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