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France’s War on Terror

‘We are at war with al Qaeda,” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in a radio interview Monday, after French and Mauritanian forces last week attacked the west African base camp of a militant Islamist group. “The fight against terrorism continues, particularly against [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and it will be reinforced,” Mr. Fillon added.

No, this isn’t wishful reporting from 2003. Mr. Fillon was discussing France’s decision to boost military and tactical support to the governments of Niger, Mauritania, and Mali—part of Saharan Africa that jihadis like to call the “Islamic Maghreb,” also known as the Sahel region to the rest of us.

“It’s the first time that a camp of [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] has been attacked,” Mr. Fillon said, adding that the group’s roughly 400 combatants are “waging a war without mercy, at once against countries in the region and against our interests.” This new French resolve offers hope that the West will increase its focus on a region of Africa that has become staging point for Islamist terrorists.

French officials decline to give troop numbers or other details about their activities in the Sahel, but say Paris now plans to intensify its training, equipment supply, and logistics support to these African governments. Last week’s Franco-Mauritanian raid in Mali failed to rescue a now-dead French aid worker who was kidnapped in Niger in April. The joint operation did, however, kill several militants, and punctuated Mauritania’s larger effort to prevent safe passage for the Islamist radicals who have assembled in the region since 9/11.

The group targeted in last week’s raid began life more than a decade ago in Algeria. Originally dubbing itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, the insurgents spent the better part of 10 years waging a civil war against the Algerian government that claimed some 200,000 lives.

Since being co-opted by Ayman al Zawahiri, and rebranding itself as an al Qaeda franchise in 2007, the group has joined forces with associates in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania, recruiting also from Mali and Niger. Through drug-running and hostage-hustling, the north African Islamists now sponsor training camps throughout the Sahara. Along with the brutalities in Algeria, the group has also claimed responsibility for an attack on Israel’s embassy in Mauritania in 2008; murdered a British tourist in 2009; and continues to hold two Spaniards hostage. European authorities have broken up what are believed to have been cells for the al Qaeda franchise in Spain, France, Switzerland, and Italy. The group has also reportedly sent a flow of fighters to Iraq and Chechnya.

France’s support to governments in the Sahel is nothing new, given that these countries comprise what France has long thought of as its “neighborhood” in Africa. Nor is France alone, with U.S. Army Special Forces lending a hand since 2002. But Mr. Fillon’s unequivocal comments, coupled with Paris’s plans to increase its involvement, give reason to hope that France is ready to retake the lead in this increasingly hot front.

Predictably, not all of France’s former colonies are welcoming the erstwhile colonial master’s return to assertiveness. This week Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci reportedly bristled at Paris’s recent initiatives, saying there was no reason for France or other outside countries to get involved “as long as the Sahel countries organized themselves with the active participation of Algeria to make sure security in this zone is handled by the countries of the region.”

If that were the case, there might be no need for France’s leadership. But so far Algeria and the Sahel governments, some of them barely stable themselves, have failed in that mission. The result is a vast playground for international terrorists, fear and instability in the Sahel, and mounting threats to Western interests around the world. France’s experience and intelligence in the region are unparalleled among Western governments. So if Paris’s recent words and actions mean that the Sahel’s terrorists will now be seriously policed, that sounds like progress.

Originally found at The WSJ.

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