Mali’s mountains: an “impenetrable safe haven” for jihadists?

For much of the past three weeks, French and Chadian ground forces have ventured slowly but surely into the heart of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains (a.k.a. Adrar des Iforas/Tigharghar mountains) of northeastern Mali, seeking to neutralize Islamist militants and rescue seven French captives thought to be held there by Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb.


Map of Kidal region, including Adrar des Ifoghas
By © Bourrichon (talk) – fr:Bourrichon [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The bad news

As many have been quick to note, however, the inhospitable terrain of these remote jagged peaks presents a challenge for counterinsurgency forces.

A recent Stratfor report gives us a grim geography primer:

The real challenges in this area are the steep, craggy hills and valleys. The rough topography is strewn with riverbeds, or wadis, that are dry most of the year but still cut through the landscape. This broken terrain favors an established defender by making movement physically harder for personnel and mechanically restrictive on vehicles. It makes navigation difficult and limits line of sight, which is critical for employing any weapon system, including third-party platforms used for observation, such as unmanned aerial vehicles. This terrain also funnels movement, making travel routes more predictable and allowing those who understand the terrain to set up more effective ambushes.

Referring more obliquely to these physical barriers, some reports have gone as far as to label Adrar des Ifoghas “Africa’s Tora Bora,” a “perfect place for a guerrilla army,” or an “impenetrable safe haven.”

To paint an even darker picture, reports indicate the jihadist rebels had been anticipating and preparing for foreign intervention for several months. While in control of northern Mali, they constructed tunnels, identified strategic hideouts, and literally used bulldozers to build formidable defenses deep in the heart of the Tigharghar. According to one observer prior to the intervention: “The Islamists have dug tunnels, made roads, they’ve brought in generators, and solar panels in order to have electricity. They live inside the rocks.” (More recently, it was discovered the rebels were stockpiling tons upon tons of weapons.)

The physical difficulty of the terrain, combined with the Islamist triumvirate’s (AQIM, Ansar Dine, MUJAO) familiarity with the area, suggests that the advantage in this counterinsurgency fight goes to the insurgent.

The good news

Not so fast. Fortunately, for several reasons, the campaign in the mountains is not likely to be as bleak as some suggest:

1)      Northern Mali is not Tora Bora: Despite commentary likening the two, the desert terrain of the Adrar des Ifoghas is not nearly as difficult as the infamous section of the Hindu Kush where American forces let Osama bin Ladin slip out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan in December 2001. For one, the mountains of northern Mali are not nearly as tall or intimidating. The highest point in the Adrar protrudes just 700m (~2,300ft), while the top peak in the Tora Bora region reaches 4,382m (14,377ft – taller than all but the highest mountains in the US or Europe). While the sheer size of the Adrar des Ifoghas may make up for its lack of height, ground mobility in the Adrar des Ifoghas is far easier than the mountains of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). (Plus technology for tracking militants in 2013 is far more advanced today than in Tora Bora in 2001). Granted, supposedly elaborate cave complexes existed in both environments, but by comparison, the Adrar des Ifoghas is child’s stuff. This does not mean the hot, craggy Malian mountains are a walk in the park, but it helps that…

2)      French and Chadian forces are no wimps: France has a highly disciplined, well-armed, and well-trained Special Forces unit, and Paris learned a thing or two about fighting an asymmetric opponent as part of NATO efforts in Afghanistan. Similarly, Chad’s armed forces are some of the toughest and best-trained in the Sahel. After all, they fought in a similarly hot, mountainous terrain against stubborn militants for nearly three decades during the country’s own civil war. (This despite Chadian rebels in the 1970s-80s being much better armed…bankrolled by Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya.) The rebels at hand in Mali reportedly use similar tactics to militants that have periodically launched attacks from Chad’s north and east.

3)      No way out for the militants: As this map traces (courtesy of Stratfor), militants in the Adrar des Ifoghas have historically depended on a limited number of routes to run their elaborate trade and smuggling networks. But with Tessalit, Aguelhok, and Kidal now controlled by the secular Tuareg MNLA, French, or other international forces (all better trained than their Malian army predecessors), the western and southern perimeters are closed off. To the east, though the border remains porous, deeply paranoid Algeria has its eye out for escaping militants. While this does not mean Islamist rebels cannot survive in the Adrar, it does not help to be trapped in a room with no exits and a charging bull (French and Chadian assailants) coming after you.

It appears so far that French and Chadian troops have done rather well in the mountains. Although the deaths of AQIM commanders Abu Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar are not yet confirmed, French and Chadian forces have killed hundreds of militants and have clawed right into the underbelly of the jihadist sanctuary (based on reports, located somewhere in or around the “Ametatai valley”). On the other hand, the final push to “finish the job” in Adrar des Ifoghas has cost the lives of at least 29 Chadian and 3 French soldiers—with more likely to come. Only time will tell whether or not the intervention force will be swallowed up by northern Mali’s cruel geography.

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4 Responses to Mali’s mountains: an “impenetrable safe haven” for jihadists?

  1. Pingback: Weekly News Roundup: Jihadist sanctuary in Mali, Somali arms embargo, and Malaysian vigilance | Notes on the Periphery

  2. Tom Clarke says:

    Thanks for liking my Mali peice, you have a really excellent article & blog here will be following it

  3. Pingback: Mali: Visualizing the Adrar des Ifoghas | Notes on the Periphery

  4. Pingback: Ametetai – Abou Zeid’s stronghold in the Adrar des Ifoghas | Sahara Overland

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