On Saturday, January 11, a French hostage and two soldiers were killed during a secret service rescue mission in Somalia just as the French military continued air strikes in Mali to push back Islamist extremists that have been linked with al-Qaeda.
The BBC has reported that amid these operations, French President Francois Hollande has ordered an increase in domestic security, saying there’s now an increased risk of a terrorist attack.
With Islamist militants controlling more than half of the northwest African nation of Mali and threatening the rest of government-held territory, France launched airstrikes in a dramatic escalation of the conflict that some observers have called the next Afghanistan.
A Wall Street Journal report said that although France asserts that the hostage was killed by Somali Islamists, al-Shabaab, the group that kidnapped the hostage in 2009, said he was still alive. At least one French commando was killed as part of the rescue mission, although another one remains missing. At least seventeen al-Shabaab fighters were also killed. Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was a “coincidence” that the Mali operation came as France conducted the helicopter raid in Somalia to free the French hostage
The raid, which took place early Saturday in Somalia could have been aimed at preventing al-Shabab fighters from harming the kidnapped French security official in reprisal for the French military intervention in Mali. A Somali intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the case with the news media, said the raid in Bulomarer killed “several” al-Shabab fighters but he had no information on the hostage. Meanwhile, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was a “coincidence” that the Mali operation came as France conducted the helicopter raid in Somalia to free the French hostage.
The raid in Somalia was swift and loud, local residents said. “We heard a series of explosions followed by gunfire just seconds after a helicopter flew over the town,” Mohamed Ali, a resident of Bulomarer, told The Associated Press by phone. “We don’t know exactly what happened but the place was an al-Shabab base and checkpoint.”
According to an Associated Press report, while France worked to push back the Islamist extremists, West African countries agreed to speed up their plans to deploy troops in order to prevent the group from broadening its power base. The decision by France to engage in the conflict commenced when the extremists, who had seized the northern end of Mali nine months ago, decided to move south, raising fears that Islamists could soon take over the entire country. “The risk is the creation of a terrorist state at the doorstep of Europe and France,” Le Drian said.
Hollande said the “terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists” in northern Mali “show a brutality that threatens us all.” He vowed that the operation would last “as long as necessary.” France said it was taking the action in Mali at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants’ advance. The arrival of the French troops in their former colony came a day after the Islamists moved the closest yet toward territory still under government control and fought the Malian military for the first time in months, seizing the strategic city of Konna.
Sanda Abou Moahmed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine group, condemned Mali’s president for seeking military help from its former colonizer. “While Dioncounda Traore asked for help from France, we ask for guidance from Allah and from other Muslims in our sub-region because this war has become a war against the crusaders,” he said from Timbuktu.
France’s actions in targeting extremists endanger the lives of eight nationals currently being held by Islamists, according to a Reuters report. Islamist rebel groups said there would be consequences for France’s intervention. “France will pay the price for this action,” a spokesman for the Islamist militants told FRANCE 24. “We are not weak. We have crushed France in Afghanistan. We don’t have aircraft or missiles but we have our religious beliefs, which will guide us to victory, God willing.”
The French president has said that because its domestic terror threat level has been escalated, he made assurances to increase protection at public buildings and transportation networks. France has some of the world’s most recognizable monuments and a wide-ranging national transportation network. Like the U.S., it also has an organized government response if there are specific fears of a terrorist attack.
Speaking from Paris on Saturday, President Hollande said, “French armed forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements.” He did not give any details of the operation, other than to say that it was aimed in part at protecting the 6,000 French citizens in Mali.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the AP that Senegal and Nigeria also responded to an appeal from Mali’s president for help to counter the militants. Residents in central Mali said they had seen Western military personnel arriving in the area, with planes landing at a nearby airport throughout the night. Colonel Abdrahmane Baby, a military operations adviser for the foreign affairs ministry, confirmed in the Malian capital of Bamako that French forces had arrived in the country but gave no details. “They are here to assist the Malian army,” he told reporters.
Traore went on national television Friday night to declare the state of emergency, saying it would remain in effect for 10 days and could be renewed. “The situation on the front is over all under control,” he said, calling on mining companies and non-government organizations to turn their trucks over to Malian military, raising questions about the army’s ability.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by events in Mali, and that Washington was closely consulting with Paris. She said neither France nor Mali has asked for U.S. military assistance.
France has led a diplomatic push for international action in northern Mali but efforts to get an African-led force together, or to train the weak Malian army, have dragged.