A reminder of what has been happening in Mali


French troops patrol in the streets of Gao on Feb. 3, 2013. (Sia Kambou/AFP)

The reported disappearance of Air Algerie-operated flight AH5017 en route from Burkina Faso to Algiers has led to renewed interest in one troubled nation that the plane may have been flying over before it disappeared: Mali.

It's understandable. Air traffic controllers lost track of the flight 50 minutes after take off, and the flight's path would have taken it directly over Mali's still-volatile north. Given the recent events in Ukraine, speculation is rife, though the Islamist militias operating in Mali's north are not believed to have the technology required to bring down a plane flying at a high altitude. Even so, if the plane is in Mali, it may be a big complication into any investigation.

Mali's Islamist insurgency was big news in early 2013, but after a French military intervention and successful election, it largely faded from view. Here's a reminder of what happened, and has been happening, in one of Africa's poorest nations.

How Mali's crisis began

(Laris Karklis / The Washington Post)
(Laris Karklis / The Washington Post)

In March 2012, a group of officers in the Malian government staged a coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré. With the capital in chaos, a growing insurgency, featuring both Tuareg rebels and armed Islamists, began to capture key towns in Mali's northern territory of Azawad, and the Tuareg rebels soon declared an independent state.

As the fighting continued, however, the Islamists, in particular the group Ansar Dine, began to emerge as the dominant force in the north. By May 2012, Ansar Dine had taken over the U.N. heritage site of Timbuktu, and began destroying Islamic tombs. An ultra-strict brand of Islamic law was imposed as the country was virtually split in two, with smoking and alcohol banned in the north and women facing strict restrictions on their movement and dress. Even music, one of Mali's greatest cultural traditions, was silenced. Arab fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were reported to be leading the operation.

It took the international community some time to react. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) agreed to send troops in November, and the United Nations agreed to troops in December. However, when the central town of Konna was captured in January 2013, it was Mali's old colonial masters, the French, who took the lead.

A successful intervention?

France announced that it was sending troops to Mali on Jan. 11, 2013. The country, spurred on by its involvement in the ousting of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and its old colonial links to Mali, claimed a moral obligation to act. “At stake is the very existence of the Malian state,” President Francois Hollande said in a televised address, vowing to stay involved until the battle was won.

Within days, warplanes were hitting Islamist troops, and Mali's army retook Timbuktu and other northern cities with the help of newly re-aligned Tuareg rebels. Despite the neo-colonial implications, many of Mali's citizens were supportive of the French intervention, and the French were credited with helping Mali's government push the rebels back. The U.N. set up a peacekeeping force, 12,600-strong, a few months later, and the Pentagon also deployed a small number of troops to the country. The government also received billions in international aid.

Under pressure from France and other countries, Mali held elections in July 2013, and in a subsequent run-off, Ibrahim Boubakar Keita won with nearly 78 percent of the vote. Foreign observers were surprised by the relatively peaceful way the elections were handled: The Post's editorial board expressed some skepticism, but said that the election could be a step towards stability for the country.

What happened recently

After the election, Mali generally faded from the headlines, and in January 2014, 1,000 French soldiers were still in the country, with their focus had largely shifted to an anti-terrorism role. Earlier this month, France’s defense minister announced that the French military operation in Mali had “fulfilled its mission” and would be shifted into a anti-terrorism force for northwest Africa, while Malian officials and Tuareg separatists began talks in Algiers in the hope of forming a lasting peace in the north.

However, the north still saw sporadic violence, with Tuareg rebels fighting government troops again and Islamists targeting French troops and U.N. peacekeepers in suicide attacks. In many ways, France's redeployment of its troops was less an acknowledgement that the problems in Mali were over, and more a sign that it viewed the Islamist threat in northwest Africa as a transnational problem. The recent surge of attacks by Boko Haram may show they are right. Many of Nigeria's Islamists had cut their teeth fighting in Mali before returning home. "Niger's security, West Africa's security is France's security," Hollande told French personnel stationed in Niger during a tour of West Africa last week.

The disappearance of Air Algerie flight AH5017 is a particularly difficult situation for Hollande: French media is reporting that 51 of the passengers on board were French citizens. Col. Gilles Jarron, a French Army spokesman, has told the New York Times that two two French fighter jets are now searching for the plane.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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