French intervention in Mali is targeting Al Qaeda affiliated Islamist groups which by late 2012 captured large parts of the country. The UN-backed action is aimed to prevent Al Qaeda from establishing a base to spread its influence in the wider region and, possibly, launch attacks on targets in Europe. France also has economic interests to protect in its former west African colonies.
1. Instability in Mali: Tribal Rebels, Islamists, Mutinous Officers
Mali is a majority Muslim country located on the western side of Sahel, a semi-arid region stretching across western and northern Africa from Senegal to the Sudan. An ethnically diverse country, Mali is burdened with historical tension between the nomadic Tuareg tribesmen in the north, and the south with the capital Bamako dominated by black Africans.
In early 2012 a new rebellion by the Tuareg demanding independence broke out, but this time fuelled by the fallout from the “Arab Spring” and the presence of hardline Islamist insurgents. Following the fall of Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi after an anti-government uprising in 2011, Tuareg mercenaries that served under the Libyan regime returned home, along with large amounts of weapons smuggled into northern Mali.
Backed by an alliance of local Islamists and seasoned Al Qaeda fighters from North African countries, the rebels overran the ill-equipped government troops with such ease, that in March 2012 disgruntled army officers in the capital Bamako staged a coup against President Amadou Toumani Touré, accusing him of mishandling the war. Power was taken by a military junta, but this only deepened the chaos in the military, enabling the rebels to seize two-thirds of state territory.
Mali was suddenly reduced to a failed state. Meanwhile, Tuareg Islamists and their foreign allies sidelined the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and began implementing strict Islamic law. Large parts of the north began to resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban rule. The goal was no longer an independent homeland for the Tuareg, but an Islamist state in Mali. This deeply alarmed Mali’s neighbors and Western powers.
- International Crisis Group report has more on the complexity of the Malian crisis
2. United Nations Authorizes Intervention: Fears for Regional Security
The French have a long history of backing their (often dictatorial) allies in former French colonies in West Africa, but the action in Mali had full international backing. In December 2012, a resolution by the UN Security Council allowed for a 3000-strong African-led mission to intervene in Mali in the absence of any negotiated solution, backed by the deployment of French forces.
French President François Hollande told the media that the goal of the operation was “to ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.”
Of course, France had not acted simply out of goodwill. At the time of the intervention in January 2013, there were 6000 French citizens resident in Mali, and seven French citizens were held by kidnappers linked to Al Qaeda. More importantly, Niger, Mali’s neighbor to the east, provides one third of uranium for the French nuclear power stations. To the north is Algeria, France’s biggest economic partner in Africa. To the west is Mauritania, which lies along the West African coast, the staging post for Europe-bound drugs smuggled from Latin America. And, further down south there’s Nigeria, already grappling with an extremely resilient and deadly Boko Haram Islamist insurgency.
3. Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb
The prime target of French intervention are the militants associated with the Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The North African branch of the global terrorist network shifted its activities into Sahel in recent years, operating practically unhindered in this vast ungoverned space with porous state borders.
Al Qaeda’s core probably numbers no more than a few hundred fighters, mostly Arabs from Algeria, but it is well-funded through smuggling and kidnappings for ransom, shielded by Tuareg Islamists from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and Ansar Dine groups, and expanding with local recruits. The French government fears that the collapse of Malian state provides AQIM with all the freedom and resources to create a terrorist base attracting Arabs and black Africans from the West and North Africa and further afield.
In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Mali could become a “permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks”.