It has been a rough six months for the 13,700 peacekeepers in Mali, with 18 dead and 77 wounded in that period. Islamic terrorist attacks are on the rise; from 183 in 2016 to 226 in 2017 and 237 in 2018. In some areas, where the fighting has been near an international border, Mali civilians have fled the country. This is most common in the northeast where about 10,000 Mali civilians are currently living, and often barely surviving, across the border in Niger. Islamic terrorist violence is up in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger where a prominent target for the religious fanatics is Western education. Over 2,000 schools in these three nations have been forced to close leaving 400,000 children without an education. Islamic terrorism has disrupted economic activity and rural transportation along the few roads available.
The continued presence of Islamic terrorists in Mali and neighboring countries, despite increased counter-terrorism activity, is mainly due to two external developments; more cocaine and fewer places for Islamic terrorists to operate in. The cocaine pipeline from South America to Guinea Bissau (via air or ship) and thence via nearby landlocked Mali north has long (since the 1990s) been dominated by Islamic terrorists driven out of North Africa at first and later from major defeats in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere. Mali was, compared to other places Islamic terrorists operated in, relatively safe. Smuggling and kidnapping enabled Islamic terrorists to survive, if not exactly thrive.
The impact of drug gangs cannot be underestimated. In Mali and neighboring countries, local officials are easy to bribe and are not keen on wiping out the source of all their new-found wealth. This has led to resistance to Western (or any outside) intervention in northern Mali and nearby areas. Many local leaders blame the United States and the West for this mess. The reasoning is twisted, but it involves Western counter-terrorism efforts in Africa and the usual Western imperialism. No mention of corruption among African politicians. This is one of the causes of a military coup in Mali in early 2012. The troops wanted their political leaders to spend less time stealing and more time dealing with the growing unrest in the north.
Then there are ethnic rivalries. There are Arabs and Tuareg tribes in the north. In central Mali, you have the Fulani, who are feared throughout the region (as far east as Nigeria). The nomadic Fulani clash with local tribes wherever they are and were attracted to Islamic terrorism because it gave them another excuse to attack anyone they encountered.
These ethnic differences are complicated by Tuareg participation in smuggling cocaine and hashish north, through Algeria, to Europe. The drug smuggling is actually handled by Arab gangsters that are not terrorists. Various Islamic terrorist factions (especially Al Qaeda) get paid lots of money to provide security for the drugs as they make the long run through central African forests, then the Sahara. The Tuareg provide local knowledge of the terrain, and people, at least in the far north of Mali and southern Algeria. The Algerian government has long feared that the Tuareg would be tempted, by a big payday, to provide sanctuary for al Qaeda, as well as providing new recruits for Islamic terrorist operations (especially those that raise a lot of cash, like kidnapping Westerners.) While the Tuareg are not fond of Islamic terrorism, young Tuareg are allowed to work with al Qaeda as hired guns and guides. The pay is good, and the work is generally not too dangerous. But the young Tuareg picked up some radical ideas from their al Qaeda bosses, and that caused some tension with tribal leaders. The mere fact that Tuareg are working for al Qaeda in southern Algeria angered Algerian officials. Most of the 1.5 million Tuareg in the region are living in nations bordering Algeria (Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali and Niger). Mali has faced rebellious Tuareg for a long time and made peace with most of them in 2007. By 2012 Tuareg rebels insisted that they had no connection with al Qaeda or any similar group but some Tuaregs did. By 2013 a French led counter-terrorism operation in northern Mali drove out most Islamic terrorists out and the Tuareg tribes demonstrated their inherent hostility to Islamic terrorists by helping. But the Tuareg were still willing to work with smugglers (of anything) as they had for centuries. When it came to money the smugglers left religion, radical or otherwise, out of it. The smugglers soon resumed operations and with that came their hired guns, a profession dominated by Islamic terrorists.
The drug shipments quietly passed through Fulani territory in part because the Fulani had more important problems to deal with. The growing tribal violence is largely caused by the Fulani herders of central Mali. Fulani tribesmen, in general, are also the biggest supporters of the current JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) coalition. This organization was formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members like 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 region. 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 and Arab, plus some have a lot 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 but some small Al Mourabitoun factions remain independent. The income from the drug trade kept a lot of these factions in business while the Islamic terrorists knew that business and religious fanaticism did not mix, and kept it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered to nothing.
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 failing and fading away (via desertion and other forms of self-destruction). The new 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 involving Fulanis. Largely because of the Fulani and JNIM, there has been more Islamic terrorist activity since 2017 which 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 and economic growth.
The French support is important because the government is still crippled by corruption and the growing popularity of conservative Islam by the Mali Moslem majority (90 percent). The senior Islamic clerics in Mali are opposed to Islamic terrorism but are heavily influenced by the conservative Saudi Arabian Wahhabi form of Islam. Mali, like most African nations with large Moslem populations, has accepted Saudi offers of cash to build mosques and religious schools. The Saudis also offer Islamic clerics and teachers trained in Saudi Arabia. A growing number of these Saudi trained clerics and teachers received scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia. Sub-Saharan Moslems have not been very receptive to the idea of living according to Sharia (Islamic) law, which is what Wahhabism demands. But Islamic clerics who regularly criticize corrupt behavior are respected if not always obeyed.
The local governments want the Western foreign aid and technical assistance and they are under constant pressure to clean up the corruption if they want more aid, or want to avoid losing what they are already receiving. The corruption is a larger, and more ancient, problem than religious zealotry but the Islamic terrorists are considered more newsworthy than dirty politicians and drug gangs.
March 17, 2019: In central Mali (Mopti), Islamic terrorists attacked the Dioura army base near the Mauritania border before dawn. Much damage was done to the base and 23 soldiers were killed.
March 12, 2019: In central Mali (Mopti), seven soldiers were killed when Islamic terrorists attacked it with a roadside bomb.
March 10, 2019: In the northeast (Menaka), near the Niger border French troops clashed with Islamic terrorists and four French soldiers were wounded.
March 1, 2019: In central Mali (Mopti), Islamic terrorists a roadside bomb killed nine Mali G5 soldiers near the Burkina Faso border.
February 26, 2019: In central Mali (Mopti), Islamic terrorists rigged a corpse with explosives so that it detonated when moved. Local civilians sought to move it and the explosion killed 17 civilians and wounded another 15. Islamic terrorists in neighboring Burkina Faso had used a similar tactic a month earlier.