Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was driven from northern Mali in 2013. For two years, the group clung to life, scattered to the winds of North Africa and the Sahel. Then, in 2015, it roared back to life in the Sahel, explosions and kidnappings in their wake. Now AQIM is poised to once again be the dominant force in the Sahel. It is up to France to shatter their alliances, build peace, and provide better security to stop an AQIM resurgence.
AQIM’s alliances have made it difficult to dislodge it from the Sahel. AQIM forged serious alliances, particularly with the Tuaregs and other northern clans thanks to Mali’s miserable political situation. For decades, the southern government ostracized the Tuaregs and other northern clans. AQIM’s opposition to the Malian government offered the Tuaregs a pragmatic opportunity: the enemy of their enemy was their friend. Other northern clans and smugglers likewise opted to ally with AQIM and facilitate its movements throughout the Sahel.
Alliances and Saheli geography facilitate AQIM’s attacks. Previously, AQIM attacks were scattered and were more focused on survival than on achieving political objectives. Since AQIM’s 2016 resurgence, attacks have been focused against France and former French colonies. This strategy satisfies its al-Qaeda backers by targeting the far enemy while keeping its targets regional. AQIM’s attacks often target French foreign offices or individuals. AQIM attacks occurred in Algeria, Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger.
France’s operational history inside the region makes it best situated to intervene in this crisis. The French military continues to conduct military operations in the region. However, military solutions alone will not end AQIM’s reign in the Sahel. The fundamental insecurity plaguing Mali fuels AQIM and causes the conflict to spill into neighboring countries.
France has a lengthy history of intervention against AQIM. France led Operation Serval which chased AQIM out of northern Mali in 2013, and it is leading the new Operation Barkhane against AQIM. Operation Serval was focused only on northern Mali while Operation Barkhane covers all of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. Barkhane’s broad scope is reflective of the burgeoning crisis in the Sahel.
Operation Barkhane is akin to treating a gaping chest wound with a band-aid. The French should expand its Sahel objectives to directly address the crisis’ systemic problems. Fortunately, France can address both the political and military drivers of AQIM’s resurgence.
First, France should aid the Malian government in restoring its credibility. The southern government has a longstanding reputation of corruption and detachment from northern issues. The French should help construct a plan to reintegrate the Tuareg and the central Malian government. Past reconciliation attempts collapsed because the central government would never follow through on its commitments. The French should provide mediators to negotiate peace and monitors to ensure compliance.
In the past, Malian governments have exaggerated the size of reconstruction packages for the north, breeding resentment when the promised packages were not delivered. The Malian government should instead focus on easily achievable infrastructure projects and political integration measures, like those the United States undertook during the 2007 Surge in Iraq.
Second, France should attempt to turn the Tuareg militias into allies. Recruiting these militias would give France valuable partners on the ground, foster Tuareg integration into Mali, and redirect the factional fears and frustrations into stabilizing the north. French forces should pressure the Malian government to recognize the 2015 Algiers accords. These accords legally separated Compliant Armed Groups, like the Tuaregs, from AQIM in an effort to focus Mali’s counterterrorism efforts against AQIM forces.
Third, France should increase its military involvement and seek more U.S. military support. There are currently three thousand French troops in Mali, but they have had little impact because their patrol area limits their ability to threaten AQIM’s operations. Increased French military action, especially with the U.S. support, would relieve the Malian government’s security concerns, allowing it to focus on resolving the political issues.
Ultimately, AQIM’s capabilities and mobility have grown despite the French military presence in the Sahel. Their alliances remained stable, the Malian political situation worsened, and the French gained little support in the region. France should shoulder more of the day-to-day security burden and push harder for reconciliation between the Malian government and the splintered factions in the north if it hopes to make progress against AQIM.
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John Strohl is a master’s student in the Security Policy Studies program at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He studies low intensity conflict and the future of warfighting.