The Islamic terrorism violence in the north persists, even though it is mostly sporadic and low-level stuff. There is occasional gunfire, some landmines, infrequent rocket attacks on peacekeeper bases and much of what could be best described as banditry. The violence described as “Islamic terrorism” now is identical to the terrorist acts committed by tribal warlords and bandit chiefs up there for centuries. Same violence, different labels.
In Mali and neighboring states most of the Islamic terrorists belong to AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). This includes local affiliates like Ansar Dine and several new (and quite small) Islamic terror groups in central and southern Mali. The main concentration of AQIM personnel are in the north, in the rural areas between the northern city of Timbuktu and the borders with Mauritania and Algeria. Timbuktu has a normal
population of 54,000 and is the oldest city and long the major tourist attraction in the north
. Timbuktu is a thousand kilometers north of the capital and for over a thousand years has been the major city in the thinly populated north. Ansar Dine is still a presence north of Timbuktu because many of its leaders and members came from the area. The Taureg tribes here have long been hostile to outside control, especially by the national government in the south. While most Malians are Moslem there are some sharp ethnic and tribal differences. The Taureg are North African (related to the ancient Egyptians) while over 80 percent of Malians are various black African tribes. Most Malians live south of the Niger River (the “Nile of West Africa”) in areas that are more prosperous because they have more water than the semi-desert north. Before 2012 rebellious Tuareg around Timbuktu adopted Islamic terrorism as a promising tool to help their fight for autonomy or a Taureg state. That isn’t working out so well. The biggest problem the Taureg have had over the centuries is the inability to unite. Islamic radicalism has not solved that either.
Ansar Dine was unique in that it was the only Islamic terrorist group from Mali and was led by Tuareg Islamic radicals who were formerly secular rebels. In contrast MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) which controlled Gao in 2012 was from neighboring Mauritania. AQIM has members from all over North Africa, but mostly from Algeria. MUJAO (also known as MUJWA) is basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM and there was always some tension between the two groups. AQIM had the most money and weapons and used this to exercise some control over the other two radical groups (who outnumbered AQIM in Mali). Both these groups are sometimes at odds with Ansar Dine, which felt it should be in charge because it was Malian. Until late 2012 all three groups cooperated in order to maintain their control of the north. Then Ansar Dine began negotiating with the Mali government for a separate peace and some kind of compromise over Tuareg autonomy in the north. In part this was because MUJAO and AQIM were bringing in reinforcements from Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan and threatened to reduce the area Ansar Dine controlled. Ansar Dine saw itself as the only Malian group in the Islamic radical government up north and was determined to defend Tuareg interests against the many foreigners in MUJAO (which also has Malian members) and especially AQIM (which wanted to run everything). Ansar Dine saw AQIM as a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. With the high unemployment in the north and the impressive image of Islamic warriors, working for AQIM was an attractive prospect for many young men. The French led invasion of the north in January 2013 reshuffled the deck up there as far as which Islamic terrorist groups predominated. AQIM and MUJAO became much weaker while Ansar Dine was able to fall back on its Tuareg tribal connections. AQIM is still present up north but they have to play nice with Ansar Dine.
In addition to the ethnic, tribal and religious factors, there is also the corruption. In August 2015 Mauritania released Sanda Ould Bouamama, a much wanted (by Mali and the UN) leader of Islamic terror group Ansar Dine. The Mauritanians had been holding Bouamama since 2013, when many Ansar Dine men fled Mali because of the French led invasion. Mauritania never admitted holding Bouamama and it is still unclear why they did that and why they quietly let him go. The UN wants to prosecute Bouamama for war crimes committed while Ansar Dine was in control of Timbuktu in 2012. Bribery and corruption is suspected, as the Islamic terrorists have access to a lot of drug money. Bouamama is back in business and officials in Mauritania have nothing to say about the matter.
The peacekeepers based around Timbuktu cannot do much to resolve these ancient conflicts. The current plan is to try to improve the economy in Timbuktu to the point where there will less economic incentive to join an Islamic terrorist or secular criminal group. That will reduce the violence, but won’t eliminate it. Given the level of corruption still found in the south, the people in Timbuktu doubt that much of the economic development money will make it north.
Meanwhile AQIM is focusing its efforts on making spectacular terror attacks in the south and in urban areas of neighboring countries like Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. This is where Islamic terrorism efforts yield the most media attention and distract the most security personnel who might otherwise be interfering with the more lucrative AQIM drug smuggling operation.
In southern Mali the government response to Islamic terrorist activities down there has been more energetic. A spectacular November 2015 attack on a hotel in the capital used by foreigners and government officials has so far resulted in over 2,000 arrests and more than 700 raids (which yielded about fifty illegal weapons plus some interesting Islamic terrorism related documents). The November attack killed twenty people. The Islamic terrorist violence in the north kills more people but it takes longer and it is done with numerous smaller incidents that, individually, rarely make the news.
In addition to the arrests down south there is the state of emergency that has been in force since last November. This makes it illegal for crowds to assemble and demonstrations to take place without permission. The security forces can ignore some legal procedures when making arrests and holding people in custody. The state of emergency was first enacted, for ten days at a time, after the November 20 attack but is now extended 90 days at a time. The last state of emergency ended in July 2013.
Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Ivory Coast are working out the details of a new peacekeeping plan for northern Mali. The 10,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers currently up there are restricted to a largely passive role and are not allowed to hunt down and eliminate Islamic terror groups. Currently most Islamic terrorist hunting is taken care of by a thousand of so French commandos. The French have help from American electronic and surveillance aircraft and there is more information to act on than the French can handle. So the AU decided to work out a deal that enable peacekeepers, at least some of them, to work with the French commandos to track down and eliminate the Islamic terrorist groups in the north. That will reduce the violence up there and make the more hostile northern tribes willing to make peace. Many tribes have already done that but some of them have not. The new AU peacekeeping operations to begin by the end of 2016.
May 2, 2016: In central Mali (near the junction of the Niger and Bani rivers) there was another outbreak of violence involving Fulani tribesmen. This time it began when men from a pro-government Bambara tribal militia attacked and killed four Fulani in a restaurant on the 1st and then returned to the funeral the next day and killed nine more Fulani. It later was revealed this all actually began on April 30th when Fulani men ambushed and killed two Bambara because of a business dispute. After the funeral attack the fighting continued and nearly 40 (mostly Fulani) have died so far. The Bambara live north of the Niger, where they are about a third of the population in the semi-desert north. The Fulani are largely from south of the Niger.
Another factor in this tribal violence is the fact that some Fulani support Islamic terrorism and even formed a largely Fulani Islamic terrorist group. Like the Tuareg up north, the Fulani are a minority (about 14 percent of the population) and seen as “outsiders” by many other tribes in Mali. There are some twenty million Fulani living in the Sahel (the semi-desert area between the Sahara and the jungle) and some of those in northern Nigeria have become involved in Islamic terrorism via the local Islamic terror group Boko Haram. There are over two million Fulani in Mali and the name of a new Islamic terror group in the south (FLM for Macina Liberation Front) openly identifies with the Fulani (Macina are the local branch of the Fulani). This group became active in early 2015 and claimed responsibility for several attacks since. It started out with calls for Fulani people to live according to strict Islamic rules. That in turn led to violence against tribal and village leaders who opposed this. That escalated to attacks on businesses and government facilities. FLM is composed mostly of young Fulani men and is associated with Ansar Dine. Although most Malians are Moslem, few want anything to do with Islamic terrorism and Boko Haram is seen as a major mistake and not welcome at all in Mali. But the Fulani have always seen themselves as a people apart, an attitude common with the nomadic peoples of the Sahel. The Fulani believe they originally migrated from North Africa and the Middle East. Fulai have lighter skin, thinner lips and straighter hair than other black Africans in sub-Saharan Africa and are also Moslem. Most sub-Saharan Africans are Christian or follow ancient local religions but in Mali nearly everyone is Moslem. Fulani have also been involved with smuggling for a long time, in large part because many are still nomadic and the Fulani don’t really believe in borders. Despite these differences the Mali government took advantage of the fact that the Fulani have lived at peace in Mali for a long time and in nearby Nigeria Boko Haram has brought nothing but death, destruction and misery. The radical Fulani clerics were largely shut down and there was not enough popular support to replace them. The government hopes to get all the radicalized Fulani to abandon Islamic terrorism but it is expected some will refuse and if that number is small enough it will remain a police problem not a threat. The recent violence does not appear to be about Islamic terrorism.
April 22, 2016: In the north French soldiers detained several Taureg men (for questioning) who were escorting three foreign aid workers. The Red Cross men were allowed to continue and when local Ansar Dine Islamic terrorists found out about the detained Taureg they kidnapped the three Red Cross workers. The kidnapped men were released the next day, apparently after the detained Taureg men were also released.
April 18, 2016: In the north (Kidal) peacekeepers killed four people and wounded seven others when they opened fire on demonstrators who had turned violent and broken into the local airport and were destroying equipment. The demonstration began as a protest against the arrests of locals on suspicion of participating in or supporting Islamic terrorism.
April 16, 2016: In the capital police arrested a man wanted in neighboring Ivory Coast. The arrested man is suspected of involvement in a March 13 Islamic terrorist attack at a beach that left 19 dead. The arrested man is believed to be the one who drove the Islamic terrorist gunmen from Mali to the Ivory Coast beach.
April 14, 2016: The government extended its state of emergency three months, to mid-July. This comes after a ten day state of emergency expired. All this is to deal with the increased threat of Islamic terrorist attacks.