A powerful southern offensive by Islamists in Mali last week, halted only by French air strikes, showed that a loose alliance of rebels from al Qaeda’s North African wing and local groups has been united by the threat of foreign intervention.
When the coalition of Islamists swept across northern Mali last year, massacring army troops and carving up the vast desert zone, ties between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and local groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA had looked opportunistic, and regional mediators believed they could prize them apart.
Some fighters imposed strict Islamic law and recruited foreigners and locals hungry for jihad, others framed the conflict around local Malian tribal politics and religion, while criminal networks smuggling drugs and contraband joined the fray, earning them the title “gangster jihadists”.
With Mali’s army crippled by political divisions and a series of defeats to rebels that led to a March coup, West African mediators tried to divide the rebels by offering talks to local Islamists while excluding foreigners, extremists and criminals.
U.N. backing in December for an African-led intervention due later this year changed the picture.
“People in the north don’t have any choice now but to stand together,” said Algabass Ag Intallah, a senior member of Ansar Dine, a group that only last month had committed to peace talks with Mali’s government. “This is an aggression. We all have to defend ourselves.”
The seizure by Islamists of the northern two-thirds of Mali, for decades one of West Africa’s most stable democracies, sowed fears that its desert dunes and craggy mountain ranges could become a base for terrorist attacks on Europe.
Yet as Islamists severed limbs, silenced music and smashed traditional Sufi shrines in the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu—acts reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban—Malians and foreign powers wavered throughout 2012.
Some governments advocated dialogue to tackle the long-standing political grievances of those living in Mali’s under-developed north. Others, led by France, called for swift military action to stamp out a security threat, finally winning U.N. backing for an African-led operation.
These divisions evaporated lat week with the united rebel advance on the central town of Konna, a gateway toward the southern capital Bamako, deemed so dangerous that Paris reversed pledges not to intervene directly. The African force, which had not been expected until September, is being hastily rolled out.
Even Algeria, which had previously hoped to unravel the coalition by enticing Ansar Dine into peace talks, dropped its opposition to military intervention, allowing French Rafale jets to fly via its airspace to pound the rebels.
Mali and other countries in the region say scores of fanatical foreign fighters have flocked to the north. Independent reports on their numbers and their origin vary wildly.
“The numbers I have heard range from 100s to 1,000s, so it is clear that no one has much of a clue,” a senior Western security official told Reuters.
A Reuters correspondent travelling in Gao in the weeks before the French intervention reported at least three white Westerners in the Islamist ranks there.
French officials have said about 10 of its citizens have been arrested trying to reach Mali to join the rebels. Late last year, the FBI arrested two U.S. citizens they said were planning to travel to West Africa to carry out jihad.
Officials and residents say MUJWA, based in the eastern town of Gao, has succeeded in recruiting black Africans from Mali and elsewhere in the West African region in a way AQIM never did.
The West African official involved in the mediation process called it a “gangrene” that had been underestimated.
Marc Trevidic, France’s top anti-terrorism judge, warned that Mali was the first case of jihad in sub-Saharan Africa.
“For the first time there is a ‘black jihad’: a jihad done for blacks by blacks,” he told Reuters, saying its militants were both West Africans and dual nationals able to move freely in and out of France.
Paris is concerned at the ability of African Muslims, some of whom have dual nationality, to move between France and the region.
“That is the number one potential threat. It is the number one enemy to France,” he said.