On January 11, 2013, at the behest of Mali’s enfeebled interim government led by President Dioncounda Traore, the French military launched Operation Serval after convoys of Salafi-jihadi rebels careened into the town of Konna in Mali’s vulnerable central Mopti Region during January 9-10. The alliance of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) had been solidifying since the various rebel movements ejected the presence of the Malian state in late March 2012. The fall of Konna threatened Mali’s army garrison in Sevare, the northernmost limit of central government control. MUJAO’s Oumar Ould Hamaha boasted: “We took the barracks and we control all of the town of Konna…the soldiers fled, abandoning their heavy weapons and armored vehicles.”[1]

As the militants began to consolidate control over the Sahelian communities of the Niger River plains and the Malian Sahara, evidence supports that they were in the nascent stages of forming an Islamic state replete with Shari`a courts and Islamic police meting out brutal public punishments to alleged criminals.[2] The Salafist leadership in Timbuktu and Gao were in contact with AQIM’s amir, Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Mus`ab al-Wadud), who is based in northern Algeria.[3]

The Associated Press recovered a manifesto from the grounds of the state television station in Timbuktu that was purportedly written by Droukdel. In the document, Droukdel rebuked his colleagues for their clumsy implementation of Shari`a, which he believed risked alienating local populations who were unlearned in the ways of Salafism.[4] Contrary to the stereotype of a nihilistic jihadist run amok, the 79-page document clearly illustrated a desire for state formation with some trappings of a functioning administration with an interim government and a constitution based on Shari`a.[5]

This article examines the regional and international response to the Salafi-jihadi conquest of northern Mali, how the militants have responded to their rapid losses, and the new challenges facing international forces and Mali’s government going forward. It finds that the successes achieved by the French in northern Mali are not sustainable over the long-term unless the country achieves progress in internal reconciliation.

The Regional Response
From the outset of the joint Tuareg separatist and Salafi-jihadi takeover of northern Mali, regional state actors were beset with two concerns: was it only a matter of time before the conflict would spill over into their respective territories, and would this conflict eventually pull their own regular militaries into Mali? The response across the spectrum was anything but uniform. Algeria publicly maintained its long-held stated policy of non-intervention, but made a situation specific exception and quietly allowed overflight rights to French fighter jets to attack Mali-based militants.[6] Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou was especially concerned with the threat Mali-based militants posed to the renewed destabilization of northern Niger. When asked if an assembled Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force should enter the fray in northern Mali, Issoufou told an interviewer without hesitation in June 2012: “Of course…now it is time for ECOWAS to take all the necessary measures to regain the territorial integrity of Mali.”[7]

Macky Sall, the president of neighboring Senegal, waffled about whether to commit Senegalese troops in an intervention scenario. Even after the French intervened, Sall remained publicly concerned about a militant spillover into Senegal, explaining, “Senegal being a neighboring country to Mali, it of course pays very close attention to these developments.”[8]

The security architecture of the ECOWAS collective was regularly put forth as a mechanism to recapture Mali’s lost regions. Yet two neighboring states whose input mattered, Mauritania and Algeria, were glaringly not members of ECOWAS. In fact, ECOWAS was close to operational irrelevance at the outset of Operation Serval because France-allied Chad, a non-ECOWAS member state, ended up committing the largest number of foreign troops behind the French—becoming the key regional military actor in the subsequent fight against the Salafi-jihadis.

The International Community’s Response
In March 2012, the international community verbally condemned the partition of the Malian republic but opted against taking immediate military action against the rebels. By June 2012, the Salafi-jihadis had dislodged their armed peer competitors, the Tuareg Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), from northern Mali’s principal cities and towns. What followed was a de facto strategy of containment while a host of international bodies—including the United Nations, ECOWAS and the African Union (AU)—slowly deliberated about how to resolve Mali’s crisis.[9]

On December 20, 2012, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2085, paving the way for the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA).[10] A number of intervention scenarios were devised with the central element being that a coalition of regional indigenous military forces would take the lead in the fight, backed up logistically by a rear guard coalition of Western militaries.[11] This strategy had an inherent flaw in that it relied on the precept that the Salafi-jihadi rebels would probably not advance southward and instead wait to negotiate a settlement with Mali’s fragile interim administration and military junta. All such plans unraveled literally overnight when heavily armed Salafi-jihadi rebels finally attempted to occupy more territory by invading Konna in mid-January 2013.

Concerned that Ansar Eddine, MUJAO, and AQIM could invade Mali’s capital, French forces launched a full-scale military intervention to wrest rebel-controlled areas of Mopti Region and neutralize Islamist control of the three northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. French President Francois Hollande indicated that the coordinated attack on Konna threatened not only the Malian garrison in Sevare, but was clearly an existential threat to the rump government led by Dioncounda Traore in the south, announcing that the rebels “have even tried to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali.”[12] Paris also had a strong interest in trying to rescue seven French nationals and a dual French-Portuguese man held captive by AQIM and MUJAO in northern Mali.[13]

Paris quickly mobilized forward deployed forces at its airbase in N’Djamena, Chad. French Mirage and Rafale fighter jets flew bombing sorties over central and northern Mali while the government of President Hollande negotiated with key allies to assist the French military with its heavy airlift capacity to rapidly transport armored personnel carriers and other materiel into Bamako, Mali’s capital.[14]

All of these actions were completed under the official rubric of providing support to Mali’s disheveled army that had suffered from defections and deadly infighting since the onset of the current bout of rebellion in January 2012.[15] From the first salvos of the reconquest of Mali’s battered north, the mission was unequivocally spearheaded by French decision makers, with their Malian counterparts a distant second.

Employment of Asymmetric Tactics
As French troops, followed by their Malian counterparts, swept into the cities of Gao and Timbuktu with relative ease after a number of French airstrikes, ground forces faced little to no initial resistance from the Salafi-jihadi rebel coalition. In the early days of the intervention, Salafi-jihadi fighters seemed to melt away, leaving population centers in droves via their ubiquitous Toyota “technicals”[16] and nimble motorbikes. The rebels avoided direct confrontation with the newly arrived conventional forces.[17] The deployment of French, Chadian and other military contingents in northern Mali radically altered the threat posed to central Mali.

Rather than the formal frontline that threatened the Malian capital with a southward militant creep as seen in the attack on the town of Konna in central Mopti Region, Mali and its allies now faced a dispersed threat. Fleeing militants sought sanctuary in sympathetic villages or in the rough-hewn northern-most redoubts in Kidal Region, an area that has been exploited by Tuareg rebels for decades.

On February 8, 2013, an Arab suicide bomber disguised as a paramilitary soldier drove a motorbike up to a Malian military checkpoint in Gao, killing himself and wounding a Malian soldier.[18] The martyrdom operation was quickly claimed by Abou Walid Sahraoui, MUJAO’s spokesman, stating: “We claim today’s attack against the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam.” This marked the first suicide attack in Mali since the French intervention, and it would begin a wave of similar insurgent actions.[19]

As if to demonstrate a coordinated campaign were underway, a second suicide bomber struck the same Malian checkpoint at Gao’s entrance the following night.[20] The outcome of that follow-up operation was nearly identical; only the bomber was killed and one Malian soldier was reported injured with Malian forces disseminating the absolute minimum of information about the incident, stating only that they believed the young man was Arab and a member of MUJAO.[21] Although these initial incidents were abject failures in terms of producing mass casualties, they were successful in announcing that MUJAO and its allies intended to wage asymmetric warfare against conventional military forces. Following the two suicide bombings, Islamist fighters launched a fierce raid in Gao’s city center, catching Malian troops off guard. A French-led counterassault ensued, resulting in a MUJAO defeat.[22]

MUJAO remained undeterred, and its incipient martyrdom campaign in northern Mali did not cease. Four months into the foreign military intervention, suicide bombers launched twin attacks in the Gao region, striking Nigerien troops in Menaka and Malian troops in Gossi on May 10, 2013.[23]

Mountain Redoubt
In the last major forward logistical phase of Operation Serval, French troops deployed into Kidal city, the capital of Kidal Region, on January 30. French and Chadian forces then established their presence in the lightly populated Saharan garrison towns of Aguelhok and Tessalit on February 7 and 8, respectively.[24] In doing so, Franco-Chadian forces partially encircled the Ifoghas and Tigharghar mountains.

This sparse, rocky region has served as a refuge and supply depot during past bouts of Tuareg rebellion.[25] Its inaccessible terrain—pockmarked with caves, coupled with pools of fresh water—makes it ideal guerrilla country. Its isolation and the fact that it is currently surrounded on the Malian side by Franco-Chadian military camps, however, will likely make it difficult for the Islamists to resupply once their prepositioned provisions are expended. Bilal ag Cherif, the secretary-general of the MNLA, emphasized the importance of the Tigharghar mountains to AQIM: “there are a number of places where you will find AQIM such as west of Timbuktu but [the] Tigharghar [mountains are] their anchor point. This is where you will find the bulk of their forces, [as well as] materiél. The current battle is of utmost importance.”[26]

In Kidal city, French troops and their Chadian allies have struck an accord of sorts with the MNLA and an Ansar Eddine splinter group calling itself the Islamic Movement of Azawad  (MIA) led by Alghabass ag Intallah who publicly parted ways with Iyad ag Ghaly.[27] In the wake of the French air campaign, MNLA fighters opportunistically reentered Kidal city just ahead of the advancing French and Chadian contingents. The MNLA’s leadership has made it clear that Malian troops—such as those now back in Gao and Timbuktu—would in no way be welcomed back into Kidal. The French and Chadians decided that they would work with militant groups on the ground who were not diametrically opposed to their presence. In effect, to carry out its counterterrorism operations, the French military struck a tacit alliance with the same group that instigated the January 2012 rebellion in the north, in a new alliance against the AQIM-linked militias. This strategic pragmatism, however, means that a large swath of northern Mali is still not under the control of Mali’s own military.

Although the official media arm of the French Ministry of Defense described a February reconnaissance mission in the Ifoghas mountains as being comprised of “combined French and Malian troops,”[28] the only Malian forces at work with foreign forces in the offensive in the Ifoghas mountains are ethnic Tuareg militiamen under the command of the pro-Bamako Colonel El Hadj ag Gamou.[29] The implicit understanding during the early war phase of Operation Serval was that Malian regular troops would not move north of the Niger River valley, as Paris wanted to avoid a secondary conflict from concomitantly occurring between the reemerging MNLA and Malian regular forces. As northern militants shuffle allegiances and rebrand their movements, the fight is not over from Bamako’s perspective.

As French and Chadian units fanned out deeper into the parched valleys and massive boulders of Kidal Region, they finally confronted AQIM directly. AQIM was entrenched in the Ametetai Valley situated approximately midway between Tessalit and Aguelhok due east in the Tigharghar region west of the Ifoghas mountains. French commanders—who claimed to have killed some 100 militants—estimated that the jihadists had planned to use the remote area as a base of operations for the foreseeable future.[30] To prevent jihadists from slipping over the border to Algeria, a risky three-pronged assault was prepared in late February 2013. A column of French troops moved northward from Aguelhok while a separate French column parachuted in from north of the valley and an independent Chadian one moved south from Tessalit to ensnare AQIM in the Ametetai Valley.[31] Of the three formations, the Chadian column had the most grave encounter with the fleeing Salafi-jihadis, evidenced by a reported 25 Chadian soldiers, and 65 mililtants, killed in three separate ambush encounters.[32]

Troops then swept arduously over the terrain on foot encountering AQIM’s abandoned earthen infrastructure while looking for evidence of French captives.[33] Along with the usual caches of Soviet-era weaponry, French forces discovered  that AQIM had planned well in advance for the eventuality of guerrilla war with components for improvised explosive devices and pre-assembled suicide bomb belts.[34] French forces found that AQIM was growing its own food in the Ametetai Valley to sustain itself far from settled populations while having access to the most important resource of all to conduct a mobile war in the Sahara: fresh water.[35] Although the goal of French officers was to form a tight cordon around the area, it is likely that many of the jihadists escaped.[36]

Overall, the reconquest of northern Mali has been an ad hoc, complex affair involving a host of stakeholders with divergent interests. The French Ministry of Defense wanted to withdraw French ground forces, who numbered approximately 4,000 at the height of their deployment, in March 2013, but pragmatically scaled back its expectations due to the ferocity of the fighting on the Algerian border. They stated that a reduced number of French troops would remain until July.[37] Paris may begin a partial drawdown earlier, but an immediate total withdrawal of combat troops appears unlikely.

The initial stages of the French counterterrorism offensive in northern and central Mali were highly effective in terms of displacing Ansar Eddine, MUJAO and AQIM from their fixed positions both in the regional capitals and in the Ifoghas badlands. French airstrikes followed by large-scale northward ground incursions undid the nearly 10 months of north-south partition.

Yet Mali is nowhere near the road to internal reconciliation. The Malian army has not reached Kidal city. The MNLA is ensconced in the security affairs of the Kidal Region with a degree of French and Chadian complicity, a situation that will likely be unsustainable following the planned French military withdrawal. The Nigerian-led AFISMA forces have yet to do any real front line engagement; the Chadians and to a much lesser extent the Nigeriens have done the only real fighting in the far north.

The MNLA entrenchment in Kidal Region has caused distinct fissures between the objectives of the Malian army versus those of AFISMA and French commanders who thus far have not equated the Tuareg MNLA separatists—who publicly welcomed the idea of foreign intervention—as a security challenge on par with the Salafi-jihadi militants.[38]

Although French forces have begun to modestly withdraw from northern Mali along with their Chadian partners, Paris cannot extricate itself from its military mission as fast as some in the Elysée might hope.[39] Although the Salafi-jihadi triumvirate led by AQIM appears to have either dissolved or largely disappeared in the conflict’s current stage, the war for the so-called Azawad region is by no means over.

Many questions plague the hoped for reunification of the Malian state. The perennial Tuareg question remains as yet unanswered. The reintegration of northern Mali into Bamako’s orbit is further hampered by transnational narcotics trafficking, a refugee crisis, food insecurity and now the threat of Salafi-jihadi insurgency. Putting Mali back together will be a long and dusty road.

Derek Henry Flood is an independent analyst working on MENA, Central and South Asia. Mr. Flood has written for Asia Times Online, CNN, Christian Science Monitor and Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst among others. Previously, he served as editor of The Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

[1] Tiemoko Diallo, “Mali Islamists Capture Strategic Town, Residents Flee,” Reuters, January 10, 2013.

[2] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook,” Associated Press, February 6, 2013.

[3] “Aqim Leader Condemns Destruction of Mali Mausoleums in Secret Papers Found by RFI Journalist,” Radio France Internationale, February 25, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook”; Jean-Louis Le Touzet, “La feuille de route d’Aqmi au Mali,” Libération, February 25, 2013.

[6] “Algeria Authorises France to Use Airspace for Mali Raids,” Agence France-Press, January 13, 2013.

[7] Folly Bah Thibault, “It Was Not Necessary to Kill Gaddafi,” al-Jazira, June 8, 2012.

[8] Scott Malone, “Senegal Worried about Risk of Militants Entering From Mali: President,” Reuters, March 8, 2013.

[9] “African and EU Leaders to Hold Mali Summit,” al-Jazira, October 19, 2012.

[10] “Security Council Authorizes Deployment of African-led International Support Mission to Mali for Initial Year-Long Period,” UN Security Council, December 20, 2012.

[11] “West Africa Bloc Ecowas Agrees to Deploy Troops to Mali,” BBC, November 11, 2012.

[12] Jamey Keaten and Sylvie Corbet, “France: Ready to Stop Advance of Mali Rebels,” Associated Press, January 11, 2013.

[13] None of the hostages were recovered, and AQIM issued a statement in March claiming that it beheaded one of the hostages in response to the French intervention. See “French FM Says Troops in Mali Focused on Freeing Hostages,” Agence France-Press, March 19, 2013; “Fabius: ‘No Confirmation’ Yet For the Execution of the French Hostage Philip Verdun,” Agence Nouakchott d’Information, March 25, 2013.

[14] Douglas Barrie, James Hackett and Henry Boyd, “Behind the Mali Headlines, an Issue of Airlift,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, January 30, 2013.

[15] Andrew McGregor, “Red Berets, Green Berets: Can Mali’s Divided Military Restore Order and Stability?” Terrorism Monitor 11:4 (2013).

[16] The term “technicals” refers to 4×4 vehicles mounted with recoilless rifles of varying calibers or rocket launchers. The weaponization of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks is thought to have originated in the Chadian-Libyan conflict in the 1980s. The term “technical” later arose in Somalia in the 1990s.

[17] “French and Malian Troops Enter Diabaly,” al-Jazira, January 22, 2013.

[18] Krista Larson and Baba Ahmed, “Locals: Mali Suicide Bomber Tied to Terror Leader,” Associated Press, February 8, 2013.

[19] Marc Bastian, “Mali Hit by First Suicide Bombing,” Agence France-Presse, February 8, 2013.

[20] Sia Kambou, “Suicide Blast in North Mali’s Gao, No Other Wounded,” Agence France-Presse, February 10, 2013.

[21] Krista Larson, “Mali Town of Gao Hit by 2nd Suicide Bomber Attack,” Associated Press, February 10, 2013.

[22] “Mali: un commando islamiste attaque la ville de Gao,” Agence France-Presse, February 10, 2013.

[23] “Five Bombers Die in Attacks on Troops in Mali,” Agence France-Presse, May 10, 2013.

[24] Thierry Oberlé, “Les otages français en danger après la mort d’Abou Zeid,” Le Figaro, March 1, 2013.

[25] Andrew McGregor, “Rebel Leader Turned Counter-Terrorist: Tuareg’s Ag Bahanga,” Militant Leadership Monitor 1:3 (2010).

[26] Jean-Philippe Rémy, “Dans les roches de l’Adrar de Tigharghâr, une bataille cruciale est engage,” Le Monde, February 28, 2013.

[27] “Mali: des membres d’Ansar Dine font sécession et créent leur propre movement,” Radio France Internationale, January 24, 2013.

[28] “Établissement de communication et de production audiovisuelle de la Défense, Mission de reconnaissance dans le massif de Adrar,” French Ministry of Defense, February 19, 2013.

[29] After pledging a “phony” allegiance to the MNLA to avoid confronting Ghaly’s Ansar Eddine fighters, Gamou, who fled across the border to safety in Niger with somewhere between 400-600 loyalist men under his command in late March 2012, returned to Gao Region with Chadian and Nigerien soldiers. While he sent the bulk of his troops to accompany French units in the towns of Bourem and Menaka, he dispatched 19 of his men to serve as local guides in the rugged Ifoghas mountains as Franco-Chadian forces scoured for AQIM encampments. See Paul Mbenm, “Colonel Alhaji Ag Gamou: Les raisons d’une desertion,” L’Independent, April 2, 2013; “La guerre au Mali ne fait que commencer, croyez-moi,” L’Humanité, March 1, 2013; “Mali: El Hadj Gamou échappe à une ‘tentative d’assassinat’ à Niamey,” Agence France-Presse, December 2, 2012; “Le colonel El Hadj Gamou depuis son cantonnement de Saguia au Niger,” L’Indépendant, June 31, 2012.

[30] “Opération Serval au Mali: une centaine de jihadistes tués dans la vallée d’Ametettai,” La Voix du Nord, March 7, 2013.

[31] Philippe Chapleau, “Au combat dans la vallée d’Amettetaï: retour sur le triple mouvement offensive,” Ouest France, March 15, 2013.

[32] “Mali: nouveau bilan de 25 soldats tchadiens tués après de violents combats dans le nord,” Agence France-Presse, February 28, 2013.

[33] AQIM regularly kidnaps Westerners throughout the Sahel. The group currently holds captive a number of French nationals. See Matthieu Mabin, “Exclusive Report from Jihadist Stronghold in Mali,” France 24, March 7, 2013.

[34] Tiemoko Diallo, “Al Qaeda Rebels Wanted Mali as Base for Global Attacks: France,” Reuters, March 8, 2013.

[35] Jean-Philippe Rémy, “Voilà, on a cassé le donjon d’AQMI,” Le Monde, March 8, 2013.

[36] Thomas Fessy, “French Fight in Mali’s Hostile Desert,” BBC, March 25, 2013.

[37] Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton, “Officials Say French Forces to Remain in Mali Until at Least July,” Associated Press, March 1, 2013.

[38] Zine Cherfaoui, “Le MNLA dans le collimateur de la Cédéao,” El Watan, May 14, 2013.

[39] Djamila Ould Khettab, “Les premiers soldats français quittent le Mali,” Algerie-Focus, April 11, 2013.

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