On November 1, 2019, ISIS militants attacked an army post in Indelimane, Menaka region. The attack killed at least 53 soldiers and one civilian. The attack was one of the deadliest strikes against the West African country’s military in recent history. The violence is expected to further raise tensions in the capital, Bamako, where military families have already protested in the streets. The remote borderlands where Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger meet have become a haven for militants and criminal outfits linked to ISIS in the Greater Sahara. Jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS have exploited ethnic rivalries in Mali and its neighbors to boost recruitment and render swathes of territory ungovernable. Violence between Dogon hunters and Fulani herders has killed hundreds since January, including an attack in March in which gunmen killed more than 150 Fulani, one of the worst acts of bloodshed in Mali’s recent history that forced a resignation by its then-prime minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, and government. (Sources: New York Times, Reuters, Reuters)

Overview

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)

Radicalization and Foreign Fighters

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)

Islamist groups in the region, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar al-Dine (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)

Recruitment

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 Ghali. 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)

Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents

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)

 

Domestic Counter-Extremism

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. (Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, National Interest, Ministère De La Defense, U.N. MINUSMA, U.N. MINUSMA, U.S. Department of State)

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. (Source: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

As of 2019, 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)

International Counter-Extremism

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)

Combatting 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)

Public Opinion

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: aBamako.com)

Islamic Extremism

Polls show that Malians have mixed attitudes regarding Islamic extremism, and whether or not it constitutes a national priority to address. According to a Gallup poll from 2012, a slight majority (51 percent) of Malians rejected the implementation of sharia. A Pew poll released in 2013, however, showed that 63 percent of Malians favored the implementation of sharia. (Sources: Gallup, Pew)

According to a 2014 poll by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a minority of Malians—27.6 percent—believed that religious and political extremism constituted one of the greatest challenges in Mali. In the northern regions of Mali, that number was higher by early 2015, with 34.6 percent of Malians polled in Gao, Kidal, and Menaka considering religious and political extremism a major challenge for the country. (Sources: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)