Mali: Is It All About Terrorism?

Elena Dal Santo 17 Apr 2018

The situation

Mali has hit the headlines quite often in the last years, with journalistic articles and reports mainly focusing on the threat posed by terrorist groups in the country as well as in the region.

Besides attracting the attention of the media, the presence of terrorist actors in the country has become a top priority for the international community as well. In the aftermath of 9/11, Mali has received funding and foreign aid support from various countries intended to address the terrorist threat in the region. In 2003, for example, the US invested approximately 7.5 million USD in the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI), with Mali representing the main geographical focus. In 2005, the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) was launched by the United States, allocating almost 80 million USD to the country in the years until 2013. In 2013, France launched Operation Serval, followed in 2014 by Operation Barkhane, both consisting of military operations aimed at countering terrorism. The above-mentioned initiatives represent only the tip of the iceberg of a vast series of international, regional and national programmes aimed at countering terrorism and reducing the risk of radicalization in the country promoted by the UN, the EU, the diplomatic representations in Bamako and local NGOs.

Counter-terrorism efforts have significantly increased after 2012, when a Tuareg rebellion broke out in the North under the leadership of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The situation rapidly evolved into a much more complex conflict as the government in Bamako was confronted by a coup d’état while MNLA gained the control of the Northern area thanks to the alliance with Al-Qaida for the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Despite the signature of the 2015 Algiers Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, the volatile situation in the country provided room for violent extremist groups to expand their control over the Malian Sahel, including the cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.

Nowadays, Mali is believed to offer a safe-haven for terrorist groups operating in the region, especially after an alliance was established in March 2017 among the main jihadist groups active in the country. However, is it all about terrorism? Despite the tendency to oversimplify and identify the causes of the current instability in the presence of terrorist groups in the country, the situation in the country appears to be much more complex.

Multiple and heterogeneous causes behind the actual situation in Mali

Mali is undeniably characterised by high level of instability, conflict and tensions. Nevertheless, this tense environment is not only the direct result of the activities carried out by the terrorist groups in the country. In fact, the current situation is affected by various factors, ranging from the influence of regional geo-political dynamics, to the presence of armed groups, the synergies emerged between terrorism and organised crime, the consequences of historical marginalisation and ethnic tensions, the existence of severe economic frustrations, the effects of climate change and poor governance.

Socio-economic tensions play a major role in the actual conflict. The tensions between the South and the North of the country date back to the independence of the nation: the first Tuareg rebellion broke out in 1962, follow by other three main attempts to gain control over the Azawad. These conflictual dynamics are partially linked to the historical marginalisation of the North by the central government of Bamako, the pressure posed by ethnic frictions and the conflictual relationship between nomadic and sedentary populations. The first Malian government had the challenging task of governing a vast territory, including Tuareg and Arab communities that often refused to recognise the power of the central authorities. Perceived as an obstacle towards the country’s unity, these groups have often been marginalised and discriminated by the national institutions, which preferred military rule to dialogue and inclusion. Moving from a national to a local level, the north of the country, usually referred to as Azawad, is inhabited both by nomadic and sedentary communities. The diversity between these opposite life-styles has led to violent clashes, especially in the last years due to the effects of climate change: violence has increased in connection to droughts and changes in seasonal weather patterns.

For more than a century, the Azawad has been exposed to illegal activities and illicit trades because of poor governance, including the lack of means to fight crime in this area, the porous nature of its borders as well as because of the natural predisposition of the area to the transportation of goods as a profitable economic activity. In fact, a desert zone such as the Sahara offers limited economic opportunities, among which transport of goods is certainly a crucial one and which does not necessarily acknowledge a clear distinction between legal and illegal trade. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the region has become a key route for the trafficking of drugs and the smuggling of migrants towards Europe and North America. Terrorist groups have taken advantage of illegal trade to gain profits for their activities. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), known to be the predecessor of AQIM, transferred its activities from Algeria to Northern Mali at the beginning of 2000, including trafficking for financial revenues. The economic prominence of terrorist groups in the Sahelian Mali has increased in the last decade to the point that AQMI is now portrayed as “an attractive employer for impoverished desert youth”.

Looking ahead

The efforts of the international community to address the Malian conflict have focused mainly on countering the advance of the terrorist threat from a military perspective. However, recent research has revealed that the great majority of violent episodes in the region of Timbuktu in 2016 are linked to financial motivations, inter-community conflicts, sexual violence and land appropriation, while a minor percentage is connected to violent extremism. In such a complex context, radicalisation leading to terrorism appears to be just one of the many and diverse factors contributing to the conflict.

For initiatives aimed at preventing or countering violence extremism to be effective, it is necessary to enlarge the scope of action, consider the heterogeneity of the actors involved and address the multi-dimensional nature of the conflict. A recent study on violent extremism in Africa concluded that the interaction between violent extremism and national and sub-national conflicts is an increasing phenomenon that provides a “highly combustible and profoundly destructive” combination. Lack of comprehensive and appropriate measures to deal with the conflict in Mali leave space for terrorist groups to enlarge their recruitment basin by not addressing deep motivations for joining.

The complex and volatile nature of the current situation in Mali makes it a challenge to identify and define recommendations for the way forward. Notwithstanding, some suggestions can and should be advanced:

  • First, despite significant foreign aid investment to counter the ongoing violence in Mali, extant knowledge about the conflict’s underlying dynamics is still limited and often anecdotal. Thus, further research based on primary resources is necessary in order to enhance the understanding of the situation, especially regarding the socio-economic impact of the conflict, the nexus between organized crime and terrorism in the region, and the lessons learned from local experiences promoting resilience towards radicalisation;
  • Second, the findings of existing and future evidence-based research need to find their way to policy makers and practitioners and thus inform and guide forthcoming projects and initiatives in the country. Strengthening the linkages between research and the worlds of policy and practice entails overcoming several challenges, as each of these domains is subject to its own dynamics. Nevertheless, current and future foreign aid projects aimed at Mali should envisage a research and assessment component before activities implementation to enhance the sustainability of the projects being conducted, and to contribute to effective monitoring of those projects’ effectiveness;
  • Third, future efforts in the country need to be aimed at strengthening or re-establishing a relationship of trust between the people and the government as well as among communities. This objective could be achieved though the creation of dedicated platforms at the municipal level, where citizens can raise their political demands and discuss their needs and requests with the local authorities and national representatives.

In conclusion, the attention of foreign actors in Mali has progressively focused on launching counter-terrorism initiatives and on promoting projects to counter violent extremism. However, a broader and more politically inclusive approach, that takes into account the underlying conflict dynamics, the cultural history and the political demands made by the various conflict parties, is necessary to discourage the use of violence throughout the country and to improve chances of working towards lasting peace in Mali.