The Islamists then seized control from the Tuareg rebels. They imposed Islamist sharia law on a moderate Muslim population and began enforcing it with public beatings, amputations, stonings and prison sentences.
Initially, there were two main groups of extremists — AQIM and Ansar Dine, or “defenders of the faith,” which is led mostly by Malian hard-liners and linked to AQIM. But by September, MUJWA — which splintered from AQIM late last year — seized significant territory. Despite their differences, all three groups remain loosely linked. They have been joined by some fighters from Boko Haram, an Islamist force in Nigeria, according to the United Nations, Malian and regional African military officials.
French President Francois Hollande recently cited intelligence that some French Muslims had joined the jihadists and could perpetrate terrorist acts upon their return to France. Mali’s neighbors are also worried about radical Islamists spilling across their borders.
“They have killed so many of our soldiers, our sons,” said Sadou Diallo, the former mayor of Gao who fled to Bamako. “They have abused our sisters. They have destroyed 50 years of development in the north.”
‘Forging national consensus’
The military intervention in Somalia is widely seen as a template for Mali. In Somalia, the al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab had seized much of Somalia and imposed harsh decrees in the name of Islam. But by this year, Somalia’s neighbors backed by the United States and the U.N. had pushed the militants out of their major strongholds.
For the mission in Mali, the French are expected to help train the African troops and provide them with aircraft, communications and intelligence aid, according to reports circulating in Paris.
The United States is expected to supply intelligence-gathering equipment, help transport the African troops and provide other logistical help.
But in closed-door Security Council consultations Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice urged the council to support early elections in Mali, noting that U.S. law restricts the United States from providing direct military assistance to Mali because its democratically elected president was ousted in a coup in March. Rice also voiced skepticism about the military capacity of West African forces to prevail in battle with the northern militants.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed similar concerns.
“A military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hard-line extremist and criminal elements in the north,” Ban wrote in a report to the Security Council. “But, before that stage is reached, the focus must be on initiating a broad-based and inclusive political dialogue aimed at forging national consensus . . . and addressing the long-standing grievances” of the communities in the north.