Understanding Mali’s Battle with Militants

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UN peacekeepers stand guard in the northern town of Kouroume, Mali, May 13, 2015. Kourome is 18 km (11 miles) south of Timbuktu. Adama Diarra/Reuters

UpdatedGunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital Bamako on Friday, taking up to 170 hostages and killing more than two dozen people exactly a week after the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Paris that killed at least 130 people and injured hundreds more.

Here are three key questions about the latest attack:  

Why Mali?

An Arabic speaking country of 14.5 million people, Mali has long been the target of attacks and plots by Islamic militants and rebels , particularly in the northern part of the country, which borders Algeria, Niger and Mauritania. Animosity between the sparsely populated north, an area that regularly faces severe food shortages, and the economically affluent south, where the government is based, provides a fractured backdrop for the conflict.

Mali is in the Sahel region, a vast area that forms the geographical transition between the Sahara Desert to the north and the Sudanese Savanna to the south. Long blighted by the presence of militant groups , the area’s enormous size and porous borders provide militants with the freedom to conduct violent attacks and trafficking of arms, drugs and people .

In March 2012, government forces fought rebels and Islamist rival groups in an attempt to seize control of the country’s northern regions. Amnesty International called the military coup d’état the worst humanitarian crisis since 1960, when Mali gained independence from French colonial rule.

Before the coup, Mali had been considered a role model for democracy in Africa and the nation returned to civilian-led rule in August 2013. Former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was voted president in an election that EU observers praised for its transparency.  

But the fighting has pushed the already poor nation further into poverty. Despite being among Africa’s largest cotton producers, Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries, heavily reliant on foreign aid and remittances from Malians working abroad. Mali’s tourism industry —its third-biggest source of revenue—has all but been destroyed.

Who operates in Mali?

There are five key militant groups operating in northern Mali , all describing themselves as Islamist: Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith); 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) .

The groups operate alongside the semi-nomadic rebel group the Tuaregs , a historically disenfranchised regional ethnic minority. The Tuaregs live in the northern mountainous region and have complained of being marginalized by Mali’s southern government, which is based in the capital Bamako.

While all five Islamist groups are presently active in Mali, AQIM — the North African wing of Al-Qaeda — has gained the most amount of control in the northern territories. The group has also declared Spain and France its foremost “far enemies.”

According to the U.S. State Department , AQIM gathers funds from ransom money and trafficking arms, vehicles, cigarettes, and people across the sub-Saharan region of the Sahel. The group has staged 12 kidnappings since its formation in 2007 , which have, in addition to raising finances for the group, also precipitated prisoner exchanges and discouraged foreign enterprise in the region.

The group’s main objective is to overthrow governments it deems apostate , including those of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia. AQIM, whose members also joined the ranks to fight against the U.S. in the Iraq war in 2003, hope to spread Islamic law by installing fundamentalist regimes based on sharia , the Islamic legal system.

Most notably, AQIM has not attacked Europe or the U.S. It has, however, threatened to stage attacks in Mali’s former colonial power, France , and praised the massacre at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015. Ten journalists and two French police officers lost their lives in the attack , for which Al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility.

What about international intervention?

In March 2012, human rights group Amnesty International raised concerns for the safety of people in Mali’s northern territories after militant fighters bombarded and seized control of several areas.

The Al-Qaeda-linked fighters helped the Tuareg minority rebels launch a rebellion against the Mali government by targeting parts of the country’s north. Soon after, AQIM pushed out the Tuaregs, introducing their own extremist version of sharia law .

The military coup isolated Mali’s sub-region and forced tens of thousands of people to flee the area, creating a humanitarian crisis in southern Mali and neighbouring countries, including Algeria and Niger.

By December 2012, Western authorities were moved to respond to the increasingly dangerous situation in Mali’s north. The U.N. Security Council authorised a military peacekeeping mission , known as MINUSMA. But a rebel advancement southward in January 2013 prompted Bamako to request immediate military assistance from its close ally, France.

A French-led force gradually recaptured the northern territories in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu from militant control, as the southern government feared that the militants could reach Bamako.

The Tuareg and Islamist groups continue to target areas in Mali wahere the military is still present , including approximately 1,000 French troops.

The most recent attack was in August 2015, when militants carried out a 24-hour siege on a hotel in the central town of Sevare, northeast of Bamako. Thirteen people died and five U.N. staff were killed, BBC reported.

This article has been updated to include additional sourcing and information regarding Mali's economy and government.