First recorded suicide bombing reported in Mali

The Long War Journal states that a suicide bombing, the first reported in the conflict raging in the West African nation of Mali, has been reported in the town of Gao. The attacker appears to have failed to effectively destroy his intended target, having merely wounded a Malian soldier and killed only himself. The LWJ also reports that the incident has been claimed by the ‘Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa’ (MUJAO). This organization was apparently added to the United States list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations this past December. 

LWJ states that the town of Gao was under the control of MUJAO until the intervention of French troops this past month. More interestingly, the association of the group to al-Qaeda was burgeoned by its naming of the individual battalions claimed under its authority for top al-Qaeda leaders.

Recent reports have indicated the influx of foreign fighters into Mali, indicating that al-Qaeda may be reinforcing the presence of an associated group in order to heighten both the kinetic nature of the battle and to attempt to demonstrate momentum to potential jihadist recruits. The decimation of high-level al-Qaeda leadership (most specifically in eastern Afghanistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas {FATA} of Pakistan, eastern Africa {notably Somalia}, and the Arabian peninsula in countries like Yemen) appears to have worked to the disadvantage of al-Qaeda; their recent high-profile foray into support of African jihadist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb due to the dramatically de-stabilized environment emerging in the wake of the Arab spring specifically in Libya, indicates a bit of a change in strategy. It is possible that al-Qaeda is suffering from recruitment problems in the Hindu-Kush and the movement of major operations to areas such as West Africa is an assessment shared by many analysts. A report published by the Washington Post on January 28 stated that significant numbers of foreigners, specifically those speaking Arabic, were found to have entered Mali as ‘commanders’. Malian soldiers reported that Malian jihadists acted as interpreters for these Arabic-speaking leaders who were reported to maintain an element of bodyguards (senior leaders with as many as six guards). That story is available at The Washington Post.

Unfortunately only in the coming days, weeks, and months of Islamist efforts to control countries like Mali will we have a better understanding of where al-Qaeda appears to have adjusted their strategy and how a change in tactics (such as suicide bombings in Africa) may follow. The presence of French troops has been a boon to the Malian government’s effort to re-establish security (and their own legitimacy) and the presence of the French appears only to be in an effort to head-off the insurgency’s movement towards the capital of Bamako, likely resulting in failed-state status in the aftermath. It is unknown how long the French can sustain domestic political support for the presence of French military in the West African nation but as of the present time, the French presence appears to have stunted the movement of al-Qaeda supported insurgency groups towards the capital and has found widespread support from the Malian population.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here:


  1. Eric Jones Eric says:

    John Bertetto brought up an outstanding point:

    ‘Using a consistent line of thinking, it’s hard to argue the necessity of operations in A’stan and do nothing in Mali.’

    1. Eric Jones Eric says:

      I discussed this very point with Masai. Speaking even just in geo-strategic terms, it appears that al-Qaeda may in fact be ‘spreading the battlefield’ a bit, running from being squeezed in eastern Afghanistan, opening up another large front in the war, seeking new pools of recruitment, getting away from where US military and intelligence technology is capable of tracking them, or all of the above.

      It’s obvious at least in the recent articles that I’ve read on the conflict that the ‘foreign forces’ tend to be Arabic-speaking ‘advisors’ that act more in a guidance role than participate in operations. This appears to me to be an adjustment of al-Qaeda to their own counterinsurgency strategy: they began to see blowback in places like Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan for their heavy-handedness with the local population. This whittling-away of their vital support network possibly demanded that they change up their location a bit… and stop ticking off the locals that conceal their presence, provide the base of their fighting force in the localized insurgencies in places like Kunar Province, Afghanistan, and ensure a friendly place to train away from the 24/7 onslaught of America’s overhead all-seeing eye.

    2. It’s clearly a benefit to terror operations that they are not reliant on state sponsorship. In fact, it’s the failed state that provides the most fertile ground. This makes them highly mobile – provided that their remain failed states within which to operate. As a tenant of strategic counterterrorism it should be a primary effort of governments like our own to establish strong diplomatic ties with unstable nations in order to prevent state failure. This is a policy of denial.

      In municipal LE we already spend a great deal of time focusing on the “failed state” aspect, reflected in a focus on “Broken Windows” policing, quality of life enforcement methods, and community policing partnerships with other GOs and NGOs in the community. Where we could do with some more effort – similar to how the US government could do with some more effort – is with a policy of denial, as in denying safe havens and recruiting locations.

      To be clear, these are strategic efforts. They do not replace the need for tactical efforts to address real problems as they exist and pose threats today.

      1. Eric Jones Eric says:

        Great point. Al-Qaeda feeds most fervently off of failed states. For those reading who don’t know, defined loosely, a ‘failed state’ is a country where the government cannot provide for the basic needs of the population, where the state cannot act in the international system in accordance with normal, accepted conventions, and has little legitimate authority in areas of security and governance among the population.

        Al-Qaeda exists strongest in areas where governance is eroded. In these areas, they are largely free to operate as they wish. The lack of a strong government allows them freedom of movement, territorial dominance, and de-facto control over the local population by delivering some of the services that the government fails at providing. Think Yemen, Somalia, western Pakistan, and eastern Afghanistan.

        Their efforts to dislodge and unseat the Malian central government is an effort to gain control of a large swath of territory in Africa where the US currently does not have a major hub of operations. They understand much of our capabilities and in an effort to conceal themselves, appear to be moving to the Sahel… where the US is decidedly somewhat lacking engagement at the moment (though that may change as the situation in Mali evolves).