By Scott Taylor
Late last December, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution for other African nations to deploy troops to assist Mali in combating Islamic extremists.
This, of course, set Ottawa abuzz with speculation that Canada may also consider contributions to a future international military intervention.
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last Tuesday that no “direct Canadian military mission” to Mali is being contemplated, Defence Minister Peter MacKay has suggested that troops could be sent in to help train Mali’s army.
As most Canadians would be hard-pressed to locate Mali on a map, let alone understand the complex political machinations of the former French colony, many would be hesitant to see our troops deployed yet again into harm’s way to a faraway country with an ill-defined objective.
The fact is that, since Canada lent such a helping hand in letting the genie out of the bottle, one could easily argue that we are morally obligated to help Mali contain the resultant damage.
How exactly did Canada help al-Qaida establish a secure area of operations in northern Mali?
This winding, bumbling path began on Dec. 14, 2008, just outside of Niamey, the capital of Niger, where two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, were abducted by a terrorist group known as the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
This group of Islamic fundamentalists operates in the largely uninhabited tracts of the vast Sahara Desert. In recent years, AQIM has been financing their terrorist activities by seizing foreigners and holding them for ransom.
In the case of Fowler and Guay, the price was steep because they were top-level Canadian officials in the employ of the UN.
While the Canadian government maintains that they did not pay any ransom directly, even Fowler has since acknowledged that his release was secured through a financial payment.
“They didn’t let me go because of my pretty eyes,” Fowler quipped to media while steadfastly maintaining that he does not know the source of the ransom funds. At the time, European media outlets reported that AQIM was paid more than 5 million euros (about C$7 million) in exchange for Fowler and Guay.
And here is where the Mali connection comes into play.
Although the Canadians were seized and held in neighbouring Niger, the AQIM are also active in northern Mali.
In addition to the cash paid for Fowler and Guay, the Mali government admitted that they also consented to release four AQIM operatives from their jail as part of fulfilling the ransom demands.
That was in April 2009.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2011 and, for those still following the bouncing ball, Mali borders Niger and Niger borders Libya.
The fierce Tuareg tribesmen who inhabit the essentially desert tracts were championed by former Libyan president Moammar Gadhafi and, in turn, the Tuareg were loyal to him when the armed uprising began.
As Canadians are well aware, our nation took a leading role in supporting the anti-Gadhafi rebels with the combined might of NATO’s air power.
Although there was a UN arms embargo in effect, this was a one-sided affair because Britain and France flooded weapons and munitions to the ill-disciplined Libyan rebels. The embattled Gadhafi also cracked open his armouries and distributed weapons to countless untrained Libyan volunteers.
The result was that, by the time of Gadhafi’s capture and public execution, Libya was awash in uncontrolled, unregistered weaponry of all calibres.
The Tuaregs took their newly acquired arsenal and fled Libya for northern Mali. Here, they reinforced the already simmering separatist movement and Mali’s military proved unequal to the challenge.
After a series of bloody rehearsals at the hands of the rebels, the Mali military mutinied and the democratically elected government collapsed. AQIM helped to co-ordinate the Tuareg victory and were quick to seize the spoils.
To date, Canada has provided AQIM with ransom money, ensured that some of their key personnel were released from incarceration and then, by failing to follow up and secure weapon stocks in Libya, allowed the terrorist group to amass a windfall of weapons that enabled their subsequent seizure of northern Mali.
To admit our culpability in this fiasco would make it easy to explain Canada’s participation in a future international intervention against the AQIM in Mali.
However, such an admission of blunders is unlikely any time soon from a government that keeps insisting that our campaign in Libya was an unmitigated success.
Scott Taylor is an author and editor of Esprit de Corps magazine.