A rocket and car-bomb attack struck French and UN bases in Mali on Saturday in the latest manifestation of a rise in jihadist violence, despite attempts to stabilise the country by mainly French-led military forces.
Saturday’s attack targeted a French military camp and the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping positions in the northern city of Timbuktu. One UN peacekeeper and 15 jihadist suspects were killed while seven French soldiers were wounded, according to FRANCE 24 Mali correspondent Anthony Fouchard.
This latest deadly incident follows a string of violent attacks linked to jihadists in Mali this year – including the killing of two French soldiers with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) on March 3, the killing of 14 Malian soldiers when jihadists overran a Malian army base on January 27, and the killing of four UN peacekeepers and one Malian soldier in an ambush on January 26.
UN peacekeepers ‘shot like hares’
The latest UN report on the situation in Mali says “asymmetric” (terrorist or guerrilla-style) attacks in the country more than doubled in 2017. “There is not a shadow of a doubt that violence has increased over the past year,” affirmed François-Xavier Freland, former FRANCE 24 Mali correspondent and author of “Mali, au-delà du jihad” (“Mali, beyond jihad”).
This uptick in violence has emerged despite concerted international efforts to stabilise the country since jihadist militants exploited a rebellion by Touareg (an ethnic Berber nomadic group) separatists to seize control of Mali’s northern desert regions in 2012. 90% of the population live in the south of the country, where the capital Bamako is located, and successive Touareg insurrections have made it hard for the central government to maintain its authority in the north since Mali’s independence from France in 1960.
A French-led intervention, Operation Serval, mostly drove the rebels out in 2013, after being launched at the request of the Malian government.
However, the jihadist insurgents are still active. The militants are also linked to drug, arms and human trafficking across the Sahel, while large stretches of territory in northern Mali remain out of the control of Malian, French and UN forces.
The UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission was established in 2013 alongside Operation Serval. 150 of the 11,000-strong MINUSMA forces have now been killed, making it by far the most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the world.
MINUSMA troops “are shot like hares”, said Freland.
The underlying problem, Freland argues, is that the mission’s mandate is strictly to keep the peace; they cannot engage in military offensives. “We need an army of UN peacekeepers who aren’t merely policemen,” he said.
G5 Sahel militaries ‘not up to scratch’?
Unlike MINUSMA peacekeepers, soldiers in Operation Barkhane, which was set up in 2014 as the successor to Operation Serval in Mali, are authorised to use armed force and undertake military operations. That makes Barkhane considerably more effective than MINUSMA, suggested Freland, because the French-led mission “hinders the development of the terrorist groups that are trying to create chaos everywhere”.
One such group is the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which was formed in March 2017 from the merging of four jihadist groups operating in Mali – Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun and the Sahel branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Peninsula (AQIP). GSIM’s leader is Iyad Ag Ghali, who was a prominent leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the mainstream Tuareg rebel group, before leaving and forming Ansar Dine during the 2012 rebellion.
Barkhane is led by the French military and includes troops from Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso – which operate collectively as the G5 Sahel.
Freland believes that although “it’s a good idea to have a pan-African force take responsibility for the Sahel”, the military effectiveness of the five-nation group is doubtful: “Let’s be clear, other than those of Chad and Niger, their militaries aren’t up to scratch. The Mauritanian army is that of an Islamic republic with unclear objectives. The Burkinabe army has shown serious flaws after the various attacks in Ouagadougou. And the Malian army’s right in the middle of a reconstruction process.”
Meanwhile, the extent of France’s ongoing military activity in Mali is a sensitive matter in light of the former’s role as the latter’s colonial overlord, said Freland.
“France should stay but reduce the number of boots on the ground. It needs to get rid of its image as an army of occupation,” he said.