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.”