Mali’s Deepening Extremist Crisis: Stability in the Sahel Falters as Russian Influence Increases

Almost a decade after the onset of Mali’s Islamist insurgency, Bamako has yet to see a cessation of the conflict. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED),  Mali has witnessed some of its highest casualty figures in the past year since the start of the crisis in early 2012, when Islamist groups took control of the country’s north until being forced out by French troops. The crisis has only intensified since Mali’s coup leaders partnered with mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group, a controversial paramilitary organization that has already been accused of a string of civilian massacres. Already grappling with terrorist violence from groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Sahel—and particularly Mali’s neighbors such as Burkina Faso and Niger—face new degrees of violent spillover if Mali does not contain the jihadist insurgency and curtail the growing influence of Russia.

Across the Sahel, 13 million people in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger require humanitarian assistance, and as of May 2022, almost 363,000 Malians have been displaced by ongoing jihadist violence and political instability. Mali has been central to the violence across the Sahel. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) operates in the northeast of Mali and cooperates with the much larger Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which is operating from Nigeria into the Lake Chad Basin. With the establishment of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) in 2017, al-Qaeda was able to combine various local affiliates and significantly increase its operational capabilities across Mali and the greater Sahel. Several groups that are part of JNIM, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Katiba Macina, are especially active in Mali and terrorize the north of the country on an almost daily basis.

Mali has undergone two military coups since 2020. Relations between Mali and France deteriorated dramatically given the Malian regime’s reluctance to transition to civilian rule. The already weak security landscape was further compromised when France announced plans to completely withdraw their troops from Mali by 2022. Once a force of 5,000 soldiers, the last French army unit withdrew from Mali on August 15. Although France also spearheaded the Takuba Taskforce—a European military force that advised, assisted, and accompanied Malian Armed forces in the Sahel—on February 17, 2022, European leaders announced that Takuba forces would also withdraw from Mali due to Bamako’s increasing alignment with Russia.

In addition to breaking ties with Europe, Mali has also chosen to endorse a counterterrorism strategy independent of its neighbors. Following a military coup in May 2021, Bamako’s new regime had its sights on asserting dominance throughout the region. On May 15, 2022, Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel, a West African military force fighting terrorists across the region. Mali announced its withdrawal from the group—which also includes Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Niger—in protest after its campaign to head the force was rejected. Although Mali’s military government claimed the force’s lack of progress in defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda ultimately determined Bamako’s decision, their departure from the force has further weakened cross-border coordination. As France transferred control of military bases to the Malian armed forces, its neighbors’ borders are becoming more at risk from Islamist groups seeking to expand their range of operations. JNIM has begun to operate in Burkina Faso and Niger, and ISGS is also competing with JNIM for greater control throughout Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. In March 2022, ISGS stepped up attacks on the border between Mali and Niger due to the lack of air support from France and others.

Furthermore, the military government in Mali also takes a very critical stand towards the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), established in 2013 to stabilize the country. Since the summer of 2022, the government regularly suspended troop rotations of MINUSMA forces, significantly hampering the ability of MINUSMA to fulfill its mandate. In July 2022, the regime also expelled the spokesperson of the mission, after he publicly criticized the arrest of a contingent of soldiers from the Ivory Coast in Mali that were enroute to serve with MINUSMA. Most of these soldiers remain in Malian custody and are charged with undermining state security.

Mali’s refusal to continue its relationship with Western and regional partners as well as its relationship with U.N. peacekeeping forces has created a security vacuum throughout the Sahel that is being swiftly exploited by Russia. The mercenaries of the Wagner Group do little to avoid civilian casualties—as made evident by their partnership with the Malian armed forces in the execution of 300 civilians in March 2022—and even supported Burkina Faso’s September 2022 violent coup. Russia is also known for peddling disinformation campaigns. In the Central African Republic, movies portrayed Russians as heroes, and in Mali, coordinated campaigns across Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and other platforms disseminated anti-French, anti-U.N., and pro-Russian propaganda. Communication and cooperation across the Sahel will prove more difficult as Russia actively supports increasingly authoritarian leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso.

As some countries in the Sahel shift their partnership away from Western countries and towards Russia, the Kremlin has its eyes fixed on furthering its own interests in the region. In the Central African Republic, Russian mercenaries reportedly led counterinsurgency operations, and in the process, also obtained natural resource contracts. Similarly, Mali and Burkina Faso have deep reserves of gold and other precious minerals.

If the countries of the Sahel seek sustainable regional security, the Kremlin cannot be a key player in determining the region’s counterterrorism response. Defeating insurgent networks will require far greater regional collaboration and coordination that goes beyond kinetic operations. Stabilization efforts will require political, developmental, and humanitarian instruments to offset the destruction caused by the constantly evolving extremist threat. By partnering with forces responsible for brutalizing its own population, Mali’s counterterrorism strategy is hardly more than indiscriminate violence in the name of fighting terrorists, which has always proven to be a losing strategy.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

Fact:

On November 29, 2020, an assailant detonated an explosives-filled military vehicle on an Afghan army base, killing at least 31 and wounding 24. 

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