Despite the several Tuareg rebellions that have taken place in northern Mali over the past decade, the rebels have abstained from suicide bombings. In fact, unlike other countries in the region, such as Mauritania, Algeria and Libya, Mali largely has been spared suicide bombings. Perhaps the most similar situation is that of Mauritania, where the ethnic Berber Haratin tribe, which traditionally does not adhere to a jihadist ideology, conducted suicide attacks for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2009 and 2010. In Mali, Tuaregs have resisted these methods and acted as conventional foot soldiers. And even though they are Muslims, Tuaregs traditionally fight for nationalist rather than religious reasons.
Of the three predominant militant groups operating in Mali, only Ansar Dine has a significant number of Tuaregs. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which claimed the Feb. 8 attack, have a few Tuareg members as foot soldiers. Partly this is because the Tuaregs are more concerned with their own position in Mali and less concerned with establishing an Islamic caliphate.
Notably, the suicide bomber targeted Malian soldiers, rather than French or other West African soldiers. While the Malian soldiers probably were easier to attack, other non-Tuareg elements within the loose coalition of Ansar Dine and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would prefer to target Western soldiers. This, of course, does not exclude the possibility that the French would be a likely target of future attacks in an attempt to undermine their morale.
Importantly, a suicide bombing at the hands of indigenous Tuaregs could seriously threaten the long-term plan for stabilizing northern Mali. To gain a wider support base, jihadist groups routinely try to radicalize the local population of the areas in which they operate, such as Mauritania and Somalia. Were the Tuaregs to adopt the same methods and radicalized ideology as the jihadists, northern Mali could experience the same kind of militant problems seen in Nigeria, Libya or Somalia.
While the introduction of suicide bombing may seem foreboding, intervention forces and stabilization efforts elsewhere have dealt with the tactic before and have adjusted accordingly. In Somalia, for example, suicide bombings remain a tactical threat at checkpoints, but they are not a strategic threat to the Somali government or intervention forces there. However, these attacks could mature into a wider insurgency that includes ambushes, improved explosive devices and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. These tactics have taken off in the past few weeks with land mines placed along routes used by Malian troops and civilians, with a raid on French positions in Gao and now with the Feb. 8 attack.
The intervention forces could endure casualties resulting from these tactics and will need to adapt to counter them. The pressure of such a campaign could weigh heavily on the African intervention forces as France does its best to lower its presence in Mali to avoid getting bogged down in this conflict.
The Feb. 8 suicide bombing also reveals how jihadists are forced to adapt their combat tactics. Jihadists lost much of their territory when the French military began its intervention, so they are forced to conduct more guerrilla attacks. Suicide bombings are a further tactical evolution but must also be seen in the context of a qualitative shift in ideological radicalization that was not present in Mali or among Tuaregs before.