The Islamists Are Back in Northern Mali’s Big Towns
The announcement by French President Francois Hollande on Feb. 7 that the French troop withdrawal from the vast country in northwest Africa begins at the end of March, sentences Mali to the plight of a failed state, like Somalia and Yemen – that is, years of unresolved strife against Al Qaeda and a host of dissident tribes.
From their arrival in mid-January, three French armored columns with fighter planes and helicopters rapidly advanced hundreds of kilometers a day into the desert wastes of northern Mali, frequently reporting one city after another had been claimed from fanatical Islamist and rebel rule.
The French units, formally backing token forces from the Mali army counted in hundreds of men, encountered no real resistance, roadblocks or blown-up bridges to slow their advance.
It provided the background for the calamitous al Qaeda hostage siege at Algeria’s In Amenas gas field near the Libyan border and the execution of dozens of Western hostages. To this day, the final number of victims has not been determined. Many counted as disappeared may have perished without anyone knowing how.
On January 28, French-led Malian troops celebrated the recapture of the world heritage city of Timbuktu, after the Islamists who had ravaged the city for ten months fled into the Sahara.
Timbuktu’s liberation should have marked the war’s end as a grand finale. But the city is surrounded by 9.5 million square kilometers of Sahara desert, where no Western or African army – certainly not the French – is capable of waging war.
Aware that the rebels and Islamists had only effected a tactical retreat and were regrouping for their return to northern Mali, French Defense Secretary Jean Yves Le Drian announced every few days that the French air force was bombing al Qaeda hideouts and rebel tribal strongholds in the Sahel and Sahara deserts.
The first jihadists trickle back to Gao
But according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources, their only targets are encampments of desert tribes and no one knows where the al Qaeda fighters went to ground.
Even aided by American military satellites, the French air force cannot cover the distances required to reach them.
On Wednesday, March 6, the Islamists and their supporters began trickling back into their former haunts in North Mali towns, as widely predicted by Western counterterrorism analysts, making naught of the French armored columns’ gains and their cleansing operations.
They were first sighted around the town of Gao on the River Niger, 320 km southeast of Timbuktu, the first town captured by the French forces.
French soldiers scouring abandoned jihadist hideouts and sand-dusted streets for weapons had meanwhile discovered caches of powerful NITRAM 5 explosives, raising the specter of bombing outrages. The stash was hidden inside rice bags left in a communal trash area.
As they worked, the French forces came under Grad missile fire from mobile launchers outside the city.
"It's a real war… When we go outside of the center of cities that have been taken, we meet residual jihadists," Le Drian said Wednesday on Europe-1 radio. It's clear that these Islamist forces could not have operated in Gao without local assistance.
This raises the question of who exactly conquered northern Mali – al Qaeda, rebel tribes, local collaborators with terrorist organizations or varying combinations thereof?
Was France defending Mali against Islamists or the stake in its resources?
The French justified their intervention in Mali by the footholds radical Islamist forces were gaining in the Sahel desert region and the menace their spread posed to Europe and eventually to the US. But there is another opinion which says that President Francois Hollande used this claim as a pretext for France to continue exploiting the economic and strategic resources of its former colonies in Africa, in league with corrupt local elites.
These elites are said to be amassing political clout and financial wealth by dispossessing most of the population and keeping the country in an under-developed state.
It is a fact that Mali is the second-largest gold producer in Africa and also has large, mostly unexploited uranium resources. Even so, Mali is ranked among the world's 25 poorest countries, its GNP is just $1,100 a year and most of its population feels oppressed.
The rebel groups of the north, such as the Touareg, have good reason for that sense. This region has been oppressed most while it is the richest in gas and oil reserves of any part of Mali.
So was the French military intervention motivated by a genuine wish to defend Malians from being overrun by brutally radical Islamist rulers, or by the need to protect France's economic interests in the rich oil and gas resources of northern Mali and southern Algeria?