McFeatters: U.S. can't ignore North Africa's troubles
The Islamic radicals who have conquered large tracts of Mali were not long in expressing their ultimate aims. They plan on "globalizing the conflict," according to one of their commanders, now that they have a secure base in northern Mali to operate from.
A hurried infusion of French troops seems to have stabilized the situation, stopping the radicals' march toward Mali's capital and its more populated and prosperous south. They liberated one town and surrounded another rebel-held town in central Mali.
However, the world quickly got a taste of what is in store if the radical Islamists are left unmolested to establish their own state. A heavily armed column, loyal to a breakaway al-Qaida warlord, entered Algeria and overran a remote natural gas plant Wednesday and took a large number of hostages.
Soon enough, the demands began coming: Foreign troops were to leave Mali and the United States was to release several terrorists, including Omar Abdel Rahman, the "blind sheikh" convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
On Thursday, the Algerian military forces retook the facility amid heavy gunfire.
Roughly 650 people were able to leave the site, according to Algeria's state-run news agency, which has tightly controlled information. They include 573 Algerians and most of the 132 foreigners reportedly singled out as hostages.
According to preliminary reports, most of those hostages were freed but around 30 were killed in the rescue attempt. Dozens still may be in the radicals' custody.
This hostage situation could be a one-off raid or, worse, it could be the start of a pattern from radical jihadis operating from a safe haven.
The mastermind of the Algerian raid is said to be a career Islamic radical, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is still smarting from being passed over for the top job in al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Although undoubtedly religiously motivated, he has a long history of kidnapping and smuggling, both to finance his operations and to enhance his prestige among rival radical groups.
Belmokhtar is a 40-year-old Algerian, shrewd enough to elude numerous attempts by Saharan nations to kill or capture him. He seems determined to mount a radical Islamic insurgency across the Sahara and northern Africa.
His support for the revolution in Mali is likely only the start. The last thing the Obama administration wants is another war, but there may be no way of avoiding this one or at least aggressively supporting France and the African countries fighting it. If there isn't a drone looking for Belmokhtar, there should be.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.