Mali Coup
Malian junta soldiers patrol in Kati, outside Bamako April 3 ,2012. REUTERS

In a sign that military action in West Africa is fast approaching, French officials have revealed plans to send drones into northern Mali.

There, operatives linked to al Qaeda have turned this once-peaceful country into a center for militant extremists. France has a special interest in the crisis, since six of its citizens are currently being held hostage in Mali.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that a French defense official had revealed the drone plan on the condition of anonymity. He explained that there would be two surveillance crafts flying over West Africa by the end of this year.

France is not the only Western power involved in the fight against extremism in Mali. The AP also reported that France was in talks with the United States, which is keeping quiet about its role in an impending military offensive.

In addition, the United Kingdom has pledged support. Conservative MP Stephen O’Brien, who serves as an envoy to Mali and the surrounding region, told the Telegraph that he hasn’t ruled anything out.

“If we don't act, there is very real threat of further attacks in Africa and, eventually, Europe, the Middle East and beyond,” he said.

Germany has also stepped into the fray.

“Free democratic states cannot accept international terrorism gaining a safe refuge in the north of the country,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday, adding that logistical assistance for Malian forces was under consideration.

As Western officials speak up, African leaders are also working hard to reach a consensus. Military intervention in Mali has been a long time coming, but the crisis seems about to reach its tipping point.

Breaking Down

Though it is one of the poorest countries on Earth, Mali was something of a success story until this year. For nearly two decades, it had been one of Africa’s most stable democracies.

Then came the Tuaregs, a stateless ethnic group whose members had acquired new weaponry while fighting for Moammar Gadhafi during the Libyan revolution of 2011. Swooping in from the Sahel, a band of semi-arid land just south of the Sahara Desert, these armed nomads made significant inroads into northern Mali this January.

That prompted a military coup in Mali's capital city of Bamako in late March, when a group of mid-ranking army members voiced disappointment over the civilian government’s inability to stop the Tuareg insurgency. The angry troops stormed the palace and took over the government -- then failed to repel the invaders.

That’s not to say the Tuaregs were successful in their bid for an independent state. They were quickly usurped by the Islamist groups who followed them into northern Mali and have since imposed a fundamentalist version of Shariah, or Islamic law.

There are now two main groups who wield power in northern Mali: Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujao. Both outfits are associated with an umbrella group called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The insurgents of Ansar Dine have control over the cities of Timbuktu and Kidal, while Mujao is in charge of Gao and surrounding areas. Those towns now operate according to Shariah.

Mali is a majority-Muslim country, but strict adherence to Shariah was never the norm. Life under the rebel groups has become unrecognizable to the residents of these once-vibrant towns.

Honing In

The occupied land is becoming a valuable base of operations for extremist groups linked to al Qaeda, turning the invasion of northern Mali into an issue of global importance.

The trend is compounded by Western offensives that have driven militant operatives out of other key spots like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

In those areas, drones -- both armed and unarmed -- have played a major role in decimating al Qaeda and/or Taliban leadership. A similar use of drones in Mali could be seen as an attempt to repeat that success.

The drones reportedly planned by France are for surveillance and so would not necessarily be armed. Nevertheless, the news is likely to raise alarm bells for those who question drone efficacy.

The use of armed, unmanned aircraft was heavily scrutinized in a landmark September report from scholars at Stanford University and New York University, “Living Under Drones,” which studied the effects of U.S. drone warfare in Pakistan and came to some alarming conclusions.

The study found that hundreds of innocent people, including women and children, have been killed by drone strikes over the past eight years and that these strikes “have facilitated recruitment to violent nonstate armed groups and motivated further violent attacks.”

At this point, there is no indication that France will be using armed drones in West Africa. In general -- and despite promises of support -- French officials say the country’s military footprint will be light.

France has pledged not to commit soldiers to any combat missions in Mali, asserting that African troops must lead any such military action.

Gearing Up

It could still be several weeks before such action takes place, according to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

“It is not the time for intervention at the moment,” Le Drian said to Radio France International on Wednesday. “African states are putting in place a plan of action that will be presented to the Security Council within a month, and it is after that the question of an intervention will be addressed.”

African leaders have been working for months to come up with a plan for joint action that would gain approval from the U.N. Security Council. There are plenty of roadblocks: Various militaries on the continent are facing their own security issues at home, and the Security Council is hard to please. It has already turned down plans that were not sufficiently specific.

But there are clear signs that the long-awaited offensive is now on the horizon. Talks are heating up this week, and a new consensus is emerging among African administrations, United Nations officials and global political leaders.

Meanwhile, Islamists in Mali appear to be fortifying themselves. Residents of the seized areas told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that trucks full of militants were rolling in.

“More than 150 Sudanese Islamists arrived in 48 hours," said one man in Timbuktu. “They are armed and explained that they had come to help their Muslim brothers against the infidels.”

Although their plans are still in the works, African leaders as well as Western diplomats are determined to put an end to this insurgency before it gains any more strength.

“The Sahel is becoming a sanctuary for terrorism," said Le Drian, according to UPI. "The safety of Europe and of France is at stake here.”