The west Sahelian state of Mali is facing increased security threats and a protracted political crisis that risks unmaking a peace process whose implementation is lagging. This raises the security-risk level across the Sahel and west Africa, as non-state armed groups in Mali have the capability to strike outside of their traditional area of operations.
2 March: Four Islamist non-state armed groups announce a ‘merger’
27 March: The president launches a conference of national accord
18 June: Islamist militants attack luxury resort, just east of the capital
In the middle of the afternoon on 18 June, a small group of unidentified armed men stormed Le Campement de Kangaba, a luxury resort about 35km east of the capital Bamako. They took at least 36 people hostage. The resort is popular with expatriate workers, and among the hostages were nationals of Egypt, France, Kenya, Netherlands and Spain. At least seven people, including two civilians, were killed by gunfire during the early stages of the attack. Malian special forces of the recently created anti-terrorism unit, Forsat, and troops of France’s counter-terrorism Opération Barkhane deployed to the site within minutes of the first reports of the incident, quickly surrounding the area. What followed was a stand-off of several hours, with Malian Forsat officers sweeping the resort, which is built on several hills across an area of several hectares, for suspected militants. Witnesses reported that repeated gunfire and explosions were heard during the operation, which resulted in the killing of four assailants and the arrest of another five; three gunmen managed to escape with one of them seriously wounded. A newly formed Islamist non-state armed group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack one day later.
JNIM is intent on expanding its traditional scope of operations
Despite the low casualty numbers, the assault was a continuation of the high-impact attacks in the past two years in west Africa and which have been claimed by non-state armed groups that have been active in west Sahel, such as al-Mourabitoun, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Ansar Dine. Between November 2015 and March 2016, AQIM and al-Mourabitoun militants carried out three marauding firearms terrorist attacks (MFTAs) against entertainment areas in the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso, and a tourist resort in Côte d’Ivoire, killing at least 69 people, many of whom were expatriate workers. All three groups, together with the Ansar Dine-affiliate katiba Macina, announced on 2 March that they were merging into one umbrella organisation under the name of Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (Group to Support Islam and Muslims, JNIM). Their leader would be Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine. In its inaugural statement, JNIM continued to explicitly threaten Western countries and their nationals, specifically those contributing troops to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Minusma).
The group vowed to continue its kinetic operations against the government and its allies, using various tactics that include personnel-borne and vehicle-borne IEDs, ambushes of convoys, co-ordinated assaults on military installations, and targeted political assassinations. Since the merger, JNIM has carried out several deadly attacks on military targets in the border region with Burkina Faso, in particular against the Burkinabe border town of Boulikessi.
Utilising the different member-organisations’ geographic links – Ansar Dine is historically linked to the Timbuktu region and Tuareg communities there, whereas katiba Macina with mostly Fulani fighters has essentially been active in the more central Mopti region – is also likely to further cement JNIM’s territorial reach of operations. Although JNIM was formed in March, the groups have been allies for years. For instance, AQIM and al-Mourabitoun have both taken responsibility for the MFTAs in Bamako in November 2015, the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou in January 2016, and the Ivorian tourist resort Grand-Bassam three months later.
While the merger is unlikely to significantly change the Islamist groups’ capacity, it suggests that JNIM is intent on expanding its traditional scope of operations southward. This could have seriously adverse impacts on business operations in Mali, most of which are based in Mali’s southern regions of Kayes, Koulikoro, Ségou, and Sikasso, as well as Bamako. Furthermore, the ability of Hamadou Kouffa, an Islamic cleric who leads katiba Macina, to tap into mounting grievances over farming land or pastures means that the growing insecurity in the south could serve as an incubator for Islamist militancy.
Furthermore, the attack on Le Campement de Kangaba comes only a few weeks after a group of five Sahelian countries, including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger – commonly referred to as the G5S – said they wanted to double their intervention force from 5,000 soldiers to 10,000. France has drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution to support the G5S force, financially and politically, a proposal that was adopted on 22 June after France toned-down its initial draft to get the support of the United States which had threatened to veto the resolution.
The exclusive peace process and its implications
Since the Tuareg rebellion of 2012 and the signing of a fragile peace agreement aiming to bring an end to hostilities in 2015, named the Algiers Accord, little progress appears to have been made. Frustration with the current administration led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keїta (commonly referred to as IBK) is growing, due to the lack of progress. Furthermore, local communities in the central and northern regions increasingly feel neglected due to poor governance and delivery of basic services. Many are also growing increasingly frustrated by alleged abuse by the security forces, and the judiciary’s incapacity to punish such behaviour.
This became clear during the conference of national accord that IBK launched on 27 March. The discussions, just like the Algiers Accord, included several Tuareg secessionist groups from the north, but not the Islamists. However, there is growing sympathy in Mali with the idea that the peace negotiations should also include some key leaders, such as Ag Ghaly or Kouffa. This is a position that both the Malian government and France categorically oppose.
As part of the peace agreement, the government has agreed to devolve some of its powers to regional authorities. Initially scheduled for 9 July, the government announced on 22 June that it was postponing the vote, without giving a new date. The decision was most likely due to growing security concerns and pressure from civil society. The new proposal includes the creation of a bicameral parliament with regional representation in the upper house, increased presidential powers such as the right to nominate one third of what could be the equivalent of a senate and the justices of the constitutional court.
However, both opposition and civil-society organisations (CSOs) have accused the government of wanting to rush the project during the rainy season with minimal consultation. They fear that this, along with Mali’s deteriorating security context which is likely to stifle the openness and fairness of the election, will put the project’s legitimacy in question. In turn, that could adversely affect its successful implementation, and provide local Islamist NSAGs with a sense of legitimacy to continue attacks on government targets. Therefore, CSOs and political parties are mobilising support against the proposed amendments. Demonstrations in the capital, which are technically prohibited under the current state-of-emergency measures that were extended in March, have been growing since the white paper was tabled in parliament in June. Defying the ban, on 17 June, up to 10,000 marched in Bamako to protest the changes.
Mali’s trend of mounting civil unrest, in parallel with growing insecurity due to Islamist attacks and inter-ethnic animosity over land rights, is a concern for the government’s stability in the one-year outlook…