Mali's terrorists cast their web wider

Previously confined to the north the country, the terrorism threat is now spreading to the centre and south of Mali.

Recent terrorist attacks in central and southern Mali point to a deteriorating security situation in the country. The most recent attack occurred on 19 September at Bih, a in town Mali’s central region of Mopti. The attack led to four deaths, two civilians and two police officers.

The terrorist threat, previously confined to the north, has spread to the rest of the country. This despite the presence of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the French military under Operation Barkhane. On 7 August, a hotel siege in Sévaré resulted in 13 deaths, of which four were MINUSMA employees.

The Macina Liberation Front (MLF) later claimed responsibility for the attack. On 10 June, an attack targeted at the National Gendarmerie in Misséni, located 20 kilometres from the Ivorian border, killed one and injured two soldiers. In March, Bamako became the scene of a terrorist attack in the restaurant, La Terrasse.

Recent attacks in central and southern Mali point to a deteriorating security situation

The MLF, to which this new outbreak of violence is largely attributed, first made its appearance in January 2015. The movement recruits mainly among the Peuhl community. It is reportedly comprised of former members of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), one of the largest terrorist groups along with Ansar Dine, the group that occupied northern Mali in 2012. It is suspected that the leader of the MLF is Hamadoun Kouffa, a former preacher from the Mopti region.

Kouffa appeared alongside Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, when the group captured the city of Konna in January 2013. It is suspected that the two figures have been connected since 2000, when they were both militants of the religious Dawa movement. Kouffa’s involvement with the MLF could therefore be the link between the different terrorist groups in the north, and those operating in the centre of the country.

The increased attacks and the emergence of new fronts to the centre and south of the country can be attributed to several factors. The first possible explanation is strategic. Terrorist groups operating in the north might be using attacks in the centre and south to strategically draw the attention of the Malian army and the international forces away from the north. Terrorist groups might be doing this to reorganise or continue their trafficking activities in the north.

The terrorist threat in Mali was previously confined to the north

Following investigations into the attacks in Misséni and Fakola – two towns in the Sikasso region – a number of former members of the Islamic police of Timbuktu were arrested in Bamako during the jihadist occupation in the north. The group that led the attack claimed to be Ansar Dine in the south; an extension of Ansar Dine in the north. This too confirms that there is an operational link – or at the very least an ideological link – between the groups in the north and those in the centre and south of the country.

Finally, it can be noted that while central Mali has also felt the consequences of the insecurity in the north, it has not received the same attention from the Malian authorities. This has encouraged the creation of several self-defence militias in the centre. The option that they may also be trying to have their fair share of the peace dividend cannot be excluded.

Confronted with this growing terrorism threat, it is becoming increasingly clear that the national authorities and their international partners must adapt their responses. Despite several amendments to its mandate, MINUSMA never prioritised the fight against terrorism. Instead, it delegated this task to the French Operation Barkhane, which replaced Operation Serval in August 2014.

If Serval, with nearly 5 000 men at the height of the crisis, solely focused on Mali, this is no longer the case with Operation Barkhane, whose 3 000 troops are deployed across five Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger). This change, combined with the reduction of Operation Barkhane military force in Mali, has prevented the mission from dealing effectively with the terrorist threat on the entire territory.

The recent attacks should be a wake-up call for Malian authorities

At the national level, despite the ongoing security sector reform and the support of the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM), the Malian Armed Force (FAMA) still faces many challenges. Besides the need to reinforce the capacity of the FAMA, the main challenge is the lack of military equipment. For instance, during the hostage-taking in Sévaré, Malian intervention forces were only able to reach the town thanks to MINUSMA’s airpower. This illustrates the difficulties and challenges facing the Malian military in coping with a threat of this nature.

There have been some improvements that contributed to the Mali military’s recent success in resisting and repelling the jihadists – as was the case in Nara on 27 June. However, there is still a long way to go to effectively secure the entire territory. Confronting the fast-spreading threat requires timely tactical mobility and intelligence.

Collaboration with the local population is also essential. This could facilitate the task of the FAMA, and prevent the abuses often associated with the fight against terrorism. In the region of Mopti, abuses perpetuated by the Malian army have become one of the driving causes behind the rise of the MLF. Engaging with the local population is therefore a crucial preventive measure, especially as the abuses have tarnished the image of the army and other state institutions.

The recent attacks should be a wake-up call for Malian authorities. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for in-depth reflection and analysis of the factors behind the emergence and spread of terrorist attacks in areas that were previously spared. This reflection could result in the adoption of a national anti-terrorism strategy, which must be based on national realities and needs.

Ibrahim Maïga, Junior Researcher, CPRA, Dakar

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