For three years the 2013 French-led military effort expelled Islamic terror groups in the north, life began returning to normal. By 2016, over 90 percent of the half million people displaced by the year of Islamic terrorist rule in 2012 and fighting in early 2013 had returned home. About a quarter of the Mali refugees fled to neighboring countries and it was believed all would return by 2017. That did not happen. The wrecked economy in the north and continued violence from tribal feuds, increased bandit activity and some lingering Islamic terrorist activity made it clear by late 2017 that the rate of return for refugees had declined to the point where more people were fleeing Mali than returning.
In 2016 40,000 refugees still had not returned and since then the number of Mali refugees outside the country has more than tripled because there was more violence in the north and that spread to central Mali and to the southeast along the Burkina Faso border. Most (42 percent) of the 137,000 Mali refugees are in Mauritania with 39 percent in Niger and 19 percent in Burkina Faso. Mauritania is the western neighbor of northern Mali while Niger east and Burkina Faso southeast. The other neighbors (Senegal, Guinea and Ivory Coast) only border the much more peaceful south.
Mali has one of the most corrupt governments in the region, which is one reason why the primary drug smuggling routes to the Mediterranean coast run through Mali. This not only enriches local officials but also funds many of the local Islamic terrorist groups. Most of these Islamic terrorist factions would not exist except for the income provided from the drug and people smuggling. The drug gangs are unpopular with most Malians because the presence of those drugs, even though most are just passing through to more lucrative markets in Europe, enough gets sold along the way to produce a growing number of local addicts. This sort of thing tears families apart and ensures that these highly effective drugs will always be seen as a major threat, as are the locals who transport and distribute them.
The people smuggling also can get pretty ugly because it sometimes involves slavery and prostitution. Nigerian investigators, seeking information on what was happening to the thousands of Nigerian teenage girls and young women who disappear each year, found that many of them do not remain in northeastern Nigeria, enslaved by Boko Haram Islamic terrorists, or tempted by the promise of a job overseas, end up in one form of bondage or another. Many are sold into prostitution or slavery elsewhere in Africa, including Mali. The Nigerian investigators have traced hundreds of the Nigerian victims to the Mali border where they are forced into prostitution or outright slavery, usually with the help of local Islamic terror groups who, like most Islamic fundamentalists, still believe in the practice of slavery. Those that become prostitutes are often allowed to buy their way out of that after a few years but at that point are on their own and too ashamed to try and go home. Many of these women are sold into slavery elsewhere in the region. Nigeria always had a large slave population, the result of constant tribal wars or civil wars in unstable kingdoms. Britain spent most of the 19th century trying to suppress the practice of slavery in Africa. Colonial Nigeria (which supplied about 30 percent of the slaves sent to the United States) did not see slavery legally eliminated until about 1900 and, for decades after that, the practice continued in rural areas. There was a similar problem throughout the region and in countries like Mauritania and Sudan, where slavery is technically illegal, some groups get away with quietly trading and keeping slaves anyway. Islamic fundamentalists are particularly enthusiastic about this because Islamic scripture does have a lot to say about enslaving non-Moslems, or Moslems you consider heretics.
While the 2013 French counterterrorism operation in the north initially drove thousands of Islamic terrorists into neighboring countries, many slowly returned. But many did not and that’s when the Islamic terror problem in Burkina Faso went from troublesome to terrible. Burkina Faso still hosts 25,000 refugees from Mali. These refugee camps often serve as a sanctuary for Mali Islamic terrorists as long as they do not attract attention in the camp. That’s one reason many countries don’t like to host refugees from a nation that has a serious Islamic terrorist problem.
Burkina Faso is, like Mali, landlocked and has 17 million people (about 20 percent more than Mali). Burkina Faso also lacks the troublesome Tuareg/Arab minority in the north. Because Burkina Faso is south of Mali it also lacks the semi-desert north in Mali. That is where the Tuareg/Arab minority live. Burkina Faso also has more religious diversity with a quarter of the population being Christian and 60 percent Moslem. Moreover, the Moslem population consists of several different “schools” of Islam, some of them quite hostile to Sunni Islamic terrorism as practiced by al Qaeda and ISIL. In contrast, Niger and Mauritania are almost all Moslem and have always been the home for some Islamic conservatives who were not satisfied unless their neighbors also adopted Islamic conservatism.
Where Nastier Is Better
Another development that came after 2013 was the appearance of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria and Iraq and that hyper-violent Islamic terrorist movement soon became an international attraction for Islamic radicals who thought their current Islamic terror group was not sufficiently extreme. ISIL trained new members from all over the world and many of these hyper-fanatics returned home to organize a local “province” of ISIL. By 2018 that resulted in
two “provinces” in central Africa. The second, smaller one ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), recently went public about what it is and where it operates. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province is ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). This is actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. ISGS and ISWAP do not appear to work together except when it comes to Internet media activities, where ISWAP will mention ISGS accomplishments.
ISIL does not have effective central authority at the moment with the senior leadership still dispersed and on the run from recent defeats in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is often difficult, at first, to determine which faction of Boko Haram made an attack. Ultimately one of the factions will take credit. ISWAP is usually quicker to do so and has a much more efficient media operation than most Africa based Islamic terror groups. ISWAP is also finding that there is a downside to using ISIL techniques. More Western nations are willing to help Nigeria or at least coordinate existing counter-terrorism in the region (from Somalia to Mali and the Atlantic coast). There are smaller ISIL factions in northern Somalia, southern Libya and eastern Algeria. These groups were once larger but have suffered heavy losses from local and/or international counter-terrorism efforts.
June 4, 2019: The UN agreed to try and maintain, or even increase, the current peacekeeper force in Mali. Getting donor nations to provide the needed cash and peacekeepers is becoming a problem because of corruption and growing tribal and Islamic terrorist violence in central Mali as well as the persistence of Islamic terrorism in the north. The current UN Mali peacekeeper force in Mali consists of 15,000 personnel, 84 percent of them soldiers with most of the rest police advisors and trainers. The peacekeeper's personnel comes from fifty different nations. The UN has to raise at least a billion dollars a year to maintain this force. Mali is considered the U.N.’s most dangerous peacekeeping operation, with 125 peacekeepers killed in combat since 2013 plus another sixty dead from accidents and disease. So far in 2019, 18 peacekeepers have died in Mali. The UN is not doing it alone, but that is not always beneficial for the UN. UN peacekeepers (mainly from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Bangladesh and Togo) in Mali each cost $65,000 a year, the 5,000 EU (European Union) supported G5 Force troops get by on $25,000 a year each in foreign aid that is not controlled by the UN. That is in addition to about $91,000 per soldier in startup costs provided by NATO and the EU. Foreign donors provide new equipment and weapons as well as air, intel and training support. The G5 nations provide some of their best troops for what amounts to a rapid reaction counter-terror force. G5 is organized to move around and fight but not far from home (unlike the peacekeepers). The G5 military support comes from NATO, particularly France which has 4,500 of its own counterterrorism troops operating in the Sahel (the semi-desert area stretching across Africa from Senegal to Somalia). Unlike the peacekeepers in Mali (or Congo, Sudan, Somalia or whatever) the G5 troops are local and are largely operating on their own territory. Being part of G5 gives them extra equipment (like radios) and training that enables them to quickly call in other resources (like aerial surveillance, air strikes and French ground troops) as needed. There are other joint forces like this. The most recent and prominent example is the multinational force formed from neighboring nations to deal with Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in northeast Nigeria. What the UN really objects to is the G5 force operating so close to the UN peacekeepers, who have become encumbered with a lot of extra costs and corrupt practices over the years. The UN would rather not discuss this or have mass media even notice how badly UN forces come off in comparison.
The UN prefers to have peacekeepers who can be ordered around by bureaucrats and majority votes of UN delegates back in UN headquarters. The UN strives to offend no one outside the area where the peacekeepers are operating while protecting as few people as possible within the peacekeeper occupied area. The UN wants to be able to say that they are seeking non-violent ways to achieve peace while the G5 troops are protecting their own people with all the means at their disposal. That means French or American airstrikes, which many UN members consider unlawful foreign intervention bordering on being a war crime. France and the G5 nations seem to be ignoring the UN criticisms.
May 18, 2019: In the southeast (Sikasso), armed men attacked the Koury border crossing with Burkina Faso at night. The gunmen came from two directions, killing two policemen, a customs officer and four civilians. The gunmen looted the dead and drove off. Koury is 480 kilometers east of the Mali capital and on the main road into Burkina Faso. No one has taken credit for the attack but local Islamic terrorists were believed responsible.
In the northwest (near Timbuktu), a peacekeeper patrol was attacked, leaving one peacekeeper dead and another wounded. In the northeast (Kidal) three peacekeepers were wounded when their vehicle hit a landmine.
May 14, 2019: The ISWAP ISIL faction claimed responsibility for an ambush in Niger, near the Mali border, that left at least twenty soldiers dead. Most of the troops survived the initial ambush but soon withdrew, allowing the attackers to loot the dead soldiers and their vehicles. That area is normally under the control of the ISGS ISIL faction. It is unclear just who was operating there. This may indicate an official or unofficial merger of the smaller ISGS into ISWAP. There has been no official announcement of that as yet. ISWAP still acts (in its media) like a primarily Nigerian operation.