French now aims, with international support, to dislodge the Islamists from Mali’s vast desert north, an area the size of Texas, before they use it to launch attacks on the West.

The Islamist alliance, grouping al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM and home-grown Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA, has imposed harsh sharia law in northern Mali, including amputations and the destruction of ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French Rafale and Mirage planes had bombed Islamists’ camps and logistics bases around the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu as well as Gao, the largest city of the north. The strikes were aimed at preventing Islamist fighters from recovering to launch a counterattack.

“The terrorists…have diversified tactics. They can leave a town at any time or mingle with the population to avoid air strikes,” he said. “It’s urban guerrilla warfare as well as a war so it’s very complicated to manage.”