Haidara Aissata, the only female Parliament member representing northern Mali, picked up the phone earlier this month to the anguished cries of a young mother who just learned her husband had sold the couple’s 9-year-old son to al-Qaida fighters for $40.
The boy was taken to a training camp, where he would be indoctrinated into Sharia law and fight against French troops seeking to repel al-Qaida’s grip on the African nation.
Aissata, who stands out in Mali’s male-dominated politics as much for her beauty-queen looks as her impassioned oratory, tells the story as she travels the globe these days trying to dispel the notion _ fanned by some U.S. officials _ that al-Qaida is weakened and on the decline.
To the contrary, the terror network has inspired and trained al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, along with its Western Mali off-shoot, Ansar al-Dine, and both spinoffs are gaining strength and “infecting the continent like a cancer," Aissata tells the Washington Guardian.
“Al-Qaida is still a threat to the national security of the United States, just as it was when Osama bin Laden trained young fighters in Afghanistan -- this is what is happening in Mali and other parts of Africa," she said in an interview where she sounded alarm about the growing number of al-Qaida training camps sprouting across Africa.
“In those training camps future terror leaders are born,” she said. “Terrorism is spreading, al-Qaida is becoming stronger. The extremists don’t stay in Africa they travel to Europe and the U.S.”
Aissata just finished a tour of Europe to call attention to the rise of al-Qaida in Africa, and plans on making a similar trip to the United States next month.
She understands the risks she takes as a woman standing up to al-Qaida, but she says it's worth the risk to “let the world know that it is the children and woman of Mali are whose stories must be told.”
Her message contrasts with some in U.S. government who have tried to argue in recent months that al-Qaida’s reach and capability have been substantially diminished.
In early March, Director of National Intelligence James L. Clapper told Congress that al-Qaida had suffered "senior personnel losses in 2012, amplifying losses and setbacks since 2008" that have "degraded core al-Qaida to a point that the group is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West."
His testimony was no different that many in the administration who said since the final stretches of last year's presidential campaign that al-Qaida’s abilities and core strength had greatly diminished with the deaths of Osama bin Laden, as well as other leadership.
But those in Mali and experts across Europe and the United States say such assessments underplay the fact that extremists trained or imspired by al-Qaida have spread across the globe, looking for opportunities to launch new affiliates and participate in new conflicts.
For instance, al-Qaida inspired extremists last Sept. 11 launched a semi-sophisticated attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three U.S. security team members. Shortly after, an al-Qaida affiliate in Mali launched an attack at a natural gas facility in Algeria, in which 36 foreign workers were murdered.
Aissata and her campaign will be greeted warmly in Washington, which so far is content staying on the sidelines of the Mali conflict and leaving the fighting to French forces.
The U.S. “has repeatedly affirmed our support for the French operation in northern Mali, the African forces deploying to Mali, and regional efforts to counter terrorist groups in the region,” said Hilary Renner, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.
Renner said the administration “will continue to evaluate all requests for assistance from our partners to counter the mutual threat of terrorism in the Sahel.”
Currently, the Air Force C17 Globemasters have taken French troops on roughly 47 flights into Mali. The Associated Press reported that the U.S. has also supplied more than 1,200 tons of supplies to the help the French fight AQIM, according to the Defense Department. And in March, President Obama authorized $50 million in “immediate military assistance to Chad and France in their efforts to secure Mali from terrorists and violent extremists.”
Aissata’s message is that al-Qaida threatens the very democracy that has burgeoned in some parts of Africa, and more needs to be done.
Mali is only months away from its first elections since a coup last year by the military toppled then-president Amadou Toumani Toure. However, Malian politicians are split as to whether July’s elections can safely take place while al-Qaida remains lurking.
The burgeoning civil unrest is not endemic to Mali, but al-Qaida's "ideology is reaching deep into Africa’s youth,” Aissata said in a phone interview in her native French language while she was in Paris earlier this month.