“Mission Accomplished” – two words made famous by United States President George W. Bush when he proclaimed on 1 May 2003, after just six weeks of fighting, that the U.S. had successfully completed major combat in Iraq. These two words would over time haunt the Bush administration as “mission accomplished” inevitably transformed into a guerrilla warfare on the streets of Baghdad and throughout the entire country. Nearly a decade later, French President François Hollande used these exact words when on 2 February 2013, he proclaimed that France’s unilateral military intervention was successful and that French troops would begin to withdrawal from Mali in March. While the scale of France’s “Operation Serval” is far smaller in comparison to the operations that took place in Iraq, there may be a number of parallels that can create comparisons amongst these two missions.
As the first suicide bomber struck in the town of Gao, and with the Islamist militants believed to be regrouping in Mali’s northern mountainous regions, restoring complete order in a country which for the past ten months has been chaotic, will prove to be a much tougher and complicated mission. The second phase of France’s campaign, which will primarily focus on restoring territorial integrity throughout Mali, is already proving to be a far more complex challenge than bombing the hideouts of al-Qaeda-linked militants. In order for this stage to be deemed “mission accomplished,” a more intricate process, composed of political, social and economic aspects, is necessary in order to reintegrate the north and the south and to bridge the cultural divides.
Amongst the issues that are necessary to take into account are the minimal credibilities and discipline within the Malian army, which has already proven to be a factor with the surfacing of allegations of human rights abuses. In turn, political institutions throughout the country have atrophied, Tuareg separatism continues to pose a threat, there are continuing tensions between the north and south, which includes allegations of acts against human rights, there is a need to tackle a vast uninhibited area, which like in Afghanistan, could create a safe haven for these militants, and there is the rapidly growing refugee crisis that has not only impacted Mali, but its neighbouring countries as well. Additionally, as France looks towards scaling back its operations within the country, officials in Paris will increasingly look towards the African security forces in order to replace them. However it is highly unlikely that this new contingent will be fully prepared to take over from the French by March of this year. Of the estimated 5,000 troops that are set to arrive in Mali, a contingent of only 2,500 soldiers, composed of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, is currently on the ground. This contingent is composed of English and French-speaking troops, all of which come from different military cultures and which hold different levels of experience. This has sparked fears that the force may not have the capabilities that are necessary in order to root out the Islamist militants from their hideaways. France has already suggested that a United Nations peacekeeping force be deployed to Mali in April, a sign that the French are well aware of the limitations of the African forces.
On a much larger scale, there is a need to tackle the fundamental regional issues that remain to be deep-seated. A senior national security official within the Obama Administration has stated that “what we’re seeing across North Africa and parts of the Middle East is an extremist threat that is fueled by the reality of porous borders, ungoverned territory, too readily available weapons, increasing collaboration among some of these groups, and, in many cases, a new government that lacks the capacity and sometimes the will to deal with the problem.” In the case of Mali, all of these points will have to be tackled in order to ensure that such a situation does not occur again.
Over the following weeks and months, French and African Forces will have to deal with what has been called the “vanishing enemy” – the hundreds of Islamist fighters who previously occupied the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu but which have now either disappeared into the vast desert territory or have blended in with either the general populations or the refugees that have been spilling into the neighboring countries. There have already been a number of reports that have indicated that some fighters have mixed in with the refugees who have been seeking safety in Mauritania. In response to such reports, Algeria has reinforced its border security in an attempt to prevent militants from crossing over. Chadian troops have also begun to withdrawal from Kidal, and have moved towards the mountainous regions which border Algeria, as intelligence reports have indicated that a number of Islamist militants have been regrouping in the region.
While progress is being made to rid the country of such militants, it remains to be unknown just how well these groups have prepared for such a rapid retreat. Specifically, it will be necessary to examine whether or not these groups established other bases and supply lines and whether these locations have been identified and targeted by the forces. Over the coming weeks, it will be necessary to cut off all the supply lines, which will be helped by Algeria’s reinforcement of its border security. However there remains to be thousands of miles of unmarked, un-patrolled frontiers across Mali where terrorist groups can retreat and utilize as a means of reorganizing themselves. Furthermore, while Algeria has the ability to secure its borders, the ability of authorities in Libya and Niger to prevent militants from crossing into their countries is limited at best. A factor which could also prove to be critical as militants may cross the borders for safety amidst France’s air and ground attacks. If their are large groups of Islamist terrorists remaining in the unmonitored regions of northern Mali, the next stage of battle will undoubtedly involve asymmetrical warfare, therefore the use of IED’s, assassinations of military and political officials as well as the use of suicide bombings. Mali’s first suicide bombing may have already provided the French and African troops with a glimpse of the type of warfare that such militant groups are capable of orchestrating.
A second factor will be the gathering of intelligence which may prove to be difficult as northern Mali is an area that is larger than Spain and although a majority of the territory is vast open land, the Adrar de Ifoghas mountains are composed of a network of caves and passes, similar to those found in the Afghan Tora Bora region. Moktar Bemoktar, whose followers carried out the attack on a gas facility in Ain Amenas, Algeria in January of this year, as well as Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg and leader of Ansar Dine, are known to have an intimate knowledge of this region. Over the past several years, Belmoktar has used his knowledge of this region in order to smuggle products and kidnapped civilians across the border. A business which has aided him in funding the purchasing of weapons and the recruitment of his soldiers. It is also currently believed that seven French hostages are being held in the mountainous region by his group and MUJAO. While the French military intervention may have disrupted the traditional routes used by these militant groups, regional analysts believe that they will now focus on their remaining routes within the mountainous regions as a source to continue not only smuggling weapons into Mali, but as a mechanism to regroup and begin staging hit and run attacks in their former strongholds. The US recent agreement with Niger to station surveillance drones may be a sign of the need to monitor the mountainous regions on a more regular basis.
Finally, the grievances amongst the ethnic Tuaregs which led to the division of Mali will have to be addressed and the humanitarian crisis will have to be tackled. Negotiations with the Tuaregs, which will involve a greater measure of autonomy as well as the long-promised economic aid for the region, are essential in restoring stability in the north. Although such negotiations will not occur over night, there appears to be a window of opportunity which may aid in speeding up the process. This opportunity came with the split of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group which was formed in 2011 and which is led by Iyad Ag Ghali. Although his whereabouts are currently unknown, his deputy, Alghabass Ag Intallah, has formed a splinter group known as the Islamist Movement of Azawad, which is prepared for negotiations. In recent days, similar movements have been coming from the MNLA, demonstrating that they too are ready for a negotiations to occur. Before the July 2013 elections, political dialogue amongst the varying groups will have to take place in Mali.
Once Africa’s success story, Mali must now look inwards in an attempt to reunite the north and south, however its future looks uncertain. While at the moment, the military intervention in Mali seems far from being a “mission accomplished,” stability in the country is necessary not only for the region, but for the entire International community. Although Mali is not a regional powerhouse, it is very large, nearly twice the size of France, and has seven neighbours, whose long, poorly guarded borders can inevitably provide militants with the supply and escape routes that are necessary for their survival. In turn, many of these border countries have already bared witness to violence, extremism and instability and they are ill-equipped in order to deal with the fallout if Mali was to collapse. In the past Mauritania has had problems with militants who have been liked to al-Qaeda. Niger, like Mali, has also seen frequent rebellions by ethnic Tuareg separatists. Algeria also has many problems with al-Qaeda. During the 1990’s, an Islamist insurgency claimed at least 100,000 lives. Furthermore, a number of militant cells are known to be active in the eastern mountains and in the desert that borders with Mali. In the past, a number of troop convoys have been ambushed. The recent attacks in Ain Amenas indicates that this militant issue continues to be a problem in Algeria. Within Mali itself, the vast and inhospitable desert has allowed groups with the local knowledge of the region to gain vast quantities of money through trafficking drugs, people, or other contrabands. Therefore as the military campaign moves forward, developing events will continue to be closely monitored by capitals throughout West Africa, Europe and the United States. The collapse of Mali and a possible exportation of the jihadist vision would threaten not only the neighbouring countries but would be a direct security threat to Europe.
In line with MS Risk’s recent advisories indicating that the security situation throughout Mali remains uncertain, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Friday in the northern town of Gao, sparking the first such incident to occur since France launched its military intervention in January of this year. This attack signifies that the Islamist rebels have resorted to guerrilla warfare as a means of demonstrating that despite being ousted from their stronghold in northern Mali, they are still able to carry out hit and run attacks. MS Risk therefore advises that it is highly likely that such guerrilla attacks may continue in the coming months, especially in those towns and cities that were recently recaptured by French-led forces. This recent incident also proves that the war is far from being won. The current security situation may result in an increased military presence and checkpoints in towns throughout the country. Meanwhile in Bamako, fighting has erupted between Malian government soldiers and paratroopers who are stationed in the capital city. MS Risk advises any expats in the Bamako to get to safety immediately. It is highly recommended that you stay off the streets and keep away from any military bases as further fighting amongst the military divisions may occur. Military base, especially those occupied by French troops, may also be targeted by rebel Islamist groups. It is also recommended to be wary if driving over any of the three bridges across the Niger river which cuts the city in two.
Fridays’ suicide attack occurred when the attacker, who was on a motorbike at the time, approached a checkpoint located on the outskirts of Gao at about 6:30GMT. The bomber, who is believed to be a young Tuareg, then detonated an explosive belt. Reports have also indicated that he was carrying a larger bomb which failed to detonate. The attack left one soldier injured. Gao is one of the most populous cities in northern Mali and it is one of the towns that was recaptured by French-led troops.
This incident is the first known suicide attack to have occurred in Mali since France sent 4,000 troops into the northern region of the country on 11 January in order to oust the militants. Although there are checkpoints, which are run by troops from France, Mali and Niger, throughout the country, there is currently an increased military presence in Gao as there are rising fears that mines may have been strategically placed throughout the city as a means of carrying out further attacks. The suicide attack comes just one day after one of the Islamist groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), stated that they had “created a new combat zone” by organizing suicide bombings, attacking military convoys and placing landmines.
Over the past week, French-led forces have increasingly come under attack in the reclaimed territories. A landmine blast which occurred on Wednesday between the northern towns of Douentza and Gao, killed four civilians who were returning from a market. A similar incident in the same area, which occurred on January 31, resulted in the death of two Malian soldiers. All of this is occurring at a time when French-led forces have been split into two units, with some remaining in the recaptured towns in order to enforce security, while others, along with 1,000 Chadian soldiers, moving into the mountains near the Algerian border where a large number of Islamist rebels are believed to have fled after French forces began bombarding their strongholds. On Thursday, French and Chadian troops arrived in Aguelhok, which is located 160 km (100 miles) north of Kidal. By Friday, the French-led forces moved into Tessalit, which is the gateway into the country’s northern mountainous region. Over the past few days, air strikes have targeted both towns, aimed at removing Islamist bases. The air strikes are also in preparation for ground forces which are set to enter the mountainous regions in order to drive the remaining Islamist groups out of the country.
Meanwhile in Bamako, reports have surfaced that Malian government soldiers have fought mutinous paratroops in the capital city. Fighting erupted as soldiers attacked a camp of elite paratroopers who are loyal to ex-President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was ousted in the March 2012 coup. It is believed that the incident broke out after the paratroopers refused to be absorbed into the other units in order to go to the northern frontline. The violence comes on the same day that the first EU military trainers were expected to arrive in Bamako in order to begin further training of the Malian army.
Over the past forty-eight hours, Chadian soldiers have continued to secure the town of Kidal in Mali while France has urged the United Nations to send peacekeepers into Mali as French troops prepare to withdrawal from the mission by March 2013. The security situation throughout the country remains to be volatile as counter attacks by Islamist rebels have indicated that while all of the cities in the northern region have been retaken, the rebels continue to have the capabilities of regrouping and staging hit and run attacks. It is highly likely that such attacks and clashes will continue to occur during the transitional period as the rebels will attempt to use this moment to regain their access.
On Tuesday, an estimated 1,800 Chadian troops entered the northern town of Kidal in order to continue securing the last major Islamist rebel stronghold. Meanwhile reports have indicated that there are rising tensions in Mali as the French-led forces have been attacked by Islamist rebels in retaken territories, raising fears that a prolonged insurgency may occur. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed on Tuesday that rebels had hit back at troops with rocket fire in Gao, which is the largest northern city.
Meanwhile after announcing plans to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali in March, France has called on the United Nations to begin deploying its peacekeeping force in order to take over the mission. Speaking to the media in Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that a peacekeeping force could be in place by April and that it would incorporate troops being deployed under the banner of the West African intervention force. France wants the UN force to help stabilize Mali and to seek an end to the long-standing conflict between the ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs and the rest of the population.
So far, France has sustained one fatality, a helicopter pilot who was killed at the beginning of the mission. The Malian army has indicated that eleven of its troops have been killed while another sixty have been wounded. France’s Defence Minister has indicated that the monthlong French offensive has killed hundreds of Islamist fighters in Mali.
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.
Over the past 48 hours, French-led troops in Mali have managed to take over the key town of Gao and the airport of Timbuktu from Islamist rebels. By Monday afternoon, French and Malian military sources confirmed that the troops had entered the historic city of Timbuktu, encountering minimal resistance from the militants. However it must be noted that while the towns of Gao and Timbuktu are currently under the control of French troops, travel to these areas continues to be unadvisable as the security situation may change at any moment. There continues to be a high level of terrorism and threat of kidnapping. As such, MS Risk advises against all travel to the region.
The advance into Timbuktu, which lies 1,000 km (600 miles) north of the capital city of Bamako, comes just one day after French and Malian soldiers seized control of another Islamist stronghold, the eastern town of Gao. French and Malian troops, along with soldiers from Chad and Niger, regained control of Gao on Saturday.
By Sunday, French paratroopers had swooped in to attempt to block the fleeing militants while on the ground troops, coming in from the south, seized the ancient city’s airport, which up until now had been one of the strongholds of the militant groups who have controlled the northern region of the country for the past ten months. Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French army spokesman, confirmed that in less than 48 hours, the troops, backed by helicopters, had seized control of the Niger Loop, which is the area located alongside the curve of the Niger River that flows between Gao and Timbuktu. On the ground sources have also confirmed that the ground force units and paratroopers were dispatched to surround the city of Timbuktu in an attempt to cautiously enter the city.
On Monday afternoon, the French military confirmed that the troops had moved into Timbuktu after blocking all the roads surrounding the city. It was also confirmed that “substantial airpower” had been used in order to support the 1,000 French and 200 Malian forces in their offensive against the rebels in Timbuktu. A Malian army colonel has indicated that “the Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the city of Timbuktu.” However reports have already emerged that while the town remains to be under the control of the allies, a severe amount of damage was caused to some of the historic sites located throughout this ancient town. Mali’s culture ministry has confirmed that prior to escaping the town, the militants burnt the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts from Greece and the ancient Muslim world. Reports have also indicated that Islamists have been fleeing from Timbuktu towards the city of Kidal, which is located more than 500km (300 miles) to the northeast.
Gao is the largest of the six towns which have been seized by French and Malian troops since France launched its military intervention on 11 January. The largest town yet to be recaptured is Kidal, which is located close to the Algerian border. It was also the first town that was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamist extremists last year.
It is currently believed that once Timbuktu is secured, French-led troops will focus on retaking Kidal. Preparations for this final takeover have already been launched as Malian officials have confirmed that Kidal, which is the home of the head of Ansar Dine, was bombed overnight by French forces. Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over, while the second phase, which will strictly focus on tracking down the militants in their desert hideouts, will commence. This phase, however, will likely prove to be a more complex task then the first as, according to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the militants have adopted a “strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north.”
On Sunday, France also confirmed that it has now deployed 2,900 troops to Mali, with another 1,000 troops supporting the operation elsewhere, and that there currently are 2,700 African soldiers on the ground in Mali and in Niger. However French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has appealed for more aid for the ongoing efforts in Mali.