Elements of the Ansar Dine armed group, which had been fighting as a proxy of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, experienced a split in their ranks Jan. 24. These fighters — led by Alghabass Ag Intalla, the son of the patriarch of the ethnic Tuareg Ifoghas clan — said they would break with others in Ansar Dine and create their own organization, the Islamic Movement for the Azawad. The remaining elements of Ansar Dine are those led by Iyad ag Ghali, a senior Tuareg militia commander. Ghali participated in Tuareg rebellions in the 1990s and 2000s and became the rebel leader in the Kidal region after his co-leader, Ibrahim ag Bahanga, died in a car accident in August 2011.
Can the New Group Be an Ally?
Intalla's split from Ghali would mark an erosion of the militants' war-fighting capability in Kidal region, an area to which al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will likely retreat once it pulls back from the regions of Timbuktu and Gao. Intalla and his followers among the Ifoghas clansmen could play a significant role in providing intelligence on militant movements and supply lines. But the group will not automatically become an ally for the Malian government. Pro-government forces will first need to see evidence of the group's credibility and reliability.
Intalla fully yielded his influence and clansmen to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2012 in an attempt to wrest political control of the Kidal region from the southern-based Malian government. Ghali, who is also Ifoghas, and his militia can claim just as much influence in Kidal region, though more through force of arms than through traditional leadership. The two are interdependent and cannot easily disentangle themselves, so it will not be easy for interventionist forces to support Intalla's new organization if they are indeed considering this. Guns sent to Intalla's organization could get into the hands of rebels overnight. In a longer-term political settlement, once security in northern Mali is achieved, Intalla's influence could play a very significant role should his group credibly switch from enabling jihadism to supporting the Malian government.
In the meantime, French forces have accomplished their initial objective of securing central Mali, and they continue to conduct airstrikes and carry out missions in northern Mali. Malian forces have recaptured the central Malian villages of Diabaly, Konna, Douentza and Hombori as militants have been forced to retreat back into northern Mali. The focus of French activity is now on pushing their assets forward — they have already moved their main contingent of ground forces toward Diabaly and Mopti, the two main French positions closest to northern Mali. The airmobile group, with the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment in the lead, is also being relocated to Segou in central Mali, bringing it closer to the area where combat operations are taking place.
French special forces have also been deployed to uranium mining facilities in neighboring Niger and tasked with securing French-operated uranium mines, but the location is also likely to interdict the eastern flank of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali and to try to prevent an eastward retreat toward Libya.
Attempts to Delay Intervention
At the same time, African forces continue to flow into Mali in advance of the ground offensive. About 1,750 African troops are already in Mali and Niger. Most of these forces are still located in Bamako, apart from a Burkinabe contingent that took over responsibility from French troops for protecting the river crossing in Markala. A small task force of troops from Chad and Niger is also gathering in Niger, along the border with Mali. From this position, they could cross into Mali and reach Gao from the north side of the Niger River, thus avoiding the major choke point they would face were they to cross the river over the 300-meter-long (984 feet) bridge into the middle of Gao, an urban center.
Threatened by these preparations, jihadist militants blew up a bridge on the route from Niger's border toward Gao. The bridge, near the village of Tassiga, is essential for mobility along the road running from the border to Gao. The move is an attempt by the militants to secure their southeastern flank in reaction to the news that a task force is preparing just across the border with Niger. The event further reinforces fears that militants will destroy bridges over the Niger River itself, a possibility that will force France and the African forces to prepare contingencies. An extra element of engineering operations will need to be introduced if Chad and Niger's troops are to move toward Gao from their positions in Niger, but the possibility of having to bridge the wider Niger River at Gao and Timbuktu will also have to be taken into account. Such bridging operations could delay the intervention forces while granting militants more time to retreat or an extra opportunity to harass these forces as they perform complex operations to cross the choke points on the Niger River.