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On the same day that Open Doors USA named Mali the world’s seventh worst persecutor of Christians, there were reports that al-Qaida fighters there were launching an offensive to capture two cities.
Fears are that their goal is to take over the North African nation and persecute Christian members of the population much as violent radicals in Nigeria and Somalia do against their Christian populations.
International Christian Concern’s Africa analyst William Stark says al-Qaida’s offensive is a major reason the nation went from being unranked to No. 7 on the list.
“Their goal is to take over the entire country of Mali. Open Doors USA just came out with a list of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians and Mali went from unranked to No. 7. This would be problematic for Christians in Mali. These extremists would likely persecute Christians to a similar extent as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia,” Stark said.
The reports detail al-Qaida’s attacks on the key northern cities of Kona and Mopti. Both are crucial because they are major transportation hubs or gateways to transportation outlets.
A Malian Christian who has asked not to be identified for security reasons confirms the al-Qaida-led assault on those key cities. He says the rebels are making significant progress.
“These Islamic terrorists and extremists are at the front line of one of the regions of the south of Mali near the town of Mopti,” the Christian said.
The source also said the al-Qaida-led assault is being undertaken for a very specific religious and cultural purpose.
“They’re aiming to infiltrate the south of Mali up to the capital of Bamako in order to apply the Shariah law to all of the inhabitants of Mali,” the Christian source said.
Heritage Foundation Africa specialist Morgan Roach confirms the reports.
“While details are still emerging, there are reports that the coalition of Islamist militants, who occupy northern Mali’s three administrative regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, is making an advance southwards to Mopti, not far from where the region’s main airport is located in Sevare,” Roach said.
Roach said the government is sending reinforcements to one of the government controlled towns, but the al-Qaida offensive is alarming.
“The Malian government currently holds Mopti and reinforcements have been sent in to counter an Islamist advance. This is a game changer. The attempt by militants to expand their reach into government controlled territory is a realistic threat,” Roach said.
“After all, the main road out of Mopti connects to Bamako (the capital city),” Roach said, adding that she’s not sure how soon the al-Qaida-led assault force would make a move on that city.
Center for Security Policy Senior Fellow Clare Lopez says she is watching the military developments there with “dismay” because she doesn’t believe Mali’s military can withstand the brunt of a full al-Qaida offensive.
“There seems to be little chance that Malian forces alone can halt the al-Qaida advance – and as another report says – the likelihood that outside forces can join the fight in time to keep al-Qaida from seizing more territory looks slim,” Lopez said.
A former CIA station chief who has asked not to be named for security reasons says that from a military standpoint, al-Qaida’s apparent plan is solid.
“It’s very sound military strategy. Al-Qaida already captured two-thirds of the country and the Mali military is helpless to stop them. Kona and Mopti are on the way to the capital of Bamako. Nothing except outside, like U.S. or European, military support will stop them,” the former CIA station chief said.
Al-Qaida’s strategic moves are a source of concern for the country’s Christians and human rights groups.
And Stark says if al-Qaida is successful, there will be more persecution for Mali’s Christians.
“That change in ranking is enough evidence to show that the situation for Christians in Mali is looking bleak,” Stark said.
“As is the case wherever Islamic jihadis attack, they fight to spread Islam and impose Islamic law. Islamic doctrine provides zero protection for believers of any other faith, including Christians and Jews, who are ‘People of the Book,’ if they do not surrender and submit to a dhimmi status under Shariah,” Lopez said.
“Even if they do submit, their freedom to practice their faith openly and without fear will be crushed under Islam,” Lopez said.
“Mali’s Christians face a grim future of oppression, persecution, and slaughter as the al-Qaida jihadis seize ever more territory,” Lopez said.
The former CIA station chief gives an even more blunt prognosis.
“Their future is death. They will die or convert,” the former station chief said.
The Malian Christian says that even with the threat, Malian Christians are staying put.
“I have made some most recent investigations on the current state of Christians here in the south of Mali regarding this invasion of these extremists and found no reports at all of Christians leaving Mali as a result of what has essentially been an invasion of their country these recent times,” the Christian source said.
Mali’s leaders are not sitting idly while the invasion continues. Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko took a two-day trip to neighboring Mauritania to ask for military assistance.
“I asked him for an even stronger commitment on Mauritania’s part to solve all of the problems in northern Mali, which is occupied by armed Islamist groups including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” Cissoko said.
The former CIA station chief says that what Cissoko really wants is “outside help.”
“He’s mainly begging for NATO troops but would accept African Union or United Nations forces,” the station chief said.
The station chief adds that Mauritania’s military will probably not be much help.
“The Mauritanian military would do no better against al-Qaida than the Malian military, if they even wanted to get involved and become a target themselves,” the former station chief said.