Instability in Mali
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Mali endured decades of instability. While the majority of the population resides in the south, Tuareg and Arab groups in the sparsely populated north rebelled against the government in 1963, 1990, and 2006, attempting to gain autonomy for the region they named Azawad. Numerous groups, including Islamist militant groups, have taken advantage of the government’s inability to assert control over territory in the north by continuously asserting territorial claims and attacking Malian government and international security forces, undermining the government and threatening to destabilize neighboring countries.
The current crisis in Mali began in early 2012 when a Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), in the north rebelled for a fourth time. The MNLA was backed by a collection of Islamist militant groups—Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa—and together the groups moved to take over territory in the north. In March 2012, then-President Amadou Toumani Toure was deposed in a military coup carried out by the Malian army as anger spread over the government’s response to the rebellion. Confusion and infighting created by the power vacuum in the capital of Bamako enabled the MNLA and Islamist groups to seize territory quickly. By April 2012, the groups controlled nearly all of the territory in the north and declared independence.
The alliance between the MNLA and the Islamist groups was short-lived; in June 2012 the MNLA broke with Ansar Dine and AQIM over the Islamists push to impose Sharia law in the north. Islamists gained control over Timbuktu and Gao, destroying shrines and imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule. As Islamist groups began pushing toward the center of the country, the French military intervened in January 2013 at the request of the Malian government, deploying ground troops and launching an air campaign to push back the militants. Through Operation Barkhane, France continues to lead the fight in Mali and three thousand troops have been deployed since July 2014 to protect civilians and aid the efforts of local militaries. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was also created to combat extremism in the region in April 2013. More than thirteen thousand UN peacekeepers remain deployed in Mali and MINUSMA has been called the UN’s most dangerous mission due to the high number of attacks on peacekeepers.
Despite increased international involvement, the campaign against militants has instead resulted in the spread of militancy to countries across the Sahel. In February 2017, France and the Group of Five for the Sahel (G5) countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—announced the creation of the G5 Sahel Force, a five thousand-troop-strong counterterrorism force aimed at fighting militant groups with an expanded mandate to move across borders in the Sahel region; the multinational force began operations in October 2017. The U.S. military has also increased its presence in the Sahel, deploying approximately 1,500 troops to the region and building a drone base in Niger to serve as a platform for strikes against groups across West and North Africa.
The continued strengthening of militant groups in Mali and their spread to neighboring countries could allow al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to establish a new safe haven and destabilize the region through militancy and terrorism. In addition, northern Mali remains a central transit point for young migrants from all over western Africa looking to travel to Algeria or Libya with the ultimate goal of reaching Europe. The weak economy and lack of job prospects in northern Mali has led many to turn to the trafficking and smuggling of migrants and drugs as a primary source of income. This crisis is both a humanitarian and security concern as militant groups in the Sahel region often tax trafficking and smuggling routes to fund their campaigns.
In late May 2021, Mali’s military carried out a coup against the central government, arresting and detaining Interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. Ndaw and Ouane sat at the helm of a transitional civilian government organized in the aftermath of a military coup in August 2020. Colonel Assimi Goita, who led both coups, has assumed power and said that a new prime minister will be announced soon. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have suspended Mali. The AU has threatened sanctions against the military if it does not yield to a civilian-led transitional government, while ECOWAS has demanded that Mali adhere to an eighteen-month transitional government timeline established last August. The transitional timeline outlines elections for February 2022, which are in jeopardy by the military’s most recent seizure of power.
The coup that took place in May 2021 is the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960. In August 2020, Goita led a military coup following months of escalating protests against former Prime Minister Keita’s administration and took power in a military junta. ECOWAS, along with other regional organizations, pressed for the junta to form a transitional government predicated on civilian rule. After Ndaw, Ouane, and other officials were named to this transitional civilian government, ECOWAS lifted economic sanctions and the AU lifted its suspension of Mali.
Despite the presence of various counterterrorism forces and internationally supported military operations, violent attacks and reprisal killings increased across Mali last year, and major terrorist networks and other militant groups remain a threat in Mali. Attacks against the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) also continue. In June 2021, France announced that Operation Barkhane, the major military operation involving roughly five thousand troops that it has led in Mali since 2013, would come to an end, with troops withdrawn and refocused toward an international counterterrorism effort in the Sahel.