Mali: Increasing attacks and tribal discord underscore weakening security environment

25 Aug 2016

Mali: Increasing attacks and tribal discord unders...
  •   Since the beginning of the year, the Malian state’s grip over the country’s northern regions has weakened. Insecurity has also spread to central Mali, including strategic border areas and Mopti. 
  •   The underlying ethnic and tribal disputes that triggered the 2012 crisis have not been resolved and are worsening. Persecuted minorities, including the Fulani population and Tuareg Imghad communities are both susceptible to radicalisation and are increasingly participating in local fighting.
  •   The combination of worsening Islamist violence and ethnic tensions, poor governance and growing disaffection with the government in Bamako ensure that national stability will remain fragile and parts of Mali will remain extremely hazardous for travel and business operations.

Weakening security 

There has been a substantial rise in violent incidents in northern Mali throughout 2016 and UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA and French Operation Barkhane forces have been increasingly targeted by small arms fire and IED attacks, now on a weekly basis. Ansar al-Dine, a local terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has proven capable of conducting regular attacks, undermining the morale of security forces and raising questions over the effectiveness of military deployments in the region. Furthermore, the regularity and frequency of these incidents has led to suspicions that terrorist groups have managed to establish a reliable intelligence network to identify patrol shifts.

Terrorist groups in the region are also seeking to exploit growing public disaffection with the government and international security forces’ presence in the region. In a rare video, the head of Ansar al-Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, called for the local population to join his group in resisting the ‘French occupation, and its puppet, the Malian government’. On 13 July, three civilians died in Gao as Malian security forces shot into a crowd protesting against local authorities for failing to implement the changes agreed in the 2015 Algiers accords. This incident and growing civil unrest over the last three months highlight a deep lack of confidence in the state’s ability to bring about the developments agreed upon during the Algiers accords.

Instability and terrorist attacks are also spreading to Central Mali, posing an increased threat to the country’s stability. On 19 July, a Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) military base in the remote town of Nampala, only a dozen kilometres from the Mauritanian border, was targeted in one of this year’s most severe attacks. Nineteen soldiers were killed, 35 wounded, and five soldiers were kidnapped. Both Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the National Alliance for the Safekeeping of the Fulani Identity and Justice Restauration (ANSIPRJ) claimed responsibility for this attack. Although the identity of that attackers remains unconfirmed, if linked to Ansar al-Dine or the wider AQIM network, it would mark a concerning expansion of terrorist activity beyond the northeast. Barkhane and MINUSMA forces are not deployed in central Mali, leaving the poorly trained and under-resourced Malian army to secure a large territory home to tens of ethnic and tribal minorities. Both terrorist and criminal groups are increasingly targeting rural areas surrounding Mopti and the FAMA have so far failed to put a stop to this string of attacks. Basic state services such as health clinics, primary schools and administrative offices, are closing down, with local officials blaming the local lawlessness and insecurity. The declining institutional presence of the government, combined with ongoing shortcomings of the FAMA, threaten to dramatically weaken government presence and influence in the centre of the country.

Resumption of ethnic and tribal clashes

Indications of growing disaffection of both the Tuaregs in the north and Fulani in central Mali also represent long-term security challenges in Mali. Kidal in the north has seen a resumption of fighting between the pro-Azawad CMA fighters from the Ifoghas tribes and the pro-Bamako Imghad GATIA troops, which on 22 July left more than 70 people dead. Fighting has spread to several rural areas and local sources have reported that civilians are increasingly being targeted by both rival groups. The insecurity and lack of a resolution to the conflict could see divisions widen. Following the Kidal clashes, MINUSMA locked down the town, contributing to long-time complaints that French and UN forces are supporting the Ifoghas in the conflict. The situation ultimately underlines the failure of the Algiers accords to adequately implement a fair distribution of power throughout northern Mali, despite the Tuareg power-sharing dispute being one of the key causes for the 2012 uprising. In June and July 2016, additional talks focused specifically on the CMA-GAITA conflict in Anefis and Niamey failed to resolve the ongoing dispute. As the fighting now spreads to rural areas throughout the region, both groups are reportedly rallying their fighters and local support, suggesting that they are preparing for a long-lasting fight.

The increase of ethnic grievances among the Fulani population in central Mali is also an alarming development for national security. Since 2014, the Fulani community has been increasingly targeted by Malian armed forces, accusing them of collusion with the Massina Liberation Front (MLF) headed by the radical preacehr Amadou Kouffa. A largely herder community, the Fulanis have long been involved in land clashes with owners of agricultural properties of the nearby Bambara community. A sense of discrimination, mistrust of the Malian security forces and the failure to address the Fulani situation in past political negotiations have seen a rise of more extreme factions among the population.

The MLF claimed responsibility for the Radisson Blu hotel attack in Bamako in November 2015 and ANSPIRJ declared in its first statement that ‘the Malian army was its enemy’ and that the group would defend the community by any means. While the size and capability of both groups and the extent of their roles in the Radisson Blu and Nampala attacks are unknown, the radicalisation of some members of the Fulani could have security implications for central Mali and present a major new battleground for FAMA and the government.


The Malian state’s simultaneous failure at tackling both security issues and ethno-tribal disputes has long-term implications for the country and the wider region’s stability. The government’s dependence on international forces in the north and its declining authority in central Mali is likely to continue, allowing historic tensions to escalate and terrorist groups to exploit the growing security vacuum. Additionally, the emergence of more radicalised fringes of the Fulani population could be exploited by existing militant groups. Collaboration between new Fulani entities and established jihadist networks across the region - two of the three fighters involved in the Grand Bassam attacks in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in 2015 were reportedly from the Fulani community – could also impact some of the ten countries in central and western Africa where the population is present.

International military forces will continue to be exposed to militant attacks in northern Mali and will remain stretched in countering regional terrorism, especially should the intra-Tuareg conflict escalate further and lead to a wider deterioration of the local security environment. Longer-term solutions rely heavily on the Malian government’s ability to renew negotiations between the warring Tuareg parties in the north, strengthen FAMA capability and engage disenfranchised Fulani community members in the centre of the country. Faced by growing political pressures in Bamako, preparations for local elections on 20 November and major resource shortages, prospects for stability in Mali are currently bleak. Bamako will remain dependent on international support – both militarily and at the negotiations table - to survive and address the country’s multiple security crises.

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