If Mali becomes the world’s next major breeding ground for terrorists, U.S. government officials can’t say former Ambassador Vicki Huddleston didn’t warn them.
Huddleston was America’s top envoy to Mali from 2002 to 2005 and also served as deputy assistant secretary for African affairs at the Departments of State and Defense before she retired to Santa Fe, N.M., in 2011. But she’s still got plenty to say about Mali, North Africa, terrorism in the region and what the United States can do about it. Huddleston recently penned a New York Times op-ed titled “Why We Must Help Save Mali” and sat for an interview with National Public Radio.
The gregarious and expansive former high-level government official also participated in a lengthy interview with The Washington Diplomat. At the outset of our interview, Huddleston said the choice for the United States and its European allies with respect to Mali is clear.
“Can we have a country in the heart of Africa controlled by terrorists who are engaged in crime, terror and religious extremism?” she asked. “How much are we willing to accept? Do we intervene or just say, ‘Go ahead and take whatever you want because we don’t want to fight you.'”
Clearly, Huddleston doesn’t think that’s a constructive option. But how exactly did Mali, for years considered a stable democracy, devolve into a bastion of “crime, terror and religious extremism?”
The trouble began almost precisely a year ago when military troops overthrew the country’s democratically elected president, complaining that the government was not supporting them in their fight against a rebellion by nomadic Tuareg rebels in the north.
Ironically, the coup created a power vacuum that allowed those separatist rebels, along with forces linked to al-Qaeda, to take over a vast expanse of desert, effectively splitting the country in two. Soon after trying to create an independent state in the north, however, the secular Tuareg rebels were edged out by a motley mix of Islamic extremists, including Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — groups bent on imposing a medieval brand of Sharia law over an area roughly the size of Texas.
Meanwhile, in the south, Mali’s fragile caretaker government — still effectively controlled by the military junta — was powerless to stop the Islamists from amputating, stoning and terrorizing people in the north, where jihadists, some having migrated from Libya, found safe haven.
By December, the U.N. Security Council, prompted by France, finally devised a plan to retake the north using a 3,300-member multinational African force. But it would be months before the U.N.-authorized force — let alone a complementary mission of Malian soldiers — would be ready. In the meantime, there were also efforts to negotiate with some of the Islamists in the hopes of avoiding a military confrontation.
On Jan. 10, however, Islamist militants stormed the town of Konna, signaling that they intended to advance on the capital of Bamako, and a conflict that had largely flown under the radar was thrust into the global spotlight. The very next day France — at the urging of the central government in Mali, its former colony in West Africa— responded with airstrikes and ground troops to flush out the Islamists. Some 4,000 French troops quickly succeeded in freeing towns such as Gao and Timbuktu, while the Islamists melted away into the desert and mountains.
Huddleston praised French leadership in Mali and explained why they were a natural choice to spearhead the intervention.
“It’s a former colonial master and they have strong ties with these countries,” she said. “They also have substantial populations of French in Mali … and in Niger and Chad.”
She added that France’s willingness to commit ground troops to the Mali campaign in January resonated deeply with the population there.
“They not only used airpower but were willing to put their troops on the ground,” she pointed out. “This makes a huge difference in Africa. When we do [air]strikes and are unwilling to put troops on the ground to put our lives at risk — and I don’t like the idea that Americans would lose their lives — it makes a difference in the region.”
She said that because the French were “willing to put their own lives at risk,” they were able to win the respect of Mali’s people. “When they did that, they were able to push the Islamists out easily. France did a great job, but now comes the really hard question: Is it up to the African troops to root out the extremists when they go back into the desert?”
Indeed, almost just as quickly as it had intervened in Mali, France vowed it would be pulling out of its former colony over the next several weeks and leaving West African and Malian soldiers in charge of the mission.
But the Islamists have most likely simply retreated to fight another day (they were already regrouping in Gao, where several clashes and suicide bombings took place in early February). Meanwhile, any possible African peacekeeping force still needs months of training — as does Mali’s dysfunctional military, which continues to meddle in government affairs and prevent democracy from being fully restored (though it did announce that national elections would be held July 31, a key Western demand).
And Mali’s turmoil could easily seep into other nations. It already became Algeria’s problem on Jan. 16 when jihadist sympathizers linked to al-Qaeda seized a natural gas facility that employed hundreds of people in southern Algeria near the Malian border. Algerian forces stormed the massive compound and after a dramatic four-day standoff, at least 37 hostages were dead, along with 29 militants, according to news reports.
It was a stark wake-up call that North Africa could become a new front in the battle against al-Qaeda, which, though significantly weakened since 9/11, has grown powerful tentacles in parts of the region, capitalizing on the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
“Mali is a battleground, but the problem is not coming from Mali — it’s coming from Algerian jihadists and a population of Mali that is rebelling in North Africa, and those are the two issues that have to be resolved,” Huddleston explained. “Al-Qaeda has to be defeated.”
Huddleston said Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is particularly worrisome — as are the massive caches of weapons being funneled out of Libya after the fall of the nation’s longtime dictator, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. U.S. intelligence officials believe AQIM is actively plotting attacks on Western targets, but they find the splintered, divisive nature of the group challenging to get a bead on.
“What we do know in the case of AQIM is that they have lots of territory, links to other terrorists, and access to thousands of weapons,” Huddleston said. “Gaddafi’s armories were full of everything and those [weapons] are moving south.”
She pointedly added: “As long as those links are there, as long as they have access to that kind of weaponry, and as long as they are going to attract — and they will — other jihadists, they’re going to be dangerous.”
The entire region is becoming increasingly dangerous, she believes, warning that North Africa could become the next stomping ground for al-Qaeda. Huddleston, a career diplomat who served throughout Africa and Latin America, also worries that a passive approach to the radical Islamist momentum building in the region could have dire consequences for the United States. She pointed out that al-Qaeda plotted its devastating Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from the remote mountains of Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban.
“9/11 wasn’t a sophisticated attack,” she said.
To that end, she’s been urging the U.S. government to pay more attention to Mali.
“The United States need not put combat troops on the ground. Instead, we should provide intelligence, equipment, financing and training for a West African intervention force that the United Nations Security Council approved in December (but did not finance),” she wrote in her New York Times op-ed in early 2013.
That’s not to say the U.S. government hasn’t done anything. To improve military relations with African nations, the Bush administration launched the U.S. Africa Command (Africom) in 2007. Two years earlier, a joint civilian-military effort called the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative was formed to provide training and instruction to help governments prevent large swaths of desolate African territory from becoming terrorist strongholds. Current membership includes 11 African countries: Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.
Congress appropriated $500 million for the initiative, but it’s unclear whether the investment has paid off — at least in Mali (the leader of last year’s military coup, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, trained in the United States). Huddleston admits it may not have.
“Years of training by United States Special Forces did not stop the Malian military from fleeing when the Islamist insurgency started last January. In fact, the military exacerbated the chaos by overthrowing Mali’s democratically elected government last March,” she wrote in her op-ed.
Huddleston says it’s necessary to restore Mali’s broken democracy and address its chronic poverty, but the more immediate focus should be on keeping the country from becoming a terrorist sanctuary. Part of the solution, she contends, is to take the Malian army out of the equation in the north and give the area back to the tribes people who’ve lived in the desert for centuries (the main Tuareg rebel group has already indicated its support to oust remaining Islamist militants).
“There has to be a negotiation for autonomy with the Malian nomads so then their armies can be trained to provide security for that area,” she told us.
But the key to stabilizing the shaky state, Huddleston believes, lies with neighboring Algeria.
“Algeria is the only country on the continent with the military capacity, seasoned officers, counterterrorism experience and geographic proximity to take over from France in bringing peace to Mali. Algeria’s military leaders know the extremists’ tactics and their leaders,” she argues.
A lot of that knowledge comes from Algeria’s own brutal civil war with Islamist rebels from 1991 to 2002 that killed anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000 people. The conflict began when a major Islamic party looked set to win national elections. The Algerian government, fearing defeat, promptly canceled the vote, sparking an armed guerilla campaign against the government and its allies.
Huddleston said that costly war sowed the seeds of terrorism in Algeria that eventually spread to Mali.
“It began in 2003 with the end of the Algerian civil war,” she explained. “The Algerian government had defeated the extremists — they were essentially radical Islamic jihadists. That war was the first war in which there was a conflict between a state and extremists.
“Once defeated, these Islamists went into the mountains and they carried out terrorist attacks against the military, initially…. Then they took 32 hostages — all of them European — and they took half of them into Mali,” she said, referring to the 2003 hostage crisis in the Sahara desert that sparked an Algerian manhunt for the missing tourists.
“Once the radicals got to Mali with 15 European hostages, they successfully extorted $5 million in ransom money from the German government,” Huddleston said (the German government never confirmed it paid a ransom). “They used that to buy arms and attempt to recruit.”
But the militant Islamic kidnappers, with varying ideologies, never found a strong foothold in Mali, a historic center of Islamic scholarship whose deeply cultural people have a zest for music, art, laughter and life.
“The people in Mali weren’t very interested because the extremists don’t believe in smoking or music and of course the Malians have lovely music and enjoy life quite a bit,” Huddleston said.
Over the next few years, she says the U.S. government embarked on training missions in Mali, but never engaged in the deep intelligence gathering that would have helped the Malian army root the radicals out. Meanwhile, Europeans continued to be abducted and held for ransom.
“They got stronger and stronger because Europeans kept paying them ransom for European hostages,” Huddleston said, estimating, “The Europeans probably paid about $90 million in ransom money.”
Huddleston suggested that now, European governments — not just France — need to take an active role in planning to contain and defeat extremists who are still eager to establish a base from which they can plot attacks against the West. “This is obviously going to be a long-term problem for Europe and that is one of the reasons France got engaged,” she said.
Plenty of hard questions also await the Obama administration, which has so far been reticent about directly intervening in North Africa, outside of drone surveillance and other intelligence ops. Before handing the reins over to John Kerry, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the United States was “in for a struggle” against a resurgent al-Qaeda presence in North Africa.
“I’m not sure what the Kerry administration will do or is planning because we’re at a transmission point,” Huddleston said. “I thought Hillary was becoming quite aggressive on this in some of her remarks — that we can’t allow Mali to become a safe haven. The only problem was the remark had already been used.”
The bigger problem, according to Huddleston, is that Africa simply isn’t a priority at the State Department.
“I think Hillary didn’t actually know what was going on in northern Mali because Africa is low in priority,” Huddleston argues. “Africa is a low priority and West Africa is the lowest priority. One of the problems for the State Department is that North Africa is in the Middle East Bureau and sub-Sahara Africa is the Africa Bureau.
“North Africa is the lowest priority in the Middle East Bureau,” she said. “They have a couple of wars up there and they aren’t that interested in North Africa. They’re happy to have the Africa Bureau manage this mess in Mali and that’s a mistake.”
Huddleston is intimately familiar with the workings of Foggy Bottom. She was the chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1999 to 2002 and deputy chief of mission in Haiti during the deployment of U.S.-led forces in 1994 to remove the military regime there. In addition to serving as America’s top envoy to Mali, she was also ambassador to Madagascar and chargé d’affaires in Ethiopia. She’s received various State Department accolades, including a Distinguished Honor Award and a Presidential Meritorious Service Award, and she was also a scholar at the Brookings Institution and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Huddleston retired to sunny, peaceful Santa Fe two years ago, but she finds it hard to ignore the conflict brewing Mali and has offered her expertise to Washington policymakers.
“I’ve been back a couple of times and I’ve given them some of my thoughts, but quite honestly they weren’t very interested,” she said with a rueful laugh.
But she quickly became somber when asked if the events in Mali are a harbinger of things to come in North Africa.
“I would say this is more than a sneak preview — we’re in the main feature,” she warned. “What the American public hasn’t realized is, is that this is the future.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat