French troops have entered Kidal, the last Islamist bastion in northern Mali to be recaptured in a whirlwind French-led offensive amid reports the militants have regrouped in remote hills near Algeria.
DW: Is it too early to say the Islamists have been beaten?
Kayla Branson: I definitely think it's too early to say. Well, it depends what your definition of being beaten is. In terms of ousting the radical Islamists from the North fully, that certainly remains to be seen. The French strategic gains over Timbuktu as well as Gao clearly are a positive indication of the operations thus far. But I don't think we should overstate the victory as of yet. These groups have been in control of the northern territory since the beginning of last year. And there is a great risk that they may try to embed themselves into the local population, given their long-standing time in the region.
What do you expect will be the Islamists' next move?
It's very hard to tell what their specific response will be to the current operations by the French and Malian military. But they have repeatedly - for at least the past six months – threatened retaliatory attacks against any country that's involved in the military intervention. And they've particularly made reference to France, knowing that it essentially spearheaded the ECOWAS effort to launch the operation into the northern region. So I do think that there is a great risk of retaliatory attacks, but as to their specific plans, this remains unclear. It's been interesting to note that the fact that there's been a lack of direct confrontation with these Islamist groups during the recapture of Gao and Timbuktu may be an indication that perhaps the operations have led the Islamist groups to retreat further north.
How well do the French and ECOWAS troops know their enemy?
Initial public statements from French officials seemed to indicate that they might have underestimated how well-equipped and well-trained these groups are.
To what extent is the desert terrain helping the Islamists?
Based on current indications and our research, many of these groups including the relatively native Ansar Dine – it's dominated largely by Tuaregs – have a strong familiarity with the desert region. And it increases essentially the risk of a protracted conflict, because they have such a strong familiarity and because even groups such as AQIM Sahel factions have been operating in the border areas for several years now, whether it's related to smuggling or other criminal activities in general. And we can't really rule out kinship networks and support bases across the area as well. Not only do they have the native kin ties such as Ansar Dine. There have been inter-marriages between the local population and these terrorist factions.
Last week the Tuaregs split from the Ansar Dine Islamist group. How significant was the move in efforts to reconquer northern Mali?
That remains to be seen just because there has been such a level of fluidity between these groups and such a level of fluidity in terms of the cooperation between these groups and the apparent resource sharing that's taken place. So in terms of weakening the Islamists' side that's a bit unclear. But what it does indicate is that members of Ansar Dine, which is a Tuareg group that essentially has more of a legitimate claim to the Malian state than any of these foreign terrorist organizations, are more open to dialogue, seeking a negotiated settlement and things of that nature. .
Kayla Branson is an intelligence analyst with the Risk Advisory Group in Dubai
Interview: Asumpta Lattus