Does Malis War feed or devastate al-Qaeda ambitions?

Malian soldiers enter the historic city of Timbuktu, occupied for 10 months by Islamists who imposed a harsh form of sharia, on Jan. 28, 2013. (AFP)

Since I stepped on Mali ground a few days ago, I clearly noticed confusion on the faces of the people there. Getting ready for war takes more effort than preparing for peace. The country is threatened by secession if neither war nor peace persists. This is something that has stood for about a year since the overthrow of President Amando Traroe in March 2012.

The government controls only a third of the country, and jihadists and al-Qaida control the other two thirds -- the north region and the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. In the last few weeks, negotiations darted between the government and rebels, through intermediaries, but no positive result was reached.

 

Then on January 10th 2013 jihadists launched an attack on Kuna town, controlled by the government, and the Malian army retreated. 24 hours later, French troops intervened and battles raged, leading to the death of more than a hundred people from both sides, international news agencies on January 13th 2013 said.

The rebels shot down a French helicopter and the pilot died immediately. Panic began to spread through the African nation and the European communities, especially the French. Many foreigners there told me they are planning to pack up their lives because the specter of the war and military intervention has become a fait accompli. Would the Malian-French military intervention break the strength of al-Qaeda and the jihadists in the North of the country? And what are the implications of the current conflict between the government and the rebels at the local, regional and international levels?

Jihadists thrive on the weakness of the State:

The impact of political instability in Mali has affected its ability to face up to the separatists and the threat of al Qaeda. This region which represents two-thirds of the area and a tenth of the population (about one and a half million inhabitants) has become a haven for jihadist activities with various local and foreign colors.

The Jihadist scene in the North could be summarized in three main streams:

First: Al Qaeda, in the Islamic Maghreb, appeared in 2007 and includes about 1,200 fighters, mostly Algerians and also comprises other those from Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. It also includes a small number of Europeans and Americans, according to a Malian -- recently kidnapped by al-Qaeda and then released. In another article, we will discuss the circumstances surrounding this incident.

Second: The Movement of Supporters of Religion, founded in 2012. The only local movement made up of Malians, mostly Tuaregs under Iyad Ag. They descend from Efogas and Idnan tribes. This organization includes about 2,500 fighters.

Third: Tawhid and Jihad movement, also founded in 2012. Its supporters are called the '' Mujao'' and it includes about 1,000 fighters. The Movement consists of mostly foreign elements and is distributed as follows:

- 300 fighters from the Polisario

- 200 from the Boko Haram group (half of them are from Boko Haram Nigeria and the other are from Boko Haram Senegal, a group that recently appeared there)

- Hundreds of Malian Tuaregs and Arabs.

- Dozens of other different nationalities, according to a questioned source, includes Tunisians, Algerians, Libyans, Egyptians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, etc….

Therefore, it can be said that all jihadi fighters, with various nationalities, don’t exceed 4,200. The first time Jihadists reached such a number in northern Mali and that’s because a good sum of angry locals joined their ranks.

The total of the official Malian army, however, doesn’t exceed 7,000 soldiers. This army is divided by loyalty; supporters of overthrown President Amando Traore and the current army chief Snogu. Two parties split by many contradictions and sharp conflicts.

In addition, the official army lacks sophisticated weapons and cannot win a battle, but with foreign interference – like what happened in "KUNA" city – things can change. How can the military restore its authority in the north? And what are the implications of this conflict at a national, regional and international level?

The Malian repercussions, nationally, regionally and internationally:
No one can predict a near end to the conflict, despite the ongoing fierce battles in “Kuna” and the northern cities such as Timbuktu and Gao, as rebels retreated yesterday under intensive blows from French aircrafts. But on the medium-and long-term, the repercussions will deepen. The Malian army is trying to re-arm itself, and the African military force, set up by the group "CEDAW" and includes 3300 soldiers, cannot fight for an extended amount of time.

Its elements do not know the field’s terrain well and are not driven by homeland defenses instead they are descendants from several African countries (Nigeria alone contributes with about 1,600 fighters and the rest are from Chad, Niger, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Benin).

It seems that the intelligence and logistical cooperation provided by the United States and EU for France and the Malian government will sew it up for the legitimate government in Bamako. But the burning question is: are there good preparations for the postwar phase, which will witness major economic, social and security challenges? And where will the Jihadists and al Qaeda supporters go if they are chased out of northern Mali, which is most likely.

Would they look for a new safe haven in the deserts of Niger and Chad, as rumored, or will they scatter in rugged desert areas that are difficult for classical armies to break, such as Menaka and Bebra that sit between Gao and Kidal? Does the study by the Malian government backed by French troops expect a military victory over the northern rebels and an end to al Qaeda and jihadists in general in this area?

The tactic of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the rest of the jihadi organizations, is embodied in a long-term arduous war, according to some reports. This war will depend on fortifying several places that are difficult to be watched. Al Qaeda cells could resort to some operations like planting explosives, continue kidnapping foreigners in Mali and neighboring African countries and seeking coordination with jihadists in the other Maghreb and African regions. Today, they need to collect their weapons – after the fall of Gaddafi; much ammunition passed from Libya to Tunisia. Targeting the forces involved in the war against the jihadists in Mali, is also probably another tactic which will be adopted by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

What’s happening now in Mali will certainly have local, regional and international consequences. At the local level, it is expected that this war would bring up old and modern conflicts between the authority and Tuareg group, as it will also delay the economic development strategy for the poor areas for years. Most of the budget allocations are earmarked for the war (about $ 500 million annually).

Regarding regional implications, the Maghreb and African region will remain, for a considerable period; on alert because these radical trends will try and settle in weak but secure areas. On this point, it is expected that some African and Maghreb countries will witness security disruptions.

On an international level, the involvement of France in a long-term war will cost Paris both human and material damages along with political crises as well. France can reduce these losses if she succeeds in gathering the Malian parties around the negotiating table, including the northern rebels (ie, supporters of religion) not the newcomers, (such as al Qaeda, the Tawhid and Jihad movement) and come to an agreement on a roadmap that achieves stability, coexistence and democracy. Finally, it could be said that the military solution in Mali is not enough on its own to eliminate this type of terrorism.

The Malian wound will remain along with the lack of development in marginalized areas, the absence of dialogue as long as there are people who use religion to solve the political and ethnic conflicts.

Revenge operations were expected; the hostage-taking in Ain Amenas, southern Algeria, is just one of the crackerjack reactions from the Jihadists. Terrorists from northern Mali raised an urgent need to review security plans about border monitoring in those areas (between northern Mali and Algeria).

In this context, we note that Algeria dealt very professionally with the group of kidnappers who have nearly all been killed apart from three. Algeria didn’t even consent to the kidnappers’ blackmail or conditions and avoided human, financial and especially an environmental disaster. The terrorists’ threat to blow the gaseous plant could have threatened an area of over 5km and the repercussions of a gas leak could lead to a long-term environmental and humanitarian risk.

I think that France’s presence in Mali won’t just be for a few weeks like they stated at the beginning. Right now they are talking about the time required and not the eventual time of their stay. The Malian army lacks experience and advanced weapons. Nevertheless, the long-war scenario has sidetracked French public opinion and elites, who are wondering about the political and economic gambles that may result from this war.

What is being rolled out in some reports regarding the fact of underground resources in northern Mali heats up the race among major world economic powers looking to consolidate in the African coast region. Europeans and Americans agree on addressing the Chinese encroachment into the African continent. China has increased its trade exchange with Africa to 89 % between 2010 and 2012, le Monde Diplomatique reported. Beijing is getting ready to increase her relations with Mali, which didn’t exceed $300 million in 2010. The French also want to maintain a grand economic position in Mali and West Africa.

The Americans’ aspiration for northern Mali has an economic and strategic dimension, therefore, the economic and strategic bets are considered as one of the more important motivations in Mali’s current crisis. Regarding the strategy of Al Qaeda and the jihadist’s future intentions it could be said to depend on the tactical withdrawal and sudden attacks through crackerjack operations.

The sleeper cells in many African and Maghreb countries are expected to intensify during the upcoming period. As long as France stays in Mali, the repercussions of the war become more negative. What the Malian people need today is two roadmaps both political and economic.

The political one includes, the post-war period: a preparation for national reconciliation between the North and South, organization for transparent elections and a draft constitution that guarantees all the rights based on citizenship. As for the economic roadmap, it should include a development plan to help revive the marginalized areas in northern Mali along with the border areas, an economic plan in which the international community should contribute to rebuild what the war destroyed and help bring about job opportunities for millions of people, rocked by the waves of illegal immigration and smuggling trade risk.

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Last Update: Monday, 11 March 2013 KSA 16:18 - GMT 13:18
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