'Gates of Hell' Mali Conflict Opens New Front in War on Terror

France has found early success in its fight against Islamist extremists in northern Mali. But Saharan terrorist groups have close ties and are prepared for a prolonged battle. The hostage crisis in Algeria shows that the new front in the war on terror could become a protracted conflict.
Von Paul Hyacinthe Mben und Jan Puhl
French soldiers in Mali.

French soldiers in Mali.


Last Monday Daouda Sy, a builder from the central Malian town of Diabaly, was about to become a rich man. His company had just been awarded a lucrative contract to build irrigation systems and roads, and he had already hired some 1,500 workers for the project.

Since Tuesday, however, Daouda Sy has been a refugee with nothing but the clothes on his back. "We heard shots at around noon, and we knew right away that they had arrived," he says. Bearded men wielding Kalashnikovs attacked the company's building, disabled the brand-new pickup trucks and vandalized the offices. Daouda Sy and his driver hid for a while and then fled.

It took the two men several days to reach safety in the capital Bamako. The builder never thought that the Islamists from northern Mali would come as far as Diabaly -- especially now that the French are in the country, with their Rafale jets and Gazelle helicopters firing at Islamist convoys and shelters.

Nine months ago, Islamists with the organization Ansar Dine captured the entire northern half of Mali, where they established a brutal regime based on sharia law. For months, it seemed little more than a regional conflict in the Sahara. Now, though, it has expanded to become the new front in the global war on terror. In recent weeks, jihadists began trying the capture the rest of the country, prompting tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Now the West has intervened. At the request of the Malian government, French troops began striking back on Friday, Jan. 11, with the West African economic community ECOWAS providing support.

'A Threat to All of West Africa'

"This war is an issue for all neighboring countries," said ECOWAS Chairman and Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara on a visit to Berlin last week. "From Mali, the Islamists pose a threat to all of West Africa." There is concern that Mali could turn into another Afghanistan, a failed state that terrorists could use as a base and safe haven.

Just how justified that fear is -- and how imminent the threat -- became clear last Wednesday, when Islamists cooperating with Ansar Dine attacked the In Amenas gas plant in the south of neighboring Algeria, taking hundreds of hostages in the process, including many foreigners. They demanded an end to the French intervention in Mali and the release of two extremists from American custody -- and threatened further attacks.

The Islamists in the Sahel zone are a serious threat. They are "motivated, well-equipped and well-trained," said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The French force, ECOWAS troops and Mali's ramshackle army could face a protracted conflict if the Islamists shift to guerilla tactics. "France has opened the gates of hell," a spokesman for the Islamists said ominously.

Northern Mali has been cut off from the outside world since the first air strikes. In the northeastern city of Gao, local journalist Moumouni Touré watched as an Islamist leader with wire cutters tampered with mobile phone towers. "They are severing the connection so to prevent the local population from providing information to the French," says Touré.

In Gao, the first French bombs struck an Islamist camp and a checkpoint the Islamists had set up on the road to the south. Touré felt the earth shake when the bombs detonated. He estimates that the first wave of French attacks killed at least 60 people.

'Fear Has Changed Sides'

The population cheered and the Islamists became less and less visible in the streets. People came out of their houses again, listening to music and smoking, two activities the Islamists had banned. "Fear has changed sides," says Touré.

The attack by Mali's former colonial rulers could hardly have surprised the Islamists, who had been in control of the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu for nine months by the time the attacks began. During that time, they have destroyed historic monuments and punished their adversaries with public executions, lashings and amputations. But they have also taken precautions. Residents of Gao report that the Islamists have dug large bunkers far out in the desert that are large enough to hide vehicles inside. The bunkers are reportedly filled with food, weapons, ammunition and gasoline, suggesting that the Islamists are far from finished.

According to Philippe Hugon, a Paris-based expert on Mali, it could be possible to drive the Islamists out of major cities within about six months. But years could go by before remote areas along the borders with Algeria and Niger are under control.

The Islamists began their campaign a year ago. On the night of Jan. 16, 2012, jihadists ambushed a Malian army unit near Adjelhoc in northeastern Mali, surprising the soldiers in their sleep. More than 80 people died in the fighting.

The winners of that skirmish are under the command of a man with a colorful personality: Iyad Ag Ghaly, a member of the Tuareg people. For years, he served as a mediator between the government in Bamako and the unruly ethnic group, which has repeatedly taken up arms to fight for its autonomy. He also helped the German government resolve a hostage crisis in 2003. But when Ag Ghaly was politically sidelined within the Tuareg movement, he turned to radical Islam. His group, Ansar Dine, now controls the northern part of the country.

Ag Ghaly has raked in millions through drug and weapons smuggling, as well as kidnappings. He bought large numbers of weapons at rock-bottom prices from the stockpiles of the former Gadhafi regime in neighboring Libya in the wake of the revolution there. Then Ansar Dine joined forces with other jihadists, including branches of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has operated for years in the desert regions of Algeria, Libya, Mauretania and Mali.

Not a Chance

One of Ag Ghaly's closest allies is Mokhtar Belmokhtar "the One Eyed," a nickname the Algerian extremist owes to a war injury he suffered as a teenager while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He also has another nickname, "Mr. Marlboro," because of his involvement in the smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband through the Sahara.

Belmokhtar, held responsible for numerous attacks and kidnappings, has been at the top of Paris's most-wanted list for some time. His group of jihadists also threatens uranium transport routes in neighboring Niger, where France mines the mineral for its nuclear power plants.

It was Belmokhtar's fighters, likely a group of about 40 men, who captured the gas plant in In Amenas last Wednesday. The Algerian army responded immediately and with great force. During the attack to free the roughly 600 hostages, dozens lost their lives. Even before the fighting was over, the terrorists warned that they were preparing other attacks on foreigners in Algeria. Belmokhtar's men allegedly prepared for the attack in northern Mali, where they were under the protection of Ag Ghaly.

The Malian army didn't stand a chance against Ansar Dine. It is in terrible condition, both technically and in terms of troop morale, despite a long-standing US effort to train the Malian military to fight al-Qaida. Secret cables from US embassies, published on the whistleblower website Wikileaks, indicate the low esteem in which American diplomats have held the Malian army in recent years. The force lacks basic reinforcements, most of its vehicles are broken down, training is miserable and morale has hit rock bottom. Mali has no air force at all.

American specialists did train four crack units, totaling 600 men, to fight the terrorists. But it backfired: Three of the elite units have defected en masse to the rebel Tuareg. Most of the commanders, after all, are Tuaregs.

German Security at Stake

Captain Amadou Sanogo, trained in the United States, was one of the soldiers who didn't defect. Instead, he inflicted even more damage when, last March, he and a few close supporters overthrew the government in Bamako and ousted the elected president.

Dioncounda Traoré, the interim president serving at Sanogo's pleasure, continues to have a legitimacy problem. This complicates any international effort to come to Bamako's aid, given that such an effort would solidify the power of a regime that came into power through a coup.

At least Traoré mustered the courage to ask France for help in the week before last, likely in the face of resistance from parts of the army. Malians, however, gave the former colonial power an enthusiastic reception, cheering its soldiers as saviors. ECOWAS troops from Chad, Nigeria and Ghana began arriving in Mali on Wednesday.

ECOWAS Chairman Alassane Ouattara  traveled to Berlin last week to ask for more assistance. He met with Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support for the French effort has so far been limited to providing two transport aircraft. Ouattara remained polite, but sitting in front of his country's flag in a suite at the Hotel Adlon, he told SPIEGEL: "Germany must become involved, and that includes sending troops."

Ouattara, of course, sought to dispel German fears that Mali could turn into another Afghanistan, an endless mission with many casualties and little progress, saying: "I see no parallels." Radical Islam has no support among the population of Mali, he said. "There is only a small number of terrorists in Mali, and most of them are foreigners."

Ouattara also pointed out that there is no country in the region that secretly supports the fanatics, as in the case of Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. But most of all, Ouattara argued, it would be a disaster if the allies failed to defeat the terrorists. Germany's security, he noted, is also at stake in the Sahara.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan