Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) infiltrated Mali’s northern frontier in 2003, after a 10-year civil war to overthrow the Algerian government. This desert region has become a safe haven for numerous Islamists linked to al Qaeda.
U.S. intelligence sources have known that northern Mali was becoming a breeding ground for these terrorists. In 2005, the U.S. launched the “trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative,” a military training program in Mali. In 2007, additional training took place with special operations forces. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had considered a base in northern Mali, but the idea never materialized.
The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the destabilization of the Sahel, leaving a number of countries at risk. Our lack of continued military support in Mali left the country unprepared to deal with the fast-growing threat from the well-armed and well-financed Islamist extremists. Northern Mali has now become the “epicenter” for terrorists coming from Niger, Chad, Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, and as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In the aftermath of the overthrow of longtime Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, large caches of weapons left Libya with Tuareg mercenary fighters returning to northern Mali and allied with the AQIM and Ansar Dine Islamists. The Malian military stationed in the northern towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao was outgunned by these Islamists.
In January 2012, more than 90 soldiers were slaughtered by Islamists at the Aguel Hoc military camp near Kidal. The frustration by the military, for lack of government support, led to the ousting of President Amadou Toumani Toure on March 21. Since then, Islamist extremists have infiltrated the region in large numbers.
In July 2012, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2056 to deal with the Islamists in northern Mali, followed by Resolution 2071 in October and Resolution 2085 in December.
However, approval for action was withheld, which would have allowed the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a coalition of 15 countries, to intervene in Mali before it became the base for thousands of well-trained and equipped Islamists.
In September, I traveled to Bamako and met with interim government leaders, a presidential candidate, the former U.N. undersecretary-general and the military leader who undertook the coup (noted locally as a mutiny) to discuss the deteriorating situation in northern Mali.
The government leaders told me that the presidential election was on track for April 2013. However, the current pressing issue was the need of military support by ECOWAS and others to subdue the Islamists who control northern Mali — an urgent priority since negotiations with these Islamist extremists was futile.
I also traveled to Burkina Faso to meet with Tuareg and Arab ethnic leaders in the Mintao refugee camp. The elders had a great fear of the radical Islamists. They wanted to go back home to Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, but feared the atrocities being undertaken by the Islamists as they instituted the brutal Shariah law — killing and maiming unmercifully, and destroying historical Sufi artifacts. The elders said any negotiations with these Islamists would be wasting precious time — something Mali cannot afford. They also noted the influx of new recruits joining the AQIM ranks continued daily.
The government leaders stated that further negotiations with the Islamists would be perceived as a sign of weakness and give them the confidence they can ultimately win.
Killing the Islamists may not provide a long-lasting, peaceful outcome, but engaging them militarily at this point is the only option. Troops on the ground will need air power support. Drone strikes will need to be surgically implemented, so as not to radicalize moderate Muslims, as they attack the embedded Islamists in the towns and villages.
The increase of Islamist extremists in Africa is alarming — a danger across North Africa and the Sahel region. This generation of Islamist extremists has grown up only knowing conflict and is more brutal than its predecessors.
Mali’s deputy head of military operations stated there are 10,000 to 15,000 well-armed Islamists, outnumbering the Malian military of 6,000. He noted it was only a matter of time before the Islamists headed south to take over the capital, Bamako.
The U.N. and U.S. conditions of re-establishing democratic institutions first and negotiating with the Islamists lost Mali 11 months of precious time — almost waiting too long.
The U.S.-backed military incursion in Libya for regime change took 11 months from start to finish. In the process, it destabilized Mali and emboldened Islamist extremists throughout the Sahel.
It is not too late for the U.N. and U.S. to support military action against these embedded Islamists. It is time for the United States to step up and support France, ECOWAS and the African Union to help free the Malian people from the Islamist extremists before Mali becomes an Islamic state.
• John Price served as U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Comoro Islands from Feb. 8, 2002, to June 17, 2005. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of the book “When the White House Calls” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.