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Islamists in Mali today threatened to launch attacks "at the heart of France" after the European nation began military operations to free northern Mali from militants in a campaign that the French foreign minister said would take "a matter of weeks."
Abou Dardar, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the Islamist groups operating in Mali, told Agence France-Presse today that "France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France."
When asked where the group would strike, he said "Everywhere. In Bamako [Mali's capital], in Africa, and in Europe." He also said that his group, which has ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would "make a statement" today on eight French hostages held in the region by Islamists.
The threat comes after a weekend of French airstrikes on Islamist targets in Mali. On Jan. 11, France – which controlled Mali from the late 1800s to 1960 – announced that it had committed its forces to a military intervention to stop the Islamists' southern advance toward Bamako, which Malian troops have been unable to halt. AFP reports that the French have bombed Islamist bases across the country, killing scores of militants and reportedly driving them out of Gao, northern Mali's main city. Reuters reports, however, that the militants have launched a counterattack in the town of Diabaly in central Mali.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today that the French military effort would last "a matter of weeks," and did not signal a long-term presence in the country. The Financial Times reports that he said France has "no intention of staying forever," though he did not rule out a later return as "back-up" for Mali. The Financial Times notes that although several hundred French troops have been deployed to Bamako and the city of Mopti, they are not expected to be part of a ground offensive. Rather, they are expected to provide support to a combination of Mali's army and a mixture of West African forces committed to help by the regional Economic Community Of West African States bloc.
But the French campaign may prove to be more involved than planned. The Monitor reported yesterday that while the bombing campaign has so far proven effective in driving the Islamists back, "few believe that airpower alone will be enough to uproot what many analysts consider to be a well-armed and battle-hardened adversary."
In fact, a presidential official quoted by the Agence France Presse said that French armed forces were surprised by the military capacity of the Islamist militants.
"At the start, we thought they would be just a load of guys with guns driving about in their pick-ups, but the reality is that they are well-trained, well-equipped, and well-armed,” the official told AFP. "From Libya they have got hold of a lot of up-to-date sophisticated equipment which is much more robust and effective than we could have imagined," he continued, alluding to weapons that were smuggled into Mali after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.
"The French military participation may be limited, but whatever happens this is going to take a very, very long time. We're talking about an area the size of Spain," Mr. Doyle said. "The Islamists will no doubt be scared of these aerial bombardments, but that doesn't change the situation on the ground really until there is political stability in Mali and the Malian army can ultimately regain control of its own country, and the Malian army is, not to be too impolite about it, not very well organized at all."
Doyle also noted that the Islamist forces number in the thousands, and are spread across the whole of the Malian north, which is part of the Sahara desert.
France is receiving non-military support for its Malian campaign from both Britain and the United States. Although British Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized that there would be no British troops deployed on the ground in Mali, he did commit a pair of huge cargo planes to aid the French efforts, reports the BBC. And Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the US has offered France intelligence, logistical support, and in-flight refueling capabilities.