"Blessed are the Peacemakers"
In August 2020, military officers in Mali carried out a bloodless coup that led to the resignation and removal of Malian President Ibraham Boubacar Keita and Malian Prime Minister Boubou Cisse. The United States and France immediately condemned the coup, as did the UN Security Council, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union (AU). ECOWAS issued sanctions against the coup leaders, suspended travel rights, and demanded the release of Keita and other arrested officials. The AU’s Security Council called for the “restoration of constitutional order and the release of the president and other government officials.” Following reports that military officers involved in the coup had previously received training from the U.S. military, the United States also halted all training and support exercises with Mali.
The coup followed months of protests against Keita’s administration, which escalated in July 2020 when a clash with security forces resulted in several fatalities. The protests, referred to as the June 5 Movement, focused on highlighting corruption and the government’s failure to curb insecurity across Mali. In the wake of the coup, the June 5 Movement remained a party to negotiations as ECOWAS, along with other regional organizations, pressed for the militia junta—calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People—to form a transitional government predicated on civilian rule. On September 27, Mali’s former Defense Minister Bah N’Daw was named the new president of the transitional council, while the head of the military junta that took power, Assimi Goita, was named vice president of the council. N’Daw then appointed Mali’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Moctar Ouane—a civilian—as prime minister. The three heads of state will oversee an eighteen-month transitional period before elections are held. After the transitional government was appointed, Cisse and other officials detained during the coup were released; ECOWAS thereafter lifted economic sanctions and the AU lifted its suspension of Mali.
Despite the presence of various counterterrorism forces and internationally supported military operations, violent attacks and reprisals have increased and major terrorist networks and other militant groups appear to be gaining power in Mali. In January 2020, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda, the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), attacked a military outpost and killed dozens of Malian soldiers. Several attacks and reprisals perpetrated by loosely formed militias along ethnic lines indicate that violence at the community level may also be rising. In February 2020, an ethnic militia killed at least thirty people in Ogassagou.
In June 2020, the mandate for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was renewed and approved to maintain more than fifteen thousand personnel in Mali and support implementation of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali (2015), among other priority tasks. France also maintains more than five thousand personnel in the country under Operation Barkhane and, in September 2020, it was announced that a new task force comprised of other European military forces would also deploy to Mali under Operation Barkhane.
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Mali endured decades of instability. While the majority of the population resides in the south, Tuareg and Arab groups in the sparsely populated north rebelled against the government in 1963, 1990, and 2006, attempting to gain autonomy for the region they named Azawad. Numerous groups, including Islamist militant groups, have taken advantage of the government’s inability to assert control over territory in the north by continuously asserting territorial claims and attacking Malian government and international security forces, undermining the government and threatening to destabilize neighboring countries.
The current crisis in Mali began in early 2012 when a Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), in the north rebelled for a fourth time. The MNLA was backed by a collection of Islamist militant groups—Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa—and together the groups moved to take over territory in the north. In March 2012, then-President Amadou Toumani Toure was deposed in a military coup carried out by the Malian army as anger spread over the government’s response to the rebellion. Confusion and infighting created by the power vacuum in the capital of Bamako enabled the MNLA and Islamist groups to seize territory quickly. By April 2012, the groups controlled nearly all of the territory in the north and declared independence.
The alliance between the MNLA and the Islamist groups was short-lived; in June 2012 the MNLA broke with Ansar Dine and AQIM over the Islamists push to impose Sharia law in the north. Islamists gained control over Timbuktu and Gao, destroying shrines and imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule. As Islamist groups began pushing toward the center of the country, the French military intervened in January 2013 at the request of the Malian government, deploying ground troops and launching an air campaign to push back the militants. Through Operation Barkhane, France continues to lead the fight in Mali and three thousand troops have been deployed since July 2014 to protect civilians and aid the efforts of local militaries. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was also created to combat extremism in the region in April 2013. More than thirteen thousand UN peacekeepers remain deployed in Mali and MINUSMA has been called the UN’s most dangerous mission due to the high number of attacks on peacekeepers.
Despite increased international involvement, the campaign against militants has instead resulted in the spread of militancy to countries across the Sahel. In February 2017, France and the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5) countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—announced the creation of the G5 Sahel Force, a five thousand-troop-strong counterterrorism force aimed at fighting militant groups with an expanded mandate to move across borders in the Sahel region; the multinational force began operations in October 2017. The U.S. military has also increased its presence in the Sahel, deploying approximately 1,500 troops to the region and building a drone base in Niger to serve as a platform for strikes against groups across West and North Africa.
The continued strengthening of militant groups in Mali and their spread to neighboring countries could allow al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to establish a new safe haven and destabilize the region through militancy and terrorism. In addition, northern Mali remains a central transit point for young migrants from all over western Africa looking to travel to Algeria or Libya with the ultimate goal of reaching Europe. The weak economy and lack of job prospects in northern Mali has led many to turn to the trafficking and smuggling of migrants and drugs as a primary source of income. This crisis is both a humanitarian and security concern as militant groups in the Sahel region often tax trafficking and smuggling routes to fund their campaigns.