February 13, 2013: About 2,500 of the 5,000 African peacekeepers have arrived and the rest will be in Mali by the end of the month. France is still planning to withdraw most of its 4,000 troops by the end of March. The arriving African force was organized by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and supported by the UN and Western nations. The Mali government (led by men approved by a group of rebellious army officers) is opposed to a UN led peacekeeping force in Mali. That’s because the UN is hostile to the Mali Army control over the government. The army has agreed to new elections, but that is thought to be mainly because the UN was withholding over $300 million in economic aid until the army agreed to new elections.
The problem between the army and the politicians is corruption. Mali has held a lot of elections but those elected always turn out to be corrupt and inept. Junior army officers staged their first coup 11 months ago, as al Qaeda and Tuareg tribal rebels were seizing control of the north. The UN and ECOWAS forced the army to accept a civilian government in April if there was to be help in regaining control of the north. But last December the army forced out the caretaker (until elections) civilian officials and replaced them with pro-army civilians. The army wants to run the country until honest candidates can be found for a civilian government. This sort of thing rarely works, as the entire government is corrupt and just changing a few people at the top does not solve that. The army ends up joining in with the corrupt practices and so it goes. The elections are scheduled for July 31st.
Most al Qaeda (up to 2,000 armed men) have fled for the Adrar des Ifoghas, a 250,000 square kilometers mountainous plateau near the Algerian border. Long dominated by Tuareg tribes, al Qaeda has maintained bases up there for years. In the last week French warplanes have bombed at least two dozen al Qaeda bases in those hills. Al Qaeda activity in this area has been mapped with reconnaissance aircraft and satellites and some troops on the ground. Several hundred Chadian troops have been sent into this area. The Chad soldiers are experienced at fighting in this kind of terrain and have some French troops (to handle calling in smart bombs) and Mali Tuaregs (as guides, negotiators, and translators) along. While many civilians in the Adrar des Ifoghas are hostile to the Mali government and depend on al Qaeda for cash (obtained from kidnapping ransoms and drug smuggling), they are also angry at the way al Qaeda forced Tuareg rebels out of the northern Mali cities last June. The Chadian troops hope to avoid fighting the locals and concentrate on scattering the al Qaeda men into the desert, where they can be more easily attacked from the air. The Islamic terrorists know how the French smart bombs work and will likely fight to the death in their village bases.
There are apparently already small groups of French commandos in the Adrar des Ifoghas. These men are there to get a better idea of how well al Qaeda survived their retreat north. French warplanes found and bombed some of those convoys (of cars, pickups, and trucks) that brought the Islamic radicals from cities like Gao, Kidal, and and Timbuktu to mountain refuges near the Algerian border. This journey took up to ten hours, with the vehicles visible from the air on desert roads. Hundreds of terrorists were believed killed on those few roads by French warplanes. The French commandos are seeking to find out what shape the survivors are in and how many of them are up in the hills.
February 11, 2013: Al Qaeda called for an international holy war against France and other non-Moslem nations for sending troops into northern Mali to drive out al Qaeda forces that had controlled most of the area for the last eight months. Al Qaeda is particularly eager to get Moslems in the West to help out. France recently arrested four African Moslems in France who were plotting to send aid to al Qaeda in Mali.
French and Malian troops searched the city of Gao for any more al Qaeda fighters after weekend violence involving a group of al Qaeda gunmen who got into the city and seized the police headquarters building (which al Qaeda had used as a headquarters until recently). These attackers apparently came from Niger (and paddled across the Niger River) and from among Malian al Qaeda sympathizers who lived in the city and were able to remain behind when most of the al Qaeda men (most are foreigners) fled the city.
February 10, 2013: About twenty al Qaeda men, aided by local sympathizers who had a hidden stocks of weapons, got into Gao and occupied the police headquarters. They were surrounded by French troops and killed after several hours of shooting. Many Malian al Qaeda come from Gao. The al Qaeda men who occupied Gao for ten months belonged to MUJAO.
There are three different Islamic radical groups in the north. Ansar Dine (which controlled Timbuktu) is from Mali and led by Tuareg Islamic radicals. MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) controlled Gao and is from neighboring Mauritania. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has members from all over North Africa but mostly from Algeria. MUJAO is basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM and there is some tension between the two groups. AQIM has the most money and weapons and uses this to exercise some control over the other two radical groups (who outnumber AQIM in Mali). Both these groups are sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge because it is Malian. Until a few months ago all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of the north. Then Ansar Dine began negotiating with the Mali government for a separate peace and some kind of compromise over Tuareg autonomy in the north. In part this was because MUJAO and AQIM were bringing in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened to reduce the area Ansar Dine controls. Ansar Dine sees itself as the only Mali group in the Islamic radical government up north and is determined to defend Tuareg interests against the many foreigners in MUJAO (which has many Malian members) and especially AQIM (which wants to run everything). Ansar Dine sees AQIM as a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gives AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. With the high unemployment in the north and the image as Islamic warriors, working for AQIM was an attractive prospect for many young men. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French. Some Tuareg factions have made peace with the Mali government and are cooperating in the hunt for al Qaeda fighters. But other Tuareg factions have not decided yet, even as they are threatened with smart bomb attacks if they make a move against the pro-government forces that have taken back control of the north. If the government can negotiate an autonomy deal with the Tuaregs in the north, that will go a long way towards making the area more hostile for al Qaeda. But it’s not certain that such a deal will be made.
February 9, 2013: Outside of Gao, an Arab suicide bomber attacked Malian soldiers at a roadblock. Only the bomber was killed and several soldiers wounded. Malian troops panicked and some left their guard posts around Gao for a while. Malian troops did arrest two local men who were found to be carrying explosives.
February 8, 2013: In the north French and Malian troops captured the oasis town of Tessalit, which is 70 kilometers from the Algerian border and in the Adrar des Ifoghas. It is one of the larger towns in the area with a population of about 5,000. The French troops parachuted in and seized the small airport. Malian troops, supplies, and vehicles were then flown in. A small force of French troops, with some wheeled armored vehicles, drove in from the south as well.
In the capital army troops were ordered to surround the base of the paratroop regiment. This unit is still loyal to the elected president, who was removed from power by the army last year. This was the second coup in a year and the paratroopers did not support it. The paratroopers had been ordered north to fight the Islamic terrorists but wanted to go as a unit, not piecemeal. The paratroopers feared that the coup leaders would have them arrested if they went north in smaller numbers. Negotiations between paratroop and coup leaders settled the dispute before it could escalate into a major battle.
In Gao a suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint, killing only himself.