The attempt on Gamou's life comes amid political and military planning for a foreign-backed intervention force aimed at restoring the Malian government's territorial control over the country's northern Azawad region. France is reportedly prepared to submit a resolution to the U.N. Security Council as early as Dec. 10 that would authorize an intervention in Mali, though one is unlikely to begin immediately. A top general for the United States, another major proponent of ousting al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamist militants from Azawad, said an intervention would not take place before March 2013 to ensure proper military planning.
Gamou commanded the Malian army's garrison at Kidal, one of three principal towns in northern Mali, until being forced to retreat in April in the face of a superior force led by the Ansar Dine militia. Gamou regrouped, tried to preserve his combat capability and minimized what military supplies fell into hostile hands before relocating his estimated 500 to 1,000 men to Niger. Gamou's militia has not conducted any military operations since withdrawing to Niger, during which time al Qaeda-allied Islamists such as Ansar Dine have routed their non-Islamist rivals in Gao and Timbuktu.
While the current conflict in northern Mali is usually framed as a battle between Islamists and non-Islamists, other factors are also involved. Gamou and Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, represent rival ethnic interests in northern Mali that predate the current struggle.
Ghali is a member of the Ifogha clan, a subgroup within the Tuareg tribe that views itself as the rightful leader of northern Mali. Gamou is a member of the Imghad branch of the Tuareg tribe, which has typically been looked down upon by the Ifoghas. Both groups fought amongst themselves during the French colonial era, but it was the Ifoghas who received French weapons to carry out Paris' policy of indirect rule in its colonies. The French-supplied firepower enabled the Ifoghas to assert their dominance in northern Mali over other groups, notably the Imghad.
Upon Mali's independence in 1960, the Tuareg tribe overall and the Ifoghas in particular tried to retain their primacy in northern Mali and resisted the authority of Bamako, the distant capital in southern Mali. The country's political leadership in the capital did not consider tribal demands for autonomy in the north legitimate, and it needed a knowledgeable militia force to confront the Ifoghas and assert the government's sovereignty. Bamako found a willing partner in the Imghad, which then used its role as the government's enforcer to seek retribution for their clan's long-standing grievances against the Ifoghas. The Imghad have served the Malian government in this capacity through the present.
The struggle between these two clans for primacy in northern Mali has not abated, and the alleged assassination attempt could be evidence of this conflict. Ansar Dine itself is the successor militia to a mainly Ifogha group that launched a rebellion in 2008 and 2009. That rebellion was repulsed in large part due to the battlefield intelligence the Imghad — under Gamou's leadership — provided to the Malian army, especially to its special operations units trained by the United States. The Ifoghas' setback was not a complete defeat, however, and the rebels moved north into Libya where former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi welcomed them. The Ifogha militants fought for Gadhafi during the Libyan civil war, but the fall of his regime in 2011 and the militants' inability to enter Algeria left them no choice but to return to Mali. They brought with them additional weapons acquired in Libya and manpower from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which saw an opportunity in the lightly defended Malian north.
The combined al Qaeda-Ifogha offensive defeated the poorly motivated Malian army and gained control over northern Mali and the key towns of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. The Malian government wants to recover control in northern Mali but lacks the capability to do so. The Ifoghas do not want to give up their newfound autonomy, and empowered by al Qaeda militants, who have no better or safer territory in the region to go to, they are in a commanding position.
To dislodge al Qaeda — the primary concern for the international community — a sufficient military force would be required to augment the Malian army, which has been effectively broken by the Tuareg rebellion. To have any political legitimacy, the intervention force must be composed of and led by Africans — Western countries will contribute logistical, financial and intelligence support but not troops — hence the leadership of the West Africans who do not want to see rebel activity in Mali inspire rebels inside their own borders. To fight effectively in northern Mali, however, local intelligence must be attained. Without assistance, troops from possible contributing nations such as Nigeria, Ivory Coast or Senegal, and their advisers from France or the United States, will not understand the terrain or be able to identify friendly from hostile Tuareg caravans, all of which will be armed. Acquiring credible sources of local intelligence will be essential for a successful military intervention in northern Mali.
Because Gamou is an extremely valuable source of this kind of intelligence and would almost certainly be willing to help an intervention force, the alleged attempt on his life is significant. West African states and their foreign backers will authorize and mobilize conventional forces that are numerically sufficient to defeat the Ifoghas and al Qaeda. But conducting that war and maintaining security in northern Mali after the battle will require Tuareg cooperation. Anticipating this component, the Ifoghas or al Qaeda, or perhaps both, may have orchestrated the assassination attempt to deny this intelligence asset to a prospective intervention force.