The kidnapping of American and other Western hostages at a natural gas plant in Algeria by Islamic militants, and France's military intervention in neighboring Mali, illuminate an unfortunate reality: the potential for further terrorist acts in Africa.
The larger repercussions from the military operation in Algeria and the magnitude of the risk of intervention by France in Mali are nearly impossible to determine. But they have the potential to make the horrific violence at the gas plant look like a preview. Will the Islamist groups in Mali and Algeria, or perhaps Islamists far from those countries and with no connection to Mali, take it upon themselves to respond to French and Algerian actions through further acts of terror?
This is comparable to the risk the U.S. runs whenever it engages in a new military operation, though not on a level with Afghanistan and Iraq. What is different with Mali is the fact that Americans now find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of being in the passenger seat while somebody else drives.
France had to act
That France chose to accept the danger and intervene so massively in Mali reflects the French assessment of what the risk would have been if it had not acted.
What precipitated France's intervention was the offensive last week by Islamist militants (many from the same organization responsible for the hostage-taking in Algeria) from their stronghold in northern Mali into the central part of the country. The offensive made clear that the militants have significant military capabilities and reach, and that they indeed pose a threat that went beyond Algeria and northern Mali.
What is less clear is how much of a direct terrorist threat the Islamists might pose to the USA -- although it is safe to assume the threat would grow if nothing were done.
Too narrow a view
That said, there is a danger in viewing Mali through the prism of counterterrorism. The terrorist element there is tangled up in locally focused movements and groups with a wide variety of interests and motives, ranging from religious conviction to local political rivalries to economic opportunism.
The French and African troops beginning to pour into Mali can be expected to prevail over the Islamists in the short term.
Then comes the hard work of securing northern Mali and creating an accord there and in the rest of Mali that will yield enduring peace, while avoiding radicalizing the population or sparking a race war between "white" Tuaregs and Arabs and the "black" majority that also dominates the government and army.
Until recently, Mali had been regarded as a success story because of its stability and flourishing democracy, which most still view as the best long-term cure for instability and terrorism. It has faltered but could get back on its feet.
Now, much will depend on what the French do and how they engage with the local populations. Part of healing northern Mali will involve writing its inhabitants back into the social contract. It also will require reviving the democratization and decentralization process that began in the 1990s.
About the most the United States and France's other friends can do is help France and Mali and hope for the best.
Michael Shurkin, a former intelligence analyst, is a political scientist at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation.
(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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