Mali: Why the hardest part is yet to come

Imad Mesdoua writes: Retaking the north was the easy part. Now Mali faces guerrilla attacks, reportedly increasing cooperation between rebel groups, ‘the Tuareg problem’, and a divided government.

Early on during the French intervention which began in January 2013, many journalists in the international press were quick to note that Islamist militants had just “melted away” into the vast desert regions of northern Mali. As French jets attacked key strongholds, hundreds of Islamist fighters prepared convoys, which would escort leaders, weapons and fighters away from major towns.

Eye witness accounts confirmed suspicions that the militants’ departure was “orderly” and well-prepared. Their planned withdrawal may indicate their clear intention to redefine the nature of the conflict in Mali on their terms. Indeed, in a document allegedly left behind by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Timbuktu, a senior commander admits that an international intervention would exceed the group’s capability and that they ought therefore to retreat to their “rear bases” for the time being.

Recent events have also shown that local and international troops should prepare for increased resistance and a protracted campaign. Malian soldiers faced the first wave of attacks when various suicide bombers targeted Malian army bases and checkpoints in the city of Gao. A day later, two militants (one Arab and one Tuareg) were intercepted with explosive belts strapped to their bodies. Malian troops were also tested by a significant counter offensive led by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in the same city on 10 February.

As Mali’s northern provinces become more secure, Islamist militants will increasingly engage in targeted attacks, using asymmetric warfare to test international troops and regain the upper hand. The caves and mountains of the Adrar des Ifoghas region, for example, are ideal locations for militant groups to hide and prepare hit and run operations. [Continue reading...]

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