In the northeast near the Niger border the most prominent Islamic terror group in this areas is the ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara). ISGS is still seeking revenge because French forces killed their leader in late August but is having problems with losses and a shortage of new recruits. ISGS, like most Islamic terrorists, even the most extreme ones like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) need cash because it is simply more efficient to purchase many items (like weapons, ammo, information and sanctuary in areas controlled by local tribes). Northeast Mali (near Gao and the Niger border) is where ISGS has long operated despite very aggressive resistance from local Tuareg tribes. This ISIL franchise is frequently encountered in northeastern Mali on both sides of the Niger border. When ISGS clashes with pro-government Tuareg militias they usually lose. It’s not that these ISGS men are not fanatic enough but that the Tuareg know the area well and have more experience in irregular warfare. Since March 2018 ISGS has taken very heavy losses as the Tuareg militias worked with a special French counterterrorism operation that included troops from Mali and Niger and spent enough time searching to find several ISGS camps and forcing the Islamic terrorists to fight. So far ISGS has lost over 150 dead and captured but groups like ISGS don’t surrender but fight harder until they are crushed. ISGS is still up there but in much reduced circumstances. The fact that there have only been a few rocket attacks or failed suicide bomber efforts in the last few months attests to that. In October a French-led airborne/air assault was meant to weaken, and demoralize, the ISGS and it apparently did. In the weeks following this operation, there was little ISGS activity and that inactivity continues.
The Bloody Middle
In central Mali, the violence between nomadic Fulani herders and local Dogon farmers has been particularly intense since April. So far the fighting has killed about 300 and forced over 70,000 people from their homes. Since 2015 more than 1,200 have died. Part of the problem here is corruption. Colonial-era laws to protect farmlands and forests were, after independence, increasingly abused to extort money or bribes. The application of the laws “protected” so much farmland that Fulani herders were often unable to reach pastures or water sources they had long used.
The Fulani were not the only ones angered by the continued corruption. Foreign aid groups sought $330 million from donors (the dozen or so nations that provide most of the aid money) for Mali in 2018. Even though most of this money will go for food and medical aid the amount of cash pledged fell short of what has been requested. In fact, only about half was provided. The reason is simple; continuing corruption and violence (tribal and Islamic terrorist) makes Mali a less attractive place to use scarce aid money. There is more demand than supply for aid money and donors want to use their money where it will do the most good, and be less likely to be stolen and erupt into another major scandal when the details of the theft get out. 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 an audit of foreign aid sent to Mali in 2015 eventually (over a year later 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. Mali security forces make it difficult for foreign investigators to collect evidence of corruption and a lot of the details come from personal experiences of locals who will talk to foreigners. In Mali the government is good at a few things, chief among them stealing foreign aid and concealing the evidence of who did what.
The Fulani react more violently to the corruption than most other tribes. A current example if the practice of Fulani Islamic terrorists traveling to rural villages in central Mali, summoning the local population (often to a mosque) and telling that the only permissible education for their children was Islamic and that the government supported schools that taught French and other “Western” subjects must be shunned. These Fulani believe that Western education and culture are the main cause of all the corruption and other problems. Failure to close the forbidden schools could result in armed “Defenders of Islam” (Islamic terrorists) coming around and destroying the schools and killing anyone associated with them. Since October over 2,000 children in central Mali have lost access to their schools. During the last (2017-18) school year 1,108 schools were forced to close, at least once for at least 20 days. These closures involved 332,000 students and while the closures were almost all temporary if Islamic terrorists come to dominate, the closures become permanent.
The endemic friction between the Fulani tribes of central Mali and just about every other group they come into contact with is common throughout the region (especially in Nigeria). 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 (the semi-desert area south of the Sahara desert that stretches across northern Africa) and some of those in northern Nigeria got involved in Islamic terrorism via the local Boko Haram. News of that spread to other Fulani in the region and inspired imitation. There are over two million Fulani in Mali and the name of a relatively new Islamic terror group in 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. 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 in Nigeria 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 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 the 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 destructive 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 have a lot of 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. Largely because of the Fulani and JNIM there has been more Islamic terrorist activity in the last year and that has impeded reconstruction and foreign aid efforts. Add to that the existing culture of corruption, especially in southern Mali and you have an atmosphere that is hostile to good government, national unity or economic growth.
Armed Foreign Aid
While the 12,000 troops of the peacekeeping force cost a billion dollars a year the 4,500 strong G5 Force gets by with $120 million a year in foreign aid. That is in addition to about $420 million in startup costs provided by NATO and the EU. Foreign donors provide new equipment and weapons as well as air, intel and training support. The G5 nations provide some of their best troops for what amounts to a rapid reaction counter-terror force. G5 is organized to move around and fight. The military support c0mes from NATO, particularly France which has 4,500 counterterrorism troops operation in the Sahel. Unlike the peacekeepers in Mali (or Congo, Sudan, Somalia or whatever) the G5 troops are local and are largely operating on their own territory. Being part of G5 gives them extra equipment (like radios) and training that enables them to quickly call in other resources (like aerial surveillance, air strikes and French ground troops) as needed. There are other joint forces like this. The most recent and prominent example is the multinational force formed from neighboring nations to deal with Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in northeast Nigeria.
The G5 Sahel Joint Force was formed in 2017 and by late 2018 consisted of seven battalions each with about 550 troops and 100 police. G5 Force was designed to deal with terrorism in the semi-desert area between well-watered central Africa and the Sahara (and other North African deserts). The five Sahel nations (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) each contributed troops best able to deal with the threats throughout the Sahel. Each nation contributed one battalion with Mali and Niger contributing two battalions (because those two nations have the largest number of Islamic terrorists operating within their borders.) Add a few hundred headquarters and support troops and you have a force of 5,000.
While France is the major NATO contributor to the Sahel counterterror effort the U.S. also has a large counterterror force in the region under the control of U.S. Africom (Africa Command). The major American base in Africa is one shared with France in Djibouti (bordering northwest Somalia) but another one is being built in eastern Niger. The U.S. provides a lot of air support in the form of aerial surveillance (including large UAVs and electronic monitoring), air transport and aerial refueling. The American also supply Special Forces for training and other instructors to teach subjects (communications, logistics, medical). So between the G5 Force, the French counterterror force and the American support there are over 10,000 local and foreign troops operating in the Sahel against Islamic terrorists.
Deployment of G5 battalions concentrates on border areas. The eastern contingent consists of two battalions concentrating on the Chad-Niger border. The central contingent has three battalions and covers the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This is something of a hot spot as border regions go. The western contingent has two battalions covering the Mali-Mauritania border. The major peacekeeper force is the 12,000 strong force in northern Mali. This has been around since 2013 and is considered the most dangerous peacekeeper assignment in the world (with nearly 200 dead so far). The peacekeepers spend most of their time patrolling and providing security. The counterterror forces are out looking for a fight.
G5 Force is no instant solution because there is a lot of Islamic terrorist activity in the Sahel but has been criticized for being slow to get going. G5 began operations in early 2018 and so far has demonstrated, in a few instances, the ability to move and fight and make a difference. Mali is still the most troublesome Sahel nation but also has the most outside assistance. 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. But there have been administrative and coordination problems. Mali is the most corrupt of the Sahel counties not the only corrupt nation in the region.
November 12, 2018: In the north (outside Gao), a JNIM suicide vehicle bomber detonated prematurely, killing three civilians and wounding 30 others. JNIM (an al Qaeda affiliate) intended to attack foreign troops but failed. There are British, German and Canadian troops in the area but the bomb went off in a residential area. Four of the wounded were foreigners (from Cambodia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) but there were with a UN civilian mine clearing team that just happened to be nearby. The last JNIM suicide bomb attacks were two a few days apart in July. A French UAV located the group responsible and a raid was conducted by French troops arriving at night via helicopter. The raid killed seven Islamic terrorists belonging to JNIM and one of the dead was identified as a senior leader of JNIM.
October 27, 2018: In the north (Timbuktu), numerous Islamic terrorists, including one driving a suicide truck bomb, attacked a peacekeeper base but were repelled. Two peacekeepers were killed and five wounded.
In central Mali (Mopti), a peacekeeper vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, wounding four peacekeepers.
October 25, 2018: Down south parliament approved extending the state of emergency another year. The state of emergency has been in force since November 2015 and makes it illegal for crowds to assemble and demonstrations to take place without permission. The security forces can ignore some legal procedures when making arrests and holding people in custody. The state of emergency was first enacted, for ten days at a time, after the November 2015 terror attack but later extensions were longer. Before 2015 a previous state of emergency ended in July 2013.