Mali has become a terrorist hotspot. Since mid-2017 Islamic terrorist violence has more than doubled in Mali compared to the first half of the year. That means there have been about 20 attacks a month since June with most casualties suffered by Mali police and soldiers. Most of the additional attacks are now taking place in central Mali, where Fulani Islamic terrorism has become increasingly common. In early there was another reason for this; the largest 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 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 merger was 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 new JNIM is more heavily influenced by its Fulani component and that is another reason for more attacks in central Mali, which has long been the scene of conflict with Fulanis.
JNIM attacks avoid the north, where the French counter-terror operations are concentrated and where Tuareg tribes predominate. The Tuareg and Fulani have never got along well and both groups have a long history of feuding over grazing land and water sources for their herds. Then there is the cattle thefts, which continue, mainly by Tuareg gangs against Fulani herds. In Mali there is another factor. While the Tuareg have mainly sought autonomy in the north, the Fulani have a reputation for violence, a sense of entitlement and preference for violent solutions wherever they are. Thus the Fulani have been trouble throughout central Africa where they live, usually as herders. Currently the main Fulani trouble sports are in Nigeria (where they clash with Christian farmers), Niger (cattle again) and Mali (long standing feuds with Moslem farmers and Tuareg cattle thieves). The Fulani have been prominent (but not always dominant) when it comes to Islamic terror organizations. Thus they showed up in Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as various Islamic terror groups in Niger where they were involved in a recent (October 4) clash with American military advisors that left four Americans dead. But for the Fulani religion or tribal affiliation is not the major factor, it’s mainly about the money and for Fulani cattle are wealth and historically if Fulani have fewer cattle they were less likely to survive. Simple as that.
Taking Care Of Business
Thus a more important factor for the recent Mali Islamic terror group merger is money. JNIM is noticeably more businesslike which has been the historical trend with successful 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). Attacks are also intended to terrorize the government (especially the security forces and courts) into leaving them along. 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 when it comes to corruption and the impact of that on aid and counter-terrorism efforts. .
On a global scale Mali is 116 out of 176 countries for 2016 when it comes to corruption. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge. Somalia was rated the most corrupt nation in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. But in Africa there are exceptions, like Botswana (a landlocked nation north of South Africa). In the Middle East Israel and the UAE are the exceptions.
Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while for the least corrupt (usually Denmark) it tends to be 90 or higher. The current Mali score is 32 compared to 34 for Algeria, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 64 for Israel, 60 for Botswana, 74 for the United States, 28 for Nigeria, 26 for Cameroon, 20 for Chad, 35 for Niger, 36 for Benin, 43 for Ghana, 45 for South Africa, 11 for South Sudan, 21 for Congo, 45 for Senegal, 40 for India, 72 for Japan, 37 for Indonesia, 53 for South Korea, 17 for Iraq, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 28 for Lebanon, 29 for Iran, 25 for Afghanistan, 32 for Pakistan, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, and 12 for North Korea. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general.
The Regional Response
The French troops still operating in northern Mali are part of a larger (about 4,000 personnel) counter-terror group that works with the newly formed 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. But there are far more Islamic terrorists and associated outlaws in the Sahel (especially Mali) than the G5 force can handle. That can be seen by the growing number of Islamic terror attacks in Sahel nations bordering Mali.
Not surprisingly Mali has become the most dangerous peacekeeping operation in Africa. Since June the 13,000 strong peacekeeping force has suffered over twenty deaths (troops and civilians). Since 2013 nearly a hundred peacekeepers have died in Mali. Most of these deaths occurred in the north, where most of the violence has been 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 that 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.
All The Peace You Can Paying For
It was understood that the G5 countries could supply the troops but 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 UN has agreed to contribute as well but the terms have not been worked out yet.
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 surviving on smuggling) 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. Interestingly ISIL never became a major factor in sub-Saharan Africa. There were a few feeble local groups but most of the more serious believers went north or headed for Syria. Few of these were ever heard from again.
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 goal of smugglers in this part of Africa is to help get illegal goods (migrants, drugs and weapons are the most lucrative at the moment) north to the Mediterranean where European gangs (including the Italian Mafia, whose activity in this area can be tracked back over 2,000 years). Smuggling, banditry and piracy are ancient problems in the Mediterranean but because of the amount of wealth up there, especially on the European side of the Mediterranean, there was always money to be made, irrespective of religion or politics.
November 16, 2017: In central Mali (Segou) several Islamic terrorists kidnapped a judge. This comes after an October 31 attempt was made to kidnap a senior judge in the same region. This comes after similar activity. For example at the end of 2016 Islamic terrorists attacked a prison and freed a hundred prisoners. The Fulani Islamic terror group FLM was responsible for all three of these incidents and this is all about making it easier for Fulani who get arrested for suspected Islamic terrorism or related (weapons or drug smuggling) activity to be quickly released. The October 31 attack left the driver of the judge’s car and five soldiers dead.
In the far north, on the Algerian border, Algerian troops report finding another batch of weapons and ammunition hidden by smugglers before movement into Mali or further north into populated areas of Algeria. This year the flow has been increasingly into Mali. But that is complicated by increased Algerian patrols along its southern borders and increased surveillance by French led counter-terror forces in northern Mali and similar areas to the east and west.
November 15, 2017: The government and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) agreed to more cooperation in security matters, particularly Islamic terrorism. The UAE has been active in counter-terror operations in the Sahel, mainly by providing intelligence and logistical (transport aircraft) support. Mali could also get some useful advice from the UAE on how to handle corruption as well.
November 6, 2017: In the north (100 kilometers outside Gao) a bus hit a landmine and four civilians on board were killed. Mines are often planted by terrorists in roads used mainly by civilians to terrorize civilians into doing whatever the terror groups ask.
October 26, 2017: In the north (near Kidal) three peacekeepers were killed and two wounded when their vehicle hit a mine. The peacekeepers were protecting a convoy carrying supplied for peacekeepers as well as foreign and some commercial goods.
October 23, 2017: In the north (near Kidal) a French airstrike accidently hit Mali troops and killed eleven of them. But the dead Mali troops, at first thought to be prisoners of the Islamic terrorists later turned out to have been Mali soldiers who deserted and joined the Ansar Dine Islamic terror group. The eleven were in an Ansar Dine training camp where they would learn to use their experience as soldiers to stage attacks while pretending to be soldiers or police. All these revelations were made public to point out that the Mali government, which is in charge of screening recruits for the army, is often corrupt or just ineffective when doing that.