September 11, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal
Analysis: Setting the stage for Mali’s near future
September 11, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal
Analysis: Setting the stage for Mali’s near future
Mali’s immediate and near future prospects for security are immensely bleak. France, and many of its international counter-terrorism partners, are long gone. The United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSMA, is leaving. At the same time, jihadis, both from al-Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and the Islamic State’s Sahel Province (ISSP), remain on the offensive across much of the country. And the ruling junta in Bamako, backed by Russia’s shadowy Wagner Group, is threatening to re-open conflict with Tuareg rebels in the country’s north.
What to many has seemed like a slow-motion train wreck of insecurity in Mali (and indeed much of the wider Sahel) over the last several years has now cascaded into increasingly turbulent chaos with little to no chance of being turned back in the near term. And for all intents and purposes, much of Mali is already out of Bamako’s control with relatively little prospects of the junta ever re-gaining that lost territory.
Without any robust policy to help stymie this bleak future within Mali, relevant policymakers and stakeholders must instead work to contain the regional fallout of a new public jihadi statelet and/or a renewed Tuareg rebellion in the midst of Mali’s other intensely complicated issues. Which in many respects, containing the fallout and regional spillover of jihadi violence has already been the de facto policy for many in both West Africa itself and the West.
After coming into power in 2021, Assimi Goita’s government in Bamako has since taken severe actions to the detriment of the country’s security. In late 2021, Russia’s shadowy Wagner Group deployed inside the country. In mid-2022, France, as well as its European counter-terrorism partners, officially left Mali after being ousted by Goita’s government. And in June 2023, Bamako requested that MINUSMA, the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, also leave the country. This request was then subsequently approved by the UN Security Council, which quickly began its exit from some of Mali’s most vulnerable communities.
To be clear, Mali was already struggling to deal with severe levels of insecurity even with the presence of European and UN security partners. Despite the French-led Operation Barkhane succeeding in killing several major jihadi players in Mali, these surgical strikes did little to actually stymie the exponential growth of the tumor that is jihadism in the country. And similar to the pitfalls of other Western interventions, France and its allies paid more attention to a military-first – or even military-only option – while Mali’s political institutions deteriorated. This led to two successive coups leaving a junta in Bamako more worried about its own survival in power, willing to engage in ethnic warfare alongside a new state patron, Wagner Group, that is all too happy to partake in such atrocities.
But since the junta first came into power, violence has exponentially increased. As stated by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “Mali is on pace to see over 1,000 violent events involving militant Islamist groups in 2023, eclipsing last year’s record levels of violence and a nearly three-fold increase from when the junta seized power in 2020.” This drastic deterioration has only been made more apparent in recent weeks (and to an extent, months) by actions from both JNIM and ISSP.
For instance, JNIM killed dozens of civilians and Malian soldiers in a series of large-scale attacks across northern Mali last week. On Sept. 7, JNIM militants targeted a civilian ferry along the Niger River in the Rharous area of the Timbuktu Region, which killed at least 49 civilians. That same day, JNIM also targeted a Malian military outpost in Bamba, in the Gao Region, which killed 15 soldiers. A day later, JNIM mounted a large suicide assault on the Malian military base in the city of Gao. Local reporting indicates that the jihadi group utilized two suicide car bombs in the assault.
And less kinetically, the northern city of Timbuktu is now in its second month of being besieged by JNIM. Food, supplies, and aid have all been cut off to the city since mid-August according to local inhabitants. At least 30,000 people have fled the city, while those remaining are now facing shortages and a bloated cost of living. And this is not the first time the al-Qaeda branch has engaged in such a tactic. It has laid siege to several towns and villages in central Mali, which were only lifted after the local communities themselves negotiated with the jihadists. These negotiations often led to JNIM consolidating power and rule in return for the lifting of the siege.
Further south in central Mali, JNIM is also responsible for killing at least 100 people and displacing tens of thousands more in the last month. In its own communiques, it has focused on reported clashes with the Wagner Group. For instance, on Sept. 8, it claimed it shot down a Wagner helicopter in the central region of Segou. This mirrors a previous claim of downing Wagner aircraft back in July.
And though this trend is much older, JNIM has also been creating clear attack lines around Bamako since the beginning of the year. It continues to attack in neighboring communes and suburbs of Mali’s capital, providing a very clear warning to the junta of the group’s capabilities and desires.
Concurrently, the Islamic State’s men in Mali are now better positioned than its franchise has ever been inside Mali. Sounding the alarm, the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on Mali stated last month that the Islamic State nearly “doubled” its territory in the country. This warning comes after ISSP violently took over much of Mali’s extreme northern Menaka Region from JNIM and other Tuareg factions. Since April, ISSP has directly controlled or contested much of the region, though some areas have switched hands on occasion. And even in Gao, where JNIM also controls territory, ISSP is slowly increasing its reach according to the UN.
JNIM has attempted to stop ISSP’s growth, both head on and through alliances with local communities and Tuareg or other ethnic factions. For instance, the UN also notes that many communities in Menaka and Gao have sworn allegiance to JNIM, as it portrays itself as the last line of defense against the Islamic State. These allegiances were highlighted by JNIM itself earlier this year. Though in recent days, local reports have alleged that JNIM and ISSP have signed a temporary truce to halt attacking each other until after the UN leaves the country. The validity of such a truce, however, is suspect. That said, it does come after reports of mediation efforts between the two by members of both groups.
Crumbling Northern Peace Deal
Signed in 2015, the Algiers peace agreement between Bamako and the various warring parties in the north, largely Tuareg factions, was meant to close one chapter of the turmoil in Mali’s north, which would have theoretically allowed Bamako to focus on jihadis. Since the ruling junta came into power in 2020, however, many have questioned the future of the peace agreement. For instance, CMA withdrew its representatives from Bamako last month, citing extreme differences with the junta. In recent weeks, however, the peace deal looks more fragile than ever.
Though nominally ‘re-committing’ to the agreement in April, actions taken by Goita’s government in recent days puts doubt on Bamako’s willingness to continue to abide by the agreement. For instance, in late August as the UN handed over its base in Ber in the Timbuktu Region, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, or CMA), a coalition of pro-Tuareg independence and Arab nationalist armed groups, disagreed with the base being handed over the Malian military.
These disagreements led to intense clashes between the CMA and the military in Ber. However, CMA also alleges that the Wagner Group was also present on the side of the military. Not long after, the Malian military also launched airstrikes against the CMA for two-days in Anefis, in Mali’s Kidal Region. Airstrikes against the rebel coalition have continued into recent days, with the CMA claiming to have shot down a Malian SU-25 jet yesterday.
In a further ominous warning, Alghabass Ag Intalla, the leader of the CMA, issued a press statement warning civilians to stay away from military installations and stating that the coalition will “make securing people and their property their priority against all kinds of threats.” The statement reads as a clear implication of potential future attacks against Malian army bases, which further threaten additional conflict in the north.
In the event that the 2015 agreement is annulled and war again erupts between Bamako and the northern rebel factions, it remains likely that JNIM would side with the rebels, much like it did in the initial stages of the 2012 rebellion. JNIM has fostered or maintains ties with many of the rebel factions (and indeed many of the pro-Bamako northern factions as well).
And though CMA reportedly declined a JNIM offer to consolidate forces against the Islamic State, CMA is not stopping members or communities under its control from assisting JNIM in that endeavor. In the face of increased action taken by the Malian military, it seems plausible that JNIM would assist the CMA in the fight. At the same time, however, it is likely that CMA would want to keep JNIM at arm’s length given that JNIM’s predecessor groups betrayed one of CMA’s main constituent groups, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), in 2012.
Regardless of any hypothetical alliance, or lack thereof, between JNIM and CMA in a post-2015 Algiers Accord reality in Mali, the full cancellation of such a peace agreement would have disastrous effects on Mali and compound one of the world’s already worst security dilemmas. And unless Bamako and the CMA can reign in the current violence, this sad future seems entirely possible.
A Short Note on Wagner’s Role
Much has been written on Wagner’s role inside Mali and how its presence has only exacerbated the conflict. As such, this article does not dive too deep into this subject but a short note should be made of Wagner’s role in Mali. Wagner has certainly only helped in deteriorating the situation further.
For instance, Wagner has accelerated Bamako’s targeting of certain communities it accuses of sheltering jihadis. In this capacity, Wagner helped oversee the massacre of at least 500 civilians in central Mali in early 2022. The UN has also found evidence that Wagner and Bamako have engaged in over 300 acts of human rights abuses. Independent analysts have found that Wagner’s role in assisting the Malian military has changed Malian targeting, with civilians now being one of the prime victims of joint-operations between Mali and Wagner. And as a result of helping Bamako engage in this ethnic or communal warfare, it has only played into jihadi hands and recruitment.
Though Wagner has offered Bamako a so-called ‘alternative’ to the Western approach to war, the paramilitary group is itself unlikely to actually help Mali out of this quagmire. But Wagner does not care. Much like in the Central African Republic – where Wagner again contributes abhorrent human rights abuses – its role in Mali is a money-making venture. Mali is reportedly paying Wagner exorbitant prices per month, in addition to allowing it access to several artisanal gold mines.
In reading the tea leaves, there is little to be optimistic about for Mali’s future. With little international support other than Russia’s favorite human rights abusers, Mali has little options to actually contain a catastrophe that is spiraling out of control faster and faster every day. JNIM continues to advance and position itself to consolidate more territory once the UN fully leaves Mali by the end of the year. Its rivals in the Islamic State also continue to stake out its own jihadi polity in Mali’s extreme north. And in a confusing move, Bamako is seemingly attempting to restart open warfare with the various rebel groups in the north.
All of this has severe consequences for Mali’s neighbors, especially in Burkina Faso, which is also wrecked by jihadi violence and where JNIM also controls nearly 40% of Burkinabe territory. If the West is unwilling or unable to work with the junta in Bamako, the West must then provide Mali’s neighbors with the adequate support to contain the fallout of a worst-case scenario in Mali: a Bamako surrounded by two jihadi statelets and a new rebellion in the county’s north.
Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD’s Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.