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.
Over the past week, the United Nations mission in Mali has suffered three attacks, resulting in several deaths and growing concerns that jihadists operating in the region are once again gaining strength.
On Monday, UN officials in Mali reported that a driver was killed in an ambush on a peacekeeping supply convoy in northern Mali in what is the third deadly assault on the mission in less than a week. A statement released by the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping mission indicated that the civilian contractors were targeted at 11:30 AM, around 30 kilometres (20 miles) west of Gao, adding “initial reports indicate that at least one driver was killed, his truck was later set on fire.”
MINUSMA chief Mongi Hamdi has condemned the attacks, stating that the UN “…will adjust our security arrangements so that such crimes are not repeated. MINUSMA cannot tolerate this.” He has called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice and has urged the Malian military and police to increase security in the area. It was not immediately clear how the victim was killed however Monday’s attack comes just days after two drivers were shot dead as a MINUSMA supply convoy was ambushed nearby.
On Saturday, the UN reported that two drivers have been shot dead after a peacekeeping supply convoy was attacked in northern Mali. According to a statement released by MINUSMA, two assailants stopped the convoy some 15 kilometres (9 miles) from the main city of Gao and “coldly killed two drivers” in the attack which occurred late Friday. They later set the vehicles on fire. Officials have disclosed that a third person was wounded in the attack. No group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, however the incident comes just days after an attack on the UN peacekeeping base in the same region as Gao, in which three civilians were killed and sixteen people were wounded. Al-Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for that attack.
A suicide bomber attacked a UN barracks in northern Mali on Wednesday, killing three civilians and wounding sixteen people, including several peacekeepers. According to UN officials, the militant was attempting to drive into a camp used by the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Ansong, in the northern region of Gao, when the explosives went off. A statement released by MINUSMA disclosed, “the attack left nine injured, two seriously, among the peacekeepers from the Niger contingent. In addition, the explosion has killed at least three civilians. Seven (civilians) were also injured.” The UN mission in Mali has not disclosed whether the bomber was acting alone or if there were others in the vehicle.
In a recording released Friday, an al-Qaeda-linked group, led by Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide attack that targeted the UN mission in Mali on Wednesday. In an audio message that was sent to Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar, which frequently publishes statements attributed to extremist groups that operate in the region, Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitoun group indicated that it had carried out the attack. The group disclosed that it had targeted Nigerien nationals because their president, Mahamadou Issoufou, had taken part in the mass Paris rally over the jihadist attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January. They further added that the attack was also an act of revenge for Niger allowing French and American troops on its soil, and described Wednesday’s attack as “the second operation to avenge insults against the Prophet,” referring to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon depictions of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. While the Malian government had initially reported that a civilian MINUSMA worker and a child were killed in the attack, adding that the suicide bomber was also killed and 21 people, including several peacekeepers, were wounded, al-Murabitoun has denied that any civilians were killed, arguing that this would not have been possible “given the distance between the camp and the town.”
It appears that al-Murabitoun is increasingly gaining strength and ability to carry out deadly attacks in Mali, with the militant group most recently claiming responsibility for the 7 March attack on a Bamako nightclub. Al-Murabitoun was formed in 2013 from the merger of Belmokhtar’s Signatories in Blood group and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Belmoktar, a former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) chief, is wanted by the security services of several countries after allegedly masterminding a siege in January 2013 of an Algerian gas plan, in which thirty-eight hostages were killed. He is also believed to have been behind twin car bombings that occurred in Niger in May of that year and which killed at least twenty people. Belmokhtar, who is thought to be based in Libya, has been designated a foreign terrorist by the United States, with the State Department offering a US $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Militants operating in northern Mali have staged a number of deadly attacks on UN forces, with at least 35 peacekeepers killed and over 140 wounded since MINUSMA was deployed in July 2013. The camp targeted on Wednesday is situated near the scene of the killing of a Red Cross worker two weeks ago. That attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Last month, a Chadian peacekeeper and two children died when militants fired more than thirty rockets at a UN barracks in the northern city of Kidal.
On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande will embark on a trip to three former colonies in West Africa. The official tour comes as his country puts the finishing touches to a military operation aimed at combatting extremist violence in the Sahel region. On Sunday, France’s Defense Minister announced that the country will end its military offensive in Mali, effectively replacing it with a new operation, codenamed Barkhane, which will involve some 3,000 French troops and which will span the largely lawless Sahel region. However in a sign that tensions in Mali are far from over, on Monday the French Defense Ministry confirmed that a French legionnaire died in a suicide attack near the northern town of Gao. This is the ninth casualty that France has suffered in the West African nation.
According to the President’s office, Hollande’s upcoming visit will include stops in the Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad, which is where Barkhane’s headquarters will be located. The French president will begin his African tour in Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, which is currently on the economic rebound after experiencing a decade of unrest that was sparked by a failed coup in 2002. He will then visit Niger, which includes a stop at a French military base from which surveillance drones are deployed within the region. According to a source close to Hollande, because Niger is surrounded by restive areas – Nigeria to the south, Libya to the north, and Mali to the west – the president will “continue strategic talks on all these crisis areas surrounding the country and establish how we can collaborate to ensure better security in the region.” In the Chadian capital N’Djamena, Hollande will visit the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, which apart from troops, will also mobilize drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armored vehicles and transport planes.
France announced Sunday that its military offensive in Mali will now be replaced by an operation that will focus on the wider and largely lawless Sahel region, and will aim at combatting extremist violence, which is now threatening the entire area.
During a television interview Sunday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that President Francois Hollande “…wanted a reorganization of our troops in the Sahel zone.” France’s Serval offensive was launched in January last year and saw French troops deploy to aid Malian soldiers in stopping al-Qaeda-linked militants and Tuareg rebels from descending further south and advancing on the capital Bamako. While France had initially planned to end operation Serval in May, and redeploy troops to the Sahel region to fight al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, renewed clashes between rebels and the army in the northeastern town of Kidal effectively forced officials in Paris to delay the pull out.
While the French-led Serval operation, which saw nine soldiers die over a period of eighteen months, has widely been deemed a success by the international community, Le Drian indicated that the concern has now shifted to the vast Sahel region, noting the operation aims “to make sure there is no upsurge (in terrorism) as there are still major risks that jihadists will develop in the zone that goes from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau,” adding “the aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”
The new “counter-terrorism” operation, which has been codenamed Barkhane, will launch in the coming days and is being implemented in partnership with five countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Some 3,000 French soldiers will take part in the operation in which 1,000 will remain in the northern regions of Mali while the rest will be deployed in the four other countries. Drones, helicopters, fighters jets, armored vehicles and transport planes will be used in the operation, with the headquarters stationed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
Suicide Attack in Northern Mali
Meanwhile, in what is a sign that security in northern Mali remains fragile, France’s Defense Ministry confirmed Tuesday that a French legionnaire has been killed in a suicide attack in northern Mali. This brings the number of soldiers killed in Mali since 2013 to nine.
A statement released by the Defense Ministry indicated that Serbian-born Dejvid Nikolic, 45, who held French nationality and was part of the Genie 1st regiment, “fell victim to a suicide attack” about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the northern town of Gao on Monday. A suicide bomber in a car targeted French troops who were on a security mission in the Al Moustarat region north of Gao. Seven soldiers were injured in the attack and Nikolic died of his wounds on Monday evening. He had been a legionnaire for more than twenty-five years and served in several hot spots, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. He had also worked in Africa, notably in Gabon and Djibouti. The Defense Ministry stated that his currently mission was his eight abroad. News of the death of the French soldier comes just days before President Francois Hollande is due to travel to West Africa as France prepares to redeploy some of its troops from Mali to the wider and largely lawless Sahel region in a bid to combat extremist violence.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Sahel-based terrorist group Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood), has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Belmokhtar was believed to have been killed in fighting in Mali in 2013. However in late April, intelligence sources revealed that he had moved from Mali to a base in southern Libya.
Belmokhtar’s statement, released on Islamist websites, said, “We declare our faith in the policies of our emir, Cheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri… because we are convinced of the fairness of his approach,” Mokhtar Belmokhtar said in a statement posted Wednesday on Islamist websites.
Belmokhtar was key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with AQIM leader Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed his own organization. In 2013, Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, out of Gao in Mali and to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade.
In the statement, Belmokhtar specifically mentions al-Zawahiri’s latest comments on in-fighting between rebels in Syria that has killed hundreds since January.
In related news, Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has also issued a statement saying it will comply with Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders with respect to the jihadist infighting in Syria. Al Nusrah has been in combat with Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS, also known as ISIL), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command.
In recently released audio messages, Zawahiri addressed Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, and demanded that Julani and Al Nusrah “immediately stop any fighting” as it is an act of aggression against “their jihadist brothers.” Zawahiri reiterated his call for the establishment of an independent sharia (Islamic law) court capable of settle the ongoing dispute. He also said the jihadists should stop criticizing each other in the media.
In reply to the message, Al Nusrah announced its “commitment” to comply with Zawahiri’s orders to stop attacking Isis, but added that they are prepared to respond defensively to any act of aggression. The group also says it is willing to submit to a sharia court, and will stop insulting its rivals on social media.
Al Nusrah blames ISIS for the death of Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed in February. Al Suri was a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, which is allied with Al Nusrah and is a prominent part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups. Al Nusrah also blames ISIS for the death of Abu Muhammad al Fateh, a leader in the group who was killed along with other members of his family in Syria’s Idlib province.
The pledged to Zawahiri show a renewed unity among various branches of Al Qaeda, and a willingness to work more closely AQ main office. This may signal strengthening ties, and unity of messages and actions coming from AQ affiliates throughout the Middle East.
Military sources in Mali have confirmed that militants launched rockets during a night attack on the desert town of Timbuktu. None of the intended targets were hit. Over the past week, this is the second such to occur in northern Mali, resulting in heightened worry amongst officials as militants have vowed to carry out further attacks. The latest incidents come days after the Red Cross confirmed that a team of five aid workers was kidnapped.
A senior Malian army officer stationed in Timbuktu has confirmed that three rockets were fired on Sunday night by “terrorists,” adding “fortunately there were no casualties.” A source from the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping force also confirmed that attack, which came three days after a similar assault on the northern town of Gao. On 13 February, militants launched two rockets at a French army base in northern Mali. The attack occurred during a visit by France’s top military officer. The incident was later claimed by the militant group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is a splinter group of al-Qaeda’s regional branch. The militant group also warned that similar such attacks would continue to be carried out against the “enemies of Islam.”
Despite both incidents resulting in no casualties, the recent rise in attacks and incidents in northern Mali has nevertheless resulted in heightened concerns amongst local and international officials that security within the northern region continues to be unstable and may threaten the efforts made by the Malian government and international peacekeeping forces. The attacks also demonstrate MUJAO’s, and similar militant groups, continued capabilities to carry out terrorist attacks.
The latest incidents in northern Mali come days after a group of five Malian Red Cross aid workers went missing on Saturday in an area between Kidal and Gao. Last Tuesday, MUJAO’s leader confirmed that the militant group was responsible for the kidnapping, adding that the five Malians “are alive and in good health.” So far the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not indicated whether a ransom demand has been made. The current whereabouts of the team are unknown.