Analysis: The murky motives behind Mali's crisis

The small Islamist groups would find it near impossible to take the whole of Mali

France's intervention to stop the advance of Islamic Jihadi in Mali has similarities with French action to protect the people of Benghazi from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya two years ago. In both cases the motives of all players in the crisis are more complicated than they publicly pretend.

Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) is demonised as threat to France and Europe because it might establish a Taliban type regime in Mali.

But Aqim has never launched a single attack in France or Europe since it was established in 1998. Its activities in the vast wastelands of the Sahel have been confined almost entirely to smuggling cigarettes and cocaine and kidnapping foreigners.

Aqim may hold the official al-Qa'ida franchise but the movement, founded in Algeria as a breakaway from an even more ferocious Islamic revolutionary group, has always been suspected of links with Algerian intelligence.

It still has some hardcore bastions in the Kabylia in northern Algeria, but its nucleus migrated south more than 10 years ago. It was previously under pressure from Colonel Gaddafi, who maintained a sort of order on Libya's southern flank, but this disappeared with his fall. It has money and has probably recruited some foreign Jihadi wishing to wage a holy war.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the al-Qa'ida-linked Ansar Dine are the two Tuareg groups that took over northern Mali – an area the size of France – in April 2012. The MNLA, the more secular and nationalist of the groups, wants independence for a homeland for the Tuareg ethnic group.

Ansar Dine, led by a famous Tuareg rebel, Ag Ghaly, joined hands with the smaller Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) to brush aside the MNLA. The Islamist parties achieved notoriety by banning music, for which Mali is famous, and destroying ancient Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. These movements have their sponsors, open and covert.

Morocco has been enthusiastic for foreign intervention in Mali, probably as part of its rivalry with Algeria for influence in the region.

Algeria has opposed intervention by France in the past and has always been more concerned by ethnic separatists, like the MNLA, than it is by fundamentalist Islam.

Many of the MNLA fighters were previously with Colonel Gaddafi, who opposed Tuareg separatism, but offered opportunities for Tuareg in his security forces. For all the rapid advances and retreats in this war, the two Islamist groups have only an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 fighters and the MNLA about the same numbers. The great majority of Mali's 15 million people live in the south far from the empty lands of the north.

The small Islamist groups would find it near impossible to take the whole of Mali, which is the size of South Africa, despite French protestations to the contrary. But the vastness of the country also means that the central government, even with French air support, will have difficulty in eliminating the Islamists.

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