Mali: Extremism and Terrorism

On March 15, 2021, ISIS militants stormed a military post southwest of Ansongo, a town that borders Burkina Faso and Niger. The attack killed 33 soldiers and injured 14 others. Around 11 other soldiers were reported as missing. According to media sources, militants regularly target Mali’s army as it is poorly equipped and underfunded to repel attacks. (Sources: France 24, Defense Post)

On August 18, 2020, Malian soldiers ambushed Bamako, the West African country’s capital, and arrested President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The mutineers call themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), and their spokesman, Colonel Ismael Wague, claims the group seeks to organize a general election that will provide Mali with stronger institutions. Keita later issued a brief address announcing his resignation and the dissolution of parliament. Keita was released on August 27, 2020, and on October 6, 2020, the CNSP appointed retired Colonel Bah Ndaw as interim president, and Moctar Ouane—a civilian—as prime minister. The transition government is expected to lead to an election in 18 months. (Sources: Washington Post, CNN, Reuters, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Associated Press, Reuters, Jerusalem Post)

On June 4, 2020, French troops launched an operation in Talhandak, northern Mali. The operation targeted and killed top al-Qaeda leader, Abdelmalek Droukdal, the head of al-Qaeda’s affiliates in North Africa and the Sahel. Droukdal engineered al-Qaeda’s expansion throughout the Sahel and Magreb through financing, planning, and carrying out terrorist attacks. (Source: The Hill)

Although ISIS and al-Qaeda are generally rivals in other parts of the world, the regional groups—Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) more or less cooperated with one another throughout the Sahel to destroy Western-allied governments and traditional leaders. However, on May 8, 2020, it was reported in ISIS’s latest edition of its weekly Al-Naba newsletter, that al-Qaeda started a “war” against ISIS militants in West Africa. The statement followed an attack in which ISIS fighters detonated a truck bomb allegedly targeting al-Qaeda operatives along the desert frontier between Mali and Burkina Faso. Additionally, Al-Naba criticized JNIM’s leadership, specifically Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa, as undermining the jihad in favor of negotiating with the Malian government. JNIM sought to diffuse the tension by releasing booklets calling for unity among all jihadists. On May 28, ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi asserted that ISIS will actively retaliate against al-Qaeda in Africa due to violence allegedly instigated by the former jihadist camp. (Sources: Al Jazeera, United Nations, Washington Post, Long War Journal, Long War Journal, Twitter, Wall Street Journal)

The Malian government declared a nationwide state of emergency in November 2015, after two Islamists killed 20 people and took as many as 170 hostages at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Mali has continued to experience regular attacks on foreign troops, U.N. peacekeeping personnel, Malian security forces, and western tourists. On October 25, 2018, the government announced that the country would remain under a state of emergency for another year. (Sources: Garda, BBC News, Reuters, Long War Journal)

Islamist groups in Mali came to the fore after rebels of the Tuareg tribe—an ethnically Berber people concentrated in the Sahara—began an offensive against Malian government forces in January 2012. At the start of the Tuareg Rebellion, Islamic groups including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar al-Dine (AAD), fought alongside the rebels against Malian security forces. Frustrated with the government’s inability to quash the Tuareg’s secession, the military staged a coup after three months of fighting. In the political chaos that ensued, the rebels, spearheaded by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), established control in the north. Shortly after, AQIM, AAD, and MUJAO joined forces to expel the rebels from northern Mali. Armed with weapons stolen from the neighboring Libyan civil war, Islamists imposed sharia (Islamic law) on the local population. (Sources: Combating Terrorism Center, Stanford University, Spiegel)

Unable to regain control of the country’s north, the Malian government appealed to France—its former colonial ruler—and the broader international community for assistance. France has provided ongoing military support to Malian troops as a part of Operation Sérval, launched in January of 2013, and Operation Barkhane, which replaced Operation Sérval in August 2014. Mali has also received extensive military assistance from the United Nations, as part of the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which has been extended into 2019. In addition, Mali has received training from the United States as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program. (Sources: Combating Terrorism Center, Watchlist, National Interest, Ministère De La Defense, U.N. MINUSMA, U.N. MINUSMA, U.S. Department of State)

In April 2017, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad formed the “G5 Sahel” to hinder the flow of terrorists and contraband across national boundaries. Mali has also worked with regional allies as a member of the Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA). (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Center for Strategic & International Studies)

In addition to the Islamist threat, Mali also contends with rising ethnic violence, which reportedly killed hundreds of people in 2018. Hunters from the Dogon ethnic group have historically clashed over land access with herdsmen from the Fulani ethnic group. In March 2019, suspected members of the Dogon killed more than 150 people in an attack on Fulani villages. That January, men dressed as hunters from the Donzo ethnic group killed 37 Fulani civilians in a village attack. A January 2019 report by the U.N. secretary-general to the Security Council confirmed 395 civilian deaths in the previous six months. According to the United Nations, the “limited presence of State authority in parts of central and northern Mali continued to allow violent extremist elements to expand their influence in those areas.” (Sources: Al Jazeera, Reuters, Reuters, U.N. MINUSMA, United Nations, CNN)

On February 10, 2020, Human Rights Watch released a new report detailing the rising number of jihadist-backed armed attacks in Mali. According to the report, 2019 was the deadliest year for civilians since Mali’s political and military crisis in 2012. With most of the attacks occurring in central Mali, more than 456 civilians have been killed and hundreds more have been wounded. Jihadists from both al-Qaeda and ISIS have been encouraging inter-ethnic attacks in hopes of asserting their power throughout both the state and the West African region. In the past two years, militants have further demonstrated their influence by forming a new alliance called the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) and the establishment of a new cell called the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. JNIM’s leader, Amadou Kouffa, an ethnic Fulani, has used his radio sermons to exploit the historical rivalry between the Fulani and Dogon Groups. In the face of increasing violence between the two ethnic groups, Mali’s government has allowed the Dogon to form their own self-defense militias which has led to indiscriminate and rampant violence throughout the country. (Sources: Human Rights Watch, Telegraph, National)

In January 2012, the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began carrying out attacks in northern Mali with the intent of establishing an independent state. With the backing of armed Tuareg militants who had returned to Mali after training and fighting alongside former Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s forces in that country’s civil war, MNLA posed a serious threat to the Malian government. Three months into the fighting, the Malian military launched a coup in response to what it perceived as the government’s inability to quash the Tuareg’s secession. The coup plunged the country further into chaos and in April 2012, MNLA declared that Azawad, a region in Mali’s north, was an independent state. (Sources: International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Cato Institute, Stanford University, Deutsche Welle)

Beginning in October 2011, top al-Qaeda leader and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel, provided military, financial, and logistical support to Ansar al-Dine (AAD)—a Malian Islamic militant group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly—to increase AQIM’s territorial influence in northern Mali. Under Droukdel’s leadership, AQIM formed an alliance with AAD and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in November 2015 to fight against the French and Malian militaries. On June 4, 2020, French troops launched an operation in Talhandak, northern Mali, targeting and killing Droukdel. On November 13, 2020, France announced the death of Bah ag Moussa—a close associate of Ghaly who not only helped launch AAD, but was also a prominent military leader in AQIM. The operation involved helicopters and ground troops, which identified and “neutralized” Bah ag Moussa who was in a truck in the Menaka region of eastern Mali. (Sources: The Hill, United Nations, Mapping Militant Organizations, France 24, Voice of America)

Islamist groups in the region, including AQIM, MUJAO, and AAD, initially fought alongside the Tuareg rebels against Malian security forces. However, shortly after MNLA declared Azawad as an independent state, AQIM, MUJAO, and AAD, expelled MNLA from the region, assuming control over 10 percent of Mali’s population and over half of its territory, including the major cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. As Islamists gained control in these and other areas, they carried out a series of atrocities, including attacks on UNESCO sites in Timbuktu between May and July of 2012. (Sources: Stanford University, BBC News, U.S. Department of State)

Armed with weapons stolen from Muammar Gaddafi’s former regime in Libya, AQIM, AAD, and MUJAO imposed a strict version of sharia over local Malians, including stoning punishments for adulterers, and cutting the hands off of thieves. Islamist police in terrorist-held areas reportedly set up checkpoints throughout northern Mali, with Kalashnikov-wielding teenagers repeating: “No cigarettes, no CDs, no radios, no cameras, no jewelry” over megaphones. The promise of a burgeoning caliphate (Islamic empire) in Mali drew jihadists from across Africa, including from Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, and Western Sahara. As one U.S. official said in 2013: “Northern Mali has become a jihad front. People think of northern Mali like they thought of Chechnya in the late ‘90s—as someplace where you can go and do your part to restore the caliphate.” (Sources: Spiegel, Atlantic)

Although Islamist groups in Mali share a common goal of establishing an Islamic state, power politics and ideological differences have created a complex dynamic among the groups. MUJAO initially emerged as an AQIM splinter group that was established by members who believed that AQIM’s focus on criminal activities had caused it to lose sight of the jihadist cause. However, after Islamists had ousted MNLA from the north, AAD purportedly brokered a truce between MUJAO and AQIM. In late 2012, a former leader and co-founder of AQIM, Mokhtar Belmokhtar split from AQIM to form al-Mulathamun Batallion (AMB). AMB merged with MUJAO to form Al-Mourabitoun (“The Sentinels”) in August 2013. On November 20, 2015, the group claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, which was reportedly carried out with AQIM. In December 2015, it was announced that al-Mourabitoun had formally joined AQIM. (Sources: Stanford University, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, U.S. Department of State, Long War Journal)

In March 2017, AQIM, AAD, and al-Mourabitoun merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). Since its formation, JNIM has carried out a number of violent attacks and was designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the U.S. government on September 5, 2018. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, JNIM absorbed the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), an AAD-affiliated Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state in central and southern Mali. As of September 2018, JNIM reportedly has between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, The Jamestown Foundation, Center for Strategic & International Studies)

Over the next two years, jihadists across the Sahel united under a common banner to expel Western forces from the region. According to military leaders from the United States, France, and West Africa, the militants have carried out increasingly forceful attacks across villages and army bases. Although the jihadists have established a united front, they have yet to declare “caliphates” in favor of focusing on training and plotting attacks. Furthermore, it is reported that fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS have been coordinating attacks and have even agreed upon divvying areas of control throughout the Sahel. However, on May 8, 2020, it was reported in ISIS’s latest edition of its weekly al-Naba newspaper, that al-Qaeda started a “war” against ISIS militants in West Africa. Al-Naba criticized JNIM’s leadership, specifically Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa, as undermining the jihad in favor of negotiating with the Malian government. JNIM sought to diffuse the tension by releasing booklets—indirectly targeted at ISIS sympathizers who are skeptical of JNIM’s motives—by calling for unity among all jihadists. (Sources: Washington Post, Long War Journal, Long War Journal)

On May 7, 2020, ISIS revealed in al-Naba that the insurgent group has engaged in tense clashes with al-Qaeda militants in Mali and Burkina Faso. ISIS accused JNIM for instigating the violence as the jihadist camp allegedly mobilized large forces to attack and prevent supplies from getting to ISIS strongholds in Mali and Burkina Faso. According to ISIS, JNIM has amped up attacks since April 17. Unverified claims from JNIM sources also claim that ISIS proposed a ceasefire on May 5, but JNIM allegedly rejected the request. Furthermore, on May 28, ISIS released a statement on Telegram claiming that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic served as punishment for the forces that have fought against ISIS. Additionally, ISIS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, claimed that ISIS will now retaliate against al-Qaeda in Africa due to attacks initiated by the latter insurgent camp. Although specific countries are not listed, Mali and Burkina Faso have seen increasingly hostile clashes between ISIS and JNIM forces. On June 4, 2020, French soldiers killed AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel in northern Mali near the Algerian border. (Sources: BBC News, Twitter, Agence France-Presse)


Islamist activity in northern Mali can be traced back to 2003, when militants from AQIM’s predecessor, the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), kidnapped 32 European tourists and held them captive in northern Mali’s remote desert for up to six months. Since then, AQIM, AAD, and other Islamist groups in the region have carried out a wave of similar kidnapping operations, using northern Mali to hide dozens of foreign hostages and raking in millions in ransom payments. Islamist groups in Mali have also generated significant funding through establishing and operating drug and human trafficking networks that extend across West Africa. (Sources: IRIN, New York Times, Stanford University, USA Today, U.S. Department of State, GSDRC, AMDH-FIDH)

AQIM, AAD, al-Mourabitoun, and other Islamist groups in Mali have used revenue generated from criminal operations for recruitment purposes. Among other efforts, Islamist groups have attempted to attract new recruits by offering financial incentives to Malians, many of whom live in extreme poverty. According to a CBS News report, Islamists have reportedly “bought” children from their parents, promising families between $1,000 and $1,200 a month per child. By October 2012, up to 1,000 child soldiers were included among the ranks of Islamist groups in Mali. (Sources: International Business Times, New York Times, Australian National Security, CBS News)

In addition, Islamist groups have attempted to attract new recruits though capitalizing on ethnic and regional divisions within the country. AAD was largely comprised of Tuaregs from the same tribe as its founder and leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly. MLF, led by extremist preacher Amadou Koufa, is understood to be a predominantly Fulani movement. To that end, the group has reportedly attracted 4,000 members, primarily of Fulani ethnic origin. Koufa was reportedly killed in a November 2018 French attack but resurfaced in a February 2019 propaganda video. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Newsweek, Reuters)

Islamists have also reportedly attempted to attract new recruits by presenting themselves as righteous defenders of Islam. However, though approximately 95 percent of Mali’s population is Muslim, many local communities reject the violent Salafist interpretation of Islam embraced by AQIM and other Islamist groups. (Sources: Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Department of State, RAND)

Foreign Fighters

There is little evidence to suggest that Malians are leaving the country to fight alongside Islamic extremists in other parts of the world. Rather, militants from across Africa, including members of the Nigerian-based terror group Boko Haram, have reportedly traveled to Mali to attend AQIM training camps and to fight alongside Islamists in Mali’s north. (Sources: Atlantic, BBC News, Perspectives on Terrorism)

Extremist and terrorist incidents in Mali have included improvised explosive device (IED) attacks as well as rocket and mortar fire attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings, hostage-taking, and landmines. These attacks regularly target Malian, French, and U.N. peacekeeping forces. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

La Terrasse Restaurant and Radisson Blu Hotel Attack

On March 7, 2015, a masked gunman opened fire on La Terrasse, a Bamako restaurant frequented by expatriates. The attack killed five—including one Frenchman, a Belgian, and three Malians—while also injuring nine others. Al-Mourabitoun, a group of extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility for the attack. The jihadist group claimed the attack was in response to the killing of al-Mourabitoun senior commander Ahmed al-Tilemsi by French troops in December 2014. The assailant, along with four other accomplices, fled in a vehicle and a motorbike before French soldiers arrived to the scene. (Sources: New York Times, BBC News)

On November 20, 2015, heavily armed gunmen shouting “Allahu akhbar” stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako. The men took as many as 170 hostages, killed 20 people, and injured six others during the siege. Among those killed were six Russians, three Chinese, and one American national. Malian and U.N. security forces launched a counterattack, managing to free the hostages. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack, claiming the group worked in conjunction with AQIM. According to al-Mourabitoun, the attack was carried out in retaliation for government aggression in northern Mali. (Sources: New York Times,  BBC News, Reuters, CNN)

On April 22, 2016, Malian authorities arrested Fawaz Ould Ahmeida, a Mauritian national and al-Mourabitoun member, in Bamako. Ould Ahmeida allegedly masterminded the La Terrasse and Radisson Blu attacks. On October 27, 2020, a Bamako court began the trial of Ould Ahmeida and Sadou Chaka, a Malian who investigators claimed transported weapons in the Radisson Blu attack. The suspects faced charges of planning and executing the attacks. Ould Ahmeida was accused of personally shooting victims at the nightclub as revenge for French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. On October 29, the suspects were found guilty and sentenced to death. (Sources: France 24, BBC News, Agence France Presse)


Military Endeavors

From January to March 2012, Mali relied on its military to suppress the northern Tuareg rebellion. After months of failed strategy and continued Tuareg attacks on Malian forces, the military launched a coup on March 22. In the weeks that followed, Mali lost large swaths of territory to the rebels who, on April 6, declared an independent state in the country’s north. With its own military failing, the government of Mali appealed to France—its former colonial ruler—and to the broader international community for emergency military intervention. (Sources: International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Guardian, BBC News, New York Times, Reuters)

On January 11, 2013, France launched Operation Sérval, which sought to put “an abrupt end to the advance of jihadist groups to the south of Mali and to ensure the safety of the 5,000 French nationals in the country.” Later that month, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) began deploying troops to Mali as part of the U.N.-approved African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). Although the deployment of AFISMA forces was not expected to take place before September 2013, as secessionist and jihadist attacks escalated in late 2012 and early 2013, the involved parties agreed to accelerate their plans. On January 17, Nigeria became the first ECOWAS member state to contribute military support to Mali. It was joined soon after by military contingents from Togo, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and other ECOWAS member states. The AFISMA mission aimed to “contribute to the rebuilding of the capacity of the Malian Defence and Security Forces…; support the Malian authorities in recovering the areas in the north of its territory under the control of terrorist, extremist and armed groups; transition to stabilization activities to support the Malian authorities in maintaining security and consolidate State authority through appropriate capacities; support the Malian authorities in their primary responsibility to protect the population; and support the Malian authorities to create a secure environment for the civilian-led delivery of humanitarian assistance and the voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees.” (Sources: Ministère de la Défense, U.N. Security Council, Fox News, U.N. MINUSMA)

In July 2013, the United Nations formally took over authority from the AFISMA mission and established the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Not unlike the AFISMA mission, MINUSMA sought to “support the political process and carry out a number of security-related stabilization tasks, with a focus on major population centres and lines of communication, protecting civilians, human rights monitoring, the creation of conditions for the provision of humanitarian assistance and the return of displaced persons, the extension of State authority and the preparation of free, inclusive and peaceful elections.” (Source: U.N. MINUSMA)

Despite ongoing foreign military interventions, Islamist groups continue to control territory in northern Mali and to carry out attacks across the country. Mali has been entrusted with some military and governance responsibilities for its northern region but is still heavily dependent on France and the United Nations. France’s Operation Barkhane, which was launched on August 1, 2014, has continued to assist Mali in its counter-terrorism efforts in the country’s north. The United Nations has also extended its MINUSMA operation into 2019. On February 2, 2020, France stated that it would boost its military presence in the Sahel by adding 600 troops to its counterterrorism effort, Operation Barkhane, in Mali and the four other countries in the region. As of early 2020, there are 4,500 French troops deployed across the Sahel. The bulk of the reinforcements will be stationed in the border zone linking Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The French Armed Forces have launched counterterrorism missions particularly in Mopti which is rife with conflict exacerbated by Katiba Macina—a group associated with Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), which is a jihadist group that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the increase of extremist attacks in the Sahel, on January 26, 2020, the Pentagon announced it was considering reducing the number of U.S. troops in Mali. The United States, which currently deploys over 7,000 forces in Africa, has provided critical support to France’s Operation Barkhane in terms of intelligence and surveillance via drones. (Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, National Interest, Ministère De La Defense, U.N. MINUSMA, U.N. MINUSMA, U.S. Department of State, Deutsche Welle, Defense Post, Al Jazeera, Telegraph, National)

In October 2018, members of the Groupement Spéciale d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GSIGN), a French embassy-trained National Gendarmerie advanced intervention unit, began its first deployment to the Segou region in support of the government’s Integrated Central Region Security Plan and Operation Dambé, a military counterterrorism operation. The unit had immediate impact, supporting current gendarme posts, intervening in an armed robbery, and arresting suspected terrorists.  In Bamako, the next phase of training began with the creation of an additional 32-man team with the GSIGN at the new Department of State-funded training academy. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

In January 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a meeting with the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, and Chad to address increased jihadist activity in Africa’s Sahel region. The leaders pledged to increase their military campaigns against jihadists. On February 27, 2020, the African Union (AU)—a pan-African organization which can deploy military forces via approval from its Peace and Security Council—confirmed that it would temporarily deploy 3,000 troops throughout the Sahel region to contain the violence propagated by armed Islamists. The troops will be deployed for a period of six months, however, the finer details of the deployment have yet be worked out. (Sources: France 24, Voice of America, BBC News)

On March 28, 2020, France and several of its European allies—including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—launched a new task force called Takuba. The task force, made up of Special Forces that fight armed groups throughout the Sahel, is planned to “have an initial operational capability (IOC) by the summer of 2020 and is expected to become operational (FOC) by early 2021.” The task force will operate in the Liptako region between Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, and forces will also provide assistance to France’s Operation Barkhane and the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force. Using intelligence provided by the United States, French troops in Mali killed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leader Abdelmalek Droukdel near the border with Algeria. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Agence France-Presse)

Security Agencies

Mali’s national counterterrorism infrastructure consists of its Armed Forces, the primary entity responsible for carrying out domestic counterterrorism operations, and its General Directorate of State Security, which is authorized to detain and investigate terror suspects. However, as noted by the U.S. State Department in its 2017 Country Reports on Terrorism, lack of coordination between security forces and law enforcement as well as inadequate resources and training, among other factors, have made it difficult for the country to effectively secure its borders and to combat domestic terrorism without the assistance of foreign powers. Mali’s security forces continue to receive military support from the United Nations and France as well as training from the U.S. government as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program. Among other efforts to enhance Mali’s capacity to counter terrorism, the U.S. government has provided training programs on crime scene investigations of terror attacks, surveillance detection, incident response, and securing vital infrastructure. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

National Programs to Counter Extremism

In June 2017, Mali implemented its first national strategy to prevent radicalization, terrorism, and violent extremism. The strategy involves Mali’s Ministry of Religious Affairs working with Islamic organizations to promote moderate Islam. In February 2019, the Ministry of Religious Affairs launched a new Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy that focuses not only on working with religious associations to maintain a secular state, but also improving governance, reinforcing security, promoting development, and increasing communication with local citizens in central Mali to provide greater transparency regarding the government’s actions. However, the Ministry of Religious Affairs lacks the necessary resources and effective interagency communication to fully implement these stabilizing measures. (Source: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

As of June 2020, Mali continues to rely heavily on the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and French forces to help marginally stabilize and secure the country’s northern regions. Terrorist groups, particularly ISIS, increased their attacks on all 2015 Algiers Accord signatories, including the rebel/separatist Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), the pro-government Platforme coalition, and the jihadist groups with which were once briefly allied with groups such as al-Qaeda, al-Murabitun, and Ansar al-Din. Terrorism, insecurity, and lack of accountability or effective governance resulted in a significant increase in intercommunal violence, particularly in central Mali. The conflict area has moved farther south than at any time since the 2012 triple crisis of the political insurgency, military coup, and terrorist assault on the country. Security in the center of the country rapidly deteriorated in 2018 as terrorists took advantage of long-standing intercommunal and ethnic tensions to significantly increase violence against civilians. MINUSMA maintained its northern presence in 2018, and continued its work with the Malian government and various militia groups to facilitate redeployment of government administrators and security forces to the north. Human Rights Watch documented numerous allegations of human rights violations by Malian security forces in counterterrorism operations, particularly in the center of the country. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, UNHCR)

In 2018, Mali was a pilot country of the International Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism Capacity-Building Clearinghouse Mechanism, an online database under the GCTF to identify and de-conflict gaps in counterterrorism and CVE programming. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

On February 10, 2020, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita confirmed that the Malian government has opened communication with the armed groups. The government has previously been hesitant to initiate dialogue with armed groups. Given the on-going violence in the country, however, Keita asserted that it is an option that has to be explored. (Source: Al Jazeera)

Despite Keita’s efforts to mitigate ongoing insurgent violence, on August 18, 2020, Malian soldiers ambushed Bamako, the West African country’s capital, and arrested the president. The opposition, which calls themselves the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), and their spokesman, Colonel Ismael Wague, claimed the group is “not keen on power, but we are keen on the stability of the country.” CNSP seeks to organize a general election that will provide Mali with stronger institutions. Later that day, Keita delivered a brief address from the military base in Kati. Keita announced that he would not only resign, but that he would also dissolve Parliament. Keita was released on August 27, 2020. Since May 2020, Malian citizens have protested Keita and his party as a constitutional court overturned results from a contentious parliamentary election that allowed for Keita’s party to occupy the majority of seats. Since the contested ruling, Malian streets have been embroiled in protests as disgruntled citizens demanded new leadership to counter the growing threat of extremism and economic instability. (Sources: Washington Post, CNN, Reuters, Washington Post, Al Jazeera)

Following the release of Keita, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) quickly imposed economic sanctions on Mali, which were lifted on October 6, 2020, following the junta’s nomination of retired Colonel Bah Ndaw as interim president, and Moctar Ouane—a civilian per the conditions imposed by ECOWAS—as prime minister of the transition government which is expected to lead to an election in 18 months. (Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, Jerusalem Post)

International Counterterrorism and Counter-Extremism

Mali is part of a number of international initiatives working to counter terrorism and extremism in West Africa. In February 2014, Mali and four other West African countries—Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso—agreed to form an organization called the G5 Sahel. The group aims to strengthen regional cooperation on development and security. In announcing the group’s formation, the Heads of State formally reiterated their “strong condemnation of terrorism in all its forms.” The countries formally agreed to set up a joint counterterrorism force in February 2017. (Sources: Primature, BBC, Africanews)

Since its formation, the G5 Sahel has worked to coordinate with foreign forces undertaking counterterrorism and counter-extremism efforts in the region. Among other entities, the G5 Sahel has met with the European Union, whose EU Sahel Regional Action Plan works to prevent and combat extremism and radicalization in the West African region. (Sources: Reuters, European Union)

Mali is also part of ECOWAS, and has benefitted from ECOWAS membership, particularly via its 2013 military intervention. According to ECOWAS’s General Officer, religious extremism is a contributing factor to terrorism and the threat of terrorism in West Africa. Other factors the Officer links with terrorism are “poverty, poor governance, conflicts, political instability, corruption, weak government institutions, easy access to small arms, [and] violence.” (Sources: Diplomatie, Global Center)

Combating Terrorist Financing

To combat the threat of terrorism financing, Mali holds membership in the Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA). Established by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), GIABA works to “strengthen… the capacity of member states towards the prevention and control of money laundering and terrorist financing in the region.” Mali is also a member of the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, and has participated in the Global Counterterrorism Forum. As the U.S. Department of State has noted, Mali has volunteered to act as a pilot country for the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, an effort designed to support local communities and help them resist violent extremism. (Sources: Primature, U.S. Department of State, GIABA)

Islamic Extremism and Armed Insurgencies

According to a 2018 poll by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 88 percent of Malians interviewed claim to fear terrorist attacks. Additionally, 59 percent of interviewees claim that MINUSMA does not adequately protect the population from armed groups and terrorists and over 57 percent of interviewees believe that soldiers involved in Operation Barkhane are “in cahoots with armed groups.” Furthermore, given the increasing number of insurgent attacks, more than 65 percent of interviewees claim to favor government negotiations with jihadist leaders to prevent future turmoil. (Source: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)

The Northern Rebellion and Military Activity

According to a poll by ORB International conducted in late 2012, 78 percent of Malians supported an international intervention in northern Mali to quash the rebellion. In the region closest to the northern conflict, that number was higher, with 89 percent supporting an international intervention. At the time, the Malians polled lacked confidence in their own military, with 61 percent believing that the nation’s military should not attempt to retake the north until it was stronger. Immediately following France’s intervention, a poll conducted by Al Jazeera showed that 96 percent of the Malian respondents polled were supportive of the intervention. (Sources: ORB International, Gallup, Al Jazeera)

According to an August/September 2014 poll, 39.9 percent of Malians believed that the fight against armed militias in the north should be a priority of the government. By that time, however, surveys showed that other issues—including youth unemployment and government corruption—ranked higher on citizens’ priorities. Malians in 2014 were also significantly more confident in their country’s military capabilities, with 58 percent believing that the military was capable of securing the country, including the northern region. After France’s intervention, 56 percent of Malians appreciated France’s efforts in the country through Operations Sérval and Barkhane. A total of 71.9 percent of Malians believed in 2014 that armed forces and MINUSMA were sufficient to ensure the security of Mali going forward, although the country had a mixed response to the ongoing presence of MINUSMA forces on Malian territory. A poll of Malians conducted in October 2015 showed that 67 percent of the population was dissatisfied with MINUSMA’s work, compared to 29 percent who were satisfied. (Sources: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, GISSE)

A poll of Malians conducted in October 2015 showed that 67 percent of the population was dissatisfied with MINUSMA’s work.

By 2015, pollsters could reach the northern Malian regions of Gao, Kidal, and Menaka. Polls published in January/February 2015 revealed that 25.32 percent of Malians in those areas believed that the fight against armed militias should be one of the government’s main priorities. This came in contrast with 52.60 percent of those polled, who believed that negotiating with the armed militias should be one of the government’s main priorities. (Source: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)

By October 2015, a slight majority of Malians polled—54.3 percent compared to 44.6 percent—believed that Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta had done a good job managing the northern conflict. A larger majority—67.3 percent—was satisfied with France’s efforts in Mali, compared to 32 percent who were dissatisfied. While this figure appears to indicate broad support for France’s activity in Mali, it is worth noting that the figure is significantly lower than it was at the start of the conflict, when over 90 percent of the Malian public supported France’s intervention in the country. (Source: GISSE)

After the November 2015 Bamako attack, roughly 35 percent of those polled in an online survey believed that Malian security forces were failing, and 31.29 percent indicated that the West treated the attack as trivial. Twenty one percent believed that the hotel attack was a response to a June 2015 peace deal signed between the Malian government and insurgents. (Source:

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