Africa File: Abuses by the Malian army will strengthen Salafist jihadists in central Mali

Africa File: Abuses by the Malian army will strengthen the Salafist-jihadists in central Mali

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

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Takeaway key: The Malian army has launched a campaign of collective punishment with the aim of re-imposing state control in central Mali. This approach, which the Wagner group allows, will strengthen the Malian branch of Al-Qaeda by forcing vulnerable civilian populations to rely on Salafist-jihadist militants to defend themselves. Militants may carry out terrorist attacks in urban areas in retaliation for campaigning in central Mali. This campaign also risks fueling inter-ethnic conflict in central Mali, which would cause considerable harm to civilians.

Figure 1. The Salafist-Jihadist movement in Africa: May 2022

Source: Kathryn Tyson.

The Malian army (FAMA) has launched a campaign of collective punishment with the aim of re-imposing state control in central Mali. The state is largely absent from this resource-constrained region, where competing ethnic vigilantes and Salafi-jihadi groups have fueled a cycle of retaliatory violence in recent years. Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian branch, Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), recruits from the local Fulani population by portraying itself as the only viable ally against known ethnic militias and state security forces for their human rights violations. Launch of FAMA Operation Keletigui in *December 2021 to *“search and destroy” JNIM and its “sanctuaries” in central and southern Mali. This operation uses rapid reaction raids, artillery and helicopter gunships to reaffirm the FAMA presence in central Mali. The FAMA retaliate against the JNIM by attacking villages which the Malian government says are JNIM strongholds.

FAMA has partnered with Russian group Wagner to lead this campaign. The Wagner Group is a Kremlin-backed network of military companies funded by a close personal ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin that is used to achieve Russian objectives around the world, including in Africa. Mali’s current government, which took power in a 2021 coup, established its partnership with Wagner while downgrading its longstanding defense partnership with France. French forces stepped up a planned withdrawal from Mali in 2021 due to deteriorating relations with the Malian junta, ending a decade of counterterrorism presence in the country. The Malian government canceled the status of Franco-Malian forces and defense cooperation agreements on May 2. Germany announced on May 4 the end of its participation in the EU training mission in Mali.

The French and European withdrawal coincides with a new and brutal FAMA approach to security in central Mali. Wagner and the FAMA committed several acts of collective punishment in central Mali against Fulani civilians in April. The FAMA and Wagner summarily executed at least 300 Fulani prisoners in a massacre in Moura in late March. FAMA depicts these missions as targeted, intelligence-based raids killing large numbers of “terrorists”.

JNIM capitalizes on the brutality and weakness of the FAMA-Wagner campaign by strengthening ties with vulnerable populations in affected areas. The FAMA and the Wagner group did not attempt to hold villages after their “counter-terrorist raids” and probably lack the manpower and capacity to do so. JNIM therefore reimposes its control after the departure of the security forces. JNIM will strengthen its legitimacy by presenting presents itself as the only security guarantor available for the local populations. The group carried out three vehicle-based improvised explosive device suicide attacks targeting FAMA bases on 24 April. JNIM has also retaliated kidnapping a Wagner contractor in early April, calling Wagner a “criminal force” that killed “hundreds of defenseless innocents”, a reference to the Moura massacre in late March. The JNIM also threatened further attacks against the *Malian government.

Figure 2. Significant Malian army and JNIM activity in central Mali, February-April 2022

Source: AEI Critical Threats Project.

In the most likely scenario, JNIM will expand its areas of control into central Mali and could begin an attack campaign in urban areas, potentially spreading instability to other parts of the country. JNIM’s role as guarantor of the security of vulnerable populations will enable it to solidify its areas of control, increase its freedom of movement and the logistical support it receives from the population. Security forces and local militias could escalate violence by retaliating against communities perceived to support JNIM cells. This cyclical violence will seriously affect civilian populations, increasing local armed mobilization on all sides.

Improved logistical support and freedom of movement could allow JNIM to continue to develop its capabilities and carry out more complex attacks. JNIM has developed its vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) capabilities over the past few years, most recently employing VBIEDs in June 2021 and February 2022 before its recent attack in April. Greater freedom of movement will allow JNIM to expand its area of ​​attack towards the capital region, particularly given the pre-existing activity in the Koulikoro region northeast of Bamako.

The JNIM could plan attacks targeting Bamako or other major cities. A JNIM* leader called on the government to “prepare for . . . real fighting”, and on April 25 claimed that JNIM cells are active in the main cities of Mali. The United States Embassy in Mali warned April 29 of a possible terrorist attack targeting Bamako between April 30 and May 1. Further attacks in Bamako would indicate a resumption of JNIM’s ability to carry out attacks in urban areas. The French Operation Barkhane probably degraded the JNIM’s ability to carry out large attacks in Bamako by eliminating the main cell leaders. Malian security services* arrested two JNIM fighters in Bamako in March 2021. Losses of capability likely contributed to some of this abandonment of terrorist attacks, but JNIM likely also downplayed terrorist attacks for strategic reasons. JNIM leaders likely recognized that high-profile attacks or conquests triggered strong Western responses that threatened their advancement toward local goals, reflecting a broader tendency to prioritize local gains through the Al network. -Qaeda.

Attacks in Bamako or against military bases would threaten the legitimacy of the Malian military junta with its main voters in Bamako by affecting the security of populations in major cities and by demonstrating the deterioration of security in Mali. JNIM attacks causing heavy military casualties can also threaten the government by * sparking protests among soldiers’ family members.

In the worst-case scenario, continued intercommunal conflict can provoke widespread armed community mobilization in central Mali and trigger a descent into ethnic cleansing. Ethnic vigilante militias began mobilizing in 2016 in response to Salafist-jihadi violence and lack of state support, triggering a cyclical pattern of reciprocal violence between Salafist-jihadi groups and vigilante militias . This violence included large-scale massacres targeting civilians based on their ethnicity.

The actions of the FAMA risk fueling and spreading ethnic violence. The Malian state has provided some support to vigilante groups, although the extent of this cooperation remains unclear. The Malian government and Dan Na Ambassagou, an ethnic Dogon militia, reportedly *agreed on a security and counter-terrorism plan for central Mali in 2020. The FAMA has also worked “closely” with Dan Na Ambassagou until in 2018, and the Malian Ministry of Defense encouraged young people to join the FAMA and “responsible self-defense groups” in January 2022. The current FAMA campaign also widely demonizes the Fulani as terrorists, fueling existing prejudices among other ethnic groups who equate Fulani identity with JNIM membership. JNIM’s central branch in Mali has fueled this dynamic by recruiting Fulani members and targeting Dogon militias and other ethnically aligned armed groups, even as JNIM as an organization officially denies taking advantage of ethnicity and presents his leadership as a solution to ethnic conflicts.

The actions of the FAMA and the JNIM risk increasing the level of ethnic violence in central Mali from intermittent to systemic. Vigilante groups have already mobilized at the village level. The ongoing conflict, aggravated by the FAMA campaign, could lead to the formation and mobilization of Fulani militias above this level, likely in partnership with the central JNIM component in Mali. Non-Fulani ethnic armed groups will also mobilize because the FAMA lacks the capacity to provide security. Widespread and organized armed community mobilization beyond the local level would greatly increase the likelihood of mass atrocities, including the large-scale killing of civilians on the basis of ethnicity.

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