In less than a week, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda's official branch in North Africa, has launched three attacks in central Mali. The attacks, which left a total of eight dead, signal a both a sharp increase in violence as well as new operational trends for AQIM in Mali.
On Jan. 5, AQIM attacked the town of Nampala near the Mauritanian border (see map above). The attack, which nearly lasted for about seven hours according to Reuters,killed seven Malian troops. The militants were forced to retreat after the Malian army sent reinforcements to the town. But, that didn't stop AQIM. Just two days later, AQIM attacked the town of Dioura just south of Nampala. The militants were forced to retreat, but killed one civilian before doing so. The next day, AQIM attacked a Malian military base in Teninkou which is south of the two aforementioned towns. This attack was said to be a probing attack to test the response of the Malian military. If the response wasn't strong enough for AQIM, it could possible a new attack on the base could be imminent.
It would appear that AQIM is regrouping and refocusing on central Mali, after being forced out of the center and into the north (and eventually all the major cities in the north) in 2013. The jihadist group appears to have came up with a new strategy for the center. They aren't looking to regain any territory, but instead are looking to repeatedly launch attacks against Malian forces. Indeed, they are looking to do these "mosquito bite" attacks beforeescaping into Wagadou Forest near the Mauritanian border. AQIM has pursued a similar strategy in the past before being kicked out of the forest by Malian and Mauritanian forces in 2011.
It is likely this will continue until Malian and allied forces can regroup and administer appropriate security measures to rid AQIM of a safe haven in the forest. According to Mali Jet, Malian reinforcements are already being sent to area; however, it is unknown if they plan on an operation for the forest. Mali Jet did quote a Malian official who said that a new strategy will be coming in the near future.
Attacks by other al Qaeda groups
Al Murabitoon, the alliance between Mokhtar Belmokhtar's al Mulathameen Brigade and Ahmed el Tilemsi's faction of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), has also conducted several attacks in the past week. The first attack was on Jan. 3 in which several fighters on motorcycles ambushed a Tuareg leader and his son, killing them both. On Jan. 4, six Nigerian peacekeepers were wounded after hitting an IED on the Menaka-Ansongo axis.
On Jan. 6, the UN was targeted by an IED in Gao. While three days later, the nearby town of Ansongo was hit with rocket fire; al Murabitoon has claimed both attacks. Also on Jan. 9, seven Senegalese peackeepers were wounded near Kidal after running over an IED. No group has claimed responsibility, but Ansar Dine,the local wing of AQIM, has been accused of laying most mines and IED's in the Kidal region.
The sharp uptick in violence in 2015 suggests the jihadists in Mali have stepped up their operations against the French-led counterterrorism mission. How long this uptick will last remains to be seen.