Further radicalisation in Sahel?

By Mats Utas

Military efforts combining French, Malian and, most recently, troops from Niger and Chad have quickly managed to root out the various militia groups in Northern Mali and driven them into the remote mountain areas. During the last weeks, we have seen an unprecedented drive in pursuit of a common goal among such diverse actors as France, Algeria, Mali, the AU and the West African states. This in itself is a victory. Arguably, without the support of troops from Niger and Chad, French and Malian forces would indeed have managed to retake Gao and Timbuktu and secured the territory south of the Niger river. However, the gamble to retake Kidal should be seen in light of the troop support from Niger and Chad. These two countries have lines of support across their borders so that longer-term control of the Kidal region becomes a possibility. At the same time, the involvement by Nigerien troops risks creating new problems with the Tuareg population of Niger.

The ease with which the troops have retaken territory from northern militia groups reveals several things: first,   that the militia are much fewer in number than foreign observers anticipated; second, that their military organisation is weaker and also that they have fewer arms and less ammunition than estimated (leading to new speculation about   where the advanced military equipment that went missing from Libya has ended up); and third that these militias have rather limited support from the civilian population. All these are positive signs for Mali and the sub-region. However, it is difficult to believe that the extremist groups will simply vanish. Northern Mali is a vast and inaccessible territory where it is easy to hide and borders with neighbouring countries are porous. Furthermore, some of these groups are part of regional trading networks with international ties, and even Big Men in Bamako will probably continue to trade with them. Finally, international interventions, such as that by France and West African states, can be expected to prompt   yet others in Northern Mali to join the militias as resistance persists and escalates. If the West African peacekeeping operation that is to take over from French ground forces does not proceed with care, radicalisation will increase.

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