STATE DEPARTMENT — Al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in Mali are claiming responsibility for fresh attacks following the August election of a new civilian government. The United States says it is helping in the fight against terrorism in Mali but will not provide military assistance because of concerns about Mali's army.
Suspected Islamist militants this week shelled the northern Malian city of Gao for the first time in nearly five months, renewing attacks that had been halted by French forces earlier this year. The Obama administration says it is targeting those al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists.
"The defeat of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and affiliated violent extremist groups in Mali is a top priority for the United States. We have provided information and we’ve provided logistical support to French military operations there," said Deputy State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf.
However, Washington is not providing assistance to Mali's military, which overthrew the government last year and has resisted security sector reforms by the new civilian president.
"We’re committed to working with the government of Mali to restore this assistance in coordination with other donors and in a way that supports their efforts to strengthen their institutions and their civilian control over the military," continued Harf.
There are also concerns about military human rights abuses, according to Sarah Margon from Human Rights Watch.
"Our priority is really seeing accountability for those abuses that were scaled up during the coup and in the aftermath," said Margon.
Margon added that Mali's new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, has a lot of work to do.
"There's a host of issues; abuse particularly within the security sector but also corruption concerns. As the U.S. decides when it will turn the spigot back on for security assistance, we would certainly hope that these will be some of the top priorities that they focus on," continued Margon.
President Keita has made security and accountability top priorities for his new government, but he also told world leaders at the United Nations that he can not do it alone.
"When we look at security we must include issues of trust and concerns over sovereignty. The nature and breadth of threats on the ground demand that we go beyond these considerations and work to pool our resources because these threats are beyond the capacities of any one state," explained Keita.
Cooperation in fighting terrorism in the Sahel is especially important at a time of instability in North Africa, says U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Manal Omar.
"There have been a few prison breaks in Libya. There have been prison breaks in Tunisia. And I think that really signals that even in the capitals and in the major cities, [governments] are having a hard time controlling [their countries]. And borders are hard to control under the best of situations. So you can only imagine the challenge that really is coming in front of the Libyan government in terms of the Sahel, in terms of coordination with Mali," said Omar.
Some of the ethnic Tuaregs who fled Libya are part of the Islamist militant groups currently destabilizing northern Mali.
"It's important to look at the humanitarian aspect of the Tuareg and how do you make sure that you are not creating camps that will essentially be recruitment grounds because they are being treated unfairly," warned Omar.
While continuing to work with French forces in Mali, the Obama administration has indicated it plans to meet with key Malian leaders to discuss restoring military aid, with the goal of fighting terrorism.