ISS: Strategic shift needed to combat violent extremism in Mali


On 20 November, the Malian capital of Bamako once more became the scene of a terrorist attack. The assault targeted the Radisson Blu Hotel, once considered one of the safest establishments in the city, with a mostly foreign clientele. It claimed 22 lives, including those of two terrorists who were shot by a special unit of the Malian army, backed by foreign forces.

Militant jihadist organisations al-Mourabitoun and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) claimed responsibility for the incident. The former says it collaborated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the oldest terrorist groups in Mali, while the second claims to have worked with with Ansar Dine leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly.

Far from being an isolated occurrence, this recent attack shares many similarities with the assault on 7 March on a restaurant in downtown Bamako. This series of incidents shows how the terrorist threat is spreading from northern Mali to the southern regions. Given the expansion of terrorist groups and the weak responses of the national security forces, it might only be a matter of time before Bamako sees another attack of this kind.

The two groups that claimed responsibility for the recent Bamako incident have been at the centre of this new surge of attacks. The first, al-Mourabitoun, is an alliance between the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA, or MUJAO) and the Signataires par le sang de Mokhtar Belmokhtar (Those Who Sign with Blood). The second is the MLF. Most of the fighters in these two groups come from the ranks of MOJWA and AQIM, which is proof of the cooperation that exists between various terrorist groups.

The January 2013 military intervention of international forces in the north had significantly weakened terrorist armed groups. This led to a strategic shift among these movements: new fronts began to emerge in other parts of the country, and some of the groups shifted to unconventional modes of action. A case in point is the hostage drama that took place in Sévaré on 7 August, responsibility for which was claimed by the MLF. Some 13 people died in the attack, which was symptomatic of this tactical change.

Attacks in central and southern Mali also show how these groups are able to operate beyond their traditional geographical areas of action. Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly is confirmed to have close ties with MLF leader Hamadoun Kouffa. With the creation of the MLF, Ag Ghaly therefore seems to have gained an important new link, marking a territorial and ethnic expansion.

The increasing number of attacks against international forces in both the north and south shows that these remain, for now, the main target of terrorist groups. This calls into question the ability of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to meet its objectives. MINUSMA, which has among its key responsibilities the protection of civilians, was not created to fight terrorism. How will it achieve its mandate in a context where it is struggling to protect itself and civilian populations?

The 20 November attack evoked shock and emotion in Mali and around the world, and led local Malian authorities to adopt a martial posture. The most visible responses of the Malian authorities was the state of emergency, which was decreed for a period of 10 days, and an increased of patrols on all major roads in Bamako.

This forceful reaction is partly meant to reassure the population; however, much more needs to be done to overcome the terrorist threat. Current and future measures should take cognisance of the key drivers of violent extremism in Mali as well as the deficiencies of the local security architecture. The asymmetric nature of the terrorist threat means that more sophisticated responses will be needed, since armed groups have clearly changed both their strategies and modes of action.

Two factors should inform responses to these new threats. First, it is clear that a military solution alone will not be enough. However, in the short term, the government must continue to strengthen the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA), with a particular emphasis on intelligence.

Strong actions are needed, but they should be part of a coherent institutional framework. Moreover, the gradual redeployment of FAMA in the north must be accompanied by investment in access to basic social services. This will help to restore trust between the administration and citizens.

Furthermore, no lasting victory will be possible unless the government’s response forms part of a long-term strategy. This response should be multifaceted and involve greater mobilisation of the authorities to the danger posed by violent extremism. Besides awareness-raising, in which religious authorities should play an important role, policies against organised crime which benefits terrorist groups could also prove useful.

One has to keep in mind that the terrorist threat has not always been the top priority for Malian authorities. Initially seen as a secondary threat in comparison to the risk of separatism, terrorist groups have now become the most serious challenge to the stability of Mali.

A lack of adequate preventive measures, both politically and militarily, left the field open to previously marginalised groups to establish themselves and grow stronger over time. Mali must learn from its past mistakes by adopting a proactive, rather than reactive approach. An approach that seeks to find immediate responses, especially in terms of security responses, and that offers opportunities to unemployed young people, including those who might have lost their way to terrorism for economic gains, would be a step in the right direction.

Written by Ibrahim Maïga, Junior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Dakar

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.