The Return of the Malian Islamists?
01 Sep 2015
Despite the peace deal signed by Mali's government in June, violence in the country persists. Islamists rather than Tuareg separatists are predominately responsible, writes Emily Mellgard.
Two months on from the signing of a peace deal in Bamako between the government and a number of rebel groups in Mali, violence has increased and spread. In fact there has been a proliferation of armed groups in the country since the beginning of the Algeria-backed mediation process in 2014, which was aimed at ending the conflict. The current insecurity began in 2012 with a military coup followed by the occupation of the northern half of the country by Tuareg separatists, who were themselves largely subsequently pushed out by Islamist groups, who in turn melted into the desert before a French advance.
Islamists have returned and moved south.
Among the groups operating in the country are separatist Tuareg groups, which mostly fall under the umbrella organisation, Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). The CMA signed the peace deal on 20 June 2015, but fighters have continued to clash with government troops and the 'Platform' alliance of pro-government militias. These are made up of northern militias (including some Tuareg militias) that remain loyal to the government in Bamako, or have relinquished their separatist aspirations. For instance, on 17 August, there were reports of three days of fighting between the CMA and Platform militias around Kidal, a northern Tuareg stronghold city, which left 20 CMA fighters dead.
Many of the Tuareg militias have expressed willingness, exemplified by the signing of the peace deal in June, to make peace with the government in return for increased autonomy and development for the northern regions. However, they remain very sceptical of Bamako's commitment to peace, especially with the continued aggression of Platform militias. According to a recent report from the International Crisis Group, "a significant part of the Malian political and military leadership still pursues the idea of seeking revenge for their earlier defeat at the hands of rebels through military means."
However, the rise in violence has also seen the return of Islamist groups. The two most prominent of these groups are Ansar Dine, which is an Islamist insurgency with links, though no official affiliation, to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and a new group that emerged around the beginning of 2015 in the central Malian town of Mopti and calls itself the Masina Liberation Front (MLF).
Ansar Dine announced on 30 June that it had carried out two recent attacks well outside its normal northern sphere of activity. One attack was on the border with Mauritania to the West, the other was in the deep south along the border with Côte D'Ivoire. The latter, alongside Ansar Dine's declaration that Côte D'Ivoire was a valid target for attack because it was " cooperating with enemies of Islam," prompted the Ivoirian government to move troops to the northern border with Mali. Côte D'Ivoire hosts the logistical base for France's 3,000-strong force Operation Barkhane, which is currently active against Islamists in Mali.
France's operations alongside Malian troops and the UN's MUNISMA forces have made Islamist operations in northern Mali increasingly difficult. This has pushed the Islamists south, where militants have infiltrated towns and communities slowly, largely unnoticed by international troops – in contrast to 2012 and 2013 when they violently seized the north and encountered strong local rejection. While regional and international troops focused on Tuareg separatists, Islamist insurgents slipped south and have built capacity to launch attacks into the more densely populated, economically developed region.
Militants infiltrate communities unnoticed by international troops.
The second group, the MLF, was established in the central town of Mopti around the beginning of 2015. Its leader, Amadou Koufa, whose current whereabouts are unknown and whom some claim is dead, is a radical preacher from Mopti. The group has aspects of a Fulani separatist group, coopting the heritage of the Fulani Masina empire that existed in the 1800s. However, it also espouses a jihadi ideology based on Koufa's sermons, which continue to sell well in Malian markets. The Masina empire was Sufi Islamic and bears little resemblance to the aims of the group that has taken its name. This is exemplified by the MLF's claim of responsibility for the destruction of the shrine of Seku Amadu, the founder of the Masina empire, at the ruins of his capital Hamdallahi.
Many of Koufa's followers appear to be insurgents from the north who are regrouping in the centre and south of the country. Many of them are Fulani and draw upon deep-seated Fulani grievances – much as the Tuaregs have done in the north – to mobilise support for violence. His followers have also employed a common tactic for Islamist groups by attempting to increase their own influence and power by removing other forms of religious and political authority. There have been several targeted killings of religious leaders and legislators, which have prompted others to flee or go into hiding.
The proliferation of these groups, and their expansion south is worrying. The groups have also evolved their tactics from the occupation of the north where heavy handed and brutal violence during the implementation of sharia turned the people against them. The MLF and Ansar Dine have moderated their infiltration approaches, seeking to enter and embed in communities while removing existing forms of authority and governance through intimidation and targetted killings to improve their own standing. The groups are also demonstrating an increased willingness to collaborate on attacks and avoid competing with each other, something that impeded their efforts in the north. All these developments indicate that while the Malian government, military and international forces have focused on the Tuareg separatists in the north, the Islamists have slipped by them to rise in the south.
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