Since France began aerial bombardment of Islamist rebels in Mali last week, the larger worry has shifted from within the beleaguered country’s borders to the wider world. There are concerns not only about Operation Serval, as this military intervention is known, causing belligerents or other kinds of chaos to cross neighboring states’ borders, but also fears of international retaliation – perhaps in the form of a terrorist attack, or an assault on foreign diplomatic targets.
In fact, it is just such concerns about a spillover that led Mali’s neighbors to be hesitant toward supporting an intervention. This was true of Algeria, even though its adversary al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was clearly strengthened by the existence of an Islamist safe haven in northern Mali. Mauritania and Niger were likewise reticent about the Mali war.
But now that the intervention is underway, neighbouring countries are more concerned about what they can do to safeguard their interests. Mauritania has deployed troops into the eastern parts of its territory with the goal of “preventing the infiltration of armed terrorist groups.” Algeria (which suffered an attack by Islamist militants on Wednesday) is also taking steps to close its border, according to its ministry of foreign affairs. As a foreign ministry spokesman said, “We have informed the Malian side of arrangements for the closure of the border.”
Andrew Lebovich, an analyst based in Dakar, Senegal, has been following developments in Mali closely. “I’d be very concerned about instability if these groups are pushed out of Mali, particularly into Mauritania,” he said, referring to the violent Islamist bands.
Violent groups are not likely the only ones to be forced out during the conflict. Mali has seen a large number of displaced persons, including about 150,000 refugees and 230,000 people who can be classified as internally displaced, according to the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The conflict in Mali, of course, was raging long before France got involved, but the number of displaced persons has grown by 30,000 this month alone.
Though Algeria is trying to close its border to militants, it is also keeping the border open to refugees. The daily newspaper Le Temps d’Algerie interviewed Hadj Hamou Benzeguir, the president of the Algerian Red Crescent, who said, “We are ready and available to welcome every Malian refugee who might turn up at our borders fleeing the war.” Algerian Red Crescent resources and teams have been deployed in particular to Tinzawatine and Bordj Badji Mokhtar. A number of the refugees have already found sanctuary in Algeria, many in Tinzawatine camps, though far more have gone to other neighboring states: According to OCHA, there are 54,100 in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, and 38,800 in Burkina Faso, vs. only 1,500 in Algeria.
Another major concern, particularly given the targets of the Mali campaign, is terrorist attacks or other violence outside the immediate vicinity of Mali. As AFP reports, Abou Dardar of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has declared, “France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France.” When asked where retaliatory strikes would occur, he replied, “Everywhere. In Bamako, in Africa and in Europe.”
Online jihadists have similarly been inciting attacks against France, which they see as engaged in a new “crusader war.” On the prominent Ansar al-Mujahedin forum, one user advocated killing French soldiers or perhaps even French president François Hollande, and other members said they wanted to see another Mohamed Merah, who killed seven during a brutal rampage in Toulouse last March. The Ansar al-Mujahedin forum also saw calls for attacking French interests abroad (such as embassies), killing French nationals, and traveling to the theater to fight alongside the Malian Islamists.
French security is on heightened alert, with interior minister Manuel Valls describing homegrown terrorism as “an interior enemy.” Bolstering the concern was the two arrests of French-Malians last year, both of them apparently running Islamist recruiting networks.
France has been monitoring possible movement of individuals into combat zones; bolstering its Internet surveillance; and increasing patrols of public transportation, landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, and “diplomatic missions and some places of worship.”
Egypt’s Salafi Front has also called on its Facebook page for demonstrations in front of the French embassy in Cairo this Friday. Its page promises to “escalate” anti-France activity “as long as their forces do not put an end to their blatant aggression.”
Other countries, too, have been on alert for possible terrorist attacks. The Casablanca-based daily Al Ahdath Al Maghribiyah reports that Morocco is on a state of alert, in particular guarding against attacks in tourist areas. Further, this state of alert extends to “Moroccan interests abroad where, in co-ordination with host countries, the level of surveillance in the vicinity of Moroccan embassies and consulates as well as Royal Air Maroc offices has been raised in anticipation of acts of revenge.”
The effectiveness of anti-spillover measures will likely be more important for several countries’ interests than even the success of the French campaign itself.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author or volume editor of eleven books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden’s Legacy(Wiley, 2011).