Mali: Guerrilla Attacks and the Possibility of Pockets of Support for Islamists [Updated]

Since being displaced from northern Malian cities by French and Malian troops, Islamist fighters have turned to guerrilla tactics. At least three tactics have emerged so far: (attempted) suicide bombings, raids, and landmines.

In Gao, this weekend saw two suicide bombings (one Friday and one Saturday) followed by what might be called a raid on Sunday:

In the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault of the conflict, rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) attacked Malian troops in the streets of central Gao, sending residents running for cover as Kalashnikov bullets and 14.5-millimetre rounds pierced the air.

Rocket-propelled grenade explosions and fire from heavy machine guns and light weapons resounded late into the afternoon before dying down in the evening, when a power cut plunged the city into darkness.

A French Tiger attack helicopter was circulating over the neighbourhood around the governor’s offices and the central police station, the focal points of the attack.

A Chadian source (French) with which I am unfamiliar, meanwhile, reports that another raid or ambush occurred around February 5, north of Kidal, in which gunmen attacked a Chadian contingent and killed twenty-four soldiers. I have not seen confirmation of this story elsewhere – the Chadian source says “this information has been carefully kept secret by Chadian and French authorities.” We’ll see if more details on this emerge. UPDATE: Commenters Andy Morgan and itsme_leclerc offer evidence suggesting strongly that the story is false.

Regarding landmines, fatal incidents have reportedly occurred in (1) Gossi (January 30, four Malian soldiers killed and five wounded), (2) along the road linking Kidal, Anefis and North Darane (around February 4, two civilians killed), and (3) between Douentza and Gao (February 6, four civilians killed). There may have been other incidents involving landmines too.

The emerging guerrilla war raises a number of questions, one of them being what support Islamist fighters have among northern communities. Al Akhbar (Arabic) mentions the hypothesis that yesterday’s raid on Gao may have involved “the entrance of some Islamists into the city by way of the river, with the help of some local residents.” One Malian commentator (French) writes, meanwhile, “In reality, in certain northern localities, one doesn’t know what support or what rejection these combatants might enjoy.” American analysts sometimes underestimate the support that Islamists possess on the ground in places like Mali, and images of celebration from liberated areas can give the impression that Malian populations unanimously delighted in the ouster of the Islamists. But the guerrilla phase of the conflict, assuming it continues, may hint at lingering pockets of support in Gao and elsewhere.

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9 thoughts on “Mali: Guerrilla Attacks and the Possibility of Pockets of Support for Islamists [Updated]

  1. Considering the horrible government institutions Mali* currently has (and the foreign nature of the strongest armed forces on Mali’s side) I think we can assume that the guerrilla phase is going to continue for quite some time. Based on what’s happened around the world we should probably expect far more land mines and suicide bombers in the future.

    *Note that I’m referring to the pseudo-government and military when I write ‘Mali’ for simplicities sake.

    • This entire intervention, from the start, is unfolding exactly as expected. The primary questions have always centered on force strength and time, which hasn’t been clarified by anyone in an involved government. I see two broad possibilities in the event that Mali cannot form a legitimate government to engage the northern peoples: a multi-year asymmetric conflict that burns into a greater national conflict, and a long-term war utilizing guerrilla and terrorist tactics that connects into North Africa. Both require minimal local support, especially the latter.

      NATO and AU warplanners have their work cut out for them.

      • Unless it turns into a greater national conflict NATO, the U.N and probably most other organizations will settle for ‘containment’ and wishing the problem would take care of itself.

  2. A Chadian journalist called Abdelnasser Garboa, who’s been embedded with Chadian forces north of Kidal has tweeted that the ambush story is false. He says there have been only 3 Chadian fatalities, all due to illness or accidents. Hi tweet handle is @nassergarboa if you want to check it out. Thanks for the update and the great blog. Cheers, Andy.

  3. the Chadian source is a notorious opposition daily in Chad, very critical to the current President. The story varies regarding the number of casualties and of captured or destroyed “tanks”. No pictures (and what I know of, no claims from the islamists). No other source so far has confirmed the event.

  4. 7our also stated that a video of fighting in Gao he had problems with. Seemed to be suggesting that citizens, no robes, no arms, were being mistaken for fighters.

    Also being reported that Gamou’s men while not the best trained or equipped are fighting bravely and they seem to be in Gao. This would be the Tuareg Malian officer who took 500 men to Niger last year when the north fell to the Islamists.

  5. I am one of those American analysts who believes that Islamists enjoy VERY LITTLE SUPPORT on the ground in Mali (not “places like Mali”). I believe “images of celebration from liberated areas” accurately reflect the fact that Malian populations are overwhelmingly delighted in the ouster of the vicious Islamist invaders, who they, at the moment, would very much like to see dead.

    Only a fool believes that any side is “unanimously” supported. Even we ignorant Americans know the First Crusade story of the betrayal of Antioch, by the treachery of a Muslim, who was supposed to be guarding the city’s gates. But, I believe Islamists exaggerate the support for their alien ideology, in Mali. I believe they do it partly out of delusion and in part as propaganda. That does not mean that the Stockholm syndrome did not effect some of their victims or that some, especially, vulnerable young men, did not fall prey to the Salafist message of guilt with preposterous promises. But that is not the groundswell of community support that insurgency demands — that is, if I understand correctly. Beyond that… we’ll see.

  6. I can confirm there is not much support in Gao for the islamist groups. This is not simply a war between islamist and moderate muslims, add to that centuries of conflict between pastoralists and agriculturalists, race issues and tribal issues into the mix. Gao is majority black Malian population, and they have a long beef with these groups. Also, it’s interesting that the “hit and run” strikes are happening in Gao, rather than Timbuktu or Kidal, where they would be likely to have more sympathy. I believe that Gao is the start of a very lucrative trafficking business, and securing that passage is more important for these groups than implementing sharia.

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