The risks of deeper engagement in Mali

The war in Mali continues to expand, even as the country’s peace process stumbles ever onward. 

Also available in

The war in Mali continues to expand, even as the country’s peace process stumbles ever onward. On July 19 armed attackers struck the Malian army base at Nampala, near the Mauritanian border, officially killing at least 15 soldiers. Days later, deadly fighting broke out in the city of Kidal, pitting forces from the ostensibly pro-government Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA) against those from the Coalition des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), reportedly killing nearly 30 fighters.

This comes against the backdrop of smaller-scale assassinations and clashes in central and northern Mali, violence that according to news reports and local sources can be traced to an array of overlapping possibilities. These range from personal and political rivalries to drug trafficking to the ongoing efforts by jihadist groups – especially Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the AQIM-linked Ansar al-Din – to attack security forces and other armed groups, particularly the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA).

In response to this growing instability, the French Operation Barkhane (the successor to Operation Serval, which began in January 2013) as well as the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) have begun expanding their missions in the country. At the end of last year, French officials made it clear that they viewed Operation Barkhane as a strictly counter-terrorism mission. In June, however, security sources indicated that Barkane intended to target some of the underlying support systems for armed groups, including drug trafficking. Similarly, the reauthorization for MINUSMA included an increase of personal and a more aggressive mandate to target armed groups, after a May 2016 report from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called for increased Special Forces in the north as well as “transnational organized crime units” in Mopti, Timbuktu, and Gao.

It is still unclear if French policy in the region has genuinely shifted. In an interview last month with the magazine Jeune Afrique, the commander of Operation Barkhane Gen. Patrick Bréthous stated that, “my mission is not drug trafficking” and that “Barkhane acts against the terrorists” in the Sahel. Still, he added that Barkhane sees trafficking criss-cross the desert, and that over the past year in Mali and Niger that a number of drug seizures have taken place, effected by Barkhane, Malian, and Nigerien forces.

Since January 2013, the necessity of making peace in Mali has reportedly also allowed trafficking networks to reconstitute themselves and resume some of their former operations.

According to a French security specialist, “everything is a question of priorities related to the principal [counterterrorism] mission. One can neither ignore nor focus solely on trafficking, and there is still quite a bit of discussion in the CPCO [the French army planning and operations center] and the Barkhane command staff about this point.”

Thus it is uncertain to what extent French security policy is changing in the region, and what these changes might mean in practice. But there still appears to be a recognition among French and MINUSMA forces, albeit a belated one, that it is difficult to reduce the influence of armed groups without targeting their social and economic bases.

Doing so, however, also carries risks for international as well as Malian forces, and it may serve to exacerbate existing communal and military divides. Since January 2013, the necessity of making peace in Mali has reportedly also allowed trafficking networks – some of them closely tied to armed movements that are part of the peace process – to reconstitute themselves and resume some of their former operations. If French and international forces seek to target the political economy of war in Mali in a more focused manner, they will run the risk of falling prey to faulty intelligence, being instrumentalized to further local rivalries, or pushing local communities further toward armed groups.

Drugs, Security, and Politics

Although the role of the illicit or semi-licit economies in fueling violence, poor governance, and local conflict in Mali is difficult to dispute, any discussion of these issues requires nuance and context. Long-distance trade has always been a way of life in the Sahara, as well as a necessary solution to environmental constraints and climactic fluctuations. But from the 1970s onwards, growing volumes of counterfeit or subsidised cigarettes, arms, and eventually drugs (most famously cocaine but also hashish and other cannabis variations as well as more recently prescription drugs and methamphetamines) flowed through northern Mali on their way to scattered destinations. The large sums of cash from these operations – as well as money paid to intermediaries to negotiate the release of Western hostages taken by AQIM and its predecessor the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) – helped local political and economic figures seek power in different ways. Formerly marginalized or subservient communities used the money from trafficking to arm themselves and target the leadership of other communities, for instance, while others (and some of the same groups) used these infusions of cash to run in elections in bids to assume formal political authority.

After the 2006 Tuareg rebellion, Mali’s government increasingly turned to largely ethnic militias, especially the Imghad Tuareg and Lamhar Arabs, as a way to counterbalance separatist militancy. In return, the government looked the other way or actively profited from the trafficking activities of these and related groups. This fueled competition among different Tuareg and Arab factions for access to lucrative routes, government resources and the territory necessary to ensure that trade could continue uninterrupted.

During and after the 2012 rebellion, the issue of drug profits and militant groups came back to the forefront amid credible allegations that local community leaders and politicians involved in smuggling trades were supporting jihadist groups, particularly the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The specialist Wolfram Lacher has shown how limited the evidence is for direct involvement of jihadist groups in the drug trade, but trafficking remains an important source of income in northern Mali – particularly for the armed groups involved in the multi-sided and at times dizzyingly complex conflict there.

 The government looked the other way or actively profited from the trafficking activities of these and related groups.

Although information on trafficking in Mali is scarce and subject to unconfirmable rumors and accusations made against rivals, regional and local specialists believe that most of the armed groups in Mali draw some benefit from trafficking, often through the communities and tribal groups that make up core parts of their structures. This is not to say that whole communities can be associated with these trades, as is sometimes described in Malian and international outlets. But it does mean that the proceeds from trafficking as with other business endeavors are often distributed through family and community networks. Additionally, these networks seek to protect not just their businesses but their communities from attack, while also trying to perpetuate their political, economic, and social positions.

This attempted balancing of economic and political force between armed groups has been a core part of the conflict in Mali before and after the signature of the Algiers Accord in June 2015. Brutal fighting between the CMA and GATIA and the larger Plateforme (which includes Arab as well as Songhai and other militias) finally gave way to a series of local accords first signed at Anéfis in October 2015. While the published versions of these agreements are rather vague, they comprise public provisions related to governance, integration into the armed services, and the implementation of the Algiers Accord, as well as, reportedly, secret provisions related to the diverse business interests of the armed groups and their main leaders. This is particularly salient given the presence of widely-suspected traffickers in or near the senior leadership of some of the armed groups who signed these deals.

These accords were a necessary step to halting a burgeoning communal conflict in northern Mali, and in theory they provided the blueprint for slowly rebuilding peace and implanting some form of credible governance in the north. However, they also rest on a fragile balance of power that encompasses positions in the planned-for but controversial interim authorities, the integration of combatants into Mali’s armed services, and participation in the UN’s Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme, as well as the protection of trade and business networks. As France and UN forces seek to intervene more directly in undercutting the funds for armed groups, they will increasingly encounter problems related to this delicate balance of power and the murky relationships between armed actors.

As France and UN forces seek to intervene more directly in undercutting the funds for armed groups, they will increasingly encounter problems related to this delicate balance of power and the murky relationships between armed actors.

This has already proved problematic for France. For instance, the High Council for the Unity of the Azawad (HCUA), a member of the CMA largely composed of former Ansar al-Din fighters, protested strongly in June when French Defense Minister Jean-Yves le Drian accused the HCUA of maintaining close ties to Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghali. In December 2015, French forces claimed to have killed a number of fighters linked to the veteran jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, only for Arab fighters affiliated with the pro-government Plateforme to protest that they were targeted instead – a difficult situation to decipher, since many of these fighters were, in fact, formerly linked to Belmokhtar and MUJAO. In 2013, French forces targeted suspected MUJAO fighters near the border city of In Khalil, only to later suspect that they had been misled by MNLA sources who instead sought to settle scores linked to business rivalries between Arab and Idnan Tuareg traders in the town. And in April 2016, after an IED attack killed three French soldiers near Tessalit, authorities detained a number of local Tuareg men who were swiftly released after protests from the MNLA and CMA. Even if some or all of these men were involved in the attack, the searches and offensive operations reportedly caused fear and consternation among some Tuareg populations, while the reported seizure of a drug convoy by the CMA may have helped spark the fighting in Kidal.

Because northern Mali’s armed groups have been able to not only maintain their positions but also reintegrate themselves into the business environment in the north as well as the peace process, it will be difficult to disrupt the economies that support these groups without causing further conflict between armed groups, between armed groups and international forces, and between these groups and the Malian government, whose reimplantation in Mali’s central and northern regions has been halting at best.

Moreover, in understanding the political economy of conflict in northern Mali, we should not emphasize economies at the expense of politics. The tenuous and possibly fragmenting balance of forces in the north is not just about access to drug routes, but also about political and social issues with a deep resonance – a continued desire for independence for some, better representation and autonomy for others, or a quest to raise the standing of formerly subordinate social and tribal groups.

Resolving these political problems will take more than just a partition of government posts, development aid, and a reduction of smuggling incomes, and will continue to make peace in Mali an elusive prospect.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our newsletters

Be the first to know about our latest publications, podcasts, events, and job opportunities. Join our community and stay connected!