The significance of events in Mali should not be overlooked, writes Sir Cyril Townsend.
It is regularly put about in the Western world that al Qaida is on the way out, following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May of last year. One reads that this international organisation that once boasted thousands of members, launched terror attacks across the globe and led the insurgency in Iraq against the American forces, is dwindling away.
This is not so; it is regrouping very successfully south of the Sahara.
Just over 12 years ago the Taliban allowed a comparatively new and extremely violent organisation called al Qaida to maintain training camps in Afghanistan. After the aerial attacks on the United States in September 2001, which represented a huge success for al Qaida, Washington demanded that the terrorist leaders should be handed over for trial and al Qaida expelled. Kabul said no, and this led to the Taliban regime being overthrown, surprisingly quickly, by an international coalition led by the Americans and mainly supported by the Northern Alliance.
In the following years it was frequently suggested that if the Nato forces left Afghanistan, the unpopular and corrupt government there would be toppled and the Taliban would return in triumph. Al Qaida would be welcomed back and would be quickly organising death and destruction on the international stage.
President Barack Obama carried the fight to al Qaida and the Taliban by authorising surprise aerial attacks by drones on its leadership. Although such attacks were deeply unpopular in Pakistan, the President was not shy over the concept and light unmanned planes killed well over 2,500 people in Pakistan's wild, rebellious and generally inhospitable tribal areas. This ruthless targeted decapitation operation, in tandem with raids by special forces, including Britain's SAS, is said to have dropped by ten years the average age of an al Qaida commander in the field.
Al Qaida decided to seek out pastures new and Somalia and Mali were considered. Yemen became its main base, and Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the foreign minister of Yemen, estimated three years ago that al Qaida had between 200 and 300 militants in his country. Once again, American drones were put to work – on a considerable scale and achieving a considerable success.
Almost unseen by the outside world, a branch of al Qaida then seized a slice of Africa, which covered more than 300,000 square miles, to be a new stronghold. Together with allies already in the area, al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took over part of the Sahara more than three times the size of the United Kingdom. It already contained airports and barracks, and large arms dumps in the desert.
How did this extraordinary and worrying event happen? Colonel Gaddafi's downfall is the first part of the answer. He recruited thousands of soldiers from Mali to fight for his regime; it is said that at one stage the Libyan army had a whole brigade of Tuareg troops. When he was killed, most of those soldiers who had taken part in the fighting in Libya returned home with their own weapons and many others looted from the country's vast and unguarded stockpiles.
In March, AQIM backed a Tuareg rebel force carrying out a military coup which removed Mali's President, Amadou Toumani Touré from office. AQIM then encouraged the rebels to seize Mali's three northern regions in April. In the process, further massive supplies of arms and equipment from the Mali army were captured, including American military vehicles and satellite communications that had been supplied for fighting al Qaida, including 87 Land Cruisers.
With minimum trouble, since the spring AQIM has moved the Tuareg insurgents aside and, together with international jihadists from Algeria, Nigeria, Somalia and Pakistan, controls two thirds of Mali. It has a new, large and excellent base to plan major attacks on international targets.
There is no functioning government in Southern Mali, and it seems highly unlikely that the army will be able to retake northern Mali this year, let alone keep the whole of the country both safe and properly defended in future years.
Once again, consideration has to be given to international intervention. It comes at a most difficult time with the US preoccupied with a presidential election, and France, which retains influence in the area from its colonial past, in trouble with the eurozone and with a new president at the helm. I cannot foresee the UN Security Council, currently gravely divided over Syria, giving a strong lead, and the 15-country Economic Community of West African States is most likely to hold back.
But the status quo is unacceptable.