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

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

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

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs