France and the UN are confident that the Mali peacekeeping force will be at full strength (12,000 personnel) by July. Most of these troops are African, but thousands will be from elsewhere, including China. Currently there are only 6,400 peacekeepers in Mali (most in the troubled north). Meanwhile France has reorganized its forces in the region. The 3,000 French troops are at bases in Mali, Niger, Chad, Ivory Coast and they are now organized to provide quick reaction forces anywhere in the region. The base in Ivory Coast specializes in logistics, bringing in supplies and equipment by ship and then getting to where it is needed in the region. For the foreseeable future France will maintain the troop level at 3,000. These forces will continue to handle counter-terrorism efforts in northern Mali and elsewhere as needed. This new arrangement is meant to be flexible enough to deal with whatever the Islamic terrorists might do in the region. To that end the American AFRICOM is cooperating with the French to provide specialized capabilities like aerial tankers or additional airlift as well as intelligence collecting (satellites and UAVs) and American Special Forces in the region. France and the United States have cooperated like this in Africa since 2001. This does not get much publicity, but it has paid off several times, most often in Somalia and in Mali.
A recent study concluded that Islamic terrorist activity in North Africa and the Sahel (the semi-desert region below the Sahara Desert and north of the forests of Central Africa) increased 60 percent in 2013. This was a result of the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that overthrew the governments of Libya and Tunisia. That contributed to the rebellion in northern Mali in 2012. Eliminating the police state governments of Tunisia and Libya, and freeing many Islamic terrorists from prison, was a huge boost to these terrorist organizations and it’s going to take a while to undo the damage.
The UN is trying to persuade the government to conduct serious peace negotiations with the MNLA. This is the main Tuareg rebel group in the north and they want autonomy that the black majority in the south is not interested in granting. Earlier this month MNLA walked away from UN arranged peace negotiations because of this. The UN and France point out that the Tuareg (who are related to the ancient Egyptians, not the darker complexioned Bantu peoples of the south) have refused to submit to outside rule for thousands of years and it would be wise to grant them their autonomy and move on. MNLA means (in French) “Liberation Army of Azawad”. That is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali and until the June 2013 agreement its capital was Kidal. The Mali government was upset that MNLA men controlled most of the rural (and very thinly populated) areas in the north for over a year after yet another Tuareg rebellion broke out up there in early 2012. The French point out that the Tuareg rebels have been defeating black African troops from the south for generations and there’s no quick fix for that. The more immediate threat are the Islamic terrorists and Tuareg cooperation is essential for dealing with the likes of AQIM, Al Mourabitoun and Ansar Dine. The Islamic terrorists are largely Arab and Tuareg and their goal, for all intents and purposes is to enslave the majority black African population of Mali by imposing a religious dictatorship. Black Africans in general do not want to be ruled by Arabs, who look down on black Africans and have been enslaving and exploiting them for over a thousand years. Many Malians understand what the Arab Islamic terrorists are up to here, but the Mali leadership is distracted by power struggles and getting rich (via corruption). It’s a sad situation with no easy solution. The MNLA is losing patience with the stalled peace talks and the MNLA leadership fears they are losing control of many of their members who are willing to resume the fight. France has persuaded the MNLA leadership to continue trying to keep their hotheads in check but the Mali government responded by accusing the French of being MNLA allies.
Economic disruptions caused by Islamic terrorist activity in northern Mali over the last two years have caused persistent food shortages. This has been aggravated by similar problems throughout the region (northern Nigeria, Sudan and Central African Republic/CAR) that have made it difficult to buy food locally. Global recession and seemingly endless demands for aid in the Sahel have made the usual donors less willing to continue giving. Currently 800,000 people in northern Mali are completely dependent on food aid and another three million have poor access to food.
February 4, 2014: In the north (Gao) two rockets were fired at a nearby French base, but missed. This happened when a senior French officer was visiting but no one took credit for the attack.
February 3, 2014: Al Qaeda has formed a new media group (al Sahel Media Center) to put out a more positive spin on the dire situation al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists face in northern Mali. The news from Western and Moslem media about northern Mali has been consistently negative as far as the Islamic terrorists are concerned and some balance is needed to help with recruiting and fund raising.
January 22, 2014: In the north a series of French sweeps and raids resulted in 11 Islamic terrorists dead and one French soldier wounded. During December 19 Islamic terrorists were killed in the north and the process of hunting down and eliminating (killing or capturing) the remaining ones is tedious. There are plenty of places to hide in the north. The Islamic terrorists can buy cooperation from the scattered tribesmen in the rural north and blend in. However, when the terrorists go to launch an operation they become easier to identify and that’s when they are spotted. France is using Tuareg allies to help establish and run an intelligence network in the north. The tribesmen will inform for cash, as well as hide terrorists for money. Some northerners have been known to do both, but that’s dangerous as al Qaeda tends to remember and seek revenge. The most recent operation was apparently directed at
Al Mourabitoun, which recently issued threats against France via the Internet. This group is seen as more of a threat than AQIM
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which has suffered greatly during a year of French attacks and has also gone through an internal split. Some AQIM dissidents went off to found Al Mourabitoun in August of 2013. These AQIM dissidents merged with MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, largely composed of black African Islamic radicals and led by Mauritanians) to form Al Mourabitoun.
MOJWA is unique among Islamic terrorist groups because its leadership is black African and the merged unit is led by Arabs. Al Mourabitoun appears to be operating outside Mali (in Niger and Libya) but has moved some people back into northern Mali and French troops are looking for them. While not numerous, Al Mourabitoun has some imaginative, aggressive and energetic leaders.
January 20, 2014: In the north (near Kidal) five Chadian peacekeepers were wounded when their vehicle hit a mine.
January 19, 2014: The government has upgraded already close security cooperation with Algeria, which has increased its patrols along its Mali border over the last year. The new agreements make possible more joint operations against Islamic terrorists operating near the border.
January 17, 2014: In the north a notorious al Qaeda judge (Ag Alfousseyni) was arrested. Alfousseyni was noted for imposing harsh punishments in Timbuktu for violations of Islamic law. He ordered public executions and mutilations and also had women whipped for not dressing properly when they went outside.
January 16, 2014: Peace negotiations with the Tuareg rebels (MNLA) collapsed as the Tuareg representatives left the UN sponsored talks in Algeria. The Tuareg believe that the government is not negotiating with any sincerity and is just going through the motions to please foreign aid donors.
January 15, 2014: China has sent a second group of 245 peacekeepers to Mali. This will put 380 Chinese troops in Mali.