Mali’s Terror Fight

Mali’s Terror Fight

Confronting violent extremism on multiple fronts

By Mohamed Keita

Reducing terrorism and violent extremism in Mali seems technically and tactically difficult, owing to the asymetric nature of the threat and the growing complexity of the Sahelo-Saharan geostrategic environment.

Since 2012, internal and external stressors have engendered two security trends. First, the number of armed groups in Mali has increased, and the spread of intercommunal violence is jeopardizing the Algiers’ Comprehensive Peace and Reconciliation Agreement (CPRA). Second, terrorist cells have proliferated throughout the territory as the threat’s epicenter has moved from the North down to the center and the South with sporadic attacks occurring in the Mopti, Koulikoro and Sikasso regions, targeting security posts, local administration facilities and intimidating the people. The capital city, Bamako, has not been spared.

The bottom line is that control over the nation’s borders has not been tightened despite the intensifying presence of the international community since 2013. This includes the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Mission for the Stabilization of Mali (MINUSMA) and efforts by the European Union, the African Union (AU), the United States and the French military’s Operation Barkhane to combat transnational terrorism in the Sahel. Within such a volatile environment, knowing the multifaceted enemy is necessary but not sufficient; nowadays, knowing how to collaborate with allies and coordinate agendas is pivotal. The best way for the Malian government to coordinate regional and international initiatives is to develop a holistic national strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism.

A soldier wears a patch denoting France’s counterterrorism Operation Barkhane in Africa’s Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali.
AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Understanding the Threat

The Malian government’s top security challenge is to make and consolidate peace with the former separatist movements of the North — through the CPRA — to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, protect core constitutional values such as the secular and indivisible form of the republic, and restore the state’s full authority over the country. Terrorism and violent extremism constitute the government’s second most important priority. To understand the scope of such a threat in Mali, it is relevant to explore its nature and dimensions.

Terrorism in Mali has a religious nature, based on a violent interpretation of the Quran and the call for jihad against the “unfaithful” and their regional allies. Indeed, terrorists’ goals in the Sahel in general, and Mali in particular, are clearly to combat Western values and so-called African puppet governments to, ultimately, create an Islamic state, or caliphate, that would be ruled by Sharia. It is believed that many terrorist sympathizers have been recruited among adherents of the Dawa Tabligh brotherhood, which has been implanted in Mali since 2000 and has functioned as an incubator for radicalism and violent extremism.

Terrorism in Mali has a transnational dimension and a local one. On one hand, transnational terrorism refers to those terrorist organizations whose agendas and criminal activities are not limited to Mali. Such organizations are represented by three major groups: al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Mourabitoun. The latter, founded by Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, has been the most active of late, claiming responsibility for attacks in Mopti, Menaka and Gao against MINUSMA, the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA), Operation Barkhane, and in Bamako against the Radisson Blu Hotel, as well as the Hotel Nord-Sud, which hosts the headquarters of the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM).

On the other hand, Ansar al-Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghali and whose combatants are predominantly Tuaregs, epitomizes local terrorism in Mali. Ansar al-Dine’s strategy consists of spoiling the ongoing peace process, which does not favor its interests, and extending its extremist ideology to the rest of the country. To do so, Ghali created two affiliated cells in 2015, Katiba Ansar al-Dine Macina and Katiba Khalid Ibn Walid (Ansar al-Dine of the South). Katiba Ansar al-Dine Macina is led by Hamadoun Kouffa, a former radical preacher of the Mopti region. Operating in the center of the country, the group is mainly composed of former MUJAO fighters and sympathizers from the Peul community. Katiba Khalid Ibn Walid was led by Souleymane Keita, a former member of the Islamic police in Timbuktu during the AQIM and Ansar al-Dine siege in 2012, who was arrested on March 5, 2016. In June 2015, the group claimed responsibility for attacks against Malian military and administrative facilities in the villages of Fakola and Misseni, in the Sikasso region near the Ivorian border.

It is clear that transnational and local terrorist organizations have reorganized and become more dangerous since January 2015, with subversive actions increasing against Malian defense and security forces and international partners deployed to support Mali’s stabilization efforts. In this regard, a U.N. secretary-general report assessing important security developments points out that terror attacks are becoming more complex and sophisticated, combining improvised explosive devices, mortar fire and ambushes.

The Malian approach

The Malian government’s approach to countering terrorism and violent extremism is based on prevention and collaborative policing. In terms of prevention, the government is implementing a five-year strategy called the Governmental Actions Program 2013-2018 (GAP), aimed at addressing the root causes of the 2012 security and institutional crises, including the insecurity of northern Mali, the disintegration of public institutions, rampant corruption, the degradation of living conditions and loss of moral values in society. The desired result is to ensure that all Malians work together as a nation for the reconstruction of their state. Based on a whole-of-government approach, the GAP consists of six strategic concepts:

Putting in place strong and credible institutions.

Restoring the security of people and property nationwide.

Implementing a proactive national reconciliation policy.

Rebuilding Malian schools.

Building an emerging economy.

Implementing an active social development policy.

Moreover, to effectively counter radicalism and violent extremism, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship (MARC) was established in 2012 to train imams. A major achievement was the 2013 Agreement for Islamic Cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of Habous and Islamic Affairs. The aim of this so-called Islamic diplomacy is to promote an enlightened way of practicing Islam based on tolerance. As a result, 500 Malian imams are expected to complete two years of training in moderate Islam.

Simultaneously, the MARC has collaborated with the Islamic High Council and the Malian Association of Imams to launch a counternarrative campaign, Mali Kuma Ka, in the local language (Mali’s Voice) that is aimed at undermining transnational and local terrorism recruitment, especially among susceptible youths. Short counternarrative videos are broadcast in local dialects on TV, YouTube and Facebook. They begin with shocking images of extremists terrorizing civilians to prove how destructive and harmful they can be. Malian religious leaders, speaking in the local language, then explain how such actions violate the tenets of the Quran. After conversations with mutilation victims from the 2012 terrorist occupation of northern Mali, the videos end with core messages, such as “In Islam, the human being is sacred” or “In Islam, killing a human being is like killing the entire humanity.”

Mali’s approach is mainly based on collaborative policing, which could be defined as the process of law enforcement agencies working together, cooperating with allied units at the national or regional level, and building trust with the community to ensure a safe and secure environment within and outside of national borders. As a result, communities benefit from an improved policing service that is based on responsiveness, collaboration, mobilization and problem-solving. In other words, collaborative policing is all about security-shared governance between state actors, civil society and communities, a concept developed and promoted through the media by the Malian government in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It operates within the legal framework of the 2008 law punishing terrorism and has led over the past three years to the arrest of many terrorists either by the National Police Force or the gendarmerie supported by other national or international partners. In the North, presumed terrorists are mostly apprehended through search and destroy or search and sweep operations led by the EUTM-trained and better-equipped FAMA units alongside Operation Barkhane and MINUSMA.

As a response to the lack of clear leadership and coordination between security special intervention units during times of crisis, in December 2015 the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection (MSCP) adopted a Protocol for the Use of Special Intervention Units, which are composed of the police, the gendarmerie, the National Guard and Civil Protection. As a result, leadership becomes situational, and the distribution of responsibilities among the units becomes clearer when a crisis breaks out, be it in urban, rural or desert areas. Another innovative measure is the creation of the MSCP Centre for Operations as a core element of the protocol for crisis management. The center is responsible for:

Designating the intervening unit and directing it to the intervention area.

Briefing the unit commander on the situation.

Activating the means and resources necessary to support the intervention unit.

The protocol also contains a plan to secure Bamako to mitigate the consequences of terrorist attacks, including measures to protect critical infrastructure.

Regional initiatives

Mali has taken part in a number of regional initiatives that address terrorism and violent extremism in the Sahel. In 2010, the regional Joint Military Staffs Committee (CEMOC) was created, bringing together Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The major objective was to strengthen military and security cooperation among these states by enabling cross-border hot pursuit and intelligence sharing through the Fusion and Liaison Unit. Unfortunately, the CEMOC has had very limited results to date; it has been reduced to a “talking shop” and has never been able to coordinate efforts effectively on the ground.

Since March 2013, the AU has been implementing a strategy for the Sahel region called the Nouakchott Process, which aims to strengthen regional security through intelligence sharing and joint surveillance measures. Additionally, the AU Mission for Mali and the Sahel, a political mission led by Burundi’s former president Pierre Buyoya, is mobilizing states to implement the Nouakchott Process and is helping coordinate various regional initiatives.

New regional initiatives also include the creation of the G5 Sahel, an organization with five members: Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. The G5 was created in 2014 to reduce poverty and crime. It enables members to improve coordination in developing beneficial programs and on security policies, such as intelligence sharing, joint border patrols and joint military training. With financial support from the EU, the G5 adopted an ambitious program for high-priority investments (totaling $14.8 billion) in a number of developmental programs in the region.

Last but not least, in 2015 the G5 adopted a strategic framework to combat radicalization and violent extremism in the Sahel through a number of measures, including countering extremist speeches directed at vulnerable groups; building religious leaders’ capacities to counter radicalization; promoting the roles of women and civil society in preventing and combating violent extremism; developing socio-economic insertion opportunities for unemployed youth; and structuring religious education.

At the national level, in 2016 the Malian government organized a two-day national conference to elaborate on the National Combating Terrorism Strategy (SNLT). Supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the UNDP, the event was aimed at combining whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches by bringing together key components of civil society, national security, the defense sector and international partners to make strategy recommendations for combating terrorism and violent extremism. The conference included five thematic panels:

Terrorism and violent extremism: concepts, types, causes and possible responses.

The Malian education system and the radicalization issue: What are the solutions?

Radicalization in a prison environment.

The importance of intrafaith and interfaith dialogue, the training of imams, and the control of preaching and the media in countering terrorism and violent extremism.

The protection of at-risk populations.

The event did not end with a draft strategy but rather with key recommendations from each panel.

These legal and institutional reforms should be initiated. It should be noted that the SNLT would not be effective without revising the 2008 law for the punishment of terrorism in Mali. Indeed, according to many experts, this law needs to include more provisions, notably regarding foreign terrorist fighters. An important step was taken in 2013 when the National Assembly created a Special Judicial Pole for Terrorism and Transnational crimes. This new structure is operational today and consists of a specialized prosecution, a specialized investigating cabinet, and Special Investigating Brigades composed of gendarme and police officers dedicated to combating terrorism. The new judicial architecture is beneficial, as it confirms law enforcement’s role and helps centralize and coordinate prosecutions.

Finally, as envisaged by the CPRA, the government should push for adoption of the law establishing a territorial police force, as well as the decree instituting Local Consultative Committees for Security, both at the regional level. Both institutions would play key roles in preventing and repressing terrorism and violent extremism by enabling greater collaboration between the police and communities, and by producing the conditions for more robust social cohesion.

In conclusion, it appears that to be effective in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, the Malian government should fulfil three conditions. First and foremost, all political, security and social arrangements envisioned by the CPRA should be implemented to create a national front against terrorism, violent extremism and all forms of criminality, especially in the North. Second, to succeed, the National Combating Terrorism Strategy must be flexible and able to adapt its objectives, strategic concepts and national instruments of power to the changing nature of global and domestic environments. However, for now, the key priority for the government should be to get it drafted, approved by all key stakeholders — including civil society — and finally adopted at the national level. Third, the way to success is inevitably collaboration and coordination at the national, regional and international levels among all stakeholders involved in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism in the Sahelo-Saharan region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the Malian government. Thus, assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any Malian government entity.