AQMI guerrillas who are fighting in Mali have become the focus of the purported battle against Al-Qaeda in North Africa., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
September 26, 2012, 9:45 p.m. ET.U.S. Ties
Libya Attack to 'Powder Keg' in Mali .
By CHRISTOPHER RHOADS and DREW HINSHAW
Wall Street Journal
UNITED NATIONS—Mali has become an incubator for terrorist activity that demands urgent international attention, world leaders said Wednesday, as the U.S. drew its most explicit link between al Qaeda havens in such places and the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Mali—and much of the broader North African region known as the Sahel—has turned the country into a "powder keg" for terrorist activity by al Qaeda's Saharan front, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"Now, with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions," Mrs. Clinton said at a scheduled meeting between senior government officials and heads of international groups held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. "And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi."
It was the first time a top administration official publicly linked the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi so directly to al Qaeda's Saharan affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. In the two weeks since the attack, which killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, U.S. officials have gone from saying there was no evidence of a pre-existing plot to naming AQIM.
Despite the terror network's possible involvement, however, U.S. officials still haven't said the assault was preplanned. Republican critics have assailed the administration's handling of security arrangements and the attack aftermath.
Mali's crisis accelerated in March, when junior military officers staged a coup, ending 20 years of democracy. That junta has since stepped down in favor of a transitional civilian administration, but it wields influence in the military.
As Libya descended into civil war last year, waves of workers from Mali returned to their home villages, followed by a flood of weapons carried back into Mali by separatist rebels, many of whom had fought under late Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Three militias now control the north, dominated by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
More than 260,000 refugees have fled the instability in northern Mali, according to the U.N, exacerbating the situation.
Those who have remained behind in northern Mali contend with drought and spikes in the cost of food, aggravated by road closures and a mass exodus into the south. Nearly five million people could be on the cusp of famine, the U.N. says. Human-rights groups have documented widespread abuse.
U.N. Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, at the meeting Wednesday, called for urgent international support in the region to confront the confluence of crises that have created what he called "a perfect storm of vulnerability." He appointed a U.N. special envoy to the region.
French President François Hollande said his country was ready to do "everything it can to support the troops that are being planned" and urged a Security Council meeting as soon as possible.
The U.S. has increased counterterrorism efforts with 10 countries across the region, Mrs. Clinton said, including more training and support to break up networks and better protect borders. The U.S. has sent $378 million in humanitarian aid to the area, she said, in efforts to confront a humanitarian crisis that includes 18 million people facing a shortage of food.
The Malian government and a regional bloc of countries recently agreed on the deployment of West African troops to Mali under a U.N. mandate. The U.N. hasn't yet approved the plan.
Mali's West African neighbors have pledged to dispatch 3,300 troops into the country to help it retake its north. French and American military leaders have offered varying degrees of logistical and diplomatic support for the mission. It isn't yet clear which West African nations would contribute troops, since virtually all of West Africa's armies are wrapped up elsewhere.
In recent weeks, Ansar al-Dine, another of the north's militias, has threatened to attack any country in North or West Africa that supports the government of Mali in its quest to retake its territory.
"What happened in Libya helped destabilize Mali, and the reverse could also be true," said Michael Woldemariam, professor of African security issues at Boston University.
Write to Christopher Rhoads at email@example.com and Drew Hinshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org