Mali’s unfinished war and the rise of jihad

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In May and June 2015, Mali saw President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s government signing peace agreements with numerous northern militia and rebel groups, the Coalition of Azawad Movements (CMA). This agreement was made in an attempt to stem violence and unrest that has plagued the West African nation due to ethnic groups in the north of Mali, resuming decades of armed conflict to pursue autonomy in the region.

In 2012, the presidency of Amadou Toumani Toure began to be viewed as incapable of supporting the military in addressing these nationalist movements pursuing a free state of Azawad, leading to a coup led by Captain Amadou Sanago that permitted a more spiralling conflict.

The fighting between the Coalition of Azawad Movements and the Platform Coalition (pro-government forces), created destabilising conditions and opportunities for jihadist groups in the region, who were eventually able to secure for themselves alarming swathes of territory in the disputed region.

Concern at the loss of control to Islamic militant forces led to the decision to launch an international intervention. Led by France in January 2013, Operation Serval resulted in the recovery of much of this lost territory and encouraged a slow but eventual set of peace agreements between government and separatist forces.

Mali today stands at a crossroads, the peace in place exists alongside continuing demands of the north for more autonomy, while its former jihadist occupiers continue to operate in Mali and across Western and central Africa to destabilise the region.

For some time the area roughly encompassing the proposed state of Azawad has been a hub of poverty, the local population frequently relying on subsistence farming in order to survive in the Sahel. This unreliable source of support frequently saw many among the ethnic majority, the Tuareg, seeking employment in the military of Gaddafi-era Libya to support their families back in Mali. Many continued to return home when serving but the collapse of the Gaddafi regime saw an influx of Tuareg veterans returning from Libya, a region now described as an effective arms bazaar by security analysts.

Even before the initial uprising warning signs were flagged by officials and field reporters, the extreme poverty, poor infrastructure and the influx of arms were fuelling calls for moves to establish an independent state in the north. Aljazeera’s May Ying Welsh noted such conditions had pushed desperate people into armed organizations in order to survive, or at the very least feel safe in a region of fracturing instability home to drug smuggling, corruption and ever more frequent global warming induced drought.

The CMA was initially successful with cooperation between various groups including Islamist militants seeing the capture of major cities such as Kidal, Timbuktu and Goa. In April 2012 the CMA was able to declare the establishment of a new and independent state of Azawad.

The Mauritanian army conduct a major counter-terrorism operation

The Mauritanian army conduct a major counter-terrorism operation

However relations in the coalitions soured as cooperation with Islamic groups broke down. The secular elements of the coalition, such as the National movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) became unhappy with the forceful implementation of Sharia law in secured territory. Among these Islamic factions were Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Signed-in Blood Battalion and the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA), who had announced in the past objectives such as the implementation of Islamic law across Mali.

The Islamic elements of the northern coalition were able to quickly drive the secular nationalist groups out of its recent gains. By July 2012, the north was effectively in the control of extremists. Following further victories, the Islamic forces continued to push south. The Mali government eventually requested international assistance in preventing a total defeat. In December 2012, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced its commitment to leading an intervention, backed by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).

By early 2013, French and African forces had been able to quickly re-establish government control across the northern territories, with extremist groups reportedly retreating into the Ifoghas Mountains or attempting to blend into the local population. The intervening forces further worked to establish secular groups to resume control of several stretches of territory overseen by sections of the African support mission in order to encourage further dialogue between the government and separatist groups.

Despite the conventional military success of the intervening forces, today we still see the result of an unfinished conflict. There is a weariness in Mali of how the victory has been handled. The government was indeed able to secure the support of a powerful international peace keeping force, but the presence of France in Mali has caused concern, with France the former colonial power which previously controlled the nation.

Pape Samba Kane a Senegalese political analyst noted how there was indeed a warm reception to France’s entry to the conflict, extremists victories were quickly followed by wide spread killing and destruction of historical sites. French interests in Africa however have become concerning, particularly with France’s decision to allow particular armed groups such as the MNLA to re-establish control over areas of the north. African analysts such as Kane have accused France of using the conflict to secure the allegiance of groups such as the MNLA, in tangent with its military presence in Chad to secure its economic investments in Africa against potential Jihadist threats.

The peace process has been plagued by a continuing lack of trust between the central and northern political parties, made all the more delicate by the north’s security situation and with militant Islamic groups still being able to conduct operations. This has been seen most recently with al-Murabitoun, a splinter group of AQIM being willing to work together again to conduct the recent attacks on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako, and also at the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s Ouagadougou.

Like so many other interventions the conflict has remained ongoing, the peace process incomplete and complicated with distrust. Mali has seen conventional victories removing Jihadist control over cities and from securing a West African Islamic State, but despite this 2016 sees Mali remaining a fragile and appealing centre of unaddressed poverty and instability to host insurgent warfare.

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