For most Americans, the battle in Mali with militant Islamist terrorists is as an obscure and peripheral sideshow in the Global War on Terror. However, the UN peacekeepers and French troops deployed there know the Mali sideshow is most deadly.
StrategyPage.com recently reported that Mali is now the most physically dangerous UN peacekeeping mission, exceeding the risks UN peacekeepers confront in eastern Congo, South Sudan, Sudan's Darfur region and in Lebanon. Since 2013, 81 UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali. The UN Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeeping mission operates next door to Syria's chaotic civil war, and some analysts believe its peacekeepers are increasingly vulnerable to spillover from Syria.
Geographic isolation is one reason Mali gets little U.S. media attention, but recall that prior to al-Qaida's 9-11 terror attacks, Afghanistan received little notice beyond U.S. defense agencies. Mali might as well be as obscure a nowhere as Timbuktu. The idiom "Timbuktu" means a "an inaccessible location." Check your atlas. The physical Timbuktu is a city in Mali.
Like Afghanistan, Mali is large (about twice the size of Texas). Mali is wedged among Algeria (a major oil exporter) and the Saharan nowheres of Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The African states of Ivory Coast, Guinea, and Senegal lie to the west. Algeria has a comparatively strong government, but the other nations are extremely fragile.
West African powerhouse Nigeria is south of Niger. Nigeria's vicious Islamist militant Boko Haram terrorist group does attract international media. Boko Haram's Islamist terrorists hack Muslim and Christian tribespeople with machetes, they rape and enslave Christian schoolgirls, and then they tout their savageries on the internet.
Boko Haram -- now an official affiliate of ISIS -- seeks sensational headlines that magnify the effects of its terror attacks. Spectacular crimes all but ensure sensational global headlines -- the nightclub slaughter committed by an Islamist terrorist in Orlando, Florida is a chilling example.
Mali, however, rarely rates mention, much less a spotlight headline, but the fight there connects to militant Islamist operations in Algeria and Nigeria.
The UN calls its Mali peacekeeping operation the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. MINUSMA is an awful acronym, but blame the bureaucrats, not the soldiers. Currently 10,900 soldiers and 1,100 armed police serve with the force. France has an additional 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers in Mali. The size of the French contingent may vary week to week, since the French troops are assigned to a French military task force operating throughout west and central Africa (primarily but not exclusively in in former French colonies).
Even with Malian forces, there aren't enough troops to secure the huge country and monitor is porous borders. So the UN is seeking another 2,500 soldiers. The troop increase could serve a diplomatic purpose. Tuareg tribespeople in northern Mali see the Malian Army as an occupation force. The Tuareg are increasingly at odds with al-Qaida's Saharan Africa affiliate, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. A more robust UN presence would further the peace process between the Tuareg and the Mali government. The Tuareg believe UN peacekeepers would insure the Mali government compliance with a tentative peace agreement. Unfortunately, none of the nations currently supplying peacekeepers want to reinforce MINUSA until the Mali government provides the Tuareg with economic aid and political autonomy.
AQIM does not want peace. Militant Islamist extremists thrive on the chaos of conflict so they take every opportunity to stir tribal war and incite grievance.
Why? AQIM'S Islamist militants aren't fighting for Tuareg autonomy. They are 21st century religious internationalists waging ware on behalf of Islamist global imperialism. Mali may be a backwater, but for Islamist militants, a win anywhere on Earth furthers their global goal.