The French assault on militant jihadists in Mali reflects a recognition in Paris that the long-brewing Islamist trouble in North Africa is something that has started to spiral out of control, and has potential to have a direct impact within France.
France's decision to deploy forces to Mali comes in the wake of a failed attempt to rescue a French operative captured by Somali group al Shabaab. This regional French show of strength has been treated as something of a surprise, but reflects a recognition in Paris that the long-brewing Islamist trouble in North Africa is something that has started to spiral out of control and has the potential to have a direct impact within France.
The Nature of the Threat
Islamist groups currently operating in northern Mali (and wider North Africa) have, broadly speaking, evolved out of the chaos of Algeria in the 1990s. Following their expulsion from Pakistan, former Algerian mujahedeen fighters from Afghanistan returned home to a government that voided the election victory of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS).
Amongst the violent groups to emerge was the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) that took up arms against the Algerian state as well as launching a campaign of attacks within France. As the decade wore on, the group's brutality escalated leading to a splintering of factions. The GIA transformed into le Group Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC), that then rebranded itself in January 2007 to become Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) following a video from September 2006 in which Al-Qa'ida number two Ayman al Zawahiri proclaimed a 'blessed union' between the two groups. This did not result, however, in a spate of international attacks as the group came under heavy pressure regionally and became more known for kidnapping foreigners for ransom rather than international terrorism.
Exploiting the Post-Arab Spring Weaknesses
The 'Arab Spring' seems to have revived the group. In particular the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya gave Islamist and separatist networks across the region sudden access to a flood of high grade weaponry. Tuareg rebels in northern Mali seized the opportunity to take over increasingly substantial portions of territory. Sensing an opening, elements from AQIM profited from the situation to co-opt the rebellion, leading to the collapse of local military capacity as the rebels took ever-larger pieces of territory.
This result from the 'Arab Spring' was somewhat counterintuitive to the prevailing narrative at the time: that the largely secular mobs that took to the streets to chase Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunis and ultimately depose Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were a sign of the lowering of the power of Islamist ideas in the region. In fact, the war in Libya provided militant groups with a place to practice their fighting skills, while the failure of secular groups to seize power sucked some of the ideological optimism from the 'Arab Spring'.
As time has gone on, AQIM splintered and absorbed various illicit networks across the region to create groups Ansar Dine and Movement for Tawheed and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) - all of whom are now engaged in countering the French-led assault. These groups have been heavily armed with equipment taken from Libyan and Malian armories, with defences built using earth moving equipment abandoned by foreign companies chased out of the area and money from ransoms provided to release foreign hostages. As a result, the groups have steadily transformed northern Mali into an ungoverned space where they can impose shariah law and work to establish an independent Islamic emirate.
This success has been noted by the international jihadist community, exemplified by the fact that he area has become one of the new battlefields drawing in excitable young foreigners seeking adventure and jihad. France, the former colonial power with a substantial Malian population resident at home, has been a particular source of such individuals, with reports varying as to the amount of French citizens being drawn to join in the fighting in Mali. French citizens have been apprehended in Niger, Mali and Mauritania believed to be on their way to join the fighting. Additionally, the FBI intercepted two Alabama natives allegedly heading to Morocco en route to Mali, and Mauritanian authorities captured a Briton trying to walk across the border through the Sahara desert. One Reuters reporter in Gao claimed to have seen at least three 'white westerners' amongst the Islamist fighters spotted there.
But it is not only foreign fighters alarming authorities. In late December last year, Tunisian authorities arrested some sixteen individuals suspected of being connected with AQIM who had established a camp and were training using weapons from Libyan armouries. In Libya, foreign consulates have come under repeated assault - in particular in Benghazi the American ambassador and three others were killed on the anniversary of the 11 September attacks last year, and both the British and Italian Consul's convoys have come under attack. And now in eastern Algeria on the border with Libya, an unknown group of foreign nationals working for oil companies seems to have been snatched by an armed group that claims to be linked to AQIM in Mali. Islamist insurgent networks across North Africa have had a new life breathed into them, something most prominently on display in northern Mali where they have managed to move beyond sporadic actions to hold large pieces of territory.
Just across the Mediterranean in Europe, the potential of this menace is clear, leading to France's response and the willingness of other European powers to provide some support. The question, however, is whether this response comes too late. The potential for events to shift in this direction has been abundantly clear for a long time, with the news from northern Mali pointing to groups increasingly confident in their abilities and eager to consolidate control over territory and impose a hardline version of Sharia law. As the groups pushed southward towards the capital there were increasingly frantic calls by local authorities for outside intervention. As the power with closest links, France heeded this call, sending somewhere in the region of 2,500 soldiers to stem the Islamists advance in the south while using airpower to pound entrenched positions deeper in the Islamist controlled territory.
The War Could Come to France
At home, France has stepped up its security posture, with authorities alert to the potential for networks helping individuals to go and join AQIM or other groups in north Africa to attempt to carry out retaliatory attacks within France, as was done by a previous Islamist incarnation in the 1990s. Islamists in France have in the past year demonstrated an increasing level of violence, with Mohammed Merah - an terrorist trained in Pakistan who is likely to have had connections with north African networks - killing 3 off-duty soldiers, 3 Jewish children and a rabbi in Toulouse; a firebombing in November at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper that published cartoons of Mohammed; and a grenade attack in September on a Jewish supermarket in a Paris suburb.
Police launched a massive operation in the wake of this last assault, killing one of the two men suspected of carrying out the grenade attack when he resisted arrest. Another eleven individuals were arrested, weapons seized, extremist literature found as well as a list of other potential Israeli targets in Paris.
Whilst none of these operations has been directly linked with events in Mali, the increasing aggressiveness of such groups in Europe is no doubt fuelled by the perceived success of groups in North Africa, something that will be further accelerated now that France has taken such an active role in quashing the insurgency. The French government is alive to the potential for retaliatory attacks at home, though it seems more likely in the short-term that we are going to see more incidents like the alleged kidnapping in Algeria with Islamist networks looking for targets of opportunity closer to home.
French authorities have been keen to emphasise their deployment would be short-term and is merely a stopgap while African forces are mustered. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared French involvement would last 'a matter of weeks.' Unfortunately, this seems an optimistic perspective, and it is likely that France will have to contend with a situation that will take months rather than weeks.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
Senior Associate Fellow