THE WORLDPOST
09/30/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2013

Timbuktu Suicide Bombing Raises Fears Of Renewed Violence In Mali

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BAMAKO, Mali -- A spate of violence in Mali's restive north has triggered new fears that Islamist rebels, weakened during a French military intervention earlier in the year, could be resurgent, although analysts caution that local politics may play a greater role in the renewed tensions.

The first attack, a Saturday suicide bombing, left four civilians dead, as well as the two bombers, who blew up their vehicle in front of a Malian military base on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Two soldiers were also reported wounded in the attack, the first suicide bombing in the desert city since a March incident killed a single Malian soldier.

On Sunday and Monday, violence also spiked in the northern city of Kidal, where government control has proven more elusive since the French intervention.

The French military arrived in Mali in January as part of a unilateral effort to prevent the surprising, and rapid, spread of Islamist rebels beyond the northern region of the country. The Islamist militants, which included a branch of al-Qaeda known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had joined forces with local separatists primarily from the Tuareg ethnic minority.

Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups have shown stubborn persistence in Africa, despite Western attempts at intervention. Earlier in September, another such organization, al-Shabab, orchestrated a devastating four-day siege of a popular shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that left dozens of citizens dead.

Since securing a swift victory against the Islamist militants in Mali, most of whom fled into the rugged, empty desert regions in the northern part of the country rather than fight, the French have begun withdrawing from remote posts and turning them over to the Malian military. Earlier this month, visiting Mali's capital city of Bamako, French President François Hollande confidently declared that the French and Malian militaries had "won this war, we have chased out the terrorists, we have secured the north."

But many fear that the Malian military is not fully prepared to maintain control of that region.

One potential indication of disarray within the military arose Monday at the Kati military area, outside of Bamako, where several rogue soldiers reportedly seized a senior officer at gunpoint and were holding him in an unknown location.

The violence in the north also comes ahead of a new round of political negotiations between the central government, based in Bamako, and the Tuareg separatists in the north -- a factor that some observers suggest likely plays a greater role in the spiking violence than any al-Qaeda influence.

Last week, the main Tuareg rebel groups pulled out of a national reconciliation peace deal, saying the central government had not lived up to its side of the bargain.

"These attacks are a way for them to put more pressure on the negotiations," said Madou Diallo, a law professor at Bamako University and an adviser to Mali's national parliament. "I don't think it's a sign of the resurgent jihadists, although they are still there for sure."

A spokesman for the Malian military, Cmdr. Madibo Niaman Traore, downplayed the violence as primarily linked to criminal activity and evidence of the weakness of the rebel fighting groups.

"They see that their movement and means are very limited, so they are just making these attacks to remind the people that they exist and frighten them, " Traore told The Huffington Post, adding that the attacks in Kidal may have simply been part of an attempted robbery of a local bank.

Nevertheless, as French troops draw down, the incomplete effort to sweep Islamist fighters from the north and to broker a final peace deal with local separatist groups has many analysts expecting the violence in Mali to continue to spike.

"Anybody who's studied the history of rebellions in the North says the most dangerous period is when agreements are being negotiated and implemented," said Bruce Whitehouse, a Lehigh University anthropologist and longtime Mali resident and analyst. "I expect it to be the source of continued instability in the months to come. I'm only surprised it didn't happen sooner."

Soumaila Guindo contributed reporting.

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