• Malian elections are due to take place on 29 July, with a second-round run-off to be determined if no candidate wins an absolute majority (51%).
• There is significant risk for disruption at polling stations in northern and central Mali, where insecurity is heightened by the presence of terrorist organisations, and ethnic clashes continue.
• There is a potential for residual disruption or violence in the days following the election.
• MS Risk advises travellers in the area to avoid large gatherings or places frequented by foreigners. Terrorist groups have targeted military facilities of the G5 Sahel joint force and most recently conducted attacks at Sevare Airport in the Mopti Region.
MS Risk has previously assessed Mali as a HIGH-THREAT location for terrorist activity and ethnic clashes. There has been an increase in violence in Mali in the lead-up to the 29 July 2018 presidential elections. This is likely to be exacerbated in the period leading up to the election, and in its immediate aftermath. Polling stations in northern and central Mali that are ostensibly in the control of terrorist groups may be exposed to violence or attacks as a means to thwart voting. There is a heightened risk of demonstrations as the election draws nearer; these could result in clashes with police or opposition protesters.
MS Risk advises against all travel over the weekend, especially to the provinces of Gao, Kidal, Mopti and Timbuktu, as well as to parts of the provinces of Kayes, Koulikoro and Segou. MS Risk advises against all but essential travel for the remainder of Mali, including the capital Bamako. Mali is under a state of emergency, which is in effect until 31 October 2018.
The United Nations and France have provided an increased security presence throughout the election process. This is likely to include patrols and security checks. This is in addition to the already robust security measure in place at key junctures throughout the country. There are likely to be more vehicle and personal security checks during this time in which no one will be exempt.
On 29 July, Malians will vote in a presidential election, determining whether incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will win a second term amid rising discontent over increasing insecurity in the country. The election occurs amid increasing violence and insecurity in northern and central Mali; with concerns that polls may not be able to open in certain parts of the country. There are three interconnected concerns that exacerbate the security conditions: Terrorism, increasing ethnic violence, and distrust in the security forces.
In recent years, militant extremists have returned from fighting in large terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS in areas like Libya, northern Nigeria, and further afield. Upon their return, they have brought with them extremist ideologies, contacts and sometimes significant money that has allowed them to recruit members and build operations in order to start new cells, including the Azawad Salvation Movement (MSA), and al-Qaeda affiliates Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Macina Liberation Front. This threat is exacerbated by the free movement between West African countries. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is comprised of 15 countries which, like the European Union, allow their citizens to travel between them without visas. Border areas in much of West Africa are porous and sparsely secured, making it difficult to track the movements of would be militants.
Northern Mali has become a sanctuary for terrorist organisations, as the area is sparsely populated, difficult to patrol, and lacks sufficient government influence. Attacks in the northern regions of the country have typically involved terrorist groups targeting local security officials, the Malian and French armies as well as peacekeepers from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA). According to open source reporting notes, in 2016 there were 118 attacks in Mali against MINUSMA elements. As the election draws near, the frequency of attacks has increased.
On 29 June 2018, a suicide bomber in a vehicle painted in UN colours attacked the Malian headquarters of the G5 Sahel anti-terror task force in Sevare, killing two Malian soldiers and a civilian. The attack was the first on the headquarters of the G5. Al-Qaeda-linked organisation, “Support Group for Islam and Muslims”, claimed the attack. They are the main extremist alliance in the Sahel region, and in northern Mali.
Two days later on 1 July, French soldiers of the Barkhane military operation in northern Mali were ambushed by terrorists near the town of Boure, Gao region. One resident of Gao said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
On 25 July, Ambodedjo Airport in Sevare, central Mali, was shelled. There were no casualties reported, and reports of damage are unclear. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but it is believed to be linked to extremist groups that have continually targeted security forces in the region. The G5 headquarters are located in Sevare, and Ambodedjo Airport is one the UN’s major air hubs — and the only terminal serving the regional capital of Mopti.
Mali announced the dates of the presidential election in February, prompting al-Qaeda’s Mali branch to issue warnings on social media against going to the polls. Abdou Abdirrahmane As-sanhaji, senior judge of a coalition of jihadist groups, wrote: “Our duty to all is to neutralize these unbelieving unbelievers [referring to politicians] with hands stained by the blood of the innocent and with pockets and safes filled with the money of the needy.” These threats and the increased violence in the region may thwart voter turnout, particularly in regions that have ostensibly been under the control of terrorist groups. Earlier this year, Al-Qaeda affiliates also issued a threat against Western interests in West Africa. These targets include MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, as well as the French-led Operation Barkhane, and the G5 Joint security force.
In May, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres highlighted security shortcomings on several of MINUSMA’s sites in Mali, citing “Poor conditions on and around the site.” Further, the G5 Sahel, which was to be fully operational by mid-2018, has faced delays due to logistical issues, and recently, accusations of human rights abuses. The UN reports that in May, Malian soldiers of the G5 force had “summarily” executed 12 Fulani men in a market in central Mopti region, in retaliation for the death of a soldier. The extrajudicial killing led to significant distrust of the organisation within the local population. This exacerbates the already significant issue of distrust in security forces leading to community organised militias.
Distrust in security forces leads to rising ethnic tension
The increasing distrust in regional security forces has caused a rise in community organised militias, which have caused several communities in northern and central Mali to organise their own self-defence organisations. This produces a cycle of distrust that benefits terrorist organisations. The Malian army attacks civilians, believing them to be extremists, and the terrorist groups attack civilians, believing them to be complicit with the military. In turn, the civilians organise defence groups to protect their communities, but in turn express distrust at other communities, who they could believe are complicit with extremists. This divide has recently fallen along ethnic lines, particularly between the ethnic Fulani Muslims and other groups such as the Tuareg, Peuhl and Bambara. Tuaregs in Mali have formed militia called IMGHAD Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA), which supports the Malian military. The traditional Tuareg pastoralists have long clashed with ethnic Fulani herders; in recent years, the Fulani have been accused by the Tuareg, Dogon and Bambara of being recruited by extremists. As a result, clashes between the Tuareg and Fulani have exacerbated the crisis. In July, the UN reported that at least 289 civilians, and including young children, have been killed in communal violence since the beginning of the year.
Similarly, light-skinned Arab and Tuareg communities have consistently complained of persecution by Malian soldiers, made up mostly of black ethnic groups from the south and centre of the country. On 25 July, armed protesters from Mali’s Arab community fired shots into the air, burned tyres and torched vehicles in Timbuktu. The protest was comprised mainly of Arab youths protesting against worsening insecurity and ill treatment by security forces. Demonstrators filled the streets, forcing shops and banks to shut. The protest reportedly began after the robbery of a pharmacy owned by a black Bambara trader late on 24 July. Malian troops arrested four Arab youths, sparking a gun battle. There were no casualties reported. The situation has calmed, however the tensions between the groups is ongoing.
Northern and central Mali are already difficult to patrol. However, the lack of security, coupled with the seemingly targeted attacks on particular ethic groups, whether from the military, or from ethnic- or community-aligned self-defence groups, could worsen conditions. These actions could cause some amongst the victims to sympathise with the terrorist groups, creating an opportunity to increase recruitment for radicalised anti-government activity. Alioune Tine, the UN’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, noted that violent extremists had taken advantage of the lack of basic services “to exploit communities and pit them against each other”. Overall, this serves to exacerbate the security situation throughout the country and undermine both domestic and international efforts to quell the rising insecurity.
At least fifty people were killed in a car bomb attack on a military base in northern Mali on Wednesday in what is one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in the country. Officials have disclosed that a vehicle packed with explosives detonated at a camp housing soldiers and members of rival armed groups in the region’s main city, Gao. The attack occurred around 9 AM (0900 GMT). Three days of national mourning have been declared.
The northern Malian desert region has been restive since it was captured by militant Islamists in late 2012. While a French military intervention in 2013 ousted the militants from the main cities in the region, the area remains tense, with attacks being reported on a nearly weekly basis. Since 2015, the threat has spread to the rest of the country, particularly in the southern-most region of Sikasso, as well as in the capital city of Bamako, where terrorist attacks and banditry have become more frequently since Spring 2015. In recent months, the situation in Mali has deteriorated and there has been a rise attacks that have been reported in the central region of the country.
Attacks in Mali have targeted both civilians and the Malian Defense and Security Forces (MDSF) as well as United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the country (MINUSMA). Terrorists have targeted Malian government outposts and bases camps for MINUSMA. In March 2016, heavily armed assailants attacked the European Union’s Training Mission (EUTM) headquarters and primary residence in Bamako. Furthermore, incidents in neighboring states, particularly Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, have been linked to instability in Mali.
The deterioration of the security situation in central and northern Mali, coupled with inter-ethnic violence, are urgent issues that need to be addressed in order for stability in Mali to return. A major issue however has been the slow implementation of an agreement between the Malian government and coalition-armed groups.
Due to ongoing terrorist attacks and criminal violence, MS Risk continues to warn against all travel to the following regions of Mali:
- The provinces of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao and Mopti
- Parts of the provinces of Kayes, Koulikoro and Segou
MS Risk currently advises against all but essential travel to the remainder of the country, including the capital Bamako. Mali remains under a state of emergency, which will be in place until 29 March 2017.
The security environment across the country remains fluid and the potential for attacks throughout Mali, including in Bamako, remains high. Terrorist groups in the region are intent on carrying out attacks and kidnapping Westerners. Terrorist targets could include government buildings, public areas such as bars, restaurants and tourist sites, as well as Western interests. Citizens of countries supporting the military intervention are at a particular risk, however all travellers should exercise increased vigilance.
Anyone currently in Mali is strongly advised to remain vigilant and aware of your surroundings at all times. We advise that you exercise caution, especially at night. Due to the ongoing state of emergency, heightened security measures are in place, including random identity checks and roadblocks. You are advised to carry identification and follow the instructions of local authorities at all times. When travelling, we advise that you use varied and unpredictable routes and schedules. You should exercise particular caution when travelling on motorways, in rural areas and in residential areas in Bamako – even during daylight hours. We advise that you avoid all road travel after dark.
Establishments in Bamako frequented by foreigners have been targeted by terrorist attacks. These attacks have caused deaths and injuries. If you are in Bamako, we advise that you avoid travelling in urban areas after dark, particularly in places that are frequented by foreigners.
The threat of terrorism and kidnap is extremely high in northern Mali. Rebel forces, terrorist groups and criminal networks continue to operate relatively freely throughout this region and Malian security forces cannot ensure the safety of foreign travellers. The lack of infrastructure, reliable transportation, safe hotels and emergency services further exacerbate the security conditions in Northern Mali.
There is a high threat of kidnap throughout Mali but particularly in the northern regions of the country and in all border areas. Westerners are a preferred target. Some hostages have been detained for months before being released while some have been killed.
Border Areas with Ivory Coast
Since 25 June 2015, terrorist and criminal incidents have been reported in the border areas with the Ivory Coast. Clashes between Malian authorities and other armed groups have occurred in the Misseni and Fakola sectors.
On Friday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar warned the United Nations that the failure to fully implement a nationwide peace accord was helping al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS)-affiliated groups spread their influence in the West African country.
Speaking at a high-level meeting on Mali at the annual UN General Assembly, President Keita stated, “we have to admit that several factors are contradicting our will and effort,” adding, “in particularly the extension of terrorism and banditry and security of neighbouring countries because of the desire of terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and Islamic State seeking to expand.” The president further disclosed that Islamists were using the slow implementation of peace accords in order to “manipulate” and “destroy” links between different ethnic groups in Mali. One incident, a clash in the north that erupted earlier this week between pro-government Gatia milita and the Tuareg separatist Coordination of Azawad movements, has highlighted the fragility of the UN-backed deal, which was singed last year between the Malian government and northern armed groups. That agreement is meant to end a cycle of uprisings. Also speaking at the meeting was Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, whose country is leading mediation efforts in Mali. Lamamra disclosed, “we must redouble our efforts,” adding, It’s terrible that signatories of the accord are involved in the fratricidal killings.” Meanwhile French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose country has thousands of troops deployed across West Africa in a bid to hunt down militants, disclosed that the security situation was “in general satisfying despite asymmetric attacks.”
UN peacekeepers are deployed across northern Mali with the aim of stabilizing the vast region, which was occupied by separatist Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist militants in 2012, before France intervened the following years. Tit-for-tat violence between rival armed groups however has distracted the West African nation from fighting Islamist militants. Furthermore, the country has become the deadliest place for UN peacekeepers to serve. On Thursday, the international mediation team, which includes the UN, Europeans Union (EU), African Union (AU) and regional bloc ECOWAS, disclosed that it believed the situation could not continue without compromising the agreement. The international mediation team also threatened international sanctions on those responsible for blocking the deal’s implementation.
An elected official and a security source reported on 2 September 2016 that the central Malian town of Boni, in the region of Mopti, is under suspected jihadist control after administrative buildings were attacked and the Malian army was driven from the area.
Boni, which is located around 90 kilometres (56 miles) from Douentza, is home to several thousand people and at nightfall, it remained under the control of an unidentified armed group who fired on administrative buildings and burnt down the mayor’s office.
Since early 2015, jihadist groups operating in the region have launched a number of attacks in central Mali, as well as in the northern region of the country. More recently, the tempo of attacks has increased, with militants launching attacks in the capital Bamako, as well as in other regions of the country, including near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso and Niger. Militants have also targeted United Nations peacekeepers and Malian troops. The capture of Boni is likely to further undermine the security situation in the country and is a direct threat to the southern region of the country. Mali is currently under a state of emergency after attackers stormed an army base in the central town of Nampala, killing 17 soldiers and leaving a further 35 wounded.
MS Risk is closely monitoring the situation in Boni and across Mali and we will issue further updates as more information becomes available. We are ready to assist with the following: Evacuation advice and coordination, this includes reception and coordination for any evacuees; liaison with local authorities; disseminate urgent risk assessments and contingency planning.
In the wake of the 20 November deadly attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, competing claims released by terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Macina Liberation Front and al-Murabitoun, highlight the number of militant Islamist groups that operate in Mali, a country that has a weak central government and vast ungoverned spaces.
While most of the groups that operate in the West African country trace their origins to al-Qaeda’s North African branch, memberships amongst these groups over the years has become very fluid between them. What is important to note, however, is that for the most part, they have not allied themselves with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which is al-Qaeda’s main rival for dominance of the world’s jihadist movements. While other terrorist groups, which operate on the African continent, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, have declared allegiance to IS, others, such as Somali-based al-Shabaab, have seen themselves splinter, with some leaders choosing to remain with al-Qaeda while others opting to pledge allegiance to IS.
In 2012, Mali became a focal point for jihadis groups, when for nine months, Ansar Dine, which is composed mainly of ultraconservative Tuareg tribesmen, and other Islamic extremists took over northern Mali. They were later pushed out by a French-led military intervention in 2013. In the wake of France launching Operation Barkhane in 2014, radical groups operating in northern Mali have suffered heavy losses, as French troops have targeted the groups in their havens in northern Mali, as well as in Niger and along the Libyan border. Throughout this year, radical groups have expanded their operations, moving from the desert regions of northern Mali, and into more urban towns and cities in the central and southern areas of the country.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is al-Qaeda’s North African Branch. It expanded south into Mali under pressure from Algerian security forces in the early 2000s. The group went on to make a fortune in smuggling and ransoming hostages. Under militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the group recruited disaffected Malians and Mauritanians and expanded its presence within the Sahara desert region.
The group, which is led by Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghali, emerged in 2012 as a religious alternative to the largely secular Tuareg separatists operating in northern Mali. Ansar Dine allied itself with al-Qaeda and took over much of the north before being driven back into the desert by the French army.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which was founded in 2011, has been described as a splinter group from AQIM. The group has carried out attacks across West Africa, including the kidnapping of aid workers and Algerian diplomats. During the Tuareg uprising in northern Mali, the group briefly controlled the northern Malian city of Gao.
Founded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar in 2013, it effectively combined MUJAO with Belmokhtar’s own Masked Brigade and completed his shift to a more Saharan-focused entity. The group claimed an attack on a Bamako restaurant, which killed five in March of this year. While earlier this year, there were reports that Belmokhtar was killed by a US airstrike, these claims have been denied both by his terrorist group and al-Qaeda. There have also been unconfirmed reports that others now lead the group and that it has pledged allegiance to the IS.
Macina Liberation Front
While this group is relatively new, appearing in January 2015, it has proven to be deadly. Militants have targeted Malian security forces in the central regions of Mopti and Segou. Many of its members are believed to have formerly been with MUJAO and are members of the Peul ethnic group.
While Boko Haram has not carried out any attacks in Mali, the Nigerian-based terrorist group poses a threat to the region, as it has carried out deadly attacks in the Lake Chad area, which includes Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Boko Haram has expanded its aims from wanting to impose strict Sharia law in Nigeria’s northeastern region to recreating an ancient Islamic caliphate across the borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The group has pledged allegiance to IS.
Ansaru broke away from Boko Haram and has since been blamed for the kidnappings of foreigners in northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.