Insurgents expand their activities in the Sahel
by PETER DOERRIE
In a highly coordinated attack, fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda’s branch in the Sahel took over a military base near Nampala on July 19, beating back the Malian garrison and later ambushing them during their retreat. At least 17 soldiers were killed in the attack, and 35 wounded.
Though the base was recaptured shortly after, the assault showcased the increasingly lethal capabilities of insurgent forces in Mali, and the inability of Mali’s government to control its territory.
Currently, three different international military missions support the Malian army — the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, the E.U. Training Mission in Mali and France’s Operation Barkhane.
Mali’s army is thought to cooperate with local militias while other individual countries, such as the United States and several neighbors, contribute in various ways to the country’s counter-insurgency and terrorism efforts.
Despite this massive international engagement, including a fully-fledged French combat mission, efforts to limit the insurgent threat have failed dramatically. With only half of the year over, militant groups linked to Al Qaeda have staged 130 attacks in the wider West African region, most of them in Mali, according to the Long War Journal.
Details about the Nampala attack are only just emerging, but what is being reported paints a picture of a frighteningly coordinated and well-executed attack.
Two different groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the National Alliance for the Protection of the Fulani Identity and the Restoration of Justice (ANSIPRJ) simultaneously attacked the army base from the north and southeast, according to Reuters.
Another group, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine, laid an ambush along along the route the garrison would retreat, further increasing casualties. Ansar Dine claimed that it captured several military vehicles, small arms and other supplies in the attack.
AQIM and Ansar Dine, both members of Al Qaeda’s international network, have cooperated on complex operations in the past. But ANSIPRJ only formed last month and the Nampala attack is its first significant operation.
It is likely that the leaders of Ansar Dine, who have ties to Mali’s ethnic Fulani population, facilitated ANSIPRJ’s participation in the attack, highlighting communication and support networks between Mali’s various armed groups.
But it’s noteworthy that ANSIPRJ is, according to its own statements, a non-religious and non-secessionist group focused on the interests of the Fulani people, while AQIM and Ansar Dine subscribe to Al Qaeda’s Islamist agenda.
The cooperation of these actors and the intermingling of religious and political goals is a continuation of a familiar theme in Mali’s conflict. Islamist insurgents first rose to prominence in the Sahelian country on the back of a secessionist insurgency led by Tuareg armed groups in 2012.
But after the Tuareg militias succeeded in occupying the northern half of the country, the Islamists betrayed them and established control over several key cities, including Timbuktu and Kidal, prompting a French military intervention in early 2013.
The French and their allies achieved some successes. They beat back the insurgents, and the European Union rebuilt and trained Mali’s armed forces, which had contributed to the crisis by staging a haphazard coup d’etat in the early days of the Tuareg rebellion.
But these moves came with long-term costs. For one, the international community pushed for quick elections at the expense of allowing time for political reform.
The elections re-established a legitimate government, but did little to further long overdue conversations within Malian society concerning the relationship of its various ethnic groups and the political class’ pervasive corruption and incompetence.
In office since Sept. 4, 2013, the administration of Pres. Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, commonly known as IBK, has made little progress in solving the country’s problems. The relationship with the Tuareg community remains fragile, as it has been since independence, with government forces still not welcome in the north.
During the last two years, the government also alienated large parts of the country’s population in the center, stoking ethnic conflict between Bambara and Fulani communities. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group warned of a large-scale uprising among the Fulani population, a scenario that has earned new credibility with the emergence of the ANSIPRJ.
But the challenges facing Mali’s society and the political elite’s ineptness have been well known at least since the events of 2012 — and should therefore surprise nobody. Far more striking is the international community’s inability to project stability and political reform in Mali.
With all the major players experienced in counter-insurgency in Afghanistan or Iraq, one would have hoped that at least some lessons would have been learned regarding the stabilization of a country facing armed and ideologically motivated insurgencies, as well as internal divisions.
Mali, with its smaller and more concentrated population, should arguably be an easier country to get under control. France especially has a long history of political cooperation — some would say exploitation — within the wider region.
Instead, the Western approach continues to be heavily militarized in nature, focusing primarily on overwhelming force while ignoring local political grievances and adversaries’ cunning ability to adapt to asymmetric conflict.
And just like in Afghanistan and Iraq, the current situation begs the question of what a workable exit strategy could look like — both for international forces and Mali’s population.