A meeting between Tuareg separatists and the Bamako government is scheduled to take place on July 16 in Algiers. This will be the first meeting between the Tuareg rebels and the Bamako government since violent protests in May during the visit of Prime Minister Moussa Mara to Kidal, which was followed by the Malian army’s attack of rebel positions, in which 50 government troops were killed.
- Despite the planned holding of an international dialogue in Algiers on July 16, there has been a clear deterioration in the security situation in the north of the country and militants have reportedly deployed to key locations, stockpiling weapons and food in an apparent preparation for a return to conflict.
- Clashes were reported in Anefife, near Kidal on July 11 in which at least 35 combatants were killed. Anefife was previously under the control of the Tuareg rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). An MNLA statement claimed that the group attacked a coalition of pro-Bamako militias including the Arab Movement for Azawad (MAA), elements of the Malian Army, and militants of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). Military sources have denied these claims, attributing the violence to in-fighting amongst separatists, and claiming that the majority of those killed were members of the MNLA and the MAA.
- France announced on July 13 that it plans to reorganize its remaining 1,700 troop “Operation Serval” in Mali into a regional body. This formation will be aimed at securing the Sahel region, from Guinea-Bissau to the Horn of Africa, and preventing the spread and movement of militant groups. France had originally been scheduled to withdraw troops from Mali in May but decided to maintain the deployment after the unsuccessful Malian military attack on Kidal. The new mission will be named “Barkhan” and will be carried out in partnership with five regional countries (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad). It is believed that the operation will consist of 3,000 soldiers, drones, helicopters and fighter jets. The soldiers will be based out of Northern Mali, Northern Niger and Chad.
- In addition to the conflict with the government, distrust and tensions remain between the opposing armed rebel groups in the north. Disagreements between rebel groups have in the past resulted in clashes, similar to those witnessed on July 11. This is likely to create an impediment to negotiations in Algiers, as the disparate rebel factions may have divergent interests and priorities, and it will be challenging for the Bamako government to come to a firm agreement with this lack of united front.
- While recent developments demonstrate that Islamic militant and Tuareg separatist groups in the north of Mali are separately reportedly preparing for a new round of conflict, it should be noted that their threat against the Bamako government has been muted since the January 2013 French intervention. Thus, although more active, they continue to pose a diminished direct threat to the Bamako government than in the period before the intervention. That said, Malian forces do not have control over the northern areas of the country, and, as demonstrated in the Kidal battle in May, these troops do not have the capacity to oust separatist groups from areas under their control. There is thus a de facto federal state in Mali, with the Bamako government unable to affect its will on the northern regions and reliant on the presence of international forces to prevent a return to conflict. It is likely that there will be further instances of clashes between rebel and separatist factions in the north as the opposing groups continue to consolidate control over areas.
- The MNLA’s claims that it was involved in clashes with elements of the Malian military and factions allied to the Malian military cannot be corroborated. Furthermore, we assess that the MNLA’s allegation that government forces and militant Islamist elements of MOJWA were fighting on the same side is unlikely to be true given the government’s support of the French mission to oust these militants from Mali. While the government has distanced itself from claims of supporting rebel groups in northern Mali, such as the MAA, we assess that it is possible that some rebel factions in the north may be receiving at least tacit support from the government, possibly with the aim of weakening the MNLA. Furthermore, as separatist groups come into conflict with each other they are likely to seek allies in their conflicts, which may lead them to cooperate with past foes. However, we assess that the Bamako government is likely to distance itself from allegations linking it with rebel groups, so as not harm its image and hinder partnerships with the international community.
- Meanwhile, we assess that France’s restructuring of its forces in Mali will have negative repercussions on the already tense relationship between the central Bamako government and separatist groups in the north, such as the MNLA. As France shifts its focus from Mali to a more regional scope, the relationship between Tuareg separatist and the Bamako government may become increasingly strained. French presence on the ground has somewhat restrained open hostilities between the two and maintained a tense status quo. However as this power dynamic shifts and France refocuses its mission, with the increasing in-fighting amongst separatists vying for greater control over areas and resources, it is likely that conflict between the the Bamako government and Tuareg groups may increasingly lead to heightened tension and isolated hostilities.
- Despite some potential negative domestic repercussions in Mali from the French mission’s restructuring, we assess that this restructuring is likely to improve the long term security situation in northern Mali and in the wider Sahel region. In spreading the military mission from being solely Mali-focused to a wider regional scope, France has demonstrated an understanding that the insecurity in the region is a multinational problem that is aided by the free flow of people and contraband across porous international borders. Moreover, militant funding is likely to be damaged through the creation of an impediment to the free flow of narcotics, weapons and other illicit material.
- In addition to France, the UN has a peacekeeping force of 9,289 personnel from 45 contributing countries in northern Mali, which is independent and separate from the French mission. The French “Barkhan” mission in the region does not mean that the French troops are withdrawing from Mali. It is likely that in accordance with the mission’s stated aim of preventing the spread of militancy and jihadis, northern Mali will be a major epicenter of operations. France is estimated to currently have 950 troops based in Chad and has committed to maintain at least 1,000 troops in Mali. As such, the withdrawal from operation Serval and the launching of operation Barkhan will actually witness an increase in troop deployment across the restive region. Additionally the deployment of 3,000 men together with advanced military capabilities may indicate that the French will in fact augment their heightened ability to conduct military operations in northern Mali.
- From the early 2000s reports indicate that northern Mali had become a haven for trafficking narcotics, acting as a hub for Latin American drug cartels exporting to Europe. Militant groups were partially reliant on the flow of these narcotics to fund their operations. Trade in northern Mali and across the Sahel is built on complex familial and reciprocal relations that were aided by the lack of central governmental authority in the region. This trade crosses the porous international political boundaries. However the introduction of international military forces to the area following the commencement of the French military intervention in January 2013 reportedly damaged the trade. Furthermore, in the immediate aftermath of the conflict vigilantes reportedly attacked drug traffickers, who they accused of supporting the militant Islamists.
- It should be noted that the drug trade functions best in a partially stable state with good infrastructure, and conversely complete lawlessness is a danger to such operations. However, it is likely that with the return to stability following the French intervention, traffickers were able to once again set up networks unhindered by vigilante groups and militant gangs. This in turn may result in increased funding to insurgent groups in the area, as well as competition amongst entrenched groups over resources and infrastructure. This development may in part explain the apparent increase in conflict between rebel groups, as well as the shifted French military mission, to hamper the cross border flow of militancy and contraband.
- Additionally Islamist militant groups in the region are operating on an increasingly multinational level. This is evidenced in a UN report which cited the presence of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram in northern Mali together with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2012 and 2013. Additionally, on May 23, 2013 the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) attacked French owned uranium mines in Arlit and Agadez in Niger in retaliation for the French intervention in Mali. By changing it focus to a regional level, France is likely to better stem the flow of income and diminish the cross border threat of insurgent groups against key economic and strategic interests throughout the Sahel region.