Timbuktu has come under attack by Islamic militants again.
Last month, I met with then-French Ambassador to Mali Christian Rouyer, who told me that “French troops will stay [in Mali] until the job is finished.”
But French President Francois Hollande stated Thursday that French troops in Mali would be reduced from 4,000 to 2,000 by the end of July, and to 1,000 by the end of the year. Mr. Hollande previously had stated that French troops would not leave until a U.N. peacekeeping force was in place.
Currently, the French are helping train the Malian army and troops from neighboring African countries for a counterinsurgency operation, should the Islamists return.But events can have a way of changing even the best-laid plans.
When I was in Timbuktu two weeks ago, an Islamist suicide bomber detonated his belt at a checkpoint near the outskirts of town. In the ensuing gunbattle, seven jihadists were killed and one was captured; seven Malian soldiers were wounded and one was killed.
Security in Timbuktu has since been tightened at all the checkpoints leading to the 13th century town, which once served as the leading Islamic cultural center.
Timbuktu’s townspeople had been subjected to brutality by Islamists who had controlled the town and surrounding villages for more than 11 months. During that time, the Islamists destroyed several 15th and 16th century Sufi shrines, and burned 4,000 rare Islamic manuscripts. Several village leaders told me that they were thankful the French troops had liberated their towns.
Then last weekend, Islamists affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) again attacked Timbuktu.
I contacted Mayor Mahamadou Toure of the village Bourem Sidi-Amar, located near Timbuktu, Sunday night, and he told me what had happened.
The incursion by the Islamists started late Saturday with a suicide bomber who blew himself up at a west Timbuktu checkpoint on the road that leads to Bourem. The guerrilla attack was used to distract the Malian military, allowing insurgents to infiltrate Timbuktu.
The Islamists had crossed the Gadhafi Canal behind the Hotel Colombe, where I had stayed two weeks ago, and proceeded to the nearby Cheick Sidi Bekaye Military Camp, where a battle ensued with Malian soldiers. The exchange of gunfire lasted throughout the night.
On Sunday morning, another jihadist blew himself up in the Koiratao district of Timbuktu. French Mirage jets soon arrived, seeking out the embedded insurgents. Reports indicated one Malian soldier was killed at the checkpoint, and four were injured.
Government sources late Sunday reported 21 Islamists had been killed during the weekend fighting. The insurgents apparently were focused on the military, not the people, in Timbuktu.
The Islamists’ bold attacks show how vulnerable Timbuktu and other northern towns continue to be, with AQIM still embedded in Mali’s vast desert.
Since the French coalition forces dispersed the Islamists into the northern desert, the guerrilla-style attacks have become more prevalent and aimed at the military. Control of the northern towns is no longer in the hands of the Islamists, but they have not left the region. It appears they are intent on inflicting casualties on the military.
We can expect more suicide bombings, as the Islamists use their hit-and-run style of attacks.
France’s decision to reduce its military presence in Mali’s northern frontier may prove to be too early. The French may need to rethink their exit strategy.
• John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.