October 25, 2023
Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, October 25, 2023: Malian Junta and Its Wagner Group Allies Are Unprepared for Ongoing UN Withdrawal
Data Cutoff: October 25, 2023, at 10 a.m.
Contributor: Charlie Towle
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.
Key Takeaway: The Malian junta and its Wagner Group auxiliaries cannot backfill withdrawing UN forces in northern Mali while maintaining pressure across the country, which will likely create gaps for al Qaeda–affiliated militants to exploit in central Mali. Al Qaeda–affiliated militants and Tuareg rebels are at least tacitly supporting each other operationally in northern Mali and may explicitly be coordinating some attacks, which will prolong the conflict and further strain the junta’s capacity issues.
The Malian junta cannot backfill withdrawing UN forces in northern Mali while maintaining pressure elsewhere, which will likely create gaps for al Qaeda–linked militants to exploit in central Mali. Nearly 13,000 UN peacekeepers began leaving Mali in July after the Malian junta pressured the UN Security Council to end the peacekeeping operation. The UN peacekeepers will have departed Mali by the end of 2023.[i] The UN mission helped protect major population centers in central and northern Mali during the past decade and held together the tenuous 2015 peace agreement between separatist Tuareg rebels and the Malian government.[ii]
Malian soldiers and their Kremlin-funded Wagner Group auxiliaries are now competing with al Qaeda’s regional affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) and Tuareg separatist rebels to fill the resulting security vacuum.[iii] Wagner’s 1,000-strong contingent does not have the manpower or capabilities to replace UN forces and is carrying out atrocities that fuel support for JNIM and the rebels.[iv] Malian forces have sharply decreased their rate of operations in central Mali since giving priority to northern Mali, showing they also lack the capacity to backfill UN forces without taking risks elsewhere.[v]
- The UN functioned as a neutral arbiter in northern Mali and facilitated dialogue between Malian and rebel officials.[vi] Separatist Tuareg rebel leaders warned that the end of the UN mission would be a “fatal blow” to the peace deal in June.[vii] Malian forces began to move into UN bases as UN forces withdrew in August, which the rebels viewed as a violation of the 2015 peace deal.[viii] The rebels began contesting control of newly vacated UN bases and declared war on September 11.[ix] The rebels have overrun at least five Malian bases since the start of September.[x] Malian and Wagner forces have continued to give priority to assuming control over additional UN bases in the Kidal region—a rebel and JNIM stronghold—and sent a large convoy to the area in early October.[xi]
- The Malian army and Wagner Group have committed at least 11 human rights violations against Tuareg civilians since October 5.[xii] Locals claimed that Wagner soldiers have perpetrated most of the atrocities, including beheadings, immolation, and booby-trapping the bodies of their victims.[xiii] JNIM has used Wagner atrocities in other parts of the country to improve its local support since 2021. JNIM has also repeatedly offered, since early 2023, to ally with separatist groups and northern communities in the Kidal region as a protector from Wagner Group in the Malian army.[xiv]
- The Malian army has significantly decreased its rate of activity in central Mali as it has shifted focus to northern Mali. 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 in the area for the rest of 2023.[xv] This occurred while security forces in central Mali carried out only two operations since the beginning of August, which is less than the average of five operations per month from April to July, and conducting large counterterrorism offensives in the first quarter of 2023.[xvi]
Figure 1. Malian Army and Wagner Group Shift Focus to Northern Mali in August 2023
Source: Liam Karr.
JNIM and the Tuareg rebels are at least tacitly supporting each other operationally and may explicitly be coordinating some attacks. This will prolong the conflict and further strain the junta’s capacity issues. JNIM and the rebels have attacked the same locations in northern Mali within one day on two separate occasions since the beginning of October.[xvii] JNIM also detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) targeting UN forces withdrawing from a northern Malian town in October on the same day that rebels captured the newly vacated UN base in the town.[xviii] The close timing and proximity of these activities suggests that the groups are giving at least tacit approval to each other’s operations.
This pattern also indicates they are taking advantage of—if not explicitly coordinating—each other’s activity to amplify their impact. The two factions have a shared goal of removing Malian forces from the area, a history of working together, and extensive human network connections stretching from the leadership to the fighters.[xix] The Malian government failed to contain the previous jihadist-rebel coalition in 2012 and does not have the capacity to defeat a new one given the expanded threat the Salafi-jihadi insurgency now poses in central and southern Mali compared to 2012.[xx]
- The JNIM emir and other al Qaeda–linked militants now in JNIM initially fought alongside the rebel groups during the 2012 Tuareg rebellion.[xxi] 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.[xxii] However, connections between the two sides remain intact, as the groups have cease-fire agreements in their shared support areas and have membership overlap, and they have operationally coordinated against the Islamic State’s Sahel Province since 2021.[xxiii] The factions’ leaders also have relationships dating back to at least the 1990s.[xxiv]
- JNIM and the rebels have attacked the same locations within 24 hours two separate times since the beginning of October. Rebels claimed to shoot down two Malian planes near Tarkint in the Gao region on October 3.[xxv] JNIM claimed an IED attack against Malian and Wagner forces in the same area on the same day.[xxvi] JNIM also claimed an IED attack on a Malian-Wagner convoy along the RN18 road in the Gao region on October 4, and the rebels said they repelled an attack by a Malian-Wagner convoy along the same stretch of road on October 5.[xxvii] JNIM claimed another IED attack against UN forces withdrawing from Aguelhok in the Kidal region on October 23, the same day that rebel forces captured the newly vacated UN base in the town.[xxviii] The lack of JNIM IED attacks against rebels indicates that the rebels already know where the IEDs are or that JNIM militants are intentionally not detonating them against rebels.
Figure 2. JNIM and Tuareg Separatist Rebel Attacks on Security Forces in Northern Mali
Source: Liam Karr.
Figure 3. The Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Africa
Source: Kathryn Tyson.
[iii] https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/mali-meltdown-militants-advance-un-withdraws-2023-10-03; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-update-september-13-sdf-lose-legitimacy-in-deir-ez-zor-al-qaeda-and-the-islamic-state-expand-in-west-africa-ttp-launches-offensive-in-pakistan#Mali20230913; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-update-september-27-tribal-insurgency-may-expand-in-syria-mali-and-separatist-rebels-resume-fighting-afghan-taliban-and-pakistan-discuss-cross-border-attacks-iran-targets-i#Mali20230929
[iv] 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; https://ctc.westpoint.edu/how-the-wagner-group-is-aggravating-the-jihadi-threat-in-the-sahel; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/salafi-jihadi-movement-weekly-update-october-11-2023#Mali20231010
[v] Author’s database of significant activity (SIGACT). Available on request.
[ix] https://www.voanews.com/a/un-force-in-mali-quits-base-early-over-insecurity/7223457.html; https://www.lemonde.fr/en/le-monde-africa/article/2023/09/12/mali-former-rebel-group-claims-they-are-in-time-of-war-with-ruling-junta_6133155_124.html
[x] Author’s SIGACTs. Available on request.
[xii] Author’s SIGACTs. Available on request.
[xiii] 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; https://x.com/Ag_Adghagh/status/1716183865050427498?s=20
[xiv] 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
[xv] Author’s SIGACTs. Available on request.
[xvi] 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 SIGACTs. Available on request.
[xvii] 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
[xxiii] 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
[xxiv] Alexander Thurston, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 107, 110, 114, 118, and 130.
[xxvi] SITE Intelligence Group, “JNIM Claims Attacks on FAMa and PMC Wagner Group Convoys in Gao and Segou, Capturing Base in Koulikoro.”
[xxvii] 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.”