Mali’s Islamist rebels may have been backed into a corner, but that does not mean the fighting is over. In what has been deemed a ‘triumph’ for Western and African intervention in the Sahel nation’s militant-prone north, earlier this month sources confirmed that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s number two man, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, was found dead following a French-led bombing raid in the Ifoghas mountains.
The news came after further reports suggested that the region’s most notorious militant, and In Aménas hostage crisis-mastermind, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was also killed after engaging in clashes with Chadian forces on 03 March 2013. As of 15 March 2013, Belmokhtar’s death has not been confirmed. Nevertheless, all parties are claiming victory. Whilst AQIM sources assert that Belmokhtar is still “alive and fighting”, military leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as well as Malian and French officials are boasting that, at the very least, Zeid’s demise represents a death knell for AQIM influence in Mali and the wider Sahel. But is it still too early to call a ‘win’ against Islamist militants in Mali?
Toward a hydra-like scenario?
Zeid’s death follows a succession of military advances orchestrated to offset the gains made by the belligerent assembly of the three main Islamist militant groups, that of the menacing Ansar Dine [Defenders of Faith], AQIM, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), all of which have wreaked havoc on northern Mali. For some analysts the death of Zeid, who has been linked to AQIM, will likely lead to further dislocation of the already heavily-battered al Qaeda-proper, which has seen its power wane considerably since the start of the US-initiated “War on Terror” in 2001. Whilst this argument appears credible, other regional analysts are not entirely convinced. For pessimists of the French-led intervention in Mali, there remains the possibility that, despite notable advances gained by Paris and its allies, the region could be facing a hydra-like situation with regard to its battle against militants. That is to say that, despite the death of Zeid (and possibly Belmokhtar), there are concerns that dozens more would-be AQIM higher-ups may pop up in their place. More worrisome is that, with each militant leader’s death, insurgency groups may be reorganising their terrorism strategy and adapting from their mistakes. In effect, killing an AQIM leader may actually be beneficial for the organisation as a whole, because it forces the militant organisation to establish new targets, new strategies, leading AQIM and its breakaway groups to ultimately become uncertain in their behaviour. Keeping the same leader in place, on the other hand, may render such groups more predictable.
In addition leading to a possible hydra-like scenario, France and its allies’ success in Mali may lead to a decrease in stability within neighbouring states, as the rest of the region could succumb to further attacks from transnational Islamist forces, which may manifest in bombings, assassinations and raids. Intelligence officials, in particular, have noted the risk of the so-called “balloon effect”, in which military pressure applied towards armed Salafists in northern Mali, may push militants toward other less resistant areas, namely the remote, mountainous region along the border with Algeria and Niger. Scarily, as previously noted, this is already happening. After being forced out following the January 2013 intervention, the vast majority of armed extremists which had originally been based out of Mali, have since started launching attacks from the Tigharghar Mountain range, located in along the Algerian border region of Ifoghas. The Tigharghar’s geographically challenging landscape, complete with tunnels and landmines, has made for an extremely difficult battle ground for allied troops, often leading to deadly consequences: in one battle near the Tigharghar Mountains on 22 February 2013, at least eighty people were killed, after Chadian forces from the ECOWAS engaged in a fire fight with militants. The harsh terrain has naturally lent itself to comparisons of the situation which has unfolded in Afghanistan, where dispersed militants have holed themselves up into virtually impossible-to-reach locations. Whilst African analysts have generally lambasted this comparison as being a far too simple deconstruction of Mali’s security situation, there is some truth to this. Like Afghanistan, French, ECOWAS, and Malian forces are now embarking on the difficult task of preventing long-term guerrilla attacks from destabilising the Sahel nation’s recently “freed” north.
Risks for France
As can be expected, the Malian conflict has not been limited to Mali itself. The decision to officially engage in “Operation Serval” on 15 January 2013, has been labelled as something of a litmus test for François Hollande’s foreign policy agenda, a tough assessment for a president whose domestic policies have already been heavily contested. And, despite Hollande’s best wishes, his country is now facing a general increase in the risk of terroristic attacks conducted against his fellow citizens, whether they are expatriates residing in Benin (on 23 February 2013, the French Embassy in Benin confirmed expatriates could face “retaliation”), or citizens living at home in Paris. This threat was seconded by Marc Trevedic, France’s highest level anti-terrorism judge, who noted that, over the past few months, there has been an “alarming increase” in the number of French passport holders “with ties to northern Africa that have been leaving for Mali and its neighbours”. Whilst Trevedic’s words at first appeared to reflect the views of a paranoid counter-terrorism judge, his warnings quickly proved credible. On 10 March 2013, French security forces confirmed that they had captured a French national who had lived in Grenoble just prior to taking up arms for the Islamist cause. Scarily, the detainee, who is known only as “Djamel”, is believed to be one of “ten to twenty French citizens” who have sided with Islamist militants in Mali.
This alarming news aside, the idea that Mali-linked extremists may actually be engaging in a terror plot in France is, at present, difficult to ascertain. This partially because the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI, also known as the French equivalent of MI6) has reportedly been unwilling or unable to “conduct prolonged surveillance of returnees from Mali” due to the interesting rationale that, if one of the returning Malians launches an attack, the spy agency will receive the brunt of the blame.
The Way Ahead
It is fair to say that the intervention in Mali has been met with much success, a sentiment notably shared by the vast majority of Malians themselves (a recent survey showed that 96% of citizens supported the military operation). Indeed, in just under one month, French-led forces managed to seize control of key towns, including Diabaly, Gao, the historical city of Timbuktu, and more recently Kidal, from Islamist militants, who would not hesitate to torture locals in the name of their distorted version of “Sharia” law. Despite these advances, however, it may be too early to call “victory” in Mali.
Even French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian appeared to draw caution to any claim that Operation Serval is officially over. Speaking before journalists in Mali’s capital, Bamako, on 08 March 2013, Le Drian noted that whilst the counter-Islamist militant offensive has proceeded well thus far, the country is just “70%” secure. In the end, it may be the other “30%” which will present the biggest challenge for France and its allies. Nevertheless, leaders in Paris are continuing to make promises that Mali will be safe enough for French troops to begin withdraw in April 2013, eventually paving the way for the UN deployment of up to “10,000” soldiers. This optimism comes despite accusations from no less than former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed that his country remains unable to adequately secure Mali whilst awaiting the help of the UN. In a bit of insightful, yet clearly politically-motivated criticism, Sarkozy was quoted as asking, “What are we doing there if we’re not just supporting putschists and trying to control a territory four times larger than France with four thousand men?”