Xan Rice talks to Mathieu Guidère, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toulouse and an expert on radical networks. He has closely followed the Islamist insurgency in Mali

Q: What is the fighting strength of the three Islamist rebel groups in northern Mali?

A: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) has two brigades, each with 400 to 500 fighters. They are mainly based in northwest Mali, and are very well organised. They are mostly Arabs [from the region] and some foreign fighters. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) has 300 to 400 fighters. They are more radical than Aqim and committed to global jihad. Ansar Dine is made up mostly of Mali Tuaregs. It has between 6,000 and 10,000 members, but not all real fighters. So in total there are 10,000 to 12,000 men [in the rebel ranks]. Out of that, there is a solid core of 3,000 to 4,000 trained fighters.

Q: What sort of weapons do the rebels have and how did they get them?

A: It happened in three stages. The first lot of weapons came out of Libya in 2011 [when Muammer Gaddafi’s regime was falling and Malians who had fought for him returned home], mainly from military bases near Sabha in the south of Libya. These were conventional weapons, including AK-47s and other guns and vehicles. These were used at the start of the rebellion in Mali in 2012.

The next stage happened when the Malian army was defeated from January to April last year. The Islamists took military vehicles and equipment when the soldiers fled. These included anti-aircraft guns and other artillery that was not so modern or efficient. The third stage happened from August last year when the international community started discussing potential intervention in Mali. All these [Islamist] groups were using their financial resources, especially money from kidnapping and drug smuggling, to buy new modern weapons on the African black market, from Libya to Nigeria. They were buying all they could find. They spent a lot of money on weapons to use against aeroplanes and helicopters, like surface to air missiles.

Q: What else did the rebels do to prepare for an attack on them?

A: They have been preparing for an invasion since August, when the international community and especially France started talking about taking action. They made fortifications around their bases and held training camps. They also created deposits of weapons, hiding them in different places for later use. The third measure was to make contact with people in other countries, like Somalia and Algeria, as well as northern Nigeria [where there is an Islamist insurgency]. They had enough recruits, including children under 18, but they were looking for commanders. So you now have a Nigerian commanding a fighting unit in Mali.

Q: What is the rebels’ capacity to resist foreign intervention?

A: As long as there are air strikes, and the Islamists are in the desert, it is easy to hit them and kill them. The problem will be when the French air strikes end or diminish, and the rebels are no longer in the [open] desert. They can merge among the populations [in the northern towns], and start an insurgency, like in Afghanistan or Somalia. That will be more dangerous. They can also shelter in the mountains in northeast Mali [north of Gao], where it will be difficult to hit them. In ground fighting, the Islamists can resist anybody. They know the area, and how to use civilians for protection.

Get alerts on Mali when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article