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Time to eject al Qaeda from new stronghold

WATCH this space.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS: Militiaman from the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine are fighting on al Qaeda's behalf in Mali. Picture: Reuters
ARMED AND DANGEROUS: Militiaman from the militant Islamic group Ansar Dine are fighting on al Qaeda's behalf in Mali. Picture: Reuters

Sometime in the coming weeks or months I expect to be writing here about a military intervention in the West African country of Mali. Why do I say this? Well, all the tell-tale political and military indicators are pointing in that direction

It all goes back to a coup in Mali's capital Bamako in March. Faced with a sustained Islamic insurgency in the north of the country, Malian military forces stationed there abandoned their barracks and weapons depots and retreated south.

In virtually no time, any organisational cohesion the Malian army had fell apart and, equally quickly, the north fell under control of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Since then, Washington, the European Union and African Union (AU) have looked on anxiously as AQIM tightened its grip by meting out executions, desecrating ancient religious sites under its own strict interpretation of sharia law and systematically violating human rights, particularly of women.

Now, it seems, it is time to take on the Islamic extremists in what is likely to become the major new battleground in the global fight to contain the al Qaeda franchise.

Politically and militarily things are moving quickly. Earlier this month the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution giving the Malian government, the AU and West African officials 45 days to adopt a consensus strategy for reasserting central control in northern Mali.

In the last few days the AU went a crucial step further by lifting Mali's suspension and reinstating it into the pan-African bloc. It also said a plan would be ready within weeks, aimed at helping Mali claw back territory from AQIM.

But just who and what will such an operation involve, and what are its chances of success?

It's important to understand the extent to which Africa has become a key continent for the al Qaeda network. From Somalia in the east to Mali in the west, the CIA and European intelligence agencies increasingly point to the fact that not only does Africa provide a large recruitment pool for al Qaeda, but some of its most elaborate terror operations are planned there.

Take the ongoing investigation into AQIM's involvement in the Benghazi attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and you have some idea of what they mean.

AQIM itself has already targeted governments across the Sahel and Maghreb. On a recent trip to Mali's regional neighbour Niger, I heard from officials about the group's pernicious presence which has often resulted in western interests being targeted and foreign workers killed or kidnapped.

In a region with few effective anti-terrorism policies and wracked by armed conflicts and economic malaise, the al Qaeda franchise has found it comparatively easy to infiltrate and operate in parts of Africa by teaming up with locals and taking over conflicts to further its own agenda and consolidate a power base. Mali is a perfect example.

There, they have effectively tapped into militant ethnic Tuareg tribal groups, such as Ansar Dine who in turn work as proxy fighters on AQIM's behalf.

Perhaps sensing the axe may be about to fall on its activities in Mali, AQIM is already said to have begun preparatory measures ahead of any impending military intervention by AU troops supported by the west.

This includes recruiting hundreds of foreign fighters to augment its ranks, among them Sudanese and Sahrawis from across Western Sahara.

Intelligence analysis suggests around 150 fighters have been deployed to each of the Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao. Such numbers effectively constitute what AQIM refers to as a "qatiba," often translated as a brigade, though is probably much more akin to a company in Western military parlance.

According to analysts from the independent intelligence think-tank Stratfor, having mobilised hundreds of additional fighters AQIM is clearly bracing itself for an onslaught from an intervention force that could comprise as many as 6000 soldiers from Mali, West Africa and the international community.

Which brings us back to the question of just who and what such an operation might involve and its chances of success? Above all else, Washington and its European allies – notably France – will be keen for intervention in Mali to been seen as an African solution to an African problem.

While non-African powers such as France and the US are keen to emphasise they will not have boots on the ground, the reality is their help will be needed – at least behind the scenes.

In this respect the intervention will likely resemble the AU Mission to Somalia where Western logistical assistance and intelligence as well as the use of Special Forces and unmanned aerial drone strikes will be deployed in support of African troops.

"We are working to finalise the joint planning for the early deployment of an African-led international military force to help Mali recover the occupied territories in the North," Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairwoman of the AU Commission, told ministers at the opening of Wednesday's Peace and Security Council in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

All this, of course, begs the question of whether military intervention is ultimately the right way to go

On the face of it, such action was almost inevitable – not least because the current stalemate in the north of Mali was unsustainable and AQIM could not be allowed to further consolidate its grip.

For its own part, the Islamists' response has been to warn they will "open the doors of hell" for French and other foreign citizens in Mali and across the region.

Despite this, it looks almost certain moves to take on al Qaeda in its new stronghold will now go ahead.

No doubt in the coming weeks we can expect to see foreign advisers arrive in the Malian capital Bamako.

Perhaps those soldiers and diplomats can take encouragement from the fact a similar intervention strategy in Somalia has moved that country at least some way towards being free of jihadist rule, and created fledgling signs of more democratic governance taking root.

Here's hoping not only will that continue in Somalia, but that Mali will follow suit.

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