France reported that its counter-terror operations in northern Mali had killed or captured over twenty Islamic terrorists in the last ten days. Much of the activity was near the Burkina Faso border and also involved troops from Mali and Burkina Faso. The main goal was collecting information on Islamic terrorist strength and operations in the region.
Encouraged by the EU (European Union) commitment the UN recently agreed to extend the peacekeeping mandate for Mali. This provides cash and authority to pay for African peacekeepers and monitors. One big problem the UN still has is getting the northern rebels and Mali government to fully comply with the terms of the peace treaty they agreed on in 2015. Earlier in the year the EU agreed to continue peacekeeping operations in Mali for another two years (until 2019). That commitment means finding enough EU member nations to volunteer troops and aircraft for service in Mali. That is proving difficult in part because of the harsh operating conditions and generally dangerous area to operate in.
It’s no secret that casualty rate among peacekeepers in Mali has been very high. UN peacekeepers in Mali suffered 26 dead during 2016, the highest number of any UN peacekeeping operation and 90 percent of the UN peacekeeper deaths in 2016, even though the Mali force comprises less than 15 percent of all UN peacekeepers. The Mali peacekeepers have been in this situation for three years in a row. Over a hundred peacekeepers (mostly UN, but some French) have died in Mali since they arrived in 2013. This is the highest casualty rate of all current UN peacekeeping operations. The peacekeeper death rate seems to be falling in Mali this year but it is still a violent place with about 200 Islamic terror related deaths so far this year, over 70 percent of them civilians.
Ancient Animosities Resist Solutions
Since 2012 a consistently effective French-led counter-terror efforts in Mali and adjacent areas (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso) kept Islamic terrorists weak and disorganized but has not eliminated this threat. That’s largely the fault of local governments. This is especially the case in Mali where local officials have been particularly inept in dealing with Islamic terrorist groups and became dependent on foreign help. This is largely because Mali has worse corruption and ethnic disputes than the neighbors. For example the dry (desert and semi-desert) north contains more than half of the territory but only about 12 percent of Mali's 15 million people. In the southern third of Mali, where 88 percent of Malians live the population is quite different from the northerners.
While most Malians are Moslem there are some sharp ethnic and tribal differences. The Tuareg are the majority in the north and are North African while over 80 percent of Malians are various black African tribes. Most Malians live south of the Niger River (the “Nile of West Africa”) in areas that are more prosperous because they have more water. The hostility between the army (almost entirely composed of black Africans from the south) and the Tuareg (a lighter skinned group related to Arabs and ancient Egyptians) goes back a long time. Before 2012 the rebellious Tuareg around Timbuktu tried something different and adopted Islamic terrorism as a promising tool to help their fight for autonomy or a separate Tuareg state. Tuareg rebellions failed in the past because the Tuareg have been unable to unite. Islamic radicalism has not solved that problem either. Islamic radicalism didn’t work but it did encourage more violence than usual.
The problems of Mali are not unknown to the outside world. Until the French arrived in the 19th century and over the next 68 years created (for administrative purposes) a united "Mali", the black Africans in the south (along the Niger River) prospered and generally ignored the Tuareg in the desert north. But after the French left in 1960, and Mali became independent, the more populous south was forced to deal with the Tuareg dominated north they now “owned” and were not willing to give up. This has not worked out well for either side and generated persistent unrest and now Islamic terrorism.
Even among the black majority there are some fatal divisions. In central Mali (near the junction of the Niger and Bani rivers) violence between Peul (Fulani) and Bambara tribesmen has gotten worse in 2017. This tribal feuding has been going on for years but got worse since 2015 when the Peul became widely known as a source of recruits for Islamic terrorist groups and for generally supporting al Qaeda. The more numerous Bambara (who tend to be pro-government) live north of the Niger and are about a third of the Mali population. The Fulani (who tend to be more rebellious) are largely from south of the Niger.
June 5, 2017: The EU (European Union) approved $56 million to establish support operations for the G5 counter-terrorism force of troops from members. The G5 alliance of Mali, Chad, Niger, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso was formed at the end of 2015 but was slow to get organized and equipped for their task. The G5 forces will be small (500-2,000 personnel) and consist largely of special operations troops. Many of these troops have already worked with their French counterparts or been trained by French or American special operations advisors. 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 (the semi-desert area south of the desert that stretches across northern Africa) since 2014. 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.
June 1, 2017: In the north (near Timbuktu) Islamic terrorists fired mortar shells into a peacekeeper camp wounding three French soldiers. AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) claimed responsibility for that and an ambush yesterday that killed three Mali soldiers.
May 31, 2017: In the northeast, just across the border in Niger Islamic terrorists attacked a police station near the Mali border, killing four soldiers and two policemen. Because of the heavy French presence in Mali a lot of Islamic terrorists have moved to neighboring countries like Niger and Burkina Faso.
May 23, 2017: In the north (near Kidal) two peacekeepers were killed and one wounded during an ambush.
May 16, 2017: In the north (near Kidal) a local group of Islamic terrorists briefly (for a few days) took control of a remote village and before they left executed a local couple who were living together without being married. The two were buried up to their necks and then four men stoned them until they were dead. This sort of thing has not happened since 2012 and was believed to have been done on purpose to gain some media attention before the new French president visited the area.
May 15, 2017: In central Mali (Mopti province) four foreign aid workers were kidnapped by local Islamic terrorists but were released the next day because the four were local men hired to help with the distribution of aid. Tribal leaders pressured the kidnappers, who were also local, to let their neighbors go or be declared unwelcome by many of the locals who now support or tolerate them. The Islamic terrorists in the region have been trying to improve their image. The local Islamic terror groups consolidated earlier this year by forming JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). In part this is 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, Ansar Dine, FLM (Macina Liberation Front), and al Mourabitoun. Another reason for merging is to make it easier to pool resources (including information and advice) and make it easier to coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the area.