French military intervention in north Mali is aimed at stopping a radical Islamic takeover of the territory.
Three groups essentially dominate here: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (A-Q-I-M), Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (M-U-J-W-A).
They eliminated the Tuareg independence movement in a vast desert region, and have made it one of the most dangerous in Africa. The main cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal are some of the jihadists’ main rear bases. Their advance on Konna the French claim to have prevented at the last possible moment, on Saturday.
Ten months ago, a military coup in Mali ended a more than two-decade stretch of elections which had established the country as a democracy. The coup created a power vacuum in the north which the Islamist rebels would fill.
They came with loads of weapons hauled out of a chaotic Libya, heavy enough to drive away a French attack helicopter on the first day of Opération Serval.
The militant Islamists ran through the UNESCO World Heritage city of Timbuktu raising reports of rapes and mutilations and leaving a trail of destruction.
In Mali’s capital, University of Bamako analyst Ali Touré said: “We, the citizens, are deeply concerned about all this. It’s chaotic, catastrophic for the country. If they are allowed to, these people will take the whole of the territory.”
Critics of French military involvement warn there must be a parallel effort of political conciliation in the conflict, aware that the threat could spread both in Africa and Europe.
For some insight into the events in Mali, euronews spoke to Anne Giudicelli, a long-time specialist in the Muslim and Arab world at the French Foreign Office and today an independent expert at TERRORISC, an agency focusing on international terrorism.
François Chignac, euronews:
Has France got itself involved in a long-term conflict, and do you think there’s the risk of getting bogged down there?
Anne Guidicelli, Terrorisc:
For the moment, what’s been done has been relatively swift. Now, the problem that leads to worries about getting bogged down – and not only for the French forces but for all the international presence that will be deployed – is the will, the strategy to totally eradicate all these groups from the territory. The second part is, will what’s left of these groups form up again elsewhere? Will they recruit? Will they become stronger thanks to outside support and create quagmire – they’re all important issues in this first phase.
So in one way, it’s an attempt to stem the Islamisation of the African continent?
The Sahel region is an area that’s been left without any real control from the states that border it. So once there’s a crack, these networks establish themselves there. The risk in the end would be that these networks extend their influence by force, and so there must be intervention already to stop this advance.
Is there any reason to fear this Islamist powder keg on Europe’s doorstep?
The French government have said clearly that they’re fighting a war against terrorism. Obviously, when one goes on the offensive thousands of kilometres away against violent networks, you barricade, and you secure the European territory.
But aren’t the radical Islamist groups trying to trap the international community into bringing the fight to the Sahel region, which is a vast terrain many times the size of France? Isn’t there the risk of this becoming the same scenario as Afghanistan eventually?
In effect, these groups have done everything to make this region a new front between the West and the Muslim world. The idea was to draw in foreign forces to make this a battle zone.
The radical groups have threatened France. Is there, right now in France and all over Europe, a real danger of terrorist acts?
Actually it’s been several years that those involved with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have targetted France as enemy number one.
So obviously, with France intervening in a real war, I would say, these groups will give as good as they get. In France, we’ve strengthened the security apparatus, so the country has recognised the threat, but it won’t get in the way of foreign policy.