Despite over 20,000 peacekeepers and special counter-terrorism troops operating in Mali and neighboring countries, the casualties keep increasing. While the concentration of most of these forces in northern Mali has pushed a lot of the Islamic terrorists activity to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, Islamic and tribal violence related deaths in those three countries were at least 4,000 in 2019. Nearly half those deaths were in Burkina Faso, a huge increase from 80 in 2016. The dead include security forces, Islamic terrorists and civilians, which often means local armed defense groups.
In Mali, the violence is now concentrated in Central Mali (the Mopti, one of Mali’s ten regions) where 74 percent of the 1,500 2019 deaths took place. The rest were in Mopti’s northeast neighbor (Gao region) where ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is most active. The situation in Mopti is worse than it appears because in the adjacent Sahel province of Burkina Faso there were 918 deaths in 2019. The two provinces can blame it on Islamic terror groups using the two provinces for their drug/people smuggling operation (north to the Mediterranean coast) which is so lucrative that it has expanded, at least in Mopti and Sahel provinces, to include extortion and all manner of criminal activity. At the center of all this violence and cash producing activity are Fulani tribesmen who are numerous (20 million in all) throughout a belt of territory stretching from are Mopti province, through Sahel province then through southern Niger into northern Nigeria.
The Fulani are herders, aggressive, Moslem and very active when it comes to religious (Islamic terror) and tribal violence. Once the Fulani adopted Islamic terrorism they became major players in local Islamic terrorist activity. Before that, the Tuareg (who are ethnically related to the North African Berbers) of northern Mali were at the heart of new Islamic terrorist activity up there a decade ago. The Fulani, further south, are more numerous because the Tuareg are on the edge of the Sahara Desert while most of the Fulani are in or near the Niger River Valley.
It’s not just the Fulani. As with the radical Tuaregs up north, these two groups provided the core leadership to form a larger Islamic terror group that attracted a wide variety of recruits from ethnic groups throughout the Sahel and adjacent areas to the south and even North Africa. At the core of all this violence is the drug money made by moving South American cocaine and locally produced hashish north to more lucrative markets. The most violent groups dominate this business and over the last few decades those have become Islamic terrorists. The Tuareg based Islamic terrorists were bad enough but the more numerous Fulani led groups further south are a larger problem and France has agreed to provide 220 more troops to the existing 5,000 local G5 force and 4,500 French counterterror troops to create a combined force of nearly 10,000 troops, backed by air power and modern weapons and intelligence collecting capabilities. This would be a combined French/G5 force that would act as a single organization to destroy or cripple major Islamic terrorist threats throughout the Sahel.
Currently the 4,500 well equipped French troops operating mainly in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger and have proved the most successful at finding and killing Islamic terrorist leaders as well as key logistics (cash and supplies) and training centers the Islamic terrorists require to manage and sustain their combat and administrative manpower. The enemy is a large, dispersed and fanatic organization that combines religious fanatic violence with entrepreneurial activity (to raise money) to become a major disruptive faction in the areas where they operate.
The Second Act
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 30,000 refugees from Mali, in addition to 500,000 more, most of them locals displaced by the growing Islamic terrorist violence. 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. Central Mali, where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, has become a hotspot for Islamic terrorist activity for the last few years.
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 lives. 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.
The Mali army has suffered the heaviest casualties with 140 dead during the last four months of 2019. Civilian casualties have also been heavy, nearly 2,000 so far in 2019, in the area where most of the fighting has been (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso). The violence is concentrated where the borders of these three nations meet.
Then there is ISIL, which gets a lot of publicity but is a minor part of the problem in Malia and the Sahel. Since 2018 ISIL has had
two “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one was ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) which showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This is the group that has been under heavy attack for most of 2019. The main reason for that is the ISIL strategy of inflicting lots of casualties on the Mali army to destroy soldier morale and willingness to fight or even remain in the military. This is not a new tactic and the battles with ISIL up north are something of a bloody endurance contest.
The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). ISWAP was 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. ISWAP seems to be expanding, apparently by incorporating groups outside Nigeria. ISGS and ISWAP do not appear to work together except when it comes to Internet media activities, where ISWAP will mention ISGS accomplishments. Lately, ISWAP announcements rarely mention ISGS and attribute attacks in ISGS territory as the work of ISWAP. It is unclear what this means because there has been no announcement of any merger. The operating areas of ISGS and ISWAP are about 2,000 kilometers from each other. Another factor is the frequent cooperation between al Qaeda and ISIL groups in Mali and surrounding countries.
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.
Recently ISIL has been the most active in carrying out major attacks but is still not the major player in Mali. That would be JNIM, the local al Qaeda operation, which is mainly taking care of business while ISIL takes the heat. This is typical ISIL behavior, which has always been more into violence than the business of maintaining operations. That’s why al Qaeda survives and thrives while ISIL attracts the more violent Islamic terrorists who prefer to take more risks and casualties. This grabs more headlines, which is one reason for these suicidal tactics. It helps with recruiting but not so much with fundraising. ISIL factions tend to live more by foraging and robbery.
A key reason for Mali and its neighbors attracting so much Islamic terrorist activity is money. Mali has one of the most corrupt governments in the region and that is one reason why the primary drug/people 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 drug and people smuggling. 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, cause 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 who do not remain in northeastern Nigeria, enslaved by Boko Haram Islamic terrorists or are 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 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.
January 13, 2020: French and African officials met, in France, to work out how to create and run a larger and more effective joint French/G5 counterterr0r force. This was done but there remained the problem with the Americans planning to withdraw most of their forces from Africa. The Americans provide a lot of essential logistic and intelligence collecting services for the Sahel counterterror operations. France said it would seek to persuade the Americans to stick around until the Sahel Islamic terrorist crises was brought under control.
. The G5 Sahel Joint Force was a good idea but France has always wanted to expand it. The G5 Force was organized in 2018 to deal with transnational Islamic terrorist organizations. G5 was a consortium of five Sahel (the semi-desert area stretching across Africa from Senegal to Somalia) nations; Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Each contributed troops best able to deal with Islamic terrorism and G5 operated throughout the Sahel region as needed. By 2019 G5 forces were spending more time in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso,
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.
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.
France offered to take the lead in raising more money to expand (as much as double) the size of the G5 Force but it was soon realized that it was easier to find the money than to find the qualified troops. Then there is the chronic corruption in African countries. Mali is still one of the most corrupt nations in the region. That’s the main reason for all the Islamic terrorist activity being centered on Mali.
January 9, 2020: In the north, near Kidal, fifteen mortar shells fired at a peacekeeper base left 18 peacekeepers and two civilians wounded. JNIM was suspected. In neighboring Niger, about 11 kilometers from the border, ISIL forces attacked an army base and were repulsed after losing more than 60 men. The defending soldiers lost 25 men. This attack led to the Niger government replacing the senior army leadership.
January 6, 2020: In central Mali (Alatona, 80 kilometers from the Mauritania border), an army convoy was hit by a roadside bomb, which destroyed four vehicles and killed five soldiers. Some of the Islamic terrorists who set off the bomb were killed or wounded when they fired on the convoy after the bomb went off and surviving soldiers fired back.
January 5, 2020: In central Mali (the Ouagadou forest), a French-led force, with lots of air support, conducted three counter-terror raids over the last 16 days. At least fifty Islamic terrorists were killed or captured.
December 24, 2019: In the north, across the border in Burkina Faso, two ISIL operations left 11 soldiers and 35 civilians dead.
December 22, 2019: In central Mali, a French Reaper UAV used missiles to kill seven Islamic terrorists. This was the first time France has used armed UAVs to attack ground targets. France has been using RQ-9 Reaper UAVs in Mali since late 2013. Earlier in 2013, France decided to buy two RQ-9s and by the middle of the year had upped the order to a dozen. This was with the understanding that one or two would be available for French use in Mali before the end of the year. This was less of a problem than it appears because the U.S. had already (since January 2013) been operating RQ-9s in neighboring Niger and the British have their own RQ-9 operations center, where satellite links allow UAV operators to control RQ-9s anywhere on the planet, in Britain that could be used to quickly train French operators. Facilities were also available in the United States, which is where RQ-9 ground crews are trained. The U.S. delivered on its end of the deal and France got its operators and ground support personnel up to speed on time. At the time two French Harfang UAVs were present in Mali, operating from neighboring Niger, along with some American RQ-9s. The Harfang is based on an Israeli design and is similar to the 1.1 ton U.S. Predator. The larger RQ-9 weighs 4.6 tons. France currently has eleven RQ-9s. One was lost to an accident and the others are being upgraded to handle Hellfire laser-guided missiles and a French made smart bomb. Obviously at least one of the upgraded Reapers was available by the end of 2019. The upgrade program is expected to be completed by 2021. The upgrade costs about a million dollars per UAV and includes software and hardware modifications. France continues to use its Reapers mainly for surveillance and reconnaissance. Finding Islamic terrorists is a difficult job but with the Reapers, it is possible to follow up on any leads obtained by informants or other information sources and confirm when the suspected Islamic terrorists actually are. The seeking and finding Islamic terrorists is not glamorous work but it is the main reason the French counter-terror forces keep finding Islamic terrorist leaders or large concentrations of Islamic terrorists to attack. With armed UAVs, it is now possible to hit elusive targets before they evade the surveillance. This has happened regularly since 2013 and despite political resistance to armed UAVs, the losses suffered by French troops in Mali eventually made armed UAVs more acceptable.
December 10, 2019: In the north, across the border in Niger, ISIL forces attacked an army base, killing at least 70 soldiers.