The Mali crisis and the al-Qaeda attack on the natural gas complex in the Sahara seem to have emerged out of the blue: who had thought about Mali in the months before reports of French paratroopers and Western hostages splashed over the front pages? Last week Steve Walt made some necessary points knocking down the notion that the United States has much in the way of vital interest in Mali, while noting that the supposedly “successful humanitarian intervention” in Libya may have opened the doors for increased al-Qaeda terrorism in North Africa by opening up Gaddafi’s arsenals.
I suspect Walt is right that the American interests at stake, when critically evaluated, are fairly minimal. I hope the Obama administration will perceive them that way, despite the inevitable pressures on the president to “do something.” It’s already pretty clear that Algeria, the country with the toughest military in the region, is not going to allow any sort of al-Qaeda sanctuary to develop in North Africa.
One more point: jihadist terrorism is a multinational phenomenon, and the reports are that the terrorist force which attacked the Algerian gas complex included men from Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Canada (an immigrant, I would guess), Niger, Mauritania, and Mali. How the Algerians know this has not been specified.
But one further point, however obvious, should be made. Iran or Iranians, though the favorite whipping boy of the Capitol Hill War Party, play no part in these al-Qaeda actions. Shia Muslims are distinct from Sunnis, and al-Qaeda is an extremism emerging entirely from within Sunni Islam. In fact, though Iran has long been designated a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department, its actual involvement in terrorism is characterized by relative caution and restraint. (One reason reports of the supposed Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador were so incredulously received.) After 9/11, Iranian cooperation in the American campaign to decimate al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was given freely and proved valuable (though Iran remained on the State Department’s terror list). Indeed, if the United States were to find itself once again seriously threatened by al-Qaeda terrorism, Iran is likely to be, once more, an important regional ally. Provided of course we haven’t taken the neoconservative counsel—unrelenting and continuous—to bomb the country. Then it won’t be.