Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Libyan Crisis Sparked Rising Extremism In North Africa


Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton takes questions before Congress about last year's attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.


Investigators have sharply criticized security at the consulate. Republicans made the attack an intense partisan issue in last year's election.

INSKEEP: The election is over, but the concern about extremism in Africa has widened. Islamist rebels now control half of Mali.

MONTAGNE: And last week, three Americans were killed in a related hostage drama in neighboring Algeria. NPR's Michele Kelemen surveys a region under stress.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Libyan rebels, with the help of NATO air cover, toppled the longtime dictator Muammar Gadhafi in 2011, they opened a new chapter in their history. But there was a downside to this revolution. J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council said Gadhafi had kept a lid on extremists, and now the lid was off in a vast region with porous borders.

J. PETER PHAM: Borders, really, in this area of the world are quite meaningless. The Maghreb and the Sahel are continuous spaces that run from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

KELEMEN: When Gadhafi was toppled and killed, he says, the Libyan leaders mercenaries took their guns and moved, many to northern Mali, which then fell to extremists.

PHAM: The Libyan crisis didn't cause the rebellion in northern Mali. That spark was already lit by the political and economic marginalization of the Tuaregs in northern Mali. But out of Libya came ethnic Tuaregs who had served as mercenaries for Gadhafi who were more than happy to join their kin in a struggle.

KELEMEN: Islamist groups also had more room to maneuver and profit off of hostage-takings and smuggling in what Pham calls a perfect storm. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb now has a safe haven in northern Mali, and Obama administration officials believe that group played a role in the hostage-takings in Algeria. State department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says the U.S. is worried about these trend lines.

VICTORIA NULAND: We have been concerned for a long time about the growing danger of radical extremism in this part of the world, about the connections across, which is why we have counterterrorism training for some 10 governments across that region, to try to strengthen their capacity to try to improve border control, to help them to work together regionally.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton admits it's been difficult for the U.S. to gather intelligence in what she calls one of the most remote areas on the planet. So far, no one has been brought to justice for carrying out the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September. An independent panel faulted the State Department for grossly inadequate security and said there were gaps in the intelligence community's understanding about the extremist militias in the area.

This is the dark side of the Arab uprising, says Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group.

ROBERT MALLEY: You now have more jihadists who are free to roam around. Many have been released or have escaped, broken out of prison, with more access to lethal weapons because weapons have been abundant - in Libya in particular, but elsewhere as well - as these uprisings have taken place, fewer more disorganized and less loyal security forces, and governments that are more distracted because they have to deal with their internal affairs.

KELEMEN: Malley says all this means that the U.S. has to rethink its security posture in the region and play catch-up, learning more about the new political realities and security challenges across North Africa. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Some of the issues Secretary Clinton may discuss before Congress today. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.