United Nations/New York, NY — Mali has become an incubator for terrorist activity that demands urgent international attention, world leaders said Wednesday, as the U.S. drew its most explicit link between al Qaeda havens in such places and the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Mali--and much of the broader North African region known as the Sahel--has turned the country into a "powder keg" for terrorist activity by al Qaeda's Saharan front, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"Now, with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions," Mrs. Clinton said at a scheduled meeting between senior government officials and heads of international groups held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. "And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi."
It was the first time a top administration official publicly linked the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi so directly to al Qaeda's Saharan affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. In the two weeks since the attack, which killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, U.S. officials have gone from saying there was no evidence of a pre-existing plot to naming AQIM.
Despite the terror network's possible involvement, however, U.S. officials still haven't said the assault was preplanned. Republican critics have assailed the administration's handling of security arrangements and the attack aftermath. Mali's crisis accelerated in March, when junior military officers staged a coup, ending 20 years of democracy. That junta has since stepped down in favor of a transitional civilian administration, but it wields influence in the military.
As Libya descended into civil war last year, waves of workers from Mali returned to their home villages, followed by a flood of weapons carried back into Mali by separatist rebels, many of whom had fought under late Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Three militias now control the north, dominated by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The U.S. and Morocco said at the UN that western and northern African nations need to tighten security on their borders to combat the increased movement of extremists, weapons and drugs, according to CBS/Associated Press and MAP. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed the formation of a core group of countries to coordinate aid to Mali, which is facing an Islamist rebellion. She said Wednesday those countries must help train Mali's security forces, help them drive out extremists, and work to protect human rights.
More than 260,000 refugees have fled the instability in northern Mali, according to the U.N, exacerbating the situation. Those who have remained behind in northern Mali contend with drought and spikes in the cost of food, aggravated by road closures and a mass exodus into the south. Nearly five million people could be on the cusp of famine, the U.N. says. Human-rights groups have documented widespread abuse.
U.N. Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, at the meeting Wednesday, called for urgent international support in the region to confront the confluence of crises that have created what he called "a perfect storm of vulnerability." He appointed a U.N. special envoy to the region.
French President François Hollande said his country was ready to do "everything it can to support the troops that are being planned" and urged a Security Council meeting as soon as possible.
The U.S. has increased counterterrorism efforts with 10 countries across the region, Mrs. Clinton said, including more training and support to break up networks and better protect borders. The U.S. has sent $378 million in humanitarian aid to the area, she said, in efforts to confront a humanitarian crisis that includes 18 million people facing a shortage of food.
The Malian government and a regional bloc of countries recently agreed on the deployment of West African troops to Mali under a U.N. mandate. The U.N. hasn't yet approved the plan.
Mali's West African neighbors have pledged to dispatch 3,300 troops into the country to help it retake its north. French and American military leaders have offered varying degrees of logistical and diplomatic support for the mission. It isn't yet clear which West African nations would contribute troops, since virtually all of West Africa's armies are wrapped up elsewhere.
In recent weeks, Ansar al-Dine, another of the north's militias, has threatened to attack any country in North or West Africa that supports the government of Mali in its quest to retake its territory. "What happened in Libya helped destabilize Mali, and the reverse could also be true," said Michael Woldemariam, professor of African security issues at Boston University.
According to UN News Centre, Sec. Gen. Ban Ki-moon warned that "terrorist groups, transnational criminal organizations and insurgencies threaten peace and prosperity" across the Sahel region. "There is a particularly disturbing rise in extremism, and human rights abuses are prevalent. Human trafficking is on the rise, along with drug trafficking and arms smuggling." Mr. Ban said instability in northern Mali and the influx of refugees to neighbouring countries was further straining the already fragile social and economic infrastructure.
Last month, Jeune Afrique reported that "dozens of young people" from the nearby Polisario-run refugee camps in Tindouf, southern Algeria had joined the al-Qaeda-linked, northern Mali-based Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), whose spokesman, Abu Walid Sahraoui, "is himself a former member of the Polisario."
Concerns about the reach of al-Qaeda-linked groups into neighboring countries prompted Spain to order evacuation of all of its aid workers from the Polisario-run camps in late July, citing "serious risk of further hostage-taking." Terrorist links were already evident last October when three Western aid workers were kidnapped from the Polisario's Rabuni headquarters camp, reportedly with insider help. MUJAO freed those aid workers in July in exchange for $18.4 million and several prisoners, including one alleged kidnap accomplice from the Polisario-run camps, which multiple reports cite as fertile recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers in the region.
This summer, according to UN News Centre, the UN Security Council requested the Secretary-General develop an Integrated Regional Strategy for the Sahel, to help countries counter the terrorist threat, combat organized crime, control arms proliferation, and promote democratic governance and respect for human rights.