n Africa Conflict Monthly Monitor - Malian terror threat may be self-fulfilling - : West Africa - issue in focus

Volume 2013, Issue 04
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The French-led intervention in Mali, aimed at dislodging Islamist fighters occupying the northern half of the country, has gone through several phases. The intervention itself began on 11 February 2013 with air strikes and the deployment of troops. The initial strikes swiftly escalated with the deployment of ground forces, aided by Malian troops and albeit slowly growing numbers of regional supporters, notably from Chad and Nigeria. What followed was a quick advance northwards by joint forces, that pushed Islamist fighters out of the major urban centres of northern Mali. On 26 January 2013, French forces captured Gao; on 27 January, Timbuktu; and Kidal on 30 January. By 8 February, French and Chadian troops occupied the town of Tessalit, near the Algerian border, the last major Islamist-held town and a traditional heartland of the Tuareg rebellion. At this point, the intervention could be described as having conceptually transitioned from a conventional military offensive, into a counter-insurgency operation. The focus of the intervention is now on defending urban centres while simultaneously pursuing Islamist fighters who are currently taking shelter in the vast and rugged terrain of the far northern corner of the country.

First on 10 February, and again of 21 February, Islamist fighters entered Gao and attacked Malian and French forces stationed there, prompting several fire-fights in and around the city. The first suicide bombings occurred in Mali in this period, and are indicative of the Islamist strategic shift toward insurgency as opposed to military conventional military engagement. In the same timeframe, French and Chadian forces began a series of operations on Mali's border with Algeria in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountainous region around Tessalit and Kidal. These combined operations were designed to pursue and eliminate Islamist holdouts, logistics hubs, and bomb-making sites. Many Islamists have been killed in these operations, along with several Chadian and French troops. Two key individuals on the Islamist side, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who are leaders in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and both responsible for numerous kidnappings in the region, have both been killed, according to reports by Chadian military officials. Neither death has been confirmed. If true, these killings would be a significant blow to the Islamist cause in West Africa. "Both men have extensive knowledge of northern Mali and parts of the broader Sahel and deep social and other connections in northern Mali. The death of both in such a short amount of time will likely have an impact on militant operations," according to Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who follows AQIM's movements.

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