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

Beloved Lion Killing Sparks Virtual, Real Life Outrage

Twitter, as usual, was epicenter for anger directed at Palmer, with some questioning his manhood, calling for him to be released into the wild More

Video Booming London Property Market a Haven for Dirty Money

Billions of dollars from proceeds of crime, especially from Russia, being laundered through London property market, according to anti-corruption activists More

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

One former Scout leader thinks organization will move past political, social debate, get back to its primary focus of turning boys into good citizens 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.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs