A protester in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 19 holds a placard reading “France, gardener of terrorism” during a demonstration to mark France's announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali. (Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty Images)
As the world remembered the chaos and tragedy that surrounded the U.S. and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ago, a quieter exit took place Monday. The last French troops left Mali for neighboring Niger, drawing to a formal close a near-decade-long mission in the sprawling West African nation of 21 million people. Their presence in Mali had begun in 2013 as part of an ambitious Paris-led effort to fight back an Islamist militant threat that was spreading across the vast region between desert and savanna known as the Sahel.
But the mission ended incomplete despite billions of euros spent and thousands of Malian lives lost (as well as 59 French soldiers), leaving in its wake no shortage of geopolitical rancor and a worryingly deteriorating security situation. Militants from factions linked to both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have entrenched themselves on a widening battlefield across the African continent.
The French departure from Mali had been telegraphed months in advance amid a rupture in relations between the government of French President Emmanuel Macron and a Malian junta that seized power in August 2020 and carried out “a coup within a coup” — as Macron himself put it — against civilian officials nine months later. Those overthrows were part of what U.N. Secretary General António Guterres lamented was “an epidemic of coups d’etats” in the region including in neighboring Burkina Faso and Guinea.
In Mali — not unlike what happened once the United States announced its drawdown in Afghanistan — attacks by Islamist insurgents have spiked in recent weeks as the French completed their exit. “The situation is worse than in 2013,” said Alpha Alhadi Koina, a Bamako-based geopolitical analyst, to the New York Times. “The cancer has spread through Mali.”
The scale of the violence shows how the central zone of Islamist-related violence has shifted away from the Middle East and South Asia. “In Mali nearly 2,700 people were killed in conflict in the first six months of this year, almost 40 percent more than in all of 2021,” the Economist detailed last week. “Last month jihadists attacked a military checkpoint 60km from Bamako, the capital; a week later they hit the country’s main military camp on its doorstep. In Niger, deaths in conflict have fallen slightly but will probably exceed 1,000 in 2022. In Burkina Faso in the first half of the year about 2,100 people have been killed.”
An Islamic State offshoot has supplanted fundamentalist Islamist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Further afield, Islamic State-affiliated militants are waging attacks across a swath of central and East Africa, from northern Mozambique to Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Somalia, al-Shabab, an insurgent faction originally linked to al-Qaeda that is arguably more capable than its much-diminished parent organization, remains a powerful force — and a threat with such menace that it prompted President Biden to redeploy U.S. forces to the country earlier this year.
Last week, Martin Ewi, a South Africa-based analyst, briefed the U.N. Security Council on the scale of the threat, pointing to how the Islamic State was active in more than 20 African countries already, and warned that the continent may represent “the future of the caliphate.”
The Islamic State’s first supposed “caliphate” took root in Iraq and Syria amid the chaos of the latter’s civil war. But a coalition of Western and local forces eventually smashed its forces, recaptured the cities it once controlled and forced its surviving fighters into captivity or hiding. Ewi told the assembled U.N. dignitaries that “no similar coalition was mounted to defeat [the Islamic State] in Africa … meaning that the continent was left to bear the consequences of those who are fleeing Syria and finding safe havens on the continent.”
France’s exit from Mali, though, underscores both how fraught the prevailing security situation is and how difficult it may be to address. After being initially welcomed when huge stretches of Mali were under Islamist militant control, France’s presence turned unpopular over time, with incidents like a French airstrike last year in central Mali that killed 19 civilians souring attitudes against the old colonial ruler.
“French forces eliminated a significant number of jihadist fighters and leaders, operating under incredibly difficult circumstances and at high risk,” Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on the Sahel, told me. “At the same time, the French were ultimately not able to manage tensions with successive Malian governments.”
The current junta in Mali appears to be seeking to replace France’s help by enlisting mercenaries from notorious Russian firm Wagner Group — charges Mali’s government denies. Forces linked to that organization, along with Malian troops, are believed to have carried out mass extrajudicial executions in a central Malian town in March. The political environment in Mali with the junta is so troubling that it compelled Germany to suspend its comparatively smaller role in supporting a U.N. mission in the country.
“The disruption of much of the security cooperation with French and partner forces has almost certainly contributed to the deterioration of the security situation, while the arrival of Wagner forces has contributed to a number of significant human rights abuses, while doing little to visibly improve security in the areas in which they most frequently operate,” Lebovich said.
In recent years, he added, “the most active components” of both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State “have been in Africa, particularly in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin,” and remain deeply difficult to dislodge.
“Even where some regional interventions have been moderately more successful, these groups continue to operate and not only retain a strong presence, but in some cases expand their operations across quite vast spaces,” Lebovich said.