With the bloody mess at the Algerian Amenas gas facility and the French intervention in Mali in the news, I thought I'd have a look see what was actually going on since I now despair of getting meaningful data from the news. In particular, why are the French so concerned that they're taking unilateral military action?
The prior history of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and Ansar Dine bears reading. The Maghreb is north-west Africa, more or less, but Mali is the base for AQIM. Mali itself is south-west of Algeria - and yes, I had no idea until I consulted a map. Ansar Dine and AQIM initially helped the Tuareg MNLA in northern Mali ("Azawad") in their fight against the government, but have now turned on the MNLA and pushed them out of the cities they'd taken together in northern Mali. Ansar Dine appears to be primarily Muslim Tuareg in composition. The Mali kind-of-government (post-coup) asked for French help as it had no real ability to fight a conflict like this for Azawad, even though MNLA have now aligned themselves with the Mali government against Ansar Dine/AQIM.
AQIM seems to have ambitions beyond merely extending its territory. Bungled 2009 experiments in using bubonic plague imply that it's looking at Western population centres as a target for their brand of jihad.
Clearly there is widespread concern about AQIM establishing a base across more than 50% of Mali. 700,000+ square km of desert territory is a lot of space to hide - more than the total area of Afghanistan, to give you some comparison. Nigeria and Chad have pledged substantial forces to oppose the rebellion, giving you some idea about how worried they are about the problem - operating a significant military force overseas on an open-ended commitment is an expensive proposition.
The Amenas hostage-taking is significant as it is claimed to be a protest against French involvement in Mali and Algerian complicity in the military operations. Note that it's in eastern Algeria, well away from Mali but close to Libya, implying that AQIM have substantial mobile military forces in western Libya. The attackers can't have expected to walk away from the situation; this was almost certainly sold as a suicide mission. The Algerian government said early on that it would not negotiate, which presumably was the expected reaction. So why conduct the operation? I can only imagine that the intent was to discredit the Algerian government in the eyes of European citizens following a bloody rescue operation; blame most of the deaths on Algeria, reduce Western military support for the government, and take (say) southern Algeria at their leisure.
Mitt Romney failed pretty completely against Obama, but to his credit he raised the issue of Mali back in October, way before anyone in the media was noticing:
Romney used Mali as an illustration of the rise of Al Qaeda, trying to make the point that the world has gotten less safe during the administration of President Obama because terrorist groups have been allowed to flourish in places like Mali. Obama countered that Al Qaeda has been decimated during his administration.Oops! Clearly not decimated in the Maghreb, quite the contrary.
Still, I'd be fascinated to learn what French intelligence has been telling Hollande that has made him take the political risk of intervening in Mali. If he's that concerned, perhaps we should all be.