Hopes that the “combat phase” of the war in Mali was over have been all but extinguished by two suicide bombings in the northern city of Gao. The Islamist attacks last weekend, which also featured heavily armed gunmen breaking through city defences, doused expectations that the radical groups who controlled the Saharan north would melt back into the desert when faced with organised military opposition.
They have also made it harder for France to stick to its March deadline for withdrawing troops and shelved efforts to install a United Nations peacekeeping force in their place. Paris has 4 000 French troops on the ground in its former colony, with roughly half of the 8 000 African troops from the region also deployed. French President François Hollande has publicly voiced his intention to begin drawing down the French presence in March.
In Gao, two days of fighting last weekend were heralded by two suicide bombers on motorcycles blowing themselves up at checkpoints, while at least a dozen militants infiltrated the city, fighting running gun battles on the streets. French and African troops have since reinforced the city but most shops and markets have remained closed and soldiers were stationed on every street corner on Wednesday.
At least three civilian casualties of the fighting were reported.
Much of the optimism surrounding a swift conclusion to France’s Operation Serval was based on the belief that the loose alliance of Islamist groups would return to lucrative smuggling activities once it was made clear that the Western allies would not allow them to threaten Mali’s capital, Bamako. United States officials, including the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, have cast doubt on whether al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (Aqim) was really ideologically committed to a wider war against the West, or threatening an attack on the US. Similarly, a former British diplomat, Carne Ross, said recently that there was “no evidence of a co-ordinated network with international terrorist ambitions”.
Aqim, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and the Touareg-led Ansar Dine have been labelled in some quarters as purely criminal gangs, grown rich from hostage-taking and smuggling cigarettes and drugs. The opportunistic image of the Islamists has been burnished by the portrayal of key figures, such as the Algerian-born Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as the “Marlboro Man”, because of his links to tobacco trafficking.
But accounts from local traders in Timbuktu, which was ruled by Aqim for 10 months, suggest cigarette smuggling networks were largely eradicated under the jihadists. Alhadi Mohamed Cisse, a Timbuktu trader, said that the city’s main supplier of smuggled cigarettes, an Arab whom he identified as “Hamayma”, had been forced to retreat to his base in Burkina Faso. The smuggler had contraband tobacco worth more than $100 000 burned when it entered Timbuktu.
One Western diplomat summed up the quandary facing strategists in a possible second phase of the conflict: “The question is whether it’s a collapse of their [Islamists’] fighting will and they want to go back to the business of smuggling. Or if they are fleeing so they can attack us using the terrain in a hit-and-run way.”
The Gao attacks, which were claimed by a spokesperson from Mujao, would suggest that jihadists are gearing up for a guerrilla war and have ideologically committed foot soldiers prepared to undertake suicide missions against international forces. Even small-scale attacks on Mali’s garrison towns in the north may be enough to frustrate efforts to bring the foreign troop presence under the authority of the UN. Jan Eliasson, the UN deputy secretary general, said blue-helmeted peacekeepers could be deployed only after the “combat phase” of the operation was over.
Several local and international voices have already warned that alongside the Touareg separatists, smugglers and criminals is a hard core of ideologically committed Islamists, indistinguishable from the rump al-Qaeda.
Ousmane Toure, a Bamako-based businessperson who was a regular visitor to the north during the Islamist occupation, contrasted the way the jihadist groups spent their money with the feckless manner in which funds were wasted by the corrupt central government: “They don’t buy candies, they don’t buy alcohol; they just buy guns and recruit,” he said.
Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who was kidnapped in Mali’s Sahel neighbour, Niger, and held by Aqim for 130 days has written of the puritanical ways of his captor, Belmokhtar, in his recent book, A Season in Hell. In it he concludes that doubts about the zeal of African jihadists are now moot: “If they think like al-Qaeda, are motivated by and want to achieve the same things as al-Qaeda, behave like al-Qaeda, fight, kill, and die like al-Qaeda, and say they are al-Qaeda, then, quite simply, they are.”