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How the French got to airstrikes in Mali: A briefing from Bamako

Five key questions about how Islamic militants took over northern Mali -- and why the French are trying to stop them.

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A motorcyclist waves his support as French troops in two armored personnel carriers drive through Mali's capital Bamako on the road to Mopti Tuesday, Jan. 15. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign Tuesday to wrest control of a small Malian town from armed Islamic militants who seized the area, including its strategic military camp.

Jerome Delay/AP

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French airstrikes in Mali last week have jolted the West's attention. The strikes and more planned deployments by France and other African states are designed to halt the progress of Islamist rebels in Mali, and deny radicals an Afghan-style haven for jihad against Europe. Journalist Peter Tinti has lived in West Africa for the last three years and arrived in Bamako today. Here's his first briefer from the capital. 

How did this crisis start?

It started when armed groups took over northern Mali – a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas – last year. Prominent among the groups are Islamist rebels linked to Al Qaeda who wish to establish a strict and violent version of Islamic law in the region.

Armed conflict and food shortages have driven more than 400,000 people from their home. The rising fear is that the conflict could destabilize the region, creating an ungoverned space and haven to launch terror attacks abroad. 

Islamist rebels captured Konna, a small town in central Mali close to the strategically vital cities of Sévaré and Mopti, prompting the French bombing campaign. 

With Islamist forces pushing southward and the Malian Army unable to stop them, French president Hollande ordered troops to stop the rebel advances. The rebels appeared ready to continue to Sévaré, which hosts a military base and airport deemed critical in any efforts to retake northern Mali by force.

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What does France hope to accomplish?

French objectives seem straightforward.

Foreign minister Laurent Fabius says intervention is to help Mali’s Army stop Islamist rebels from moving south, and protect the “integrity of the Malian state.” Fabius said that French troops would also help rescue French hostages who are being held in northern Mali and that French forces will remain for “as long as required.”

This last caveat is crucial. The rapid expansion of the French airstrikes – combined with the mobilization of troops from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS – may mean France and its allies are suddenly in a full-scale war against well-armed, battle-hardened rebel groups in northern Mali.

How did the Islamists take northern Mali?

The initial insurgency was led by an ethnic Tuareg group, the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA). They are not an Islamist group. Their goal was to create an independent state in the north called Azawad. Guns and equipment coming out of a destabilized Libya, along with experienced Tuareg fighters based in Libya, helped the MNLA achieve a string of surprising military victories in Mali’s remote north.

At the same time, the MNLA and other rebel groups benefited from a coup d’etat in southern Mali and resulting political chaos. Two weeks after the coup Mali’s military conceded the north in its entirety, leaving weapons, equipment, and vehicles behind in a “tactical retreat.”

Shortly after, the secular MNLA and its Islamist allies of convenience, a Tuareg-led group called Ansar Dine, swept across the Sahara to seize the three northern capitals of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. But then the MNLA itself got subverted by an assortment of armed Islamist groups, who threw them out of northern Mali. 

Who are the Islamists in Mali?

There are three basic groups: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). 

What about Mali's government?

In March a coup led by mid-level military officers toppled Mali’s democratically elected government. An interim government is currently in place, but political infighting has rendered Mali’s government ineffectual. 

Mali is led by an awkward triumvirate composed of interim President Dioncounda Traoré, Prime Minister Django Sissoko, and recent coup-leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo.

Though President Traoré is the nominal head of state, Captain Sanogo and his military circle run the show. Last month they nabbed the acting Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra from his home. Mr. Diarra, well-known in international diplomatic and business circles, was forced to resign on national TV. 

French airstrikes were carried out at the request of Mr. Traoré. Mr. Sonago, who has opposed foreign military intervention, also voiced support for the operation. 

Does the international community have legitimate grounding?

Mr. Hollande said his decision to intervene was made in consultation with Mali’s interim-President Traoré and regional allies; he insists that the actions were in accord with international and UN legal frameworks.  

The UN Security Council passed a resolution last month authorizing the deployment of an African force to Mali, but African troops were not expected to arrive until September.

The UK and EU have expressed their support for French actions, and several countries from West African regional bloc ECOWAS have pledged hundreds of troops each, which would join the more than 2,500 French special forces soon to be on the ground.  

Algeria, Mali’s neighbor to the north, has long preferred a negotiated solution but authorized French aircraft to use its airspace. 

Foreign Minister Fabius has confirmed the US is providing communication and transport assistance to the ongoing mission. 


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