Military sources connected close to an on-going French military operation in northern Mali have confirmed that the counter-terrorism offensive concluded on Friday, with eleven Islamist militants killed and one French soldier wounded.
An official from France’s Operation Serval has indicated “the French military operation in the Timbuktu region is completed. Eleven terrorists were killed. A French soldier was wounded but his life is not in danger.” A Malian military source has also confirmed the information, stating, “the French have done a good job, because the jihadists, notably from Libya, are reorganising to occupy the region and dig in permanently.” The source further indicated that military equipment and phones belonging to the militants were seized by French troops during the operation, which took place a few hundred kilometres north of Timbuktu.
According to military sources stationed in the capital Bamako, over the past few weeks, the French army has conducted two counter-terrorism operations around Timbuktu and in the far-northern Ifoghas mountains. It is believed that troops are targeting militants belonging to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Signatories in Blood, which is an armed unit founded by former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as well as fighters loyal to slain warlord Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Abou Zeid and Belmoktar, both Algerians, were once leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with MUJAO and a number of other militant groups, took control of northern Mali in 2012. In late February of last year, Abou Zeid was killed in fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas mountain range. He is credited with having significantly expanded AQIM’s field of operations into Tunisia and Niger and for carrying out kidnapping activities across the region. Belmokhtar, who split from AQIM last year and launched the Signatories in Blood, which later masterminded the raid on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant last year, remains at large. The launch of Operation Serval in January of last year resulted in many militants moving further north, particularly into the Ifoghas mountains, seeking shelter from the ground and air military campaign.
Despite France beginning to withdraw its troops, on Thursday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian indicated that “not everything is finished, the terrorist risk in this part of Africa remains high,” adding that France “…will keep 1,000 soldiers who are carrying out counter-terrorism missions.” The fact that the terrorist risk in Mali remains high has been demonstrated through attacks that have targeted French and African forces and which have been claimed by Islamist insurgents. While residual groups of fighters are no longer able to carry out coordinated assaults, they continue to have the necessary abilities in order to regularly carry out small-scale attacks.
On Friday, flags were flown at half-mast in army barracks across Mali in commemoration of the two-year anniversary of a mass killing by Tuareg separatists, which came to be known as the massacre of Aguelhoc. When the northern town of Aguelhoc was taken on 24 January 2012, more than ninety soldiers and civilians had their throats slit or were shot in summary executions by separatist Tuaregs belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. A statement released by the Ministry of Defence indicated that special prayers for the dead were planned in the town of Kati, which is located 15 kilometres northeast of Bamako, as well as religious services, which will be held on Sunday.
The recent suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have demonstrated how the Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations that are located within the Sahara. What does this mean for France? The country and its troops may be tied down in the region for years to come. In turn, regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for the French government and its Western allies as a lack of greater cooperation amongst the countries located in the Sahara is only aiding the militants in regrouping in quieter parts of the vast desert. One of these quieter territories is the lawless regions of southern Libya, which security officials have indicated is becoming the latest haven for al-Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from their strongholds in northern Mali earlier this year.
According to a senior adviser to Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore, “the south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like before.” This remark comes just days after Niger announced that last week’s suicide raids, which killed twenty-five people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France’s Areva, were launched from Libya. Libya however has denied these allegations.
Smugglers have long used Libya’s poorly controlled south – a crossroads of routes to Chad, Algeria and Niger – for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe. However the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a flood of weapons and ammunition being brought into the Sahara. Tuareg separatists used them in order to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law until French forces arrived. In turn, the Islamists have also exploited Libya’s weakness. It is known that former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had purchased weapons there after Gaddafi’s fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, in which 37 foreigners died.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local brigades in order to police its southern border region, where at least one hundred people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli’s failure to restore security in the region may only encourage Islamist militants to set up permanent camps and weapons stores in the area. Since the attack on Areva, France has urged regional powers to cooperate in order to tackle the threat that is coming from Libya as the country relies on Niger for one fifth of the uranium in order to power its nuclear reactors. Niger’s long border with Mali, tough line on tackling militants and its role as a supplier of uranium to France have long made the country a target. Since the attacks, US troops have begun to train the army while the government in Niamey has stepped up its security in the northern regions of the country, where French Special Forces went in earlier this year in order to protect the mines. Four French mine workers who were taken hostage in Arlit in 2010 are still being held.
While Paris is keen on decreasing its troop numbers in the region, the persistent arguing and mistrust amongst the regional powers continues to be an issues, with President Francois Hollande admitting last week that French forces may be used elsewhere in the Sahel. European governments, alarmed with the developments, also approved a 110-man mission this week that will focus on improving border security by training Libyan police and security forces.
In a region that mainly comprises of vast desert regions, borders often have little meaning, and militants can blend in with nomads. Consequently hunting Islamist militants requires states riven by mutual suspicion to work together. Officials in the United States have indicated that efforts to tackle the spreading influence of al-Qaeda’s ideology throughout the Sahara has been beset by long-standing rivalries, notably between Morocco and Algeria, coupled with a lack of trust and communication amongst the regional capitals.
Algeria, the Sahara’s main military power, has long bristled at the idea of outside intervention in the region, particularly one led by its former colonial ruler, France. Although the Algerian government allowed French warplanes operating in Mali to fly over its territory, Malian officials have indicated that Algeria should be more active, whether by arresting militants or preventing the flow of fuel that allows them to cover vast desert distance. The northern Malian town of Gao lies about 1,500 km (930 miles) from the border of southern Libya.
Mauritania also needs to place more of an effort on this issue. This is mainly due to the country’s strategic location on the western edge of the Sahara coupled with a high number of its citizens who are senior militants and with its experience in tackling Islamist militants at home.
The rapidly changing face of Islamist militancy also creates problems for the local governments. For years, al-Qaeda’s North African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), relied largely on Algerians. However last year, the militant group was composed of gunmen from across northern Africa along with citizens from West Africa – militants who are more experienced and have a greater knowledge of the territory.
In Mali, drone surveillance and on the ground counter-terrorism teams have put a lot of effort in order to suppress the militants. Suicide attacks around the northern towns of Gao and Menaka this month claimed no victims apart from the bombers themselves. According to officials in France, around 600 Islamists have been killed since Operation Serval was launched in January. In turn, about 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of vehicles were seized in operations that scoured the desert regions and mountain bases. This disrupted arms and fuel dumps that militants had prepared during their nine-month occupation of northern Mali. According to a French officer in Mali, “they don’t seem to have the ability to coordinate attacks in Mali anymore…we assume that they will try and regroup but it will take time for them and it is risky as they know we are watching.” The French campaign in Mali has been backed by a British spy plane while the US has drones operating from Niger alongside an established monitoring base in Burkina Faso. But while Islamist militants once traveled in large convoys, they have since adapted and are keeping a low provide. A trend which will likely be seen over the next few years, as militants continue to adapt themselves to nor only the territory, but to the techniques that the West uses in order to track them down.
“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.