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Tuareg / Islamist Insurrection in Mali

Malian troops and suspected Russian fighters allegedly executed around 300 civilian men over five days during a military operation in a central Malian town in late March 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on 05 April 2022. The vast majority of those killed by the Malian military and allied forces were men from the pastoralist Peuhl, or Fulani, ethnic group. The armed Islamist groups have concentrated their recruitment efforts on this group by exploiting their grievances with the government and other ethnic groups.

FRANCE 24 terrorism expert Wassim Nasr said that this was a counter-jihadist operation sparked by bad intelligence. The killings took place between March 27 and 31 in the town of Moura, a rural town of around 10,000 inhabitants in central Mali’s Mopti region, a hotspot of extremist activity that has intensified and spread to neighboring countries in the Sahel region.

The Malian defence ministry issued a statement on April 1 saying that from March 23 to 31, the army had killed 203 “terrorists” and arrested 51 more. "The incident is the worst single atrocity reported in Mali's decade-long armed conflict," HRW said. “There was a very particular context,” behind what happened, said FRANCE 24 terrorism specialist Wassim Nasr. “Since many weeks the Malian military – helped with Russian elements – is trying to make a kind of surge in the central region of Mali."

"They are attacking many jihadi strongholds,” Nasr continued. "But the thing is, the jihadis aren't resisting, or at least they weren't – up til the beginning of last month. They counter-attacked after absorbing the new force, which is the Russians actually, and counter-attacked in Mondoro, causing the deaths of more than 40 Malian military. In the last two months, the Malian military lost up to 160 men in this region."

The Malian army "based their operation there on bad information – or bad intelligence", Nasr explained. “I got to know that a member of the first circle of Mohamad Koufa, a prominent leader of al Qaeda there, was caught and brought into interrogation in [the Malian capital] Bamako – and actually this person gave some information, saying that Koufa could be in this region of Moura, which launched this operation with at least 100 Russian operatives backing the Malian army."

The killings occurred amid a dramatic spike in unlawful killings of civilians and suspects since late 2021 by armed Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and by Malian government security forces. Armed Islamists have also killed scores of security force personnel since the beginning of 2022.

Mali’s transition government said in December 2021, that “Russian trainers” were in Mali as part of a bilateral agreement with Russia.

Unlike in previous years, in 2018 the government, the Platform of Northern Militias (Platform), and the Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) respected the ceasefire agreed to in the 2015 Algiers Accord for Peace and Reconciliation. Two terrorist organizations: al-Qaida coalition Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wa Muslimin (Support to Islam and Muslims, JNIM), and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are not parties to the peace process.

Despite the 2015 peace accord, elements within the Platform–including the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-defense Group (GATIA), the Arab Movement for Azawad-Platform (MAA-PF), and the Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Forces and Movements (CMFPR)–and elements in the CMA–including the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA)–committed serious human rights abuses, including summary executions, torture, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Extremist groups, including affiliates of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel and al-Qaeda conglomerate JNIM kidnapped and killed civilians and military force members, including peacekeepers. The government, in collaboration with French military forces, conducted counterterrorism operations in northern and central Mali leading to the detention of extremists and armed group elements accused of committing crimes. Reports of abuses rarely led to investigations or prosecutions.

Progress on the implementation of interim defense and security measures was slow, owing to a lack of trust between the signatory parties, the volatile security situation and the absence of clearly defined integration criteria, including a decision on rank harmonization. The failure by the signatory armed groups to submit lists of their combatants continued to remain the main obstacle to the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process scheduled to start on 15 October 2017. Signatory armed groups demanded quotas for the integration of their elements into all security institutions, not only the armed forces as initially agreed.

The head of Mali's top Islamic body said 31 October 2016 that the insurgent group Ansar Dine had accepted a proposed cease-fire. Mahmoud Dicko, president of Mali's Islamic High Council, told VOA's French to Africa service that he asked Ansar Dine for the truce and received a letter of acceptance from the group's leader, Iyad Ag Ghali. Dicko, in a phone interview, noted that Ghali's letter included a line saying Ansar Dine "rejects whoever rejects Sharia." It was not clear if Ghali was setting a condition for the cease-fire. Dicko did not give details of the agreement at the time and had not been available for comment since.

The al-Qaida-linked militant group said 02 November 2016 it was still waging war in Mali, dismissing a report that it had agreed to a ceasefire as “completely baseless.” Ansar Dine released a statement expressing its "utmost surprise" at the announcement by the head of the West African nation's top Islamic authority, according to a report by the SITE monitoring group late on Tuesday. Ansar Dine was one of three Islamist militant groups that took control of northern Mali in 2012. The groups were ousted in a French-led military operation the following year, but since continued to attack civilian, military and UN peacekeeping targets in the region.

By March 2017 the security situation in the north remained volatile. Civilians were exposed to risks because of armed groups and bandits who were not controlled. This was also due to the terrorist groups who carried out abuses towards the civilians and preached radical Islam in central and northern Mali. The immediate response of the Government forces sometimes strayed from international standards. The consequence of all this was displacement of the population and the radicalization of youth who thought that injustice was carried out by the State. Impunity for violations and abuses remained a serious concern.


The insurrection launched in January 2012 was the fourth time Tuareg rebels fought for independence since 1960. Previous rebellions ended in peace accords and unkept promises. But the 2012 rebellion sent the country tumbling into a nationwide crisis marked by a military coup in the south followed by an Islamist takeover of the north. Mali, once called one of Africa's most stable democracies, was being compared to Afghanistan and Somalia.

In recent years, Mali has been confronted by a profound crisis with serious political, security, socio-economic, humanitarian and human rights consequences. The crisis stems from long-standing structural conditions such as weak State institutions; ineffective governance; fragile social cohesion; deep-seated feelings among communities in the north of being neglected, marginalized and unfairly treated by the central Government; a weak and externally dependent, albeit vibrant, civil society; and the effects of environmental degradation, climate change and economic shocks. These conditions were exacerbated by more recent factors of instability, including corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, internal strife and deteriorating capacity of the national army.

The two main Islamic militant movements operating in northern Mali were Ansar al Din (“Defenders of the Faith”) and Jama’at Tawhid Wal Jihad fi Garbi Afriqqiya (“Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa,” or MUJWA). Ansar al Din was formed at the end of 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a former Tuareg rebel leader, who is often described as a pragmatic opportunist. MUJWA was created around the same time but very little was initially known about the group except for its stated objectives of waging jihad in West Africa and that it seemed to be heavily funded by drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. The rank and file were mostly Tuaregs, Mauritanian and Malian Arabs, as well as sympathizers from Nigeria and other Sahelian countries.

Both Ansar al Din and MUJWA surfaced during fighting launched in January 2012 by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad [Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad - MNLA] is the Tuareg group that launched the latest uprising for northern autonomy in January 2012. The MNLA is led by secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif and head of the political wing Mahmoud Ag Aghali - neither of whom appear to have figured prominently in Tuareg politics. Azawad is the name Tuaregs use for the vast triangle of desert claimed as its homeland, encompassing the areas of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.

The MNLA planned to create a secular, democratic state that will regroup all the ethnic groups in northern Mali, not just the Tuaregs. The MNLA is a new group, created in October 2011 by veterans of previous rebellions, as well as pro-Gadhafi Tuareg fighters returning from Libya. They brought with them the heavy arms and battlefield know-how that have catapulted the MNLA to a new level of military sophistication.

Previously fighting in loose association, the relationship between MNLA and the Islamic militants became increasingly strained in the spring of 2012, with the latter outmaneuvering and, in some areas, clashing with the MNLA to assume control over strategic towns in northern Mali. There had been much speculation about internal disagreements between MUJWA, Ansar al Din, and the foreign-led and better known al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This may be due to ideological disagreements, personality clashes, ethnic differences, or the control over the extensive smuggling networks in the Sahel and Sahara.

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established by Security Council resolution 2100 of 25 April 2013. Regional troops involved in the French-led military intervention that began in January 2013 against al-Qaida-linked militants occupying the north were absorbed into the massive United Nations mission in Mali.

Malian forces were able to deploy only to the far northern town of Kidal after 18 June 2013 when Mali's interim government struck a makeshift cease-fire deal with MNLA rebels. The Malian government and ethnic Tuareg rebels agreed "in principle" on a deal that would allow elections to take place and the army to return to the rebel-held city of Kidal. Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole said 10 June 2013 both sides were reviewing the document, and that he expected them to sign the accord. Bassole said the army's return to Kidal was a key concern in three days of talks in Ouagadougou mediated by Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore.

Mali wanted to re-establish government control and security in Kidal, which the Tuareg separatist group MNLA seized earlier in 2013. The rebels took the city after French forces ousted Islamist militants who had ruled northern Mali for 10 months. Malian soldiers and MNLA rebels had clashed repeatedly as the army pushes towards Kidal. Human rights groups accused both sides of rights abuses and there was concern that the ongoing violence could disrupt elections, initially set for 28 July 2013.

The 24 November 2013 parliamentary election, meant to be the last step in restoring democracy in Mali, saw low turnout and some reports of irregularities. About 6.5 million Malians were eligible to vote, with more than 1,000 candidates vying for 147 seats in the new national assembly. Mali's president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was elected in a peaceful vote in August 2013.

Mali's government and Tuareg-led rebels signed a roadmap agreement on 24 July 2014 toward a broader peace deal to end decades of violence in the north of the country. The roadmap called for negotiations to work out "questions of substance" between 17 August and 11 September. A second round of negotiations in October 2014 would discuss topics such as security, reconciliation and humanitarian issues. A final peace agreement would be signed, but the roadmap gave no date.

Mali's government said 18 March 2015 it would not participate in further talks with rebels seeking autonomy for northern Mali, leaving the future of the UN-sponsored peace process in doubt. The collapse of peace talks would leave the question of north Mali's political status open indefinitely, a factor that could be exploited by Islamist militants active in the region.

On June 20, 2015 Mali's Tuareg-led rebels signed a peace agreement with the Bamako government, more than a month after other armed groups took similar action to end years of unrest in the impoverished desert nation. The UN-brokered accord called for the election of regional assemblies in Mali, but stops short of granting autonomy to northern Mali, most of which lies in the Sahara desert.

The initial hostilities of the second Tuareg rebellion, which simmered from 1990 to 1996, were led by Iyad ag Ghali against the Malian military outpost in Menaka in June 1990. Intra-Tuareg tensions divided the Alliance for Democracy and Change (ADC), Mali's next large-scale Tuareg rebel movement (also led by the Ifogas Iyad ag Ghali). In late 2006 the ADC engaged with elements of what is now AQIM in northern Mali.

In November 2007 the Malian government announced the appointment of Iyad ag Ghali, the renowned Malian Tuareg rebel leader and president of the Alliance for Democracy and Change (ADC), to a post as advisor to the Malian Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ag Ghali openly desired to withdraw from his role as northern Mali's main power broker, and had asked President Toure for an assignment to either Saudi Arabia or Egypt earlier in 2007.

In early November 2009, the Dawa movement - aka Jamaat al-Tabligh - held an international conference in Kidal, Mali. This conference was neither the first of its kind in Mali nor would it be the last. Dawa had been present in Mali since the early-to-mid-1990s. The conference organizer was Iyad ag Ghali, a prominent Kidal Tuareg politician then serving as Malian Consul General in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Despite heavy recruitment efforts in Kidal, Gao and Mopti regions, Dawa appeared to have a very small following in Mali. Dawa and similar fundamentalist ideologies did not fit well in Malian culture. Although 90 percent of Malians are Muslims, the vast majority follow one of three Sufi sects, mixed for many with some level of traditional cultural belief and practice. Among other aspects anathema to fundamentalist Islamic practice, Tuareg culture places women squarely in control of households and highly values cultural expressions such as music and dance. Tuaregs prefer to worry about enjoying this life rather than worry about ensuring the perfect afterlife.

The Sahel region received increased attention over the course of 2012 due to existing security challenges and the disturbing turn of events that took place in northern Mali, as well as the looming humanitarian and food crisis. The complexity and the gravity of the situation in the Sahel calls for urgent action to be undertaken through comprehensive and coordinated approaches that address in an integrated manner the existing set of interlinked challenges. Effectively addressing the current situation in the Sahel also requires greater focus on addressing the underlying causes to these challenges and fostering greater regional cooperation.

Western and United Nations officials were concerned the Islamists could turn Mali into a base for terrorists and criminals. France deployed forces in Mali at the request from the country's interim government after Islamists began advancing southward. Mali was a French colony until 1960 and France still has a variety of economic and political interests there. Mali has been in turmoil since the March 2012 military coup, which triggered an uprising of separatist Tuareg tribes that seized control of the country’s south. The Tuaregs were soon suppressed by the better armed Al-Qaida affiliates who overtook control of the northern region, imposing Sharia law and destroying historical heritage sites in Timbuktu, and later started a southward advance.

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Page last modified: 15-04-2022 20:24:26 ZULU