In late October, ISIS supreme leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was killed in a US raid in North-Western Syria. However, ISIL disposes of a horizontal structure, meaning the elimination of the leader does not bring substantial damage to the group as a whole. Shortly after Baghdadi’s death, ISIS published the name of the newly proclaimed leader – Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. After 5 years of foreign intervention against the terror group, the Middle East is witnessing a weakened ISIL, with many of its members killed, imprisoned or on the run. But in Africa, the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) has taken over strategically important territories in the Sahel region. One of the countries most affected by the terrorism movements in the area is Mali, where both ISGS and Al Qaeda are coordinating armed groups.
On November 2 2019, in Bamako Mali, 53 national army soldiers and one civilian were killed in a terrorism attack conducted by the ISGS, following two similar attacks that killed at least 40 soldiers near the country’s border with Burkina Faso. On November 25, thirteen French soldiers have been killed in a helicopter collision during an operation against jihadists. Preparing to target militants on motorbikes and pick-up trucks, a French Tiger attack helicopter hit a Cougar military transport mid-air. The two aircraft crashed close to each other, killing everyone on board. At the same time, the UN peace-keeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has been declared the most dangerous of its kind, having lost 206 personnel over the past six years.
The French mission against terrorism in northern Mali began in 2013, after which the deployment was extended into a regional mandate under the operational name Barkhane. France has currently 4,500 troops deployed to assist and fight alongside forces of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, against the Islamist radicals. Yet in recent months, groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda initiated a new offensive, focusing their activity on the centre-east of Mali and the area bordering Niger and Burkina Faso.
The security climate in Mali is worsening due to increased terrorism. Organized crime activities are increasing, fueling the bank accounts of the jihadists. French troops in the northeastern region of Kidal did not manage to impede rebel groups from exploiting the region’s immense gold reserves. The Malian government is now losing control of the region of Timbuktu, as well. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) have very limited political influence in the area and their involvement has stalled. The current disarray in Mali finds its origins in the 2012 coup which cleared the path for Tuareg separatists to take effective control of villages and cities in the north of the country. Jihadists affiliated mainly with Al Qaeda suppressed the Tuareg people, seizing the northern Mali for 10 months until French-led military mission ousted them from the area.
The region of Timbuktu was also shaken by a separatist movement coordinated by the Coalition des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), which is expected to lead to new conflicts between the fractured member groups. One of the armed terrorist groups that signed the 2015 peace agreement in Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) called on December the 3rd for the merger of the various groups representing the north of the country within a single political-military organization. Tensions between the central government and CMA could compromise the efforts made so far against the jihadists.
Soon after the disastrous French military intervention where 13 soldiers were killed, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has called on fellow EU governments to dispatch special forces to the Sahel, to help curb militant attacks that have killed more than 100 Malian troops in recent weeks. In an almost seven-year campaign, France has lost 38 troops. However, not all European governments consider the jihadist threat in the Sahel an imminent threat, reason for which the French proposal is likely to be received with reluctance.
For a foreign intervention against the terrorist threat in Mali to be successful, both France and neighbouring governments must concentrate their efforts on increasing the levels of social security and education. Regardless of purpose or region, terror groups can only thrive in areas highly affected by social insecurities, such as ethnical conflicts, religious clashes, corruption, poverty, poor governance etc.
The Force of the Group of Five for the Sahel (FC-G5S) that brings together Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger is aimed at combating rebel armed groups, cross-border organised crime and human trafficking. However, nor the FC-G5S, nor the governments in the region alone receive any substantial support from France or the EU. Effective measures should address not only the ongoing insurgency but the core problems that allowed it to prosper in the region.
With increasing numbers of people trying to flee terrorism in Mali by embarking on deadly journeys towards Europe, the EU is likely to face a new wave of refugees. In this regard, increased coordinated efforts between France, the EU, the UN and the regional governments are needed for ensuring the security of the Malian people.
Image: Screen Capture from Al Qaeda Propaganda Video