One Malian solider has died while two others have been left injured in the first suicide bombing to target the city of Timbuktu on the eve of the one year anniversary of a coup that paved the way for the Islamist takeover of Mali and the eventual collapse of one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
The bombing occurred near the airport in Timbuktu when an attacker set off an explosive belt inside a car that had been stopped at a checkpoint. According to a military source, “the jihadist who set off his belt was killed instantly and one of the soldiers injured in the explosion died in hospital.” Malian army spokesman Captain Samba Coulibaly stated that the suicide bombing took place at a road block that is manned by Malian soldiers, just before a French checkpoint. French military officials also confirmed that at least ten Islamist fighters were killed in clashes that occurred after the bombing while sources in the city have reported that sustained gunfire continued until 3AM (local time) on Thursday morning. French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard stated that French and Malian forces had repelled an attempt by militants to infiltrate Timbuktu’s airport on Thursday morning. He further indicated that there were no French casualties.
Timbuktu was liberated by French and Malian troops in late January 2013 after the city and its resident endured a nine-month rule by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who had imposed a harsh form of Sharia law on the population. Since then, the town has seen relative clam, unlike the northern city of Gao which has been hit by a number of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks since the Islamist rebels were driven out.
This most recent suicide bombing has further cast a doubt over France’s claims that the Islamist resistance in Mali is close to being crushed. The bombing also comes just one day after French President Francois Hollande stated that the military operation in Mali was in its last phase and that the country was just “days away” from regaining its territorial integrity. Although thousands of Malians have remained skeptical about French assurances that the northern region of the country was increasingly becoming safer, yesterday’s suicide bombing has proven that while French and Chadian troops are continuing their efforts on capturing Islamist rebels in the Ifoghas mountains, groups of Islamist rebels remain throughout the country and therefore are a continued threat to the country’s security and stability. The suicide bombing in Timbuktu also raises questions about France’s possible troop withdrawal which is set to take place at the end of April and whether or not African forces will be ready to cope with a threat that is increasingly turning towards hit and run attacks as a mechanism of maintaining its presence within Mali and as a way of destabilizing the security of the country.
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.
Although Chadian President Idriss Deby has announced that a senior al-Qaeda militant has been killed in northern Mali, efforts by the Algerian security services are currently under way in order to confirm the reports that one of the most notorious and ruthless leaders of al-Qaeda’s North African wing has in fact been killed. If these reports are confirmed, it is highly likely that militant rebels in Mali, and possibly in other countries in West Africa, may carry out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of fifteen French nationals, who are being held hostage by Islamist militants in West Africa are currently in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death.
Chadian President Deby has indicated that the country’s troops killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of the main leaders of al-Qaeda’s north African branch on 22 February during fighting in northern Mali. According to reports, Chadian troops confronted a number of jihadists in the mountainous region near Kidal. It has also been reported that the commander was amongst forty militants who were killed near the border with Algeria. Although these reports have yet to be confirmed by officials in France, Algeria or Mali, Washington has indicated that these reports appear to be credible and that they view his death as a serious blow to the al-Qaeda wing.
Algerian security services have taken DNA samples from two of Abou Zeid’s relatives in order to compare them with the body which reportedly belongs to him. If the testing comes back positive, the killing of Abou Zeid, a longtime militant who has been linked with a number of kidnappings and executions of Westerns, would be a major success for French forces. However it is highly likely that his death will also come with increased retaliatory attacks in Mali and possibly in Chad. The killing of this high-leveled militant will no doubtedly spark a number of hit-and-run attacks throughout Mali. Any citizens remaining in the country are advised to relocate to Bamako and avoid the main former strongholds, including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Citizens in Chad should also remain vigilant as retaliatory attacks may be staged in that country in the coming days and weeks.
Abou Zeid, a 46-year-old whose real name is Mohamed Ghedir, was often seen in the cities of Gao and Timbuktu after Islamists took control of northern Mali last year. An Algerian born near the border with Libya, Abou Zeid is a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990’s and who became one of AQIM’s key leaders. He is suspected of being behind a series of brutal kidnappings in several countries, including British national Edwin Dyer, who was abducted in Niger and executed in 2009, and a 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, who was executed in 2010. Abou Zeid is believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens who were kidnapped in Niger in 2010. If his death is confirmed by Algerian authorities, then the lives of those French hostages may be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Similarly the well being of a French family who was recently kidnapped in northern Cameroon and taken over to Nigeria may also be at risk. Although the group holding the family hostage is not directly linked to the militants in Mali, their execution may be used to issue a warning to France to halt the military intervention in Mali.
Abou Zeid is thought to have about 200 seasoned fighters under his command, mainly comprised of Algerians, Mauritanians and Malians, who are well equipped and highly mobile. Last year, an Algiers court sentenced Abou Zeid in absentia to life in prison for having formed an international armed group implicated in the kidnapping of foreigners. Five other members of his family were jailed for ten years each. He is seen as a true religious fanatic and more uncompromising than some other leaders of north African armed Islamist groups, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the January attack on an Algerian natural gas facility which left thirty seven foreign hostages dead.
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.