French President Francois Hollande announced today that top Islamic extremist leaders, who have been seeking shelter in the northern mountainous region of Mali, have been killed. Meanwhile France suffers a fourth death in Mali. The security situation throughout Mali remains to be volatile. With the recent unconfirmed deaths of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, anyone remaining in the country is highly advised to relocate to the capital city of Bamako as retaliatory attacks throughout the northern region are expected to occur. Companies whose employees remain within Mali should take additional security precautions around company buildings as well as travel routes taken by employees. MS Risk advises those who are travelling in the country to use alternate routes and to not travel at night. Although a number of militants are known to be hiding in the Ifoghas mountains, it is highly likely that a number of rebels are present throughout the northern region and may seek to kidnap westerners as a form of retaliation.
During his visit to Warsaw, Poland for a six-nation European Union defence summit, President Hollande indicated that “the terrorist kingpins have been destroyed” in the Ifoghas mountains. However he declined to comment if key commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar is amongst those key AQIM leaders that have been killed in recent days. Hollande meanwhile has indicated that France will begin to pull its troops out of Mali sometime in April. According to the President, the final phase of the French military intervention “will last through March and from April there will be a decrease in the number of French soldiers in Mali as African forces will take over, supported by the Europeans.” Although initially France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had indicated in early February that French troop numbers in Mali, who now number around 4,000, would decrease as of March, if all goes according to plan, the recent sharp increase of suicide attacks in the former Islamist strongholds, coupled with a general unreadiness of full deployment of African forces, has effectively forced officials in France to maintain their army numbers within the country as the security situation remains too fluid to withdrawal.
Meanwhile France suffered another casualty on Wednesday when a French soldier was killed during fighting against Islamist militants in eastern Mali, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the northern city of Gao. Sergeant Wilfried Pingaud (37) is the fourth French soldier to have died in action. He was a member of the 68th African Artillery Regiment based in Valbonne in southern France. The French soldier died when a group of Islamist fighters attacked French and Malian troops as they were carrying out operations to secure the area. During the attack, a dozen militants were killed while four Malian soldiers were wounded. So far, France has suffered relatively minimal casualties during its operation in Mali which was launched in mid-January. On Saturday, a paratrooper was killed during an operation that was aimed at removing Islamist militants from the Ifoghas mountains. A legionnaire with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment was killed amidst heavy fighting on February 19 while a helicopter pilot died on the first day of the French military intervention. Although the intervention initially resulted in a quick ousting of the rebels who had previously controlled the northern region of the country, fighting has intensified over the past week as efforts have focused on hunting down the militants who are believed to be in the mountainous region of the country.
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.
“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.
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.
France’s early intervention into Mali has shaken up the intervention plans. Although the original timetable for the AFISMA intervention for 3,300 West African troops with western logistical, financial and intelligence backing, was not set to be deployed until September, last week’s pleas for help by the Malian government, after Islamist fighters threatened to take over key towns in the government-controlled region, sparked an urgent need to solve the crisis now. In the wake of Mali being declared a state of emergency, France on Friday launched a military intervention to rid the country of the Islamist terrorists who had begun to descend down to the government-controlled southern region. In a speech given in Paris, French President François Hollande confirmed that French troops “have brought support…to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements.” Mr. Holland further indicated that the intervention had complied with international laws and that it had been agreed upon with Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore.
On Friday, French military forces deployed a massive offensive that was aimed at retaking the country. Residents in the town of Mopti confirmed that French troops were helping malian forces prepare for a counter-offensive against Islamists who were stationed in the town of Konna. Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that a pilot was fatally injured when Islamist rebels shot down his helicopter near the central town of Mopti. By Saturday, France had stepped up its military intervention. It continued with airstrikes and it sent hundreds of troops into the capital city of Bamako. While on Sunday, France continued to expand its attacks by targeting the town of Gao, which is located in the eastern region of the country.
Since Friday, France has sent around 550 troops to the central town of Mopti and to the capital city of Bamako. They are set to be joined by troops from the neighbouring African states of Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Togo, some of which are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days. On Sunday, Algeria also authorized French warplanes to use its airspace for bombing raids in Mali. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that Algeria’s cooperation was indicative of the extent of the international support for the intervention in Mali.
As such, MS Risk directs all concerned to review previous security advice. This includes:
- Thinning out non-essential staff and dependents
- Restricting expat and local national internal travel, especially on high speed routes to and from Mopti
- Seeking advice from legitimate security forces.
- Ensuring journey management systems are in place and work
- Reviewing crisis management contingencies and carrying out rehearsals of these plans
- Registration of expatriates with relevant diplomatic missions and seeking advice on what support will be forthcoming (if any) if conditions deteriorate
- Liaison with insurers to know any exclusions or limits to existing cover.
MS Risk remains to be in a position to assist clients where needed with any and all of these actions. Companies in neighbouring countries will need to consider similar actions. Burkina Faso, Benin and Senegal among others have all agreed to commit troops quickly to assist the Malian forces. French troops deployed over the weekend to Bamako are officially in place to protect French citizens but could easily be deployed forward for direct combat. French airstrikes from bases in Chad have continued all weekend. France has raised its level of security alert status globally for citizens and assets. Other contributing nations may see nuisance attacks designed to disrupt movement of forces into Mali or to sway public opinion. This will in turn raise the kidnap threat. Expats in nearby countries should take steps to review their attendance at well-known expatriate locales such as pubs, restaurants and markets to avoid being caught up in any terrorist incident.