Letter From Mali

I met a French ambassador recently. “Congratulations”, I gushed. “You have shown great courage and leadership in Mali.” He graciously thanked me and then tried to persuade me Australia should do more in Africa. “After the Asian boom,” he said rather improbably, “will come the African boom.”

I met a French ambassador recently. “Congratulations”, I gushed. “You have shown great courage and leadership in Mali.” He graciously thanked me and then tried to persuade me Australia should do more in Africa. “After the Asian boom,” he said rather improbably, “will come the African boom.”

Well, let’s take one thing at a time. The French intervention in Mali reminds us that the war against Al Qaeda is far from over. For Western politicians, Al Qaeda has become an inconvenience. President Obama, in wanting to distance himself from President George W Bush, has made a great and understandable virtue of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US troops. But he then wanted to persuade the war-weary American public that the death of bin Laden was pretty much the end of the road in the war on terror. When late last year the American consulate in Benghazi was destroyed and the ambassador killed, a controversy erupted over whether this proved that Jihadist terrorism was still alive and well or whether the attack was related to a particular event. The administration seemed to suggest it related to an anti-Muslim film, perhaps trying to play down the continuing threat of Al Qaeda. Even in Australia the prime minister proclaimed in January that the “9/11 decade is over”. Future threats were more likely to come from states rather than “non-state actors” – meaning terrorists. There are a couple of issues here. For a start, the good news: America and Australia have successfully protected their homelands from a terrorist attack since 9/11. Huge additional resources have been poured into domestic security. Neither country should become complacent, though. The threat is still there and it will remain so for a long time yet. Secondly, Jihadist terrorism, including Al Qaeda, is still active. Al Qaeda and other like-minded terrorist organisations are much less organised and effective than they once were. They no longer have the stable base granted to them in Afghanistan by the Taliban… but they are not dead. Al Qaeda is still active in Iraq although they have transferred much of their activity now across the border to Syria. Extremist Jihadists are an important element of the forces opposed to President Assad and his regime. Al Qaeda is still active in Yemen, as well. And importantly, they are active and effectively so in the Maghreb (North West Africa) and further South in Mali. If there was one lesson that came out of 9/11 it was that Al Qaeda should never be able to sink their roots in a sovereign country, using its territory for planning, training and as a base. Al Qaeda had literally taken over northern Mali. To have left them entrenched in cities like Timbuktu would not only have left the local people distraught, it would have given Al Qaeda the stable base it needs but no longer has. From that base they could plan, train and launch attacks almost at will. Northern Mali – and perhaps in time all of Mali – would have become what Afghanistan was under the Taliban. That led to 9/11. The intervention by French troops has been decisive. Al Qaeda has been driven out of the towns and cities it controlled, including Timbuktu. When the rather dour French president, Francois Hollande, recently visited that historic city he was treated as a hero. The crowd was huge; they chanted Vive la France! and Vive le President! with gusto. France is back as a force for good in world politics. What is interesting is the line-up of countries prepared to help the French. Once, Americans enthusiastically – you may say too enthusiastically – led the world in the war against terror. This time, France’s major supporter was its old friend Great Britain. British planes flew the French troops to Mali and the Brits have provided 400 troops in support of the French. It’s a bit of a repeat of the NATO Libya operation. That was an Anglo-French led charge as well. There are two interesting conclusions to draw from all is. First, Al Qaeda may have been seriously degraded over the past dozen years and homelands such as America’s and ours may have been safe from AQ. But Islamic extremists prepared to kill innocent civilians in support of their cause are still around. If they are not dealt with effectively, then their capabilities will only grow. Defeating them will be a long and grinding task. Secondly, who is going to do this ugly and often controversial work? The Obama administration has pulled back. In doing so, they’ve left a vacuum. It’s a vacuum which could quickly have been filled by Jihadists. Thankfully, the French and the British have come to the rescue. This doesn’t seem to affect us much in Australia. Well, don’t be too complacent. If someone doesn’t do the dirty work of confronting the Jihadists, they will do their dirty work in the West. And that could mean right here.  

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