In 1893, in West Africa's upper Niger River basin -- what is now central Mali -- the French army achieved a victory that had eluded it for almost 50 years: the destruction of the jihadist Tukulor Empire, one of the last great challenges to France's rule in the region. The Tukulor Empire's first important conquest had come decades earlier, in the early 1850s, when its fanatical founder, El Hajj Umar Tall, led Koranic students and hardened soldiers to topple the Bambara kingdoms along the banks of the Niger. Umar imposed a strict brand of Islamic law, reportedly enslaving or killing tens of thousands of non-believers over a half century. He is said to have personally smashed to pieces captured idols, and once told a French officer he encountered at a well guarded fort to "Go back to your own country, accursed man." Umar traveled widely, prophesying the end of French rule and preaching about the paradise that awaits those who die by jihad. Killed in the explosion of a gunpowder cache in 1864, it still took almost three decades for the French to wrest control over the middle and upper reaches of the Niger River, including Timbuktu and much of the desert to the north.
Now, the jihadists are back and so are the French -- the two sides slugging it out over the same real estate they fought over 120 years ago. An alliance of jihadist groups, including Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have retaken Timbuktu and again threaten the area of the upper Niger and Senegal Rivers, where the French once built stone fortresses to fend off Umar's attacks. The forts are still there, long abandoned and crumbling along the riverbanks. Over the past 10 months, jihadist forces have re-established the rule of Islamic law across northern Mali, which encompasses around 200,000 square miles or 60 percent of the country. This is a place where teenage couples risk death by stoning if they hold hands in public.
If Mali feels somewhat far away or less than important, consider this: Northern Mali is currently the largest al Qaeda-controlled space in the world, an area a little larger than France itself. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that Mali could become a "permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks." In December, Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of the U.S. Africa Command, warned that al Qaeda was using northern Mali as a training center and base for recruiting across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Jihadists operating in northern Mali have been linked to Boko Haram, the violent Islamist group based in northern Nigeria, and to Ansar al-Sharia, a group in Libya which has been linked to the attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Until last week, Mali appeared to be in a state of semi-permanent standoff, split between the jihadists in the north, and what remained of the Malian army and government in the south. But a sudden jihadist advance into the south shattered the fragile equilibrium, drawing France into the fray. On Jan. 10, jihadist rebels overran the strategic central Malian village of Konna, then the northernmost outpost under government control. The rebel forces had been spotted leaving Timbuktu days earlier in a long column of some 100 vehicles and 900 rebel soldiers.
For the French, the fall of Konna proved not only that the
Malian army has not recovered from its March defeat by Tuareg rebels and
jihadists in the north, but also that it cannot protect the rest of the
country. Faced with this reality, the French launched an air campaign to drive
the jihadists back, and dispatched ground troops -- soon to number 2,500 -- to
secure Mali's capital, Bamako, and to reinforce Malian army positions bordering
the north. By Jan. 12, French airstrikes had driven the jihadist rebels out of Konna.
The French government has repeatedly said that the Malian government asked for its help after the fall of Konna. But there is also a less selfless reason for Paris's urgency: fear that a growing al Qaeda presence in West Africa will make France itself more vulnerable to terrorist attack. French President Francois Hollande said as much on Monday, warning that the jihadist groups in Mali pose a threat that "goes well beyond Mali, in Africa and perhaps beyond."
France's decision to lead the intervention in Mali ended months of handwringing over how to implement the Dec. 20 U.N. Security Council Resolution, which established an ill-defined "Mali Support Mission." The resolution approved a force of 3,300 African troops to be raised from Mali's neighbors -- mainly Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger, as well as Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast -- which were expected to take on the rebels toward the end of 2013. But the resolution provided no timetable for an invasion of the north and no way to pay for it or to equip and train the African troops. France and the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have been slowly securing help from Britain, Germany, and the United States for training and logistics help. But the fall of Konna and fresh worries about the vulnerability of the rest of Mali to jihadist takeover forced the hands of both France and ECOWAS.