So remote is the area where French, Chadian, Malian and other African troops are battling Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies that independent information is difficult to find. It is, though, possible to assess some of the shock-waves emanating from this clash.
The contest is taking place in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range in the Sahara desert, close to the border between Mali and Algeria.
It is clear that the battle is ferocious. A French army spokesman describes the enemy as “fighting without giving ground.” The Chadians, themselves experienced desert fighters, seem to have suffered particularly heavy losses. Further south, in the city of Gao where the main Islamist forces were driven out in January 2013, there have been attacks on government forces by jihadis hiding in nearby villages, causing speculation that the rapid French-led advance into Mali since the beginning of the year could mark the start of a longer guerrilla campaign.
The mountains where the main AQIM force is making its stand contain natural water and the Islamists holed up there have stocks of food, weapons and ammunition. But there is no obvious source of resupply. On the face of it, the fighters will find it hard to escape if they try to break out from their fortress. France has control of the air, and any attempt to leave the safety of the mountains would likely be detected by the US drones now being deployed from bases in the region.
Much commentary in the western media misses both the spatial dimensions of this conflict and its emerging political forms. The Sahara’s traditionally nomadic populations are accustomed to travelling long distances across international borders. Events in northern Mali mark only the hottest point in a series of turbulent situations that connect Mauritania in the west, on Africa’s Atlantic coast, to Libya and even Sudan and Egypt thousands of kilometres to the east.
If France and its allies succeed in annihilating the Islamist forces in the Adrar des Ifoghas, President Hollande’s government will then face the complex task of restoring a functioning state to Mali. Not only is this difficult - comparable to what the United Kingdom has tried to in Sierra Leone, though in more testing circumstances - but even the successful restoration of a coherent government in Mali would do little to solve the long-term problem of how to deal with the hypermobile populations of the Sahara. The country’s Tuareg population has had an acrimonious relationship with successive governments for the last fifty years, leading to at least three rebellions.
Popular risings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, meanwhile, have led to prolonged instability over a far wider area. In Cairo, Tunis and Tripoli, emerging Islamist political parties and factions are showing neither the breadth of support nor the skill to become new centres of political gravity. Parties who make it into government, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, have few people with the experience to manage economies that desperately need to create jobs above all.
While these struggles to renew the politics of an entire region retain world attention, they are related to the many less publicised cases in which Islamist radicals have attacked the shrines and tombs associated with Muslim saints, and for that matter other forms of religion they consider impure. For Islamist reformers, monuments like these are redolent of the heresy and superstition that they equate with the Sufi mysticism that enjoys wide popular allegiance. It is notable that Sufi shrines are often associated with movements of political and social renewal that occurred in earlier times, when leaders who were preachers and warlords at the same time set up new centres of power.
What we are witnessing throughout north Africa and the Sahara, then, are often bitter disputes about proper forms of religion that are also political struggles, in which modernising and reforming ideas clash with traditional ones.
The Algerian nexus
Oddly quiet at present is Algeria, a country still run by people from the generation that came of age in the bloody war of colonial liberation half a century ago. Algeria suppressed its own radical Islamist movement in a hideous civil war in the 1990s and 2000s, pushing some of the surviving Islamist leaders into the Sahara and over the border into northern Mali. There, veteran Algerian jihadis, some with Afghan experience, began a successful campaign of hostage-taking, receiving tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from European governments in particular. Their new momentum saw them re-emerge as AQIM, the very force that is now holding out in the Adrar des Ifoghas.
So while Algeria has defeated its own Islamist opposition, it has also allowed the latter to regroup. At the same time, Algeria’s rulers have managed to keep at bay the popular revolutions that have swept north Africa over the last two years, but must know that the process is not yet over. For decades, Algeria’s ruthless military politicians vied with Colonel Gaddafi to dominate the political and commercial networks of the Sahara. Now, Gaddafi has disappeared, and the Algerian securocrats are ageing. The Algerian political model - an old-fashioned military-nationalist bureaucracy, quite similar in style to the one gradually passing away in Syria, and every bit as ruthless - can surely not last much longer.
North Africa is marked by a series of political transitions in which debates and struggles within Islam are central. The Islamist parliamentarians of Egypt and the turbaned jihadis of northern Mali are both striving to renew their societies by using the political language they know best: Islam.
Whatever happens next in the mountains of northern Mali, this struggle will continue. A French success will limit its effects south of the Sahara, where countries with large Muslim populations have problems of their own, also expressed in the language of Islam, linking Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal to Mali.
France’s military expedition in Mali is about more than the life or death of AQIM. It will help to determine the fate of a vast swathe of Africa that, to southern Europeans, divided from north Africa only by the Mediterranean sea, is uncomfortably close.