The New Terrorist Training Ground

Last year, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did something no other modern terrorist group has: conquered a broad swath of a sovereign country—Mali. Since then, despite French intervention, northern Mali has become a jihadist  front, with Islamist militants flowing in from around the world. While America remains focused on threats from the Middle East and South Asia, the new face of terror is likely to be African. 
Two Islamist policemen patrol the streets of Gao in July 2012, during Islamists' brief period of control last year in northern Mali. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty)

Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, is a place of extremes. It’s a sprawl of one- and two-story mud-brick houses that lack power lines and running water, but it’s also home to the garish, McMansion-style estates of Cocainebougou, or “Cocaine Town,” a deserted neighborhood that once belonged to Arab drug lords who controlled the region’s smuggling routes for hashish and cocaine but fled, fearing reprisals from local citizens who blamed them for the Islamist invasion. The city has few high schools and no universities, but many of Mali’s leading guitarists and percussionists learned their craft in Gao’s decades-old youth orchestras; it is a proudly secular city that also houses the Tomb of Askia, one of the oldest mosques in Africa, built in the 15th century to honor a regional ruler. Gao was for centuries best known as the capital of the ancient Songhai Empire, which once controlled a region larger than present-day Mali. In the summer of last year, an al‑Qaeda affiliate known as AQIM, for “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” took over Gao and made it the capital of the rump state the group created after forcing the Malian army out of the north. Months earlier, the Tuareg, a separatist minority long bent on independence, had laid the groundwork for AQIM and its Islamist allies when they captured the city. When I visited northern Mali in March of this year, a black-metal billboard the extremists had erected on the main road leading into the city was still welcoming visitors to the “Islamic City of Gao.”

French air and ground forces reconquered the north this past January, bringing the region back under the nominal control of Mali’s fragile central government. Camouflage pickup trucks full of Malian soldiers now rumble down Gao’s otherwise empty streets, and a handful of small bars and restaurants have reopened. Castel and other Malian beers, strictly forbidden under the Islamists, are freely available, though they’re usually served warm because of the city’s frequent power outages. I walked through the main bazaar one afternoon with Baba Douglass, an affable, rotund man who works as a top adviser to Gao’s mayor, Sadou Diallo. Teenagers hawked Nokia cellphones and women in brightly colored blue dresses and head scarves peddled warm bread and cake, calling out prices as we passed. Douglass pointed to a pair of canary-yellow bulldozers looming over a fenced-off expanse of dirt and stone. “That’s where the new central market building is going,” he told me. “If things stay quiet, it will be open by the end of the year.”

That’s a big if. Mali’s central government now runs Gao, but many locals believe that the jihadists who controlled the city last year have melted away into the surrounding countryside, where they are waiting out the French. France launched its military campaign on January 11 with a series of air strikes on insurgent targets. Thousands of French ground troops poured into the country later that month and began pushing north. At the peak of the campaign, more than 4,000 French soldiers were in Mali, but the French military has announced plans to withdraw about 3,000 of them by the end of the year. Paris will pull out the remaining troops next year, leaving behind an unspecified number of special forces and trainers to mentor the Malian security forces, and will also support a new United Nations peacekeeping force of 12,600 troops drawn from other African countries. But many ordinary Malians still fear that their country’s armed forces won’t be able to fill the void.

After saying goodbye to Douglass, I made my way through the remains of a walled compound that once housed the mayor’s offices. About a dozen militants had snuck in days before and lobbed grenades at a convoy of passing Malian military vehicles, kicking off a fierce gun battle that raged for more than seven hours. French forces relieved the overmatched Malian soldiers and eventually killed all the attackers, but the fighting left the compound in ruins, two of its yellow walls reduced to piles of scorched concrete and rebar. The ground was littered with spent cartridges, scraps of clothing, and razor-sharp shrapnel. The compound’s custodian, Hasan Haidara, led me into a garage and pointed to a splotch on the floor that looked like brown paint. “Blood from one of the jihadis,” he told me. Haidara, who’d been trapped in the compound during the attack, said several of the fighters were Arabs. “They were not from Mali,” he said emphatically. “They were not from here.”

I heard a similar refrain from an array of Malian and American security officials. Gao’s central jail is housed in a defunct two-story health clinic a short drive from the mayor’s compound. When I visited, the warden, Captain Ballo Banfa, told me that many of his prisoners had come from Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria, and other neighboring African countries. Captain Ibrahim Sanogo, an intelligence officer at a nearby Malian military base, told me that he’d listened in on radio conversations between rebels speaking English, Fulani, and Hausa, three of the primary languages of neighboring Nigeria, and personally interrogated captured fighters from Burkina Faso and Chad. France captured two of its own citizens allegedly fighting alongside the Islamists in northern Mali and is holding them on terrorism charges. U.S. officials say foreign fighters from across Africa have been flowing into Mali to earn their jihadist bona fides and gain tactical experience battling a well-armed Western military. “Northern Mali has become a jihad front,” said a U.S. official familiar with the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “People think of northern Mali like they thought of Chechnya in the late ’90s—as someplace where you can go and do your part to restore the caliphate.”

The foreign militants battling Malian and French troops across northern Mali are part of a little-noticed but hugely important shift. American policy makers have long treated the Middle East and South Asia as the main battlegrounds of the war on terror, but those regions are quickly being joined by Africa, which is now home to some of the largest and most active Islamist militias in the world. The Islamist extremist group Boko Haram used a massive car bomb to demolish a UN compound in Nigeria in 2011, leaving at least 23 people dead, and has killed hundreds of other Nigerian citizens and security personnel over the past two years as it has fought to impose Sharia law in the oil-rich state. The Somali militia known as al-Shabaab has carried out suicide bombings throughout the beleaguered capital of Mogadishu and in neighboring countries like Uganda. Radicalized Africans have been involved in terror plots in the continental United States, taking advantage of the fact that they typically attract less scrutiny than Arabs or Pakistanis. The militant who tried to down a packed Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, for instance, was a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The Islamist groups fighting in Mali pose a particularly dangerous threat. AQIM has already accomplished something no other al-Qaeda franchise has ever been able to pull off: conquering and governing a broad swath of a sovereign country, then using it as a base to plot sophisticated attacks outside its borders. Libyan fighters trained by AQIM took part in last September’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, according to another U.S. official familiar with the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, at the time the top al-Qaeda commander in northern Mali, also helped the al‑Qaeda affiliate in Algeria organize the conquest of a sprawling natural-gas facility there earlier this year; at least 37 hostages, including three Americans, were killed when Algerian special forces retook the compound. In late May, Islamist fighters loyal to Belmokhtar attacked a French-owned uranium mine in northern Niger and a nearby army outpost, killing nearly two dozen Nigerian soldiers. Belmokhtar, who is still at large, and AQIM have publicly promised to carry out attacks in France in retaliation for the country’s intervention in northern Mali.

That is far from an empty threat. Mary Beth Leonard, the American ambassador to Mali, told me during a March interview in her tidy embassy office, on a small, tree-lined street in the capital city of Bamako, that the U.S. believes a Malian terror attack in Europe is a real possibility. Leonard noted that a significant number of Malians live within France’s borders, which means Malian radicals loyal to Belmokhtar or other Islamist commanders could potentially evade scrutiny amid the flow of Africans traveling between the two countries. “The most proximate fear is that the threat could reach the European homeland,” Leonard told me. Citizens of any European Union country can travel to other EU nations without a visa, and Leonard worries that Malian jihadists with French passports could spread across the continent to strike European targets, as well as American embassies, schools, and military bases.

American officials also fear that Mali’s 10 months as a de facto Islamist state allowed Belmokhtar and other local militants to operate rudimentary training camps where radicals from across Africa could train alongside one another and share tactics for building stronger bombs and mounting more-effective ambushes and attacks. A U.S. official who closely monitors Mali told me that Boko Haram had sent new recruits from Nigeria into Mali to improve their battlefield skills. Many of those hardened fighters have since returned, bolstering Boko Haram’s ranks as it intensifies its fight against the regime of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in an effort to establish Sharia law. Amanda Dory, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Africa, told me that Islamists from countries like Tunisia and Algeria have also started returning home from Mali, taking their new experience fighting Western militaries with them.

“People think of northern Mali like they thought of Chechnya in the late ’90s—as someplace where you can go and do your part to restore the caliphate.”

Fears about Africa’s emergence as a terror haven are unlikely to subside anytime soon. Africa’s Islamists are able to take advantage of the fact that many of the continent’s countries have porous borders; weak and corrupt central governments; undertrained and underequipped militaries; flourishing drug trades that provide a steady source of income; and vast, lawless spaces that are so large—and so far away from major American military bases like those in the Middle East and Afghanistan—that it would be difficult for the U.S. to mount effective counterterror efforts even if the war-weary Obama administration chose to do so. Those are precisely the reasons (along with a trove of Libyan weapons) Islamists were able to conquer northern Mali and use it as a base for planning the strikes on the uranium mine in Niger and the natural-gas plant in Algeria. Those are also the reasons American officials worry that a successful terror attack in the U.S. or Europe planned in Africa and carried out by African extremists is only a matter of time. The new face of militant Islam, in other words, is likely to be an African one.

Mali’s fall is a story of a decade of American missteps—and a cautionary tale of what could happen if the U.S. doesn’t begin devoting more attention and resources to combating Africa’s growing terrorist threat. President Obama nodded to those dangers in May in a major speech on the future of the war on terror. “What we’ve seen is the emergence of various al‑Qaeda affiliates,” he said. “From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse.” Still, Obama cautioned that he wanted U.S. troops to focus on helping other countries battle the militants operating inside their borders, not to take unilateral action against the extremists. That approach would be in keeping with Washington’s recent policy toward the region. Successive presidential administrations failed to take stronger action against the militants who eventually conquered northern Mali, for three main reasons: bitter bureaucratic infighting between the Pentagon and the State Department; a mistaken belief that Washington’s putative Malian allies were committed to cracking down on their country’s militants; and a fundamental misreading of how much ordinary Malians had come to despise Amadou Toumani Touré.

Touré, a former army officer, took power in 1991 after helping oust the country’s then-president, Moussa Traoré, and won international acclaim for leading a successful effort to draft a new constitution and clear the way for nationwide elections. Touré, who is universally known as ATT, transferred control of the country to Mali’s first freely elected leader in 1992 and resumed his military career. He put himself forward as a presidential candidate in 2002, after retiring from the army, and was elected by a wide margin. He handily won reelection in 2007 and later promised to step down at the end of his second term, as mandated by the constitution he had helped write. The U.S., which saw Touré as a rare African leader with a genuine commitment to democracy, showered Mali with $728 million in aid, beginning in 2008 and continuing until its rules for providing aid prevented it from doing so.

That was on March 22, 2012, when ATT was ousted in a military coup, just weeks before his second and final term was slated to end. The Touré government had become wildly unpopular because of its blatant corruption, with the president’s relatives and political allies building massive mansions in Bamako while buying property in Dubai and other foreign cities, according to Malian press reports and a senior Malian lawmaker. Malian officials say that Touré also turned a blind eye to the country’s burgeoning drug trade, apparently concluding—mistakenly— that allowing the north to reap tens of millions in drug proceeds each year could prevent another uprising by members of the country’s independence-minded Tuareg minority. “The politicians who were close to ATT didn’t even try to hide all the money they were stealing,” Siaka Traoré, the deputy head of the Malian parliament’s defense committee, told me. “A colleague of mine built a house in the north that was so big, even Barack Obama couldn’t afford a house like it.”

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Yochi Dreazen, an Atlantic contributing editor, is working on a book about military suicide. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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