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Opinion: Op-Eds

Rising stakes for the US in Mali

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Op-Eds,Foreign Aid,Terrorism,Analysis,State Department,al Qaeda

By early 2013, the continuing expansion of jihadist and Salafist groups in the northern part of the country transformed Mali into "Malistan."

In such a context, in January 2013, the West and in particular France had no choice but to intervene military to face off with the jihadists. Holding elections the last week of July was a huge successful bet that unfortunately will not alleviate the country's problems.

On July 28, successful elections took place in Mali with an unusually high turnout of about 50 percent. Democracy has been brought back to life in a chaotic time, not a small achievement indeed. In a way, the fact that Ibrahim Boubacar Keita got to first place in the race is less important than the symbolism of it all.

Also, no terror attacks occurred despite the fact one of the main terror outfits in the region, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), had threatened to carry out attacks during Election Day.

The French intervention has been very successful in retaking ground and killing jihadists such as Abu Zeid, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)'s leader in the region. Most jihadists have taken refuge in either Libya or Tunisia.

But it is just a matter of time before the jihadists start their usual asymmetrical war tactics. They will also wait until foreign troops start leaving the country to reclaim territory. Therefore, the terrorism issue is still very much alive.

But that is not all. Troubling signs are emerging that could dramatically affect Mali's future. Indeed, Mali is still a very much divided country between Islamists and secularists, and the war has left indelible scars. Also another factor at play is that the population holds a grudge against the Tuaregs for their alliance with the Jihadists.

The Tuaregs, a 200,000-strong Berber group, whose main military group, The Alliance, had been fighting the Malian regime for decades, decided to join forces with the Jihadists -- something that could not be easily forgiven by a population that suffered tremendously at their hands. Interestingly, the Tuaregs have threatened to restart their insurrection if autonomy in the North was not granted to them.

Another worrisome fact is that Mali has also undergone a major seismic shift towards radicalization. In fact, starting in the 1950's, Saudi Arabia began investing in the country, from madrasas to cultural centers to clinics and pharmacies.

Still today, Saudi funding helps build prayer halls, orphanages, bridges and roads in northern Mali. For instance, clinics are a hit because of their reduced fees. In a poor country where this kind of infrastructure was lacking, the Wahhabi investment had and still has a lasting effect.

Just in Bamako there are over 3,000 madrasas and between 25 percent and 40 percent of Malian children attend them where the teaching is done in Arabic rather than in the usual French. The concerning aspect of this phenomenon is that madrasas are out of reach of the government's control, are free to teach whatever they deem advisable and, little by little, are creating generations of Wahhabis.

At the same time, Wahhabis went on a building spree of mosques up to the point where Mali, a country with 13 million people, 90 percent of whom are Muslims, counts now 17,500 registered mosques. Also in the past decade, the number of Islamic organizations has soared from just a few to over 150 now, including the very powerful international Dawa al-Islamiyya.

Hundreds of Malians have been invited to get their religious education in the Gulf and come back home radicalized and ready to convert their fellow Muslims to their Wahhabi views. Since 2001, worrying signs are emerging and fundamentalism is making inroads like never before in a moderate country such as Mali.

Photos of Osama Bin Laden are flourishing in stalls at the Bamako market and the number of radio stations preaching radical Islam is exploding. At this point, secularists are complaining that this phenomenon is pushing religious conservatism within Malian society.

Mali is far from out of the woods yet. Numerous issues need to be tackled quickly in order to reestablish the pre-2012 situation. It also may be high time for the West to realize that Mali is still very much a powder keg and that getting it right should be a priority.

Olivier Guitta is director of research at the Henry Jackson Society in London.

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