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Militants Attack Military Camps, Civilian River Boat in Mali

Militants attacked a military camp in northern Mali on Friday, just a day after two other assaults by terrorist-linked groups killed nearly 60 people.

Mali’s armed forces were still evaluating the impact of Friday’s assault, but the prior attacks targeted a civilian passenger boat on the Niger River—near Timbuktu—and another military position in Bamba. Forty-nine civilians and 15 government soldiers were killed in those attacks, while roughly 50 assailants were killed.

Mali officials said the high death toll from the river boat attack is likely because many of the passengers could not swim.

“When the boat was attacked, the soldiers on board exchanged fire with the terrorists,” said Malian army spokesman Souleymane Dembélé in an interview with the Associated Press. “Unfortunately, many civilians who couldn’t swim jumped into the water.”

The BBC reports that Mali’s military is attributing the attacks to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Muslimin (JNIM), a coalition of armed groups that are aligned with al-Qaeda. JNIM has claimed responsibility for the attack on the army camp, but not the boat attack, the BBC reports.

Mali is in the midst of significant turmoil as the controlling military junta pushes out United Nations peacekeeping missions, continues to foster connections with a Russian private military group, and as Islamist groups now control large portions of the country, including the Islamic State which has been active in the Sahara in the tri-border area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

What is JNIM?

The JNIM coalition was founded in 2017 after several terrorism groups merged: Ansar al-Din, al-Murabitun, the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), and the Sahara Emirate subgroup of al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). JNIM is based in Mali and active across West Africa.

“JNIM is a Salafi-Jihadist organization that aligns itself with al-Qaeda’s global jihadist ideology and exploits local divisions and grievances to grow its support in the region,” according to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Counter Terrorism Guide. “The group seeks to build a Salafi-Islamist state in West Africa and expel Western influences from the region. [Its leader] has stated that JNIM’s strategy is to expand its presence across West Africa and train militants to fight against the group’s enemies while appeasing local communities by giving them material resources and signing local agreements. JNIM regularly attacks French, multinational, and local security forces in West Africa, as well as local and foreign civilians in the region.”

When Did the Junta Take Control?

A military junta, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), took control of Mali in 2020 and initially had widespread, popular support following protests against the country’s former president—Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta—due to economic uncertainty, a contested election, and insecurity.

In a televised broadcast immediately after the coup, leaders said Mali was “sinking into chaos, anarchy, and insecurity, mostly due to the fault of the people who are in charge of its destiny.”

Colonel Assimi Goïta eventually assumed controlled of Mali as its interim president in 2021 and remains the leader of the nation. In July 2023, Mali held a referendum vote and adopted a new constitution that gives the interim president the power to dictate government policy and dissolve parliament.

“A legal case to have the referendum results annulled, because the vote was not held in all parts of Mali, was rejected by the constitutional court,” the BBC reports.

What Other Security Forces are in the Region?

In 2013, Mali requested France’s support to address Islamic militants in the country after a group neared the capital, Bakamo, and had gained control of parts of the nation. France deployed troops to Mali in response, and successfully regained much of the territory that was captured by the militant groups—including Timbuktu and Gao, according to analysis from the Harvard Internadtional Review.

After the coup, however, the military junta began developing a relationship with the Russian private military group—the Wagner Group. The group arranged to arrive in Mali in December 2021 with help from the Russian military. The Wagner Group has provided a range of services to Mali’s military regime, including security training and support.

“In many cases, Wagner’s support is supplemented by official Russian military assistance, such as in Mali, where the armed forces received combat and surveillance aircraft from Moscow,” the Council on Foreign Relations assessed.

The Wagner Group’s presence in the region, along with the change in leadership in Mali, led to France deciding to end its operation in Mali and withdraw its military’s presence.

Additionally, the military junta that controls Mali has also ordered the United Nations to leave the country. This has initiated an exodus of the UN’s peacekeeping mission of 12,947 peacekeepers and police, 12 camps, and 1,786 civilian staff by 31 December 2023.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the “timeline, scope, and complexity of the mission’s withdrawal are unprecedented,” the AP reports.

Guterres added that Mali’s landlocked country’s “vast terrain, the hostile operating environment in certain regions, and its climates render the mission’s withdrawal within a six-month time frame extremely challenging.”

What is the Future Risk?

Officials and extremism experts are concerned about the rising threat of terrorism and extremist violence in Western Africa. Between 1 January and 25 July 2023, more than 1,800 terrorist attacks were conducted killing 4,600 people in West Africa, according to the AP.

At a UN Security Council meeting on 25 August, Vladimir Voronkov, under-secretary-general of the Office of Counter-Terrorism, said the Islamic State (called Da’esh in UN reports) poses a threat to international peace and security, is becoming more autonomous, and is intensifying attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

“The confrontations between this group and an Al-Qaeda affiliate in the region—coupled with the uncertain situation after the coup d’état in the Niger—present a complex and multifaceted challenge,” the UN summarized in a press release.