How the French Got to Airstrikes in Mali: A Briefing from Bamako

By Tinti, Peter | The Christian Science Monitor, January 15, 2013 | Go to article overview

How the French Got to Airstrikes in Mali: A Briefing from Bamako


Tinti, Peter, The Christian Science Monitor


French airstrikes in Mali last week have jolted the West's attention. The strikes and more planned deployments by France and other African states are designed to halt the progress of Islamist rebels in Mali, and deny radicals an Afghan-style haven for jihad against Europe. Journalist Peter Tinti has lived in West Africa for the last three years and arrived in Bamako today. Here's his first briefer from the capital.

How did this crisis start?

It started when armed groups took over northern Mali a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas last year. Prominent among the groups are Islamist rebels linked to Al Qaeda who wish to establish a strict and violent version of Islamic law in the region.

Armed conflict and food shortages have driven more than 400,000 people from their home. The rising fear is that the conflict could destabilize the region, creating an ungoverned space and haven to launch terror attacks abroad.

Islamist rebels captured Konna, a small town in central Mali close to the strategically vital cities of Svar and Mopti, prompting the French bombing campaign.

With Islamist forces pushing southward and the Malian Army unable to stop them, French president Hollande ordered troops to stop the rebel advances. The rebels appeared ready to continue to Svar, which hosts a military base and airport deemed critical in any efforts to retake northern Mali by force.

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What does France hope to accomplish?

French objectives seem straightforward.

Foreign minister Laurent Fabius says intervention is to help Malis Army stop Islamist rebels from moving south, and protect the integrity of the Malian state. Fabius said that French troops would also help rescue French hostages who are being held in northern Mali and that French forces will remain for as long as required.

This last caveat is crucial. The rapid expansion of the French airstrikes combined with the mobilization of troops from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS may mean France and its allies are suddenly in a full-scale war against well-armed, battle-hardened rebel groups in northern Mali.

How did the Islamists take northern Mali?

The initial insurgency was led by an ethnic Tuareg group, the Mouvement National pour la Libration de l'Azawad (MNLA). They are not an Islamist group. Their goal was to create an independent state in the north called Azawad. Guns and equipment coming out of a destabilized Libya, along with experienced Tuareg fighters based in Libya, helped the MNLA achieve a string of surprising military victories in Malis remote north.

At the same time, the MNLA and other rebel groups benefited from a coup detat in southern Mali and resulting political chaos. Two weeks after the coup Malis military conceded the north in its entirety, leaving weapons, equipment, and vehicles behind in a tactical retreat.

Shortly after, the secular MNLA and its Islamist allies of convenience, a Tuareg-led group called Ansar Dine, swept across the Sahara to seize the three northern capitals of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. But then the MNLA itself got subverted by an assortment of armed Islamist groups, who threw them out of northern Mali.

Who are the Islamists in Mali?

There are three basic groups: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

AQIM has operated in the north for at least a decade but got its blessing from Osama bin Ladin in 2006. It is mostly made up of Algerians and Mauritanians. …

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