Mali: The Sahel’s gateway to Sub-Saharan Africa for jihadist terrorists

As a local election is held under a State of Emergency, jihadist militants linked with al-Qaeda mounted attacks to further destabilise a fragmented country. The Islamic State (ISIS) also seeks Mali’s breakup to open a way for the terror group’s migration southward. 

Militants from the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine on patrol in Timbuktu. The terror group held the city, and others in northern Mali for several months, until it was expelled by French troops in January 2013. Photo courtesy Magharebia/Wikimedia Commons
Militants from the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine on patrol in Timbuktu. The terror group held the city, and others in northern Mali for several months, until it was expelled by French troops in January 2013.
Photo courtesy Magharebia/Wikimedia Commons

Having postponed local elections four times for security reasons, Mali’s central government led by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita decided the polling must proceed on 20 November 2016. Further delays would have ensured continuing governance problems at the local level, where mayors, town councillors and others were needed to do administrative duties. The local governance system had to be defended against the Islamic jihadist groups whose goal is to impede governance at all levels. With Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to the north gradually replacing chaos with national sovereignty and driving out ISIS fighters, Mali presents an opportunity for terror groups to further exacerbate a nation in crisis. Into Mali’s vacuum of lawlessness will filter ISIS fighters, creating a southern beachhead and teaming up with militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) to expand into Sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria and Cameroon, Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to ISIS, and this alliance will spread their fight.

As polling began, one candidate was kidnapped and five Malian soldiers were ambushed and killed as they transported ballot boxes. A civilian was killed when militants attacked a polling station in the town of Dilli. While no casualties resulted, thugs of unknown origin invaded polling places in Timbuktu and other towns and burned ballots. However, the first election since northern Tuareg rebel groups and government agreed to a peace accord in 2015 managed to select 12,000 local representatives. The polling occurred exactly one year after a significant terror attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako in which foreigners comprised the majority of the 20 fatalities. The local elections were successful despite the security problems. The vulnerability of Mali was also on display, showing the country in terror groups’ crosshairs. While external terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are working in partnership with local rebel groups in some instances, the goal of all enemies of the central government is the country’s dissolution. A UN peacekeeping force comprised of 13,000 troops, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), are buttressed by French and Malian forces to thwart the country’s further disintegration. With the 2015 peace accord in tatters, the peacekeepers’ mission will clearly be extended throughout 2017.


The displacement of militant groups is not the same as their extermination

Government forces aided by MINUSMA and military forces from France have had success in routing out such antagonists as Ansar Dine, an affiliate of AQIM. MINUSMA was deployed in 2013 to protect civilians during the Tuareg rebellion that, along with al-Qaeda militants, seized the northern part of the country in 2012, and French forces arrived between 2012 and 2014 to repel advancing militant groups. However, the mobile militants have shown adeptness for regrouping and using the entire country for moveable battlefields. In mid-November, Ansar Dine fighters took control of a town near Bamako. They overwhelmed a police station, broke open a prison and helped themselves to a local bank before they retreated ahead of a counter-attack by government forces. Such a town seizure so close to the capital justified the sense of unease with which Malians live. No place seems secure against militant attacks or terrorist bombings.

AQIM was expelled from Timbuktu in 2013 by French intervention, and the Tuareg rebel groups were sufficiently battered that they accepted the 2015 peace accord. Subsequent violations of the 2015 ceasefire displayed an insincere will for peace, and the French believe that only the return of displaced populations into the northern areas they have fled, combined with a strong police presence and economic development, will finally put to rest the Tuareg rebellion. Without the support of the Tuareg people, any militant group would have no real foundation. The Taureg are of the Berber tribe who inhabit the Sahel from Libya southward. Raising their standard of living and ensuring their participation in the governance of the nations in which they live will be the ambitious, though necessary, agenda once refugees have returned to northern Mali and elsewhere. If the return of refugees is achieved into a stable landscape where livelihoods can resume and representational government is achieved, the Tuareg problem may see a resolution.

The Tuareg rebellion is both a local and regional matter, compared to the continental dilemma posed by foreign terror groups. AQIM and ISIS are in Mali as invaders on a continental mission to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state and will never be party to a peace accord because their mission is one of conquest. In Libya, the expulsion of ISIS from its Mediterranean Sea base around Sirte is insufficient to bring security to that country, as long as ISIS militants roam in the south of the country. The same holds true for Mali with its complexity of terror groups; moving them from one location to another is insufficient. The groups must be neutralised.


Ethnic identities complicate security in Mali’s heartland

The Tuareg have always been a minority population, even in northern Mali. However, the trans-national presence of the tribe makes their Malian uprising of regional importance. Similarly, the Fulani people of central Mali belong to a tribe that spans several regional borders. Inter-ethnic clashes between Fulani and Bambara people over grazing land near the town of Dioura in May 2016 led to several casualties. Tuareg herdsmen have had several deadly clashes with other tribes. The Ansar Dine terror group also exists in the country’s central section, adding to the roiling conflict that is often directed at other ethnic groups rather than the central government. These tribal rivalries are centuries old, and are exacerbated by growing human populations and modern technological advances with which tribal animosities and tradition-bound ethnic leaderships have not kept pace. The rivalries bode ill for Mali as a nation state until such time as ethnic enclaves are firmly established or ethnic integration is somehow achieved.

Unable to provide security for the entire country while devoting its military resources in operations against Ansar Dine and other militant groups, the central government has allowed local community militias to police their areas. This has established armed groups nationwide that are often ethnically-based. Their allegiance is to their own kind rather than the state. The welter of motives behind ethnic clashes must first be sorted out to determine whether they are motivated by self-defence, aggression or alliance with a foreign terror group before remedial action can be taken by Mali’s government and MINUSMA.


Mali is best governed at the local level

Mali has never been ungoverned or ungovernable, at least at the local level. The 2012-2015 Tuareg rebellion was locally-based, an uprising originating from the desire of a people for self-determination in a country where they felt marginalised. A June 2015 peace deal did provide a degree of territorial autonomy and as such was seen as justification by rebellion leaders for their efforts. However, even as this accord was signed and went into effect, AQIM was causing conflict in northern Mali in pursuit of an Islamic State. The local issue has been settled for now; while the incursion of international jihadists continues.

No matter how ineffective central government in Mali has been at any given time, governance has always existed at the local level. The challenge for peacekeepers is to pacify various uprisings and eliminate the presence of foreign terror groups in the country to allow for a national political reckoning. Perhaps at a national dialogue the ethnic groups can sit down and do what they have not been called upon to do before – examine the nation state of Mali and determine where the various ethnic groups fit in. Will the country be run by a centralised government overseeing the economy and the national defence with political power devolving to the local level? Or will a confederacy of tribes emerge, flying their own colours above provincial capitals alongside the Malian flag?

Any political outcome would be beneficial to the long-conflicted Malian people and a boon to peace prospects regionally. The southward advance of AQIM and ISIS can be largely halted in Mali but the country’s chaotic situation has allowed for terror groups’ progress. The counter-insurgency will continue to be bloody: in 2016, more than 30 MINUSMA troops were killed, more than in any UN peacekeeping mission elsewhere.