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Islamists Move South in Mali

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By William Tucker

The Malian army has stated that Islamists who seized much of northern Mali last year – along with several Tuareg groups – have begun moving south towards Mopti. The city of Mopti sits astride the Niger river and lays in the narrow region that separates the north of Mali from the south. Currently, the Malian army controls the majority of this chokepoint, however if the Islamists in the north were to seize the area it would complicate Bamako’s efforts to reclaim the north – not to mention the movement of humanitarian aid. The military would like to prevent this from happening, but they are not well armed and have been strained from fighting a prolonged Tuareg insurgency. It was this insurgency that prompted the military coup last year which opened the door to the Tuareg/Islamist offensive that seized the north. Despite the intentions of the military to effect political change, and thus provide better support for counterinsurgency operations, it has had the opposite effect.

The southern advance by the Islamists comes a few days before they are slated to meet with the Malian government and Tuareg representatives in Burkina Faso. While the move may be related to future negotiations, it may have more to do with solidifying their position in the north. Accentuating this possibility is the move by Ansar Dine to rescind a ceasefire agreement it had only just worked out with mediators. The Islamists in the north may not see much in the way of a threat from the Malian army, thus allowing them to create a safe haven in an isolated portion of Africa. Another factor that may play into the Islamist decision to double down on the north is the threat of international invention. ECOWAS has approved a peacekeeping mission for Mali, but that mission will not start until September 2013. This leaves plenty of time for the Islamists to push further south. Even if the Islamists cannot hold this territory in the long run, it does offer them some leverage in any future negotiations.

In all of this there are rumors of another type of international intervention – one led by the U.S. and other western powers. While this option has been discussed at length, there have been some signs that the U.S. military and intelligence is working on the periphery. This presence isn’t new of course, as U.S. forces have been involved at varying levels in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, but the actual application of conventional ground forces in Mali is yet to be seen. In recent years the U.S. has avoided this type of commitment, instead relying on local intelligence assets, special operations, unmanned aircraft, and indigenous proxy fighters. Regardless of the approach used – or if any approach beyond ECOWAS is used for that matter – the intervening force will face the trouble of moving assets into a landlocked nation. While there are viable logistical routes available – primarily through Algeria – there are plenty of political and geographical hindrances to such an action. For their part, the Islamists aren’t taking any chances and will use a variety of methods available to them to protect their new found base of operations in northern Mali.

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