Op-Ed: The silent spread of terror in Mali

Op-Ed: The silent spread of terror in Mali

Despite some notable counterinsurgency successes, Mali remains highly unstable, with jihadist attacks taking place since the beginning of the year beyond the usual theatre of operations in the country’s northern areas, threatening its neighbours. While security forces have qualified these as small pockets of leftover jihadists, attacks have increased with local gangs, notably the Massina Liberation Front, joining the larger organisations, providing them with geographical depth. The evolution of the threat, and signs that the competing jihadist groups may not be opposed to working together are increasingly complicating counterinsurgency efforts. By BAT-EL OHAYON.

The resurgence of militancy in Mali and the push towards central and southern areas has been taking place since the beginning of the year, and as such the August 7 attack against the Byblos hotel in Sevare targeting United Nations (UN) workers should not have been a surprise to most. Until this incident, the resurgence and increasing threat posed by jihadist groups in Mali’s central and southern regions was not given enough attention, and as such its regional consequences have largely been underreported, despite jihadists’ clearly stated intention to attack neighboring countries.

On June 30, terrorist group Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for two notable attacks in Mali that took place several days before, one on the border with Mauritania, and the other close to the southern border with Côte d’Ivoire in Fakola and Sikasso. Both of the attacks are significant in that they occurred beyond these groups’ usual theatre of operations and were reportedly carried out in coordination with local groups, including the Massina Liberation Front (FLM), giving the terror organisation increased geographical and social reach. These terrorist cells have proven that they are capable of carrying out small targeted attacks as well as larger well planned and more complicated ones, all the while evading the Malian, French and UN troops. This has caused an important shift in the ongoing counter-insurgency efforts in Mali, with militants demonstrating growing influence, bold tactics and the ability to operate in almost every region of the country.

Lastly, as was made evident by the claim of responsibility for the Byblos attack by a man representing the FLM, who is known for having been tied to infamous smuggler and jihadi leader Mokhtar BelMokhtar as well as Ansar Dine, cooperation and direct links between these terrorist entities cannot ruled out. Put together, these developments signal that the fight against jihadists is far from over in Mali, with the spillover likely to increase and thus prompt security forces to readjust their approach once more.

These threats and the resurgence of militancy can in part be explained by the current situation in Mali, where a preliminary peace agreement was finally reached between the Bamako government and the Tuareg separatist rebel Coalition of Azawad Movements, as pro-government militias gained political and de facto power in the country’s northern regions. While this was going on, Islamist activity persisted, particularly targeting UN locales and personnel and slowly seeping past their usual theatre of operations into Mopti and other more central and border regions, approaching the national capital, Bamako. Thus, while most of the government and troops were busy attempting to quell growing rebel-led and intra-rebel violence, militant groups understood that this was their chance to operate under the radar, and test the boundaries of the security forces’ capabilities.These security measures evidently failed, as attacks in Bamako and other areas were successfully carried out.

Moreover, part of the strategic thinking behind seeking peace with the Tuareg rebel factions was likely to neutralise one of the factors was contributing to instability in northern Mali and redirect attention and resources towards the Islamist threat. That said, the signing of the June 20 rebel-government peace agreement seems to be too little too late. It’s true that the French forces kept marking some notable successes in the counterinsurgency efforts but the Islamist resurgence that has been increasingly marked in the last year has persisted and evolved. Additionally, this time around, militant leaders have seemingly learned from past mistakes, slowly melting into various communities without imposing their system of governance too suddenly or strongly (which prompted a serious popular backlash in 2012).

The current situation is the product of a long evolution that has seemingly gone unnoticed, with authorities continuing to insist the assailants are part of isolated cells. In reality, this resurgence is proving to be better calculated than before, with the various militant groups not necessarily intent on simply competing, and using local groups to increase their geographical reach. Furthermore, the threat has additionally become increasingly regional, with countries such as Côte d’Ivoire finding themselves bolstering their security, realising that some radical youths from their own country have joined forces with jihadists in Mali.

The militant threat in Mali has never really been contained, with the resurgence proving that the issue is increasingly becoming regional and more complex. Although Tuareg rebel-led violence has significantly decreased since the June 20 signing, Islamist activity has not ceased, has increased in sophistication, and will continue to challenge the French, UN and local security forces, threatening regional stability which has already proven to be highly delicate. DM

Photo: Malian Defense Minister Tieman Coulibaly (C) surveys the damage after a hotel siege in which 17 people died, in Sevare, Mali, August 11, 2015. Sahara-based Islamist militant group al-Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for the siege in central Mali. There was no independent confirmation from the group, which is linked to al Qaeda and has been behind several attacks against Western interests in the Sahel region. REUTERS/Adama Diarra


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