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.
Algerian forces are combing the Sahara desert for five foreigners who remain missing from the attacks at Ain Amenas gas complex last week. It is unknown whether they were able to flee the complex and are perhaps lost in the vast desert region. The plant is located deep in the Sahara with few population centres nearby. Evening temperatures in the region can drop as low as 3° Celsius.
The attack last week left 38 workers and 29 militants dead. The al Qaeda-linked group reportedly demanded the release of two well-known, linked jihadists in exchange for American hostages. The two jihadists are Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (a.k.a. the “Blind Sheikh”) and Aafia Siddiqui (a.k.a. “Lady Al Qaeda”). The request for their release, however unlikely, remains a common refrain by Al-Qaeda linked groups.
Of the three militants taken into custody, one stated under interrogation that some Egyptian members of the group were involved in the terrorist attacks at the US Mission in Benghazi. The attacks left four dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, in September of last year. It is not known whether this confession was obtained under duress or should be deemed trustworthy. However, if confirmed, the link underscores the transnational characteristic of the jihadist groups now occupying the Sahara and Sahal regions.
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamist militant takeover of northern Mali had created a haven for terrorists to extend their reach in North Africa. Algerian officials believe the gas complex plot was devised by groups in northern Mali, where Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group claiming responsibility, is believed to be based. Further reinforcing this notion, US intelligence officials believe that some members of Ansar al-Shariah, the group that carried out the attack in Benghazi, has connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Algerian officials say the Ain Amenas attackers travelled through Niger and Libya, whose border is only 30 miles from the plant. It is believed that the arms for the assault were purchased in Tripoli. The hostage takers converged in the southern Libyan town of Ghat, just across the border. Algerian officials believe the nation can expect more terrorist attacks, despite having delivered sharp blows to militants over a period covering nearly 15 years.
Belmokhtar, mastermind of the Ain Amenas attack, may have once worked as an agent for Algeria’s secretive internal security agency (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS).
A 2009 cable describes a conversation with a prominent Tuareg leader assigned to the Malian consulate, who professed to be “as confused as everyone else regarding the Algerian government’s reticence to go after [Belmokhtar’s] camps in northern Mali”, presuming that Belmokhtar may have been receiving support from certain quarters of the Algerian government.
A senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies stated, “You have a number of jihadi figures who have approached intelligence agencies about serving as double agents, not because they wanted to betray the jihadi cause, but rather because they thought they could play the agencies and get more information about their thinking about the jihadis.”
On Saturday, Algerian Special Forces stormed a natural gas complex in Ain Amenas, in a “final assault” to put an end to the four-day hostage situation. Seven hostages were summarily killed as Algerian troops tried to free them. Over the course of the crisis, 37 foreign hostages from eight countries, and eleven Algerian workers have been killed in the attacks. Seven victims are yet to be identified; five are still missing.
Sources indicate that the militants conducted a highly organized and well planned assault. Members of the Al-Qaeda linked group, Katiba Moulathamin, attacked the plant Wednesday morning from the Libyan border, 60 miles from the natural gas plant. The militants attacked two buses taking foreign employees to the airport. As the buses’ military escort fired on the attackers, the rebels turned to the gas complex, which is divided between the workers’ living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages. Algerian officials suggest that the attackers may have had inside help from Algerians employed at the site.
Early Saturday, the Algerian military stationed itself in the residential barracks of the plant, while militants, armed with rocket-launchers and machine guns, were located in the industrial section with an undisclosed number of hostages. Shortly before the military assault, the leader of the hostage-takers, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, said the government had to choose between negotiating with the kidnappers and leaving the hostages to die, also stating that the area had been booby-trapped and swore to blow up the complex if the Algerian army used force. The Algerian military is clearing mines planted by the militants.
A video released by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Katiba Moulathamin’s leader, confirmed his involvement for the first time, stating that the operation was carried out by 40 fighters from six nations, including several Westerners. Algerian officials say Belmokhtar’s group was behind the attack, but he was not present himself. The raid leader, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, is thought to be among the 32 dead militants.
Nigeri, a fighter from an Arab tribes in Niger, joined the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in early 2005. A year later, the GSPC joined up with al-Qaeda to create al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has since spread across North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel region. Recently, AQIM has been bolstered by millions earned from the kidnapping of Westerners and their ability to move across the borders between Libya, Algeria, Mali and Niger.
It is suspected that this attack was a symptom of disputes between Belmokhtar and Abdelmalek Droukdel, man who was chosen to lead the GSPC following the death of former leader Nabil Sahraoui. Belmokhtar believed himself as a major candidate to replace Sahraoui, however the the position went to Droukdel instead. On the outer level, the crisis in Ain Amenas appeared to be a warning to the Algerian government, but within AQIM, the situation could be perceived as a show of strength by Belmokhtar.