On Jan. 7, jihadist militias pushed farther south than they have since becoming entrenched in northern Mali in March. The advance took the militants southeast of the Niger River — a major natural barrier that has become the main front separating Islamist and government forces — toward Mopti, the northernmost major town in Mali outside of jihadist control. Since then, the jihadists clashed with the Malian military and took control of the towns of Douentza and Konna. On Jan. 10 and Jan. 11, however, Malian forces were airlifted into the Mopti airport on European transport planes, accompanied by French and possibly German special operations forces. This support allowed the military to retake Konna, and it will effectively halt any further militant advances toward Mopti and likely deliver the necessary means to push the jihadists out of Douentza, limiting their activities to the territory north of the Niger River. The militants are still advancing south from the town of Lere toward the town of Diabaly, but they are already targets of French airstrikes there. Meanwhile, France has extended its bombing campaign to locations in northern Mali — both the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa camps in Gao and an Ansar Dine camp south of Kidal have been struck.
The goal of the Islamist offensive was probably not to gain permanent control of new territory or to spark a major confrontation with the Malian military. Indeed, facing the Western-backed intervention, the jihadists would gain little from such operations, and they cannot risk prematurely exhausting their resources and manpower, overextending themselves or triggering an earlier intervention. Instead, in preparation for a tactical withdrawal, the jihadists are likely seeking to expand the distance between the southern front and northern defensive positions in the mountains north of Kidal along the Algerian border. For example, taking control of Sevare, the town home to the Mopti airport, would have prevented the Malian military and other intervening forces from using the airport as a staging ground. Already, al Qaeda forces have reportedly reinforced defenses at Lere, located northwest of the Niger River — itself a strong defensive barrier with few crossings. A strengthened position in Lere protects al Qaeda's western flank and would allow the militants to better defend against threats emanating from Mauritania.
Jihadist militias have also been bolstering defensive positions further north, especially around the Kidal Mountains, where the rough terrain would be better suited for a defensive stand. Moreover, the region is essentially the home turf of the jihadists, where intervening forces would be most extended and where proximity to Algeria and Niger could allow the militants to flee over the borders if needed. Jihadists reportedly have also been lacing several areas in the region with improvised explosive devices to further complicate an intervention. The reports also highlight the risk of jihadists using similar tactics to attempt to lock down chokepoints at Niger River crossings, particularly the only bridge in Gao.
Northwest of the mountains, jihadist elements have set up camps in other spots along the Algerian border, at remote oases and near Mauritania. In addition to the ability to quickly withdraw from Mali, these positions could also allow militants to launch flanking raids on supply lines of intervening forces. South of the mountains, jihadists have been preparing munitions and arms caches that could facilitate a fighting withdrawal from positions along the Niger River to entrenched positions in the northern mountains. The prepositioned supply points would allow militants to move quickly and lightly from cache to cache. Jihadist operations south of the Niger River would support this strategy by providing depth for such a withdrawal.
Malian forces are also preparing for the upcoming intervention, but the military is still attempting to recover capabilities lost in the coup in Bamako in March. The European Union is planning to deploy some 250 trainers to prepare four battalions consisting of a total of 2,600 troops as early as February. France will lead the mission, while Spain and Germany have also pledged to send training personnel. Malian forces will also be supported by some 3,300 African troops and receive intelligence and logistical support from Western partners. Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin have already put forward 2,900 of these troops. The remaining forces are expected to come from Chad or Ivory Coast.
The Malian military has an interest in intervening sooner rather than later in order to prevent the government's legitimacy in northern Mali from being lost to Tuareg groups aligned with the jihadists. But others involved in the intervention — particularly Algeria — do not want to send forces in prematurely and risk scattering the militants, only to see them regroup intact later or elsewhere. Regardless, even if EU forces begin their instructional mission soon, it would still be months until the training is completed and West African forces are assembled and coordinated sufficiently to begin their attacks. In the meantime, al Qaeda and its proxies will continue to dig in.