By Jill Dougherty
Al Qaeda is determined to make the fragile African nation of Mali a safe haven, and the terrorist threat from the network's affiliate in that country, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, "is spreading while we speak," a senior European official said Wednesday.
"We know the hard way that if al Qaeda fighters have a free zone they'll try to attack us all over the place," the official said. "We consider AQIM the growing, and maybe the leading, threat against us."
The official's concerns echoed worries of American national security officials. The al Qaeda affiliate has gotten increased scrutiny after the recent deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. officials have said there are signs extremists responsible for the attack were affiliated with or inspired by AQIM.
The official, who spoke to reporters in Washington, compared Mali to Afghanistan under the Taliban, describing Mali as a "failed state." The official spoke on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.
The country is being referred to as "Sahelistan," a reference to the Arabic word used to refer to the broad swathe of land in the north of African stretching between the Atlanta Ocean and the Red Sea.
AQIM, officials say, is heavily armed thanks to drug and arms smuggling, as well as kidnappings of foreigners. Six French nationals, for example, have been kidnapped in the region.
"We in the United States are deeply concerned about the ongoing situation in Mali," Johnny Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters at a briefing Wednesday in New York. "We think that Mali is an enormously complicated situation."
Pointing to AQIM as well as another associated group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, Carson said, "Both of these groups have been responsible for the desecration of historical writings and buildings and artifacts in Timbuktu. They are responsible for trying to impose Sharia law on various parts of northern Mali. They are responsible for terrorism, for kidnapping, and for robbery. This is an issue that must be dealt with through security and military means."
In an interview with the Voice of America, Carson said many of AQIM's senior leadership and members are non-Malians, "people who have come in from the region, who have come in from Algeria, who have come in from Mauritania, who have come in from Libya and other places. This is a terrorist group and the response to that must be a security, military response."
The United States wants Mali to accept an intervention force from the Economic Community of West African States because the country is incapable of adequately countering AQIM fighters.
"The Malian military has been broken," Carson told VOA. "It is now in need of restructuring and repair and rehabilitation. It should accept the support, the camaraderie, the mentoring and the friendship of other ECOWAS states as it attempts to get itself together so that it can help address the issues of terrorism in the northern part of the country, as well as humanitarian support."
The United States, Carson told reporters in New York, "has been appalled by the destruction of many of Mali's valuable historical texts, by the destruction of mosques and historically important buildings, and by the attempt to impose extremist ideology on the communities."
"Clearly," he says, "some action must be taken but ... it should be well-planned, well-organized, well-executed and well-resourced."
Mali has asked the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would authorize an ECOWAS-led military force to fight rebels in the northern part of the country.
The senior European official said countries concerned about Mali hope they can have a U.N. resolution in the coming weeks that would authorize military action.
"It's a question of weeks," the official said, "not months."
Asked whether the United States might launch unilateral military strikes against AQIM in Mali, the European official said, "There is such close coordination on Mali and the Sahel that I doubt there will be unilateral U.S. action."
But the official added, "We are happy the American side is investing heavily in (countering) AQIM."