Geoff Porter emails:
Over the last several days there has been lots of analysis about AQIM and about how the situation in Mali and France’s bombing campaign came to be, so there’s not much point in going over that ground again. Instead, it might be helpful to look forward to what the French campaign is about (and what it’s not), as well as to look north to the implications for North Africa.
Until 2012, AQIM in the Sahara had been a relatively successful criminal organization – kidnap for ransom, smuggling, narco-trafficking, etc – but it was not a very good or very committed salafi jihadi terrorist organization. From 2008 until 2012 it prioritized making money over ideology. It was intertwined with local populations to the extent that they provided cover and support for illicit activities, but it did not try to impose its salafi jihadi ideology on the population with which it interacted. In general, its roughly 500 fighters existed on the margins of an already marginal region. It was troublesome, but it did not pose a strategic threat to local governments or Europe or the US. That obviously changed in 2012 with the influx of Libyan weapons, the Tuareg rebellion, the collapse of the government in Bamako and its control of the northern half of Mali. AQIM went from a criminally inclined, underperforming Al Qaeda affiliate with dubious loyalty to controlling a large territory and running a “terrorist safe haven” in a country that was an ally to both France and the US. And it placed AQIM and the other Islamist organizations with which it has tensely shared power – Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar al-Din – squarely in France’s sights.