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.
This month, France appeared to accept that it would need to keep thousands of troops in Africa’s Sahel region for an indefinite period because of the ongoing instability and preponderance of Islamist militants.
Speaking to lawmakers, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault sought to reassure regional allies that Paris would not abandon them despite pressure on its military, which has not only seen it increase its operating in the Middle East, but also on home soli in the wake of a series of Islamist attacks in 2015 and this year. Speaking at a parliamentary debate on his country’s overseas operations, Ayrault disclosed that “France remains committed as long as the jihadist threat continues to weigh on the future of these countries,” adding, “what message would we be sending if we envisaged a reduction of our effort? We do not have the right to abandon our African brothers at the exact moment when they need us the most to consolidate the fragile balances.”
After deploying troops to Mali, France has since spread some 4,000 soldiers across the West African region in a bid to hunt down Islamists. United Nations peacekeepers have also been deployed to ensure Mali’s stability however the UN’s forces have lacked equipment and resources making a political settlement between Tuaregs and the Malian government increasingly fragile and paving the way for Islamists and traffickers to exploit a void in the northern region of the country. According to Ayrault, “we know it will be long and difficult (because) the national reconciliation process is taking time to come into effect, securing the north is slow and terrorist groups continue to destabilize the region by carrying out attacks on Mali’s borders at the entrances to other countries like Niger and Ivory Coast.”
At the end of this month, France will seek to discuss Mali when it hosts a ministerial meeting on UN peacekeeping operations in French-speaking countries to see how to increase and improve their efficiency.
The region, which spans from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east, is host to a number of jihadist groups and is seen as being vulnerable to further attacks after strikes on soft targets in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast earlier this year. The region’s security concerns have further been highlighted by a recent spike in violence in northern Mali, where France intervened three years ago in a bid to drive out al-Qaeda-linked militants who took control of a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs and attempted to take control of the central government in Bamako. More recently, insecurity in northern Mali seems too have spread in the region, particularly into neighbouring Niger where a string of incidents this month, including the kidnapping of a US NGO worker, has prompted officials across the region to enhance security measures.
On 31 October, France formally ended Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic, almost three years after the military mission was launched in December 2013 in a bid to quell inter-ethnic unrest in the country.
The operation initially ran alongside an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, which was known as MISCA and which later morphed into the UN’s MINUSCA force, which aimed to help restore stability in the capital city Bangui. The mission has however, for the most part, failed to end violence elsewhere in the country, as clashes have continued to erupt in recent weeks and tensions remain high.
At its height, France had more than 2,500 troops from various French units that took part in the mission. In June 2016, France indicated that it had reduced its force in the CAR to 350 soldiers, who would serve as tactical reserve force for the UN peacekeepers, effectively announcing the end of its military mission there. The number of soldiers is due to fall below 300 by early next year with the remaining troops deployed as part of a European military training mission, to support UN drone operations or as a rapid reaction unit supporting the national army.
France’s withdrawal has effectively left security largely in the hands of MINUSCA, the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, however in recent weeks, criticism of the force has increased, with local people accusing the peacekeepers of not doing enough in order to protect them. The National Assembly president, Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, has expressed concern that the French troops’ departure would exacerbate a deteriorating security climate.
About 3,500 French troops are currently stationed in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger as part of Operation Barkhane in order to fight militancy in West Africa and the Sahel region.
Overview of Operation Sangaris
- 5 December 2013 – Widespread clashes erupted in Bangui, leaving hundreds dead in the streets.
- Christian milita groups, known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) attacked a number of areas in the capital city, targeting Muslims and triggering revenge attacks by the mainly-Muslim Seleka rebel alliance. Seleka fighters has already targeted the majority Christian population, a key reason as to why the anti-Balaka group emerged. Attacks by both sides, mostly targeting civilians, plunged the CAR into a humanitarian, political and security crisis.
- Several hours after the violence broke out, a French operation force began deploying across the country as part of a UN-mandated effort to quell the deadly wave of sectarian violence. The operation was named “Sangaris” after a small red butterfly that is common the region.
- At the time, French President Francois Hollande disclosed that the troops would remain in the country “as long as necessary,” noting however that the operation was “not designed to last.” Paris, which had already deployed troops to Mali in January of that year in order to battle jihadist groups, watched the situation in the CAR continue to deteriorate following the overthrow in March of Francois Bozize by Seleka rebels who were led by Michel Djotodia.
- An initial force of about 1,200 French marines, paratroopers and engineering units was official deployed to back up the AU’s MISCA force, however they quickly found themselves on the Front line. Their mandate was to “disarm all milita and other armed group s that have terrorized the population” and the fist objective was to secure the capital city and tis 4.5 million inhabitants.
- Between February to September 2014 – Combat troops also secured a road link from Bangui to neighbouring Cameroon.
- September 2014 – Un soldiers from MINUSCA took over the MISCA troops.
- 14 February 2016 – Faustin-Archange Touadera is elected president, effectively capping a chaotic political transition. Three months later, President Hollande visited Bangui, declaring that stability “has been restored.” Elsewhere in the country however armed groups continued to plague the population. Former Seleka units remain active and a total disarmament of militia groups appears to be unlikely.
- Since July 2014, the force has been under growing pressure following the emergence of allegations of child rape by French soldiers deployed in the CAR. French prosecutors opened an investigation, however the allegations did not become public until April 2015. Since then, other reports have emerged about troops’ alleged involvement in sexual attacks and giving children food and sometimes small amounts of money for sexual services. Currently, the Sangaris force is subject to three investigations into separate allegations of sexual abuse of children in the CAR. In June 2016, Paris prosecutors also opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that French troops beat up, or stood by while others beat up two people in the CAR.
- France has intervened military in the CAR a number of times. The CAR, which is a former French colony, won independence in 1960.
According to a memo from Ghana’s Immigration Service, Ghana and Togo are the next targets for Islamist militants following high-profile attacks that occurred in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast this year.
The memo calls for better border protection, in what is the latest sign of a heightened government response to the threat to West Africa by militants based in northern Mali, who in the last year have increased their campaign of violence. The memo also states that the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) has evidence from neighboring Ivory Coast from the interrogation of a man suspected of orchestrating an attack on 13 March in which 19 people were killed. The memo, which is dated 9 April and which was published by Ghanaian media, states that “intelligence gathered by the …NSCS indicates a possible terrorist attack on the country is real….The choice of Ghana according to the report is to take away the perception that only Francophone countries are the target.” The memo ordered immigration agents on the northern border with Burkina Faso to be extra vigilant and disclosed that patrols should be stepped up along informal routes between the two countries.
In an interview on state radio’s Sunrise FM on Thursday, President John Mahama asked for public vigilance and stated that Ghana was also at risk from home grown militants. He further noted that countries in the region share intelligence on militant threats. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has claimed responsibility for attacks on a hotel in the capital of Mali last November, a restaurant and hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital in January and the Ivory Coast attack in March. In all, more than 65 people have died, many of them foreigners.
In the wake of the 13 March deadly terror attack in neighbouring Ivory Coast, Ghana’s government has put the nation on high alert. The terror alert is a first for the West African country.
On 16 March, Ghana’s national security chiefs disclosed that they have intelligence of a credible terrorist threat in the country. The announcement was made on Wednesday following a meeting with Ghana’s President John Mahama to review their readiness. In a statement, the government called on Ghanaians to pay attention and report anything unusual to security agencies.
The alert comes as the United Kingdom has also advised its citizens in Ghana to be cautious. The United States has also restricted US service members’ travel to five West African countries, citing recent militant attacks in the region. On 16 March, the Pentagon issued the move, which effectively limits unofficial travel by US military personnel to Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Ghana. US Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza, a Pentagon spokeswoman, has disclosed that the order will remain in effect until 30 June and does not restrict official travel to the countries involved, adding, “given the recent attacks in Western Africa, we felt it prudent to make this decision at this time in an effort to ensure the safety of our personnel.” According to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, a spokesman for US Africa Command, “its just vigilance given the recent events that have happened in the area of the world.” US Africa Command has between 1,000 and 1,2000 forces on the continent at any one time, mostly in training and support roles to help local security forces combat militants.
Since November 2015, al-Qaeda militants have attacked hotels in two other regional capitals, Bamako (Mali) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), and a beach resort located outside Abidjan (Ivory Coast).