Mali: The Noise Next Door


September 13, 2019: In northern and central Mali the Islamic terrorists have managed to either intimidate or gain sympathy from most of the rural population. To achieve this took several years of effort. Now foreign and Malian troops find that obtaining information from rural civilians is increasingly difficult. This was no accident. Local Islamic terrorists have learned to mix making themselves useful with threats. That means achieving credibility, usually via kidnapping, not killing, when they threaten severe punishment for those who inform on them. The rural population have a hard life and don’t want any more problems. The Islamic terrorists are active in smuggling, mainly drugs, and offer some jobs to cooperative tribes or communities. That’s more than the government offers out in the countryside. This is another example of how ineffective or counterproductive local government (both are common in Africa) are usually a major factor in how much Islamic terrorist activity there will be in nations with a Moslem majority or sizable minority.

Bad Neighbor

In 2018 Mali was relatively quiet with a lot more Islamic terrorist activity occurring in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. The recently activated G5 Sahel Joint Force was designed for situations like this because these five Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) each contributed troops best able to deal with Islamic terrorism throughout the Sahel. That is no instant solution because there is a lot of Islamic terrorist activity in the Sahel. G5 began operations in early 2018 and so far has demonstrated the ability to move and fight and make a difference. Mali is still the most troublesome Sahel nation but also has the most outside assistance, including a peacekeeping force along with a separate French counter-terror force that also covers much of the Sahel along with the G5 force. The Mali contingent of the G5 is considered the least capable and that has to be taken into account while the training program for the Mali military slowly improves the quality of leadership and troop reliability. With Mali secured by all these foreign troops, the G5 has been able to deal with Islamic terror problems elsewhere, especially Burkina Faso and Niger.

The G5 force consists of 5,000 soldiers and police that are stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Thus Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West uses troops from Mali and Mauritania. Some of the G5 force was operational by the end of 2017 and by early 2018 the G5 force had already taken part in several counter-terror operations, one of them in the area where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet.

What G5 could not do was replace a lack of security forces in one of its member nations. Burkina Faso is the best example of this because after a new government took power in 2014, the internal intelligence and security forces were reorganized and became much less effective. Islamic terrorists took note and established themselves in the part of Burkina Faso adjacent to Mali. As a result that part of Burkina Faso has seen an increasing amount of Islamic terrorist activity since 2015. In that time at least 300 Burkina Faso civilians and security forces personnel have died, as well as an even larger number of Islamic terrorists. This is over 70 percent of such deaths suffered throughout the country during that period.

Since 2016 there has been more violence in northern Mali and which 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.

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, aided by a new government that was less effective dealing with it. Burkina Faso still hosts over 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 terrain common northern Mali. That is where the Malian 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. The religious pluralism in Burkina Faso helps restrict the Islamic terrorist activity to one area, but that is adjacent to central Mali and provides a handy sanctuary for Mali Islamic terror groups.

Despite the Islamic terrorism sanctuary adjacent to Central Mali, Mali government has been able to negotiate a truce between the warring Fulani and Dogon militias in that area. More than a month later the peace agreement is holding. The tribal violence had escalated during the last four months prior to the peace deal getting implemented at the end of July. The violence had left hundreds dead and caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. The fighting between Dogon and Fulani tribal militias had been going on for years but the 2019 surge began with a spectacular March massacre where Dogon militia attacked a Fulani village. That action left over 160 Fulani dead and it wasn’t just the Fulani who were outraged by this.

The Fulani were the ones who started this violence years ago as they sought to force farmers off the land and away from water supplies the Fulani coveted. But the Fulani raids were meant to terrorize, not exterminate. The Dogon tribe, one of the larger sedentary groups in central Mali, has always been the most organized and aggressive in confronting Fulani expansion into the better watered and more fertile (for grass and crops) Niger River Valley and beyond. After 2012 and the separatist/Islamic terrorist uprising in the north there was an increase in Fulani-farmer violence and the bloodiest incidents often involved Dogon militias fighting Fulani. Calls for the government to disarm the Dogon militias were popular for a while until police and army commanders convinced the government that attempting disarmament would be bloody and, in the long run futile. For the Dogon and Fulani, all this feuding is a matter of life or death while the politicians are concerned about appeasing popular outrage, which tends to fade quickly. Then there are the critical foreign media, which influences foreign aid decisions and is more important, especially for corrupt politicians who steal much of that aid. Getting the Fulani and Dogon (and other farming tribes) to settle the land and water disputes peacefully is more difficult but is the only lasting solution. It is also the more difficult one. Those fundamental conflicts are still there, which is why the current peace deal will be under growing pressure and will eventually collapse into renewed violence.

The Dogon/Fulani feuding in central Mali has been the main cause of over 200,000 civilians being forced from their homes during the first six months of 2019. That is more than five times as many refugees created in the first six months of 2018. Most of the 600 terrorism and outlaw related deaths so far in 2019 have occurred in central Mali. There is still violence in the north but the Islamic terror groups, even ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), the local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) franchise, has been avoiding combat and concentrating on staying alive and taking care of business (smuggling).

The Fulani are also the biggest supporters of the JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) al Qaeda 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, 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 several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical 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 (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg, Arab and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not absorb all of AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. The income from the drug trade keeps a lot of these factions in business and the Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mix and keep it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered to nothing.

Many other Fulani are members of an ISIL faction that operates on both sides of the Niger border in the north. This groups calls itself ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) and is largely local Tuaregs plus foreigners.

The Dogon-Fulani “ceasefire” continues to be at the mercy of natural (drought, hunger) and political (corrupt politicians) events. In the north, the basic problem is poverty and the negative impact banditry and Islamic terrorism is having on efforts to revive the economy.

September 11, 2019: In central Mali, about a hundred kilometers north of the Burkina Faso border, G5 troops were ambushed by JNIM gunmen. Two soldiers and six paramilitary police were killed. The next day there were similar attacks across the border in Burkina Faso.

September 5, 2019: JNIM declared war on G5, as well as the French counter-terrorism force. So far JNIM has been losing that war but JNIM lives where it fights while the French and most G5 troops can be accurately called “foreigners.”

September 4, 2019: In the north, outside Gao, a bus was hijacked by five armed men. The driver and some passengers were let go and the armed men drove off with 22 captives who were pro-government militiamen or former Tuareg rebels on their way to join the army.

September 3, 2019: In central Mali, a landmine went off under a passing bus and killed 14 of the 60 civilians on board and wounded eight. JNIM admitted the bomb was theirs and said it was meant for French troops but there was a tragic accident. Islamic terrorists don’t usually apologize like this but the bus apparently had many people related by family or tribe to the men who obtained and planted the landmine.

August 21, 2019: In central Mali, about twenty kilometers north of the Burkina Faso border, Mali soldiers were ambushed by Islamic terrorists. Five soldiers were killed and more troops were called in to pursue the attackers.

August 18, 2019: A Niger general has taken command of the G5 counterterrorism force.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close