After nearly two months of fighting, French President François Hollande has announced that French troops are currently engaged in the final phase of fighting Islamist militants in the northern region of Mali. French officials have confirmed that over the past weekend, there has been an increase of fighting in the Ifoghas mountains where a number of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants are reportedly hiding. Fighting continued into Sunday when French warplanes targeted an Islamist base in Infara.
Speaking in Paris on Saturday, President Hollande indicated that Chadian troops had launched an attack on Friday which resulted in significant loss of life. According to the Chadian army, thirteen soldiers from Chad and some sixty-five militants were killed in clashes that occurred on Friday. This latest fighting, between the Islamist militants and ethnic Tuaregs, occurred in the In-Khalil area, which is situated near the northern border town of Tessalit. Security sources have confirmed that four members of the Arab Movement of the Azawad (MAA) were wounded on Sunday after French warplanes launched an attack on an Islamist base in Infara, which is located 30 km (19 miles) from the border of Algeria.
With airstrikes continuing throughout Mali, and especially in the northern mountainous regions of the country, it is likely that hit-and-run attacks may be staged in a number of towns over the coming weeks. In turn, with France slowly wrapping up its military intervention, and with operations being handed over to the African Union forces, militants may use this opportunity in order to clash with locals and army forces in a bid to exploit the fluid security situation. Furthermore, any militants who have fled the airstrikes in Mali may be regrouping in other countries and may attempt to stage hit-and-run attacks in neighbouring countries and/or in those African states that have provided troops for the intervention. The United States Embassy in Senegal has warned its citizens of a possible attack in the capital city of Dakar. Although no further information has been provided, any such attacks may be carried out by Islamist militants from Mali or may be indirectly linked to the Malian intervention.
Meanwhile in Algeria, the gas plant that was at the centre of a deadly hostage-taking last month has partially resumed production. Ever since al-Qaeda-linked gunmen stormed the plant and took hundreds of local and dozens of foreign workers hostage, the Tiguentourine plant has been closed. The hostage crisis ended after four days when the Algerian army stormed by complex. The incident left twenty-nine insurgents and at least thirty-seven hostages dead. Officials have indicated that the plant is now operating at about a third of capacity. Since the incident, the plant has increased its security, with armed guards being deployed in order to help protect Algeria’s remote desert energy installations.
This past week has seen a number of suicide incidents and increased fighting occurring throughout Mali, with one French Legionnaire being killed in the fighting. The continued string of suicide bombings in the previously occupied northern regions of the country are further indications that al-Qaeda-linked groups have resorted to hit and run attacks as a means of destabilizing the security in Mali. Anyone remaining in Mali is advised to either leave the country immediately or relocate to Bamako as it is highly likely that suicide attacks and clashes will take place throughout the northern regions of the country. Such attacks and bombings are likely to take place in the previous rebel-strongholds and will likely target military camps and foreigners. Clashes between militants and soldiers are also likely too occur throughout northern Mali as rebels attempt to disrupt the security. In turn, their is a heightened risk that similar attacks may occur in neighbouring countries, especially those West African nations which have sent their troops to Mali.
On Friday, five people, including two suicide bombers, died in car bombings that occurred in northern Mali just one day after fierce urban battles amongst French-led forces and Islamists resulted in the deaths of at least twenty al-Qaeda-linked militants. Security sources have confirmed that today’s incident involved two vehicles that were targeting civilians and members of the ethnic Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA. The incident occurred in the town of Tessalit, which is known as the gateway into the mountainous regions of the country. It is believed that a number of rebels have fled to this region in order to seek shelter and to regroup. Although no group has claimed responsibility, it is widely believed that the al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is one of Mali’s main Islamist groups, is behind today’s attack. Furthermore, it is highly likely that any rebels in the mountainous regions, and nearby, will focus on hit and run attacks in the coming weeks as a means of preventing allied troops from gaining control of the region.
Today’s attack also comes after al-Qaeda-linked rebels claimed responsibility for another car bomb attack that occurred on Thursday near the city of Kidal. The car blast occurred just 500 metres from the camp which is occupied by French and Chadian troops. Although the vehicle was targeting the camp, it had exploded before it could reach the base. At least two civilians were wounded in the incident. MUJAO have claimed responsibility for this attack, stating that they had no difficulty getting into Kidal in order to blow up the vehicle as they had planned. A spokesman for MUJAO, Abu Walid Sharoui also noted that “more explosions will happen across our territory.”
With an increase of attacks occurring this week, France announced its second military death since President Francois Hollande launched the unilateral military operation on 11 January 2013. Military officials in Paris confirmed that Staff Sergeant Harold Vormeeele, an NCO and commando with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, an elite unit of the French Foreign Legion, was killed during an operation launched on Monday which resulted in the deaths of more than twenty rebels in the mountainous Ifoghas region. According to military sources, 150 French and malian soldiers were taking part in the operation which was aimed at rooting the rebels out of their hideaways.
Over the past few weeks, the French-led forces have been increasingly facing guerrilla-style tactics after initially having been met with little resistance in their drive to force Islamist groups out of the main northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Although the large-scale military operations in the northern region of the country are beginning to wind down, sporadic fighting continues to erupt and may prove to be an issue once the French hand over their mission to the African Union forces.
In line with MS Risk’s recent advisories indicating that the security situation throughout Mali remains uncertain, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Friday in the northern town of Gao, sparking the first such incident to occur since France launched its military intervention in January of this year. This attack signifies that the Islamist rebels have resorted to guerrilla warfare as a means of demonstrating that despite being ousted from their stronghold in northern Mali, they are still able to carry out hit and run attacks. MS Risk therefore advises that it is highly likely that such guerrilla attacks may continue in the coming months, especially in those towns and cities that were recently recaptured by French-led forces. This recent incident also proves that the war is far from being won. The current security situation may result in an increased military presence and checkpoints in towns throughout the country. Meanwhile in Bamako, fighting has erupted between Malian government soldiers and paratroopers who are stationed in the capital city. MS Risk advises any expats in the Bamako to get to safety immediately. It is highly recommended that you stay off the streets and keep away from any military bases as further fighting amongst the military divisions may occur. Military base, especially those occupied by French troops, may also be targeted by rebel Islamist groups. It is also recommended to be wary if driving over any of the three bridges across the Niger river which cuts the city in two.
Fridays’ suicide attack occurred when the attacker, who was on a motorbike at the time, approached a checkpoint located on the outskirts of Gao at about 6:30GMT. The bomber, who is believed to be a young Tuareg, then detonated an explosive belt. Reports have also indicated that he was carrying a larger bomb which failed to detonate. The attack left one soldier injured. Gao is one of the most populous cities in northern Mali and it is one of the towns that was recaptured by French-led troops.
This incident is the first known suicide attack to have occurred in Mali since France sent 4,000 troops into the northern region of the country on 11 January in order to oust the militants. Although there are checkpoints, which are run by troops from France, Mali and Niger, throughout the country, there is currently an increased military presence in Gao as there are rising fears that mines may have been strategically placed throughout the city as a means of carrying out further attacks. The suicide attack comes just one day after one of the Islamist groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), stated that they had “created a new combat zone” by organizing suicide bombings, attacking military convoys and placing landmines.
Over the past week, French-led forces have increasingly come under attack in the reclaimed territories. A landmine blast which occurred on Wednesday between the northern towns of Douentza and Gao, killed four civilians who were returning from a market. A similar incident in the same area, which occurred on January 31, resulted in the death of two Malian soldiers. All of this is occurring at a time when French-led forces have been split into two units, with some remaining in the recaptured towns in order to enforce security, while others, along with 1,000 Chadian soldiers, moving into the mountains near the Algerian border where a large number of Islamist rebels are believed to have fled after French forces began bombarding their strongholds. On Thursday, French and Chadian troops arrived in Aguelhok, which is located 160 km (100 miles) north of Kidal. By Friday, the French-led forces moved into Tessalit, which is the gateway into the country’s northern mountainous region. Over the past few days, air strikes have targeted both towns, aimed at removing Islamist bases. The air strikes are also in preparation for ground forces which are set to enter the mountainous regions in order to drive the remaining Islamist groups out of the country.
Meanwhile in Bamako, reports have surfaced that Malian government soldiers have fought mutinous paratroops in the capital city. Fighting erupted as soldiers attacked a camp of elite paratroopers who are loyal to ex-President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was ousted in the March 2012 coup. It is believed that the incident broke out after the paratroopers refused to be absorbed into the other units in order to go to the northern frontline. The violence comes on the same day that the first EU military trainers were expected to arrive in Bamako in order to begin further training of the Malian army.
Over the past 24 hours, French fighter jets have continued to bombard supply bases located in northern Mali in order to flush out any Islamist rebels who are hiding out in the region. The additional bombings also comes at a time when Paris is placing added pressure on African troops to deploy as quickly as possible in order to take over the offensive. While all of the previously militant-controlled towns have been recaptured by French and Malian troops, MS Risk continues to advise vigilance throughout the country. Food and supplies in some parts of the north are beginning dwindle as many of the Arab and Tuareg traders have fled the region as a result of rising fears of reprisal attacks.
Amidst increasing fears that the rebels could re-group in the mountainous region, dozens of French fighter jets carried out massive air strikes on rebel logistics and training centers around Kidal over the weekend. The fighter jets focused on Tessalit, which is located about 200km (125 miles) north of Kidal, and which is the gateway to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. The bombings also focused on the mountainous region, which is located in the north-eastern area of the country, as it is believed that the terrain could provide the perfect hiding place for the militants. Speaking to the media in Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that the militants “have taken refuge in the north and the northeast but they can only stay there long-term if they have ways to replenish their supplies. So the army, in a very efficient manner, is stopping them from doing so.” Since the French military intervention began in Mali several weeks ago, extremist fighters have been fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region, near the Algerian border. Although they have been driven out from their strongholds by French and Malian soldiers, the operation has been complicated as it is currently believed that the militants may be holding seven French hostages in the mountainous region.
While Chadian and French forces continue to secure Kidal, the last militant stronghold in the north, France’s Foreign Minister has indicated that his country is keen to wrap up its leading role in the offensive, noting that French troops could rapidly withdraw from Timbuktu within weeks. France is now eager to pass the role over to some 8,000 African troops pledged for the UN-backed AFISMA force. However French President Francois Hollande stipulated during his visit to Mali over the weekend, that his country would not abandon Mali.
Meanwhile Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has confirmed that French special forces are protecting one of the country’s largest uranium mines. Officials in France have also confirmed that a dozen special forces reservists are currently strengthening security at the site. The special forces will be protecting Areva, a French company, which plays a major role within Niger’s mining industry. Areva is also the world’s fifth-largest producer of uranium. The added protection to the site comes as a result of increasing threats to Western, and French interests throughout Africa, coupled with the recent hostage situation in Algeria. The added security is also in light of the fact that three years ago, Islamist militants kidnapped five French workers at the mine in Arlit, Niger. Four of them are still being held, along with three other hostages. They are believed to be somewhere in the northern region of Mali, not far from where French troops are battling al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
French and military sources have confirmed that the troops have entered the northern town of Kidal, which is the last major town that is yet to be secured from the Islamist militants. French troops arrived at the airport in Kidal early on Wednesday, just days after capturing two other strategic towns: Gao and Timbuktu. Kidal, which lies 1,500km (930 miles northeast of the capital city of Bamako, was until recently, controlled by Ansar Dine. Although the a heavy sandstorm had halted the operations on Wednesday, conditions are now clearing and the troops may soon be able to continue with their deployment into Kidal. MS Risk advises those who are still in the country, that the current security and political situation remains to be fluid and therefore can change at any given moment. There remains a high level of threat from terrorism and attacks can occur at any time. The death of two Malian soldiers, who were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine south-west of Gao, is a reminder that vigilance is necessary. French troops have warned that landmines or homemade bombs may be lying around the regions of the recently liberated towns and that they were likely placed their by the fleeing insurgents.
While France is currently entering into the final phase of its military intervention, a great deal of work still remains to be done in order to reconnect the two regions of the country and to stabilize both the political and security conditions throughout it. While it seems that the quick advance by the French and Malian troops exposed a weakness of the Islamist rebels that were holding the northern region of the country, these rebels still pose a threat, not only to the country, but to the region itself. The next phase will focus on flushing these rebels out of the vast cross-border desert region, in what French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has indicated will signify a “turning-point” in France’s intervention.
Currently, French troops are continuing to secure Kidal while France is preparing to hand over the towns that it has captured to an African force that has already begun to deploy to Mali. So far, there are an estimated 2,000 African soldiers, mainly from Chad and Niger, on the ground in Mali. It will now by the job of the African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), to root out the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents who have fled into the desert and the mountainous regions in the northern part of the country. This mountainous region, located east of Kidal, covers some 250,000 sq km (96,525 sq miles).
While successful at a tactical and operational level, the French intervention has in some respects demonstrated to the insurgents that they will never be successful in open combat. This increases the risks of scattering the insurgents into a sustained guerrilla threat where the previous warnings of kidnapping, nuisance attacks and terrorist incidents will become amplified. This threat may emanate from Mali but will pose a risk to regional countries.