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Expert hopes intervention can stop militants’ advance

January 14, 2013 12:00AM

Last Thursday, when armed militants linked to al-Qaeda took the city of Konna, Pittsburg State University professor Steve Harmon wondered whether this dramatic move would finally motivate the international community to intervene in the year-long stalemate in Mali.

Steve Harmon portraitLess than 24 hours later, French troops and aircraft launched a counter offense in the land-locked nation in northwest Africa.

The intervention by the French and several African nations, with the support of the U.S., was something that was needed, Harmon said, if the militants’ march south toward the capital was to be halted.

“The town of Konna itself is not strategically important,” Harmon said, “but if the airstrip at (nearby) Mopti, and/or the town of Mopti are occupied, that will represent a major shift in the year-long standoff.”

Harmon knows the situation in Mali first-hand. A professor of history at PSU, Harmon returned Jan. 1 from his fifth visit to Mali. Harmon teaches a variety of courses on Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and radical Islam. His principle research has been on French colonial rule in Islamic West Africa and he has served two Fulbright fellowships in Senegal and Mali. Over the past four months, Harmon has been doing field research in Mali for a book tentatively titled “Terrorism and Insurrection in North and West Africa.”

“Mali is right at the center of what I’m researching,” Harmon said, “which is terrorism and insurrection in north and west Africa.”

Harmon said the past year has been a difficult one for Mali. It’s democratic government, in power since 1992, fell last March when a popular young military leader seized power. Since then, the military junta has been battling groups of radical Islamists who control the mostly desert northern half of the country.

Americans should care about what happens in Mali and similar places around the world, Harmon said, noting that the terrorist attacks like the World Trade Center bombings came out of generally uncontrolled terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan.

Beyond the political implications of the struggle in Mali, Harmon said, there is a human toll the fighting takes.

“The people are very welcoming and very kind to foreigners,” Harmon said.

They are 95 percent Muslim, he said, but they are moderate and resentful of the radical actions taken in the north.

“They want what most of us want -- education for their children, a chance to make a living.”

©2013 Pittsburg State University

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