Events in the African nation of Mali are very rarely on the front burner for most Americans or even the American government, but the rise of several Islamic groups there and a related crisis in neighboring Algeria now have our attention.
The most alarming events played out this week in Algeria as terrorists seized more than 40 hostages, with anywhere from three to seven of them being American. A subsequent rescue attempt by Algerian troops resulted in multiple deaths, and the fate of the Americans remains unclear. The abductions came in response to French officials sending troops to Mali in an effort to defeat the radical elements there.
Answering the question of who is on the rise in Mali is more than a little complicated, but experts see multiple groups working together to take control.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. He told WND not all elements of the rebels are radical Islamists, but they are certainly part of the mix.
"You have several different groups, and these include groups that are a bit more secular and with their own aims," Gartenstein-Ross said. "Secondly, (are) Islamist groups who aren't necessarily global jihadists, and third is Islamist groups that are global jihadists.
"So there's a mix of groups which has contributed to a lot of inaccuracy within public discussion of northern Mali. But sum it up concisely and simplifying a bit, it's a place where, although al-Qaida hasn't formed a seat of its own, as some people have described it, al-Qaida's north African contingent was able to find great space to operate. Meanwhile, some of the very darkest, most hard-lined versions of Islamic law were being put into effect."
Gartenstein-Ross said all of those developments were of concern to the French, but the very real threat of a terrorist attack on the European continent ultimately triggered its military involvement.
So now that Americans have been caught up in all this, will American policy or level of involvement in the region change much? Gartenstein-Ross doesn't believe it will.
"It doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. is going to play more of a role. What the U.S. is going to do has also been a subject of contentious debate. You initially had the Pentagon say that it would provide assistance to the French, surveillance helicopters and the like," Gartenstein-Ross said. "According to the latest reports, the White House is now backing down, so you may end up having the Pentagon's view that it should provide support but not boots on the ground winning out over the White House's view. I do think what happened in Algeria may prod us a little bit more to provide non-lethal support to the French to make sure that we come through in that regard."
He also points out that the U.S. is still feeling over-extended militarily, so while Mali is seen as a threat, the Obama administration is not at all eager to play a leading role in this ordeal.