French troops and warplanes are up against an enemy that is “determined, well-equipped and well-trained,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday. Nearly 2,000 French troops have been committed to the task so far, but Mali’s Islamic extremists are heavily entrenched in the north where Le Drian says they are hitting “significant concentrations of fighters and vehicles.”
On Monday, the United States offered limited logistical support in France’s campaign against Islamic extremists in Mali. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: “We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali. We’ve been very concerned about AQIM and their efforts to establish a very strong base in that area.”
Insurgent leaders in Mali, outraged at the intervention, are warning of terrorist retaliation. Oumar Ould Hamaha, an extremist leader, told Europe 1 Radio that France “has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” warning that the intervention has “opened the gates of hell for all the French.”
Stopping Islamic extremists from overtaking Mali overnight has been more of a challenge than anyone bargained for – largely because of the steady stream of weapons that have flowed across the desert in recent months and landed in the hands of extremists.
Moammar Gadhafi’s November 2011 death signaled the fall of Libya’s regime – and unfortunately, easy access to his massive unsecured storehouses of weaponry.
Unfortunately, in the wake of Gadhafi’s death nobody seemed to take notice (and if they noticed, they failed to act) when bands of rebels began raiding the warehouses, loading up as many weapons as they could carry, and trekking across the vast desert territories of Algeria and Niger to Africa’s new hotbed of Islamic extremism, Mali – where, unsurprisingly, the weapons ended up arming a regime of militants.
Porous borders, low security, and an endless desert of shifting sands over which camels, Jeeps, and people can trespass with not so much as a sign of their tracks have contributed to the seeming impossibility of halting the arms pipeline that formed so easily.
Today, Islamic extremists in Mali currently control the northern region of the country, an area roughly the size of France. As part of their extremist ideology, Islamists have banned music, drinking, smoking and watching sports on television. Floggings, public amputations, and stoning are becoming commonplace in the extremist-ruled north. In July a couple was stoned for having sex outside of marriage.
Christians comprise just 1 percent of Mali’s population – and today they face greater danger than ever before under extremist rule in the nation’s north. Open Doors USA, a Christian organization that works on behalf of believers persecuted for their faith, just released their annual World Watch List, a listing of the countries where Christians are most at risk for persecution. This year, Mali ranked number 7.
Paul Estabrooks of Open Doors USA says that Mali didn’t even make the list last year. According to Estabrooks, “But because of all the challenges there,” he says, “[Mali] has suddenly jumped to seventh place out of 50 countries. It is a significant factor.”
During the initial Islamist takeover in the north of Mali, Estabrooks says the extremists launched a campaign against non-Muslims. “The first thing they did was a kind of religious ethnic cleansing. They began to do house-to-house searches. They literally warned Christians that if they didn’t get out of this new country in the north part of Mali, they would kill them -- and they weren’t joking. Many Christians were killed; others were injured severely.”
Now fueled with hefty loads of cash gained by numerous ransoms throughout the Sahara and virtually unlimited weaponry thanks to Gadhafi’s untouched storehouses of machine guns, rockets and anti-aircraft systems, Mali’s Islamists have launched a southward push on a mission to turn the entire country into a stronghold of sharia law and a haven for extremists.
Salvatore Sagues of Amnesty International says that the militants are recruiting children and forcing them into combat. “We have already learned that some child soldiers were sent to the front line. Some of them have been wounded and killed,” he told Voice of America News.
“It is forbidden under international law if child soldiers are under 15 it is a war crime. And as you know, the International Criminal Court has opened [an] inquiry into Mali. So people who are using children below the age of 15 will have to account to the International Criminal Court,” he added.
Amnesty International has voiced concerns about the strict interpretation of Islam imposed on civilians in Mali’s north. “They imposed their own interpretation if Islam,” Sagues says of the militant regime.
“Flogging couples, for example, who had sexual relationships without being married. They stoned to death a couple, unmarried, who had a child. They amputated several people accused of theft without any trial. They destroyed cultural buildings,” he said
As sharia law continues to be implemented throughout the north, Estabrooks says Christians remain in serious danger. “It’s been a fairly quiet country, so [Christians] haven’t had a strong history of persecution,” he says. “So when it comes suddenly like it has in Mali, it’s a real challenge for believers because they haven’t really prepared for what’s going on. The fear factor is an extremely difficult thing for them to deal with.”
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at kristinwright.net or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: January 16, 2013