Violence in Mali, Algeria raises fresh fear of radical Islam

The hostage crisis in Algeria at a gas plant in the Sahara desert amplified tensions in the region since France sent troops into neighboring Mali on Jan.11, as part of an offensive against rebels linked to al-Qaida in that country.

But while the hostage situation at a facility near In Amenas may have come to its conclusion, the conflict in Mali continues to grip the landlocked West African country that gained its independence from France in 1960.

One may not think of Mali as a country that would spur concern in the United States, but northern Mali, an area about the size of France or twice the size of Colorado, is controlled by a Tuareg militia, Ansar al-Din, and its terrorist group allies, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. AQIM is al-Qaida’s North African wing and emerged in Algeria. These groups want to impose Islamic law across Mali.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned in a report released late last year that northern Mali was "at risk of becoming a permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks where people are subjected to a very strict interpretation of Shariah law and human rights are abused on a systematic basis."

Adding to that warning, the United States’ top commander in Africa, Gen. Carter F. Ham, said in December that AQIM operates training camps in northern Mali, earning its money through kidnapping ransoms and trafficking. “As each day goes by, al-Qaida and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali,” Ham said, according to the New York Times.

In northern Mali, now a haven for jihadists, Shariah law is used to terrorize the population. “This is a place where teenage couples risk death by stoning if they hold hands in public,” Peter Chilson, who has written on Mali for Foreign Policy magazine, wrote recently.

According to Reuters, Human Rights Watch estimates hundreds of children, some as young as 12, have been recruited into the Islamists' ranks.

The stand-off between radical Islamists in the north and what remains of the Malian government in the south has gripped the country since last year, when radicals seized control of the north after a coup in the capital of Bamako in March that removed President Amadou Toumani Toure. In May, Ansar al-Din captured the historic city of Timbuktu, a world heritage site, and destroyed some of the shrines.

Following the death of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011, Tuareg fighters who had been fighting alongside the deposed leader’s forces, returned to northern Mali and helped Islamist militants to oust Malian troops last spring. Their intention was to establish a Tuareg-led state in the region. Tuareg people are nomadic, but most live in parts of Niger and Mali. The Tuareg’s alliance with the Islamists eventually fell apart.

After the coup last spring, Mali’s army fled the north, defeated.

On Dec. 20, the U.N. Security Council created the "Mali Support Mission,” approving 3,300 African troops -- mainly from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast -- to take on the militants in late 2013. The implementation, however, was not well defined and scheduled.

France sent troops to Mali on Jan. 11 to help their allies wrest control of the north, after radicals seized control of Konna, a strategically located central town. "Mali is facing an assault by terrorist elements coming from the north whose brutality and fanaticism is known across the world," President Francois Hollande said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Through airstrikes, France had driven the rebels out of Konna by Jan. 12.

According to Foreign Policy, an Islamist leader in Mali, Oumar Ould Hamahar, who is a member of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, told a radio station in Europe: "France has opened the gates of hell. … It has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia."

There are currently about 1,400 French troops in Mali, the BBC has reported, and hundreds more foreign troops are on the way. The United States has agreed to offer France help airlifting its troops and equipment.

France has said it will remain in Mali until the country is stable again.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring country of Algeria, foreign hostages were held at a gas plant, reportedly by Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, a one-eyed al-Qaida-linked militant. Mokhtar, former leading figure in AQIM, left the group in late 2012 due to a falling out. The hostage-takers reportedly said the attack was in response to France's military operation in Mali.