By far the greatest gain for the Islamists was in experienced manpower. The fighters that flowed to Mali included expatriate Tuareg mercenaries, Libyan veterans, and foreign fighters of great ideological vigor. It was these fighters who proved decisive in shifting the balance so rapidly against the underpaid and under-equipped Malian military. Though it is extremely difficult to estimate the size of the forces under the rebels command, especially since the splintering of the MPLA-Islamist alliance after Goa, it seems clear that at least a few thousand fighters are involved in fighting of this probably no more than 2,000 are actually hardcore members of Ansar Dine, MOJWA, AQIM, etc.
While much has also been made of the quantity and caliber of equipment that the rebels managed to either purchase or spirit out of Libya, from what we have seen so far it largely seems exaggerated. For example when looking through photos of Islamist columns on the march much of what Western media often calls anti-aircraft weapons are little more than BTR or BMD cannons (sometimes with turrets still attached) stripped off of Libyan vehicles and shoved onto the back of technical trucks. Most of the time it isn’t even that, it’s little more than DShK heavy machine guns welded to the back of a technical. In addition we also saw some photos that looked like Soviet 51K or 61K man portable flak battery, and one that maybe was a ZSU. But ammunition for the latter would be hard to keep stockpiled for prolonged operations, and is still not a serious concern for the French military.
Rumors persist that the rebels may be in possession of some old Libyan SA-7’s or Igla’s (SA-17’s) but these have not been substantiated and in our opinion seem unlikely. The reason being that if the rebels possessed them in any significant quantity it would have been logical to use some as early as possible to try and force French aircraft to shift to higher altitude bombing. This is critical when talking about engaging French troops on the ground for sustained periods of time. That the rebels have done nothing to seriously deter French CAS missions should indicate that these weapons probably are not in their possession, or that they exist only in miniscule amounts.
We’ve seen huge quantities of squad machine guns, RPG’s, and really more importantly piles and piles of ammunition. In the major battles in northern Mali the most common reason for defeat was that government forces ran out of ammunition.
While troop totals have been sketchy since last January, we are able to draw a decent notion of what kind of force the Islamists have drawn together. Don’t be fooled by reports of `sophisticated’ rebel equipment or Malian claims of squaring off against armored vehicles. The rebels are almost exclusively moving and traveling by light vehicles and trucks, the few BTR’s and BRDM’s they may have captured from Mali’s northern military outposts are not likely to be much help and almost certainly likely to hurt them by attracting enormous amount of attention from French reconnaissance. Their weaponry is almost entirely made up of generic small arms, light anti-tank weapons, and probably heavier cannons taken from looted Libyan and Malian vehicles that are being used as mobile gun platforms according to reports and photos.
In the hands of determined fighters this can pose a risk to any force engaging in street combat, and the influx of heavy machine guns and cannons to say nothing of light anti-vehicle weapons poses a threat to helicopters as we saw with the French helicopter pilot killed in action several days ago. But as yet nothing has appeared to make us think that they are anything more than a heavily but generically equipped Islamist paramilitary force with a few marginally unique weapons.
Until more photos or more reports come to light this is the best picture we have so far of what kind of equipment and power Ansar Dine and its allies have to work with.
Josh Jacobs is an analyst at 361Security.