It probably felt satisfying being French President Francois Hollande during his almost George W. Bush-like “mission accomplished” moment in Timbuktu recently. French forces spearheaded a quick campaign in Mali to defeat Islamist insurgents, saving the country’s fragile, government from collapse and the preventing the establishment of a new home for Islamist global terrorism.
But the 3500 French troops — around a third of the anti-Islamist forces in Mali — are now preparing to leave. What they are leaving is displaced and desperate Islamist fighters holed up in the inhospitable Ifoghas Mountains in northern Mali’s border with Algeria.
The Islamist fighters are from four organisations: Harakat Ansar al Dine (Religious Supporters Movement), al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Gharb Afriqa (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, MUJAO) and the al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (Signed in Blood Batallion) led by Algerian Moktar Belmokhtar, who sparked the recent disastrous Algerian oil refinery hostage crisis.
While Algeria’s southern border remains sparsely protected, the fighters are up against a harsh and largely trackless desert surrounding much of the Ifoghas Mountains. Walking out of this region is effectively impossible.
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There is little doubt the Islamist fighters are in a difficult position and there would be few international objections to a US drone air strike against bel-Moktar, currently the world’s most wanted terrorist. Given their exposure and the region’s inhospitable geography, the Islamist forces in the Ifoghas Mountains are unlikely to be able to remain there for much longer. However, the Islamist fighters are unlikely to again launch a full scale assault in Mali while approximately 7500 troops from other nearby African states remain.
Importantly, following clashes last year northern Mali’s Tuareg-based Azawad National Liberation Movement is hostile towards the Islamist forces. The MNLA is now in discussions about signing a ceasefire with the Mali government in return for a high level of autonomy.
MNLA’s strength lies in the west of northern Mali, so the Islamist fighters’ hopes of fleeing west to safe havens in Morocco or Mauritania would be difficult, “if not suicidal”, according to an analyst with the private US-based Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium.
One possibility is that the Islamist forces will attempt to filter out undetected in small groups. This would also be difficult, given the fighters — from Pakistan, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Libya and other Arab states — do not speak the local Tuareg language.
But the war in Mali is not yet over. In the last few days there have been successful guerrilla-style bombings in northern Mali, which could indicate what lays ahead.
There is no doubt the French-led campaign in Mali has been successful and that the combined Islamist forces are, in boxing parlance, on the ropes. But perhaps, as with the US taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, French victory celebrations and their withdrawal from Mali might still be premature.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University