French Rafale and Mirage fighter aircraft conducted sorties from France and Chad, where French fighter jets were already deployed for Operation Epervier. The fighter aircraft refuel and rearm in Chad's capital, Ndjamena, in central Africa. French attack helicopters and special operations forces may have deployed to Mali's central Mopti region from their base in Burkina Faso, and French support elements are positioned in the Malian capital, Bamako. French airstrikes have targeted jihadist bases and supply depots in Gao city, Afhabo town near Kidal, and at Lere near Timbuktu — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's principal basing locations in northern Mali. Bombing continues in the vicinity of Lere and toward the central Malian town of Diabali, which al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has taken. Jihadists have reportedly abandoned Gao.The air attacks probably aim to defeat jihadist defenses and secure central Mali for a ground offensive into the north. Interventionist forces have yet to carry out a ground assault in northern Mali, but West African troops — from countries including Nigeria, Niger, Togo, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Benin — have begun to mobilize for deployment. The commander of the West African forces, Nigerian Gen. Shehu Abdulkadir, is in Bamako to coordinate the arrival and integration of the West African ground forces, who are expected to number approximately 3,300.
Logistical assistance — including two C-17 transport aircraft from the United Kingdom and training and intelligence support from the United States, Canada, Spain and Germany — is being positioned to support the French, Malian and West African forces.
While the interventionist forces assemble in southern Mali, the country's neighbors, Mauritania and Algeria, have deployed troops in defensive border operations to interdict jihadist attempts to flee across borders. Mauritanian troops will likely be reinforced by U.S. and Canadian advisers expected to deploy to that country in February as part of a training program focused on conducting warfare in the Sahel region. The Algerian government has granted France overflight privileges, and Algerian security has been ordered to shoot any vehicles crossing from Mali that refuse to stop. Algerian intelligence sharing on jihadist movements, not only in Mali but in Algeria as well, is a crucial component to denying militants the opportunity to resupply themselves with manpower or materiel.
The ground element of the intervention in Mali will likely take shape in the coming weeks. The next step will be to integrate and coordinate the various units, which include forces from multiple Western and African backgrounds. As long as the French air force — not just the fighter aircraft but intelligence assets as well — maintains a blocking position capable of stopping militants from moving south, and as long as Algeria and Mauritania successfully defend their borders, the interventionist forces will have the crucial time needed to develop secure and reliable lines of supply and communication. With these established, the ground forces — led by Malians and West Africans and backstopped by French firepower and Western intelligence and logistics — will try to recover the Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal regions. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which lacks other safe areas, is not likely to yield northern Mali without a fight. The group will rely on guerrilla operations against long supply lines as well as kidnapping and assassination operations throughout the West African region.