A NEW planet has orbited into the consciousness of Western sky-gazers, reminding them how little they know about the geopolitical solar system on which they are supposed to be experts: its name is Mali.
The Algerian hostage crisis which has affected lives and families as far away as Scotland is part of a politico-religious mosaic extending across four continents; unfortunately, for many analysts it more closely resembles a jigsaw with half of the pieces missing.
The first, knowing response among commentators to the Algerian terrorist attack and subsequent hostage crisis was to dismiss the suggestion that it was launched in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali: there had not been sufficient time, they insisted, for so sophisticated an operation to be mounted. The hostage-takers, it was claimed, were bandits seeking large ransoms, not jihadists.
The cultural myopia of such a claim ignores the reality that there is no perceived conflict in being both a jihadist and an extortionist from infidels: the jihadist war-chests have long been filled with ransom money received for hostages. The leader of the attack on the Ansema gas field, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a marginalised associate of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a sincere and deadly Salafist but also an experienced negotiator of large ransoms.
It is testimony to the inefficacy of Western intelligence that Belmokhtar was reported in the media as having been killed in Mali last year. Belmokhtar is seeking to seize the initiative and embarrass the AQIM leadership that passed him over for the post of “Emir of the Sahel” – the key area between the Sahara desert and the Sudanese Savanna. The French invasion of Mali provided the ideal pretext. Algeria is an important piece in the jihadist mosaic, but it is Mali that holds the key to the current crisis.
This country is a monument to Western incompetence in the face of a jihadist advance overrunning swathes of the African continent. As recently as 2011 the US State Department’s concern was that the country had no homosexual organisations. By last year the Pentagon was smelling at least a hint of the coffee and had stepped up aerial surveillance operations under the intelligence programme known as Creek Sand, using reconnaissance planes disguised as civilian aircraft.
Yet such operations are of limited usefulness. Human intelligence, on the other hand, is almost impossible to rely on. The jihadists are in a win/win situation. Under heavy military attack, as last week, they simply abandon towns and their modern 4x4 pick-up trucks and fall back to the desert. As a guerrilla hideout the Sahara makes Vietnam look like a national park. When the French withdraw, as must eventually happen, the boys will come roaring back, bringing with them the joys of Sharia law, amputating and decapitating with merry abandon.
Since the jihadists occupied the northern half of Mali, that country has gone in one year from being unlisted to seventh highest in the global rating for persecution of Christians, though in the view of the Obama administration that may count as a plus rather than a minus. The population of Mali is 5 per cent Christian, a vulnerable target for genocide.
The role of France is, as always, self-interested, self-regarding and ruthless. Under monarchy, empire and republic the policy of the Quai d’Orsay has been consistently to put French interests first and last (if only the limp-wristed Wykehamists in King Charles Street would take a leaf out of that livre – fat chance).
In 2011, in Ivory Coast, which borders on Mali, France intervened militarily to depose the legitimate president Laurent Gbagbo and impose a foreigner from Burkina Faso, Alassane Ouattara, a Muslim whose militia butchered Christians on its march to the capital. The principal motive was to preserve the CFA franc, a synthetic currency circulating in 12 former French colonies which are each required to deposit 85 per cent of their foreign currency reserves in the French treasury. The notion of France as anti-Islamist crusader in Mali, or anywhere else, lacks plausibility.
The reason the jihadists are so well armed is that they are sporting the late Muammar Gaddafi’s weaponry, helpfully released onto the market by the Western powers. The only force, short of a nuclear strike, that can halt jihadists in Africa and the Middle East is secular dictatorships. Those existed in Iraq, Egypt and Libya and the Western powers considerately facilitated their removal; today, in Syria, the West is sawing through the bough on which it is sitting. Even now, carping critics are questioning the “democratic” credentials of the government of Mali. When the dominoes eventually fall, from Algeria to Syria, and the idea (more dangerous than an organisation) that is al-Qaeda sweeps down through Africa, perhaps those idiots will prefer the Caliphate. «