After last month’s Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seizure of a British Petroleum facility in Algeria culminated in a botched rescue and the deaths of scores of hostages, the international media focused its attention elsewhere.
It will be a fateful mistake, however, to see the size and the scope of the AQIM assault on the In Amenas facility as an exception rather than the beginning of a new rule. According to reports out of Algeria yesterday, a band of 50 heavily-armed men attacked an Algerian army barracks. According to France 24:
The weapons included RPGs that had come out of Libya, the newspaper said, adding that many of the attackers were Tunisian and Libyan. The assault began when a lorry delivering food to the barracks was hi-jacked, filled with weapons and used to force a way into the installation, while a second group opened fire in a diversionary attack. The fire-fight lasted three hours. The Algerian military used warplanes, attack helicopters and artillery to beat off the attack, according to the report.
The death of Osama Bin Laden effectively put an expiration date upon all the intelligence that was seized in his compound. The Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency did a good job of exploiting that intelligence to the fullest, but we are once again fighting blind. Ayman Zawahiri may have officially succeeded bin Laden, but all the al-Qaeda franchises are now, effectively, competing for leadership by staging spectacular attacks. AQIM—spanning seven countries and with a drug running network spanning from southern Europe to Mozambique—is certainly making its claim to be the top franchise.
The question is how long it will take the United States to recognize that it cannot simply afford to stand on the sidelines with groups which are sworn to seek America’s demise. If there is one lesson we should learn from the Clinton years, it is that we pay a great price for allowing terrorists to metastasize while we flail around for a strategy. Does that mean direct, on-the-ground military intervention in the Sahel? Absolutely not. But does it mean that we should use all power at our disposal not to allow AQIM leaders to sleep in the same location for more than a night while we try to pick them off? Absolutely. The French have intervened. Let’s hope that in a second-term Obama administration, with John Kerry as secretary of state and perhaps Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, we have not become the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” The costs of inaction would simply be too great.