Conflict in Mali shows US needs greater engagement in Africa

While I am pleased at reports of US cooperation with France to stop Islamist extremists Mali and run them out of Timbuktu, I remain concerned about the interrelated, widespread threat of terror in the region. America cannot afford to treat it as compartmentalized country-by-country issue.

Adama Diarra/Reuters
A Malian soldier, with a French flag wrapped around his head, stands next to a military vehicle in the recently recaptured town of Gao Jan 2. France's and Mali's troops retook the towns of Gao and Timbuktu from Islamist rebels over the weekend. Op-ed contributor and former US Sen. Russ Feingold writes: 'The US must now launch a decade of outreach...that will help Americans better understand the threats we face and the regions where they develop.'

Many Americans have heard of the city called Timbuktu. Many have probably even used the expression “from here to Timbuktu,” as a cliché to explain that something is very, very far away. Until recently, not many Americans would have answered quickly or even correctly when asked where the city is, or what country it is in. But front-page news events over the past weeks and months may have changed Americans’ awareness of the famous city of Timbuktu, and the northern African country of Mali.

And it’s an awareness they cannot afford to lose. Preventing attacks on our soil and against Americans all over the world demands that we pay attention to developments in Mali, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan and other key – sometimes volatile – countries in northern Africa. And there are many other nations and regions that could threaten our security.

While I am pleased at reports of US military and intelligence cooperation with France and other countries to aid the efforts to stop these extremists from their path of destruction in Mali, I remain as concerned as I was following a trip I made to northern African in 2005. Combating such a widespread, interrelated threat requires cooperation to proactively address and prevent terror. America cannot afford to address this national security priority as if it were a compartmentalized country-by-country threat.

In 2005, as a US senator from Wisconsin and ranking member of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I visited Mali and wrote about my visit in this publication. At the time, I wrote that, “if we want a less threatening future, we Americans need to get in the game, increase our diplomatic presence, listen to the people on the ground, and combine widespread, quick-impact development projects with long-term investments in fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law.”

The Obama administration has certainly done a better job of reaching out to this region, and has a much better appreciation of the transnational nature of the terrorist threat, particularly in Africa. Regrettably, Washington is still struggling to free itself from the flawed policies that continue to undermine a more flexible and informed approach in our fight against that terrorist threat. The US should be even more engaged in Africa than we are now. 

Given the months-long struggle against Al Qaeda-allied fighters in Mali and the tragic hostage situation in nearby Algeria, the need to “get in the game” is even truer today.  We as Americans must become conversant with and respectful of the geography, the languages, the customs, and cultures of far-away places.  We must not be taken by surprise again, as we were on 9/11. 

The region of northern Africa has a rich past and has much to teach about the history of the world. Reports of militants in Timbuktu torching 12th  century manuscripts and destroying ancient sites, such as the tomb of a saint from the year 955, were particularly disheartening for me, having had the opportunity to see similar documents in person during my earlier visit.

While subsequent reports indicate some of the historical documents may have been saved, I was concerned by these accounts, as the destruction of historical sites and documents is eerily reminiscent of the Taliban’s actions, just prior to the attacks of 9/11, when they destroyed the historic Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan. For our own safety, we must recognize the ominous signals terrorist groups send, to us and to each other, and understand the mobility of these jihadist fighters and their ideas in an increasingly connected world.

Militant forces may have been driven out of Timbuktu temporarily when French and Malian soldiers arrived there last week, but the extremists didn’t just disappear – they may have just moved north or south to regroup and plan. All it takes is a quick look at a map of northern Africa to see the proximity of Nigeria and Algeria to Mali and the closeness of those countries to the important but volatile countries of Libya, Egypt, and Sudan.

Less noticed, but just as alarming, are the frequent attacks in Nigeria by an Al Qaeda-linked group called Boko Haram, which reportedly killed 23 people last week. Just this week, there are reports that Boko Haram attackers have killed another eight people in a village in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno.

Boko Haram's likely links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and AQIM's recent activities in Mali as well as Algeria, show the interconnected nature of the terrorist threat in the region. Along with Al Shabaab in Somalia, as well as other affiliated groups, Africa has become a hotbed of terrorist group activity, and potentially poses an immediate threat to Europe and the United States. Again, a country-by-country approach cannot hope to address this worldwide problem.

The US must, of course, devote more resources to Africa, and other areas as well, that too many have viewed as being lower priority. But the US must also adopt a new way of thinking, not only about the nature of the terrorist threat, but how our country relates with others. Members of Congress, and not just members of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, need to see that having a better understanding of and becoming more engaged with Africa matters – and is very much in our national security interest.

Most Americans suffer from a sort of attention deficit disorder when it comes to maintaining focus on foreign events that can directly affect our lives and future. The US must now launch a decade of outreach, learning, and forging new ties through strong programs of citizen diplomacy and foreign language education that will help Americans better understand the threats we face and the regions where they develop.

To continue to play a leading role in the world and to be safe at home, we have to develop these abilities in government, education, and in the media.

Russ Feingold is the author of the 2012 New York Times bestseller, “While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era.” He is also a former three-term Democratic senator from Wisconsin. He served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, and was a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Mr. Feingold is currently a visiting lecturer in law at Stanford University Law School. 

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