Mali and neighbors Burkina Faso and Niger have become the epicenter of Islamic terrorist violence since 2016. These three nations suffered over 4,000 such deaths in 2019 compared to a total of 770 during the three previous years. In 2020 the violence levels diminished a bit because of increased French-led counter-terrorism efforts. This resulted in the deaths of several key Islamic terror group leaders. This reduced the effectiveness of some Islamic terror groups until the leaders could be adequately replaced. Many of the Islamic terror groups in this region are very dependent on a few key leaders. Feuds and power struggles are a common problem within Islamic terror groups and the French have learned how to exploit that.
Since 2014 five nations; Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan, have accounted for most of the terrorism-related deaths. That list has recently changed with Syria and Pakistan replaced by Somalia and Mali (including neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso). The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a more radical faction of al Qaeda that is currently the most radical practitioner of Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorism continues to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism-related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorism-related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorism-related deaths and are outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.
In central Africa, landlocked Mali is the center of growing Islamic terrorist activity that has spread to neighboring Niger and especially Burkina Faso which is, like Mali, landlocked and has 17 million people (about 20 percent more than Mali). Burkina Faso also lacks the troublesome Tuareg/Arab minority in northern Mali. Because Burkina Faso is south of Mali it also lacks the semi-desert north in Mali. That is where the Tuareg/Arab minority live. Burkina Faso also has more religious diversity with a quarter of the population being Christian and 60 percent Moslem. Moreover, the Moslem population consists of several different “schools” of Islam, some of them quite hostile to Sunni Islamic terrorism as practiced by al Qaeda and ISIL. In contrast, Niger and Mauritania are almost all Moslem and have always been the home for some Islamic conservatives who were not satisfied unless their neighbors also adopted Islamic conservatism.
The epicenter of most Islamic terrorist violence has been
the tri-border area were the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. The Mali portion of the tri-border area is in northern Mali, which was the original hot spot for Islamic terrorism in central Africa, predating the rapid growth, and decline of Boko Haram violence in northeast Nigeria between 2013 and 2016.
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. In Nigeria Boko Haram is divided into factions and one of them, ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) is one of two Central Africa ISIL affiliates. 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. ISWAP is also finding that there is a downside to using ISIL techniques. More Western nations are willing to help Nigeria or at least coordinate existing counter-terrorism in the region (from Somalia to Mali and the Atlantic coast). There are smaller ISIL factions in northern Somalia, southern Libya and eastern Algeria. These groups were once larger but have suffered heavy losses from local and/or international counter-terrorism efforts.
In Mali, the violence shifted since 2012 from northern to central Mali where about 70 percent of the 2019-2020 deaths took place. The rest were in the northeast where ISIL is most active. The situation in central Mali is worse than it appears because in neighboring Burkina Faso there were nearly as many deaths in 2019 and 2020. Mali and Burkina Faso can blame it on Islamic terror groups using the two nations for their drug/people smuggling operation (north to the Mediterranean coast) which is so lucrative that it has expanded, at least in central and northern Mali, to include extortion and all manner of criminal activity. At the center of all this violence and cash producing activity are Fulani tribesmen who are numerous (20 million in all) throughout a belt of territory stretching from Central Mali, through northern Mali then through southern Niger into northern Nigeria.
French troops in Mali killed the leader of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) during a mid-2020 operation. This was a big deal because the 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 and 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 never got on well with the non-Arab people living south of the Sahara Desert. AQIM did introduce the concept of Islamic terrorism 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 ISIL, 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 and 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. Drug trade income keeps a lot of these factions in business and Islamic terrorists know that business and religious fanaticism do not mi. Those groups that do not go broke and wither to nothing.
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. In early 2020, Malian ISIL members released a video on the Internet in which the group pledged allegiance to Abu Hamza al Qurayshi, the new ISIL leader. By 2018 there were two ISIL “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. The other, slightly older and larger, ISIL province was ISWAP, which is 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.
There has been increasing friction between ISGS and JNIM (and other al Qaeda affiliates). This is not unusual because, worldwide, ISIL demands all other Islamic terror groups acknowledge the supremacy of ISIL. This rarely happens anymore. In areas where both ISIL and al Qaeda operate, there is usually an informal truce or, as is now the case in Mali, open warfare. ISIL groups are usually outnumbered but often survive because they are more ruthless and vicious. In northern Mali, ISGS also accuses JNIM of collaborating with the security forces against the ISIL group. That is not unusual worldwide but it is unclear if it is actually happening in Mali. What is happening is that ISGS continues to recruit new members from al Qaeda factions. This is how ISIL was created back in 2013 and the practice continues.
While Islamic terrorists are the source of much violence and death in Mali and neighboring countries, the main source of violent death is still tribal feuds. In Mali, the primary one is between the Fulani and Dogon and in 2020 that feuding has killed more people than all the Islamic terrorist violence in Mali.
March 15, 2021:
In the northeast (south of Gao) in the tri-border area were the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, there was a major terrorist attack in Mali where unidentified raiders slaughtered twenty people in four vehicles returning from a nearby market. The raiders then attacked and looted two nearby villages killing about thirty people as the raiders burned what they could not carry away. A number of Islamic terrorist groups operate in the tri-border area and often cross borders to make attacks like this.
On the Mali side of the border someone attacked an army base, killing two soldiers and wounding eight. The attack failed and the attackers left, taking their dead and wounded with them.
February 25, 2021: In central Mali (Mopti) unidentified attackers went after an army base and a nearby police base in a rural town. Eight police were killed and nine wounded as the raiders stole some vehicles and looted the police base of some weapons before fleeing.
February 24, 2021: In central Mali (Mopti) unidentified attackers ambushed a supply convoy guarded by soldiers. Two soldiers were killed and several wounded as the attackers fled.
February 19, 2021: The CNT (National Transitional Council) announced it would defy France and negotiate with some of the Islamic terror groups in Mali in order to make possible elections in early 2022. France points out that Islamic terrorists consider negotiations an acceptable way to deceive your enemies because their opponents will feel obliged to comply with any agreement while a defender of Islam (which is what most Islamic terrorists consider themselves) will violate any agreement when it is most advantageous for them. The CNT government believes that this deplorable Islamic terror group track record of exploiting agreements would not apply here because the CNT wants to address the non-religious grievances of Islamic terrorists in central Mali, where the violence is basically about economic disputes between the aggressive Fulani and other tribes. French criticism cannot be ignored as France is the backbone of foreign counter-terrorism and peacekeeping efforts as well as foreign aid in general. France wants the CNT government to concentrate on reducing the rampant corruption in government. This is what most Mali voters see as the primary problem. Many of those who have turned to Islamic terrorism agree.
August 2020 coup ejected a corrupt president but failed to establish a military government. Instead, the CNT
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.