- Repeated outbreaks of violence in northeastern Mali have cast doubt on the durability of a June peace agreement between Tuareg separatists and the government.
- The failure to reintegrate Tuareg groups into the military, and other inadequacies in the peace deal, are undermining government efforts to counter Islamist militant insurgencies in the northeast and previously unaffected regions in the south and centre of the country.
Shortcomings of the peace agreement
The June peace agreement failed to address underlying issues undermining stability in the northeast, namely inter-Tuareg tensions and the role of drug trafficking in fuelling violence. The deal, which was signed by the government, pro-government militia under the aegis of the Groupe d’Autodefense Touareg Imrad et Allies (GATIA) and the separatist Tuareg Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), provided for the creation of elected regional assemblies in the north and called for an overhaul of the Malian army, including the reintegration of Tuareg militias.
The failure of the peace agreement to address the long-standing divisions between Imghad and the traditionally aristocratic Ifoghas clans within the Tuaregs in the northeast has already led to repeated clashes since the deal was signed. In August, Imghad-led GATIA militias temporarily seized the towns of Anefis and Amassine from the Ifoghas-dominated CMA, prompting threats to withdrawal from the peace deal unless GATIA removed its troops. GATIA reluctantly announced its withdrawal in early September, though violence reoccurred near Anefis on 17 September.
Other complex factions within the Tuareg groups and their connection to drug trafficking networks have also been overlooked. The latest battles in Anefis came as both groups sought to gain greater control over the roads between Tabankort, Ansongo and Menaka for smuggling cocaine in and out of Mali, Niger and Algeria. The competition for these routes remains fierce and the peace agreement has done little to break down entrenched patronage networks between GATIA, CMA militants and drug traffickers. For example, the loyalist faction of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA) signed a deal with the GATIA in May 2014 for safe passage through drug trafficking routes which GATIA controls between Libya, Niger and Mali, in return for support in fighting the CMA. The failure of the peace agreement to address the relationship between drug networks and both the CMA and GATIA weakens any hope for an immediate end to conflict in the northeast.
Expanding Islamist insurgency
The unlikely reintegration of the Tuaregs into the military and necessary deployments to counter separatist violence will delay counter-insurgency efforts in Mali, ensuring that several Islamist groups continue to pose a threat to the country. Since the start of 2015, both Ansar al-Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have shown an ability to sustain activities and expand their geographical areas of operations in Mali beyond the traditional Islamist strongholds of the northeast. AQIM claimed responsibility for an attack on Malian soldiers in Nampala on the western border with Mauritania in January 2015, as well as several attacks near Timbuktu and Djoura in central Mali in January, March, May and August 2015. The number of attacks claimed by Ansar al-Dine also increased significantly in 2015, compared to the previous year, especially along the Mauritanian border. Several suspected Ansar al-Dine militants have been arrested in the past six months on the frontier with Ivory Coast and in the central Mopti region of Mali. Both groups have focused the majority of attacks on Malian security forces and UN peacekeepers, at times using suicide bombers alongside hit-and-run style assaults on targets.
The weakness of security and intelligence agencies and the focus on militancy in the northeast could also permit new militant groups to develop in other parts of the country, as highlighted by the development of the Massina Liberation Front (MLF) in early 2015. The MLF is an Islamist militant group recruited largely from the marginalised Fulani community in the centre of Mali. The group aims to establish a Massina Empire across Mali, Senegal and Nigeria, with its capital in Mopti, central Mali. Although there is little evidence of widespread support for the group as yet, they have already been able to launch a series of high-profile attacks, targeting the UN and Malian security forces since mid-2015. The most significant assault came in August, when the group seized control of a UN-occupied hotel in Sevare, central Mali for 24 hours, leaving at least 13 people dead.
The failure of the peace agreement to resolve the Tuareg conflict will allow Islamist group operations to become entrenched and possibly expand in Mali. Already overstretched, the armed forces are reactive at best, and in the absence of a more aggressive UN mandate or additional French troops, Mali will struggle to tackle the plethora of Islamist insurgencies across the country. The threat could be compounded by excessive and reactionary counterterrorism strategies, which could boost militant groups in their recruitment. In August 2015 UN officials stated that at least 50 people had been arrested since December 2014 with alleged ties to MLF, raising concerns over the indiscriminate targeting of the Fulani people.
The existing security environment is unlikely to improve. Although security forces will remain the primary targets of attacks, the geographical spread of Islamist militant groups will increase the vulnerability of civilians in areas outside the northeast over the next six months, particularly in central towns around Mopti and on the borders with Mauritania, Niger, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Further extremist groups could emerge among other marginalised ethnic groups presenting additional security challenges to the government, although the extent of this threat is unknown and further information on the origins of MSF could cast further light on this. Although the tempo of attacks is not guaranteed to increase, existing Islamist groups will be able to solidify their presence in Mali and continue criminal operations and recruitment, reinforcing broader regional strategies in cooperation with wider militant networks across the Sahel.
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