France’s Mali Mission: Has al-Qaeda Already Been Defeated?

Despite the French army's rapid progress in pushing al-Qaeda-linked extremists to the nether regions of Mali, officials in Paris say full elimination of jihadi militias in the Sahel is more than unlikely

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Jerome Delay / AP

A convoy of Malian troops makes a stop to test some of their weapons near Hambori, northern Mali, on the road to Gao on Feb. 4, 2013

The continued assault Monday by French air forces against Islamist targets in the remote reaches of northern Mali served as a new reminder of how remarkably fast and far the Franco-Malian counteroffensive has advanced since beginning Jan. 11. Jihadi forces that had surged south to within 700 km of Mali’s capital, Bamako, in early January rapidly abandoned northern cities they’d controlled since last April as the French-backed counteroffensive progressed. The extremist units are believed to have retreated into Mali’s barren mountainous region near the border with Algeria, where French air strikes seek to immobilize them, reportedly pounding local fuel and supply depots.

French troops are also preparing for their Feb. 7 departure from Timbuktu, less than two weeks after freeing the city from extremist rule on Jan. 28. That’s part of the accelerating process of handing policing duties in northern Mali to the nation’s armed forces and over 5,000 support troops filtering in from neighboring African nations. But despite the rapid progress of French plans in Mali, it would be unwise to anticipate complete victory over retrenched Islamists anytime soon. Though French air power and special forces in Mali are shifting their focus on hitting extremist positions and supplies before they can hunker down, some officials in Paris don’t expect to see groups allied to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stomped out for good once the Malian operation ends.

(MORE: Algeria’s Hostage Crisis: What Was Behind a Shadowy Militant Leader’s Plot?)

“I don’t think anyone following the situation closely thinks we’ll see a return to the time before the Islamist presence and threat in the Sahel existed,” says a French diplomat who isn’t authorized to be quoted in the media. “It’s more likely we’ll see these groups retreat to the situation before they linked up with Tuareg nationalists to take control of the north. That is, more nomadic criminal and terror operations across the desert areas that AQIM groups know well and know are virtually impossible to control.”

While security sources and independent observers call that forecast of reduced Islamist influence and activity realistic, it nevertheless clashes starkly with the goal French strategists articulated not long ago: the hope of being able to quash outright fleeing radicals. Responding to pointed questioning from skeptical journalists in a briefing in early December on France’s still formulating plans for Mali, a French official spoke of Islamist militias caught between advancing African troops and the sealed borders of neighboring countries — a desert trap in which extremists could be “eliminated” altogether. But if France’s intervention has succeeded in refuting earlier doubts, the optimistic scenario of North Africa’s main jihadi networks being liquidated in the closing act of the Malian offensive seems as improbable as ever.

“We’re talking about thousands of miles of border space that the governments of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, Chad and others have long considered virtual realities — demarcations that indeed exist out there but whose complete surveillance and control is completely unimaginable,” the French diplomat says. “The comparisons we’ve heard of Mali to Afghanistan may prove valid if Islamists groups pull back to the border regions of Mali as they did in Pakistan and operate from there in a more circumscribed way than they did when they freely imposed their will on an entire land.”

(MORE: Mali’s War: After Surging into the Islamist-Held North, Will France Retreat?)

This is still a considerable improvement from what an Islamist-dominated Mali had threatened to become. In addition to the ultra-strict, ruthlessly enforced brand of Shari‘a extremists imposed on inhabitants of northern Mali, news of their jihadi activity had become a magnet for budding radicals from Africa and Europe — particularly France.

French counterterrorism authorities have repeatedly told TIME they knew aspiring Islamists from France had begun traveling to Africa to join extremist militias in Mali. On Feb. 5, police arrested four people in the Paris area on suspicions they were part of a recruitment-and-transport network established to provide new volunteers to the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 core fighters in AQIM-linked groups in the Sahel. Authorities say that kind of activity had been increasing over the past 10 months as the specter of war and intervention loomed over Mali. Now, as long as AQIM-linked fighters scatter into the Sahel, officials in Paris say, they’ll be far more difficult for outside supporters to find and join — and more restricted in their scope of action.

“Before they took control of big areas of Mali, Islamist groups mostly limited their activity to kidnapping Westerners, crimes to fund their jihad and occasional strikes against armed forces around the Sahel,” says a senior French counterterrorism official whose work doesn’t allow him to be identified. “Returning to that situation isn’t ideal, but it would be much better than the kind of terror threat that had been left free to develop in northern in Mali. Total success against jihadi violence and terror planning isn’t going to happen in this world very soon, so we’ll be happy with any improvement in the security situation the current operation may achieve.”

MORE: France’s Next Move: With Mali’s Islamists on the Run, Time to Talk to the Tuaregs

9 comments
Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

Al Qaeda was not totally defeated in Afghanistan and they are not totally defeated in Mali, either, but at least they are not totally free at their own, but chased and fought. Voilà, vive la France!

UK_Justice_Forum
UK_Justice_Forum

Chriskof is perfectly correct, the insurgents simply fade away to fight another day.

Chriskof
Chriskof like.author.displayName 1 Like

Defeated Al Queda?  Hah, is that a joke?  Because the militants are smart enough to retreat into the mountains while a foreign military comes in for a few weeks, does not equate with defeating them.  When a tsunami comes to shore and forces the inhabitants to higher land, they just return when the water recedes.  Why lay in wait of the water, only to die, when it is easier to just get out of the way for a little bit and come back when the threat is gone.

JennyHrvatska
JennyHrvatska

When any insurgent Muslim  group in the world can call itself an Al-Qaeda affiliate there will never be a time that Al-Qaeda is defeated. Who gets to certify that group is part of Al-Qaeda?  Is there a certifying commission that hands out credentials or is it as simple as any group of unhappy militant Islamic fundamentalists declaring itself part of Al-Qaeda in order to more easily recruit new members?

Jessica69594801
Jessica69594801

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btt1943
btt1943

The extremists have not even been defeated in Mali as yet, why talk about defeat of Al-Qaeda in general. How naive.

With France's full force attack from air and ground, the not-so-well equipped militants opted to blend themselves with the vast desert for the time being, waiting for the opportunity to strike back. How long will the French combat troops stay in Mali?     (mtd1943)        

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

“We’re talking about thousands of miles of border space that the governments of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, Chad and others have long considered virtual realities—demarcations that indeed exist out there, but whose complete surveillance and control is completely unimaginable,”

You'd think with satellites capable of producing photographs sharp enough to see people and computer programs designed to identify people, You'd be able to locate people pretty easily in the desert. There are few obstructions, few civilians, and people would contrast with the natural terrain in much of the area. I don't specifically know what kind of satellite resources can be targeted at the area, although it's in the perfect location for constant geostationary satellite surveillance. It wouldn't be very hard to write the software and once you have that send out your planes and drones, bye bye terrorists.

I'll bid $20 million to design the software, half up front and 3 months for development. You're move France!