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Desert nightmare
A Malian army soldier holds a machine gun with a French flag wrapped on its side as he and others head towards Niono, on January 18, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR)
A Malian army soldier holds a machine gun with a French flag wrapped on its side as he and others head towards Niono, on January 18, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR)
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France’s military intervention in the African nation of Mali has set off a chain reaction of events in other countries, such as Somalia and Algeria, with the potential to expand even further.

French President Francois Hollande has defended his country’s decision to send several hundred troops to Mali to battle Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents as the right move, and one that was absolutely “necessary.”

A horrific hostage drama at an oil facility in the deep south of Algeria has been the most spectacular instance of fall-out from the decision by Paris. Islamist hard-line militants took dozens of people hostage, from an array of nationalities, setting off alarm bells in world capitals as they confront the latest emergence of trans-national extremism.

But the focus should also be on the so-called “Arab Spring” of popular insurrections in nearby Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In these countries, and particularly Libya, there is an abundance of weapons and a deficit of state power during the period of popular insurrection and political transition.

Naturally, the phenomenon of Islamic extremism goes even further back, to the era of Moammar Gadhafi, when the Libyan leader used Islam as a weapon to gain influence in neighboring African countries. And it was Algeria’s military in the 1990s that canceled an election victory by Islamist groups, plunging the country into years of repression and bloodshed.

Whatever the historical roots of today’s developments, “Arab Spring” countries must shore up their performance. In purely military terms, a joint effort is needed to help Algeria police its vast territory, and especially the porous areas in the Sahara.

But in political terms, the new regimes in Egypt and North Africa should drop any move toward leniency with religious extremists. These militants have managed to replenish their arsenals due to the chaos that has swirled in Libya since Gadhafi’s regime began to totter.

Any move to rely on extremists as a political weapon, to outflank rivals, can have only destructive repercussions. This was seen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the U.S. relied on fledgling jihadists to accomplish political ends, and ended up with the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda as a result.

No country should entertain the idea of allowing its territory to become a haven for extremists, because the consequences will be deadly. France’s intervention in Mali might appear to have sparked this week’s violence, but the problem is a long-standing one. While France has the capabilities needed to deal with Islamic extremists, the weaker countries of the Arab Spring are at a much greater disadvantage. They must redouble their efforts to ensure that their political systems do not “graduate” extremists, and avoid indulging such political currents for personal or other ends.

If they fail to do so, destabilization will be the inevitable result, and all of the achievements of earlier “revolutions” will be wasted. It’s time to look further than the latest hostage crisis, and instead produce a true strategy to combat extremism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 19, 2013, on page 7.
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