Even holy places are not safe. These self-styled “defenders of the faith” demolished the tombs of local Sufi saints in the fabled city of Timbuktu. The armed groups also reportedly destroyed many churches in the north, where displaced members of the small Christian minority told me they had previously felt entirely accepted. Such Qaeda-style tactics, and the religious extremism that demands them, are completely alien to the mainstream of Malian Islam, which is known for its tradition of tolerance.

That openness is exactly what the jihadists seek to crush. …

Policy decisions regarding this potential Afghanistan-in-the-Sahara must be informed by the fact that what is happening there is not simply a question of regional or global security, but of basic human rights. The current intervention in Mali could deal a decisive blow to the recent advance of fundamentalism across North Africa, but only if French and West African soldiers take care to distinguish between civilians and their jihadist oppressors, who hide among the innocent.

They must also avoid simply shifting the problem elsewhere in the region. After all, one of the causes of the Islamist occupation of northern Mali was the displacement of armed men from Libya after the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. Algeria had lost hundreds of thousands of its own people to fundamentalist armed groups since the 1990s. Since then, many Algerian jihadists have crossed the border into northern Mali, reproducing the problem there.