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.
On Tuesday (11 August), last week’s deadly hostage drama, which killed 13 people including five UN workers, was claimed by fighters linked to Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The militant group also claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that occurred Monday.
A radical, who is associated with militant Malian Islamic leader Amadou Koufa, stated that he gave his “blessing” for the attack on the Byblos Hotel in the central Malian town of Sevare. Koufa has ties to Belmokhtar, a former head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who leads Al-Murabitoun. According to Souleymane Mohamed Kennen, the group also claimed responsibility for the killing of three Malian soldiers on Monday, when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device close to Diabozo, which is located near Sevare. While the US had reported that it has targeted Belmokhtar in an airstrike in the Libyan desert in June, AQIM has denied reports that its former leader had been killed.
The claim of responsibility comes just a day after investigators disclosed that they have found phone numbers and addresses on the bodies of the “terrorists” killed in the Sevare hotel, which suggested that they were affiliated with the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), which is a new Islamic extremist group drawn from the Fulani people of central Mali. According to one investigator, “at this stage, there is no formal proof that it was the Macina Liberation Front, but strong suspicions point to this group that has been seeking notoriety at all costs.” Officials are reporting that this new extremist group is drawn from the Fulani people of central Mali and that it has links to Ansar Dine.
Meanwhile on Thursday (13 August), a policeman and a civilian were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a police outpost in the capital city in an attack that a Malian government minister has insisted is an “isolated act.” According to Interior minister Sada Samake, the attackers arrived at a busy bus station in a taxi before opening fore in the police post, injuring two people. The minister confirmed that officials “…have opened an investigation” into what he called an “isolated act.”
On Monday, French Special Forces rescued a Dutch civilian who was kidnapped nearly four years ago in Mali by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants.
France’s defense ministry confirmed Monday that Sjaad Rijke, 54, who was kidnapped in Timbuktu in November 2011, was freed during “military action carried out by the French army’s Special Forces,” adding that “this combat action has also led to the capture of several individuals.” Rijke was freed in a pre-dawn raid. He was temporarily transferred to a base in Tessalit before arriving in the Malian capital Bamako on Tuesday. Sources close to the case have disclosed that the operation occurred near Tessalit, in Mali’s far north region near the border with Algeria. According to Lieutenant Colonel Michel Sabatier, a spokesman for Barkhane, which is France’s counter-insurgency operation in the region, French forces killed two militants and captured two others in the operation.
Gunmen had stormed into Rijke’s hotel in Timbuktu in 2011, capturing him along with a South African and a Swedish national, both of who are still being held. Rijke’s wife managed to escape the attack. In November 2014, AQIM released a video of Rijke, making a statement on the 1000th day of his captivity.
Romanian National Kidnapped in Burkina Faso
On Saturday afternoon, unidentified gunmen kidnapped a Romanian security officer from a manganese mining project in northern Burkina Faso, near the border with Mali’s northern desert region.
According to security officials, the kidnapping took place at the Tambao project. Souleymane Mihin, Burkina Faso managing director for Pan African Minerals, confirmed the incident, stating “there was an attack on one of our patrols. They kidnapped the Romanian leading the patrol. The driver was wounded in the foot. A gendarme was seriously injured.” Late Saturday, the Romanian foreign ministry issued a statement confirming the kidnapping of a Romanian national and disclosing that a crisis cell has been set up in order to handle the case.
A Burkinabe security source has revealed that five gunmen were involved in the attack and that they, along with the hostage, were heading towards the nearby border with northern Mali. This has resulted in Burkinabe authorities indicating that they are planning to cross into Mali and Niger in search of the kidnappers. A Burkinabe minister disclosed Sunday “search operations are continuing. We are talking to our neighbours Mali and Niger to obtain rights to their territory in order to get our hands on the kidnappers. This is an area which borders the two countries, so the sweep will roll out in both directions.” Burkina Faso’s Regiment of Presidential Security, which is an elite secret service that specializes in anti-terrorism, has been deployed to Tambao in a bid to strengthen an army detachment, which arrived in the town on Saturday. Residents in Tambao have disclosed that security forces have begun “intensive searches” of vehicles in towns across the north, adding, “police are systematically searching vehicles.”
Mali’s Tuareg-led rebels have called for a meeting with mediators just one day after they rejected the United Nations-brokered preliminary peace agreement.
On Monday, the Tuareg-led rebels called for a meeting with Algerian mediators in a bid to “improve” a proposed peace agreement signed with the government in the capital city Bamako. After meeting for days in order to discuss the agreement, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which represents five rebel groups, had initially rejected the accord, stating that it was “fundamentally flawed.” They later released a “final statement,” which has called for further talks, stating that the document was a good basis for further discussions, however noting that it did not reflect the aspirations of their people and that it must now be improved in the interests of peace. The statement indicated that “according to the views expressed by the various communities of Azawad, it appears that the draft agreement did not take into account essential elements of the legitimate aspirations of the people of Azawad,” adding that the CMA” reiterates its firm commitment to pursue the aegis of international mediation.” The statement went on to say that “the CMA believes that the document produced by the mediation constitutes a good basis for work that needs to be improved in the best interests of peace… Therefore, it requests a meeting with the mediation and international partners in order discuss the progress of the process.”
The Algiers Agreement, which is the product of over eight months of negotiations, aims to bring a lasting peace to the northern desert region, which the rebels refer to as “Azawad.” The agreement was signed by the Malian government and several smaller groups however the Tuareg-led rebels had requested additional time in order to consider the offer.
Mali’s desert northern region has struggled for stability since the West African nation gained independence in 1960. Since 1962, the Tuareg movement has launched four uprisings in a bid to fight Mali’s army over the territory, which they claim is their homeland. Ministers and various rebel groups, composed of Arab organizations and the Tuaregs, are now seeking to resolve the decades-old conflict. A coup in Bamako in March 2012 enabled the Tuaregs to seize Mali’s vast northern region however the separatist uprising was later taken over by al-Qaeda-linked militants who took over the region. In early 2013, French troops forced the militants out of their strongholds and into the desert and mountains however recent attacks on bases and the targeting of convoys has raised fears that the militants are once again gaining strength.
While the UN has urged the rebels to sign the proposed deal protests have broken out in Kidal, which is the rebel stronghold in northern Mali, against the agreement.
Mali has confirmed a new Ebola case, which is separate from its only other case that was detected last month.
Medical sources disclosed late Tuesday that a nurse who had treated a patient from Guinea has died. According to the head of the Pasteur Clinic in Bamako, one of the capital city’s top medical centres, “the nurse who had been in contact with a Guinean national who died of the illness, died in turn,” adding that tests had confirmed the Ebola virus. A doctor at Pasteur Clinic is also suspected of having contracted the virus.
On Wednesday, authorities in Mali quarantined dozens of people at the home of the 25-year-old nurse and at the clinic where he had treated an imam from Guinea who died with Ebola-like symptoms. The imam, who comes from the border town of Kouremale, died on 27 October and was never tested for EVD. Strict burial procedures implemented for the burial of Ebola patients were not imposed during his burial. Concerns are now growing over the time it took between the imam’s passing and the implementation of steps needed in order to contain the disease.
A government statement released Wednesday confirmed that the nurse had tested positive for EVD and that he died late Tuesday. The statement further disclosed that all necessary steps to identify people who had come into contact with the nurse had been taken. According to Ousmane Doumbia, secretary general of the health ministry, 70 people have been quarantined and the Pasteur Clinic has been locked down by police.
Mali is the sixth West African nation to record Ebola. Officials will now be required to trace a new group of contacts, a similar procedure that was taken last month after a two-year-old girl died of the disease in western Mali.