpopulated land that is easy to hide in, especially for the jihadist forces who know the territory well. Any army, no matter how large and well equipped, will have a tough time driving them out.

The jihadists — who Chilson describes as well-trained, well-funded from ransom from kidnappings and armed with weapons captured from the Malian army last spring and Libya — have counteracted and taken another village in Segou province that is some 300 miles away from the Malian capital, Bamako.

The recent rush of events in Mali and Algeria has revealed that U.S. officials have “only an impressionistic understanding of the militant groups that have established a safe haven in Mali” and are “divided about whether some of these groups even pose a threat” to the U.S., says the New York Times. Asked if AQIM poses an “imminent threat,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top American commander in Africa, responded “probably not,” though Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has said he sees the group as a more serious threat. As Gen. Ham points out, Malie and the entire region are “tough to penetrate.”

Troops from the Algerian army are currently surrounding the facility where the hostages are being held. At least four hostages have been freed but there have also been a number of victims.

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