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Desert is their land: ‘French up against Mali guerillas who don’t observe borders’

Published time: January 23, 2013 13:24

A convoy of French military vehicles drive on a road outside Markala, Mali, January 22, 2013. (Reuters / Joe Penney)

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­"The French were very pleased to take those two towns in recent days – Diabaly and Douentza. But anybody who knows Mali understand that these two towns are a rather small fry compared to the towns and cities further up the line, which they'll need to grab hold of at some point. The rhetoric is still that as soon as possible the French military will have to hand over to the African troops, but it's very clear that without the French, without their air power, local troops wouldn't have had any hope at all of taking Diabaly or Douentza," Morgan, freelance journalist and writer on West Africa and the Sahara, said.

Operation Serval by the French troops was launched on January 11 in an attempt to free northern Mali from the Islamist groups that rebelled against the government and proclaimed independence last year. Mali officials had reportedly been asking France for help ever since. French President Francois Hollande has currently assigned more than 3,000 troops to this mission and says ultimate goal is the “total reconquest” of the country from the Jihadists.

Ahead of them are the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, held by the Islamists for more than 10 months. And the desert.

"The Islamists are a very strange, diverse and kaleidoscopic group of people," explains Morgan. "You have the hardcore of the Al-Qaeda, the Islamic hard fighters. They are hardened fighters, they know the region very well; the desert is their home. You also have the Tuareg rebels, who basically decided to put their faith in Islamist leaders, who've basically seduced a lot of Tuareg into joining the Islamist cause, even though maybe Tuareg don't have this Islamist project in their heart of hearts. Desert is also their territory, they are superb as fighters."

The Tuareg is a nomadic tribe who do not recognize national borders when it comes to desert. It means that the northern Mali operation may explode beyond what France has expected.

"All these people [France is fighting with] specialize in 'hit-and-run' guerilla tactics. They'll strike very fast and they'll disappear into desert, possible even over the borders, and we know that the attack on Diabaly was launched from across the border in Mauritania. That will be a huge problem for France and its allies," says Morgan.

Morgan believes the Mali rebellion was initially triggered by the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was ‘dethroned’ by NATO strikes and then killed by Libyan rebels in October 2011. Waste arsenals of weapons then became accessible to whoever first claimed them. Andy Morgan believes the very figure of Gaddafi was crucial for African peace.

"The very ironic thing about Libya is that everybody says it's the Tuareg mercenaries who brought weapons back from Libya, started the rebellion a year ago. The thing is, Gaddafi has always played an absolute double role, a two-edged role in this hell. On one hand, he supported the Tuareg with training, weapons et cetera, and also he'd always make sure that they never achieve their aims, because he was frightened of his own Tuareg and Berber populations in Libya having strange ideas."

The role of Gaddafi is quite ill-understood, but yes, when his weapon arsenals were opened after he fell, everybody helped themselves. It wasn't only the Tuareg, it was Islamists, it was Libyans, it was Egyptians. Getting rid of Gaddafi was a major destabilization. He was a kind of a force behind stability in a strange way. He manipulated everybody in a very Machiavellian and a clever way over decades. Taking him away, everything became 'free-for-all', with many more non-aligned, little groups trying to get their own advantage."

Morgan believes the French are being too naive by thinking it's just militants they are fighting against.

"It's a rainbow nation of Muslim Jihadists now in Northern Mali, but it's not only them, it's also local people. When François Hollande says 'We want to get those Jihadists out of Mali', the problem is, he's also talking about Malians, he wants to get Malians out of Mali, and that is his problem," he said.

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