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Policy Thoughts

15 August, 2015


Mali: A More Optimistic View


by Hussein Solomon


Given recent headlines this week, it may be easy to grow despondent regarding developments in Mali. After all, this week witnessed an attack on Gourma-Rharous, 140 kilometres east of Timbuktu which resulted in 11 members of Mali’s National Guard killed and four vehicles destroyed[1].



Malian Soldiers (Photo by Samuel Bendet US Africa Command)

What was interesting about the attack was that witnesses could not distinguish whether the attack was by the local Al Qaeda franchise – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – or by Ansar Dine or Defenders of the Faith which is Mali’s local militant Islamists closely allied to northern Tuareg groupings as they fight for an independent homeland. Indeed, even the Malian government seemed to be confused as to who was responsible for the attack on Gourma-Rharous, given the contradictory statements emanating from Bamako. However, a simple explanation exists – it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between AQIM and Ansar Dine. Ever since April 2012 when northern Mali was seized by the Islamists these two organizations worked increasingly closely. Following their ouster a year later by French forces, this cooperation increased to such an extent that AQIM and Ansar Dine have been deploying “brigades” such as Katiba Khalid bin Walid and Katiba Massina which consist of both AQIM and Ansar Dine fighters[2] . For those seeking an end to their reign of terror, there is an urgency to likewise enhance co-operation between the different security structures in Mali, between them and their regional counterparts, between these and other international actors such as the UN, the European Union and the United States African Command.

What is disturbing is that the attack on Gourma-Rharous is not an isolated event. Indeed it follows mere days after an attack which resulted in the deaths of two Malian soldiers and four others wounded in the centre of the country – highlighting the fact that these attacks are geographically widening. In July, meanwhile, 6 UN peacekeepers from Burkina Faso, part of MINUMSA, were killed by AQIM [3]. By June, the Islamists shifted the focus of their attacks on the southern region of Sikasso, Misseni and Fakola near Mali’s borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso[4] . In June 2015, the western town of Nara also bore the brunt of an Ansar Dine attack[5].

Despite these setbacks, the tide is turning against the jihadists. There is a dedicated European Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali which is not only training the Malian army but also serving as advisors to the army’s high command and Mali’s Ministry of Defence[6]. This training seems to be paying off with Malian forces having foiled several bomb attempts on the capital, Bamako, during July[7]. Ivorian forces, meanwhile, recognizing the danger of Islamist forces operating on their borders have deployed additional troops and have involved themselves in joint operations in the Sama forest together with their Malian counterparts[8]. In this way the problem of Africa’s “ungoverned spaces” is contracting. French Special Forces meanwhile have played a key role in decapitating the leadership of the Islamists. In July, for instance, a senior AQIM commander – Ali Ag Wadossene – was killed in the northern Malian city of Kidal[9]. Moreover, the recently signed agreement between Tuareg leaders and the Malian government[10]  may also assist in serving to undermine recruitment from Tuareg communities into the ranks of the Islamists. Ansar Dine has been especially successful at using legitimate Tuareg grievances to recruit members of this disaffected community into their organization.


These positive developments can be further enhanced if the international community can consider two further steps. First, given the vast territory that is Mali and the geographical spread of the attacks the international community needs to re-consider if an 11,000 strong UN force – MINUMSA – is adequate to the tasks it needs to perform. In my view, this force needs to be strengthened. At the same time the mandate of MINUMSA needs to be reconsidered. For instance, at the time it was conceived the attacks were focused on the restive north – now it includes the south as well. Unfortunately MINUMSA has no mandate to be deployed in the south. This needs to be reconsidered if the fight against the Islamists is to be prosecuted with vigour.


Second, the lawless southern deserts of Libya continues to serve as a safe haven for the likes of AQIM and Ansar Dine. It is imperative that the feud between the rival administrations in Tobruk and Tripoli end – perhaps in a government of national unity – and that the Libyan government be assisted by the international community to reclaim its southern deserts from the Islamists.



[1] “Eleven soldiers killed in Mali in terrorist attack on camp, government says” The Guardian, 4 August 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 4 August 2015

[2] “Islamist group Ansar Dine claims multiple attacks in Mali,” News 24. 6 July 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 4 August 2015.

[3] “Eleven soldiers killed in Mali in terrorist attack on camp, government says” op. cit.

[4] “Islamist attack Mali army base,” News 24. 3 August 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 4 August 2015.

[5] “Islamist group Ansar Dine claims multiple attacks in Mali,” op. cit.

[6] Johannes Stern, “Germany takes over military training operations in Mali,”

[7] “Mali army disrupts attack plot in capital,” News 24. 11 July 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 4 August 2015.

[8] “Mali, Ivorian troops hunt jihadis,” News 24. 1 July 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 4 August 2015.

[9] “French troops kill AQIM’s Ali Ag Wadossene in Mali,” BBC. 7 July 2015. Internet: Date accessed: 4 August 2015.

[10] “Eleven soldiers killed in Mali in terrorist attack on camp, government says,” op. cit.



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