French Troops, Air Power Could Attract More Foreign Fighters To Mali

Those who have been fighting al-Qaida for a decade have learned never to underestimate the group's affiliates. The groups may start out with local agendas, but they eventually morph into jihadists with global ambitions. The U.S. learned that lesson on Christmas Day four years ago when al-Qaida's arm in Yemen put a suicide bomber on a plane bound for Detroit. Now al-Qaida has affiliates in Mali and the U.S. is watching closely. So far, Al-Qaida's arm there has focused on fighting government troops, but that could change.

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We have two stories now about Mali, where France has intervened to stop al-Qaida-linked rebels who've taken over the north of the country. First, how this fight could have consequences for the United States. One lesson the U.S. has learned from fighting al-Qaida for more than a decade is this: Never underestimate the group's terrorist affiliates. These local groups in places such as Yemen start out with local agendas, but often they go global. The al-Qaida group in Mali, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is no different. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explains why.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The U.S. learned its lesson about underestimating al-Qaida affiliates three years ago on Christmas Day.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Abdulmutallab was on a mission: to get through airport security in three different countries and board a plane with a bomb in his underwear.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's from a British reenactment of the terrorist bombing attempt on Christmas Day 2009. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was sent on that suicide mission by al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. The bomb failed to go off, and Abdulmutallab was arrested. But before that day, the United States had assumed that a local al-Qaida group in Yemen would never be able to attack the U.S.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: We were monitoring the growth of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, but didn't understand that it'd become far more formidable, far more threatening in a much shorter period of time than we imagined.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: I think that's very much in everyone's mind as these local groups gain power that eventually they will become more ambitious.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida affiliates rarely keep the fight local, which is why the events in Mali are of so much concern to U.S. officials now. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke about the challenge earlier today.

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We have to continue the effort to go after al-Qaida, where it decides to locate. There's an al-Qaida presence in Syria that concerns us, and there is the AQIM version of al-Qaida in Mali.

TEMPLE-RASTON: AQIM, that's al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and it may be leading the fight in Mali today, but it's unlikely to restrict itself to the conflict there. U.S. intelligence officials now consider AQIM the best armed and fastest-growing al-Qaida franchise in the world. Over the past decade, the group has earned literally tens of millions of dollars, kidnapping westerners and collecting ransoms for their return. When weapons started flowing out of Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, AQIM used its money to buy them and stockpiled them. Then the group did one more thing.

J. PETER PHAM: It's also gotten itself very much grafted into the social network of northern Mali.

TEMPLE-RASTON: J. Peter Pham is the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

PHAM: Its fighters have married into local tribes and it's used local people for its operations and gained a good knowledge of the terrain and the people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is exactly what al-Qaida's arm in Yemen did. AQIM clearly tore a page out of the Yemen playbook and is applying it to Mali. U.S. officials say hardcore AQIM members in Mali probably number in the low hundreds. Fighters with other local Islamist groups are in the low thousands. The concern is that that's only the beginning. The introduction of French troops and air power is expected to attract more foreign fighters to northern Mali. Already, U.S. officials say there are Somalis and Algerians and even Europeans showing up to join the battle. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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