July 27, 2018
Warning Update: Threats to Mali’s Elections Reveal Weakness of U.S. Security Policy in West Africa
Mali will hold presidential elections on July 29 amid escalating ethnic conflict and a persistent jihadist threat. The elections—even if they proceed peacefully—do not justify optimism. The state remains weak six years after a 2012 coup, and the government has not addressed underlying anti-government grievances. Increasingly lethal al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates stand to gain, making it harder for the U.S. and its allies to secure their interests.
The U.S. has core security interests at stake in the Sahel, many of which have roots in Mali. American interests include defeating the Salafi-jihadi threat, countering human trafficking and smuggling, and preventing humanitarian crises. The Trump administration’s view that Africa is a place to cut costs threatens these interests. The U.S. has increasingly over-relied on weak partners—some of them among the poorest states in the world—to address complex challenges.
The Salafi-jihadi threat is serious and growing. This movement, which includes al Qaeda and ISIS, is expanding throughout West Africa as part of a belt of mobilization that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Guinea and Lake Chad and across to the Horn of Africa. Salafi-jihadi groups target Western interests in the Sahel—among them embassies, oil and gas facilities, and hotels frequented by Western civilians—though they have not yet attacked the U.S. or European homelands directly. These attacks are increasingly lethal as the groups develop tactical capabilities that could ultimately be deployed overseas. The Sahel, with its governance vacuums, conflicts, and marginalized populations, could become a base for Salafi-jihadi groups that is close to Europe and has access to smuggling routes that cross continents and hemispheres.
Limited Western involvement in the Sahel and Mali in particular has not reversed a negative trajectory. France intervened with U.S. support to roll back al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-affiliated militants in northern Mali in 2013. French forces are now working to transfer responsibility to a new regional force, the G-5 Sahel, comprising troops from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Chad. The French intervention and the standing up of the G-5 Sahel force have not prevented the Salafi-jihadi movement’s expansion, however. Salafi-jihadi groups operate in central and northern Mali and now use Mali as a base from which to launch campaigns into Burkina Faso. Military victories against these groups have not lasted because they fail to resolve the underlying conditions: poor governance and intercommunal conflict for resources and power. Non-military support from the international community is key, but has not yet matched the scale of Mali’s problems or been sufficiently integrated with military efforts.
Security challenges surrounding the July 29 elections may undermine the elections' credibility. Hundreds of schools have closed due to security threats, and election officials have attempted to set up polls in towns otherwise abandoned by the state. Election workers already went on strike for two weeks to protest insufficient security. One candidate’s campaign convoy was attacked in the Koulikoro region, in Mali’s relatively secure south. Political challenges are also degrading the legitimacy of the elections. The lead opponent of incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita cast doubt on the legitimacy of the voter registration process. Keita’s government has also cracked down on opposition protests, only relenting under international pressure.
Salafi-jihadi groups may target elections directly. Either AQIM’s Malian affiliate, Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), or ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) may be responsible for shelling a key airport in central Mali on July 24, just five days before polling. JNIM has condemned Mali’s elections multiple times, using language intended to capitalize on Malians’ frustration with corruption and the French presence in Mali. JNIM’s predecessor did not attack during Mali’s 2013 elections. The group has demonstrated a pattern of timing attacks to political events in recent months, however. It attacked a French patrol as a statement against French President Emmanuel Macron’s presence at the African Union summit in July, for example. More sophisticated explosive attack capabilities could allow JNIM to overcome election security.
Mali’s elections are occurring at a time of escalating domestic conflict in Mali and could provoke additional conflict for resources and power, heightening the conditions in which Salafi-jihadi groups flourish. Mali still faces a low-level insurgency in the north, unresolved despite a 2015 peace accord that has not yet been implemented. Militias loosely aligned for or against the government, or with particular ethnic groups, are active across north and central Mali. Intercommunal violence between rival ethnic groups is surging. Pro-Malian government ethnic-based militias are attacking civilians and causing vulnerable communities to mobilize their own self-defense forces. Government forces are alienating vulnerable populations by committing human rights abuses. French forces have tried and failed to prevent abuses by the pro-government militias with which they partner for counterterrorism operations.
Salafi-jihadi groups are worsening this intercommunal conflict to undermine elections and gain popular support. ISGS has stoked violence between ethnic communities, for example, inciting a crackdown by pro-government militias that has led to population flight and the cancellation of voting in at least one municipality in Gao region, northern Mali. New displacement in the Gourma region, in addition to prior displacement from Menaka and Mopti due to similar violence, may lead to more cancellations. Both ISGS and the JNIM benefit from the disruption of elections, which supports their efforts to provide alternative governance, and from the violence itself, which allows them to gain recruits and popular support by acting in the defense of vulnerable communities. Salafi-jihadi groups also benefit from grievances against the Malian state. Locals in Soumpi in southern Timbuktu region did not condemn a JNIM attack on the base of the G-5 regional security force in June, for example, due to the victimization they had experienced at the hands of the Malian army.
JNIM is developing more sophisticated attack capabilities. JNIM conducted its first successful attack with multiple vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) on a UN base in Timbuktu region in April. It also attacked a base of the G-5 Sahel regional military force and a French patrol with suicide VBIEDs within two days and across hundreds of miles last month, indicating its ability to recruit fighters and marshal resources across large parts of Mali. JNIM also developed more advanced IEDs to strike vehicles used by French and UN troops in Mali. It attacked a secure target outside of its main area of operations for the first time in March, with a double attack on the French embassy and Burkinabe army headquarters in Ouagadougou. JNIM also retains the ability to strike soft targets in Mali and throughout the Sahel region.
Counterterrorism efforts have weakened ISGS, but recent gains will fade as the group draws on its support zones and broader human network to recover. Pro-government ethnic militias, some backed by France, drove ISGS out of its primary base in the tri-border region in June. They did so in a way that worsened ethnic rivalries and intercommunal violence, however, heightening the conditions that have allowed ISGS to recruit and gain local allies. ISGS continues to operate in the Gourma region of Timbuktu and several areas in Gao region, and likely retains access to its prior havens in Burkina Faso and Niger. The temporary weakening of ISGS may ultimately drive it to cooperate or merge with JNIM, strengthening the Salafi-jihadi movement in the Sahel overall.
Heightened instability after Mali’s elections would strengthen the Salafi-jihadi movement in Mali and throughout West Africa. JNIM and ISGS will seize the opportunity to secure their safe havens and expand to new areas in Mali. They will continue to use Mali as a base for expansion into neighboring countries and may increase coordination with other Salafi-jihadi groups in the region, potentially building on pre-existing links into Libya and Nigeria. Civil conflict in Mali could also lead to a crackdown on marginalized populations, notably the Fulani community, which Salafi-jihadi groups have targeted for recruitment. Continued persecution of Fulani could facilitate greater Salafi-jihadi recruitment among Fulani populations beyond Mali’s borders.
Mali’s trajectory has serious implications for the security of the U.S. and Europe. The consequences for the U.S. will only worsen if Mali is allowed to deteriorate further.
Reilly Andreasen contributed research to this report.
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 Forthcoming publication on a potential JNIM-ISGS merger from Reilly Andreasen with the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
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