The two major trouble spots in Mali are in the north, where Islamic terrorists continue to operate despite the continued presence of French counter-terror forces as well as most of the 13,000 peacekeepers assigned to Mali. Most of the Islamic terrorists up north are affiliated with al Qaeda and many are involved in a lucrative snuggling enterprise. Islamic terrorists have, since 2005, been dominating a very profitable cocaine smuggling operation that runs from Guinea-Bissau (where the stuff is flown or shipped in from South America) and then moved north to the Mediterranean coast and finally the millions of cocaine users in Europe. This effort brings in over $100 million a year for the Islamic terrorists involved and has proved impossible to shut down. The French move into northern Mali in 2013 disrupted the cocaine operation, but the smugglers reorganized and, thanks to all that cash, were able to hire new people (and bribe new officials) to get the shipments moving north again. There is now opium and heroin from Afghanistan showing up as well as a lot of locally produced cannabis and hashish that is also sold locally and in North Africa.
Increased security on Algeria’s southern border (especially the ones with Mali and Niger) catches more people illegally cross the border but most of them are smugglers. While most of the smuggled goods are consumer items (easier to see in Algeria) weapons and drugs were encountered. It was the drug shipments that had the heaviest security. This often meant crossing the border at night and then hiding the drugs or weapons at a hiding place known only to partners in Algeria, who had a legitimate reason for being down south. These weapons and drugs were then smuggled north to the coast and another gang of smugglers got the drugs on ships or airplanes headed for Europe. The weapons were for local markets (mostly criminals). Since moving drugs involved so many people, it is more expensive. But that’s the nature of drug smuggling and Islamic terror groups tend to supply most of the security and maintain that monopoly by killing any competitors. Drug shipments still get seized. This is usually when the hiding places on the Algerian side of the border are stumbled on by patrols or the transporters moving the drugs from the southern border to the coast have an accident or get exposed as smugglers for some other reason. The Algerian police estimate that over 90 percent of the drugs get through and the Islamic terrorists get paid more than enough to keep them in business. For this reason, small groups of Islamic terrorists survive in northern Mali, near the Algerian and Niger borders not because of Islamic radical locals but because of the cash. With that, you can buy all the hospitality and discretion you need.
Northern Mali is also where the local branch of ISIL operates. Calling itself ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) this group is frequently encountered in northeastern Mali (around Gao) on both sided of the Niger border. The ISIL personnel frequently clash with pro-government Tuareg militias and usually lose. It’s not that these ISIL men are not fanatic enough but that the Tuareg know the area well and have lots of experience in irregular warfare. In the last two weeks, ISGS took very heavy losses as the Tuareg militias worked with a special French counterterrorism operation that included troops from Mali and Niger and spent over a week searching for and finding several ISGS camps and forcing the Islamic terrorists to fight. The ISIL forces lost over a hundred dead and captured. ISGS is still up there but in much reduced circumstances and the French were ready to collect and analyze the flood of new information gained from all those dead or captured ISGS men as well as several of their camps. The Americans stand ready to provide airstrikes for as many ISGS targets as the French intel effort can locate. The Americans are keen to eliminate the local ISIL franchise because ISGS was responsible for a late 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers. ISGS wants to kill more American troops because that is a big deal with ISIL since Islamic terror groups tend to consider Israel and the United States the main enemies of Islam. Israel and the Americans have also proved to be the most effective at hunting down and killing ISIL groups. So this particular battle with ISIL is more of the same, just in a very remote part of the world. Even ISIL is attracted to the lucrative drug smuggling operation but that is one conflict with less radical Islamic terror groups that ISIL tends to lose. That rivalry is being resolved in northeast Mali and ISIL is not doing well.
In Mali and neighboring states, most of the Islamic terrorists are not ISIL and are largely united. Most of the Islamic terrorist activity is the work of JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems), which was formed in early 2017. In part, this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM and al Mourabitoun (an al Qaeda splinter group). Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources (including information and advice) and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the area. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences. The FLM is Fulani while the other groups are largely Tuareg, Arab and some have a l0t of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not absorb all of AQIM or al Mourabitoun, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. Al Mourabitoun is believed to have largely rejoined al Qaeda. Internal politics for Islamic terror groups is a lot messier than these religious zealots like to admit. That’s mainly because each group believes they are uniquely qualified to be the supreme leader of all Islam. Coping with this aspect of Islamic radicalism has proved burdensome and ultimately becomes a major reason for Islamic terror movements to fail and fade away (via desertion and other forms of self-destruction). JNIM is more heavily influenced by its Fulani component and that is another reason for more attacks in central Mali, which has long been the scene of conflict between Fulanis and other tribes. Largely because of the Fulani and JNIM there has been more Islamic terrorist activity in the last year and that has impeded reconstruction and foreign aid efforts. Add to that the existing culture of corruption, especially in southern Mali and you have an atmosphere that is hostile to good government, national unity or economic growth. The attacks also serve to keep the security forces away from the smuggling operations, which pay for most everything the Islamic terrorists do.
April 6, 2018: In the northeast (outside Gao) two gunmen opened fire on a peacekeeper vehicle and killed a peacekeeper from Niger. The shooters were believed to be Islamic terrorists as many of them operate in that area.
April 5, 2018: In the north (Kidal) several mortar shells were fired into a peacekeeper camp leaving two peacekeepers dead and eight wounded.
In central Mali (Dioura) soldiers arrested 14 men believed to be Islamic terrorists and the next day the suspects all died during an attempted escape. While Islamic terrorists in Mali will stage jail breaks they will rarely spontaneously attempt to escape soon after arrest or capture. Mali soldiers have suffered a lot of casualties from Islamic terrorist attacks, including roadside bombs and landmines. So it is suspected that some army units are implementing their own illegal “catch and kill (while attempting to escape)” policy. This practice is common in many parts of Africa. At least one recently discovered mass grave in Mali contained bodies of people last seen in army custody.
April 2, 2018: In the northeast (Akabar near the Niger border) two different pro-government Tuareg militias clashed with ISGS, which lost twenty dead and several captured in two separate encounters. The Taureg militias and ISGS have been feuding to as long as ISGS has been trying to establish itself in this area. The Tuareg are difficult to terrorize and are keen on avenging bad treatment from anyone. The French understand this better than most other foreigners in the area.
April 1, 2018: In the northeast (Akabar near the Niger border) French and Mali troops encountered about 60 Islamic terrorists and killed at least 30 of them. There were no French casualties but several Mali troops were wounded. Aircraft and helicopter gunships were called in but the surviving Islamic terrorists had fled before the air support arrived. Since this took place about three kilometers from the Niger border the fleeing Islamic terrorists were probably headed in that direction. Examination of the dead indicated they probably belonged to the local ISIL group ISGS. The French and Mali forces had been searching this border region for five days in an effort to find these men. This clash took place less than 50 kilometers where ISGS ambushed U.S. and Niger troops in October 2017. Four American Special Forces troops died in that incident, which took place in Niger.
March 31, 2018: In central Mali Fulani attacks on farmers has left over 25 dead in March. Most of the victims are the farmers, whose settlements are raided by the Fulani herders moving south seeking more grazing land and water for their animals.
March 28, 2018: In central Mali, four gunmen attacked the Hotel la Falaise in the city of Bandjagara. The four men opened fire and killed one civilian but a soldier on guard fired back and the attackers fled. Two other bystanders were wounded in the brief clash. Hotel la Falaise is popular with foreign aid workers and local businessmen. The attackers may have intended to kidnap some of the foreign guests and hold them for ransom. Local businessmen are also frequent kidnap targets but are not as lucrative (and newsworthy) as the foreigners.