(Courteesy of Wikimedia.)

If you were all-powerful and malevolent, how would you unite the fanatics in Mali, Algeria’s Islamists, various Libyan and Tuareg gangsters, Nigeria’s odorous Boko Haram (loose translation: “Western Education Is Forbidden”) and other North African miscreants, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?

The answer: send in American forces. As Paul Pillar, a sensible, former senior intelligence official told The New York Times recently, a US intervention would might rally people to the anti-American cause:

It puts a transnational framework on top of what is fundamentally a set of local concerns, and we risk making ourselves more of an enemy than we would otherwise be.

So far, thankfully, there’s little sign that the Obama administration is itching to intervene in the War of the Sahel. There are rumblings, of course, and the creation of the Africa Command by the Defense Department means that there’s a ready-made force designed to intervene across Africa, as it’s been doing here and there, from Somalia to central Africa.

The United States is quietly assisting the French, who’ve mobilized for an intervention in Mali, part of the old, colonial French West Africa territory for which France takes responsibility, oddly enough, in the twenty-first century. (That applies to Syria and Lebanon, too, on which the sons and grandsons of old French colonialists look fondly.)

That’s not to say that nothing should be done.

The rise of ultra-militant Islamism and Al Qaeda types in Africa is a dangerous and worrying trend, and even though it doesn’t pose a direct threat to American national security, it’s bad news for a swath of poor and struggling nations from Somalia to Morocco and down to Nigeria. The no-holds-barred attack on the gang that seized a gas field and hundreds of hostages in southeast Algeria, apparently without coordinating with the United States and other Western countries, may have been brutal, but it solved the immediate problem—and without the United States being involved.

Similarly, it’s not a bad idea for the West to help pan-African forces assemble a task force to deal with the thugs in northern Mali, whose vicious imposition of phony-Sharia law is well described in a New York Times op-ed today by Karima Bennoune, who describes the attacks on schools, amputations, stonings and other monstrous activity that has taken place since the rebels, including Islamists from Libya, have carried out.

What’s important to note is that the local population of the Sahel, including those in Mali, aren’t indigenous supporters of these fanatics but pure and simple victims whose lives have been taken over by a well-armed mafia. As the Times reported:

The fighters appeared to find little support among the local population, who said the harsh version of Islam they sought to impose had little resemblance to the moderate faith practiced by most people here.

Make no mistake: this gang will have to be crushed, and crushed by force of arms. But even the nostalgic French say that it’s best for Africans to take the lead. And, each of these crises will have particular, local solutions. In Mali, for instance, the government of Mali—whatever that is—will have to reach an accord with the people of its northern territories, especially the Tuaregs, while eliminating the hard-core Islamists. 

Robert Dreyfuss last wrote on John Brennan, who may not be the incorrigible drone proponent many have taken him for.