On one level, Mokhtar "Marlboro Man" Belmokhtar is just another lone Islamist warlord, pursuing his own private jihad in the Sahara Desert. But a deeper look at the Algerian terrorist’s biography tells a larger story of how, for many decades, various kinds of Western intervention in the region have helped to create and shape the Belmokhtars of the jihadist world.
Belmokhtar’s personal story is also a warning sign that France’s neocolonialist military intervention in Mali—although perhaps launched for the right reasons, to stop a violent jihadist takeover—may well create another backlash even worse than the Western hostage situation that it has apparently already provoked.
In the West and in Washington, many pundits approved of the French intervention (although the Obama administration steered clear of supporting it). Rand scholars Stephanie Pezard and Michael Shurkin even approvingly cited France’s colonial history in Mali in lauding the attack, suggesting that Paris again find "proxies" it can control. "This is, in effect, how France conquered and secured northern Mali in the first place a century ago," they write today on CNN’s Global Public Square. "The aim now has changed – strengthening Mali rather than perpetuating colonial rule – but the key point remains finding the right partners.” On the extreme right, commentators such as Charles Krauthammer and John Bolton again made the same sort of case they argued before the 2003 Iraq invasion: Jihadists were responding to "American weakness," as displayed by President Obama’s lack of response to the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi. What is required now, they say, is another show of military strength in the region.
And thus the cycle is perpetuated: Westerners march in, and the locals are radicalized. Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, told National Journal on Thursday, "Regardless of the intentions of the French leadership today, their military intervention in Mali will be seen through France's colonial legacy in West and North Africa, a bloody legacy. France is not responsible for producing the jihadis roaming the wadis and deserts, and mountains of North and West Africa, but its military intervention may fuel anti-hegemonic and anti-colonial grievances that power the jihadist caravan. There is a real danger that Western boots on the ground in Muslim societies would produce counterproductive results, as the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq clearly show.
"One would have expected the French to have learned the lessons of the Soviet and American experiences!" Gerges says.
Apparently not. True, it is difficult for anyone to figure out what is happening in the chaotic aftermath of the two-year-old "Arab Spring." But with each passing month, the outcome looks less Western-friendly and more Islamist. Yet the Islamism enfranchised by these democratic movements across the region is taking different, complex forms. Some outcomes are “legitimate,” as in the elections of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party in Tunisia. Others are illegitimate and far more dangerous (new violent groups that have sprung up in Mali, Sudan, Yemen, and elsewhere).
All this must be grappled with, and distinctions must be made. Yet to date U.S. and Western policy is mostly failing to do that--in Mali, Syria, even Egypt.
Belmokhtar, who reportedly funds his jihad with a vast cigarette trade, apparently led the hostage raid on the BP gas facility, an attack that, according to some reports, was provoked by the French air and ground assaults in Mali next door. If so, this is just another round in a very old fight, and let's say so. The paternalistic approach of French President Francois Hollande is part of a tit-for-tat that has been going on since the 19th century, when France declared Northwest Africa its imperial domain, culminating 100 years later in a notoriously brutal French “counterinsurgency” operation in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 (captured in an iconic 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers), which ended in Algerian independence.
But French paternalism never completely went away. Belmokhtar was radicalized like so many others by the policies of U.S.-supported dictators in the Arab world, and by the teachings of the Palestinian radical Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, and he checked his box with Qaida training in Afghanistan. But his anti-Western passions are clearly turbocharged by France’s long and ugly history in his country. “When he returned to Algeria in 1993, the country was already in the throes of conflict after the French-backed Algerian military annulled elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win," according to a BBC profile. "Belmokhtar joined the conflict, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and became a key figure in the militant Armed Islamist Group (GIA) and later the breakaway Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).” And what is the French military doing in Mali today? Defending yet another military tyranny (the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in 2012, leading to the civil strife).
It's what the West has been doing for the past century. Today, one still occasionally hears that anti-Westernism--both the moderate Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and Qaida-style extremism--rises out of some inevitable “clash of civilizations.” In truth, despite al-Qaida's rants about grievances going back to the Crusades, the enmity between the West and the Arab world is a relatively modern phenomenon that is intimately tied to this Western colonial history. It began with British and French imperial designs, typified by the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, by which the British and French agreed to divvy up the Arabic-speaking countries after World War I. Things got progressively worse after the creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan; the endemic poverty and underdevelopment that resulted for most of the 20th century; the U.N.-imposed creation of Israel in 1948; and finally, in recent decades, American support for this status quo and George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, which only regenerated the cycle of enmity toward the West.
To his critics, President Obama has looked consistently weak and indecisive in response to the “Arab Spring,” culminating in his "lead from behind" approach to NATO’s intervention in Libya and the humiliation and anguish left behind by the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.
But, frankly, Obama has good reason to hesitate. The last thing the U.S. wants to do now is look like it is meddling, yet again, in a region that has already had far too much of it from the West. Still, even if what is emerging in the region is less than coherent, the president needs to develop a more coherent policy response than he has so far.