The viability of the Mali government is not threatened by Islamic terrorism, but by ethnic and tribal divisions that are common throughout Africa. It is not African politics that persuades European governments to spend billions a year on counterterrorism operations in Mali and neighboring states. That is justified by the impact on Islamic terror groups that continue to try and organize major terror attacks in Europe. Making a permanent improvement in how Mali is run is not a major goal. The Mali government is still corrupt and not likely to change until local politicians realize that clean government is in everyone’s best interests. The black majority in Mali still dominates the government and is still not willing to grant the autonomy Tuaregs and Arabs in the north want. These problems of tribalism and ethnic strife have been around for thousands of years and getting Africa to catch up with the Eurasian nations has been slow going. It was only in the last few centuries that European nations got past tribalism and it took two World Wars to suppress a lot of the ethnic stress. Progress has been slow in Africa, but it is happening. In Mali reformers have had more opportunities to reduce the corruption and tribalism since 2013, but no one expect a big change in a short time.
France is finding that getting Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali and the Sahara Desert in general is very difficult. A large part of the problem was the past refusal of Western nations to pursue Islamic terrorists defeated years ago in places like Algeria, Morocco and Libya. The survivors of these 1990s defeats went south into the desert and established lucrative smuggling (of drugs and people) and kidnapping (of Westerners) operations that brought in up to 10 million a year. This enabled hundreds of hardcore and experienced Islamic terrorists to continue recruiting and planning new terror attacks against Moslem and Western nations. While a lot of that money was diverted to operating expenses, including bribing or hiring locals, and there was enough left to buy more weapons than they needed and spreading the word that Islamic terrorism was the way to go and it paid well. This appealed to a lot of young men who had bleak economic prospects and were always up for some adventure, especially if it involved getting a gun, a license to kill or loot, and regular pay. Islamic terrorists are not immune to tribal rivalries, ethnic tensions and corruption. Al Qaeda documents captured over the years indicates internal corruption is still a problem and sometimes it is solved by simply murdering those suspected of such behavior and declaring such prompt executions as God’s Will.
Another thing that kept the Islamic radical pot boiling was the existing ethnic and racial tensions in the region. There was a lot of ethnic and racial animosity in the southern Sahara, especially in northern Mali. It was most intense in the major cities. Black Africans living in the north, usually in the cities, are often eager for revenge against Arabs, because the most violent Islamic terrorists were Arab, and Tuaregs. Black animosity towards the lighter skinned Tuareg tribesmen of the north is sustained by Tuaregs regularly rebelling against the rule of the black African majority whenever the opportunity presented itself.
This situation occurs in Mali only because French colonial rule administered Mali as two separate black African and Tuareg/Arab territories. The two groups have always been at odds but were only united in the same country by the colonial French after 70 years of occupation. Like most African countries, dividing the nation is not an acceptable option and the colonial borders are considered sacrosanct. The French colonial government was established in 1892 and it was far more popular in the south than the north. Since independence in 1960 nearly all Mali politicians and business leaders have been pro-French and often educated in French universities. That was less the case in the north.
When French troops moved into northern Mali in January 2013 to shut down what had been an Islamic terrorist sanctuary for most of 2012, the local black Africans got a chance for some payback. For months French troops were not able to stop revenge attacks. Black Africans in the north would single out “light skin” (Arab or Tuareg) neighbors who had been too friendly with the Islamic terrorist occupiers and demand that these people be punished. Malian troops arrested hundreds of these collaborators, who were usually eager to cooperate. But some of the “lights” were tortured and at least a few killed. The Mali soldiers said they were punishing murderers and rapists but mainly they are out to torment the hated “lights”. Despite efforts by foreign peacekeepers to halt the ethnic and racial violence, some of it continues in the north and it is not unknown throughout the southern Sahara when the conditions are right.
This sort of animosity between dark skinned Africans and lighter skinned people from the north has been around as long as the two groups have been in contact. Arabs first moved south of the Sahara in large numbers over a thousand years ago and often came as conquerors and slavers. Although many of the black Africans encountered converted to Islam, the lighter skinned Arabs, including the non-Arab Tuareg and Berbers, considered themselves superior. This racist attitude has persisted and the black Africans often reciprocate. This is one reason why the majority Tuareg of northern Mali constantly rebel. Not only is the Mali government corrupt but it is dominated by black Africans, which is what 90 percent of Malians are. Officially, Islam and most African governments deny that such ethnic tensions exist. This in itself is progress, but the animosities remain and often become quite deadly. The slaving also continues and sometimes gets into the news. This happened a lot in Sudan since the 1990s as the government encouraged Arabized tribes to raid non-Moslem black African tribes and take slaves. In northern Mali retreating al Qaeda men sometimes took newly enslaved blacks with them.
Many such ancient customs die hard in this part of the world. Yet there is also a tradition of tolerance between the blacks and the lights, but the corruption of the black dominated elected government has caused growing resentment among the northerners. Al Qaeda does not openly preach racism but it implies that Arabs and other “lights” will prevail over blacks in areas where the two groups are present. In all-black countries like Nigeria, all-black Islamic terror groups like Boko Haram promise that Moslems will dominate non-Moslems and imply that black Moslems will play leading roles. Islamic radicals are an ancient Moslem custom that flares up every few generations, makes a mess and is rejected for a while. Only some fundamental changes within the Moslem community are needed to banish this deadly custom forever. That is a work in progress and is getting more serious consideration as the death toll and economic costs of Islamic terrorism on Moslem communities continues to rise.
France Has A Plan
France has revised its plans to reduce its Sahel/Mali counterterrorism force because more European nations have agreed to contribute to that effort. The 5,100 French troops in Mali and nearby countries are separate from the 13,000 UN/AU (African Union) troops of the Mali peacekeeper force because the French force deals with Islamic terrorism throughout the region and does so more aggressively. This has been expensive and there have been casualties. Since 2013 the French forces has suffered 53 dead. That is largely because the French troops are an offensive force that does not do a lot of patrolling that exposes the troops to ambushes and roadside bombs. The French force uses more highly trained troops and aerial intelligence collecting that concentrate on finding and destroying Islamic terrorists wherever they are active. There was been less popular support in France for the French counterterror effort in and around Mali in the years after the 2013 intervention. In early 2020 France announced that they would begin reducing the extent of their Sahel counterterrorism effort and called on other nations to replace the French force or at least a portion of it. As Islamic terrorist and Moslem violence increased in France and the rest of Europe in 2020, attitudes changed.
It has long been fashionable to describe the Islamic terrorism, corruption and violence in Moslem nations, and among Moslem migrants to the West, as requiring economic and social solutions rather than more policing. More Westerners have come to realize the economic and social problems are the result of Islamic beliefs that have, for over a thousand years, hampered economic, educational and political progress in the Moslem world. Islam also preaches that it is constantly under attack by Infidels (non-Moslems) and that there is no higher calling than to fight this to “defend Islam.” Until European armies destroyed the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and liberated most of the Arab world from Ottoman rule. Poor, often fatal, treatment of Arabs by Ottoman forces in the Middle East was ignored by the outside (Infidel) world. That all changed after the World Wars. In 1948 Britain turned its South Asian colonial empire over to local rule and that put a lot of Moslems in charge of their own affairs for the first time in centuries. By the 1960s European colonies in Africa and Asia have been set free to rule themselves. One result of all this new self-rule was that Moslem majority areas became more active in aggressively defending Islam by attacking nearby Infidels.
With all this in mind, the French have supported two separate counter-terrorism forces. The larger one, the 13,000 troops of the Mali peacekeeping force, operates just in Mali and mainly in the north. The
5,000 strong G5 force is a local auxiliary to the 5,100 French Sahel counterterrorism force. G5 troops are supplied by Mali and four neighboring countries while the EU (European Union) supplies millions of dollars a year to provide the G5 troops with additional equipment, weapons, training and supplements to their pay. This enables the French force to operate wherever it detects the presence of Islamic terrorists. The French first allocate a lot of intelligence and aerial surveillance efforts to the Islamic terror groups they locate. This enables the French to identify key leaders (for combat and support functions) and where they are. That enables the French to kill a lot of these key personnel. As counter-terror campaigns since the 1990s have demonstrated, this approach weakens and often destroys Islamic terror groups. The inability of local Islamic terrorists operating in or near Mali to carry out large attacks or anything at all in Europe is proof of that. Leave such groups alone and the quantity and quality of attacks will increase.
February 14, 2021: In central Mali two soldiers were killed when their vehicle was attacked by a roadside bomb. Two other soldiers were wounded.
February 10, 2021: In central Mali Islamic terrorists tried to capture a peacekeeper base but were repulsed. The peacekeepers suffered 28 wounded from bullets and mortar shell fragments. Islamic terrorist casualties were not known because the attackers took their dead and wounded with them. These attacks are usually of short duration because the peacekeepers have access to air support and nearby RRFs (Rapid Reaction Forces). These tactics also make sieges impractical. Islamic terrorists, especially in central Mali, have found that their 2020 strategy of attacking and capturing army and peacekeeper bases has become impractical. The defenders have improved their defenses and procedures for responding to such attacks. In the last six weeks there have been eight attacks or attempted attacks (that were called off at the last moment because the defenders were too formidable and alert).
February 8, 2021: The security situation in northern Mali has stabilized sufficiently that the peacekeepers were able to hire a German helicopter service to provide two helicopters (an H225 and a Bell 412) in the north (outside Gao) mainly to provide medevac (medical evacuation) and general transportation services. In combat zones, like the nearby
(south of Gao) three-borders (Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) area, Sweden has provided three UH-60 military transports that are operated and maintained by fifty Swedish troops.
February 3, 2021: In central Mali Islamic terrorists tried to capture an army base and occupied part of it before they were driven out. The army defenders suffered ten dead and many more wounded. Part of the camp was looted before the approach of reinforcements forced the attackers to get back in the vehicles they arrived in, and a few they captured and leave with their loot. Islamic terrorist casualties were not known because the attackers took their dead and wounded with them.
February 1, 2021: Planning for the 2022 national elections continues undisturbed. The
August 2020 coup ejected a corrupt president but failed to establish a military government. Instead, the CNT
(National Transitional Council),
an interim (temporary) government was organized, at the insistence of local politicians and major foreign aid donors. The CNT has until March 2022 to organize new elections and disappear. The
is composed of 121 members generally agreed to represent the Mali population and institutions. The CNT elected a president and vice-president who are both army colonels who were not part of the coup. The CNT serves as a temporary legislative group to determine and approve measures required to maintain order and organize new the 2022 elections.
January 30, 2021: In central Mali a major French-Mali offensive against local Islamic terror groups lasted for most of January and left at least a hundred Islamic terrorists dead, twenty arrested and seized large quantities of vehicles, weapons, equipment and supplies. Most of the Islamic terrorists in central Mali are black Africans. The black and Arab/Tuareg Islamic terrorists are technically united but in practice have evolved into separate Islamic terrorist coalitions. In the north and throughout the Sahel AQIM
(Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) runs things even though veteran Algeria Islamic terrorists who dominate the leadership oppose AQIM getting involved too much with anything south of the Sahel. Such involvement is difficult to avoid because that is where the money is and North Africa has become toxic for Islamic terror groups while the Sahel is more hospitable.
AQIM was once the major Islamic terror group in the region but that is no longer the case. Maghreb is the Arab word for North Africa and that is where AQIM came from. Most of the Islamic terrorist violence in North Africa took place during the 1990s and by 2000 Islamic terror groups were in decline. That decline continues to the present. That decline led to many surviving al Qaeda men heading south where they tried to rebuild their strength by recruiting locals. This ran into problems because the largely Arab population of North Africa had never got on well with the non-Arab people living south of the Sahara Desert. AQIM did get enthusiasm going down there and that led to local Islamic terrorist groups forming and operating independently of AQIM. As a result, the largest Islamic terror group in Mali is JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems). This is an al Qaeda coalition formed in early 2017 to consolidate the many separate Islamic terror groups in Mali. In part this was a reaction to the growing threat from the Arab dominated 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 like AQIM, Ansar Dine, FLM and several other smaller groups. Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources, especially information and practical advice, and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the region. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences.
FLM is Fulani (the largest local tribal contribution) while the other groups are largely Tuareg, Arab and some have a lot of foreigners. Note that JNIM did not absorb all of AQIM groups in the area, just local groups that had long been identified with al Qaeda. The income from the drug trade keeps a lot of these factions in business and the Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mix and keep it that way. Those groups that did not went broke and withered away.
Islamic terror group members evolved and the more radical JNIM members joined more radical groups like ISIL, which is universally hated by other Islamic terrorists and Moslems in general. By 2018 there were
two ISIL “provinces” in central Africa. The smaller one was ISGS (Islamic State in Greater Sahara), showed up in 2018. ISGS is currently active in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. 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.
While Islamic terrorists are the source of much violence and death in Mali and neighboring countries that main source of violent death is still tribal feuds. In Mali the primary one is between the Fulani and Dogon and during 2020 that feuding has killed more people than all the Islamic terrorist violence in Mali.
January 24, 2021: In central Mali Islamic terrorists attacked two army outposts. This left six soldiers dead and 18 wounded. The two attacks were repulsed and the fleeing attackers were forced to abandon some of their vehicles and equipment to get away. At least 30 of the attackers were killed and many more wounded.
January 21, 2021: In central Mali three soldiers were killed when their vehicle was attacked by a roadside bomb. Five others were wounded.