Jihadist groups operating in northern Mali have stepped up attacks over the past several months against French troops and UN peacekeepers operating in the region.
On Oct. 29, one French commando was killed after a fierce firefight in the Adrar Tigharghar mountain range in the northern Mali province of Kidal. The soldier, Thomas Dupuy, an Afghanistan war veteran, was killed when his unit came into contact with “30 Islamists,” about 20 of whom were killed in the firefight, according to the French government. Dupuy is the 10th French soldier to die since January 2013.
It is unclear which group the French Army came into contact with in Kidal. However, the mountains of northern Mali have been a traditional stronghold of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In early 2013, al Qaeda leader Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid was killed in the region after retreating there in the face of the French-led intervention. [For more, see LWJ’s report, France confirms death of senior AQIM commander Abou Zeid.]
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is also known to operate in the Kidal region of Mali. MUJAO has been behind several attacks and kidnappings in Kidal since its inception in late 2011.
On Oct. 30, near the border with Mali, nine Nigerien troops were killed after also clashing with al Qaeda-linked militants. The militants attacked a Nigerien prison, a Malian refugee camp, and a patrol of Nigerien troops in three simultaneous attacks in Niger. During the attack on the prison, several inmates were freed from their cells.
It is unclear which group was responsible for these attacks, but al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar has undertaken operations inside Niger before. In late May 2013, Belmokhtar’s group, the al Mua’qi’oon Biddam (Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade) launched suicide attacks inside Niger, killing 18 Nigerien troops. Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group has since joined forces with another Malian al Qaeda group, MUJAO, to form the al Mourabitoun Brigade, and has reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda emir, Ayman al Zawahiri. [For more on Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s groups, see LWJ reports, Belmokhtar’s unit participated in Niger suicide attacks, 9 UN troops killed in Mali ambush, African al Qaeda leader sides with Zawahiri in Syrian dispute, and US adds Belmokhtar’s brigades to terrorist lists.]
On Oct. 3, French special forces arrested members of the al Mourabitoun Brigade in two operations in Mali and Niger. The Malian region of Gao, which borders the Tillaberi region of Niger, is known as a hub for al Mourabitoun.
Militant activity increasing in Mali
On Oct. 3, nine UN troops were killed in an ambush in the Gao region of Mali. A few days later, a MUJAO spokesman, Sultan Ould Bady, claimed responsibility for the attack. The ambush came just two weeks after five Chadian troops were killed when they drove over a mine in the Kidal region of northern Mali.
On Sept. 2, four UN peacekeepers were killed in a roadside bomb attack near the city of Kidal. The attack came just days after AQIM had taken responsibility for several attacks in Mali, including an Aug. 16 suicide bombing that killed two UN troops in Ber, a town close to Timbuktu, and three other attacks near Timbuktu in June and July.
Earlier, on July 15, a French soldier was killed in an IED attack in northern Mali. Several other attacks in Mali have also been attributed to al Qaeda-linked forces this year. The Long War Journal has compiled a map of significant al Qaeda-linked attacks this year. Based on the data gathered from local Malian news sites or wire services such as Reuters, most attacks have happened in northern Mali, with at least five occurring near the city of Timbuktu. Ten of the compiled 18 attacks have taken place since August, with half of those occurring in the month of October. Furthermore, three attacks were carried out in the last week alone.
In light of increased activity, the French have launched a “large-scale operation” in northern Mali, according to French Army spokesman Gilles Jaron. The operation is intended to clear out jihadists in northern Mali. The French intervention mission in Mali was recently replaced by a counterterrorism operation, Operation Barkhan, in which French special forces will work in conjunction with several Saharan and Sahelian states to tackle terrorism in Mali.