Key Mali lawmaker challenges Obama on al-Qaida threat

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.

Prior to the coup. Mali was considered the most stable democratic country in Africa.

A year ago, leaders within Mali’s military led the coup to overthrow the president, who they believed was not doing enough to stop the Malian Tuareg rebels, who had returned home from Libya after fighting alongside former now deceased leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Over the past year, however, it was al-Qaida’s shadow government, operated by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrab, that benefited from the coup.

And now, the group has gained a foothold inside northeast Mali’s Ifhogas Mountains, near the Algerian border, despite the best attempts of the French military to eliminate the guerilla fighters from the region.

The terrorist organization has used tens-of-millions of dollars over the past year to recruit new members, establish training camps and purchase weapons in order to gain control of the region.

Thomas Creal, the lead forensic accountant with a U.S. military task force in Afghanistan and an expert on tracking terror financing, said al-Qaida was able to create the “perfect storm” in Mali because the movement has outside funding.

“Mali did everything according to the book – built a democratic nation, used the Millennium grant to fuel its economic growth and then boom, al-Qaida moves in and all hell breaks loose,” Creal said. “We missed one very important piece of the puzzle: we need to bankrupt the enemy. While we help build a nation, they build their war chest.”

AQIM’s tens-of-millions of dollars is used, in part, to keep their propaganda machine and recruitment branch in operation.

The terror group purchases food, young children, new recruits, medicine and weapons for villagers “in areas that are filled with desperation and poverty,” Aissata said, in reference to why the poor turn to al-Qaida.  “The extremists and the poverty threaten all of us.”

Aissata is also President of the Organization for Women and Children of Northern Mali, is the only woman representing the government from her region where AQIM has tortured women, dismembered them, stoned them to death and forced them from positions of governance.

“It is not me who is important here,” she said. “It is the women and children I represent who need our help – who need to be heard.”

Aissata said AQIM’s financing had already paid for more than 200 young boys ranging in age from 9 to 15 years old to be recruited inside Mali. Some children are given to al-Qaida leaders with the promise that they would be trained in Islamic studies and Sharia. Others are sold based on age and necessity.

A child as young as 9 will sell for much less than a 15-year old child “who can hold a weapon and fight,” a senior Malian official told the Washington Guardian.

Counterterrorism analysts estimate that AQIM spends close to $2 million each month on equipment, including weapons, financial payoffs to families whose children join local katibas, known as combat branches of the group.

“This money doesn’t come from just criminal operations but from private donors in the Persian Gulf and Middle East who support Al-Qaida,” a senior Malian official told the Washington Guardian.  “It is difficult to fight a war when the rich are supporting the enemy and the poor are coerced into giving their children.”

AQIM also fills its coffers with ransoms from high-profile kidnappings of both tourists and diplomats, as well as drug trafficking.

“AQIM traffics cocaine from Latin America into Europe to help finance their operations, but beyond the obvious it poses a very serious risk to U.S. national security, as ties between the nefarious drug organizations and terror groups grows stronger,” said a U.S. official, with knowledge of the Latin America drug trade said.

U.S. and European officials say increased instability in Africa is an area of concern because it leads to increased recruitment, thus strengthening the terror movement. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., told a hearing last month that AQIM in Mali is a “shared threat,” noting that it is the fastest growing al-Qaida franchise in the world.

French intelligence officers discovered this month British, Saudi and European passports in an AQIM hideout in Mali’s capital, Timbuktu. Along with the identification, ammunition and weapons were also stockpiled in the home, according to other news reports from the region.

The discovery is evidence that Al-Qaida’s reach goes beyond the region, deep into Europe and “many believe into the U.S. as well,” a U.S. official told the Washington Guardian.

Converging al-Qaida franchises is yet another concern.

In mid-March, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Terence McCulley warned that Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group in Nigeria with ties to AQIM, was moving freely between Nigeria and Northern Mali. The convergence of these groups is also threatening progress in the region and increases the chance that Mali will fall into the hands of extremists.

Aissata is pleading for more action by the West. “The Obama administration must be a part of the solution before it is too late,” she said.

“The country that has led the fight against terrorists around the world is the United States,” she said. “It must do the same with Africa. Only when they fear U.S. involvement, can we find a way to stop them.”

Creal said the U.S. needs to be more pro-active in fighting terrorists on the money front with the cooperation of NATO allies.

“Now is the time to pull all our resources and attack the black money, find it and get it back – Mali on one end and Afghanistan on the other end – meet in the middle, stockpiling all the money and bankrupting the enemy,” he said.

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