Mali: not another Afghanistan
Hollande’s decision to intervene was a response to a plea for help from Mali’s government, which feared that the southward advance of a large Islamist column threatened the state’s survival. “The president is totally determined that we must eradicate these terrorists who threaten the security of Mali, our own county and Europe,” the French defence minister, Jean Yves Le Drian, said. But for Mali’s neighbours and the west, the rise of jihadist militias in the Sahel has been a growing preoccupation over the past 20 years.
Strength in the Sahel
Spanning an area of more than three million square kilometres, much of it uninhabited desert or grassland, the Sahel, a belt of desert just south of the Sahara, has long been a centre of illicit smuggling. But whereas 20 years ago the trade was chiefly in tobacco and cannabis, today the Mali- Niger-Mauritania corridor is one of the busiest supply routes for cocaine, arms and illegal migrants heading to Europe.
Against this background, operating along the region’s porous, often unmarked borders, Islamist groups have been growing in strength. Four major factions, each with its own discrete goals and methods, are based in Mali.
While some local Tuaregs support the Islamists, particularly in the Ansar Dine faction founded by the former separatist leader Iyad ag Ghali, many of them do not and resent its fundamentalist form of Islam, at odds with the region’s traditional moderate Sufi beliefs.
Last year, however, bolstered by new fighters and weapons from post-Gadafy Libya, the major factions found common cause and took northern Mali with a speed that stunned many analysts.
Contemplating the spectre of Mali being overrun, and the instability that would ripple out across the region if that were to happen, Hollande argued that rejecting Bamako’s call for help would have been more dangerous than intervening.
Roland Marchal, a Mali specialist at SciencesPo in Paris, expects France’s well-armed and highly trained forces to dominate their adversaries on the battlefield. “But the most dangerous task is controlling towns and territories afterwards, and putting in place a legitimate bureaucracy,” he says.
Despite early successes, the French operation is fraught with risk. By intervening, Hollande has defied threats by one group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to kill a number of French hostages who are being held in the region. With 6,000 people having fled Mali in the past fortnight and access to some parts of the country extremely limited, aid agencies are concerned about the effects of a drawn-out conflict.
Ultimately, says Marchal, France could find itself being blamed if the civilian death toll begins to mount or the Malian army carries out reprisal attacks as it retakes the north. Reports of such attacks have already begun to emerge. “The French are in an extremely delicate position,” he says.
France has raised its domestic terror threat since the Mali operation began. In 1995, eight people were killed during a wave of bombings of the Paris metro by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, a guerrilla Islamist movement from which AQIM traces some of its lineage, but whether any of the outfits operating in the Sahel have the capacity to carry out attacks against the “far enemy” in Europe remains an open question.
“It’s limited, but I’m sure they do,” says a European diplomat based in Bamako. “The links can be quite tenuous. If you look at the Bali bombings, for example, you theoretically had these jihadists with a direct line to Osama bin Laden.