France is using its air power, and reconnaissance aircraft, including additional ones from Britain and the U.S., to find the fleeing groups of al Qaeda men out in the desert and to hit them with smart bombs. Hiding in the desert used to work but now with photo and electronic reconnaissance aircraft (including UAVs) you can monitor large areas of desert and get a close look at anyone down there. If the Tuareg rebels agree to go after these al Qaeda remnants, that would be the end of the Islamic terrorist threat in northern Mali (not counting the drug smuggling, which will continue). If the Tuareg can be persuaded to make a deal with the government after that, the French will be able to leave. Several thousand Western support troops and trainers will remain for some time. These will help train the African and Malian troops for their peacekeeping duties as well as continuing to monitor northern Mail from the air and deliver smart bombs as needed. The French are also continuing to search for seven French citizens who were kidnapped in the last few years. These victims are believed to be held in al Qaeda camps in the remote mountains near the Algerian border. French warplanes have found and bombed some of these camps, but French commandos are being sent to the area to try and find Western hostages.
So far French warplanes have carried out over 150 bombing attacks at about 30 targets. A growing number of American and French UAVs are in action, mainly for surveillance. There are currently about 4,000 French troops in Mali, about half of them special operations and other combat type forces. In most cases the Islamic radicals fled after being hit with smart bombs and before French ground troops arrived. There was some ground fighting in Konna and Gao but it did not last long. Some prisoners were taken, but the senior people died or got away.
About half of the 8,000 African peacekeepers have already arrived and about 2,000 (most from Chad) are already in the north providing security in the newly liberated cities. There is already a problem with the Malian troops and the peacekeepers in that the Mali forces want to disarm the Tuareg rebels while the rebels are unwilling to comply but are willing to negotiate. The Mali Army leaders are angry over how the Tuareg rolled over Malian troops last year and are accused of executing some of them. The Malian troops accompanying the French have behaved badly when they encountered Arab and Tuareg civilians in the north, killing, robbing, or otherwise abusing them.
Priority is now on restoring the economy and getting over 300,000 refugees back to their homes in the north. A third of these refugees fled the country the rest went to southern Mali.
Islamic radical group Ansar Dine has split into at least two factions, with one of them wanting to negotiate a peace deal. This is another reaction to the rapid French advance into the north. Several months ago Ansar Dine agreed to begin peace talks with the Mali government. This did not result in anything of value. 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 feels 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 is an attractive prospect for many young men. Most of those new recruits deserted as their employers fled the advancing French. The Tuareg rebels (MUJAO) also want to talk but the Mali government, despite pressure from Western and African allies, is not eager to try that. The Mali Army is still in control of the government. The Mali Army is, and always has been, very corrupt. Troops are hired for their loyalty, not their military aptitude. In combat the Mali troops tend to act more like gangsters than trained soldiers. Corruption and bad behavior has long been a problem with the entire Mali government. That problem is not going to disappear anytime soon.
February 4, 2013: Tuareg MNLA rebels seized two Islamic terrorist leaders who were caught trying to get to the Algerian border. One of the men, Mohamed Moussa Ag Mohamed, was in charge of enforcing Sharia (Islamic law) in Timbuktu and one of three top leaders of Ansar Dine. He ordered attacks that caused considerable damage to holy places and ancient artifacts the Islamic radicals considered heretical. The other leader taken was Oumeini Ould Baba Akhmed, who planned and carried out at least one kidnapping operation (to grab Westerners).
January 30, 2013: Near Gao four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine, apparently planted by retreating Islamic terrorists.
January 28, 2013: French troops entered Timbuktu
(population 54,000), the oldest city and long the major tourist attraction in the north. Timbuktu is a thousand kilometers north of the capital and long has been the major city in the thinly populated north. Eight months ago
Ansar Dine gunmen in Timbuktu began destroying the dozens of ancient tombs of Moslem clerics and scholars worshipped by Sufi Moslems. To conservative Sunni Moslems, Sufis are heretics and their shrines are to be destroyed whenever possible. The destruction of the tombs was condemned by many Moslem leaders worldwide, and the ICC (International Criminal Court) declared it a war crime. This did not discourage Ansar Dine, which went on to destroy dozens of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. Last June, Ansar Dine declared that it had expelled Tuareg (MNLA) gunmen from Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. MNLA admitted they lost control of the three cities but insisted they still controlled 90 percent of northern Mali (which is mostly desert). The fighting between Ansar Dine and the MNLA has been escalating for weeks. The most intense fighting was outside Gao, the largest city (population 86,000) in the north. There were over a hundred casualties, and the MNLA men usually fled when they realized that the Ansar Dine fighters would keep coming no matter what. Now MNLA is back in Gao and has offered its services to the Mali government to hunt down the remaining Islamic radicals in the north.
January 27, 2013: Taking advantage of the French offensive, MNLA gunmen entered Kidal, after the Islamic terrorists had fled.
Canadian special operations troops are in Mali, to protect Canadian diplomats and other Canadians. Canada is providing support for the military operations and aid for the refugees.
January 25, 2013: French troops entered Hombori, a town 920 kilometers northeast of the capital (Bamako, on the southern border of Mali). Troops from Niger and Chad entered Gao.
January 24, 2013: In the north, near Gao, Islamic terrorists used explosives to destroy a bridge. This was one of the few combat actions the Islamic terrorists have taken in the face of the two week old French offensive. Most of the time the surviving (after smart bomb attacks) Islamic radicals simply flee.