News / Africa

French Troops Take on Coordinated, Entrenched Islamists in Mali

French troops entering Mali to quell an Islamist insurgency face a tough battle against a well-coordinated coalition of militant groups.

The militants have entrenched themselves in the West African nation in the past year, exploiting the weakness of their opponents.

Since last week, several Islamist factions have been trying to expand their control of northern Mali into the government-held south, home to the capital, Bamako.  On Monday, they captured a town, Diabaly, only 400 kilometers away.

France began sending hundreds of ground troops to Mali last week to try to reverse the Islamist advance.  West African forces also are expected to arrive in the weeks ahead to support the French effort.

Mali has welcomed the intervention of former colonial ruler France and neighboring African states.  Analysts say Bamako has been forced to accept the help because its troops are poorly-trained and its interim government is plagued by infighting and interference from army officers.

J. Peter Pham, an Africa analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the Islamist groups cooperate closely and their memberships tend to overlap.

Mali's Islamist coalition

Who's Who in Mali

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)


  • Formed in the 1990's to fight Algeria's secular government
  • Wants to rid North Africa of western influence and impose sharia
  • Estimated to have amassed $100 million in kidnapping ransoms
  • Most members are from outside Mali

Ansar Dine
  • Formed in Mali in 2012
  • Wants to impose strict sharia law
  • Many members are Tuaregs who fought in Libya
  • Founder Ag Ghaly attempted to become leader of MNLA

Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA/MUJAO)

  • Members broke off from AQIM in 2011
  • Wants to establish Islamic law across west Africa
  • Most members are from outside Mali
  • Has abducted aid workers and diplomats for ransom

National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)
  •  
  • Ethnic Tuareg group formed in northern Mali
  • Fought in Libya with forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi
  • Seeks to establish a secular state called Azawad in northern Mali
  • Was allied with Ansar Dine; pushed from power after northern takeover

Boko Haram
  • Based in Nigeria, where it wants to impose Islamic law
  • Has killed more than 1,000 in attacks in Nigeria
  • Believed to be sharing funds and training with AQIM
  • Its fighters have been seen with Islamists in Mali
One of the Islamist groups leading the insurgency is Ansar Dine, a home-grown movement that seeks to convert Mali into an Islamic theocracy.

Ansar Dine teamed up with ethnic Tuareg rebels to oust government forces from northern Mali last April.  It later turned its weapons against the lesser-armed Tuareg fighters and seized control of the region in June.

Since taking over the north, Ansar Dine has joined forces with two regional militant groups - al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of al-Qaida's North African branch.

African diplomats also have said Nigeria-based Islamist group Boko Haram is active in northern Mali.  But it is not clear whether Boko Haram is involved in the fighting there.

In an article published in November, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs Herman Cohen wrote that the goal of the Islamists is to "spread their control to the rest of Mali and then on to neighboring Mauritania and Niger."

Successful tactics

Northern Mali's Islamists have used several strategies to develop into a fighting force whose effectiveness has surprised French officials.

Analyst Bill Roggio of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said the militants primarily secured their weapons from neighboring Libya, where arms depots were looted during the 2011 revolution that deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

"These are desert borders with a lot of smuggling routes, so the militants are able to move weapons back and forth pretty much with ease," Roggio said.

He said the Islamist arsenal includes pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns and rocket launchers and armored vehicles seized from the Malian army.

Pham said the militants also have earned millions of dollars from kidnapping foreigners for ransom and involvement in drug-trafficking.

"They adopted a strategy of marrying into the local communities and working with them to facilitate their illicit rackets," he said.  "And they have plowed the funds into the acquisition of weapons and fighters, building up capabilities far in excess of the Malian military."

Analysts say the Islamists have recruited several thousand fighters who have a deep knowledge of the desert terrain and experience in defending it.

Islamist fighters easily defeated the Tuareg rebel group MNLA last year after it objected to their imposition of Islamic law, or sharia, in northern Mali.  Since then, the Tuareg rebels have mostly stayed on the sidelines of the conflict as they consider their next move.

The Tuaregs launched a rebellion last January to seek independence from a southern-based government that they have long accused of marginalizing them.

Islamist vulnerabilities

Pham said the predominantly secular nomads may be provoked into a counter-insurgency against the Islamist forces they see as their new oppressor.

"The main weakness of the Islamists is that they imposed a harsh version of sharia upon an unwilling population.  They also destroyed centuries-old monuments in Timbuktu and other places that are dear to the hearts of the local population."

Roggio predicted the Islamist groups eventually will be outgunned by an expanding contingent of French and West African troops.

"I do not believe that ultimately the Islamists will be able to stand up against a concerted effort by a professional military like the French," he said.

"They may draw back and wait until the French forces withdraw before trying to attack African forces that would be easier targets."


A previous version of this story contained a quote about MUJAO military chief Omar Ould Hamaha. VOA determined the the quote was incorrect and has removed it from the story.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

WHO: Anti-Ebola Efforts Should Focus on West Africa

Official says WHO is 'reasonably confident' countries bordering those hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak are not seeing the virus crossing their borders More

South Sudan Crisis Threatens Development

Economic costs and lost development opportunities in South Sudan have erased what little progress the country has made since independence in 2011 More

Ukraine PM Warns Russia May Try to Disrupt Sunday Poll

Arseniy Yatsenyuk orders full security mobilization for parliamentary election to prevent ‘terrorist acts’ from being carried out More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid