And they may have to call upon that training sooner rather than later.
A shadowy group called Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has busily set up shop in northern Mali, US military commanders and security experts say, passing easily through the porous borders of Mali, Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger to carry out kidnappings of foreign aid workers and tourists. AQIM also attacked a Malian military convoy in July, killing several troops, and was implicated in the assassination of a Malian military intelligence officer one week after killing a British tourist in a group it had been holding for nearly six months. (Four other hostages had been released; one was still held at press time.)
As one of the poorest countries in the world, with just a few thousand troops to patrol a vast territory the size of Texas and California put together, Mali has its work cut out for it. But despite the growing number of kidnappings and attacks, many Malians say the Al Qaeda threat is being overblown by both France and the United States. They worry that warning tourists not to visit could kill the economy in parts of the north and that a US troop presence could attract even more Al Qaeda attacks.
“We are not against the training of the Malian Army by the Americans,” says Fatoumata Maiga, a women’s rights activist in Mali’s capital, Bamako. “But we don’t want the American Army to be present here. We see that around the world, wherever the Americans are, there is a temptation for Al Qaeda to be there.”
Still, even Malians who doubt the presence of Al Qaeda admit that the vast terrain and the lack of resources mean that there is little Mali could do to defend itself.
“We have nothing but desert, and anybody who wants to come here can come here,” says Col. Adghaimar Ag Alhoussainy, a Malian military commander based in Timbuktu. “Mali is a very poor country. We need many things to fight Al Qaeda, and it is very difficult to fight Al Qaeda.”
Rising pace of attacks here
“They realized this is becoming a negative effect, not only for Mali, it was also forming a regional effect,” says Lt. Col. James Woods, operations commander for Operation Enduring Freedom, Trans-Sahel region, in a phone interview from his base in Stuttgart. “We have assisted the Malians in building their defense capabilities to make their Army more professional, capable of sustaining itself and capable of thwarting militant external organizations.”
AQIM’s track record has been sufficient cause, US State Department officials say, to warn all Americans – even aid workers – to leave Mali’s northern regions and avoid upcoming tourist spectacles such as the Festival Au Desert music concert set for Jan. 7-9.
“We consider the threat a very serious one, and people who travel to the three northern states are in serious risk of being kidnapped,” says Peter Barlerin, deputy chief of mission for the US Embassy in Bamako.
Many in Mali’s north are concerned that the Western warnings could cripple the region’s tourism-dependent economy and affect key aid operations.
That’s one reason Malian officials stress that the warnings might be exaggerated.
On the streets of the northern city of Timbuktu, there are few signs of danger. The few Western tourists who have ventured to this city to visit its ancient libraries of manuscripts, to take camel treks into the desert, or to hear the blues-like songs of its traditional Tuareg and Songhay musicians, find themselves quickly surrounded in the marketplace by merchants desperate to sell trinkets. But aside from aggressive haggling, the city is calm.
Still, aid groups aren’t taking their safety in the region for granted.
“I can’t judge whether this is exaggerated or not,” says Riborg Knudsen, country director for Norwegian Church Aid in Bamako. “But the risks of what would happen if a staffer was kidnapped would be so devastating, not just to the person, but for the whole project, we wouldn’t want to risk that.”
US support ‘is a good thing’
The problem of Al Qaeda will be solved permanently if the Malian government begins to address the situation in the north more directly, says Ibrahim Ag Idbartanat, a moderate Tuareg leader who helped negotiate the end of the bloody Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s and now runs a group to combat slavery in northern Mali.
“The Army has to be trained, and US support for our troops is a good thing,” says Mr. Idbartanat. “The solution for the Salafists [radical Islamists] is not to ignore them. If you ignore them, they will be fixed in the national conscience and it will be very difficult to get them out.”
At his camp in the center of the city, Col. Gaston Damango welcomes the assistance of the US military in providing communications equipment, all-terrain vehicles, and counterinsurgency training for 160 of his men at a military base in Gao. But he seems bewildered by American concerns about an Al Qaeda threat here.
“The Americans have a lot of fear for Al Qaeda. They think the Salafists are here in Timbuktu, and it’s not true,” says Damango. “If you go far from here, you will find nothing but poverty. But the people don’t hate the government because of the poverty. The people know we are here to protect them.”