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.
“Mission Accomplished” – two words made famous by United States President George W. Bush when he proclaimed on 1 May 2003, after just six weeks of fighting, that the U.S. had successfully completed major combat in Iraq. These two words would over time haunt the Bush administration as “mission accomplished” inevitably transformed into a guerrilla warfare on the streets of Baghdad and throughout the entire country. Nearly a decade later, French President François Hollande used these exact words when on 2 February 2013, he proclaimed that France’s unilateral military intervention was successful and that French troops would begin to withdrawal from Mali in March. While the scale of France’s “Operation Serval” is far smaller in comparison to the operations that took place in Iraq, there may be a number of parallels that can create comparisons amongst these two missions.
As the first suicide bomber struck in the town of Gao, and with the Islamist militants believed to be regrouping in Mali’s northern mountainous regions, restoring complete order in a country which for the past ten months has been chaotic, will prove to be a much tougher and complicated mission. The second phase of France’s campaign, which will primarily focus on restoring territorial integrity throughout Mali, is already proving to be a far more complex challenge than bombing the hideouts of al-Qaeda-linked militants. In order for this stage to be deemed “mission accomplished,” a more intricate process, composed of political, social and economic aspects, is necessary in order to reintegrate the north and the south and to bridge the cultural divides.
Amongst the issues that are necessary to take into account are the minimal credibilities and discipline within the Malian army, which has already proven to be a factor with the surfacing of allegations of human rights abuses. In turn, political institutions throughout the country have atrophied, Tuareg separatism continues to pose a threat, there are continuing tensions between the north and south, which includes allegations of acts against human rights, there is a need to tackle a vast uninhibited area, which like in Afghanistan, could create a safe haven for these militants, and there is the rapidly growing refugee crisis that has not only impacted Mali, but its neighbouring countries as well. Additionally, as France looks towards scaling back its operations within the country, officials in Paris will increasingly look towards the African security forces in order to replace them. However it is highly unlikely that this new contingent will be fully prepared to take over from the French by March of this year. Of the estimated 5,000 troops that are set to arrive in Mali, a contingent of only 2,500 soldiers, composed of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, is currently on the ground. This contingent is composed of English and French-speaking troops, all of which come from different military cultures and which hold different levels of experience. This has sparked fears that the force may not have the capabilities that are necessary in order to root out the Islamist militants from their hideaways. France has already suggested that a United Nations peacekeeping force be deployed to Mali in April, a sign that the French are well aware of the limitations of the African forces.
On a much larger scale, there is a need to tackle the fundamental regional issues that remain to be deep-seated. A senior national security official within the Obama Administration has stated that “what we’re seeing across North Africa and parts of the Middle East is an extremist threat that is fueled by the reality of porous borders, ungoverned territory, too readily available weapons, increasing collaboration among some of these groups, and, in many cases, a new government that lacks the capacity and sometimes the will to deal with the problem.” In the case of Mali, all of these points will have to be tackled in order to ensure that such a situation does not occur again.
Over the following weeks and months, French and African Forces will have to deal with what has been called the “vanishing enemy” – the hundreds of Islamist fighters who previously occupied the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu but which have now either disappeared into the vast desert territory or have blended in with either the general populations or the refugees that have been spilling into the neighboring countries. There have already been a number of reports that have indicated that some fighters have mixed in with the refugees who have been seeking safety in Mauritania. In response to such reports, Algeria has reinforced its border security in an attempt to prevent militants from crossing over. Chadian troops have also begun to withdrawal from Kidal, and have moved towards the mountainous regions which border Algeria, as intelligence reports have indicated that a number of Islamist militants have been regrouping in the region.
While progress is being made to rid the country of such militants, it remains to be unknown just how well these groups have prepared for such a rapid retreat. Specifically, it will be necessary to examine whether or not these groups established other bases and supply lines and whether these locations have been identified and targeted by the forces. Over the coming weeks, it will be necessary to cut off all the supply lines, which will be helped by Algeria’s reinforcement of its border security. However there remains to be thousands of miles of unmarked, un-patrolled frontiers across Mali where terrorist groups can retreat and utilize as a means of reorganizing themselves. Furthermore, while Algeria has the ability to secure its borders, the ability of authorities in Libya and Niger to prevent militants from crossing into their countries is limited at best. A factor which could also prove to be critical as militants may cross the borders for safety amidst France’s air and ground attacks. If their are large groups of Islamist terrorists remaining in the unmonitored regions of northern Mali, the next stage of battle will undoubtedly involve asymmetrical warfare, therefore the use of IED’s, assassinations of military and political officials as well as the use of suicide bombings. Mali’s first suicide bombing may have already provided the French and African troops with a glimpse of the type of warfare that such militant groups are capable of orchestrating.
A second factor will be the gathering of intelligence which may prove to be difficult as northern Mali is an area that is larger than Spain and although a majority of the territory is vast open land, the Adrar de Ifoghas mountains are composed of a network of caves and passes, similar to those found in the Afghan Tora Bora region. Moktar Bemoktar, whose followers carried out the attack on a gas facility in Ain Amenas, Algeria in January of this year, as well as Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg and leader of Ansar Dine, are known to have an intimate knowledge of this region. Over the past several years, Belmoktar has used his knowledge of this region in order to smuggle products and kidnapped civilians across the border. A business which has aided him in funding the purchasing of weapons and the recruitment of his soldiers. It is also currently believed that seven French hostages are being held in the mountainous region by his group and MUJAO. While the French military intervention may have disrupted the traditional routes used by these militant groups, regional analysts believe that they will now focus on their remaining routes within the mountainous regions as a source to continue not only smuggling weapons into Mali, but as a mechanism to regroup and begin staging hit and run attacks in their former strongholds. The US recent agreement with Niger to station surveillance drones may be a sign of the need to monitor the mountainous regions on a more regular basis.
Finally, the grievances amongst the ethnic Tuaregs which led to the division of Mali will have to be addressed and the humanitarian crisis will have to be tackled. Negotiations with the Tuaregs, which will involve a greater measure of autonomy as well as the long-promised economic aid for the region, are essential in restoring stability in the north. Although such negotiations will not occur over night, there appears to be a window of opportunity which may aid in speeding up the process. This opportunity came with the split of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group which was formed in 2011 and which is led by Iyad Ag Ghali. Although his whereabouts are currently unknown, his deputy, Alghabass Ag Intallah, has formed a splinter group known as the Islamist Movement of Azawad, which is prepared for negotiations. In recent days, similar movements have been coming from the MNLA, demonstrating that they too are ready for a negotiations to occur. Before the July 2013 elections, political dialogue amongst the varying groups will have to take place in Mali.
Once Africa’s success story, Mali must now look inwards in an attempt to reunite the north and south, however its future looks uncertain. While at the moment, the military intervention in Mali seems far from being a “mission accomplished,” stability in the country is necessary not only for the region, but for the entire International community. Although Mali is not a regional powerhouse, it is very large, nearly twice the size of France, and has seven neighbours, whose long, poorly guarded borders can inevitably provide militants with the supply and escape routes that are necessary for their survival. In turn, many of these border countries have already bared witness to violence, extremism and instability and they are ill-equipped in order to deal with the fallout if Mali was to collapse. In the past Mauritania has had problems with militants who have been liked to al-Qaeda. Niger, like Mali, has also seen frequent rebellions by ethnic Tuareg separatists. Algeria also has many problems with al-Qaeda. During the 1990’s, an Islamist insurgency claimed at least 100,000 lives. Furthermore, a number of militant cells are known to be active in the eastern mountains and in the desert that borders with Mali. In the past, a number of troop convoys have been ambushed. The recent attacks in Ain Amenas indicates that this militant issue continues to be a problem in Algeria. Within Mali itself, the vast and inhospitable desert has allowed groups with the local knowledge of the region to gain vast quantities of money through trafficking drugs, people, or other contrabands. Therefore as the military campaign moves forward, developing events will continue to be closely monitored by capitals throughout West Africa, Europe and the United States. The collapse of Mali and a possible exportation of the jihadist vision would threaten not only the neighbouring countries but would be a direct security threat to Europe.
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.