Mali: Its 2011 All Over Again



October 19, 2022: In the northeast (south of Gao) IGSS (Islamic States in Greater Sahara) Islamic terrorists near the Niger border have taken advantage of the departure of French counterterrorism forces earlier this year by seizing and holding territory in Mali. This began four months ago with more attacks on the Niger border. The departing French and G5 counter-terrorism forces had kept the Islamic terrorists out of Mali. The Mali army and a small number of Russian (Wagner Group) military contractors have been unable to carry on with that effort or prevent the Islamic terror groups from crossing the border and advancing into Mali. During the last six weeks IGSS launched a number of attacks and appeared intent on taking control of the border between Mali and Niger. Mali responded early on with one of their Russian armed helicopters. This failed when the helicopter attacked a group of Mali civilians thinking they were Islamic terrorists The civilians were trying to get away from the Islamic terrorists. Malian soldiers and a handful of Wagner Group mercenaries were also unsuccessful. After that Mali did nothing about the situation as its security forces and the UN peacekeepers were needed elsewhere. The Niger government was also unable to respond and sought to negotiate a deal with IGSS.

IGSS has existed since 2015 as an affiliate of ISIL and part of ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). In 2021 IGSS declared itself separate from ISWAP and declared northern Mali and some areas in Niger and Burkina Faso its future caliphate.

The tri-border (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) area has been a terrorist hotspot since 2018 because Islamic terror groups can just cross the border to escape any effective counterterrorism efforts. For that reason, this area has been called the Menaka Region. Previously this area was just part of the larger Gao Region, centered on one of the few cities in the north. The area being fought over is near where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. Menaka has become ungovernable because so many Islamic terrorists and bandits now operate here. The French counterterrorism forces regularly searched for and attacked specific Islamic terrorist targets. The Mali government underestimated how important the French forces, with their airmobile troops, UAV surveillance and ground attack aircraft were in keeping the Islamic terrorists from establishing themselves inside Mali. The Mali government has no clear plan for dealing with this situation.

Hundreds of Mali civilians have died since March and thousands have fled towards refugee camps in Menaka City and Gao. The refugee campa are guarded by some UB peacekeepers but Mali does not really have sufficient troops or foreign (Wagner Group) forces to keep the Islamic terrorists from taking those two cities and the refugee camps and the nearly 30,000 civilians taking shelter there.

There are local Tuareg militias that oppose the Islamic terror groups but their numbers are not sufficient to guard Tuareg communities and keep the Islamic terror groups from taking Menaka City and Gao. Government and Wagner troops are confined to towns and nearby army bases most of the time. These government forces carry out some attacks on the Islamic terrorists, but cannot provide troops to guard any towns where the Islamic terrorists have been driven out. Meanwhile other Islamic terror groups have seized territory in Niger and Burkina Faso.

The Islamic terror groups have been increasingly active in central and southern Mali, which is where most of the Mali population lives. Those areas have priority when it comes to security forces.

All this is a return to the situation that led to the 2011 rebellion in the north that in turn led to a military coup in Mali and the military intervention of France to keep the north part of Mali. Without the French intervention in 2012, Mali would have lost its northern territories to a coalition of Islamic terror groups and their Tuareg allies.

What divides Mali more than anything else is ethnicity and geography. The dry (desert and semi-desert) north contains more than half of the territory but only about 12 percent of Mali's 20 million people. In the southern third of Mali, where 88 percent of the population lives, 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 goes back over a thousand years. 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. That has often 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.

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.

Since 2013 most of the 12,000 UN peacekeepers have been in the north, dealing with problems the Mali government has caused and failed to remedy. The government has not come through with the autonomy and economic aid it agreed (back in 2014) to provide if the Tuareg separatist rebels made peace. The government was still corrupt and inefficient and continues to be run by southerners who still do not trust the tribes up north.

The most dangerous rebel group in the north is the Tuareg MNLA (French for “Liberation Army of Azawad”), which signed a peace deal in June 2015. The government made a lot of promises to MNLA, mainly to keep the MNLA from reuniting with its former ally Ansar Dine, which long worked with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Ansar Dine is, like the MNLA, largely Tuareg. France points out that MNLA and Ansar Dine leaders still communicate with each other, mainly because they are all Tuareg and have tribal connections. MNLA and Ansar Dine relations with AQIM are less friendly and most MNLA members see AQIM as unwelcome outsiders. This unstable situation up north won’t resolve itself unless the government keeps its side of the peace deal. MNLA is obviously ready to work with Ansar Dine again if the central government keeps stalling on meeting its obligations.

The Tuareg never trusted the national government and continued lack of cooperation from the government does not help. Azawad is the Tuareg term for their homeland in northern Mali (and several other North African nations). Ansar Dine refuses to make peace and continues to fund its terrorist operations with drug smuggling profits. MNLA gave up drug smuggling and cooperation with Islamic terrorists when it signed the 2015 peace deal. The continued smuggling explains Ansar Dine involvement with the new Islamic terror group FLM (Macina Liberation Front) down south. AQIM is still something of an umbrella organization for Islamic terrorists in the region and survives in the north largely because the government has not complied with the peace deal. Most Tuareg do not belong to MNLA or Ansar Dine and are mainly concerned with taking care of their family and clan. The clans often have militias and if economic conditions don’t improve up there a lot of those militiamen will use their weapons to get what they need (or simply want).

There are still a lot of unresolved disagreements between the many pro-government and former rebel tribes and clans up there. These feuds are proving more difficult to solve because of the government’s refusal to deliver aid and autonomy. This is causing enough anarchy to give the Islamic terrorists opportunities to move around and carry out attacks and keep their drug smuggling enterprise running. The local squabbles kept peacekeepers busy and the chaos was contained by French led counter-terror operations. Then the Mali government forced the French led counter-terror force out in 2022, so its 2011 again in the semi-desert north.

October 17, 2022: In the north (outside Kidal) four peacekeepers were killed by an Islamic terrorist roadside bomb. The four dead peacekeepers were part of an effort to discover and disable anti-vehicle mines and roadside bombs Islamic terrorists use to control who can access the few roads in the north.

The military government has been threatening to force the 15,000 UN peacekeepers out of the country unless the UN agrees to give the Mali military government control over what the peacekeepers can do. The government is particularly angry at the way the peacekeepers report on atrocities committed by Mali security forces as well as the Russian Wagner Group military contractors. The UN refused to comply with the government demands and the government backed off. With the French and G5 specialized counterterrorism expelled by the military government in 2021, gone, the Islamic terrorists are more numerous and active. The peacekeepers are taking higher casualties dealing with this and that alone might lead to the UN reducing and soon eliminating the Mali peacekeeper force. Mali is becoming a failed state because it regularly ends up with governments that are more harmful than helpful to Mali and any foreigners working in Mali. Currently the military government seems to realize that they need UN peacekeepers that maintain government control over the rebellious north. These peacekeepers are supplied by AU (African Union) nations and some of the African nations supplying these peacekeepers are withdrawing that support. A few percent of the peacekeeping force are from NATO nations that supply specialized services, especially transport helicopters and other services.

There is growing opposition among UN members for maintaining the expensive peacekeeper force, which is the most dangerous the UN is currently involved with. The Mali peacekeeping operation costs about half a billion dollars a month and that is about the only foreign aid Mali gets now that the military government is in control. Most foreign aid was halted because the government was stealing so much of the aid. It is difficult to steal any of the money spent on peacekeepers but the government seems to be trying to do just that. The UN votes every June on whether or not to keep the peacekeepers in Mali for another year. After the UN voted to keep peacekeepers in Mali until 2023, the military government began harassing the peacekeepers and pressuring the peacekeepers to take orders from the government.

The peacekeepers serve on contracts (with the UN) for varying periods usually between two and six months. This year UN members threatened to withdraw peacekeepers because Mali is paying for about a thousand Russian mercenaries (Wagner Group military contractors) as well as buying weapons from Russia, which is banned from selling weapons to foreign nations.

Since 2013, when the peacekeepers arrived, 181 have been killed. This is the highest fatality rate of any UN peacekeeper force. The peacekeeper deaths in Mali account for over 40 percent of annual peacekeeper deaths. But the peacekeeping force in Mali is only twelve percent of all UN peacekeepers deployed worldwide. The peacekeepers are mainly African and in the last few years the Mali force suffered an annual death rate of between 200 and 250 per 100,000 per year (a standard measure of such things.) Compare that to Afghanistan, where in 2013 the rate (200 per 100,000) was lower for all foreign troops there. That was down from the peak 587 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.

October 13, 2022: In central Mali (Mopti) Islamic terrorists were believed responsible for a roadside bomb that was set off against a bus, killing 11 people and wounding 53. The use of anti-vehicle mines and remotely detonated roadside bombs Such attacks are common in Mali and have killed nearly a hundred people so far this year. Most of the casualties are soldiers with at least a quarter being civilians. For all of 2021 landmines and roadside bombs killed 20 people in Mali.

September 30, 2022: In neighboring Burkina Faso, there was a military coup and the new military government accused France of planning to intervene militarily to reinstate the ousted president. That was not true, but the Russian Wagner Group promptly stepped up and offered military assistance, for a price. Wagner Group was authorized by Vladimir Putin in 2014 with trusted associate Yevgeny Prigozhin (and self-made millionare) in charge. Prigozhin assigned his corporate security chief, Dmitry Utkin to run the operation. Utkin is a former special operations officer who used the call sign “Wagner” while in the army. Prigozhin and Utkin report directly to Putin and Wagner Group often carries out special tasks for Putin. One of those was to increase Russian influence in Africa, where there are currently 2,400 Wagner Group contractors active (or recently were), in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar and Mozambique. Prigozhin has received lots of help in the form of military intelligence and the use of Russian media manipulation organizations, one of which he founded. Wagner Group has been noted for their skill at using disinformation to shape events in foreign countries. In Africa the disinformation often works in nations that were long allied with France but are now run by a miliary government that gained power by blaming France for all the local problems.

September 29, 2022: G5 members held a meeting in Niger to determine how they would reorganize since they were forced out of Mali and Mali withdrew from the G5. The G5 Sahel counterterrorism force has been active since 2018 but has not been as effective as France and the EU (European Union) states that financed it had hoped. Burkina Faso has been a major beneficiary of G5 efforts, as has Mali. The G5 operation was seen as a better peacekeeping solution because it consists of the best troops from five Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) and was capable of dealing with Islamic terrorism throughout the Sahel, which is the semi-desert belt below the Sahara Desert that extends across most of Africa. The problem is that the least effective G5 contingent comes from Mali, which has long had a reputation for the least effective military in the area,

G5 began operations in early 2018 after three years of planning and preparation. In late 2016 the countries involved agreed on the details of G5. This included who would provide what in terms of the 5,000 soldiers and police needed and where they would be based. The G5 force was to be stationed in three operational areas along with troops familiar with local conditions. Sahel East consists of troops from Chad and Niger. Sahel Central is staffed by troops from Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso while Sahel West mainly uses troops from Mali and Mauritania. The G5 force has been most active in the three borders area (where borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet) and found itself spending more and more time in this terrorist hotspot. The new military government in Mali forced French and G5 forces out of Mali in 2022 and now realizes how valuable the G5 and French presence was. The French are not coming back and G5 is trying to reorganize to better deal with the new Islamic terrorist threat coming from northern Mali.




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