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What are Western and African powers up against in Mali, Algeria?

Leaders around the world are vowing to strike back hard at Islamist militancy that is surging across North Africa. Here are some of the challenges they face.

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What do they want?

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It’s often hard to say exactly. In general, Islamist militants want to apply their religious beliefs, something that involves imposing their brand of Islam on other people. In northern Mali, militants have set up a harsh rule that includes amputating the hands of alleged thieves, banning music, and stoning people accused of adultery. However, some groups have also stated more specific political aims. AQIM, for example, has long said it wants to set up an Islamic state in Algeria.

Do they work together?

Sometimes. Northern Mali is one example, where Ansar al Din, MUJAO, and AQIM are holding the north in concert with each other. Reports of black English-speakers among the ranks of the MUJAO also suggest that members of Boko Haram – Islamist militants from northern Nigeria – may at least be moonlighting as members of the Malian group.

More fundamentally, militant groups show solidarity. Last week’s kidnappers in Algeria claimed their attack was retribution for the French-led intervention in Mali, and demanded it be stopped. While security analysts say the attack was probably planned before France took action, it still offered perpetrators a chance to give fellow Islamists a hand.

What do other Muslims in North Africa think?

Nearly all reject utterly the violence and harsh ideology of Islamist militants, of which they are the principal victims. Indeed, the practice by some militant groups of takfir - branding a fellow Muslim a kafir, or unbeliever – is considered a sin in mainstream Islam.

What have governments done so far to combat them?

Responses have varied. Some have waged military campaigns, while others have focused on police work. Western allies have offered assistance, to mixed effect.

Algeria won peace with a 2005 amnesty for militants who laid down their arms. The Army continues to fight AQIM, however. Algeria has also taken the lead in recent years in rallying North and West African governments to cooperate on security. Given this, last week’s debacle – a rare attack on an oil installation – has shocked observers.

The US has spent millions of dollars on counterterrorism training for armies including those of Algeria and Mali. The swift collapse of Mali’s Army last year left observers wondering what went wrong. 

Where do militants get money?

Details are murky. Governments and security experts all say the AQIM – and perhaps other groups – are plugged into drug-smuggling networks, most likely selling protection or simply taxing the smugglers. Kidnappings are also a main source of cash. AQIM in particular has reportedly raked in millions of euros from European governments in return for releasing their citizens. (Governments routinely deny that ransoms have been paid.)

Has the Arab Spring changed the game?

Yes. The revolutions in Tunisia and Libya in 2011 threw security services off balance, allowing militants to move more freely in those countries and across their borders. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi’s vast arsenals were looted, with weapons from small arms to thousands of surface-to-air missiles pouring onto the black market.

More fundamentally, the fall of dictators opened Tunisia's and Libya's societies – for better and for worse. In both countries, Salafi minorities have asserted themselves, sometimes violently. The starkest examples to date are arguably attacks on US diplomatic facilities last September.

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