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Until recently, most Americans had never heard of the west African country of Mali. They may have heard of the Malian city of Timbuktu, but even then only as a byword used to describe the middle of nowhere. However, an Islamist insurgency has thrust Mali into the forefront of the national security debate, and highlighted the continuing complexities of the struggle against violent extremism.
The gas plant al Qaeda targeted in response to French military intervention in Mali is jointly run by British and Norwegian energy concerns, unconnected to Paris. This gives insight into the terrorist mindset: They consider an attack on any western assets in the region a legitimate response to French actions. All such foreigners in North Africa represent the civilization with which they are waging a holy war.
The terrorists explicitly linked their operation to the United States by offering to exchange the American hostages for Omar Abdel-Rahman, the "blind sheikh" now serving a life sentence in North Carolina for plotting terror attacks in New York in the 1990s, and who was linked to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
It was the most ambitious and the deadliest terror attack since the rampage by Pakistani militants through Mumbai five years ago. And it raises the alarming prospect that al Qaeda affiliates and other jihadist outfits could turn parts of northern and western Africa into no-go zones -- places too dangerous for Westerners to work, or even visit.
The attack on the In Amenas gas facility left 37 foreign workers dead, according to the Algerian prime minister. It showed that al Qaeda-linked groups now have the resources to reconnoiter and launch complex attacks against places far from their strongholds, using a network of camps and intermediaries throughout the desert.
Al-Qaeda has turned a previously unimportant country into a safe haven for its pursuit of global jihad, and in the process created a jihadist safe haven covering an area larger than Afghanistan. The terrorists have demonstrated that they consider any westerners fair game for attacks in response to foreign intervention in Mali. These out-of-area terrorist operations, moreover, need not be limited to neighboring countries like Algeria; al Qaeda may take this opportunity to attempt to demonstrate whether it still has global reach.