Africa: Mali – Defiant and Alone, Will the Junta Defeat the Jihadis?

Revolting against the French, expelling a UN force and walking out of ECOWAS, the Assimi Goita junta is taking out its frustrations with the jihadis on everyone. How does it save the beleaguered republic?

The symbolic lowering of the United Nations flag at the headquarters of UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in Bamako on 11 December marked the closing chapter of the 15,000-strong force’s presence, but more grimly, the fall of 311 peacekeepers. MINUSMA, which was deployed in 2013 following a violent insurrection by separatist rebels attempting to take control of northern Mali and a subsequent military-led coup, finally completed its withdrawal on January 7. Mali told MINUSMA to leave “without delay” on 16 June 2023, accusing it of having become “a part of the problem” in fuelling inter-communal tensions. Two weeks later, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2690, effectively terminating MINUSMA’s previous mandate and calling for the transfer of its tasks, as well as the safe and orderly drawdown and withdrawal of the Mission by 31 December 2023.

Since 1 July, MINUSMA has been gradually withdrawing its personnel and handing over its bases to the Malian civilian authorities under difficult security circumstances. By mid December, 10,689 uniformed or civilian MINUSMA personnel had left Mali. MINUSMA’s main tasks included using all necessary means to address threats to the implementation of its mandate, which included the protection of civilians under imminent threat of physical violence and the protection of UN personnel from residual threats, within its capabilities and areas of deployment.

MINUSMA’s exceptionally high human cost (311 peacekeepers killed in the line of duty and at least seven hundred more injured) makes it one of UN’s deadliest missions worldwide second only to Lebanon.

The outgoing Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of MINUSMA, El-Ghassim Wane, has admitted that there was a “gap between what we were mandated to do and we were able to do”. “We did a lot but definitely it was below expectations and below the needs,” he said in a recorded statement.

MINUSMA’s Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Mamadou Gaye, told the closing ceremony in Bamako that the Malian terrain was “vast and difficult.” “It’s been a very positive mission which, when all is said and done, has given us a great deal of satisfaction, even if we’d like to do more with the limited resources we have,” he added. Landlocked Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in northern cities the following year with the help of a French-led Operation Serval, later replaced by Operation Barkhane. But rebels regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies – which soon included the U.N. force.

Mali’s government – which seized power after coups in 2020 and 2021 – pushed out France’s counterinsurgency force in 2022 following a breakdown in relations with its former colonial power. The year 2020 was the deadliest on record in Mali for civilians despite the U.N. presence. Violence in the broader area has increased since 2015, with attacks by groups linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State spreading to Mali’s neighbours in the Sahel region. Thousands have been killed and more than six million others displaced.

The worst single atrocity happened in March 2022 when Malian army and foreign fighters believed to be Russian mercenaries of the Wagner Group summarily executed at least 500 people during a five-day anti-jihadist military operation in the village of Moura in the Mopti region of central Mali.

Malian authorities later used no-fly zones to obstruct a MINUSMA investigation into the massacre. It repeatedly lashed out at UN criticism of its rights record, expelling two ranking MINUSMA officials – the mission’s spokesperson, Olivier Salgado, and its human rights chief, Guillaume Ngefa.

Violence escalates amid troops withdrawal

Even as MINUSMA troops progressively withdrew from Mali, a new civil war erupted in the West African country in early August 2023. More recently, on 1 February 2024, the UN rights Chief, Volker Turk, accused Malian armed forces and foreign military personnel of summarily executing at least 25 people in Welingara village in Mali’s central Nara region on 26 January. Days prior, unknown gunmen massacred at least 30 more civilians in the villages of Ogota and Oimbe in the the country’s Bandiagara region.

The fighting, located mostly in northern and central Mali, pitted the Mali junta’s army, assisted by the Russian Wagner group mercenaries, against a three-way alliance comprised of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies(GATIA) and the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims–JNIM) which is a coalition of Salafi-jihadist insurgent groups operating in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. The emerging CMA-GATIA-JNIM alliance share common goals: the overthrow of the ‘five colonels’, as they call Mali’s ‘illegal’ ruling junta, and the expulsion of its Russian allies.

“The CMA-GATIA-JNIM alliance is particularly worrying for the junta, as it is the first time that the CMA and GATIA, traditional enemies, are in common cause against the illegal junta which seized power in 2020,” said Jeremy Keenan, visiting Social Anthropology Professor in the Law School at Queen Mary University London and an authority on the Sahara-Sahel. “The apparent support of JNIM for the Tuareg CMA and GATIA groups is additionally worrying for the junta as it strongly suggests that the jihadists are working in common cause with the former Tuareg rebels,” Keenan tells African Arguments.

The previous civil war in 2012 started when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) Tuareg rebels, who had long standing grievances against the Malian state, demanded an independent state of Azawad in northern Mali. For the first few months of 2012, the MNLA were assisted by Islamist fighters, most of whom had entered Mali from Algeria with the support of the Algerian intelligence services. By the middle of 2012, the Islamists, who had initially allied themselves to the MNLA for their own strategic objectives, had effectively side-lined the MNLA and grown into a full-blown Islamist incursion which, by the end of the year, was threatening to take over the entire country. In January 2013, the Mali government finally requested France’s military intervention to rid the country of the Islamist incursion.

“From the time of the French military intervention, two areas of contention not only remained unresolved, but deepened,” Keenan explains. “These were the question of the future status of the Tuareg in Mali and the Islamist incursion, which, far from being driven out of Mali by the French, spread further afield into neighbouring Sahelian countries and intensified in Mali.”

Later in 2015, Algeria brokered a limited peace agreement between the CMA and the Malian government. Although Bamako’s sincerity in implementing the agreement was for the most part half-hearted, serious conflict between the two sides was averted. However, since the military coup in 2020 and more especially since a further ‘coup-within-a-coup’ in August 2021, which led to the junta contracting the Russian Wagner group to replace the French military and MINUSMA, Tuareg antipathy to the junta and its Russian allies has intensified leading to growing unrest, which, by early August (2023) had developed into what the CMA describes as a ‘state of war’.

“As for the jihadist insurgency the security situation, despite the French military presence, has worsened progressively since 2013, slowly at first and then more rapidly, especially since the military coup d’état of 2020 and the second coup in 2021 which saw the Wagner group being invited in to replace the French military and the UN peacekeeping force,” Keenan says. “Not only did attacks by JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) intensify against both civilian and military targets in Mali, but they also escalated in both neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, which have both also succumbed to military coup d’états and increasing Russian influence.” The ultimate goal of the Tuareg rebels is independence (or at least autonomy) from Mali for the region known as Azawad in the north of the country. The conflict with the jihadist groups is however different. The goal of both al-Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s elements (JNIM and ISIS-Sahel) is to establish an Islamic caliphate.

What is fuelling the jihadist insurgency in the Sahel?

Lucas Webber, co-founder of the Militant Wire research network says instability in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, is giving “oxygen” for jihadist groups to expand and conduct attacks against littoral West African states such as Benin, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire.

Webber describes the situation in the Sahel as “dire”, further hinting that the extreme violence looks set to continue, perhaps worsen, and expand and exacerbate in these and other countries.

“Weak governance, corrupt regimes, and limited military capacity breed insecurity, while pools of men with few life and economic prospects who hold deep grievances against their rulers are recruitment pools for militant groups,” Webber told African Arguments in an email. “Juntas that speak in the language of force can be indiscriminate in their crackdowns on rebel groups and use imprecise means when fighting militants. These and other issues lead to brutal wars in which the civilian population is caught in the middle and often pays a heavy price,” he says. Government forces and militants are also “quite paranoid” of spies and locals giving information to the other side, sometimes leading to execution and collective punishment, Webber adds. “When done by a government, these actions can then fuel animosity and lead new recruits into the arms of jihadist and militant groups.”

Another geopolitical analyst at Militant Wire research network, Adam Rousselle, says narcotics and arms trafficking played a “major role” in the rise of insurgency in the Sahel region. He points to European-bound narcotics from South America which were trafficked across the Atlantic and driven north through the Sahel and across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. “These trafficking routes became highly lucrative and, in one of the poorest regions on earth, people were willing to kill each other for control over them,” Rousselle told African Arguments.

“It was only a matter of time before armed groups arose to protect what was theirs, often band wagoning with radical ideologies to appeal to greater numbers of potential recruits. There are no easy answers to this problem short of a substantial reduction in demand for smuggled goods.”

Questions around MINUSMA’s mandate

MINUSMA struggled during its chaotic ten years to fulfill its mandate, often in the face of criticism from all parties. In addition to supporting the peace process, the mission also had as mandate to carry out a number of security-related stabilisation tasks, with a focus on major population centres and lines of communication, protecting civilians, human rights monitoring, the creation of conditions for the provision of the extension of state authority, justice and the rule of law, including through supporting the effective functioning of interim administrations in the north of Mali under the conditions set out in the Agreement.

“However, during this entire period, MINUSMA had its hands tied by its mandate which forbade it from actually fighting terrorists except in their own defence,” notes Prof Keenan. “Its duties were entirely defensive: to protect Mali’s communities from attacks and to assist the Malian military by providing escort facilities for their troops and supplies and medical facilities for those killed or wounded in battle,” he says.

“MINUSMA’s problem was that it was blamed by the Malian authorities for [the latter’s] own failings. Most Malians did not understand this, as the government misled them. In fact, MINUSMA did most of its mandated jobs well under near-impossible conditions.”

Joshua Meservey, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute agrees and adds that MINUSMA’s mandate was “totally misaligned” with the actual situation in Mali.

“MINUSMA was deeply ineffective and spent most of its force strength on protecting itself. It also, however, did not have a credible, competent national government with which to work, which is the Achilles Heel of all the foreign security operations in the country,” Meservey tells African Arguments.

While the French have served as the focal point of popular anger in Mali there is also broader anti-Western sentiment in the country. Meservey believes MINUSMA is getting “lumped in” with the West despite being a UN operation and not Western per se. “And while MINSUMA has been ineffective, it is also being scapegoated – as are the French – by the junta that used the country’s insecurity as a pretext for taking power,” he says. “Part of Russia’s approach in Africa is to try to sideline Western influence. Russia’s Wagner Group has run extensive anti-French and anti-Western propaganda campaigns in Mali, which may have had an effect.”

Daniel Matan, a researcher at the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre – an Israeli-based research group that tracks both ISIS and Al-Qaeda – says MINUSMA’s inability to cope with the jihadist threat combined with the robust determination of the jihadist groups to attack the UN force as a representative of foreign intervention in Mali, turned the mission into a “burden rather than an asset”.

“MINUSMA force was by no means fit and equipped to deal with the jihadist activity which emerged following the political instability in the country,” Matan tells African Arguments. “However, following the withdrawal of the mission and other foreign elements (like France) from Mali and the arrival of other foreign actors such as Russia, the jihadist groups will unlikely suffer from a decrease of determination to attack the Malian forces and their new allies,” he says.

Daniel said the new administration which rose to power following the coup in Mali used rising grievances against the inability to tackle security threats, especially those originating from jihadist activities.

Parts of the Malian public saw the UN and its mission as a “foreign force” and as a part of the failure of the previous administration to restore security and peace. “This claim, of course, [overlooks] the fact that MINUSMA doesn’t have the mandate nor the means to accomplish this goal,” Matan says. “In some ways, the UN mission (as well as other ‘Western’ endeavours in Mali) is a victim and a scapegoat of the change of leadership following the coup.”

The Militant Wire‘s Webber says despite contributing valuable intelligence and military assistance, MINUSMA force was “nearly not enough” to make a serious dent in the intensified militant opposition. “The insurgents have deep strategic depth, an abundance of militants in their ranks, are heavily armed, and are motivated to fight hard while implementing a difficult guerilla strategy to defend or go on the offensive,” Webber told African Arguments.

“MINUSMA was therefore doomed to failure given its objectives, negative local and regional sentiments about the presence of foreign European military forces, and lack of will and combat capacity to quell the insurgents.”

Aside from being a humanitarian versus military mission, MINUSMA also kept an eye on Mali’s human rights records. But the Malian government simply wasn’t interested in that component, actively discouraging the mission’s investigation of the 2022 massacres in Moura that the government claimed were counter terrorist operations. “Regional and local populations are generally suspicious of foreign military forces on their soil, especially when the security situation continues to deteriorate, and the jihadists and other militants continue to rampage through the area,” says Webber. “With Russia and Wagner, there are few if any human rights requirements, and their forces are both performing government security and offensive military roles.”