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The offensive carried out by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its affiliates in Mali is encountering stiff resistance as the French and their allies steadily increase their presence in the country. Facing extended supply lines, airstrikes, and superior firepower, the jihadists will soon be overwhelmed by French and Malian forces and will have no choice but to retreat into northern Mali. There, they will have to abandon their objective of controlling territory and adjust their tactics to preserve their ability to regroup and fight in the future.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb-affiliated militants on 17 January saw their attack on an Algerian energy facility end in a significant loss of life, for themselves as well as their hostages. Mokhtar Belmoktar, an exceptionally experienced jihadist commander who leads the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade, claimed responsibility for the hostage standoff crushed by Algerian security forces less than 24 hours after it began. Despite reports indicating that more than 30 foreign hostages were killed during the Algerian army's rescue operation, the mission was a success for Algiers and a failure for the jihadist group and its allies.
The assault was tailored less toward securing the safe release of the foreign energy workers and more toward showing all viewers - jihadists, the Algerian public and Western governments - that Algiers would not tolerate negotiations with militants, ransom payments or interference by foreign officials in its long-standing effort to prevent jihadists from undermining the Algerian government's stability. Regardless of whether the jihadists' attack was conducted by Belmoktar's brigade independently or in coordination with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leadership, the effort yielded a near total defeat: No ransom was paid, no hostages were exchanged, and no shift in the Malian intervention or Algeria's counterinsurgency policy was accomplished.
In Mali, where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb usurped an indigenous rebellion movement in 2012 and through it secured control over the country's entire northern region - an area the size of France and Spain combined - the jihadists are in jeopardy of seeing their goal of controlling territory upended. Having won some early victories by largely routing the Malian army and advancing to the central Malian towns of Diabaly and Konna, the jihadists now find themselves facing resistance from the strengthening intervention force.
French air power and ground troops, who now number more than a 1,000 in-country and are expected to soon reach 2,500, have reinforced Malian army elements, and they together have rushed troops to contain the western and eastern fronts of the jihadist offensive. In the coming days and weeks more than 5,000 West African troops - including more than 1,000 from Nigeria and 2,000 soldiers from Chad accustomed to desert warfare - will deploy to Bamako, transported by Western air forces including from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. Bamako will host the staging location from which African ground forces will launch offensive operations to drive back the jihadists.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its Malian proxies, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, have until now been able to employ highly mobile formations of roughly company-sized units using trucks with mounted weapons - and also armed with assault rifles, heavy machine guns - and light to medium mortars and rockets. These jihadist formations succeeded against a demoralised and ill-equipped Malian force with negligible air support.
The jihadists are fully aware, however, that their formations are highly vulnerable against a French force that can mass enormous firepower, especially when supported by air power. Already, we have seen the French successfully employ attack helicopters on Jan. 11 to cripple a jihadist convoy advancing near the central Malian town of Sevare, though jihadists remain in control of the nearby town of Konna.
Large jihadist formations and columns operating on open terrain - as is the case of much of northern Mali, with the exception of the mountainous Kidal region - are highly visible and thus vulnerable to airstrikes. Jihadists will attempt to assimilate among the indigenous population to counter the technical advantages held by the French and other intervention forces.
It is very likely that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its jihadist rebels in Mali will soon be forced to abandon their objective of comprehensive territorial control as well as its conventional warfare strategy. As the French and other intervention forces drive back the jihadists and consolidate security in central Mali, and then gradually push into northern Mali to deny that region as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the jihadists will have an opportunity to use their superior knowledge of the terrain, local indigenous militia relationships, and guerrilla tactics to inflict casualties on their enemies. Their fighting conduct will transition to a more dispersed insurgency that relies on ambushes, improvised explosive devices, and small-scale hit-and-run attacks. The jihadists will also rely on their networks among ethnic Tuareg rebel groups, whom for tactical fighting and intelligence purposes al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members deliberately married into in recent years.
The jihadists and their proxies cannot hope to win a conventional conflict against the French or the multinational African force backed by French and Western firepower and assistance. But al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can hope to outlast the interventionists and survive in their adopted home, and they indeed may have little choice, given the poor options for relocation in a region filled with similarly if not even more hostile governments.
The more painful the militants can make the push into northern Mali and subsequent pacification effort, the more they can hope to turn French, Western and African public opinion against the intervention in the country, and while doing so, preserve a base capability to survive for a future campaign.