U.S. support needed in Mali, a nexus for Sahel terror and people-smuggling

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The landlocked West African state of Mali remains a critical crossroads for both international people smuggling and a nexus of radical Islamic terrorism in the Sahel, the vast arid region on the southern reaches of the Sahara desert.

Here amid ancient caravan routes, porous borders, and weak governance, Mali is challenged by insecurity and an entrenched Al Qaida insurgency.

A recent meeting in the UN Security Council underscored some of the key military and political concerns for Mali as the country is set to hold elections in April. The UN’s chief of Peacekeeping operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix described the situation as a “race against time” with growing insecurity “claiming hundreds of lives in the north and center of the country,” as well as with growing attacks on UN peacekeepers.

MaliBack in 2012 Al Qaida terrorists seized the historic city of Timbucktu and proceeded to trash and desecrate the cultural heritage and to impose strict Islamic Sharia law on the inhabitants.

For the past five years a UN peacekeeping force serves alongside French military units in the 4,000 strong Operation Barkane in keeping a tenuous peace in a vast land almost twice the size of Texas and which borders seven countries!

Here the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, aka MINUSMA, is tasked to stabilize a dangerous situation. Despite the top-heavy moniker, the overstretched force fields only 15,000 troops and police from mostly African states, among them Senegal and Burkina Faso. Equally both Germany and China field over 500 troops each in this operation. Tragically, MINUSMA has suffered the highest casualties of any of the current worldwide UN peacekeeping missions.

The UN’s Lacroix warned that Mali’s human rights and humanitarian situation was worsening with estimates of four million Malians, or 22 percent of the population, facing food insecurity this year, a proportion which could reach between 30 and 40 percent in the restive North of the country.

Mali’s Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly renewed his government’s call to “strengthen MINUSMA’s operational capacities” and welcomed progress in creating the planned G-5 Sahel joint force which will unite the militaries of the five African countries (Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) most affected by the violence but encouraging a regional African solution supported by the UN and European Union.

Later during a meeting between the Malian Minister and U.S. UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley stated unequivocally, “Mali has been a strong partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism and we will stand by the Malian people.”

It’s precisely the terrorism nexus which has gained wider attention by both the U.S. as well as European states.

Poland’s Amb. Joanna Wronecka told the Council, “The Sahel region was among the most critical regions of the world in the fight against international terrorism.” She stressed the importance of Mali’s political stability and territorial integrity.

Yet Ambassador Karel van Oosterom of the Netherlands stated the case most succinctly; “The center has in a short time become a hotbed of terrorism, inter-communal violence, irregular migration and organized crime…this poses an enormous threat to the stability of Mali, to the broader Sahel region and Europe.” He added, “The linkage between terrorism and transnational organized crime is poisonous.”

Indeed the region is part of a series of clandestine conduits for drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, and human trafficking which lead into Europe’s soft underbelly. Many of these routes lead to lawless Libya from where networks of smugglers actively send boatloads of migrants towards Italy or often to their fate in the Mediterranean Sea.

Why is this important for the USA? The Sahel’s largely overlooked and forgotten lands offer both terrorists and smuggling networks the perfect climate for clandestine operations which undermine countries such as Mali and radiate radicalism into other regional states on the southern tier of the Mediterranean.

Realistically, the G-5 Sahel states comprise some of the worlds’ poorest countries so expecting local military units to offer an effective bulwark to Al Qaida is foolhardy.

Yet, American and French special forces training teams operating in this low intensity environment can nonetheless create an effective counter force to the emerging terrorist threat. The Sahel is not as remote as we may think.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]