Mali: Situation Normal And Getting Worse


February 26, 2018: Foreign aid groups are seeking $263 million from donors (the dozen or so nations that provide most of the aid money) for Mali in 2018. Even though most of this money will go for food and medical aid the amount of cash pledged will fall short of what has been requested. The reason is simple; continuing corruption and violence (tribal and Islamic terrorist) makes Mali a less attractive place to use scarce aid money. There is more demand than supply for aid money and donors want to use their money where it will do the most good, and be less likely to be stolen and erupt into another major scandal when the details of the theft get out. 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 (over a year later 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. Mali security forces make it difficult for foreign investigators to collect evidence of corruption and a lot of the details come from personal experiences of locals who will talk to foreigners. In Mali the government is good at a few things, chief among them stealing foreign aid and concealing the evidence of who did what.

Then there is the violence against aid workers. Most of the attacks on foreign aid workers in Mali occur in the north where the aid is most needed. In 2017 there were more than twice as many such attacks compared to 2016 and that trend caused many aid groups to reduce or shut down aid operations. 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.

Not surprisingly corruption has gotten worse in Mali. On a global scale (Transparency International survey) Mali is 122 out of 180 countries for 2017 compared to 116 out of 176 in 2016 when it came dealing with 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 Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Mali score is 31 (down from 32 in 2016) compared to 33 for Algeria, 71 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 for Israel, 61 for Botswana, 75 for the United States, 27 for Nigeria, 25 for Cameroon, 20 for Chad, 33 for Niger, 39 for Benin, 40 for Ghana, 43 for South Africa, 21 for Congo, 45 for Senegal, 40 for India, 73 for Japan, 37 for Indonesia, 54 for South Korea, 18 for Iraq, 40 for Turkey, 49 for Saudi Arabia, 28 for Lebanon, 30 for Iran, 15 for Afghanistan, 32 for Pakistan, 29 for Russia and 41 for China. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general.

The Terror

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. That is why the original, largely Tuareg, rebellion of 2012 has, with the help of Islamic terror groups, spread to central Mali. That trend was not unexpected because the Islamic terrorism was already spreading from the north to central Mali because of cash poor Islamic terror groups needing to maintain smuggling routes. There was also a problem with the endemic friction between the Fulani tribes of central Mali and just about every other group they come into contact with. Like the Tuareg up north, the Fulani are a minority (about 14 percent of the population) and seen as “outsiders” by many other Mali tribes. There are some twenty million Fulani living in the Sahel (the semi-desert area south of the Sahara desert that stretches across northern Africa) and some of those in northern Nigeria got involved in Islamic terrorism via the Nigerian Boko Haram. News of that spread to other Fulani in the region and created a response. There are over two million Fulani in Mali and the name of a relatively new Islamic terror group in central Mali (FLM for Macina Liberation Front) openly identifies with the Fulani (Macina are the local branch of the Fulani). FLM became active in early 2015 and claimed responsibility for a growing number of attacks since. 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 is composed mostly of young Fulani men and is associated with the older al Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine. Although most Malians are Moslem, few want anything to do with Islamic terrorism and Boko Haram in Nigeria was seen as a major mistake and not welcome at all in Mali. Not so for the Fulani, whose violence in Nigeria was mostly against farmers, who were largely Christian. In Mali the Fulani clashed with farmers who were largely Moslem. Land and cattle were always important but Islamic terrorism, especially when it dominates a lucrative business (smuggling drugs, weapons and people) and welcomes recruits who know how to move around.

The Fulani have always seen themselves as a people apart, an attitude common with the nomadic peoples of the Sahel. The Fulani believe they originally migrated from North Africa and the Middle East. Fulani have lighter skin, thinner lips and straighter hair than other black Africans in sub-Saharan Africa and are also Moslem. Most sub-Saharan Africans are Christian or follow ancient local religions but in Mali nearly everyone is Moslem. Fulani have also been involved with smuggling for a long time, in large part because many are still nomadic and the Fulani don’t really believe in borders. Al Qaeda continues to thrive in central and north Africa because the Islamic terrorists have taken over a lot of the smuggling operations and been attracting many Fulani recruits.

Fulani in general were the biggest supporters of the new JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) that was formed in early 2017. In part this 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 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 destructive 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 fail and 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. Largely because of the Fulani and JNIM there has been more Islamic terrorist activity in the last year and that has impeded reconstruction and foreign aid efforts. Add to that the existing culture of corruption, especially in southern Mali and you have an atmosphere that is hostile to good government, national unity or economic growth.

What Works

The regional G5 Sahel 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. G5 just began operations in 2018 but so far G5 has been a rare success. Donors and supporters have responded. In the last week the EU (European Union) agreed to provide the G5 counterterrorism force with an additional $61 million. This means the G5 force now has over half a billion dollars in aid pledges. 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. Some of the G5 force was operational by the end of 2017 and by early 2018 the G5 force has already taken part in several counter-terror operations, one of them in the area where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. A successful G5 Force 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 appearance of ISIL in the area and the October 2017 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.

Another success has been the peacekeeping force in Mali is the UN peacekeeper force, which is mainly in the north and has managed to prevent widespread violence. There are still feuds between Tuareg groups as well as various Islamic terrorist factions. The peacekeepers are often taken for granted but on a day-to-day basis they are the primary peacekeepers in the otherwise chaotic north.

Not everyone in the region has been so cooperative. Despite all this experience in fighting Islamic terrorism Algeria refuses to send troops to support any military operations outside Algeria, particularly in Libya or Mali. One can understand the reluctance to get involved with the civil war in Libya. Algeria does take sides. For example Algeria continues to side with Qatar in its feud with the other Gulf Arab oil states (and their allies, like Egypt and Israel). That means Algeria backs the UN faction in Libya while the UAE and most other Arab states do not. In any event counterterrorism is a big deal for Algeria because of the long borders they share with Libya and Mali. It is also a big deal for the UN, which considers Algeria the most successful North African nation when it comes to dealing with Islamic terrorism. Algeria has done well at guarding its Libyan and Mali borders but is keeping its troops at home no matter what. Mali is satisfied that their northern border with Algeria is, by local standards, pretty secure.

February 21, 2018: In the northeast (near the Niger border) two French soldiers on patrol were killed when their vehicle encountered a roadside bomb. JNIM claimed responsibility as it now tends to do for just about any Islamic terrorist violence in Mali. The one glaring exception is an ISIL affiliate that has operated in the north (around Gao) since 2011 and carries out attacks often enough to stay in the news. Calling itself ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) this outfit is led by Adnane Abu Walid al Sahrawi, a veteran (since the 1990s) Moroccan Islamic terrorist who joined MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) in 2011 and was with them when they controlled Gao in 2012. MUJAO (also known as MUJWA) was from neighboring Mauritania, part of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and basically a Mauritanian faction of AQIM. The French chased AQIM out of northern Mali in 2013, or at least out of the urban areas. That led al Sahrawi to split from AQIM in 2015 and declare MUJAO part of ISIL. This led to fighting between his faction and AQIM. Then his association with ISIL was confirmed by ISIL in 2016 and he began to carry out attacks in Burkina Faso and recruit more heavily in Mali. To help with this he marries a Fulani woman in 2016 and established a base area in the northern Mali, southwest of Gao near the Burkina Faso border and Niger. IGIS carries on a feud with the pro-government Tuareg militias and took credit for attacking some American troops. Al Sahrawi was always known for his ability to handle foreign media and manipulate them to gain more attention (and thus more recruits and other support).

February 20, 2018: The United States has added Burkina Faso based AI (Ansaroul Islam) to its list of international Islamic terrorist groups. AI is now apparently part of JNIN and that seems to have provide addition resources to enable JNIN to claim credit for a growing number of attacks in Burkina Faso, which borders southeastern Mali. 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 north in Mali. That is where the 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. This more hostile atmosphere for Islamic terrorists may have something to do with AI joining JNIN. That also accounts for recent appearance of AI as part of terror attacks in central Mali.

February 17, 2018: In the northeast (near the Niger border) French forces clashed with a group of Islamic terrorists and killed at least ten of them. It was revealed that the dead Islamic terrorists were not from the same group as those killed near the Algerian border a few days ago.

February 14, 2018: In the north (Tinzaouaten, near the Algerian border) French forces clashed with a group of Islamic terrorists several times and killed ten of them (including a former Mali army colonel) and destroyed two trucks.

February 13, 2018: In the northeast French troops raided an Islamic terrorist camp and killed or captured 23 Islamic terrorists. This included senior leaders of Ansar Dine and al Mourabitoun. The night operation involved airstrikes and troops arriving via helicopter and ground vehicles. Operations continued into the 14th.

February 9, 2018: In central Mali (Mopti) a passenger vehicle hit a mine planted by Islamic terrorists and killed five civilians and wounded another 18.

January 28, 2018: In the northeast (near the Niger border) three soldiers died when their checkpoint was attacked.

January 27, 2018: In the north (outside Timbuktu) Islamic terrorists made a pre-dawn attack on an army base which left 14 soldiers dead and 18 wounded. There was a lot of damage to the camp which troops retreated from but then regained later in the day. The attackers had looted the camp of anything portable and useful.

January 25, 2018: In central Mali (near the Burkina Faso border) a passenger vehicle hit a mine planted by Islamic terrorists and left 26 civilians dead and several more wounded.


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