Haidara Aissata, the lone woman in Mali’s parliament, picked up the phone earlier this month to the anguished cries of a young mother who just learned her husband had sold the couple’s 9-year-old son to al Qaeda fighters for $40.
The boy was taken to a training camp where he would be indoctrinated into Shariah law and fight against French troops seeking to repel the terrorists’ grip on the West African nation.
Ms. Aissata — who stands out in Mali’s male-dominated politics as much for her beauty-queen looks as her impassioned oratory — tells the story frequently as she travels the globe these days trying to dispel the notion — fanned by some Obama administration officials — that al Qaeda is weakened and on the decline.
To the contrary, the terror network has inspired and trained al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb throughout northwest Africa, along with its Mali offshoot, Ansar Dine, and both are gaining strength and “infecting the continent like a cancer,” Ms. Aissata told The Washington Guardian.
“Al Qaeda is still a threat to the national security of the United States, just as it was when Osama bin Laden trained young fighters in Afghanistan. This is what is happening in Mali and other parts of Africa,” she said in an interview where she warned about the growing number of al Qaeda training camps sprouting across Africa.
“In those training camps, future terror leaders are born,” she said. “Terrorism is spreading. Al Qaeda is becoming stronger. The extremists don’t stay in Africa. They travel to Europe and the U.S.”
Contradicting the White House
Her message will contrast with some in U.S. government who have tried to argue in recent months that al Qaeda’s reach and capability have been substantially diminished.
The United States “has repeatedly affirmed our support for the French operation in northern Mali, the African forces deploying to Mali and regional efforts to counter terrorist groups in the region,” said Hilary Renner, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.
Ms. Renner said the administration “will continue to evaluate all requests for assistance from our partners to counter the mutual threat of terrorism” the region.
Mali is only months away from its first elections since a military coup last year toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure. However, Malian politicians are split as to whether July’s elections can safely take place while al Qaeda remains lurking in its shadow.
The burgeoning civil unrest and war is not endemic to Mali, but al Qaeda’s “ideology is reaching deep into Africa’s youth,” Ms. Aissata said in a phone interview while she was in Paris earlier this month.
Before the coup, Mali was considered the most stable democratic country in Africa.
A year ago, the military overthrew Mr. Toure, whom they blamed for failing to stop an uprising of ethnic Tuareg mercenaries who had returned home from Libya after fighting alongside Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The group has gained a foothold inside northeast Mali’s Ifhogas Mountains, near the Algerian border, despite the best attempts of the French military to eliminate the fighters from the region.
The terrorist organization has used tens of millions of dollars in the past year to recruit new members, establish training camps and purchase weapons to gain control of the region.
Thomas Creal, the lead forensic accountant with a U.S. military task force in Afghanistan who specializes in tracking terror financing, said al Qaeda was able to create the “perfect storm” in Mali because the movement has money.
“Mali did everything according to the book — built a democratic nation, used [a U.S.] grant to fuel its economic growth and then, boom, al Qaeda moves in and all hell breaks loose,” Mr. Creal said. “We missed one very important piece of the puzzle. We need to bankrupt the enemy. While we help build a nation, they build their war chest.”
The group’s money is used, in part, to keep its propaganda machine and recruitment branch in operation.
They gain support in villages “filled with desperation and poverty” by purchasing food, medicine and weapons, Ms. Aissata said. They also buy children to train as terrorists. “The extremists and the poverty threaten all of us.”
Ms. Aissata, who is also president of the Organization for Women and Children of Northern Mali, is the only woman representing the government from her region where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has tortured women, dismembered some and stoned others to death.
“It is not me who is important here,” she said. “It is the women and children I represent who need our help, who need to be heard.”
Ms. Aissata said the terrorists’ financing already had helped them pay for more than 200 boys ranging in age from 9 to 15 years old. Some children are given to al Qaeda leaders with the promise that they will be trained in Islamic studies and Shariah law. Others are sold based on age and necessity.
A child as young as 9 will sell for much less than a 15-year-old “who can hold a weapon and fight,” a senior Malian official told The Guardian.
Counterterrorism analysts estimate that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb spends close to $2 million each month on equipment, including weapons and financial payoffs to families whose children join local katibas, known as combat branches of the group.
“This money doesn’t come from just criminal operations but from private donors in the Persian Gulf and Middle East who support al Qaeda,” the official said. “It is difficult to fight a war when the rich are supporting the enemy and the poor are coerced into giving up their children.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also fills its coffers through drug-trafficking and ransoms from high-profile kidnapping of tourists and diplomats.
“AQIM traffics cocaine from Latin America into Europe to help finance their operations. But beyond the obvious, it poses a very serious risk to U.S. national security, as ties between the nefarious drug organizations and terror groups grows stronger,” said a U.S. official, with knowledge of the Latin America drug trade.
Turmoil fuels terrorism
U.S. and European officials say increased instability in Africa is an area of concern because it leads to increased recruitment, thus strengthening the terror movement.
Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing last month that AQIM in Mali is a “shared threat,” noting that it is the fastest-growing al Qaeda franchise in the world.
French intelligence officers earlier this month discovered British, Saudi and European passports in a terrorist hideout in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu. They also found ammunition and weapons stockpiled in the home, according to news reports from the region.
The discovery is evidence that al Qaeda’s reach goes beyond the region, deep into Europe and “many believe into the U.S. as well,” a U.S. official told The Guardian.
Converging al Qaeda franchises is yet another concern.
In mid-March, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Terence McCulley warned that Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group in Nigeria with ties to al Qaeda, was moving freely between Nigeria and northern Mali. The convergence of these groups threatens progress in the region and increases the chance that Mali will fall into the hands of extremists.
Ms. Aissata is pleading for more action by the West.
“The Obama administration must be a part of the solution before it is too late,” she said.
“The country who has led the fight against terrorists around the world is the United States. It must do the same with Africa. Only when they fear U.S. involvement, can we find a way to stop them.”
Mr. Creal said the solution may be as simple as bankrupting the enemy.
“Now is the time to pull all our resources and attack the black money, find it and get it back — Mali on one end and Afghanistan on the other end — meet in the middle, stockpiling all the money and bankrupting the enemy,” he said.