November 09, 2023
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, November 8, 2023: Malian and Wagner Forces at a Crossroads in Battle with Separatist and al Qaeda Insurgents in Northern Mali
Data Cutoff: November 8, 2023, at 10 a.m.
CTP has temporarily paused the Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and Pakistan sections of the Salafi-Jihadi Weekly Update to support the production of CTP’s Iran Update, which is covering the Israel-Hamas war. This update will continue to cover the Salafi-jihadi movement in sub-Saharan Africa on a weekly basis in the interim.
CTP is pausing the Salafi-Jihadi Weekly Update for the Thanksgiving holiday period and will resume publication the week of November 29.
Key Takeaway: Malian and Kremlin-funded Wagner Group forces will likely attempt to capture the vacated UN base in the Kidal regional capital in the coming weeks. Malian and Wagner forces have the conventional capabilities to clear the base but almost certainly lack the popular support, strategy, and sufficient troop numbers needed to hold the base and degrade the insurgency. Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda–linked militants will likely give priority to preemptively attacking Malian and Wagner positions in the Kidal region in the coming weeks to degrade security forces’ ability to launch an offensive.
A Malian and Wagner military convoy captured a strategically important position in Kidal region’s southern area in October and will likely attempt to capture the vacated UN base at the regional capital Kidal town in the coming weeks. The convoy of 119 vehicles captured the crossroads town of Anefis from Tuareg rebels on October 7. Anefis is a strategically important location that lies at a fork in the RN18 highway, which runs through northern Mali to rebel-held Kidal town 70 miles to the northeast and Aguelhok 115 miles to the north. Anefis also now serves as an operational base for regime operations—including drone strikes—against the rebels and militants in Kidal town.
The Malian-Wagner convoy initially intended to backfill the UN base in Kidal town in November. However the UN expedited its withdrawal to avoid being caught in the crossfire between Malian security forces and Tuareg rebels and left the Kidal base on October 31, allowing rebels to seize the area. Malian and Wagner forces are also expecting Russian military shipments in the coming weeks that would aid such an offensive. Capturing Kidal town is the junta’s ultimate goal and would be a symbolic victory against the Tuareg rebels, who have controlled the town since they captured it during the 2012 Tuareg rebellion. The junta has also repeatedly emphasized controlling northern Mali as a main tenant of national sovereignty.
- Malian and Wagner forces conducted at least five drone strikes on Kidal town from November 3 to 8. Strikes on November 7 targeted the former UN camp and an auction site, which the Kidal town mayor said killed at least 14 civilians. The drone strikes on Kidal town indicate that Malian and Wagner forces are trying to soften the city’s defenses, which is in line with efforts to retake the regional capital.
- Russian military shipments to Mali since 2021 have included attack and transport helicopters, fighter and trainer jets, mobile radar systems, and unspecified weapons and ammunition. An open-source intelligence X account said the Malian junta had signed a contract for the equipment during the Africa-Russia Summit in St. Petersburg on July 30. The Malian junta leader also discussed military support for an offensive in northern Mali with Russian military leaders in Bamako in September and has had three phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the beginning of August.
- Tuareg rebels captured Kidal town and other strategic towns in northern Mali in the initial stages of the 2012 Tuareg rebellion. Separatist rebels have controlled Kidal town and most other towns in the region since 2013 after they captured the town from Salafi-jihadist rebels with the assistance of French forces when the broader rebel coalition fractured. The Malian army failed to retake the town in a 2014 offensive. The Malian junta has repeatedly referenced reestablishing state control across the entire country as a critical objective, and the junta head reiterated this message in a speech on Malian Independence Day in September.
Malian and Wagner operations to capture the vacated UN base at Kidal town almost certainly precludes efforts to relieve pressure on besieged Malian-Wagner forces in northern Kidal region through attacks on the rebel-held base at Aguelhok. Malian and Kremlin-funded Wagner Group forces arrived to backfill departing UN forces at the third UN base in the Kidal region in Tessalit, 60 miles north of Aguelhok, on October 13. Tuareg rebels are now besieging the Tessalit base and have demonstrated effective antiair capabilities to interdict Malian efforts to reinforce and resupply the base.
Al Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) conducted several improvised explosive device attacks on UN convoys in July. This shows that JNIM has mined the surrounding area. Pushing toward Tessalit via Aguelhok would funnel Malian and Wagner forces into one front and at least temporarily compromise any threat of two-front pressure on Kidal town. Kidal town’s geographic proximity to Anefis lessens the ground that security forces would cover on mined roadways, puts the Malian drone base in Anefis in more comfortable range of operations, and keeps supply lines more compact than if security forces moved toward Tessalit.
- UN forces expedited their withdrawal timeline from the three bases in northern Mali’s Kidal region, from mid-November to the end of October, after being caught in the crossfire between Malian security forces and Tuareg rebels. UN forces withdrew from Tessalit on October 21, Aguelhok on October 23, and Kidal town on October 31. Malian forces backfilled the Tessalit base by air before UN forces left, while rebels backfilled Aguelhok and Kidal after UN forces withdrew.
- Unverified pro-rebel and social media reports claimed that Tuareg rebels damaged or shot down a Nigerien C-130 that the Malian junta was using to resupply Wagner forces in Tessalit on October 30. Additional reports said that Tuareg rebels had damaged another cargo plane landing at the base on October 17. The rebels claimed they downed three Malian planes in two separate incidents in the Gao region on September 9 and October 4. JNIM is also active in the area and has shot down Wagner helicopters in central Mali.
- The Ukrainian military reported that the Malian air force and Wagner forces in Mali use TB2 drones. The basic TB2 model has a maximum communication range of 186 miles, which means all three former UN bases are within range of the makeshift TB2 base at Anefis.
Figure 1. JNIM and Tuareg Separatist Rebels Contest Security Forces in Northern Mali
Note: “MINUSMA” is the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.
Source: Liam Karr.
The Malian and Wagner convoy can temporarily clear insurgents from the Kidal or Aguelhok bases thanks to their conventional capabilities but almost certainly cannot hold them. Russian shipments of attack helicopters, transport helicopters, and fighter jets have improved Malian air capabilities compared to 2012–14, when Malian forces failed to capture Kidal town. The makeshift drone basing in Anefis indicates that Malian and Wagner forces can construct other temporary forward operating bases to ensure drone support.
However, the rebels’ demonstrated antiair capabilities threaten to minimize the Malian and Wagner air advantages. Improvised explosive device attacks on the UN convoy withdrawing from Kidal to Gao have also demonstrated that JNIM has heavily mined the roads in northern Mali, which will slow security forces and risk casualties. CTP assessed in early October that JNIM and the rebels are at least tacitly supporting each other operationally and may explicitly be coordinating some attacks. These challenges will have a great impact on the vastly outnumbered 119-vehicle-long convoy trying to remove hundreds of militants in well-defended bases and project adequate counterinsurgency pressure outside the bases after capturing them. Tuareg rebels and JNIM have separately temporarily overrun or seized nine Malian bases in northern Mali since the beginning of September, showing they have the capability and intent to retake the base if they are not removed from the surrounding area.
- A UN convoy traveling from Kidal to Gao struck at least six JNIM roadside improvised explosive devices between October 31 and November 4.
- Tuareg rebels briefly overran at least four Malian army bases in northern Mali in September and bloodlessly seized three others, including the Kidal bases, in October. JNIM temporarily seized at least two Malian bases—one of which the Tuareg rebels overran again—and bloodlessly captured another in northern Mali in September. In instances when militants temporarily overran and looted bases, Malian air support subsequently drove the attackers away, allowing surviving security forces to return.
- The JNIM emir and other al Qaeda–linked militants now in JNIM initially fought alongside the rebel groups during the 2012 Tuareg rebellion. The al Qaeda–linked faction sidelined the rebels in 2013 and expanded into central Mali, which prompted the French-led intervention in 2013 that pushed back the insurgents and helped split non-jihadist rebels from the al Qaeda–linked militants. However, connections between the two sides remain intact. The two parties have cease-fire agreements in their shared support areas, share membership overlap, and have operationally coordinated against the Islamic State’s Sahel Province since 2021. JNIM and the rebels have attacked the same locations within 24 hours of each other two times since the beginning of October.
Malian and Wagner forces will almost certainly fail to degrade the Tuareg or JNIM insurgencies, even if they capture the Kidal base or relieve the Tessalit base, because they lack popular support, an effective strategy, and sufficient troop numbers. Many civilians have already fled Kidal town, leaving security forces with less population to control in the surrounding town and creating more space for insurgents. Wagner and Malian army human rights abuses will push remaining civilians to cooperate with the rebels or JNIM for protection. Malian forces will struggle to logistically and practically address their force shortage over the long term due to insurgent attacks on northern Mali roadways, Malian aircraft, and other fronts in more politically sensitive areas of the country, which will keep them from projecting adequate counterinsurgency pressure outside the bases they capture.
- The Malian and Wagner convoy in Kidal has committed dozens of massacres against civilians for their perceived links to the rebels and JNIM since the beginning of October. This violence fits both forces’ pattern of indiscriminate violence in other areas of the country. JNIM has used Wagner atrocities in other parts of the country to improve its local support and has repeatedly offered to ally with separatist groups and northern communities in the Kidal region as a protector from Wagner Group in the Malian army.
- Malian forces sharply decreased their rate of operations in central Mali after giving priority to northern Mali in August, showing they cannot sustain their current level of activity in northern Mali without taking risks elsewhere. Malian army and Wagner forces have conducted at least 20 operations in the northern regions since the beginning of August, which nearly equals their total number of operations in the area for the rest of 2023. This occurred while security forces in central Mali conducted only two operations since the beginning of August, which is less than the average of five operations per month from April to July.
Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda–linked militants will likely give priority to preemptively attacking the Malian and Wagner forces in the Kidal region in the coming weeks to degrade their ability to launch an offensive. The rebels and JNIM militants are still active near Anefis and Tessalit and can target the bases to prevent Malian-Wagner forces from using them as launching pads for offensives on Kidal town or Aguelhok and decrease Anefis’s drone threat to Kidal town. Unverified and isolated reports from a reliable local source on X claimed the rebels have already decided to target the drone relay base at Anefis. Amplified pressure on the bases—especially Anefis—would at least temporarily degrade security forces’ ground and air operations targeting Kidal town or Aguelhok.
- JNIM claimed to launch Grad missiles at the Malian-Wagner camp in Anefis on October 15. Rebel or JNIM militants shelled the camp again on October 17.
 https://www.voaafrica.com/a/un-expediates-withdrawal-of-peacekeepers-in-northern-mali-camp/7321669.html; https://www.barrons.com/news/mali-junta-plans-takeover-of-key-un-camp-in-rebel-north-b596bd61
 https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/mali-receives-four-helicopters-weapons-russia-2021-10-01; https://www.theafricareport.com/195666/mali-more-military-equipment-from-russia-after-backlash; https://www.voanews.com/a/mali-receives-military-aircraft-from-russia/6695975.html; https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20230119-mali-gets-more-warplanes-helicopters-from-russia
 https://t.me/boris_rozhin/97667; https://t.me/rybar/51962; https://t.me/africaintel/5728; https://www.reuters.com/world/putin-talks-security-with-malian-leader-third-phone-call-two-months-2023-10-10
 https://x.com/sergedanielinfo/status/1712795385347846238?s=20; https://x.com/MagdiWan/status/1712467944192798873?s=20; https://minusma.unmissions.org/en/statement-attributable-spokesman-secretary-general-mali-19
 https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20231031-mali-rebels-claim-takeover-of-vacated-un-base-near-strategic-town-of-kidal; https://twitter.com/Inkinane1/status/1716443839207002353; https://x.com/sergedanielinfo/status/1712795385347846238?s=20; https://x.com/MagdiWan/status/1712467944192798873?s=20
 SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Announces Downing Helicopter of Russian PMC Wagner Group in Mali,” July 3, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Claims Downing Wagner Helicopter in Segou, Provides Video and Photo Documentation of Remains,” September 14, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com
 Author’s database of Significant Activity (SIGACT). Sources available on request.
 Author’s database of SIGACT. Sources available on request.
 Author’s database of SIGACT. Sources available on request.
 https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/4019115; https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20230130-mali-iyad-ag-ghaly-rencontre-les-groupes-signataires-de-l-accord-de-paix-pr%C3%A8s-de-kidal; https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/mali/laccord-dalger-cinq-ans-apres-un-calme-precaire-dont-il-ne-faut-pas-se-satisfaire
 https://x.com/AzwadyQlm/status/1709532259504492609?s=20; SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Claims Attacks on FAMa and PMC Wagner Group Convoys in Gao and Segou, Capturing Base in Koulikoro,” October 3, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; https://x.com/abdalaag2022/status/1709907071578030321?s=20; SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Claims Ambush on Gov-Aligned Burkinabe Militias in Soum, Series of Attacks Targeting Malian Army and Wagner Mercenaries in Gao,” October 9, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; https://x.com/Inkinane1/status/1716443839207002353?s=20
 https://africacenter.org/spotlight/mali-catastrophe-accelerating-under-junta-rule; https://www.voaafrica.com/a/malian-authorities-troops-are-being-redeployed-towards-rebel-stronghold-of-kidal/7293237.html
 https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20231010-des-civils-d%C3%A9capit%C3%A9s-%C3%A0-ersane-par-l-arm%C3%A9e-malienne-et-ses-suppl%C3%A9tifs-de-wagner; author’s database of SIGACT. Sources available on request.
 https://ctc.westpoint.edu/how-the-wagner-group-is-aggravating-the-jihadi-threat-in-the-sahel; https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2023/02/01/au-mali-rencontres-secretes-du-djihadiste-iyad-ag-ghaly-face-a-la-poussee-de-ses-rivaux_6160078_3212.html
 Author’s database of SIGACT. Sources available on request.
 https://twitter.com/ocisse691/status/1700930417262542854?s=20; https://twitter.com/Inkinane1/status/1716093406374424804; https://twitter.com/FAMa_DIRPA/status/1629217234408144896?s=20; https://twitter.com/FAMa_DIRPA/status/1635048259990482944?s=20; author’s database of SIGACT. Available on request.
 https://twitter.com/Walid_Leberbere/status/1714335842209087735; SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Claims Series of Attacks on Burkinabe Army, FAMa, PMC Wagner Group Incl. Targeting Military Base and Cargo Plane in Mali,” October 18, 2023, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com
 SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Claims Series of Attacks on Burkinabe Army, FAMa, PMC Wagner Group Incl. Targeting Military Base and Cargo Plane in Mali.”