West African forces arrived in Mali on Thursday to reinforce a French-Malian offensive against Islamist insurgents in the north of the country. Some one hundred Togolese troops landed in the capital Bamako and were due to be joined by Nigerian forces en route. Chadian and Nigerien forces massed in neighboring Niger.
French soldiers moved northward in armored vehicles on Tuesday after several days of airstrikes against suspected insurgent targets in the unruly north of Mali. France intervened last week to halt a rebel advance on the south.
A total of 2,500 French troops are expected to be deployed to Mali but the government is Paris is keen to hand control of the mission to West African neighbors who secured a United Nations Security Council mandate in December of last year for a peacekeeping effort. President François Hollande said earlier this week that he expected the West Africans to be able to take over within mere weeks.
Hollande also said that Mali could have become a “terrorist state” if France hadn’t intervened in its former colony.
While different groups are part of the Islamist uprising there, several are either linked to or offshoots from Al Qaeda. Another is the Tuareg Ansar Dine, also Islamist but part of a broader Tuareg independence movement. The hardline Islamist groups appear to have usurped the rebellion, though, and sidelined more mainstream Tuareg secessionists.
The insurgency is further supported by fighters and mercenaries who were displaced by Western powers’ intervention in Libya in 2011 and Algerian counterterrorism efforts in its southern desert area in recent years.
These armed Islamist groups operate across North and West African countries. Due to lackluster counterterrorism cooperation between the governments there, their movements are difficult to monitor, let alone inhibit. Insurgents regularly carry out small attacks and take Westerners hostage.
In a dramatic escalation of such behavior on Wednesday, an offshoot of the Algerian terrorist organization Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb staged an attack on a gas production plant at In Aménas in the east of the country, near the Libyan border. Dozens of foreign nations were held hostage. Several were killed along with a number of their attackers when Algerian special forces attempted a rescue operation late on Thursday.
Algeria has allowed French fighter jets to use its airspace to carry out attacks in the north of Mali.
In Bamako, meanwhile, the war has upset the political landscape. Forces that supported the military takeover in March of last year, led by antiglobalist Oumar Mariko, find themselves in the minority opposing France’s intervention. They backed the army coup when the civilian government seemed incapable of suppressing the insurgency in the north. But even the coup’s leader, Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, says he welcomes the arrival of French troops.
Interim president Dioncounda Traoré’s position has been strengthened as he proved his independence from the military and radical leftist elements by drawing in the French. He has served in his present capacity since April of last year, however, and can hardly stay on as “interim” leader for many more months—even if it is unclear who could succeed him.