Mali: The Bloody Endurance Contest


December 9, 2019: Since May the French and local (G5) counter-terrorism forces have been fighting ISIL groups seeking to establish themselves in northeast Mali, near the Niger border and west to where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. The fighting has been particularly intense during the last month and overall casualties are in the hundreds. ISIL forces have suffered the heaviest losses because of the constant pressure. In short, ISIL groups have literally been on the run for weeks. While this has greatly reduced ISIL capabilities in the area, the Islamic terrorists are not leaving but content to survive by being constantly on the move.

Even French forces suffered heavy losses, mainly from an accident when two helicopters collided during a night operation leaving 13 French dead. Otherwise, all the casualties have been on the ground as French, Malian and G5 ground forces track down, attack and then pursue mobile (on trucks and motorbikes) Islamic terrorists. The Mali army has suffered the heaviest casualties with 130 dead in the last three months. Civilian casualties have also been heavy, nearly 2,000 so far in 2019, in the area where most of the fighting has been (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso). The violence is concentrated where the borders of these three nations meet.

Since 2018 ISIL had had two “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one was ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara) which showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This is the group that has been under heavy attack for most of 2019. The main reason for that is the ISIL strategy of inflicting lots of casualties on the Mali army to destroy soldier morale and willingness to fight or even remain in the military. This is not a new tactic and the battles with ISIL up north are something of a bloody endurance contest.

The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). ISWAP was actually a faction of the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic terrorists who had been around since 2004. ISWAP personnel are mostly in northeastern Nigeria as well as smaller numbers in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. ISWAP seems to be expanding, apparently by incorporating local groups outside Nigeria. ISGS and ISWAP do not appear to work together except when it comes to Internet media activities, where ISWAP will mention ISGS accomplishments. Lately, ISWAP announcements rarely mention ISGS and attribute attacks in ISGS territory as the work of ISWAP. It is unclear what this means because there has been no announcement of any merger. The operating areas of ISGS and ISWAP are about 2,000 kilometers from each other. Another factor is the frequent cooperation between al Qaeda and ISIL groups in Mali and surrounding countries.

ISIL does not have effective central authority at the moment, with the senior leadership still dispersed and on the run from recent defeats in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It is often difficult, at first, to determine which faction of Boko Haram made an attack. Ultimately one of the factions will take credit. ISWAP is usually quicker to do so and has a much more efficient media operation than most Africa based Islamic terror groups.

Recently ISIL has been the most active in carrying out major attacks. Meanwhile, JNIM, the local al Qaeda operation, is still around and mainly taking care of business while ISIL takes the heat. This is typical ISIL behavior, which has always been more into violence than the business of maintaining operations. That’s why al Qaeda survives and thrives while ISIL attracts the more violent Islamic terrorists who prefer to take more risks and casualties. This grabs more headlines, which is one reason for these suicidal tactics. It helps with recruiting but not so much with fundraising. ISIL factions tend to live more by foraging and robbery.

ISIL is also having problems getting out their version of these battles. The ISIL Internet communication and news operation, which is operated mainly by pro-ISIL volunteers in Moslem and Western countries, has also been under heavy attack. Several times in 2019 the ISIL Internet network has suffered heavy damage, including the arrest of some of its Internet techs and substantial, if temporary, reduction of ISIL related activity on the Internet.

December 7, 2019: In central Mali (Liptako), where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, a French soldier was wounded by a roadside bomb. Because of all those borders in one place, Liptako has been a hotspot for Islamic terrorist activity for the last few years and especially the last few months.

December 5, 2019: The French president invited African leaders of countries working with France to discuss further cooperation against the growing Islamic terrorist problem in the Sahel. The G5 force was a good idea but France wants to expand it. The G5 Sahel Joint Force was organized in 2018 to deal with transnational Islamic terrorist organizations. G5 was a consortium of five Sahel (the semi-desert area stretching across Africa from Senegal to Somalia) nations; Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Each contributed troops best able to deal with Islamic terrorism and G5 operated throughout the Sahel region as needed. By 2019 G5 forces were spending more time in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso,

Mali is still the most troublesome Sahel nation but also has the most outside assistance, including a peacekeeping force along with a separate French counter-terror force that also covers much of the Sahel along with the G5 force. The Mali contingent of the G5 is considered the least capable and that has to be taken into account while the training program for the Mali military slowly improves the quality of leadership and troop reliability. With Mali secured by all these foreign troops, the G5 has been able to deal with Islamic terror problems elsewhere, especially Burkina Faso and Niger.

The G5 force consists of 5,000 soldiers and police that are stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Thus Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West uses troops from Mali and Mauritania.

What G5 could not do was replace a lack of security forces in one of its member nations. Burkina Faso is the best example of this because after a new government took power in 2014, the internal intelligence and security forces were reorganized and became much less effective. Islamic terrorists took note and established themselves in the part of Burkina Faso adjacent to Mali. As a result that part of Burkina Faso has seen an increasing amount of Islamic terrorist activity since 2015. In that time at least 300 Burkina Faso civilians and security forces personnel have died, as well as an even larger number of Islamic terrorists. This is over 70 percent of such deaths suffered throughout the country during that period.

France would take the lead in raising more money to expand (as much as double) the size of the G5 Force but it is easier to find the money than to find the qualified troops. Then there is the chronic corruption in African countries. Mali is still one of the most corrupt nations in the region. That’s the main reason for all the Islamic terrorist activity being centered on Mali.

December 2, 2019: In central Mali (Mopti), two soldiers were killed and seven wounded by a roadside bomb.

November 25, 2019: In central Mali (Liptako), French troops had been pursuing a group of Islamic terrorists for several days and caught up with them at night near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Air support was called in, which consisted of two helicopters and a jet fighter. All the aircraft were equipped for night operations. Then the two French helicopters (an AS532 transport and a Tiger gunship) collided while close to the ground killing 13 French troops on both helicopters. This is the largest one-day loss of French since 58 died in Lebanon in 1983. The loss today brings to 38 the deaths of French forces in Mali and Sahel have suffered since 2013. This translates to a French casualty rate to 120 dead per 100,000 troops per year (a standard measure of such things) for the 4,500 French troops operating in the Shale since 2013. Mali alone has been the most dangerous UN peacekeeping operation with over 220 dead so far. This is largely because in north Mali, where most of these deaths occur, most of the peacekeepers are stationed. There was lots of violence up there since (and before) the peacekeepers arrived in early 2013. The peacekeepers are mainly African and in 2018 the combined forces suffered a death rate of about 130 per 100,000 per year. The rate in 2017 was nearly double that and that high rate seems to be returning in 2019. A lot of the violence has moved south to central Mali and the three-border area.

While being a peacekeeper remains a dangerous job it’s still less dangerous than places like Afghanistan, where in 2013 the rate (200 per 100,000) was lower for all foreign troops there. That was down from the peak 587 per 100,000 in 2010, which was about what it was during the peak years in Iraq (2004-7). The action in Mali is less intense than in pre-2014 Afghanistan or pre-2011 Iraq but is more than double the rate for peacekeepers worldwide. Total Mali peacekeeper casualties since mid-2013 are about 500 dead and wounded and losses but have been much heavier among the Islamic terrorists.

The local pro-government militias also suffer heavier casualties as do the Mali security forces (army and police.) The 12,500 peacekeepers come from 30 countries. Most come from a few African nations. The smaller number of Western troops bring with them specialized equipment and skills. France also has about 2,700 troops operating in Mali and another 1,800 in neighboring countries of the Sahel region, which is a semi-desert band of terrain that goes from the Atlantic coast to Somalia on the Indian Ocean.

November 18, 2019: In the northeast (Gao), a Malian army patrol was ambushed by about a hundred ISIL gunmen. This left 43 soldiers dead from the ambush and a smaller clash nearby. In contrast, only about twenty of the Islamic terrorists died. This led to a joint Mali-Niger operation to track down the attackers who were operating on both sides of the border from bases in Niger.

November 16, 2019: In the northeast (between Gao and the Niger border), a French soldier was wounded by a roadside bomb.

November 13, 2019: In central Mali (Mopti, near the Burkina Faso border) a Fulani village was attacked, leaving at least twenty dead. The attackers, apparently Dogon tribesmen, do not appear to have suffered any casualties. So far this year attacks like this have left several hundred dead. This latest attack appears to violate the truce that the government had negotiated between the warring Fulani and Dogon militias in that area. Since July that peace deal seemed to be holding but tensions remained. The tribal violence had escalated during the four months prior to the peace deal and that left hundreds dead and caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. The fighting between Dogon and Fulani tribal militias had been going on for years but the 2019 surge began with a spectacular March massacre where Dogon militia attacked a Fulani village. That action left over 160 Fulani dead and it wasn’t just the Fulani who were outraged by this.

The Fulani were the ones who started this violence years ago as they sought to force farmers off the land and away from water supplies the Fulani coveted. But the Fulani raids were meant to terrorize, not exterminate. The Dogon tribe, one of the larger sedentary groups in central Mali, has always been the most organized and aggressive in confronting Fulani expansion into the better watered and more fertile (for grass and crops) Niger River Valley and beyond. After 2012 and the separatist/Islamic terrorist uprising in the north there was an increase in Fulani-farmer violence and the bloodiest incidents often involved Dogon militias fighting Fulani. Calls for the government to disarm the Dogon militias were popular for a while until police and army commanders convinced the government that attempting disarmament would be bloody and, in the long run futile. For the Dogon and Fulani all this feuding is a matter of life or death while the politicians are concerned about appeasing popular outrage, which tends to fade quickly. Then there are the critical foreign media, which influence foreign aid decisions and are more important, especially for corrupt politicians who steal much of that aid. Getting the Fulani and Dogon (and other farming tribes) to settle the land and water disputes peacefully is more difficult but is the only lasting solution but also the more difficult one. Those fundamental conflicts are still there, which is why the current peace deal will be under growing pressure and will eventually collapse into renewed violence.

The Dogon/Fulani feuding in central Mali has been the main cause of over 200,000 civilians being forced from their homes during the first six months of 2019. That is more than five times as many refugees created in the first six months of 2018. Most of the 700 terrorism and outlaw related deaths so far in 2019 have occurred in central Mali. The Dogon-Fulani “ceasefire” was always at the mercy of natural (drought, hunger) and political (corrupt politicians) events. In the north, the basic problem is poverty and the negative impact banditry and Islamic terrorism is having on efforts to revive the economy. A lot of the “Islamic terrorist” violence up there is just bandits. It gets more attention if the victims describe the attackers as Islamic terrorists.

November 12, 2019: The government revealed that recent fighting in central Mali had left dozens of Islamic terrorists dead and many of them carried identity cards from other countries.




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