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With the World’s Gaze Fixed on the Islamic State, Mali’s Jihadists Return

While the world’s attention is fixed on the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the global war on terror is suffering a serious setback in Mali, where resurgent Islamist militants have transformed the northern part of the country into the deadliest place in the world for United Nations peacekeepers. Violence has ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Habibou Kouyate/Getty Images
Habibou Kouyate/Getty Images

While the world’s attention is fixed on the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the global war on terror is suffering a serious setback in Mali, where resurgent Islamist militants have transformed the northern part of the country into the deadliest place in the world for United Nations peacekeepers.

Violence has spiked recently following the drawdown of the French troops who had helped reconquer the territory from the region’s al Qaeda affiliate in early 2013 with a force of more than 4,500 soldiers. Today in Mali, there are only about 1,000 French troops, part of a regional French force that is combating extremists in five countries. Malian government forces — which performed abysmally in battle against extremists in 2013 — have again melted away, leaving an ill-equipped U.N. peacekeeping mission alone on the front lines of the battle against extremist groups. The situation has become so dire that on Oct. 8, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop appealed to the U.N. Security Council to dispatch an international rapid-reaction force to Mali to reinforce the beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission. Mali "again runs the risk of becoming the destination of hordes of terrorists who have been forced out of other parts of the world," Diop said. "The international community must send a strong signal to terrorists. That is, unfortunately, the only message they will understand."

In the past three months, the U.N.’s 9,000-strong Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has become the deadliest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. In September, 10 Chadian peacekeepers were killed by roadside bombs. Earlier this month, Islamist extremists traveling on motorcycles ambushed a U.N. convoy in the town of Menaka in Mali’s eastern Gao region, killing nine peacekeepers from Niger.* The attack came just four days before a Senegalese peacekeeper was killed by rocket fire in a joint U.N.-French military base in the northern town of Kidal. Together, a total of 31 blue helmets have died in Mali since the U.N. mission opened in July 2013, and more than 90 have been injured.

Mali’s Islamist terror coalition has the power to "direct its attacks when and where it wants," John Bosco Kazura, a Rwandan major general who commands U.N. forces in Mali, warned the Security Council. The U.N. mission, he added, is "in a terrorist-fighting situation without an anti-terrorist mandate and with no adequate training, equipment, logistics, and intelligence to deal with that situation."

The spike in violence underscores the limits of U.N. peacekeeping in confronting extremist movements in far-flung parts of the world — a complex and bloody mission that U.S. troops have struggled with as well. But perhaps more importantly, northern Mali’s deterioration reflects the degree to which the country’s fragile, Western-backed central government has failed to win the struggle for hearts and minds in northern Mali and temper local desires for independence.

"The essential ingredient in all of this has been northern marginalization that has gone on for more than a generation," said John Campbell, an Africa specialist and former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is whole host of broken promises that have been made by every government in power in Bamako."

Campbell said the intervention of foreign forces, including French and U.N. peacekeepers, on behalf of the government hasn’t necessary helped matters. "Nobody should be very surprised that there has been an upsurge in anti-government activities, and that includes [against] bodies associated with the government, like the United Nations," he added, noting that some disaffected Malians are attracted to the extremist cause. "They believe that a radical, Salafist, Islamic regime can bring about justice for the poor and create God’s kingdom on Earth."

Richard Barrett, a former counterterrorism chief at Britain’s foreign spy agency, MI6, and currently an analyst at the Soufan Group, said that the most that French and U.N. forces can achieve in Mali is to "keep the lid down" on the most violent extremists while efforts are made to address local concerns, like state-building. International forces, he said, "are not the solution. But they can keep the lid down."

Not so long ago, Western leaders cited Mali as a model of democracy in Africa.

But in 2012, Tuareg separatists — reinforced by an influx of advanced weapons from nearby Libya following the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi — took up arms against the government in an effort to establish an independent state. The Tuareg insurgency — led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or the MNLA — faced little resistance from the U.S.-trained Malian army, which fled without putting up much of a fight.

The insurgency was quickly hijacked by an array of heavily armed Islamist groups led by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and a pair of newer groups, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, otherwise known as MUJAO. The militants kicked the Tuareg fighters out of much of the north’s major cities and established a rump state governed by a harsh form of sharia law that was a precursor, in some ways, to the self-declared caliphate that the Islamic State has carved out of Syria and Iraq.

Citing fears that the Islamists might move on the capital of Bamako, the French military sent 4,500 troops into northern Mali in January 2013 and launched waves of airstrikes that helped the Malian military and troops from an array of neighboring countries drive the Islamists out of Gao, Timbuktu, and other major cities. Since then, European governments have stepped up training of Malian soldiers while the U.N. mission, which began its operations in Mali in July 2013 and has recently reached a strength of more than 9,000 troops, moved in to fill the vacuum left by the departure of French forces. In a key sign of political progress, the Malian government elected a new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in August 2013. Algeria is overseeing peace talks between the Malian government and the MNLA, the umbrella group for the Tuaregs.

But the progress has been uneven. In May, Malian separatists repelled a military offensive by the Malian army, which was seeking to take control of the town of Kidal. Islamist groups have sought to fill the security vacuum left behind as the French drew down their forces, and they have taken aim at the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Between May 27 and Sept. 15, armed groups launched 27 attacks, including rocket fire and mortars, against U.N. facilities and personnel. In one day in June, a suicide bomber driving a vehicle in the town of Aguelhok killed four U.N. peacekeepers and injured six more.

"We are in a situation where we are no longer in a peacekeeping environment," U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous told the Security Council last week, noting that blue helmets have become the targets of "extremists, jihadists, and traffickers" in northern Mali. "We face the whole range of threats, including guided rockets fired randomly, mortar shells … suicide attacks, ambushes, et cetera. We also face a number of mines and improvised explosive devices that, as we go on, are becoming more sophisticated."

*Correction, Oct. 15, 2014: This article misidentified the nationality of nine U.N. peacekeepers recently slain in Mali. They were from Niger, not Nigeria. (Return to reading.)

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch