On Tuesday, June 19, it was reported that the Malian army discovered 25 bodies in three mass graves after conducting a sweep in the Mopti region in central Mali. The graves were discovered near the villages of Nantaka and Kobaka. The Malian government will open an inquiry into the deaths. International human rights groups and local residents suspect the army is responsible because of similar events in the past. The military claims it conducts operations against terror groups who have destabilized the region and denies there was any abuse against civilians.
Residents claimed Malian armed forces detained several dozen men on June 13 for undisclosed reasons, then released all but 25 of them. The 25 who remained in detention were ethnic Fulani, a nomadic group with about 2.5 million people in Mali and an additional 22 million scattered across West Africa. A few days later, the 25 Fulani were killed and buried in mass graves.
The Fulani are the dominant ethnic group in the Mopti region, and many of them have ties to Islamist groups, targeting Christians in the region with “Islamicization” efforts or even genocide. Their chief rival in the region, the Tuareg, formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and led a nationalist rebellion to declare independence for northern Mali in 2012. Prior to their rebellion in Mali, many Tuareg fighters were mercenaries in the Libyan army under Muammar Gaddafi until his death. They returned to Mali well-armed and well-trained.
During the rebellion, the MNLA aligned with Islamists linked to al-Qaeda to fight government forces, although the MNLA desired a secular state in northern Mali. After the rebels ousted the Malian military, the Islamists began imposing Sharia law over controlled territory. The MNLA began fighting with the Islamists, eventually losing control of their territory to al-Qaeda affiliates.
In January of 2013, the French military began Operation Serval to defeat the Islamist rebels. The operation successfully suppressed the rebellion and returned control of northern Mali to government forces in less than a year. The operation was supported by many African Union troops and the MNLA. Since the operation, the French have maintained a small contingent in Mali that has fluctuated between 1,000 and 5,000 troops.
Although the operation was successful, security in central Mali deteriorated and the absence of effective governance increased the amount of crime and violence. The French did not intend to interfere in Mali’s domestic conflicts. Instead their goal was to prevent the creation of an Islamist state and leave Mali’s internal disputes to Malians.
With the ineffectiveness of government in central Mali, cattle theft and resource exploitation became more frequent in the area. Many residents blame the government for these problems, so they are drawn to joining the different factions of Islamists operating in Mali. Terror groups are well known to provide social services after taking control of territory to endear themselves to populations.
Throughout and after the rebellion, many Fulani were targeted by the Tuareg, mostly over tribal disputes regarding land and property. The disputes escalated into armed violence, leaving hundreds dead. To oppose the Tuareg, many Fulani joined jihadi groups linked to al-Qaeda, especially the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). The MUJWA began a campaign of violence against the Tuareg, and eventually intend to spread Sharia law through all of West Africa.
Because of their relationship to al-Qaeda, their continued violence, and their goal of committing jihad to spread Sharia law, Fulani tribesmen have been routinely subjected to counter terror operations by Malian government forces. Numerous reports of abuse and torture at the hands of Mali’s army and several mass graves predate the discovery of the graves discovered this week.
Recent events of this year demonstrate that jihadists in Mali increased their numbers, enabling them to ramp up the number of attacks taking place both across Mali and abroad. In April of this year, 2 United Nations peacekeepers were killed and 10 wounded in a mortar attack.
Two weeks later, jihadists conducted a rocket and vehicle bombing attack on French and UN peacekeeping forces. The attacks this year follow more than 250 al-Qaeda attacks in Mali in 2017, most of which occurred in central Mali.
The recurring terror attacks and military operations have strained the relationship between the Fulani and Mali’s government. The absence of social services in central Mali has opened the door for Islamist groups to recruit disaffected Fulani into their ranks by offering money, employment, protection, and other public services. Recently, the Islamic State formed a new branch in Mali, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Although the Islamic State isn’t as powerful as al-Qaeda or the other Islamist groups in Mali, their presence reveals global support for the group and the ability to use Mali as another base of operations.
The threat posed by Islamist groups in Mali has the potential to spread beyond Mali’s borders. In 2017, several Islamist groups across West Africa merged into one, the Nusrat al-Islam, also referred to as JNIM. JNIM is al-Qaeda’s official branch in West Africa and is especially active in Mali and Burkina Faso. In the past few months, fighting along the border of Mali and Niger has grown more intense. Last October, 4 U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed in a firefight near the border. That attack was eventually claimed by the Islamic State.
If speculation that Malian military personnel are responsible for the deaths of 25 Fulani tribe members is true, it will further damage the relationship between Mali’s government and rural tribes. If the government is unable to function in central Mali, Islamist terror groups will fill the gap and violent attacks will probably increase. As the fighting spreads across the border, international forces will be called upon to stabilize the region. The French already have the largest presence in Niger with over 5,000 troops and the U.S. has an estimated troop count of 800. The U.S. also announced in March it will build a drone base to provide border security to prevent jihadists, weapons, and migrants from crossing the Niger border.
Mali’s defense minister admitted some soldiers are responsible, but punitive action taken against the soldiers won’t restore trust between the two groups. The mass grave is another instance of further deterioration of Mali’s security, making it an easy target for Islamist groups to exploit. As these groups become larger and stronger, attacks in Mali and in neighboring countries will increase in volume and in severity.