Al Qaeda in Mali, overconfident because of its victory against the poorly trained and motived Malian army, made one of the classic mistakes of insurgency warfare: it attempted to fight a superior military force in open battle. As a result, France was easily able to pummel the rebel forces. However, having been driven from the cities, the terrorists/rebels are regrouping in the rural areas and pushing back. And the indications are that they will fall back on traditional guerrilla tactics. From Reuters:
Malian troops hunted house-to-house in Gao on Monday for Islamist insurgents whose attack inside the northern town at the weekend showed the risk that French forces might become entangled in a messy guerrilla war.Some further thoughts from Walter Russell Mead.
Sneaking across the Niger River under cover of darkness, the al Qaeda-allied rebels fought Malian and French troops on Sunday in the streets of the ancient Saharan trading town, retaken from the Islamists two weeks ago.
Malian Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara said three of the Islamist raiders were killed and 11 taken prisoner, while some Malian soldiers were wounded in the street fighting.
The brazenness of the rebel raid, which followed successive blasts by two suicide bombers at a northern checkpoint, was a surprise to the French-led military operation in Mali which had so far faced little real resistance from the Islamists.
"They took advantage of the two suicide attacks on Saturday and Sunday to infiltrate the town," Camara told a news conference in Bamako. "With young people desperate over their future, it is possible to take them and indoctrinate them to the point of sacrificing their own lives."
A doctor in Gao's hospital, Noulaye Djiteyi, said three civilians were killed and 11 wounded. The casualties were hit by stray bullets in the gun battle.
The attack indicated that the French forces, which number 4,000 soldiers on the ground, were vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks by the jihadists to the rear of their forward lines.
This article from Der Spiegel from January 28, 2013, describes the terrain that the Al Qaeda rebels call home:
Northern Mali is just one part of the vast hinterland in which the Islamists can hide. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius refers to the rocky and sandy desert, spanning 7,500 kilometers (about 4,700 miles) from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east, as "Sahelistan." The Sahel zone is larger than all of Europe and so impassable that no power in the world can fully control it. The French have deployed all of 2,400 troops to the region, the Germans have contributed two transport planes.
... The Sahel zone is a lawless region. It begins in the southern part of the Maghreb region of North Africa, where the power of the Arab countries begins to fade, and where the already weak sub-Saharan countries like Mali, Niger and Chad were never able to gain a foothold. It is a no-man's land honeycombed with smugglers' roads and drug routes, an El Dorado for the lawless and fanatics.
The war has become increasingly brutal. Although an Islamist faction from Kidal in northern Mali announced on Wednesday that it was willing to negotiate, there was also news of atrocities committed by the Malian army, which reportedly killed at least 30 people as it advanced northward. Eyewitnesses say that people were shot to death at the bus terminal in the central Malian town of Sévaré. An army lieutenant made no secret of his hatred for the insurgents, saying: "They were Islamists. We're killing them. If we don't they will kill us."
After the Arab spring and the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, many hoped that terrorism could finally be drawing to a close. But even former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi once predicted that chaos and holy war would erupt if he were toppled. "Bin Laden's people would take over the country," Gadhafi said.
Now it is becoming apparent that his prophecy applies to even larger swathes of the desert. The crisis in northern Mali and the ensuing bloodbath at the natural gas plant in Algeria are only two indications. In northern Niger, Islamists are targeting white foreigners, hoping to kidnap them and extort ransom money. In northern Nigeria, fighters with the Islamist sect Boko Haram attacked yet another town last week. They shot and killed 18 people, including a number of hunters who had been selling game there, and then disappeared again. Muslims consider the flesh of bush animals to be impure.