(MintPress) – When French Foreign minister Laurent Fabius stated on Jan. 13 that the duration of his country’s military operations in Mali was “a question of weeks,” there were doubts that French troops could wrest northern Mali from Islamist rebel hands that quickly.
But on Wednesday, French troops took control of the airport in the northeast town of Kidal, the last city held by the militants in the former French colony.
The crisis began in January 2012 when ethnic Tuareg fighters, led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), launched a separatist uprising in northern Mali. Many of them had been fighting alongside Col. Gadhafi’s forces in Libya and returned home with arsenals of weapons.
In March 2012, junior officers angry about the government’s failure to put down the rebellion staged a military coup, leading to sanctions and an embargo by the Economic Community of West African States.
That hit hard. Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its key industry is agriculture, with cotton being the largest crop export. Mali also produces rice, millet, corn, vegetables, tobacco and tree crops.
The MNLA quickly took control of the north, declaring independence of Azawad. But the Islamist groups who had helped the MNLA then turned on the Tuareg and took control of the north, swiftly imposing a politicized form of Islamic law or Shariah practiced by Salafis and terrorized the population with public whippings, stonings and amputations.
After the militants earlier this month overran the town of Diabaly, the closest they had come to the capital of Bamako (where many French citizens live), France quickly stepped in with airstrikes against the militants. It later sent nearly 5,000 troops.
A November 2012 U.N. report estimated that the total number of “core combatants” of the armed groups in northern Mali was around 3,000 and said the insurgents had “relatively sophisticated equipment obtained from Libya” and from Malian stocks. It also noted that the militants were actively recruiting.
Prior to French intervention, according to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, “regional and Western leaders had warned of a rising threat to international security associated with an expansion” of the groups’ influence and scope of operations in Mali, and cautioned that there could be “a possible spread of violent extremist ideology, and state fragmentation.”
The insurgents who controlled the north include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, along with at least two loosely allied groups.
AQIM has its roots in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a guerilla Islamist movement that opposed the secular leadership in Algiers in the 1990s. After Algeria’s military regime canceled a second round of parliamentary elections in 1992, afraid that an Islamist coalition might win, the GIA mounted an insurrection.
In 1998, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), several GIA commanders became concerned that the group’s brutal tactics, such as beheadings, were costing it popular support, and they broke away to found the Group Salafist pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC).
By the early 2000s, however, it began to disintegrate due to the government’s amnesty program and counterterrorism campaign, and it started to associate itself with Al-Qaeda.
“At that stage, the GSPC was losing its cache and Al Qaeda was on the global stage,” the CFRs’ Jonathan Masters tells Mint Press News.
“For a lot of these groups, if you can hitch your wagon to a brand like Al-Qaeda it helps you recruit and raise money. Whether your objectives are perfectly aligned is a separate story, but adopting a brand can be successful.”
The link between the GSPC and Al-Qaeda was not formally acknowledged until 2006, however, by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was then the latter’s second in command.
According to Masters, “the merger and the new moniker underscoring the ‘Islamic Maghreb,’ symbolized the group’s efforts to move beyond the Algerian conflict and focus on jihadist aspirations in the broader region.”
The power vacuum in Mali in 2012 made it even easier for AQIM to gain territory in the north of the country.
“There are comparisons with large and remote countries like Afghanistan. Government security forces don’t always extend so far. The nature of the geography allowed them to flourish while countries like the U.S. were engaged elsewhere and had shrinking defense budgets,” says Masters.
“African countries often can’t police their own borders,” he continues. “ Northern Mali is the size of Texas and it’s hard to police. And any time you have areas that they can take advantage of, they will.”
Last year, General Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, said that AQIM had used the momentum gained since seizing control of the north to increase recruiting across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
He warned that it might also be working with other top terrorist groups in the region, including Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al-Shabab.
“Most notably I would say that the linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are probably the most worrisome in terms of the indications we have that they are likely sharing funds, training and explosive materials that can be quite dangerous,” he claimed.
Speaking to the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, Ham said AQIM is now considered one of the best armed and wealthiest of the Al-Qaida franchises in the world, largely because of millions of dollars gained in kidnapping ransoms, drug proceeds and illicit trafficking in fuel and tobacco.
Indeed, AQIM is estimated to have amassed as much as $90 million or more in ransoms paid for Western hostages over the past decade alone.
Outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for AFrican Affairs Amanda Dory have also suggested that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya had ties to AQIM.
The Congressional Research Service notes that factions and allies of AQIM may indeed leverage “the broader regional political and security situation created by ongoing upheaval and transitions in North Africa, as fragile transitional governments confront myriad security threats without the capacity or will to exercise their predecessors’ style of authoritarian control.”
Motives and modus operandi
The CRS said that AQIM’s top commanders, who are all Algerian, “may be rivals as much as comrades or they may operate relatively autonomously.”
Since 2004, the group’s top leader has been a trained engineer and explosives expert who has fought in Afghanistan and is reportedly based in northeastern Algeria.
Another founding member, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, allegedly broke with AQIM late last year and created a new organization called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion. He is thought to be the mastermind behind the deadly raid on a natural gas facility in eastern Algeria earlier this month.
According to West Point’s Center on Terrorism, the group’s media arm, al-Andalus, regularly releases statements claiming responsibility for attacks and uses the vocabulary and symbolism of Salafi-jihadi thought.
“It is challenging to derive from this ideology what the group wants beyond a rough sketch — to rid North Africa of insufficiently Islamic governments, and cleanse North Africa and the Sahara of foreigners, in particular the French and the Americans,” it said in a recent report.
“There are often a lot of cleavages in the leadership of these groups, where you have some leaders more intent on having more nationalistic aims and getting rid of U.S.-backed governments rather than grand aspirations of establishing a worldwide caliphate,” says the CFR’s Masters.
Experts are seemingly divided on whether AQIM poses a direct threat to the United States or Europe.
One thing most analysts appear to know for certain is that for the French operation’s continued success, there will need to be a regional effort. “At the end, maintains Meyers, “the solution has to be local. If you look at Somalia, where there are African-led counter-insurgency forces, that can serve as a model for how to handle the situation in Mali.”
In December 2012, before the French intervened, the U.N. Security Council authorized a one-year military peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as AFISMA, and a regional coalition of West African states (ECOWAS) pledged thousands of troops to retake the country’s north from the insurgents.
The U.S. for its part has pledged logistical support, including the sharing of intelligence, and has just signed an agreement with Niger, which borders Mali, allowing a permanent U.S. military site, where it will reportedly build a base from which to fly drones for surveillance and potentially even missile strikes.
French Foreign Minister Fabius said his nation’s troops will soon leave Mali and warned that things could now get more difficult as the offensive flushes out the militants.
“We have to be careful. We are entering a complicated phase, where the risks of attacks or kidnappings are extremely high,” he warned.