Solving crime often means something as simple as “follow the money.” To understand the persistent violence in Mali “follow the money” plus a bit of religious fanaticism and ethnic (tribal) rivalry pretty much explains it all. In Mali and the rest of the region, smuggling has been big business ever since governments (especially modern, post-industrial revolution ones) imposed restrictions on what goods could go where and at what price. The spike in violence in mid and northern Mali is driven by the lucrative business of moving cocaine and other drugs north towards the European market. Add to that population growth in the semi-desert Sahel (another side effect of colonialism and the introduction of modern medicine and public health practices) encouraged the nomadic Sahel herders to move further south into areas where there was more water and pastures for their animals. The sedentary farmers who were already there fought back and created a lawless atmosphere that helped smugglers, separatists, Islamic terrorists and rebels of all sorts to get established and become difficult to remove. The persistent government corruption limits what local law enforcement can do against multiple sources of civil disorder (ethnic separatism in the north, Islamic terrorist groups establishing themselves locally and the emergence of very lucrative drug smuggling operations). This sort of government breakdown is more common Moslem majority nations because these countries are more likely to suffer from persistent corruption and, being Moslem, equally probe to see the establishment of Islamic radical groups.
While the Islamic terrorists get the most publicity (because of their extreme violence and eagerness to spread worldwide) most of the outlaw activity is about making money. The Islamic terror groups dominate the most lucrative criminal activities (smuggling drugs) because the Islamic terrorists are the most violent outlaws around and generally unencumbered by family or tribal responsibilities. Nevertheless, the Islamic terrorists are a small part of a much larger smuggling activity. For example, increased security on Algeria’s southern border (especially the ones with Mali and Niger) catches more people illegally crossing the border but most of them are smugglers. While most of the smuggled goods are consumer items (easier to sell in Algeria) weapons and drugs were encountered. It was the drug shipments that had the heaviest security. This often meant crossing the border at night and then hiding the drugs or weapons at a hiding place known only to partners in Algeria who had a legitimate reason for being down south. These weapons and drugs were then smuggled north to the coast and another gang of smugglers got the drugs on ships or airplanes headed for Europe. The weapons were for local markets (mostly criminals). Since moving drugs involves so many people, it is more expensive. But that’s the nature of drug smuggling and Islamic terror groups tend to supply most of the security and maintain that monopoly by killing any competitors. Drug shipments still get seized. This is usually when the hiding places on the Algerian side of the border are stumbled on by patrols or the transporters moving the drugs from the southern border to the coast have an accident or get exposed as smugglers for some other reason. The Algerian police estimate that over 90 percent of the drugs get through and the Islamic terrorists get paid more than enough to keep them in business. For this reason, small groups of Islamic terrorists survive in northern Mali, near the Algerian and Niger borders not because of Islamic radical locals but because of the cash. With that, you can buy all the hospitality and discretion you need.
Islamic terrorists, even the most extreme ones like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) need cash because it is simply more efficient to purchase many items (like weapons, ammo, information and sanctuary in areas controlled by local tribes. Northeast Mali (near Gao and the Niger border) is where the local branch of ISIL operates. As a result, the violence is escalating there. Calling itself ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) this ISIL franchise is frequently encountered in northeastern Mali on both sides of the Niger border. The ISIL personnel frequently clash with pro-government Tuareg militias and usually lose. It’s not that these ISIL men are not fanatic enough but that the Tuareg know the area well and have lots of experience in irregular warfare. Since March 2018 ISGS has taken very heavy losses as the Tuareg militias worked with a special French counterterrorism operation that included troops from Mali and Niger and spent enough time searching to find several ISGS camps and forcing the Islamic terrorists to fight. So far ISGS has lost over a hundred dead and captured but groups like ISGS don’t surrender but fight harder until they are crushed. ISGS is still up there but in much reduced circumstances and the French were ready to collect and analyze the flood of new information gained from all those dead or captured ISGS men as well as several of their camps. The Americans stand ready to provide airstrikes for as many ISGS targets as the French intel effort can locate. The Americans are keen to eliminate ISGS because this groups was responsible for a late 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers. ISGS wants to kill more American troops because that is a big deal with ISIL since Islamic terror groups tend to consider Israel and the United States the main enemies of Islam. Israel and the Americans have also proved to be the most effective at hunting down and killing ISIL groups. So this particular campaign against ISGS will be more of the same, just in a very remote part of the world.
Even ISIL is attracted to the lucrative drug smuggling operation but that is one conflict with less radical Islamic terror groups that ISIL tends to lose. That rivalry is being resolved in northeast Mali and ISIL is not doing well. This is a repeat of a similar situation in Afghanistan where the Taliban are more of a threat to the local ISIL franchise than the American and Afghan special operations forces that concentrate on finding and eliminating any ISIL presence.
Groups like ISIL are more of a death cult because they thrive on dying. Less extreme groups like al Qaeda are more into surviving and thriving and are more of a long-term threat. This can be seen in central Mali where the growing number of radicalized Fulani tribesmen are causing so much social disorder that a growing number of locals (mostly non-Fulani) are fleeing across the border to Burkina Faso. Since February some 4,000 Malians have fled and unless the Fulani Islamic terrorists can be suppressed the migration will continue.
Meanwhile, the primary problem in Mali remains the massive corruption in government. Mali has not yet been able to create a “civil society” of voters and politicians who are willing to serve all of Mali, not just their own family, clan or tribe. That is a problem that resists quick cures.
May 1, 2018: In the north (near Gao) the ISGS attacked Tuareg settlements leaving 17 dead.
April 27, 2018: In the north (near Gao) attacks were made on two camps of Berber nomads in the last 48 hours, leaving 43 Berbers (most of the women and children) dead. The Berbers are ethnically related to the Tuareg. The attackers were believed to be ISGS, the local branch of ISIL trying to intimidate the local Tuareg militias into not opposing ISIL operations in the area. The Tuareg militias struck back by attacking Fulani villages across the border in Niger and killing over 30 people. Throughout the region (and as far south as northern Nigeria) Fulani have been active supporters of Islamic terror groups and those across the border in Niger are believed to be supporting ISGS. The Niger Fulani claim the Mali Tuareg militias killed 44 Fulani today.
April 26, 2018: The Mali government has agreed to hold presidential elections on July 29th while local elections will be held by the end of the year. Foreign aid donor nations are demanding that the elections be fair. Even with that those that get elected are often just as corrupt as their predecessors.
April 22, 2018: France, Algeria and Mali are using a secret 2017 amnesty agreement to persuade key AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and JNIM (Jamâ’ah Nusrah al Islâm wal Muslimîn, or Group for the support of Islam and Moslems) personnel to surrender. In Mali and neighboring states most of the Islamic terrorists are not ISIL and are largely united. Most of the Islamic terrorist activity is the work of JNIM, which was formed in early 2017. In part, this was a reaction to the growing threat from ISIL which is hostile to everyone who is not ISIL and will attack or recruit from the JNIM members AQIM Ansar Dine, FLM and al Mourabitoun (an al Qaeda splinter group). Another reason for the merger was to make it easier to pool resources (including information and advice) and coordinate with other Islamic terror groups in the area. This reduces friction and destructive feuding. Making a coalition like this work is always difficult, especially considering the importance of ethnic differences.
April 21, 2018: In the northwest (near Timbuktu) French troops clashed with Islamic terrorists and killed three of them. Further south in central Mali (near Mopti) soldiers killed 15 Islamic terrorists during raids on suspected Islamic terrorist bases. One soldier was killed and two wounded. Closer to Timbuktu someone fired three rockets at the peacekeeper base near the airport. There were no casualties.
April 19, 2018: In central Mali and across the border in Burkina Faso, an eight day counter-terror operation began. The Mali border was sealed and over a hundred suspected Islamic terrorists on the Burkina Faso side of the frontier were arrested. Some of those arrested were known Islamic terrorists and in other locations explosives and weapons were seized.
April 14, 2018: In the northwest (outside Timbuktu) JNIM simultaneously attacked a peacekeeper camp and a base for French troops. The assault was repulsed with fifteen of the attackers killed. One peacekeeper was killed and seven wounded. At the French base, seven French troops were wounded along with two civilians. The attackers disguised themselves as peacekeepers and had at least one peacekeeper vehicle. The disguise worked for a while but not long enough to enable the attackers to do the kind of damage they hoped to achieve.
April 10, 2018: In central Mali (Mopti) two health specialists and their two local drivers were kidnapped. The four were released two days later and it is unclear whether or not ransom was paid.