WASHINGTON -- Oh, the devil for it! We had thought, or been led to think, by the reportage on Northern Africa and the ongoing activities of al-Qaida, that the French invasion of Mali in March had pretty much freed up the great old cities of Gao and especially Timbuktu.
I had felt a particular rage toward these savages of the new Islamic caliphate, whose special talents seem to run along the lines of raping women, wiping out villages and burning irreplaceable historic manuscripts. Worse, I have been just about everyplace in the world except Timbuktu, which has left me with the most tragically incomplete tales of adventure. In short, I take this whole saga of modern savagery very personally.
When the French military entered Mali, a huge but poor and rather decent country in West Africa where historic trade routes crossed, those of us who love history, even in the sands of the Saharan desert, thought the country was "home safe."
The French, I am happy to say, are rather good at this. While the Belgians were brutalizing their colonies, such as the Congo, and the British were insisting that their colonials act as if the whole world were Pall Mall, the French were calling their colonials "Pierre" and "Mademoiselle Lisette" and "mon ami," and making Syrians, Malians, Grenadians and Indo-Chinese believe they could be French, too, as they all clearly desired.
When it was necessary to raise a few muskets against some miscreants who did not realize the beauty of French culture, the French did it remarkably and consistently well. They never asked any other nationality to fight alongside them -- such an idea was abhorrent. They lined up the former colonials as backups, and the men were even happy in this role because cognac was served at night. In all of France's posturing, there was an odd feeling of "egalite."
So you can imagine my disappointment when, after seeing the French beginning to leave Timbuktu, last week I learned the extremists had re-entered the city and that a battle had ensued for two days between them and the French and Malian armies.
The fighting started with another of those benighted suicide bombers. (Are there THAT many unhappy people in the world?) He blew himself to Cameroon on one of the only paved roads in the heart of Timbuktu. One must admit that this factor was of particular stress to the natives, not to speak of the travelers from the Abercrombie & Kent "The Desert Can Be Divine" tours.
What this really shows, besides the obvious fact that al-Qaida-linked forces in northwest Africa between Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are already roughly united, is that the situation in this area is changing, and not to our advantage.
Last week, for instance, new information was released by the French and the United Nations to the effect that other long-term fighters in this desert realm -- fighters with the various Moroccan Saharan groups and drug smugglers, who have long been terrorizing Algerian villagers, killing upward of 100,000 in the 1980s -- were now fighting with the al-Qaida groups and substantially strengthening them.
In the Central African Republic, located to the east of Mali and southeast of Algeria and Tunisia, a peace deal signed two months ago with yet another only loosely organized group, the Seleka rebel alliance, collapsed and the rebel leader declared himself president. What this could mean to the al-Qaida story is as yet unclear.
Meanwhile, even in Tunisia, a little jewel of a country that lounges along the Mediterranean and is far more European than African, worrisome numbers of young men have left the country and joined elements of al-Qaida in the countries to the south. The Financial Times reported that Tunisians formed the largest group among the militants who attacked the In Amenas gas plant in southeastern Algeria in January, the attack serving as a blow against the French for its entry into Mali.
Of great importance is the fact that these young Tunisian fighters are from the middle class. They are coming from what had been until two years ago the most secular European country in the Arab world. Some analysts in the region are saying that, in supposed contradiction, the very fact that they are educated makes them want to experiment and be open to new ideas.
What I fear we are beginning to see, burgeoning out in much of the world, is other groups now choosing to join al-Qaida for the publicity value and for the potential for wealth and power. I focus on Africa today because it is perhaps where one can most clearly see this happening. But it could occur in many areas.
Remember how communism, after 1917, spread across the world, using whatever cadres and ideological tools it could find. Large numbers of the groups that became "communists" did not start that way; power and wealth are provocative inducements. Islamic fundamentalism could turn out to be a parallel -- and dangerous -- experience. The "new communism"?
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)