When the Arab Spring began, there was a lot of speculation as to the future of the Al Qaeda. Most believed that the organization would die down when the first waves of the revolutions in the Middle East came about, as the Al Qaeda was still nursing wounds from the death of its leader Osama bin Laden. The Arab Spring was perceived as a new channel for the angst of the disgruntled youth in the Middle East, who were otherwise becoming recruits in the Al Qaeda – being disillusioned with the lack of education, employment and empowerment.
This would have been the case had there been success in the reinstatement of a regime of the people, for the people and by the people. So far, Tunisia has been the only country that made a comfortable transition to a post-revolution regime. Egypt had toppled Mubarak, and in Libya, Gaddhafi was killed, but both countries have suffered in a post-revolution setting, as leadership remains a much contested issue. Syria still continues in a state of chaotic conflict. Somalia’s al-Shabab, an affiliate of the Al Qaeda has possibly found a schism developing in its midst. Mali is now on the brink of chaos, and is the subject of the UN and ECOWAS attention in what maybe a possible case of intervention. The continued Islamist presence in the region is cause for concern, reminiscent of the time when the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996.
As Mali stands on the brink of a possible intervention, militants have threatened to march on Bamako, and have begun building their forces up. It appears that there are militants coming in from every quarter. Mali’s situation began with Gaddhafi’s fall. As the dictator was slain, a hoard of well-armed Tuareg fighters came into Mali, reigniting a separatist rebellion in the North. Earlier this year, a couple of Malian soldiers of the lower ranks managed to successfully topple the government in Mali, simply because, among other reasons, they were fed up of the Tuaregs who had gained strength while they themselves only wielded poor weapons. When Mali’s military was distracted with the coup, the Tuareg rebels went on a rampaging offensive, happily seizing vast portions of territory in the north and declaring an independent state of Azawad. Soon after, the gains made by the Tuareg movement were violently usurped by an Islamist faction known as Ansar Eddine, linked to AQIM. This faction now holds in its control some of the most significant northern towns. Its militant hardliners are seeking to impose a puritanical version of Islam on the local population. Cultural property has taken a beating in the process, and a harsh implementation of Islamic justice that includes stoning and amputations as means of punishment has been introduced. There is no doubt that this will not remain confined to Northern Mali.
A plethora of affiliated groups in Mali have actually gone onto reviving the Al-Qaeda’s presence in North Africa – which up until now, had been idle because of the long-drawn and unwinnable war with Algeria. The AQIM wields a certain Algeria-centric policy which has been its Achille’s heel – that the Algerian fighters dominating the scene have narrowly focused on overthrowing the Algerian regime and implementing an Islamic state is reason enough for its myopia. More recently, Algeria has announced that the AQIM was neutralized – and is on its way to a more regional phase.
With this development, there is a new trend. Many militant groups in Africa are beginning to see their role in both, a regional and global setting, and are discarding their heretofore religious considerations – like the Boko-Haram in Nigeria and the al-Shabaab in Somalia – and are working to become stronger limbs of the Al-Qaeda. This is a paradigm shift that has both, ideological and operational connotations.
There is no doubt that the advance of the Al-Qaeda affiliates into Mali has had much to do with the Arab Spring – though this should not shoot down the value of these revolutions for the people behind them. Most terror outfits have begun aligning themselves with the Al-Qaeda in a manner to project a newfound allegiance of unshakeable faithfulness. Most countries where the al-Qaeda is resurgent are fragile, and either on the brink of failure, or have already failed as states. The repertoire is huge – it includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and now, Mali. Besides the growing power of the outfit, these countries have the common thread of governance problems, resource scarcity, humanitarian crises, poverty and conflict connecting them.
Expenditure for military purposes wouldn’t make much of a difference in making the region inhospitable to the Al-Qaeda. A wholesome approach that involves all actors alone can free the vulnerable myriads.