Since June Islamic terrorist violence has doubled compared to earlier in the year. That means there have been 15-20 attacks a month since June with most (59 percent) casualties suffered by Mali police and soldiers and 28 percent by UN peacekeepers. Only 13 percent of casualties have involved the thousand French troops in the north. The French troops are part of a larger (about 4,000 personnel) counter-terror group that works with the mew multi-national G5 force. While the Mali security forces and the peacekeepers in Mali are largely for defensive purposes the G5 Force is better trained and equipped and exists to find and kill or capture Islamic terrorists. Thus Islamic terrorists operating in Mali avoid the G5 force and most of the clashes with the G5 Force are because the G5 Force troops were looking for Islamic terrorists to confront.
Not surprisingly Mali has become the most dangerous peacekeeping operation in Africa. Since June the 13,000 strong peacekeeping force has suffered 15 deaths (six troops and nine civilians). Since 2013 nearly a hundred peacekeepers have died in Mali. Most of these deaths occurred in the north, where there was a l0t of violence since (and before) the peacekeepers arrived in early 2013. The peacekeepers are mainly African and in the last year the combined forces suffered a death rate of about 200 per 100,000 per year (a standard measure of such things.) Compare that to the 2013 rate (200 per 100,000) for foreign troops in Afghanistan. That was down from 587 in 2010, which was about what it was during the peak years in Iraq (2004-7). The action in Mali is less intense than in pre-2014 Afghanistan or pre-2011 Iraq but is more than double the rate for peacekeepers worldwide. Total peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 are about 300 dead and wounded and losses have been much heavier among the Islamic terrorists.
The G5 Sahel (the semi-desert area south of the desert that stretches across northern Africa) Joint Force is seen as a better peacekeeping solution because it consists of the best troops from Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) able to deal with Islamic terrorism throughout the Sahel. The idea for the G5 force has been around since 2015 but it was only by the end of 2016 that the countries involved agreed on the details. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force will be stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Thus Sahel East would consist of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central would be staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West would mainly use troops from Mali and Mauritania. France expects to see parts of the G5 force operational by the end of 2017. That would enable France to shrink and eventually disband the force of 4,000 French troops it has deployed in the Sahel since 2013 and reduce the 13,000 strong UN peacekeeper force in Mali. The recent attack on American Special Forces troops in Niger was related to building the G5 Force.
The peacekeepers in Mali are mainly African and mainly stationed in the north and, increasingly central Mali where there is more Islamic terror group activity, not all of it violent. The Islamic terrorists in Mali spend most of their time taking care of business, which is usually smuggling (drugs, weapons, people). This takes Mali based Islamic terrorists into neighboring countries, where the armed smugglers fight locals who get in the way. Burkina Faso and Niger have been the most frequent victims of this kind of violence.
It was also agreed that the G5 countries could not pay for such a force. This is a common problem in Africa, where only a few large, oil-rich nations (like Nigeria) can fund a multi-national operations. The UN or the AU (African Union) usually raise and manage the money. This is always a difficult process because of the pervasive corruption in most of Africa and the need to closely and constantly monitor the money to ensure that is being applied as intended.
The EU said earlier in 2017 it would help G5 get prepared to work in cooperation with the similar (but larger and better equipped) French force that has been operating in the Sahel since 2014. The EU (European Union) approved $56 million to establish support operations for the G5 force. That support will be based on what has already been established for the French counter-terrorism and UN peacekeeping forces in the area.
The idea of a permanent Sahel counter-terror forces had its origins in a 2014 French analysis of the problem. Back then the French concluded that the Sahel was still troubled by thousands of Islamic terrorists and that this situation could not be taken care of quickly. In order to maintain pressure on the Islamic terrorists France established a special force of 3,000 troops to fight Islamic terrorists throughout the Sahel (actually just Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso). Since then the French force has grown to some 4,000 troops equipped with hundreds of armored vehicles, 20 transport and attack helicopters, six jet fighters and three large UAVs. There are also two twin engine C-160 air transports available for use within the Sahel. Supplies and reinforcements are regularly flown in using long-range transports (like the C-17) belonging to NATO allies (especially the U.S. and Britain). From the beginning the French force included a thousand French troops in Mali and the rest dispersed to other Sahel bases and ready to quickly move anywhere in the region that Islamic terrorist activity had been detected. The G5 nations already cooperated by sharing intelligence and providing quick access to their territory by the French force. In addition the Americans provided satellite and UAV surveillance and other intel services (especially analysis and access to nearly all American data on Islamic terrorist activities in the region).
All this was meant to keep the Islamic terrorists in the Sahel weak and disorganized. So far that has worked, but these groups have been around since 2007, are still in business (as gangsters smuggling drugs and illegal migrants north) and getting support from Islamic terrorists in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Islamic terrorists continue to carry out attacks in Mali (mainly the north) and in the G5 states to let the world know that Islamic terrorists were still present in the area and not afraid to fight whoever is sent against them.
The main reason for the stubbornness of the Islamic terror groups is not religion but economics. Much of their activity is economic. They need the money. For example Islamic terror groups use ambushes or bombs, especially against road traffic, not just to intimidate rivals and intimidate local security forces and armed militias, but also to make the roads unsafe. This means it is difficult to get relief supplies to needy populations in the north or revive the economy. Most Islamic terror groups will, for a fee, be selective about who they attack on certain roads. Going along with this extortion is discouraged by most governments (because it sustains and encourages the extortionists) but for the locals it is often a matter of survival.
For the Islamic terrorists all this can be very lucrative. But if you can’t or won’t pay (as is the case with most foreign aid groups) you must either have an armed escort (which peacekeepers will, when they can, provide at no cost) or risk losing a percentage of your shipments (and the willingness of locals to drive those trucks). Sometimes the Islamic terrorists will steal the trucks and let the drivers go but you cannot always depend on that. As a result a lot of refugees who depend on donated food are going hungry.
The increased Islamic terrorist activity in Mali and along its borders is believed to be one result of the main local Islamic terror groups consolidating by forming JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) in early 2017. In part this March merger 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 AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, FLM (Macina Liberation Front), and al Mourabitoun (an al Qaeda splinter group). Another reason for merging is to make it easier to pool resources (including information and advice) and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the area. This reduces friction and needless 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, Arab and some are largely 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. 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 to fade away (via desertion and other forms of self-destruction).
The less publicized reason for this merger was economic. JNIM is noticeably more businesslike which has been the historical trend with terrorist groups in general. These groups evolve into well-organized and persistent criminal gangs. For Islamic terrorists that means eventually carrying out fewer attacks and trying to concentrate on staging ones that will generate maximum publicity or cash (or both). Reputation is important if you want to instill fear and respect. Right now JNIM needs both cash and publicity. Increased smuggling and other cash producing efforts (like extortion and kidnapping) are necessary to pay the bribes (of those who cannot be intimidated) and cash incentives to members. This “payroll” includes money to support families of married senior members as well as cash payments (“compensation”) to the families of members who are killed or crippled by wounds. Without the compensation payments the clans and tribes would discourage their young men from joining.
Most senior Islamic terrorists know how the financial side of things work and have, for over a decade, been taking over more of the drug and people smuggling operations because these efforts cross through several countries and terminate on the Mediterranean coast. Near the coast it is possible to buy weapons, often relatively cheaply, and after taking these down south, sell them for a lot more.
In Mali the Islamic terror groups already play a major role in the culture of corruption that has long been a major obstacle to economic, educational and social progress. Mali is considered one of the least desirable places to send foreign aid because so much of it is stolen before reaching those it was meant for. Details are often not available until long after the crimes occurred. For example an audit of foreign aid sent to Mali in 2015 eventually (after overcoming considerable local lack of cooperation) detailed how one scam alone (involving fuel supplies) saw fifteen percent of British aid for 2015 disappear (and now in some untraceable foreign bank account). To add to the problem there are many risks to foreign aid staff (foreign or local) because of physical violence frequently used to carry out thefts. Most of the attacks on foreign aid workers in Mali occur in the north where the aid is most needed. In 2017 there have been more than twice as many such attacks compared to 2016. The end result is that aid groups, who face more demand than they can deal with, avoid the areas where most of their work is wasted. Mali has become one of the worst, although not the worst.
October 4, 2017: In the northeast, just across the border in Niger four American Special Forces soldiers were killed when the training exercise (a large patrol) they were supervising was ambushed. Four of the Niger troops were killed as well and even more American and Niger troops were wounded. Return fire drove off the ambush force. A dozen American troops were working with about 30 Niger soldiers and all were travelling along a road in unarmored trucks when they were fired on. The attackers were believed to be Islamic terrorists from Mali. In less than an hour French helicopters were in the area to evacuate the wounded and in the next 24 hours French troops and more aircraft from Mali moved to the Niger border to search for the attackers. The area where the attack took place had never experienced an Islamic terrorist activity before but the border is long and the Islamic terrorists have been known to move around the area without attracting attention because the locals tend to avoid groups of men with guns. Apparently Islamic terror groups had established a new smuggling route that ran through this areas. The U.S. has 800 troops in Niger, mainly to train Niger troops but some also maintain a number of Reaper UAVs used for surveillance. The smuggling operations often appear (especially from the air) like commercial or aid group traffic.
Niger is one of the nations in the area that has been able to drive Islamic terrorists out. But it often takes some sustained and bloody combat to get that done. This was the case recently when Niger had problems with Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in the Lake Chad area. That lake is bordered by Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram has operated along the shoreline and on island in the lake for years but have not ventured deeper into Niger because the Niger security forces were too effective. The American troops in Niger are conducting training for Niger troops, some of them headed for the new French led multi-national G5 force while others are still dealing with Boko Haram remnants. Mali has the misfortune of being astride a major smuggling route from central Africa to the Mediterranean.
September 30, 2017: The Mali military has received four new aircraft this month. Two of these were Chinese Y-12 transports. The Y-12 is a 5.3 ton twin turbo-prop aircraft that has a crew of two and carries up to 17 passengers or 1.5 tons of cargo. Cruising speed is 250 kilometers an hour and normal endurance is about five hours.
Two Russian Mi-35M helicopter gunships also arrived with two more on the way. The Mi-35M, with a top speed of 335 kilometers an hour, and two hour endurance, can be armed with 12.7mm machine-gun or 23mm autocannon plus unguided rockets. This is generally sufficient for whatever the Mi-35M might encounter in Mali. The Mi-35M is the export version of the most recent (the most widely produced) model of the older Mi-24V gunship. The Mi-24/35 is a twelve ton helicopter gunship that also has a cargo area that can hold up to eight people, or four stretchers. The Mi-24/35 is used by over thirty countries, and has a pretty good reputation for reliability. Despite tropical conditions the Mi-35Ms are available for action 70 percent of the time. The design is based on the earlier Mi-8 transport helicopter. Thus the export model, the Mi-17, is also a 12 ton helicopter, but without all the gunship stuff. It can carry 2.6 tons of cargo, or up to 24 troops. The Mi-35M version entered service in 2005.
September 24, 2017: In the north (outside Gao) a roadside bomb killed three peacekeepers and wounded five others while their truck was driving by.
September 21, 2017: In the north (outside Kidal) rival Tuareg groups signed another ceasefire after agreeing on what to do about who controls the town of Menaka and other disputed territory. Many of the local Tuareg tribal militias were always pro-government and usually fought the local Tuareg CMA (Coordination of Azawad Movements) separatists and assorted Islamic terrorist rebels. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali (and several other North African nations). The 2015 peace deal ended the Tuareg support for Islamic terrorism, but not the tribal animosities. Since 2015 Tuareg militias affiliated with CMA has regained much of the control of the Kidal region that they gave up to government control after 2015. Since the pro-government militias got most of the government jobs the CMA affiliated groups wanted revenge or at least some form of compensation. For most of 2017 there has been tension and occasional fighting in the Kidal region between the militias. Government and peacekeeper efforts to help work out a lasting peace deal have proved very difficult because many of the demands, once met, tend to upset someone else.
September 20, 2017: In the northeast (Kidal) a peacekeeper vehicle hit a mine near the town of Menaka leaving one soldier dead and several wounded. Menaka is about a hundred kilometers from the Niger border and Islamic terrorists have been more active in the area this year. Closer to Kidal Islamic terrorists attacked a peacekeeper camp but were apparently repulsed without casualties to anyone in the camp. Another group of Islamic terrorists also fired on a Mali Army camp in the area.