Mali: Surprising Saudi Support Surfaces


December 14, 2017: Officials from the G5 Sahel (the semi-desert area between the Sahara and the jungle) Joint Force countries (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) met in France with their five primary sponsors (France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) to discuss financing and other forms of support. The G5 force consists of 5,000 troops from Sahel member nations with the sponsors providing equipment, trainers and about half a billion dollars to pay for maintenance, supplies, base upgrades and so on. The Americans are contributing $60 million (so far) and the rest is expected to come from European nations. The G5 Force has already carried out some operations by the end of 2017 but wants to be a lot more active in 2018.

What was unusual about this meeting is the presence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) who rarely support counter-terrorism operations as partners with Western nations and going after Sunni Islamic extremists. Not only did the two Arab states pledge over $150 million to the G5 force but their media, particularly Saudi media, are now condemning Sunni Islamic terrorist attacks on non-Moslems in the G5 Sahel countries.

The G5 Force is seen as a necessary response to the spread of Islamic terrorist activity in the Sahel. In Mali the Islamic terrorism is spreading from the north to central Mali, mainly because Islamic terrorist smuggling routes but also because of the endemic friction between the Fulani tribes of central Mali and just about every other group they come into contact with. Like the Tuareg up north, the Fulani are a minority (about 14 percent of the population) and seen as “outsiders” by many other Mali tribes. There are some twenty million Fulani living in the Sahel and some of those in northern Nigeria have become involved in Islamic terrorism via the local Boko Haram. News of that spread to other Fulani in the region and created a response. There are over two million Fulani in Mali and the name of a recently formed Islamic terror group in the central Mali (FLM for Macina Liberation Front) openly identifies with the Fulani (Macina are the local branch of the Fulani).

FLM became active in early 2015 and claimed responsibility for a growing number of attacks since. It started out with calls for Fulani people to live according to strict Islamic rules. That in turn led to violence against tribal and village leaders who opposed this. That escalated to attacks on businesses and government facilities. FLM is composed mostly of young Fulani men and is associated with the older al Qaeda affiliate Ansar Dine. Although most Malians are Moslem, few want anything to do with Islamic terrorism and Boko Haram was seen as a major mistake and not welcome at all in Mali. Not so for the Fulani, whose violence in Nigeria was mostly against farmers, who were largely Christian. In Mali the Fulani clashed with farmers who were largely Moslem. Land and cattle were always important but Islamic terrorism, especially when it dominates a lucrative business (smuggling drugs, weapons and people) and welcomes recruits who know how to move around.

The Fulani have always seen themselves as a people apart, an attitude common with the nomadic peoples of the Sahel. The Fulani believe they originally migrated from North Africa and the Middle East. Fulani have lighter skin, thinner lips and straighter hair than other black Africans in sub-Saharan Africa and are also Moslem. Most sub-Saharan Africans are Christian or follow ancient local religions but in Mali nearly everyone is Moslem. Fulani have also been involved with smuggling for a long time, in large part because many are still nomadic and the Fulani don’t really believe in borders. Al Qaeda continues to thrive in central and north Africa because the Islamic terrorists have taken over a lot of the smuggling operations and been attracting many Fulani recruits.

Fulani in general were the biggest supporters of the new JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) that was formed in early 2017. In part this 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 and al Mourabitoun (an al Qaeda splinter group). Another reason for merger was 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 fail and fade away (via desertion and other forms of self-destruction). The new JNIM is more heavily influenced by its Fulani component and that is another reason for more attacks in central Mali, which has long been the scene of conflict with Fulanis.

The Danger Zone

The UN is eager to get additional support for counter-terrorism and peacekeeping in the Sahel. Mali is a special case because it has become the most dangerous peacekeeping operation in Africa. Since 2013 nearly a hundred peacekeepers have died in Mali. Most of these deaths occurred in the north, where there has been l0ts of violence since (and before) the peacekeepers arrived in early 2013. The peacekeepers are mainly African and the action in Mali creates a casualty rate more than double the rate for peacekeepers worldwide. The main reason for all this violence is money. Most AQIM Smuggling routes move through Mali and while locals can usually be bribed to look the other way the foreign peacekeepers and counter-terror units tend to refuse or resist bribes and that causes friction. Meanwhile all those foreign troops make it easier (or at least safer) for foreign aid donors to monitor where their aid is going and that makes it more difficult for local officials to plunder the foreign aid. Such widespread corruption has always been a source of general discontent among all Malians. All this has turned landlocked Mali into something of a hotspot.

December 10, 2017: In the north (outside Timbuktu) AQIM gunmen clashed with a local Tuareg militia, leaving six of the Tuareg dead. While some Tuareg are willing to take the bribe to allow AQIM smugglers to pass, many do not and AQIM does not always take the hint that an alternate route should be used.

December 8, 2017: In central Mali five men installing fiber optic cable for a Chinese telecom company were kidnapped and later murdered. Four of the dead were from Mali while the other was from Togo.

The UN agreed to let its 13,000 strong Mali peacekeeping force cooperate with the new G5 Sahel Force. The UN needs all the help it can get and found working with the 4,000 French Sahel counter-terror operation useful, especially since nearly all those troops were French and had access to more air support and air transport.

November 29, 2017: In the far north, on the Algerian border, Algerian troops finding another batch of weapons and ammunition hidden by smugglers before movement into Mali or further north into populated areas of Algeria. This year the flow has been increasingly into Mali and this is the second such batch of weapons found near the border this month. The smugglers have to be more careful because of increased Algerian patrols along its southern borders and increased surveillance by French led counter-terror forces in northern Mali and similar areas to the east and west.

November 28, 2017: In the southwest, on the border with Guinea, local gold miners from both countries fought for two days over control of newly discovered gold deposits that extend across the border. The fighting lasted two days and left 17 dead (most of them from Mali). A similar border skirmish occurred in 2015 when three Mali miners were killed.

November 24, 2017: In the east (Menaka on the Niger border) Islamic terrorists ambushed a patrol and killed three peacekeepers from Niger and a Mali soldier. Three of the attackers were killed before the rest fled. Later in the day Islamic terrorists attacked a peacekeeper convoy in central Mali (Mopti) with a roadside bomb and RPG rockets, killing one of the peacekeepers (from Burkina Faso) guarding the convoy and wounding several others.


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