There have been nearly a hundred terrorism (Islamic or tribal) related deaths so far in 2017. Islamic terrorist violence was up nearly 50 percent (to 257 clashes) in 2016 for Mali and its neighbors Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Niger. Yet the violence does not appear to be continuing its growth. So far in 2017 the incidence of Islamic terrorist violence is about the same in these countries. The local Islamic terror groups have responded by forming JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). In part this is 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 AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM (Macina Liberation Front), and al Mourabitoun.
The major player in this new alliance is AQIM which was formed in 2007 from several of the 1990s era Algerian groups. AQIM now operates throughout northern and west-central Africa. Because AQIM leadership still contains a lot of Algerians the Algerian government has been helpful to African nations where AQIM is operating. AQIM now spends most of its time smuggling drugs, people and whatever else pays (like kidnapping Westerners). AQIM carries out or sponsors (with money, weapons and advice) smaller groups to carry out attacks and share the credit. AQIM likes to stay in the headlines but concentrates on staying solvent.
Two of the most active AQIM affiliates are in Mali, mainly because the government there has not yet resolved the ethnic feuds that have been a problem since the nation was formed in 1960. The oldest AQIM affiliate in Mali is Ansar Dine which was formed in the north near Timbuktu (because many of its leaders and members came from the area). Ansar Dine was unique in that it was the only Islamic terrorist group from Mali and was formed in 2012 by Tuareg Islamic radicals who were formerly secular rebels. Ansar Dine always saw itself as the only Malian group in AQIM, which many Malians consider a bunch of gangsters, dependent on its relationship with drug gangs (al Qaeda moves the drugs north to the Mediterranean coast) and kidnappers (who hold Europeans for multi-million dollar ransoms). All this cash gave AQIM a lot of power, both to buy weapons and hire locals. After France chased most Islamic terrorists out of the north in 2013 Ansar Dine became the main AQIM representative in Mali because it was not considered foreign and thus able to survive among kinsmen.
In central Mali the FLM (Macina Liberation Front) was created in 2015 with the help, and example, of Ansar Dine. FLM is composed mostly of young Fulani men. The Fulani tribes of central Mali are producing a growing number of recruits for Islamic terrorists. FLM openly identifies with the Fulani (Macina are the local branch of the Fulani). FLM became active in early 2015 and since then has claimed responsibility for a growing number of attacks. It started out with calls for Fulani people to live according to strict Islamic rules. That in turn led to violence against tribal and village leaders who opposed this. That escalated to attacks on businesses and government facilities. FLM considers Ansar Dine their friend and ally mainly because Ansar Dine was inspired by al Qaeda but was always composed of Malians, mainly Tuareg, northern Arabs and some Fulani. Although most Malians are Moslem few want anything to do with Islamic terrorism. But the Fulani have always seen themselves as a people apart, an attitude common with the nomadic peoples from the Sahel (the semi-desert area between the Sahara and the much greener areas to the south). That makes joining FLM more attractive to young men, especially since the Fulani have also been involved with smuggling for a long time and that is seen as an acceptable profession. Another thing that sets the Fulani apart is that still think of themselves as nomadic and thus don’t really believe in borders.
Al Mourabitoun was formed in 2012 by Mokhtar Belmokhtar as a breakaway AQIM faction. Belmokhtar has survived numerous attempts to kill him and has a reputation for being elusive and effective at planning and carrying out major attacks. Belmokhtar is elusive within AQIM as well. He split from the organization in 2012 but rejoined during 2014 without disbanding Al Mourabitoun which he still leads. Since 2012 al Mourabitoun has been using bases in southern Libya and sometimes in northern Mali and Niger as well. The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information that would lead to the death or capture of Belmokhtar.
One thing all JNIM members have in common is suffering losses as personnel defect to ISIL. This has become a growing problem since 2015. This sort of thing is happening all over the Islamic world as the more fanatic Islamic terrorists seek to identify with what appears to be the most successful (or at least most violent and media savvy) Islamic terrorist group at the moment. Given the many setbacks ISIL has suffered in the last year and small number now active in North Africa the threat to JNIM has diminished but not disappeared. ISIL attempted to establish a major base in Libya but was crushed by local groups in mid-2016 and the surviving ISIL members were apparently ordered to return home and seek to maintain an ISIL presence there. That means some of these Libya survivors are arriving in Mali and adjacent states. Even with that ISIL will apparently remain a minor threat to JNIM. ISIL and JNIM will continue trying to outdo each other in gaining media attention. This is done by launching attacks on Westerners, especially hotels where foreign journalists live. That guarantees massive headlines and lots of young Moslem men, especially in the West, encouraged to become active supporters.
Solutions and Problems
Since 2012 increasingly effective French-led counter-terror efforts in Mali and adjacent areas (actually just Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso) have kept Islamic terrorists weak and disorganized. The local governments, especially the one in Mali, have been particularly inept in dealing with Islamic terrorist groups and is dependent on foreign help. This is largely because Mali has worse corruption and ethnic disputes than the neighbors. For example the dry (desert and semi-desert) north contains more than half of the territory but only about 12 percent of Mali's 15 million people. In the southern third of Mali, where 88 percent of Malians live the population is quite different from the northerners. While most Malians are Moslem there are some sharp ethnic and tribal differences. The Tuareg are the majority in the north and are North African while over 80 percent of Malians are various black African tribes. Most Malians live south of the Niger River (the “Nile of West Africa”) in areas that are more prosperous because they have more water. The hostility between the army (almost entirely composed of black Africans from the south) and the Tuareg (a lighter skinned group related to Arabs and ancient Egyptians) goes back a long time. Before 2012 the rebellious Tuareg around Timbuktu tried something different and adopted Islamic terrorism as a promising tool to help their fight for autonomy or a separate Tuareg state. That has often failed in the past because the Tuareg have been unable to unite. Islamic radicalism has not solved that problem either. Islamic radicalism didn’t work but it did encourage more violence.
Until the French arrived in the 19th century and over the next 68 years created (for administrative purposes) a united "Mali", the black Africans in the south (along the Niger River) prospered and generally ignored the Tuareg in the desert north. But after the French left in 1960, and Mali became independent, the more populous south was forced to deal with the Tuareg dominated north they now “owned” and were not willing to give up. This has not worked out well for either side and JNIM is one result.
Even among the black majority there are some fatal divisions. In central Mali (near the junction of the Niger and Bani rivers) violence between Peul (Fulani) and Bambara tribesmen has gotten worse in 2017. For example in February some Bambara attacked a Peul village and killed at least 30 people and wounded many more. More than 500 villagers fled their homes to avoid the violence. That violence has continued and so far this year has forced over 5,000 people from their homes. This tribal feuding has been going on for years but got worse since 2015 when the Peul became widely known as a source of recruits for Islamic terrorist groups and for generally supporting AQIM. The more numerous Bambara (who tend to be pro-government) live north of the Niger and are about a third of the Mali population. The Fulani (who tend to be more rebellious) are largely from south of the Niger. This is not just a Mali problem as Nigeria complains that armed Fulani herders from Mali have showed up in northeast Nigeria and joined local Islamic terrorist groups.
All this ethnic and religious tensions has led to an increase in the number of families that obtain firearms to defend themselves. More AK-47s are showing up and this is the result of local traders responding to more requests for such weapons. The traders can obtain these weapons during their regular trips to Mauritania and Algeria and use bribes to help get the weapons across the border. This adds to the cost of the AK-47 (which used to go for under $100 in the 1990s) but locals are willing to pay $500 or more to get one.
April 4, 2017: A court indicted four suspects in a February 8 kidnapping of catholic nun Gloria Cecilia Argoti. The four men being prosecuted were known to the kidnapped nun, who is still being held somewhere. The kidnapping occurred in the south (300 kilometers east of the capital near the Burkina Faso border) when four armed men kidnapped a Catholic nun (from Colombia) who provided health care from a clinic in a parish compound. At first it was feared the kidnappers were Islamic terrorists, who prefer to attack non-Moslems (especially clergy) and kidnap foreigners. The four men claimed to be Islamic terrorists. Police concluded (based on testimony of the other three nuns in the compound) that the attackers were probably just common criminals. The other nuns were not killed by the armed men but rather locked up in a closet as the compound was looted of all valuables and the attackers left with the one nun. The getaway car was later found abandoned. Police soon arrested at least twenty people in the area, killing one of them in the process. There has not yet been a ransom demand and it is feared that the criminals plan to sell their captive to Islamic terrorists, who often buy such captives from criminals. That’s because the criminals don’t want the long term problems with police because they made the country look bad by kidnapping a foreigner. The Islamic terrorists, on the other hand, seek that kind of attention and generally can obtain a much higher ransom, or die trying.
March 31, 2017: Down south parliament approved extending the state of emergency another ten days. This comes at the end of an eight month extension. The state of emergency has been in force since November 2015 and makes it illegal for crowds to assemble and demonstrations to take place without permission. The security forces can ignore some legal procedures when making arrests and holding people in custody. The state of emergency was first enacted, for ten days at a time, after the November 2015 terror attack but later extensions were longer. Before 2015 a previoust state of emergency ended in July 2013.
March 25, 2017: In the north the main Tuareg factions refuse to attend a government conference next week to discuss how to implement the 2015 peace deal worked out with the Tuareg but not yet agreed to by everyone. The boycott is an effort to force the government to include some more Tuareg factions in the deal.
March 13, 2017: In the north (near Timbuktu) French troops arrested eight AQIM members. Some 600 such arrests have taken place in the north since 2013 and most of them involved AQIM members. This includes those AQIM men smuggling drugs or other contraband north.
Elsewhere in the north (near the Niger border) two soldiers were killed along with two civilians when Islamic terrorists attacked a village market in Fafa. The attackers fled after the initial gun battle.
March 6, 2017: In the north (Timbuktu) local Tuareg militiamen surrounded government buildings and prevented southern officials from reestablishing government operations. The militias insist that should not happen until everyone agrees to the 2015 peace deal.
March 5, 2017: In Central Mali near the Burkina Faso border Islamic terrorists attacked the Boulikessi army base, killing 11 soldiers and wounding five.
March 2, 2017: A new Islamic terrorist coalition was announced. JNIM includes AQIM, Ansar Dine, FLM, and al Mourabitoun.