Islamist Militants Expand Their Area of Control
Over the summer of 2012, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine, another radical Islamist group, took advantage of the instability and an increasingly weak military and captured Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. The groups briefly allied themselves with the Tuareg rebels, but severed ties and declared the northern part of the country an Islamic state. They implemented and brutally enforced Shariah, or Islamic law. They also destroyed many ancient books and manuscripts and vandalized tombs, saying that worshipping saints violated the tenets of Islam. The Islamists continued to stretch their area of control into the fall, prompting concern that legions of Islamists would gather and train in northern Mali and threaten large swaths of Africa. ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) began planning a military action to reclaim the north from the Islamists. However, by January 2013, the militants had pushed into the southern part of the country, crossing into the area controlled by the government. France sent about 2,150 troops to Mali to push them back. In addition to launching airstrikes on militant strongholds, France also deployed ground troops to combat the stubborn fighters. By the end of January, French troops had pushed the militants out of Gao and Timbuktu, forcing them back to northern Mali. Soldiers from other African nations were also deployed to Mali to aid in the effort and will take a more active role in both combat and training Malian troops once France withdraws from Mali.
On Jan. 16, 2013, Islamic militants entered neighboring Algeria from Mali and took dozens of foreign hostages at the BP-controlled In Amenas gas field. Algerian officials said the militants were members of an offshoot of al-Qaeda called Al Mulathameen and were acting in retaliation for France's intervention in Mali. On Jan. 17, Algerian troops stormed the complex and attacked the kidnappers. By the end of the standoff on Jan. 20, 29 militants and 37 hostages were killed. Three Americans were among the dead.
The UN Security Council voted in April to deploy about 12,000 troops and police officers to Mali to stabilize the northern region, oversee the return to civilian rule, and to train Malian soldiers so the country's armed forces can resume security of the country. The troops arrived in early July 2013.
The Tuaregs, the nomadic rebels who had taken over parts of the north, signed a ceasefire with the government in June 2013. They agreed to cede control of Kidal in the north. The peace deal set the stage for presidential elections, which were a prerequisite for an infusion of about $4 billion in international aid. The first round of the election was held in July, despite concern that the country was ill-prepared for them. Voting was largely peaceful. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a former prime minister and president of the National Assembly, won 39.2% of the vote, and former finance minister Soumaïla Cissé took 19.4%, necessitating a second round. Keita won in a landslide in the second round, which was held in August.
In May 2014, Mara visited the northern towns of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. While Timbuktu and Gao have been mostly peaceful after the ceasefire was signed between the government and the Tuareg rebels, Kidal remains a rebel stronghold and a tinderbox, and rebels shot at him when he arrived. Mara called the provocation a "declaration of war," and about 1,500 Malian troops were dispatched to Kidal and attacked the rebels. The military was outmatched by the rebels, who killed 50 troops, took 50 prisoner, and captured a government fort in Kidal. Hundreds of troops surrendered. Defense Minister Soumeylou Boybeye Maiga resigned after the attack.