“It’s difficult to know where they are headed to, more so that they have not completely left Mali. They would have first fled to the mountains and then dispersed to other countries, but the fact that they are carrying out attacks such as in Gao seems to suggest they are maintaining a presence in Mali,” said Yvan Guichaoua, Sahel expert and lecturer in international development at the University of East Anglia.
It is also not very clear how many fighters were and still remain in the ranks of the Islamist groups, although Mali-watchers estimate that the three groups had a force of around 3,000.
“So of that 3,000 probably at least half disappeared and went back to their home as soon as the French began their assault. So maybe the number has rapidly dwindled to 1,000 or less of pretty hard-core Islamist fighters,” said Jeremy Keenan, a research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Nevertheless Mali’s neighbours are still at risk of a spill-over from the crisis, at least around the border areas, which remain porous, argued Gilles Yabi of International Crisis Group.
“AQIM would withdraw towards the north using networks it has built in Libya when trafficking. It could go as far as south of Tunisia where there has recently been a huge weapons influx,” Guichaoua told IRIN.
“MUJAO, which has a more cosmopolitan composition, with fighters from Niger, Nigeria, Moor people from Mauritania, [and] Saharawi people, would rather withdraw to Niger or Mauritania. Nevertheless MUJAO is less structured and could factionalize in accordance with the origins of its members.”
The Moor and Saharawi are inhabitants of Africa’s westernmost region around Morocco, western Algeria and Mauritania and have African and Arab ancestry.
Independent armed groups could be galvanized into action by the foreign intervention in Mali. “This is what happened in Algeria. While the [January] attack on In Amenas [Algerian gas plant] had been organized a long time ago, the conflict in northern Mali was used as a trigger. This is also what happened when a branch of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram (called Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan) attacked Nigerian soldiers leaving for Mali in January,” Yabi explained.
Who are the Malian rebels?