French troops have entered the town of Kidal in northern Mali, the last stronghold of Islamic militants in the region. It should come as no surprise that Malian forces with French support have been able to dislodge Islamic militants from most of the areas that they captured since the beginning of the conflict. However, while the militants have been pushed back their retreat is not a sign that the conflict in Mali is over, only that it is about to change.

It is impossible for the Islamic militants that have been wreaking havoc in northern Mali to compete with the highly trained and technologically superior French military that has been supporting Malian forces. Yet, despite their technological and military handicap the militants do have a few advantages.

One of the most notable advantages that the militants can exploit is their use of the terrain. Even before the French intervention in Mali began militants were using bulldozers to improve upon the natural defenses already provided by caves in the desert.  An article from the AP last month highlighted the size of some of the caves:

They have used the bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts. In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.

Removing militants from these caves would be a bloody and time-consuming task.

Another advantage that the militants have over their opponents is that they can hide themselves in local populations and engage in guerilla warfare, thereby overcoming the superior technology and firepower of their enemies. Stratfor, a global intelligence company, recently released an article that highlighted the sort of tactics we should expect from militants in Mali: 

It is very likely that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its jihadist rebels in Mali will soon be forced to abandon their objective of comprehensive territorial control as well as its conventional warfare strategy. As the French and other intervention forces drive back the jihadists and consolidate security in central Mali, and then gradually push into northern Mali to deny that region as a sanctuary for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the jihadists will have an opportunity to use their superior knowledge of the terrain, local indigenous militia relationships, and guerrilla tactics to inflict casualties on their enemies. Their fighting conduct will transition to a more dispersed insurgency that relies on ambushes, improvised explosive devices, and small-scale hit-and-run attacks.

This is the sort of guerilla fighting conventional militaries are going to have to get used to if governments continue to execute or support interventions against terrorist groups. How well Malian government forces react to the changing nature of the conflict in Mali remains to be seen. The French might yet avoid a guerilla war if French troops manage to withdraw quickly, as was recently suggested by France’s foreign minister.