Mali’s Tense History – An Evident Path to Terrorism in the Sahel

+Mali’s 2012 internal conflict led to today’s Sahel terrorism crisis

+This was used as an (unsuccessful) trial for third-generation peacekeeping 

+Terrorist attacks in the region have only gotten worse


May 30th, 2020: in the span of three days more than 50 civilians are killed by terrorist groups in Burkina Faso. October 13th, 2020; 25 deaths are reported after a jihadist attack in Mali. December 28th, 2020: three French soldiers are killed in Mali as their vehicle hit an explosive device. January 4th, 2021: more than 100 people are killed by Islamist militias in Niger. January 10th, 2021: four UN-peacekeepers of the MINUSMA force are assassinated. 

What do all of these tragedies have in common? 

The Malian crisis of 2012. 

How did this crisis come to be?

We are regularly bombarded with notifications alerting us of a new terrorist attack in the Sahel region, but little is mentioned (or known) about how this situation came to be. For decades, countries in this region have endured serious governance mismanagement and economic catastrophes, but since the 2012 Malian crisis, they’ve also suffered from serious violence spillovers. To understand the extent of this calamity, we must dig into a few decades’ worth of history.    

When Mali gained independence from the French in 1960, the country was ideologically divided into several ethnic-identity groups, the two most important being the Mande majority and the northern Tuareg minority. The Tuareg had been promised a considerable degree of autonomy by the colonial power, but as the French were kicked out of Mali, the Mande group was left to rule the entire country.

Unsurprisingly, the Mande’s poor management of ethnic diversities, widespread corruption, patronage of public resources, and numerous other governance issues, made the Tuareg groups feel dangerously unhappy. To add on to their penury, the Tuareg’s northern territory constituted two thirds of Mali’s total terrain, but was occupied with only 20% of the population. This, combined with considerable infertile soil, generated a lack of financial and logistical resources in the Northern region. 

As a result of this archetypical mistreatment of ethnic minorities, a series of “Tuareg revolutions” took place. Between 1963 and 1964 the first Tuareg revolt calling for an independent state was crushed by government forces. In 1990, the government struggled to control the second revolution, led by Qaddafi-trained Tuareg fighters, who once again called for the independent state of “Azaward”. Another series of attacks against the Mande government in 2006 constituted the third Tuareg revolution, but it was easily put to an end. Nonetheless, the fourth Tuareg revolution turned the tables of history. 

After the 2011 Libyan Civil War, an inflow of professionally-trained Tuareg fighters returned to their Malian homeland and established the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaward (MNLA), a much more organized political and military organization to defend their independence. In mid-January of 2012, this group aligned with more hard-core fundamentalist organizations like Ansar Dine, the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). With their newly acquired friendships, the Tuareg rapidly took over the region and easily defeated government forces. 

But this wasn’t the only worry for the Malian leadership. A few months later, it suffered a military coup d’état by national soldiers, who felt completely abandoned and unprepared in the fight against terrorism. This power vacuum was spot-on what the alliance needed to rapidly take over more territory and start spreading across borders. Ultimately, the Malian government was forced to cry for help to foreign actors.

How did the world react?

At the time, the international consensus on peacekeeping practices was being dictated by the UN Brahimi Report; an attempt to learn from previous intervention embarrassments like Rwanda and Bosnia. The report recommended third-generation peacekeeping operations to focus on regional responses; they were pretty much told to stop with the modern version of White Man’s Burden or Mission Civilatrice. However, if it became necessary, they were allowed to use Chapter VII of the UN Charter- to go all out on the use of force. And so, when the Malian government requested foreign intervention, the international response was carefully planned out. 

Firstly, regional efforts were prioritized as the UN authorized ECOWAS to create the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA), a more than 6,000 troop initiative. Similarly, the AU pushed forward the African Union Mission for Mali and the Sahel (MISAHEL), which served as technical and training support. France, as an ex-colonialist power interested in protecting French citizens in the region, in controlling migration flows and in preventing terrorism (as well as in the expansion of Françafrique, let no one fool you), was permitted to intervene through Operation Serval. 

Regardless of these carefully planned efforts, the conflict continued to spread across borders, and it started to become a threat for the Western sphere as terrorism moved outside of the Sahel region. That’s when the UN threw the house out of the window, absorbed AFISMA’s forces and created the second largest peacekeeping mission in its history; the Multidimensional Integrated Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). 

To hell with regional efforts. 

Another beautiful example of how much regional efforts were prioritized (not), was France’s intervention. In 2014, it upgraded Operation Serval to Operation Barkhane, its largest overseas campaign with more than 5,000 troops and a yearly budget of almost 600mn euros. Regardless of successes, like the assassination of AQIM’s leader Abdemadel Droukdel, this operation faces severe opposition in the region and at home. In France, citizens are tired of sending their soldiers to die, as more than 50 have been killed since 2014. In the Mali, France’s intervention is seen as an insult to national sovereignty with some Neo-colonialist undertones. 

In the meantime, the five countries most affected by the spillover effects –Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Mali- created the G5 Sahel, an intergovernmental cooperation framework. A couple of years later, the group realized the futility of international efforts and created the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which counts with more than 5,000 solders.

If required, all of these operations have the right to use full force. 

What is the situation today?

It is clear that the global efforts to contain the effects of Mali’s 2012 crisis have been thorough and persistent. As of today, MINUSMA remains as one of the largest peacekeeping operations in history, France continues to lead efforts in the name of its historic “ties” with Mali, and the G5 Sahel struggle to represent regional efforts. And yet, the terrorist conflict worsens by the year. 

In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger alone, casualties have increased five-fold since 2016. What is more, this emergency is stalling the economic, social and political development, which in turn worsens the capability of their institutions to respond appropriately. According to the Human Development Index, the G5 Sahel countries are at the bottom of the pyramid: Mauritania ranks 157th out of 189 countries, Burkina Faso 182th, Mali 184th, Chad 187th and Niger 189th

Overall, Mali’s recent path in history has been one of violence and terror, and it has been the catalyst of an unmanageable wave of transnational terrorism across the entire continent, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. When in 2012 the northern Tuareg groups revolted for the fourth time in Mali’s short life, few could have predicted that it would lead to a 9 year-long conflict that has stolen the lives of thousands, turned the continent upside-down, and involved all sorts of foreign intervention operations. But then again, not many could have linked Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation to Libya’s Civil War and Qaddafi fall, which ultimately caused the spread of arms and trained Tuareg soldiers to Mali. 

It seems that, in the end, we are all Made in History