ACCRA, Ghana —
French and West African military intervention in Mali runs the risk of provoking revenge attacks by Islamic extremists, spreading instability in a region rich in gold, uranium and cocoa, said analysts from Dakar to London.
“When you send troops to the north of Mali there is the possibility of reprisals in terms of terrorist attacks,” Gilles Yabi, the West Africa program director of Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said Monday from the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
“These countries don’t have the level of security and protection that western countries have. France itself is taking a risk, in terms of the hostages and in terms of terrorist attacks.”
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France intervened Friday to reverse an advance by rebels armed with weapons from Libya’s 2011 uprising, toward the south. European and U.S. policymakers have expressed concern northern Mali may become an Islamist extremist base to strike international targets and destabilize regional states from Nigeria to Algeria.
Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer, is already battling Islamist insurgents whose attacks have killed more than 1,500 people since the Boko Haram group started its campaign four years ago.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is still holding four Frenchmen kidnapped in 2010 from a mine operated by Areva SA, the world’s biggest builder of nuclear power plants, in neighboring Niger, which provides 7.5 percent of the world’s uranium supply, according to World Nuclear Association.
“France’s big fear is not just Mali, but the destabilization of the whole region,” said Louis Caprioli, the former head of DSK, France’s former anti-terrorism unit. “Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was already destabilizing Mali’s neighbors. Niger next door is already a fragile state, and France would be in trouble if it lost its uranium supplies.”
The 550-strong contingent of French air and ground forces has pushed the insurgents out of Kona, a town 435 miles north of the capital, Bamako, hours after President François Hollande announced that France would support Mali’s battle to win back two-thirds of its territory.
France’s intervention opened “the gates of hell,” Oumar Hamaha, a spokesman for the Islamist extremists in northern Mali, told French radio station Europe1 on Monday.
Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb for about five months before his release in 2009, said the Islamists were trying to establish a base in the sparsely populated Sahara and Sahel regions. Hamaha was his captor, Fowler said.
“They told me clearly that their motivation was to install chaos and instability from Somalia to Mauritania, or the vast stretch of the Sahara depending on your definition,” he said in a Jan. 11 interview from Ottawa. “They want the jihad to grow and flourish in the region.”
Mali vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. At least 13 international companies were engaged in gold exploration and production in Mali in 2010, according to a U.S. Geological Survey Report. Output of the metal for the country was 36,344 kilograms the same year.
The situation is “not only an issue for Mali,” said Mark Bristow, the chief executive officer of Randgold Resources, which operates three mines in Mali. “It’s a thorny issue but has to be dealt with. It will not go away on its own.”
French airstrikes alone may not “disrupt long-standing patterns of smuggling and other illicit economic activity, some of which helps sustain jihadist and other insurgencies,” Jolyon Ford, senior Africa analyst at Oxford Analytica, said in an e- mailed response to questions.
“I think the strikes can buy breathing time because the overall objective is still an African-led operation combined with continued negotiation, which brings rebels back into the Malian state with some autonomy arrangement,” he said.
The extremists captured the central village of Diabaly, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday in Paris.
Troops from the Economic Community of West African States’ planned 3,300-member force may start arriving Tuesday in Mali, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the community’s president, said in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
The commander of the West African troops will be Nigerian Maj. Gen. Shehu Abdulkadir. Nigeria’s military and police have been fighting to stop Boko Haram Islamists from carrying out attacks in the north and the capital, Abuja.
“We expect Boko Haram to broaden its traditional focus on government targets in Nigeria, as well as religious and military institutions, to include more frequently in the future international, or foreign targets,” Christoph Wille, Africa Analyst at London-based Control Risks, said in an emailed response to questions.
Mali’s rebels exploited political instability in Bamako, after a March coup to seize control of the north. While the insurgents include Islamists such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaida’s North African unit, there are also ethnic Touareg fighters seeking greater autonomy in the region.
Mali is now led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed last month after the leader of a coup in March, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.
“West Africa is the continent’s turbulent zone,” said Manji Cheto, an analyst at London-based africapractice, which advises companies in Africa.