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Five Lessons Learned from Ejecting Islamists in Mali – Professor Hussein Solomon

September 1, 2014


Five Lessons Learned from Ejecting Islamists in Mali

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Policy Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 1 (September 2014)


The terrorist threat is mounting with each passing day in Africa with Islamist terror groups exploiting the ungoverned spaces, the availability of weapons, porous borders, an incompetent security apparatus and corruption in the political establishment.  It is therefore important, to explore cases where attempts have been made to dislodge the Islamists with a view to learn lessons so that future interventions do not repeat the failures of the past. This paper explores the intervention and lessons which could be learned from French and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) attempts to oust Islamists in northern Mali in 2013. Before examining the intervention itself, some background to the problem is necessary.

When Captain Amadou Sanogo staged his coup against Malian President Toure on 22nd March 2012, one of the reasons he gave for his actions was that Toure did not supply the Malian armed forces with sufficient heavy and new weapons to take on the Tuareg rebellion in the north. Little did Captain Sanogo realize that his coup and the resultant power vacuum in the capital, Bamako, would result in the Tuareg Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) seizing control of northern Mali and the important towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.[1] The secular and Tuareg nationalist MNLA was soon displaced by Iyad Ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) Islamist fighters and their allies, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJAO). This seizure of northern Mali not only shocked the hapless Malian government in Bamako but also Europeans. A senior French policy analyst[2] stated, “The two most serious [foreign policy] crises for us are Syria and Mali [but] Mali is top of the list. In Mali we have an Afghanistan, a Somalia, being created in the North. And the target is not the United States, it is France.”

The Arduous Road to Intervention

With the encouragement of Paris, then, the UN Security Council passed a resolution – UNSC Resolution 2071 – on 12 October 2012 calling on ECOWAS to prepare for an international intervention force and giving them 45 days to lay out detailed plans.[3] On 7 November, West African army chiefs adopted a plan to expel Islamists from northern Mali. The plan originally consisted of 3,000 West African troops which would target the main population centres in northern Mali.  Nigerian soldiers were to make up the bulk of the force whilst Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger contributed 500 troops each[4]. This military blueprint was subsequently passed by the ECOWAS regional heads of state. On 26 November 2012, this blueprint was formally presented to and adopted by the United Nations Security Council[5]. France, meanwhile, undertook to provide “logistical aid” to the ECOWAS force and began training the Malian armed forces with a view to retaking the north[6].

While these cumbersome diplomatic processes for authorizations and the like were taking place, Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO forces moved rapidly to capture the town of Konna – only a few hundred kilometres north of the capital Bamako. Worse, too, was the fact that that Islamists having consolidated their position in Konna began their advance on Mopti, the last major town before reaching the capital. This leads us to the first lesson from Mali – more needs to be done to ensure that sub-regional, regional and international responses are streamlined – to deal with such jihadist threats sooner rather than later. Commenting on this issue Bill Roggio,[7] eloquently noted that any “…delay in taking action in northern Mali has given the jihadists an opportunity to indoctrinate, train, and organize recruits from the West African nations, and then send them home to establish networks there.”

Realizing that if Mopti was to fall, Bamako was next, French president Francois Hollande decided to act, launching Operation Serval in January 2013. This began with French helicopter gunships and Mirage jets of the French 4th Helicopter Combat Regiment of Pau, which were based in Burkina Faso to begin aerial strikes of the Islamists’ positions in Konna[8]. Meanwhile, French soldiers in bases in neighbouring Chad and the Ivory Coast moved in rapidly to protect Mopti whilst dislodging the Islamists from Konna and eventually Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu[9].

The pace of events clearly caught ECOWAS wrong-footed and the 15-member West African bloc had to scramble with their plans to send in a force to join the French. Eventually with other countries like Benin pledging 300 soldiers, the ECOWAS force reached 4,000 and was soon deployed in northern Mali[10].  As ECOWAS did not have a proper airlift capability, the British sent two military transport aircraft to transport the ECOWAS troops and equipment into Mali[11]. If anything proves the fact that the African Union’s much vaunted Peace and Security Architecture is little more than a paper tiger, it is this Malian debacle. This surely is the second lesson – AU and sub-regional forces exist in name only.

The aim of the intervention force according to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was to focus on the main cities in the north where the populations are concentrated[12]. This, of course, was in keeping with the West African military blueprint alluded to earlier. Beginning with Konna, then Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, the Islamists were summarily ejected from these cities in northern Mali.

Factors Assisting the Intervention Force

Several factors worked to favour the French-led intervention force. First, the local population suffered terribly under the brutal rule of the Islamists. In August 2012, residents of Gao demonstrated against the ban on playing football and video games. The desecration of the tomb of Timbuktu’s most revered spiritual leaders, Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, by Ansar Dine angered residents further and they took to the streets. These protests were brutally put down by the Islamists.[13] Consequently, the residents of Gao welcomed the intervention force.

Second, the intervention force received a force multiplier in the form of the MNLA. Given the fact that they were constantly attacked by the Islamists, MNLA fighters started attacking Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO positions just before the arrival of the intervention force. Moreover, they have moderated their own political demands. They no longer demand an independent state but an autonomous one,[14] one which separates religion and politics. This revised demand on the MNLA lends itself towards a negotiated settlement on the vexing issue of the status of northern Mali. An autonomous northern Mali as opposed to an independent one allows the marriage of Tuareg ethnic identity with Malian national citizenship.

Third, the Islamists in the north became increasingly deeply divided. In early September 2012, four months before the intervention force, one of AQIM’s senior leaders, Mokhtar ben Mokthar was injured in an attack between his gunmen and those of MUJAO. It seems that MUJAO wanted captured Algerian diplomats to be killed whilst Belmokhtar feared that if they were harmed then Algeria, a formidable military power in the region will join the proposed ECOWAS intervention[15]. In early November 2012, Hicham Bilal, the leader of a MUJAO katiba comprising 100 fighters defected with his troops and is currently residing in Burkina Faso. Bilal was the only black African commander of MUJAO and he complained about the racism he and his troops had to endure at the hands of the Arab members of MUJAO, AQIM and Ansar Dine.[16] Another reason for his defection related to his horror at MUJAO’s involvement in narco-trafficking[17].

Other problems also plagued the Islamists too, thereby facilitating the military intervention. In October 2012, a letter was intercepted written by AQIM “Emir” Abdulmalek Droukdel in which he lamented about the poor state of the organization “…in which foot soldiers no longer listened to their superiors, carrying out random and undisciplined operations, often for personal gain”[18]. This, of course, is to be expected from an organization which is involved in both establishing an Islamic caliphate and narco-trafficking!  This served to undermines the cohesion and thereby the command and control of the Islamist factions.

Problems plaguing the Intervention Force

However, it would be wrong to assume that the military intervention was a resounding success. In the first instance, what contributed to the seizure of the towns is that with the exception of Konna, the Islamists chose to leave the major towns in the north, realizing that they were no match to a superior conventional force. Indeed, many of them have moved into the lawless regions of southern Libya and neighbouring states where they have since rearmed[19]. The subsequent attack on the Amenas gas facility in Algeria by the Islamists[20] demonstrates that the French-led intervention may have merely served to displace the terrorist threat into neighbouring states[21]. Here they have regrouped, rearmed and have staged repeated attacks in northern Mali as seen in the brazen attack on a humanitarian convoy and the kidnapping of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers in February 2014[22]. Rather belatedly, the French, recognizing the regional dimensions of the Islamists, have in August 2014 launched Operation Berkhane which seeks to neutralize terrorist groups across the Sahel utilizing its 1300 troops in Chad, 1000 troops in Mali and 300 in Niger[23]. This constitutes the third lesson learned. Success cannot be evaluated by focusing on the death or incarceration of terrorists within the territorial boundaries of one state when the intervention merely results in the displacement of the terrorist threat into neighbouring states. From the beginning the intervention force should have focused on the regional dimensions of the problem.

The intervention force also suffered from financial constraints from the beginning. This desire to eject Islamists in northern Mali “on the cheap” has resulted in these forces regrouping and engaging in asymmetric warfare much like that of Al Shabaab in Somalia. Northern Mali is a vast territory consisting of 300,000 square miles[24]. It is unforgivable for policy makers to assume that a force of a mere 4,000 will be sufficient to neutralize the Islamists. The ECOWAS force has since been “re-hatted” and is now the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali or MINUMSA. This followed the authorization of such a force by the UNSC Resolution 2100 of April 2013. According to the Resolution the force was to consist of 12,640 personnel. However, it is well short of this figure – in August 2014 it was standing at 5,000 troops.

The lack of political will together with the attendant lack of financial resources preventing the force from reaching its full strength is breathtakingly naïve. This, despite the fact that most countries accept the scale of the potential threat posed. Whilst, it is true that these 5,000 troops are supported by French troops from Operation Serval, it is also true that the French have been steadily reducing their forces in Mali. By 2014, these French troops numbered 1,000[25]. This is the fourth lesson learned – military intervention on the cheap really does not work.

Given the small size of the intervention force and the deplorable state of the Malian army, Bamako has sought to make use of various ethnic militia who have fought alongside the Malian army against the Islamists. The Ganda Koy (Masters of the Earth) is a Songhai ethnic militia whilst the Ganda Izo is a Fulani ethnic militia. These have already committed massacres against Tuaregs and according to Human Rights Watch they were targeting not just the Islamists but Tuaregs and Arabs generally[26]. The involvement of these ethnic militia with the Malian army is making any reconciliation and healing difficult whilst making political settlement between northern Mali and Bamako all but impossible. The UN has already reported on communities turning on Arabs and Tuaregs labelling all of them as supporters of Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM whilst homes of these people were looted and set alight. This, in turn, has resulted in MNLA fighters who were allied to the intervention force and against the Islamists to turn against the Malian army in Kidal[27].

This constitutes the fifth lesson learned.  Any military intervention strategy which undermines a political settlement will serve to make sustainable peace elusive. The use of the Ganda Koy and Ganda Izo will only serve to undermine prospects for a political settlement in this restive region of Mali. It is for this reason that UN Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, urged that any military action must support a coherent political strategy for the country’s re-unification and addressing the structural reasons leading to the crisis in the first place[28].


[1] Hussein Solomon, “The Mayhem in Mali”, International Centre for Study of Radicalization, 4 April 2012, <;, accessed 22 October 2012.

[2] Quoted in Graham Usher, “Mali – the next Afghanistan”, Al Ahram Weekly Online, Issue 119, Cairo, 18-24 October 2012, <;, accessed 3 November 2012.

[3] “Malians protest foreign intervention plans”, News24, 18 October 2012, <;, accessed 22 October 2012.

[4] Juan Cole, “France, ECOWAS intervene in Mali to Halt Advance of Radical Fundamentalists”, Informed Comment. 13 January 2013. Internet: Date accessed: 20 February 2014.

[5] Serge Daniel, “Mali military intervention strategy adopted”, Middle East Online, 7 November 2012, <;, accessed 9 November 2012.

[6] “Mali crisis: France to give “logistical aid””, News24, 16 October 2012, <;, accessed 22 October 2012.

[7] Roggio, op.cit., p. 2.

[8] Cole, op. cit.

[9] Africa, French forces target Ansar al-Din, Magharebia. 13 January 2013. Internet: Date Accessed: 20 February 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Fight against Mali Islamists will be ‘difficult’: France”, Radio Nederland Omroep, 21 October 2012, <;, accessed 22 October 2012.

[13] Hussein Solomon, “The Future of Azawad”,, 24 July 2012.

[14] Karimi and Burnett, op.cit., p. 2.

[15] Ahmed Balhadj, “ Belmokhtar injured in a clash with Monotheism and Jihad gunmen,” El-Khabar. Algiers. 28 September 2012.

[16] “Head of Mali extremist battalion defects”, Daily Nation, Kenya, 9 November 2012, <;, accessed 9 November 2012.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Alia Brahimi, “Al Qaeda resurgent?” Al Jazeera. 8 November 2012. Internet: Date Accessed: 9 November 2012.

[19] Antonin Tisseron, “What kind of terrorism after Operation Serval? Nomadic jihadism and Regional Expansion,” News Note 13. Institut Thomas More. October 2013. Internet: Date Accessed: 20 February 2014.

[20] Andrew Lebovich, “AQIM and its Allies in Mali,” The Washington Institute. 5 February 2013. Internet: Date Accessed: 20 February 2014.

[21] Kwesi Aning, “Transnational Security Threats and Challenges to Peacekeeping in Mali,” Conflict Trends. Issue 2, 2014, p. 17.

[22] “Mali: Jihadists Claim Abduction of Aid Workers,” Eurasia Review. 11 February 2014. Internet: Date Accessed: 20 February 2014.

[23] Liesl Lous-Vaudran, “France to clear Islamic extremists from Sahel,” Mail and Guardian, Vol. 30 No. 34, 22-28 August 2014, p. 21.

[24] Justin Marozzi, “Mali can look to the strategy in Somalia”, Financial Times, 18 October 2012, <;, accessed 22 October 2012.

[25] “Mali: Francois Hollande annonce le calendrier du retrait des troupes francaises,” Le Monde. 29 March 2013. Internet: http://www/ Date Accessed: 20 February 2014.

[26] May Ying Welsh, “Making sense of Mali’s armed groups,”. Al Jazeera. 17 January 2013. Internet:// Date accessed: 20 February 2014.

[27] “Mali conflict inflames ethnic tensions,” IRIN. 23 October 2013. Internet: Date Accessed: 24 October 2014.

[28] Baba Ahmed, “African leaders meet in Mali, plan military option,” Associated Press. 20 October 2012. Internet: Date Accessed: 22 October 2012.

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