Mali’s Looming War: Will Military Intervention Drive Out the Islamists?

As the West and regional partners scramble to launch an offensive to reclaim Mali's north, will the Islamists and rebel factions there budge?

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A bus carrying passengers from Gao in northern Mali to the capital, Bamako, makes a stop in the town of Mopti on Sept. 27, 2012

Even as Mali split apart this spring in the single largest advance for Islamist extremism in years, only briefly did the world’s latest front line in the war on terrorism show signs of its newfound significance. Refugees poured into the sleepy river town of Mopti, where Mali’s oversize north butts against the country’s more populous south. Residents fled, hotels went dark, banks pulled out their cash reserves, and training camps spawned on the edge of town. But then, nothing happened. The Islamist rebels halted just to the north, and the waiting began. As far as locals are concerned, the world never noticed. “We are ready to go fight for our land,” says Abdoulaye Diallo, a leader in Ganda Iso, or Sons of the Land, a Mopti-based community militia that claims to have over a thousand men ready to fight, albeit with no guns. “But we need help.”

(PHOTOSMali’s Militiamen: A Country Split in Two Readies for War)

Mali’s epic implosion in the heart of West Africa is a horror scenario in action: in a weak, porous region, well-financed al-Qaeda-linked groups have secured an area the size of Texas to build a base for Islamist extremism in North and West Africa. Officials and locals say foreigners are entering and leaving the new safe haven with relative ease, turning its desert dunes into a regional sinkhole for ultraconservative Islamists, exiled terrorists and drug-smuggling opportunists. The overall situation gives birth to a strange breed of outlaw rule some have dubbed gangster jihadism. Yet, so far, the world has reacted not with quick resolve but stunned bewilderment.

Poor and landlocked, Mali was barely a blip on the world’s radar as the war in Libya spewed rebellious Tuareg tribesmen back into Mali last year. When they took up arms and struck bedfellow deals with al-Qaeda-linked groups, heads started to turn. Then, suddenly — after a military coup and quick rebel sweep through the north — al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and allied Islamist groups seized all of northern Mali. World leaders, stunned, tried to gauge the threat — and then started scrambling for a policy. And, months later, the scrambling continues, with U.S., European and African officials buzzing from capital to capital in closed-door negotiations and strategizing.

(MORE: What Mali’s Crisis Means for the Future of Western Military Intervention)

Western officials say there is now broad consensus that a military intervention is necessary to retake Mali’s desert north — but the problem is that what’s urgent is not necessarily what’s possible. “It’s not something that will be over in a flash, and it’s not something anyone can undertake lightly,” says a French intelligence officer specializing in foreign threats. Problem No. 1: there are no troops ready for action. West African nations are expected to send a force of over 3,000, under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc, backed by the U.N. and the West. African leaders met in Abuja, Nigeria, on Sunday to approve the plan. But, no matter what, the Malian military is still expected to lead any foray in the north. Diplomats say it will take months of training and equipping to build the military back up to fighting levels after the upending coup in March purged its command following years of mismanagement and humiliating routs in the north. The mere presence of foreign troops is a sensitive issue in Mali’s power circles, especially inside the army, which fears the outside troops will be used to undermine its new political leverage. “If we only had our weapons, we wouldn’t need ECOWAS,” says a senior Malian security official, blaming a postcoup arms embargo for Mali’s impotence.

With so much still undecided, any offensive in the north is still at least months away, say U.S. officials. Europe, and France in particular, is keenly worried. Northern Mali is barely a hop and skip across the Mediterranean, and France, Mali’s former colonizer, has a large population of Malian emigrants. A number of French nationals remain hostages of al-Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahel. Convicted Franco-Malian radical Ibrahim Ouattara was arrested this month on his way to Mopti with a fake Senegalese passport. “These are usually younger people who’ve become radicalized or are en route to radicalization, and who feel they need training and exposure to real fighting,” says a French counterterrorism official. “And to do that they’re going to places where their ‘brother’ radicals have gained momentum — which right now is Syria and West Africa.”

(MORE: Will the World Go to War to Save Mali?)

But the U.S. has been hitting the brakes, pushing for new elections and more deliberative planning before rushing into the harsh desert landscape, historically unkind to unwanted visitors. In part, the U.S. is hamstrung by its own laws: even though Mali has returned to civilian control, U.S. law forbids any direct aid to Malian authorities until democracy returns. That includes any direct aid or training to Mali’s military — crisis or no crisis — which is a reason why Europe is considering sending trainers instead. The U.S. is also pushing for a more nuanced political component to the strategy, hopeful that some of northern Mali’s warlords can be peeled away from al-Qaeda without a fight. “Negotiations need to go on before, during and after” an intervention, says a U.S. diplomat. The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi heightened concerns about a growing regional threat, but still the U.S. has not ordered drone strikes even though some of the north’s Islamist leaders carry around easily trackable mobile phones and operate in the open.

The world’s deliberations are giving the Islamist groups in northern Mali plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable. And, by most accounts, they are doing so. Residents and authorities say the Islamist ranks are swelling with both Malians and foreigners. “The longer this goes on, the more and more are arriving,” says Sadou Diallo, the deposed mayor of Gao, the north’s largest city. The Saharan terrain is not only a nightmare for conventional warfare, it is also lucrative to control, a prime trafficking route for cocaine and other items, giving the groups money for recruitment and services. Slowly, the Islamist groups are establishing more formal governance, instituting Shari‘a in the main towns and spreading an administration steadily outward. On Oct. 31, for instance, Omar Ould Hamaha — military chief for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an al-Qaeda splinter group — went through the midsize town of Gossi and established a 14-man committee to administer its affairs. “He’s very nice,” says Maiga Congo, Gossi’s chief. “There’s been no harsh punishments here.”

“You can’t allow fanatics of this type to [hold that big of an area] very long without paying a significant price for it later,” says the first French intelligence official. Of course, that’s exactly what the world seems inadvertently posed to do. In Mopti, the jumping-off point for any future offensive, the new status quo already feels like the new normal. Buses to the north are now packed, filled with refugees no longer willing to wait out the now quiet conflict far from home. Their departure has left refugee camps at a fraction of their original size, say local officials.

There’s a local proverb frustrated Malians use to describe their country’s predicament: “The food is boiling, but there is no spatula to stir it.” Mali is boiling over. That doesn’t mean the world knows how to stop it.

— With reporting by Bruce Crumley / Paris

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