Beyond the area connecting Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, AQIM encounters hostile, pro-government forces. AQIM does not operate in large numbers — its forces typically maneuver in platoon-sized units of about 40 men in seven to 10 pickup trucks, or at most in company-sized units of about 200 men. This usually shelters the jihadist group from the risks associated with a direct combat confrontation. To augment its manpower, AQIM incorporates Malian Tuaregs, with whom AQIM intermarries and shares interests in exploiting criminal opportunities in the Sahel, such as smuggling drugs, weapons and humans.
The proposed intervention force, led by the Economic Community of West African States, aims to mobilize sufficient manpower to alter the balance of forces in northern Mali in favor of the central government in Bamako. Working alongside a Malian force, ECOWAS may assemble approximately 3,000 troops from its member states, backed by Western logistical, financial and intelligence support. This proposed joint force is estimated to exceed 6,000 members.
The intervention force would assemble its headquarters in southern Mali and deploy its combat forces to northern Mali, setting the stage for a confrontation with AQIM. To gain intelligence and knowledge of the local terrain, the intervention force would likely try to incorporate secular Tuareg militias, such as the Republican Movement for the Restoration of the Azawad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Azawad. These two upstart militias are led by former Malian army colonels, Elhadji Ag Gamou and Hassan Ag Mehdi, respectively, who have previously fulfilled this local insight role working with U.S.-trained Malian special forces units.
Deploying into Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal is not likely to result in predetermined battles. AQIM will instead likely choose to decline these battles against superior conventional forces and retreat to a safe zone. However, AQIM lacks a safe zone to its south and faces hostile geography especially to its west and to a lesser extent to its east.
Malian forces have sustained a successful blocking position in central Mali, effectively extending a line from Nampala adjacent to the extreme southeast corner of Mauritania, through Mopti on the Niger River and across to Koro bordering Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso has reportedly deployed 1,000 troops to its northern border and likely picked up the defensive line from Koro to its border with Niger. Mauritania and Niger patrol their border regions with U.S.-trained units.
AQIM will face hostile geography if it tries to infiltrate Mauritania. The only reliable transportation route between Mauritania and northern Mali abuts Nampala, where Malian forces are positioned. Continuing on the Mauritanian side, this route extends through the towns of Bassiknou, Nema and Aleg and eventually ends at the capital, Nouakchott. Each of these towns has Mauritanian military checkpoints and has received Western military input, such as troop training and intelligence assistance. North of this southeastern corner, Mauritania becomes shifting desert terrain with no dependable route, exposing movements there to detection and attack.
With the south and west cut off or leaving AQIM at constant risk of detection, there are only two accessible escape routes. Both could allow AQIM to retain unified forces and hide among a rebel population. In the past, AQIM is believed to have hidden in the Tigharghar Mountains of Mali's northeastern Kidal region and the Air Mountains of Niger's north-central region. The Tigharghar Mountains are bounded on the Malian side by Kidal, Tessalit and Tin-Zaouatene and are home to the AQIM proxy Ansar Dine. The Air Mountains are bounded by Agadez and Arlit, descending to the Tassara area, home to the rebel Niger Movement for Justice. Both mountain ranges are an extension of the Hoggar Mountains in southeastern Algeria. Hidden valleys and oases are found among these mountains in a region that is otherwise only shifting desert.
If AQIM retreats from Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal into these mountainous areas, especially the Malian Tigharghar, it will likely face pressure from Western-backed African troops anticipating such a move. Military planners will likely consider deploying signals and electronic intelligence assets along with local human intelligence sources to monitor and possibly attack northward supply routes. However, the attack would be constrained by the ability of intervention forces to distinguish the hostile elements from armed civilians also traveling these historic trade routes. In any case, should AQIM successfully reach mountain redoubts, AQIM will face opposition when it tries to break out again. And land routes extending north into Algeria may see redoubled surveillance and checkpoints with the possible deployment of 35,000 troops to Algeria's southern border, according to Oct. 31 reports, though that number could be severely inflated.
It is not clear what coalition forces will decide to do if AQIM chooses to retreat to the Tigharghar and Air mountains. Containing the AQIM battalions there may be a placeholder option to minimize risk, and while not defeating the jihadist elements, it could prevent them from conducting meaningful operations.