North Africa: The dark side of Arab Spring

North Africa

Robert F. Worth

As the uprising closed in around him, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi warned that if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa. "Bin Laden's people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea," he said. "We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats."

Recently that unhinged prophecy has acquired a grim new currency. In Mali, French paratroopers arrived to battle an advancing force of jihadi fighters who already control an area twice the size of Germany. In Algeria, a one-eyed Islamist bandit organised the brazen takeover of an international gas facility, taking hostages including more than 40 Americans and Europeans.

Coming just four months after a US ambassador was killed by jihadists in Libya, those assaults have contributed to a sense that North Africa—long a dormant backwater for al-Qaeda—is turning into another zone of dangerous instability, much like Syria. The mayhem in this vast desert region has a sobering reminder that the euphoric toppling of dictators in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt has come at a price.

"It's one of the darker sides of the Arab uprisings," said Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group. "Logistically, in terms of the new porousness of borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganisation of police and security services in all these countries—it's been a real boon to jihadists."

The crisis in Mali comes as world powers struggle with civil war in Syria, where another Arab autocrat is warning about the furies that could be unleashed if he falls. Even as Obama administration officials now face the challenge of a dauntingly complex jihadist landscape across North Africa that belies the easy label of "al-Qaeda," with multiple factions operating among overlapping ethnic groups, clans and criminal networks.

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