Why we should be worried about Mali

Why we should be worried about Mali

Civil war in Syria and terrorism in Bulgaria are dominating headlines this week, but the ongoing deterioration of Mali is the type of simmering issue that is starting to claw its way on to the front pages. Among other things it is a vivid illustration of how the events of the "Arab Spring" are having profound ramifications in non-Arab countries; Ross Douthat’s discussion of this is particularly insightful. An unintended consequence of the Libya war (which I supported at the time and still regard as on balance the right decision) has been the spillover of chaos, instability, and malevolent elements into neighboring countries such as Mali, which may be emerging as a new terrorist safe-haven.

As recently as one year ago Mali stood as an emerging African success story. An Islamic democracy that in 2007 hosted the global Community of Democracies ministerial meeting in its capital city of Bamako, Mali is now fractured with militant Islamists controlling half of its territory and an uneasy post-coup coalition of civilians and military controlling the other half. I worked with Malian leaders in the planning for the 2005 Community of Democracies ministerial in Santiago, and their pride in their nation’s accomplishments was palpable, as was their enthusiasm in being an African Muslim democracy in an otherwise troubled region. Now that progress has dissipated. Their country is falling apart, and northern Mali may well be emerging as a new Al Qaeda base of operations, attracting jihadists of many nationalities, African and non-African.

Reports from the north, such as this New York Times story, bring chilling echoes of Afghanistan as it first fell under Taliban rule 15 years ago. Malian women and non-Islamist Muslims, especially Sufis, are being subject to horrific repression. One worrisome indicator is the jihadists’ destruction of traditional Muslim burial grounds and other iconic sites, a sign of the vicious religious intolerance that militant Islamists show towards other Muslims, let alone believers in non-Islamic faiths. (I have an article in the forthcoming issue of Policy Review exploring the connection between religious freedom violations and potential security threats, a connection that is unfortunately under-appreciated by the policy community). This campaign of religious intolerance may be an early warning indicator of a looming security threat, particularly if northern Mali becomes a terrorist safe-haven and magnet for jihadists planning attacks on the West.

American policy options are extremely limited, and the current focus on encouraging the African Union to take the lead is probably the best of a bad set of choices. American leadership is needed more urgently in other areas, such as Syria. But at a minimum, American counterterrorism and religious-freedom policymakers should be watching Mali closely, and talking to each other. In the case of Mali, their concerns may be more aligned then they realize.