Al Qaeda leaders in northern Mali are pretty certain that the French are going to invade using a force of 3,000 Mali soldiers trained and led by French and African officers and 3,300 more from neighboring states. A force of 400 European officers and NCOs will begin upgrading the training of the African troops next month, and a French general with extensive experience in Africa has been appointed to lead the training and combat mission. The foreign contingent, organized by ECOWAS
(Economic Community of West African States), now has the approval of the UN to clear the Islamic terror groups out of Mali. It’s no longer just a civil war in Mali, it’s now an international peacemaking operation.
The 6,000 invading troops would face a smaller number of less-well armed and equipped Islamic radical fighters. The foreign ones (at least a thousand men) have some experience (add, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen) but have also suffered defeat in battles like this. That is why they have come to (or fled to) northern Mali. The Islamic terrorists are recruiting locals, but most of these are teenagers out for some thrills, a paycheck, and a chance to order adults around. These kids die or flee when the fighting starts.
Al Qaeda leaders know they cannot stand up against this invading force, especially since it will probably have Western air support (missile firing UAVs and warplanes with smart bombs). Al Qaeda also knows that they have angered most of the 1.5 million or so civilians still in northern Mali with the harsh lifestyle rules and disrupting the economy. That means the Islamic terrorists have little local support. The Islamic radicals up north rule by terror and hiring local teenagers to act as armed enforcers. But once driven out of the cities and major towns the Islamic radicals would be hunted down and killed, although many would flee to neighboring countries where it would be easier to hide out.
Despite being on a Mission From God, many al Qaeda leaders are aware of the problems their tactics create and the need to try and deal with all that. What the terrorist leaders don’t realize is that no al Qaeda type organization has ever succeeded. That realization does limit the pool of potential terrorist leaders, as many talented Islamic conservative men seek less extreme ways to take over the world for Allah. In Mali the al Qaeda leaders are pretty brutish and self-destructive. For example, they hold six French citizens that have been kidnapped over the last few years and each held for a multimillion dollar ransom. In the past France has paid, but now it is so blatantly obvious that the money would simply be used to increase the number of Islamic terrorists (and kidnappings) that the French are not paying. So the terrorists have announced that the captives will be killed (with gruesome video released on the Internet) if French led forces enter northern Mali. Al Qaeda also fears that the French may use the eight months of military preparations to increase surveillance in northern Mali, locate the captives, and send in commandoes to get them. The French have done that successfully many times. France is now sending large UAVs (similar to American Predators and Reapers) to Mali. France has used these UAVs in Afghanistan for years and know how to get the most out of them.
Despite their imminent defeat, the Islamic terrorists are leaving a permanent mark on northern Mali by destroying centuries old tombs and religious buildings that al Qaeda considers blasphemous. There are many sects in Islam (Sunni, Shia, and Sufi, for example), but al Qaeda considers anyone who does not conform to their particular brand of Sunni orthodoxy to be heretics. In addition to the structures in northern Mali, al Qaeda is searching for ancient religious and historical documents long preserved in the area. Al Qaeda wants to burn these blasphemous bits of parchment. That is another act that will make people remember the al Qaeda visit to northern Mali.
In the last year a coup and a tribal rebellion in Mali have caused over 500,000 people to flee their homes. About two-thirds of the refugees are still in Mali. Most of the refugees are from the thinly populated northern two-thirds of the country. While the African state of Mali has a population of 15 million, less than two million live in the dry north. The region was very poor in the best of times, and the recent violence there has halted tourism (a major source of income, especially in Timbuktu) and the movement of many goods. Foreign aid, especially food, is not arriving in sufficient quantities. Donor nations have been burned too often by local corruption (that sees most of the food aid stolen and then showing up in local markets) and are not as generous as aid groups want them to be.
The shutdown of the tourism in northern Mali has hurt the more populous south as well. There were also poor harvests down there in the last year. All this has pushed unemployment in the south to over 17 percent and caused some foreign investors to pull out. The foreigners are concerned about the Mali Army and its continuing efforts to control the government. This sort of thing causes unrest, uncertainty, and a bad climate for investment.
For over a month now West African mediator Burkina Faso has been holding talks with MNLA (Tuareg rebels) representatives and members of Ansar Dine, another al Qaeda-linked Islamist group (composed of Tuaregs) occupying parts of Mali's north. This is an effort to negotiate an end to separatist rule in the north. Groups that agree to a negotiated deal would be spared from the planned African offensive against MUJWA and AQIM (al Qaeda's North African wing which it operates alongside). The Tuareg groups want al Qaeda out of northern Mali and don’t consider any of that negotiable. MUJWA and AQIM threaten “another Iraq” (in terms of terror attacks) if the planned international force invades northern Mali. That invasion is now scheduled for next September or even later. MNLA and Ansari Dine have offered to work with the Mali government to destroy al Qaeda control of the north in return for autonomy for the Tuareg tribes that predominate up there and the continued use of Sharia (Islamic) law. The southerners are willing to discuss the former but are hostile to the latter. Meanwhile MNLA and Ansari Dine have discovered that they lack the firepower to defeat al Qaeda. Meanwhile, the UN believes it’s still possible to settle all the problems in northern Mali through negotiation and authorized the use of force, in part, to spur negotiations.
It was MNLA, a local Tuareg group that seized control of northern Mali last April and was supposed to run northern Mali after the takeover. But their more radical foreign allies (MUJWA and AQIM - al Qaeda's North African wing) brought in more foreign gunmen who turned out to be more effective than the Tuareg fighters. This led to Tuareg fighters being forced out of northern cities and towns after the resisting al Qaeda insistence that a foreign (Saudi Arabian) form of Islamic conservatism be imposed on the population. The MNLA was not destroyed but fled to the countryside, regrouped, and have been waging a guerilla war against the al Qaeda fighters. The Tuaregs now regret their alliance with the Islamic terror groups but still insist on some autonomy after the terrorists are driven out.
As if Mali didn’t have enough problems, its army continues to insist on controlling the government and delaying elections (as demanded by most Malians and the donor nations who are keeping the country afloat financially during the crisis with the uprising in the north). Everyone wants to avoid a civil war, which would be triggered by any attempt (foreign or local) to disband the army (which is now more of a threat than an asset).
December 20, 2012: The UN officially authorized an armed intervention in northern Mali. In response the two tribal rebel groups in the north (Ansar Dine and MNLA) offered to hold peace talks with the Mali government and the UN. These two groups are at odds with the al Qaeda groups but are still allied with them.