Mali Coup Occurs Against Backdrop Of Growing Islamist Insurgency

(New York, N.Y.) – Following intense protests against widespread government corruption and a deterioriating security apparatus, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was ousted last week in an apparent military coup. The coup has since drawn widespread international condemnation and occurred as the country struggles to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters, who have recently expanded their territory in Mali’s countryside. Analysts are concered that the coup in Mali will throw the country into further chaos and create a power vacuum for jihadists to exploit as a focal point for terrorists to organize attacks across Africa and beyond.

Human Rights Watch laid caution to this evolving threat in a February report that tracked and detailed the nation’s rising toll of jihadist-backed armed attacks. Mali, which has been operating under a state of emergency since November 2015, has been a hotbed for rising ethnic and jihadist-backed violence in recent years with civilians bearing the brunt of the casualities. In 2019, more than 456 were reportedly killed and hundreds more wounded. A tally of U.N. data shows 416 Malian civilians were killed in the first five months of 2020.

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. 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. According to data from the Pentagon’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the two groups launched over 1,000 attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso in the past year.  

Both ISGS and JNIM maintain a presence in Mali. 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. 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. 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.

To read the Counter Extremism Project’s (CEP) Mali resource, please click here.

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