The 13,000 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. The Islamic terrorists in Mali spend most of their time taking care of business, which is usually smuggling (drugs, weapons, people). This takes Mali based Islamic terrorists into neighboring countries, where the armed smugglers fight locals who get in the way. Burkina Faso and Niger have been the most frequent victims of this kind of violence.
The local Islamic terror groups are, aside from their money-making operations, not doing well when it comes to religion based mischief. But they are making more money (from smuggling and ransoms) and getting more media attention. They are changing targets in the north from local foes (Mali security forces and tribal militias) to foreign troops, especially French ones. The problem is the French soldiers are the best trained and equipped and hard to kill, or even survive getting too close to them. But the French can be hurt. By using lots of roadside bombs and avoiding direct contact the Islamic terrorists have managed to wound French soldiers a lot more frequently this year. There have been at least a dozen of these attacks so far this year. This is believed to be one result of the main 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 early 2017.
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 merging is 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).
JNIM is noticeably more businesslike which has been the historical trend with terrorist groups in general. These groups evolve into well-organized and persistent criminal gangs. For Islamic terrorists that means carrying out fewer attacks and trying to concentrate on staging ones that will generate maximum publicity or cash (or both). Reputation is important if you want to instill fear and respect.
Historically, it's quite common for terrorist organization, be they motivated by political or religious goals, to gradually turn into largely criminal gangs. That's where the mafia came from. Once a resistance organization (against foreign rulers in Italy), it evolved into a purely criminal outfit, and migrated to the United States, along with millions of law-abiding Italians. The IRA (Irish Republican Army) is of more recent vintage (late 19th century originally, but revived in the 1970s) that gradually turned into a group of criminal gangs that mainly paid lip service to the IRAs political goals (of a united Ireland).
Iraq and Afghanistan are two even more recent examples. Iraq had dozens of major criminal gangs even in Saddam's police state. Once Saddam was overthrown, these gangs largely sided with the Sunni terrorists trying to put Saddam (or some other Sunni dictator) back in charge. In Afghanistan, the pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes around Kandahar turned religion into a cash cow, at least for a few tribes. Getting run out of power took away their cash flow. After a few years in exile across the border, some of the Taliban got funded (partly from one of their old sources, the drug gangs), and were back in business.
What eventually kills all of these criminal organizations is greed. Even the ones with an ideology have members who are more motivated by the money, than the politics, religion or loyalty to their fellow crooks. The use of cash rewards for information, or the capture of key people, eventually brings in more and more useful data. As time goes on, more and more of the terrorists can be turned into double agents. Civilians, caught in the middle of all this, become more desperate, and less afraid, of the terrorists. The useful tips increase, and those parts of the organization most loyal to the ideology, are hurt the most. The more purely criminal branches tend to survive, which is how the surviving mafia organizations can trace their lineage back to 19th century freedom fighters. But since the 1980s the mafia and IRA have been reduced to much smaller, and less effective, organizations.
In some parts of the world, many people are normally employed in what would be considered, in the West, as criminal enterprises. In Afghanistan, many of the tribes out in the countryside, consider anyone not from their tribe as fair game for robbery, extortion or kidnapping. Thus the Taliban will be around for a long time, although in diminished capacity. Many of the current Taliban leaders are discovering, as did leftist rebels in Colombia, that life’s a lot easier if you just ditch the ideology, and concentrate on the drug business.
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 a recent 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. So far this year there have been at least 70 such attacks on foreign aid workers in Mali, mostly in the north. This is more than twice the rate such attacks occurred in 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.
August 3, 2017: In the north (near Kidal) JNIM used a roadside bomb to attack a French patrol and wounded four soldiers. A similar attack (with similar results) took place on July 31st.
July 29, 2017: In the north a South African man, held captive since 2011, was released by his Islamic terrorist captors. South Africa has a policy of not paying ransom and but a ransom (of $4.2 million) was apparently involved. The former hostage, now 42, was in good health and unable or unwilling to provide details of why or how he was freed. He is the last of three foreigners taken in late 2011 to be freed. All apparently were let go because ransom was paid. AQIM received over $12 million for the three, which gives Islamic terrorists in Africa even more incentive to kidnap foreigners. The ransoms paid to al Qaeda (over $100 million since 2003) have been a major factor of the continued existence of al Qaeda in general and especially AQIM in Africa.
July 28, 2017: In the northeast (near Kidal) a Tuareg tribal militia took control of the town of Menaka. These Tuareg used to be part of the CMA rebels. Menaka is about a hundred kilometers from the Niger border and had been fought over by local militias and Mali tribal (MNLA) Islamic radicals. Many of the local Tuareg tribal militias were always pro-government and usually fought the local Tuareg CMA and Islamic terrorist rebels. The 2015 peace deal ended that, but not the tribal animosities. Since 2015 Tuareg militias affiliated with CMA has regained much of the control of the Kidal region that they gave up to government control after 2015. Since the pro-government militias got most of the government jobs the CMA affiliated groups wanted revenge. Now there is possibility of renewed fighting in the Kidal region if the government insists on fighting to regain control.
July 26, 2017: In the north (near Gao) a German Tiger helicopter gunship crashed during a surveillance mission 70 kilometers outside Gao. The two crew (pilot and weapons officer) were killed. Eyewitnesses and examination of the wreckage indicated the cause was mechanical failure because one of the rotors came off and caused the helicopter to go down. The Tiger has had problems like this in the past and was considered more time-consuming and costly to maintain in a combat zone. Local peacekeepers prefer AH-64s but appreciate whatever they can get. In early 2017 Germany agreed to send four Tiger helicopter gunships and four NH90 transport helicopters to Mali to replace the four AH-64 helicopter gunships and three CH-47 transport helicopters the Dutch sent in late 2014 to provide fire support, transportation and medical evacuation for the 5,000 peacekeepers then in northern Mali. At the time the peacekeepers had a few of the smaller Tiger gunships and smaller helicopter transports and greatly appreciated the Dutch aircraft. The problem is that the Dutch helicopters have proven invaluable and there are now more than twice as many peacekeepers depending on those helicopters. But the Dutch pointed out in early 2016 that the seven helicopters have suffered a lot of wear and tear and need extensive refurbishment that cannot be carried out in Mali. The UN has been trying to get some other Western nation to step forward with replacements since then and Germany was finally persuaded to step in. Both the Dutch and German peacekeepers in Mali have had to endure harsh living and working conditions as well as the inability of their governments to adequately deal with shortages of all manner of necessary equipment and supplies. At the end of 2016 news media in both countries made an issue of the French being able to adequately support and supply their Mali peacekeepers while the Dutch and German troops were constantly short of essential items. Of course the reason was that the French have always had larger “overseas intervention” forces than most other European countries (with the possible exception of Britain) and had plenty of experience, and military infrastructure, to support operations in remote parts of the world, especially former French colonies in Africa. The Dutch and German governments have thus been persuaded to allocate more resources to keep their peacekeepers competitive with the French. Germany also agreed to increase its Mali force from 650 to 1,000 troops. At the same time the EU (European Union) 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.
July 18, 2017: In the north (near Gao) the bodies of eight soldiers were found. These men were apparently captured during an ambush on the 10th and murdered several days later for reasons unknown. The soldiers were recruited locally and that may have had something to do with it. The soldiers were guarding a supply convoy when they were attacked.
July 17, 2017: In the north (near Kidal) someone (possibly JNIM) fired several mortar shells at a French base. There were no injuries.
July 14, 2017: In central Mali (Mougna) troops killed Bekaye Sangare, a senior leader in the FLM. Sangare was believed the organizer or several recent attacks in the area. That makes about 14 Islamic terrorists killed in the last week during operations in central and northern Mali. Three Mali soldiers were killed as well and several peacekeeper troops wounded. The government later revealed it had arrested Alhousseyni Ag Assaleh, another senior FLM official (in charge of logistics) on July 8th and the interrogation of this man may have led to finding the elusive Sangare.