Russian Mercenaries To Fill Security Vacuum Given Impending French Withdrawal From Mali

(New York, N.Y.) — Last week during the U.N. General Assembly, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga accused France of abandoning Mali at the height of an ongoing Islamist insurgency. France announced that Operation Barkhane—France’s seven-year anti-terror mission in Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania—will end in the first quarter of 2022, which would involve the closure of French bases, some of which are expected to close by the end of the year. Of the 5,000 French troops currently in Mali, that number is expected to fall to 2,500 or 3,000 by 2023. Given France’s coming withdrawal, Malian officials have courted Russian mercenaries to join their fight to combat al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) fighters.

In June 2021, France stated it would end Operation Barkhane, which will reportedly be replaced by the Takuba Task Force—the European military task force led by France which advises, assists, and accompanies Malian Armed forces in the Sahel. France’s withdrawal announcement came at a critical juncture as AQIM and JNIM militants regularly attack Mali’s army, which is poorly equipped and underfunded to adequately repel attacks.

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 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, Mali’s 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 on the local population. 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.

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

To read CEP’s resource Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), please click here.

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On February 4, 2020, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants launched a missile attack in Afrin, northwestern Syria. The missiles targeted two schools and a mosque, killing one and wounding seven others.   

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