The hostage crisis that broke out on Wednesday in Algeria – where more than 40 Westerners were taken captive at a gas plant by al Qaeda fighters – ostensibly has its roots in Mali, Algeria's neighbor to the southwest. The hostage-takers claim that they acted in response to France's intervention last week in Mali to combat gains by a jihadist insurrection. But the story actually begins in Libya, where unintended consequences of the Arab Spring are now roiling North Africa and West Africa. When NATO forces decided to support the Libyan rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, they could scarcely have predicted the impact of their involvement on the region's labyrinth of competing ethnic and confessional interests.
Gadhafi had long drawn mercenaries from among the Tuareg, a nomadic ethnic group known as the Kurds of Africa because they are spread across five countries without a state of their own. In the early 2000s, Gadhafi began offering his Tuareg mercenaries privileges, including residency permits. When the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya two years ago, and as his own regular forces began to defect, Gadhafi enlisted support from thousands of Tuareg fighters to suppress the rebellion.
Gadhafi was killed in October 2011, but death failed to halt the malignant spread of his influence, which was already well known to his African neighbors. His Tuareg forces – armed, trained and on the receiving end of much hostility in post-revolutionary Libya – retreated to redoubts in Mali, bringing with them caches of sophisticated arms, including heavy weaponry and antiaircraft missiles.
For decades, the Tuareg people have accused Mali's government of neglect, corruption and a failure to apply the rule of law. The influx of disaffected fighters from Libya revived their hopes of self-determination and culminated in October 2011 with the creation of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the MNLA. Last spring, this militia overran several towns in northern Mali and declared independence.
Although the MNLA's ascendancy highlighted the grievances of many northern Malians, the militia's success wasn't universally welcomed. Competing ethnic groups in the region, including the Songhai, Peuhl, Bella and Arabs, didn't necessarily want to be ruled by Tuaregs.
Political expediency makes for strange bedfellows, particularly when exacerbated by the privations of war. Last spring, the MNLA – though secular and principally concerned with ethno-nationalist interests – tacitly joined forces with jihadists who operate across the Sahel, a band of semi-arid land that stretches across Africa along the southern Sahara. The MNLA's new Islamist allies included al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (though most of the fighting was done by Ansar Dine). Their goal: ensure that Malian government forces would be incapable of launching a revanchist campaign against the rebel-held north.
Like the Tuareg fighters, the jihadists benefited from the Libyan civil war – a vast arsenal flooded the black market after Gadhafi's demise. Remarkably, much of the money for the arms purchases comes from Western governments. Jihadists in the Sahel – who have typically drawn less attention than their counterparts in the Middle East and South Asia – have focused less on high-profile attacks than on kidnapping Western tourists and holding them for ransom. Spain, Germany, Switzerland and Canada have all paid millions of dollars for the release of their nationals over the years.
By June 2012, the MNLA-jihadist alliance had effectively removed all traces of government control in northern Mali, creating an environment where Islamists can thrive: lawlessness, a lack of political authority, and weak civil leaders. The jihadists seized the opportunity to unravel their alliance with the MNLA and establish a semiautonomous Islamic state in the north. A draconian administration subjected Malians to a brutal interpretation of Shariah law, including executions for adultery and amputations for theft.
Internet forums linked to al Qaeda cheered the developments in Mali: Jihadists have never before directly controlled so much territory – nearly 700,000 square miles, an area the size of Texas.
The entire Malian state was in danger of succumbing to an onslaught from the north before last week, when the interim administration of President Dioncounda Traore called on the French to intervene. Jihadist forces were readying themselves to seize Mali's capital, Bamako.
American military strategists are known to have helped their French counterparts plan Operation Serval, which is trying to stem the Islamist push. The military dimension of the campaign is straightforward enough: kill or capture jihadists in the north, destroy their networks and deny them havens. The efforts by 1,400 French troops – supported by tanks, air power and likely some 1,000 more troops to come – is still in its early days, and counterterrorism, as the world knows well, can be a long and difficult undertaking.
It is what follows the military effort that will be of particular interest in Washington and beyond. If the jihadist element is removed from Mali, what remains will be an aggrieved nation fractured along sectarian and ethnic lines. The attempt to address those discontents while maintaining both Malian sovereignty and the government's authority will reveal whether the unintended consequences of the Arab Spring can be safely handled. For those tasked with containing the fallout from the Arab Spring's various irruptions – most notably in Syria – the stakes could hardly be higher.