Just a week after a series of attacks in Paris left at least 129 dead, another attack has occurred that seems designed to goad France deeper into a fight against Islamist extremists on a variety of fronts. In this case, at least 100 people were taken hostage Friday when gunmen stormed a hotel in Mali's capital of Bamako. Early reports suggest that at least 20 people have been killed.
While the attacks on the French capital may seem more shocking, the strategic importance of Mali to France should not be understated. Bamako has served as a logistics hub for French forces who are aiding a regional fight against Islamist insurgents.
Perhaps just as significantly, Mali carries important symbolic power with the French. France's 2013 operation in Mali had proven to be something remarkably rare: a military intervention that was cautiously considered a success. Coming hot on the heels of the robust French involvement in Libya, the unilateral intervention in Mali in 2013 seemed to confirm Paris's willingness to be forceful on the world stage – even if France had taken a back seat in the Middle East and objected to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
To groups such as the Islamic State and its extremist peers, however, France's leading role in interventions in West and North Africa are a reason to target it. After the Paris attacks, the Islamic State released a statement warning the French that the "smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign."
France's recent involvement in Mali came after a 2012 coup in the country, in which a group of officers in the Malian government toppled the democratically elected government of
Amadou Toumani Touré. As chaos gripped the capital, an insurgency began to capture towns in the country's northern territory of Azawad. This insurgency was made up of both Islamists and members of the Tuareg minority, a nomadic people who had sought independence from Mali since at least 1958.
While the Tuaregs declared an independent state in April 2012, it was the Islamists who soon began to emerge as the dominant force in the region. In May, the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Dine took over the U.N. heritage site of Timbuktu. It implemented an ultra-strict version of Islamic law, even banning music and destroying Islamic tombs in a region where Sufi Islam had long held sway.
The international community took notice: Both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations agreed to send troops to Mali in 2012. After the central town of Konna was captured in January 2013, France decided to step in with unilateral action. The country's decision may be explained by the fact that it had held Mali as a colony for eight decades – that it was part of la Françafrique, the former French lands in Africa in which the country had retained significant power even after independence.
France was also fresh from military action in Libya, where the French air force took a leading role in the NATO intervention that helped oust strongman Moammar Gaddafi. French President Nicolas Sarkozy even made a triumphant visit to Tripoli in September 2011.
Francois Hollande, assuming the office of president in May 2012, sought to continue the confident military stance. In a televised address, he vowed to remain involved until Mali was safe. “At stake is the very existence of the Malian state,” he said in January 2013.
Despite significant criticism from Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister who had led French opposition to the Iraq war, the intervention was generally popular, both at home and in Mali. According to one poll from the time, two-thirds of French citizens supported Hollande's actions. The newspaper Le Monde quoted educated, urban Malians who suggested that the French president would be remembered as a "folk hero" in the country.
French warplanes bombed Islamist troops while the Tuareg rebels, realigned with the Malian government, retook cities on the ground. Around 4,000 French troops were gradually deployed to Mali, as well as a small number of U.S. military personnel. Remarkably, only one Frenchman was killed in the intervention – a helicopter pilot who was shot down in the early days of the conflict. The United Nations later sent a peacekeeping force to the country.
After Ibrahim Boubakar Keita won with nearly 78 percent of the vote in elections in July 2013, the country returned to relative calm. A year later, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the military operation had "fulfilled its mission" in Mali and would shift to a new mission focused on the broader Sahel region, with about 3,000 troops in total, including 1,000 remaining in Mali.
Even if the intervention appeared to be a success, however, the fault lines in Mali remained. Tuareg rebels returned to fighting government troops, and Islamists continued to pull off isolated attacks against French forces. Worse still, in some ways, the problem seemed to have turned into a regional one: Nigerian government officials have claimed that Boko Haram's fighters cut their teeth in the Mali fighting and returned to Nigeria with new weapons and skills, though this has been disputed.
The Islamic State does not have a major presence in Mali. Instead, Reuters reports that al-Mourabitoun, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for Friday's attack. That group has been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian al-Qaeda veteran who may have been killed in an airstrike this summer. Some reports from earlier this year suggest that some from Belmokhtar's group had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, apparently prompting Belmokhtar himself to reject the Islamic State pledge.
It's unclear whether the Bamako attack was inspired in any way by last week's attacks in Paris or if France is really even the target. However, it does seem plausible that extremists in West Africa might have noted how the Paris attacks drew swift French airstrikes on Islamic State-held territory in Syria and new commitments to the U.S.-led coalition's fight against the extremist organization. With signs that West Africa is facing an increasingly powerful set of Islamist extremists, the attack in Bamako could be designed to draw France deeper into the region – and turn a successful intervention in Mali into a regional quagmire.
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