Pentagon Weighs Action as Militants Gain Sway in Nation's Vast North
American and European counterterrorism officials have watched with alarm in recent months as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, established a significant presence in the north of Mali, in western Africa. The extremists have taken advantage of a power vacuum left by a military coup in the capital earlier this year.
Michael Sheehan, assistant U.S. defense secretary for special operations, said Thursday at the Aspen Institute security forum that the U.S. "can't allow al Qaeda to sit in ungoverned space" in the north of Mali.
Mr. Sheehan said a "whole range of things" were under consideration by U.S. and allied officials, including "perhaps operating in ungoverned space." Mr. Sheehan wouldn't elaborate on what types of operations might be on the table.
The U.S. military uses armed drones and special forces to target al Qaeda leaders and supporters in Yemen and Somalia that are seen as posing a threat to the U.S. But in many countries in the region, the focus of U.S. special forces is limited to training local allies to fight al Qaeda and other militants.
U.S. counterterrorism officials said that for now, AQIM militants in Mali appear focused on local and regional issues, rather than on using the haven to plot attacks against the U.S.
The U.S. has been working with European allies to develop plans to respond to the growing al Qaeda presence in Mali. But the effort has been hamstrung by a suspension of U.S. military assistance to Mali, funded by the Pentagon and the State Department, after the coup by Mali military officers in March. Officials said military assistance will remain frozen until Mali holds elections and installs a new government.
Mali's recent travails
- Military officers, angered by setbacks in fight with Tuareg rebels in north, overthrow president on March 22. Tuareg proceed to seize control of much of northern Mali.
- Al Qaeda-backed Islamist militants later wrest control of north from Tuareg.
- 300,000 refugees have fled north, many to Mauritania.
Islamist militants recently took control of Mali's ancient city of Timbuktu and demolished tombs inside the city's oldest mosque, ramping up pressure on West African neighbors to restore order in the troubled nation.
Mali's democracy was imperiled at the end of last year by Tuareg separatist fighters, many trained and armed under late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The separatists returned after Mr. Gadhafi's fall to seize Mali's north—eventually driving Mali's army from Timbuktu, the cultural hub of the Tuareg people.
The coup in the country's south accelerated the country's slide into chaos, ending the possibility that Mali might prove capable of reversing the rebel gains. Militias aiming to spread Islamic law throughout West Africa have since pushed out the ethnic Tuareg rebels, who tried to make the region a secular, independent nation.
"It's beyond worrisome, it's terrifying," said Niger's Minister of Justice and government spokesman Marou Amadou.
West African leaders have vowed to send a 3,000-strong multinational army to reclaim Mali's vast north. The U.S., France, and the United Nations Security Council have pledged logistical support to such an operation. But Western officials worry that West Africa's armies lack the capacity to sustain a campaign across a desert around the size of Texas against trained local guerrillas.
U.S. and European officials add that Mali's military isn't up to the task. After the March coup—which saw junior officers seize power after complaining they weren't given adequate resources to fight the Tuareg rebels—the Malian army lacks a clear chain of command.
Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union's counterterrorism coordinator, said that once a new government is in place, the EU would be ready to help reorganize the Malian army with the goal of enabling the country's forces to redeploy in the north.
The EU is looking to Mali and its African neighbors to take the lead in addressing the problem, Mr. Kerchove said. "No one in Europe at this stage wants to envisage a military operation," he said in an interview.
The al Qaeda-allied militants who have seized control in the north have sought to impose fundamental Islamic law across a vast area.
In a further complication, residents and rebels in the north report an influx of militants from Nigeria, a country battling an Islamic insurgency known as Boko Haram. It isn't clear how many Nigerians have joined the battle with the Tuareg—estimates range from dozens to hundreds—or whether any are linked to Boko Haram. Fighters have also arrived from Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to officials in nearby Niger, Malian witnesses, and separatist soldiers.
Some diplomats say they doubt AQIM claims more than a few hundred recruits, but the sect is thought to be flush with cash from years of kidnappings. Fighters on all sides in Mali have benefited from a flood of weapons and mercenaries after the end of last year's Libyan conflict.
Military coup leaders in April allowed a civilian government to form, but the effort has been beset by inner divisions and disorder. Mali's interim president is in France, recovering from injuries sustained when protesters broke into his office in May and pummeled him.
On Wednesday, a coalition of political parties called for the resignation of the prime minister, an astrophysicist facing a steep learning curve as he assumes the reins of one of the world's fastest failing states.
A version of this article appeared July 27, 2012, on page A14 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. Sets Sights on al Qaeda in Mali.