On January 11, a few hundred French troops and a handful of fighter jets and gunships launched a campaign against Islamist terrorists in Mali, a West African desert vastness larger than Texas and California combined. This former French colony appealed to Paris for aid to throw back a mixed al Qaeda-rebel advance on the capital, Bamako.
But France, no more than the US, had learned from the Afghanistan War that Al Qaeda cannot be beaten by aerial warfare – certainly not when the jiahdists are highly trained in special forces tactics and backed by highly mobile, well-armed local militias, armed with advanced anti-aircraft weapons and knowledgeable about conditions in the forbidding Sahara.
Within 48 hours, this modest “crusader” intervention had united a host of pro-al Qaeda offshoots and allies, some of them castoffs from the army of Libya’s deposed Muammar Qaddafi.
They are led by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM; the West African jihadist MUJAO; and the Somali al-Shabaab which is linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP. Together, they are threatening to execute one by one the 10 or eleven French hostages they are holding as part of their revenge on France.
The French declared their mission to be to dislodge the Islamists from an area larger than Afghanistan in the north, including the principal towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Without several thousand special forces’ troops on the ground, this is just a pipedream.
The disaffected Touareg tribes are supporting al Qaeda against the French as part of their drive for independence. Their added value is the training in special forces’ tactics some 1,500 Touareg fighting men and their three officers received from the US. The US originally reserved them as the main spearhead of a Western Saharan multi-tribe campaign to eradicate al Qaeda in North and West Africa.
Instead, the Sahel tribesmen followed the Touareg in absconding to Mali with top-quality weapons for desert warfare and hundreds of vehicles from US and ex-Libyan military arsenals.
This major setback for US administration plans and counter-terror strategy in Africa tied in with Al Qaeda’s assassination of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his staff in Benghazi last September. Because the United States held back from direct US military action in both cases, Qaeda has been allowed to go from strength to strength and draw into its fold recruits from Mali’s neighbors. They are tightening their grip on northern Mali and have imposed a brutal version of Islam on its inhabitants, putting hundreds to flight.
France stepped in when al Qaeda drove south to extend its rule to all parts of Mali and pose a terrorist threat to Europe.