France's Obligation in Mali: A Chronology

6 MINS READNov 21, 2015 | 14:00 GMT
A French soldier stands guard at a base outside the northern Malian city of Gao earlier this year.

Editor's Note: In light of Islamist militant group Ansar Dine's Nov. 20 attack against the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Stratfor is publishing this chronology of the 2013 French intervention in Mali. Follow the links to read the full analysis.

Mali's Tuareg Rebels Threaten Regional Security Efforts

May 23, 2014: "France's intervention in Mali in January 2013 succeeded in its goal of pushing back jihadist militants in northern Mali, who at the time were cooperating with Tuareg rebel groups. Since then, Bamako's political conflict with Tuaregs in the north over regional autonomy has occasionally led to violent flare-ups that have, until now, remained limited in scale and geographic reach.

The most recent round of fighting, however, marks a significant departure from this trend. The conflict, which began on May 16 with the Tuareg rebels' seizure of Kidal, saw the rebels mount a considerable fighting force that managed to beat back three Malian battalions as they tried to liberate the town on May 21. Following their victory in Kidal, Tuareg groups went on to seize and declare control of several other places throughout northern Mali, spanning from the northern Tigharghar Massif down to the Niger River. However, the rebels have not yet threatened the government's control over larger cities such as Timbuktu and Gao on the Niger River bank, and are likely deterred by the larger security presence there."

France and the United Nations Detail Security Cooperation in Mali

July 17, 2013: "The U.N. mission in Mali comprises 6,200 African security personnel, part of the original contingent that participated in the French-led intervention in northern Mali. France continues to deliver logistical support to these African forces, just as it did during the offensive phase of the intervention, even though France is not a party to the current U.N. mandate in the country.

While most of the 3,200 French troops still operating in Mali have moved out of key populated locations, they continue to carry out operations against small pockets of militants belonging to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The presence of two separate international forces operating within the same territory brought about the need to define the mission of each and spell out the ways in which they interact. Under the agreement, France will continue to offer logistical support to the countries whose troops make up the U.N. force, just as it did before those countries operated under a U.N. mandate. If U.N. forces request assistance, French troops will intervene using any means necessary."

French Operations in Mali: A Look Back

May 21, 2013: "France's intervention in Mali, supported by other Western states and a large African force, is winding down. Most offensive operations have ended, and French forces have begun withdrawing. Now the achievements of the operation and the remaining challenges are becoming clear. Although the intervention has succeeded in denying jihadists territorial control over northern Mali, it could not contain such forces, which have dispersed throughout the Sahel region. While French operations degraded the militancy, the wider jihadist threat in the region persists due to the lack of capabilities and cooperation among the countries of the Sahel."

France's Post-Intervention Role in Mali

June 10, 2013: "While France's military intervention has severely deteriorated jihadist militants' capability to establish sanctuary in northern Mali, militant activity continues throughout the Sahel region. The insecurity in vast areas of southern Libya, which originally contributed to the emergency in Mali, still provides a potential staging area or haven to several international militant organizations. Militants also continue to move freely across national borders in the Sahel, into countries with weak governments such as Libya, Mauritania, Niger and Tunisia, posing a threat throughout the region — including to several French energy and diplomatic assets.

Mali: A Shift in Operations

April 19, 2013: "As the mission in Mali shifts focus, the forces conducting the operations will shift with it. The beginning of French troop withdrawals from Mali comes at the end of France's offensive operations in the northern part of the country. The next phase of the intervention in Mali will be a stabilization operation focused more on the security of Mali's population centers than on mobile sweeps for militant groups. This transition has led Chad to withdraw troops from Mali, although it is willing to redeploy them as part of a planned U.N. operation. As France draws down its presence and takes a more supportive role, African forces have been deployed to their new areas of responsibility and now form the front line against jihadist militants in Mali."

The Jihadist Threat in Western and North Africa

Jan. 24, 2013: "Several factors have allowed al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to find havens in the region, enabling jihadist fighters to launch geopolitically disruptive attacks in western and North Africa. These factors include the existence of an indigenous conflict, a local, largely Tuareg population to blend into, the jihadists' Algerian nationality and the presence of economic infrastructure manned by foreign personnel.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has operated in two principal theaters: the Kabylie Mountains of northeastern Algeria and the Sahel region with a focus on northern Mali. In 2013, the group supplanted the latest iteration of an indigenous Tuareg rebellion and asserted control over a vast swath of northern Mali. It has since become the governing authority in cities including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, though French and African military intervention is degrading and disrupting this control."

The French and Jihadist Objectives in Mali

Jan. 16, 2013: "By spearheading the intervention in Mali, France is taking the lead in a mission previously dominated by the United States: weakening jihadist forces that could threaten Western interests. France's military mission essentially is to degrade and displace al Qaeda forces in northern Mali and to fill the resulting power vacuum with indigenous secular forces, while al Qaeda wants to disrupt the international intervention. France is incurring a number of risks by leading the intervention. However, al Qaeda elements in Mali have threatened Paris' interests enough for it to take the lead in driving out the militants.

The Challenges of Displacing Militants from Northern Mali

Dec.17, 2012: "Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has entrenched itself in northern Mali since March, when a military coup in Bamako triggered the collapse of the Malian army in the region. The resulting security concerns have reached beyond Mali's borders. Neighboring countries worry that militant activity will spread to their own territories, France and other European countries are concerned about attacks against their commercial activities in the region, and the United States wants to prevent Mali from becoming a staging ground for transnational jihadists.

International stakeholders agree on the need to confront al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali, though they do not always agree on how to do so. The process of building an appropriate strategy has proved to be time-consuming and has left the jihadists space to maneuver in the short term, but the right approach will eventually deny the group the ability to operate freely in the Sahel and Maghreb regions."

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