French Strikes on Mali Islamists Threaten Revenge Attacks

French and West African military intervention in Mali runs the risk of provoking revenge attacks by Islamic militants, 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 yesterday in an interview 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.”

France intervened on Jan. 11 to reverse an advance by rebels armed with weapons from Libya’s 2011 uprising, toward the south. European and U.S. policy makers have expressed concern northern Mali may become an Islamist militant 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.

Regional Destabilization

Al-Qaeda 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 the World Nuclear Association.

“France’s big fear is not just Mali, but the destabilization of the whole region,” Louis Caprioli, the former head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit, said in an interview. “Al-Qaeda 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 about 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of the capital, Bamako, hours after President Francois Hollande announced that France would support Mali’s battle to win back two-thirds of its territory.

Air strikes, which are continuing in western Mali today, have “achieved their objectives,” Hollande said during a visit to a naval base in Abu Dhabi today, BFM TV reported. France has deployed 750 military personnel for the operation so far, he said.

U.S. Support

The U.S. may aid the operations with logistical and intelligence support and “airlift capabilities,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters yesterday en route to Lisbon, where he began a visit to European capitals.

Panetta declined to say if the U.S. intelligence support will be in the form of satellite imagery or use of drones. He also didn’t elaborate on what kinds of airlift will be provided.

France’s intervention opened “the gates of hell,” Oumar Hamaha, a spokesman for the Islamist militants in northern Mali who’s known as the “Red Beard” for his hennahed facial hair, told French radio station Europe1 yesterday.

Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who was held hostage by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for about five months before his release in 2009, said the Islamists were aiming to establish a base in the sparsely populated Sahara and Sahel regions. Hamaha was his captor, Fowler said.

Gold Mines

“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,” Mark Bristow, the chief executive officer of Randgold Resources Ltd., which operates three mines in Mali, said in a phone interview. “It’s a thorny issue, but has to be dealt with. It will not go away on its own.”

The operations of AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., Africa’s biggest gold producer, are all in the south or southeast and aren’t close to the fighting, Alan Fine, a spokesman for the company, said in an e-mail. The company’s Morila mine produced more than 20 cent of Mali’s output in 2010, according to the USGS.

‘Breathing Time’

French air strikes 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.

“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 militants captured the central village of Diabaly, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday. He is scheduled to give an update at a press conference at 6:30 p.m. in Paris.

Nigerian Troops

Troops from the Economic Community of West African States’ planned 3,300-member force may start arriving tomorrow in Mali, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the community’s president, told reporters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

The commander of the West African troops will be Nigerian Major-General 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 e-mailed response to questions.

Nigeria has a technical team in Mali and troops will be deployed there before next week, President Goodluck Jonathan said on state-owned Radio Nigeria today. Defense ministers from Ecowas are meeting in Bamako today and leaders from the regional group will convene a summit on Jan. 19 in Ivory Coast’s capital, Abidjan.

Political Instability

Mali’s rebels exploited political instability in Bamako, following a March coup to seize control of the north. While the insurgents include Islamists such as Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’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.

The country ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality.

Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year and is forecast to expand 3 percent in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund, slower than the sub-Saharan African outlook of 5.25 percent.

“West Africa is the continent’s turbulent zone,” Manji Cheto, an analyst at London-based africapractice, which advises companies in Africa, said in an interview “Now we’re going to see a steady dry up of investment in the Sahel region.”

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