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Report 238 / Africa

Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making?

Violence is escalating in Central Mali, often neglected as the world focuses on problems in the country’s north. Radical groups and criminal gangs are exploiting years of short-sighted security policies that have lost the state much of its legitimacy. The government needs to recognise that state authority also rests on public services and dialogue with its people.

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Executive Summary

While attention has focused on northern Mali, armed violence is escalating at an alarming rate in the centre of the country, long neglected by the state. The management of natural resources has given rise to multiple conflicts that the government and local elites are unable to control. For the past several months, a jihadist uprising has capitalised on the state’s lack of legitimacy and extended its influence. State representatives are being chased out of rural areas. Yet, violence also stems from settlings of scores, banditry and a growing number of self-defence militias. The peace agreement signed in Bamako in June 2015 applies primarily to northern regions and disregards the centre of the country. Mali’s government and its principal partners should renew their efforts to restore the state’s authority and legitimacy among all the communities of the area. Absent appropriate action, central Mali – an area more densely populated than the north and vital to the economy – risks becoming a source of protracted instability. 

The centre has long not been involved in the armed rebellions of the north, but has suffered from its consequences: banditry has surged and weapons have become more readily available since the 2000s. Marginalised groups, in particular some nomadic herding communities, see taking up modern weapons as a way to challenge existing hierarchies, and to contest the privileges of urban elites and traditional local aristocracies. The state, plagued by corruption and discredited by acts of brutality by the security forces, is struggling to retain its ability to mediate between all sides. In the circumstances, ethnic communities are closing ranks, particularly the Fulanis, who see themselves as victims. 

The 2012 crisis was a turning point for the central regions when it was partly occupied by armed groups. State authority weakened as civil servants fled, abandoning large swathes of territory. The insecurity made some of the population seek protection or justice from militias, including radical groups. The French military operation Serval chased out these groups in 2013, but when state security forces returned they committed abuses, particularly against nomadic Fulani and Tamasheq communities. Locals were also angered when corrupt civil servants regained posts. The state’s return neither restored security nor improved relations between its representatives and the regions’ inhabitants. 

A radical group has thrived on this fertile ground, dubbed the Macina Liberation Front by the media and linked to the jihadist group Ansar Eddine. Little is known about its exact nature and some even question whether it really exists, but it demonstrated its presence with deadly attacks against security forces in several places in the central regions since early 2015. The group’s leader is reportedly Hamadoun Kouffa, a Fulani Muslim preacher famous for his strong criticism of the state and local elites. Since the group’s emergence, state representatives have become targets of its actions and rhetoric, and have again abandoned their posts; violence has increased.

It is difficult to distinguish between banditry, local vendettas and the actions of radical groups in this area. The latter form a determined core, even though they are in the minority, less structured, less well armed, and with fewer links to trafficking than radical groups in the north. They are taking root in rural areas, profiting from the state’s lack of credibility and from some inhabitants’ frustrations and fears. 

Until now the government has favoured a security-focused approach, which has yielded some results. But it has not allowed state authorities to regain control over the entire central territory and its brutality has widened the disconnection between the government and the local population. Political responses have lacked clarity and ambition. The area was largely absent from the Algiers peace talks that led to the signing of the Bamako peace agreement in June 2015. Most of Mali’s international partners have had little involvement in the centre, are predominantly based in Bamako and more involved in the north.

Some authorities and local elites are tempted to try to improve security by supporting the creation of community-based self-defence militias. These militias cannot constitute a lasting solution to the real problem of local insecurity, and even less as a means to reverse the way the state has been discredited in the central regions. With inter- and intra-community tensions running high, militias have fuelled sporadic and worrying surges of violence, including between Bambara and Fulani armed groups in May 2016, which may have killed more than 40 people.

Central Mali has entered a volatile period, but heeding early-warning signals and taking preventive action could still stop the growth of radical groups. As Crisis Group’s report Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (14 March 2016) emphasised, preventing crises will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism will do to prevent crises.

The government’s response should not focus exclusively on counter-terrorism operations, which contribute to a rejection of the state by the people, especially when accompanied by abuses. On the contrary, the government, in coordination with local elites, civil society and external partners, should demonstrate a greater ambition to reestablish public services in these long neglected regions. To do this, and to demonstrate its utility and impartiality, it should plan its actions carefully, rank its priorities and recognise that restoring its authority is not only a question of keeping order, but also rests on its capacity to deliver effective justice and education. 


To prevent the security situation deteriorating further in the central regions and enable the state to reestablish its presence and regain legitimacy there

To the Malian government:

  1. Develop a strategy to ensure the effective return of the state and the restoration of its legitimacy among all parts of the population. This should include:
    1. Reform of the local police, taking a lead for instance from recent projects in Niger; in particular, security forces should recruit women and men from different ethnic groups to enable the effective carrying out of their duties, including in areas lived in by nomads.
    2. A plan, developed through inclusive dialogue, to coordinate the state’s efforts in the centre and to identify priority actions, specifically in the justice, education and natural resources management. Work on the latter should establish mechanisms to enable herders and farmers to live together more peacefully.
    3. Naming a high representative for the central regions to embody the state’s commitment to them, to work in consultation with local communities and civil society groups, and to ensure coordination with newly active donors.
  2. Avoid using community self-defence groups, and strengthen the capacity of the security services while severely and publicly punishing security service abuses against civilians.

To elites representing local communities:

  1. Take on the crucial role of mediating between citizens and the state, and in doing so, set aside intercommunal divides and individual disputes in order to cooperate with new representatives of local peoples, notably nomad chiefs and religious leaders, even those who have sympathised with armed groups since 2012.
  2. Avoid supporting armed movements and self-defence groups, which are only a short-term response to insecurity and could, in the long run, dangerously fuel intercommunal violence in the centre of the country.
  3. Conversely, promote – in partnership with the state – the development of a local police force that serves local people and whose composition is representative of the central regions’ diverse ethnic groups and both women and men.
  4. Support local conflict resolution initiatives, specifically inclusive forums in which the local population’s diverse age, ethnicity, socio-economic status and gender groups are sufficiently representative of the peoples of central Mali.

To Mali’s main partners, in particular the European Union:

  1. Assist the state to redeploy at the local level through programs aimed at supporting the development of public services in the central regions.
  2. Make the Mopti region a pilot site to test cooperative policies aimed at improving local security and specifically reforming the local police – lessons drawn from here could serve other regions of the Sahel and northern Mali in particular.

To the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA):

  1. Extend the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program so that it benefits both the north and the central regions without straying from the stipulations of the peace accord, making sure to link DDR to local police reform and avoid fuelling the creation of self-defence groups that are not strictly regulated by the authorities.
  2. Support the restoration of state authority over Mali’s whole national territory according to MINUSMA’s mandate and, in order to do so, prioritise an approach that aims to restore public services, including those of the police, as much as seeking to reinforce the international military deployment.

Dakar/Bamako/Brussels, 6 July 2016

I. Introduction

While the Bamako peace agreement was signed in June 2015 and international forces have been deployed in the country for more than three years, the crisis in Mali is far from being resolved. Armed violence is escalating in some areas. Since the start of 2015, unidentified armed groups, some of which claim to be jihadist, have attacked several towns in the centre of the country. This was surprising, all the more since almost all armed incidents had until then been concentrated in the north. Following these attacks, many civil servants fled from their posts in several prefectures of the centre. Local communities feel that the Malian state has abandoned them to their fate. Radical groups are taking advantage of the situation to establish themselves and disseminate messages hostile to the government and Mali’s foreign partners. As efforts are still focused on the north, the centre of the country remains largely neglected by the Bamako agreement that resulted from inter-Malian peace talks.

This report analyses the dynamics behind the extension of the areas of insecurity in central Mali and describes the groups that are responsible for this development.

This report analyses the dynamics behind the extension of the areas of insecurity in central Mali and describes the groups that are responsible for this development. The centre of the country is dominated by the Inner Niger Delta, a territory subject to flooding which is particularly fertile and therefore coveted; the land is shared by farmers and herders. This report focuses on the areas most affected by armed violence, namely, the administrative region of Mopti, mainly the circles (administrative division) of Ténenkou, Youwarou and Douentza, and the north of the Ségou region, close to the border with Mauritania. It warns of the dangers that threaten this part of Mali and formulates practical proposals to stop the spread of armed violence. It is based on several series of interviews with the main political and military actors, diplomats, members of civil society and religious leaders in Bamako and the Mopti region in February and October 2015 and January and March 2016.

II. Fertile Ground: Escalating Armed 
Violence in Central Mali

Unlike the country’s northern regions, there were no armed rebellions in central Mali in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the area has suffered the consequences. Banditry has increased and automatic weapons have become more readily available; meanwhile, cattle theft have been recurrent, especially in border areas; the Ntéréré, cattle thieves of Fulani origin, have become increasingly professional over the years.[fn]Sometimes described as a rite of passage for young men, this phenomenon has taken on a new dimension with the growing insecurity and eased access to firearms.Hide Footnote These developments have affected all herding communities, which are mostly Fulani in the centre.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Tamasheq political leader from Goundam, April 2016. “All sides were responsible for raids”, said a Fulani leader commenting on the competition between Fulani and Tamasheq communities for “saline lands”, the best for livestock farming. Crisis Group interview, Fulani political leader, Bamako, October 2015.Hide Footnote  

For some years now, central Mali has experienced a worrying increase in social and political tension, punctuated by repeated episodes of collective violence.

Some of them, particularly the Fulanis, felt that successive peace agreements did not take their interests into account and compensated those who had stolen their herds.[fn]The Fulanis are a very diverse ethnic group distributed over the entire Malian territory. They are more numerous in the centre of the country. They feel a sense of injustice at the herding advantages obtained by Arab and Tamasheq communities following the rebellions of the 1990s. The development of these areas through, for example, the building of wells, has paradoxically increased tensions. Such government projects have allegedly benefited communities close to the rebels to the detriment of others who stayed away from them. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani political and religious leaders from the regions of Méma and Farimaké, Bamako, February and October 2015. Shortly after the signature of the National Pact in 1992, establishing special status for northern Mali, the president of an association of victims of the rebellion in the Mopti region, whose cattle had been stolen, asked the Malian state for compensation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani civil servant, Bamako, February 2016. The records indicate that this request for compensation was as high as FCFA2.6 billion (about €4 million). Many similar demands have been expressed but never fulfilled, strengthening among the Fulanis the sense of impunity, injustice, and animosity toward the Tamasheq nomadic communities with which they frequently compete for the control of the same territory.[fn]Tamasheq or Kel Tamasheq (literally, those who speak the Tamasheq language) is another name for the Tuareg. They are not many in the Mopti region (about 30,000 native speakers out of a population of more than 1.5 million in 2009). More live on the Gourma plains and toward the border with Mauritania, in Méma and Farimaké. “Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat du Mali”, National Institute of Statistics (known by its French acronym, INSTAT), November 2011.   

For some years now, central Mali has experienced a worrying increase in social and political tension, punctuated by repeated episodes of collective violence. It is a fertile agricultural area.[fn]The Mopti region is the country’s most important area for livestock farming – cattle, sheep and goats. It also produces 40 per cent of the country’s rice and 20 per cent of its millet and sorghum. “Etude diagnostique des secteurs économiques porteurs”, territorial administration and local communities ministry, March 2012. The exploitation of natural resources arouses envy and causes disputes, a situation aggravated by significant pressure on the land.[fn]The area dedicated to crops has increased while the area covered by pasture has correspondingly decreased. Meanwhile, herds have increased in number and so there is greater pastoralist pressure on the land. Tensions have become more acute not because of poverty but because of increased and poorly regulated competition for natural resources. This dynamic is not new: in the 1970s, the area of arable land increased by 82 per cent while the area covered by pasture fell by 29 per cent. Olivier and Catherine Barrière, Un droit à inventer. Foncier et environnement dans le delta intérieur du Niger (Mali) (Paris, 2002), p. 62.  There are frequent clashes between herders and farmers in this area.[fn]Un droit à inventer, op. cit. Mirjam De Bruijn and Han Van Dijk, Arid Ways. Cultural Understandings of Insecurity in Fulbe Society, Central Mali (Amsterdam, 1995).  Herders, often Fulani, claim that agricultural land is expanding at the cost of land dedicated to herding.[fn]However, not all Fulanis are nomadic herders. In 2009, the Mopti region had 400,000 Fula (the Fulanis’ language) speakers, or 27 per cent of the population. The Dogons, mainly farmers, form the largest ethnic group in the region, with more than 636,000 native speakers, or 42 per cent of the population. “Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat au Mali”, op. cit., p. 443.Hide Footnote Inversely, farmers accuse herders of not respecting agricultural cycles and of not using the cattle trails (burti) that protect fields from trampling by the herds. 

Most of these disputes are resolved peacefully.[fn]Community dialogues are organised by local associations in the presence of local authority representatives to peacefully resolve disputes related to transhumance, as in Dioura in June 2014. Journal de l’Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision du Mali, 26 June 2014.Hide Footnote However, some of them cause a worrying level of violence that the security forces, either absent or ineffective, are unable to contain. For example, in May 2012, a land dispute led to the massacre of sixteen Fulani herders by Dogon farmers in Sari (Koro circle), where no police officer was stationed. This violent episode, which has remained unpunished, has played a direct role in the decision by nomad Fulani groups to arm themselves; that same year, some of them joined the radical movements that were occupying Gao.[fn]Crisis Group interview, nomadic leader from the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote  

In the Inner Niger Delta, Fulani herders sometimes clash among themselves over access to pastures.[fn]The Inner Niger Delta is a particularly fertile area after the annual floods.Hide Footnote The conflict between herders from the villages of Sosobe and Salsalbe, which has been going on since at least the colonial period, resurfaced in the 1990s, causing 29 deaths on 8 December 1993.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former mayor of the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote As a local security expert said, “people still get killed in disputes over access to the bourgoutières”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local security expert, Mopti, March 2016. The bourgoutières are plains subject to flooding and are particularly fertile after the floods. Hide Footnote These disputes are aggravated by the lack of legal clarity regarding land rights and by the diminishing capacity of traditional authorities to settle disagreements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former mayor of the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote They have become considerably more lethal following the increased availability of weapons since the 1990s.[fn] In addition to the rebellions that took place in the 1990s and 2000s, some people mention the war in Liberia as a turning point in terms of availability of firearms. One of the Ntéréré leaders in central Mali is a veteran of that war. However, access to weapons of war remains less important in central Mali than in the north. Crisis Group interviews, specialist on conflicts in the Sahel, Dakar, April 2016; member of an international NGO originally from Douentza, Mopti, March 2016. Hide Footnote Quarrels are now resolved with Kalashnikovs rather than with clubs or knives.[fn]“In recent years, everybody armed themselves to defend their livestock. We do not feel that the authorities care about cattle theft. This development may have led to cases of misconduct”. Crisis Group interview, member of the elite of Fulani origin, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote This has encouraged an arms race and the hiring of professional armed men who can help gain the upper hand in disputes.[fn]Armed groups, including former Ntéréré and jihadist movements like MOJWA, offer their support to Fulani herders to facilitate and protect the transhumance from attacks. Crisis Group interview, regional security expert, Dakar, April 2016. Hide Footnote  

Some of the current violence, hastily attributed to jihadist groups, is in fact the result of land disputes, including when the victims are state officials.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the elite of Fulani origin, Bamako and Mopti, March 2016; security expert, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote These episodes of local violence increase against the backdrop of a profound crisis of confidence in the state, whose representatives are often accused of corruption and predatory behaviour toward local communities, particularly herders.[fn]The justice system is seen as corrupt. Malian Security Forces (known by their French acronym, FDS), including water and forest rangers, are accused of abusing their powers to impose heavy fines. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, nomads from the Douentza region and researcher specialising in central Mali, Bamako and Mopti, February 2015 and March 2016. Hide Footnote The latter have mobile capital in the form of cattle, which is easier to cash in than the land on which peasants work. 

Some groups, in particular nomadic herders, also criticise the government for being manipulated by local urban elites, which allegedly use public administration resources to retain their disputed privileges. At a forum organised in Mopti in January 2016 under the supervision of the national reconciliation ministry, participants, mostly local prominent figures and civil society activists, pressed the authorities “to respect the principles of impartiality and neutrality [of the state]” and enjoined them “to avoid acts of violence against the populations”.[fn]Facebook page of Mali’s national reconciliation ministry, message posted on 29 January 2016.Hide Footnote  

In Mopti, all the people Crisis Group interviewed criticised the government for its inadequate performance and the corruption of state officials: “If the government does nothing for us, it might as well leave us alone”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani director of an NGO, Mopti, March 2016.Hide Footnote A growing minority see the government as a nuisance that they would like to get rid of. This is especially true in some communities, for example, nomadic Fulanis or slave descendants, who feel particularly underrepresented in the government and its administration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani individual from Méma and nomadic leader from the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote They welcomed the departure of state officials following attacks on towns at the beginning of 2015.

Finally, the climate of tension in central Mali also results from a growing sense of ethnic victimisation among the Fulanis.[fn]Fulanis built theocratic states in the central part of the country prior to colonisation. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, nomads from Douentza and researcher, Bamako and Mopti, February 2015 and March 2016. Hide Footnote Some of them feel stigmatised and attempt to organise and defend their interests along ethnic lines.[fn]“Fulanis used to be dominant, but the whites changed all that, which causes resentment”. Crisis Group interview, Fulani director of an NGO, Mopti, March 2016.Hide Footnote Some Fulani elites and intellectuals, especially in the centre, say that the state treats their community unfairly in a way that reduces them to second-class citizens.[fn]More than a year passed before the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Malian government sent a team to investigate the massacre of Fulanis in Doungoura in March 2013. On the contrary, Fulani members of the elite note that MINUSMA and the government took action within days of the massacre of Tamasheq Imrad near Tamkoutat in February 2014. “This is unequal treatment”, say some of them, who also see it as a result of Fulanis’ underrepresentation in the Malian security forces. However, there are several senior Fulani officers in Mali, including generals. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani officer in the Malian security forces and Fulani director of an NGO, Bamako and Mopti, March 2016. Hide Footnote In fact, racism, partly inherited from the colonial period, is still strong in Mali and Fulanis are seen as a category apart.[fn]Roger Botte and Jean Schmitz, “L’archipel peul”, Cahiers d’études africaines, special edition, vol. 34, no. 133 (1994). Hide Footnote  

Fulanis say the increased terrorist threat has worsened the situation because authorities often associate them with terrorism.[fn]According to the French authorities, the majority of those involved in the attacks in Bassam, Bamako and Ouagadougou in 2015 and 2016 were Fulanis from Mali. Crisis Group interview, French adviser responsible for Africa, Paris, March 2016. As the Fulanis are an extremely heterogeneous group, this statement does not help much to understand the links between community affiliation and jihadist involvement. Hide Footnote Fulani public figures emphasise that “there are no Fulani terrorists, there are only angry Fulanis”, while warning that if “the Tamasheq were the first to rebel, the Fulanis could be the second”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Fulani trader from Farimaké, Bamako, October 2015. Hide Footnote In doing so, they point out that their people are becoming increasingly aware of their ethnic identity. Although Fulani mobilisation in West Africa as a whole remains timid and is sometimes confined to the realms of fantasy, it worries governments, anxious to avoid the export of violence to their territory.[fn]A “world Pulaaku congress” gathering Fulanis from all over Africa and the diaspora is due to be held in October 2016 on the initiative of former members of the Fulani Tabital Pulaaku association. It is primarily a cultural and scientific initiative, but political issues might be discussed in a regional context marked by an upsurge in armed violence that affects Fulani communities. Hide Footnote In central Mali, the sense of stigmatisation is coupled with the impression that the modern state is responsible for destroying old hierarchies to the detriment of the Fulanis and conducting an aggressive policy toward nomads, of which the Fulanis make up a large proportion. 

Since the 1990s, ethnic-based cultural associations have emerged and played an important political role, especially in conflict management. For example, Tabital Pulaaku is a Fulani association created at the beginning of the 1990s, and Ginna Dogon, formed in 1992, recruits among Dogon communities in central Mali. Often headed by urban elites, they try to bridge the gap between local structures and the central government. They are testimony to the trend for communities to organise politically along ethnic lines. In the wake of the 2012 crisis and rising insecurity, some local figures asked Tabital Pulaaku to organise a response, including the creation of self-defence groups. Some Fulani intellectuals say their communities should “take up arms to defend themselves” and “gain the respect” of the government and rival communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Bamako and Sévaré, November 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote

However, this ethnic-based mobilisation faces several challenges. First, some acts of violence result from internal tensions among the Fulanis rather than from tensions between ethnic groups.[fn]Roger Botte and Jean Schmitz, “Paradoxes identitaires”, Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 34, no. 133 (1994), pp. 7-22.Hide Footnote Indeed, there is a feeling of distrust toward urban elites, which are suspected of playing the ethnic card to build up a client base and preserve their positions within the state apparatus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nomads originally from the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote Second, religion and jihad today compete with ethnicity as a driving force for identity-based mobilisation.[fn]A Fulani militiaman from Niger who was active in the 1990s regrets that Fulanis who share similar demands toward the governments of the subregion wear themselves out by fighting under the flag of the jihadists. In his view, this weakens the struggle for their own people as it provokes the hostility of Western powers and Fulanis should rather form armed movements along ethnic lines as they used to do. Crisis Group interview, former member of Fulani militias, Niamey, December 2015. Hide Footnote The two forms of mobilisation are not necessarily incompatible but their agendas and actors are different.[fn]In a recording attributed to Hamadoun Kouffa, Fulanis are called “the country’s biggest ‘cafres’ (pagans)”. Crisis Group interview, Malian officer, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote In central Mali in particular, ethnic-based mobilisation takes place within the framework of negotiations with the government over access to representation and resources. Jihadist mobilisation, for the moment, takes place either outside or against the state.

III. Central Mali in Crisis (2012-2013)

Central Mali, which separates the north, occupied by armed groups, and the south, which has remained under government control, was affected by the 2012 crisis. Parts of the Mopti region, such as the Douentza circle, were occupied by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), although neither group managed to establish a solid presence outside the urban centres located on the road between Mopti and Gao. The rebels did not occupy the rest of the centre, but state officials and some locally elected representatives fled in 2012 because of insecurity and sporadic attacks.[fn]For example, the locality of Youwarou (Mopti region) was attacked on 17 February 2012, and Té-nenkou on 2 March 2012.Hide Footnote The tourism industry, which had been flourishing for twenty years in Mopti and on the Bandiagara plateau, collapsed. The situation became particularly uncomfortable for most inhabitants of central Mali. They have lived under the threat of occasional attacks, while at the same time being suspected by the security forces of colluding with the rebels.[fn]A resident of Nampala (Ségou region, close to the border with Mauritania) said that “the MNLA came from Léré to loot the school and the town hall [of Nampala]. But the military in Nioro, where we went to get supplies, suspected us of supporting the rebels”. Crisis Group interview, public official, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote

A. Recruitment to the Armed Groups

In 2012, central Mali was partly occupied by armed groups from the north. They recruited on site to form small local contingents or encouraged these new supporters to go on military training in Gao and Timbuktu, particularly with the MOJWA and Ansar Dine, which held these towns at that time. Conversely, the pro-government militias from the north, especially Gao, found refuge in central Mali, near Sévaré, an area under government control where Ganda Izo and others recruited locals. 

Most of these combatants were young men tempted by adventure and attracted to armed groups by either conviction or opportunism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Malian public official originally from Dialloubé (Mopti region), Mopti, October 2015.Hide Footnote Armed bandits in the area also rallied to the rebel groups: for example, the Ntéréré from Macina joined the MNLA and later the MOJWA in the Léré region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, resident of Nampala and former elected representative in the Mopti region, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote Finally, in response to insecurity, some communities in central Mali lined up under the banners of armed groups to obtain protection or arms, sometimes after having unsuccessfully requested the government to provide them with weapons.[fn]Some nomadic Fulani leaders went to Bamako to request arms from the defence ministry. The ministry refused, saying “it did not have arms for its own army”. Other sources indicate that the government feared that Fulani nomads would join the rebellion once they were armed. Crisis Group interviews, nomadic Fulani leader, Bamako, February 2015; former Malian official, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote  

Nomadic Fulanis from the Douentza region joined MOJWA training camps in Gao in search of military training and protection against MNLA Tamasheq groups that were harassing their camps. They were also seeking to gain the upper hand against the sedentary Dogons in conflicts over land. The MOJWA traded or offered protection in order to attract new recruits. Meanwhile, some young men left their homes and fully embraced the jihadist cause.[fn]Several witnesses confirm that at the start of Operation Serval, Fulani MOJWA combatants fled the Douentza region to the jihadist stronghold in the Tigharghar mountains (Kidal region) and perhaps even to southern Algeria. Crisis Group interviews, former MOJWA member from the Douentza region, March 2016; MNLA officer, April 2016. Hide Footnote But the majority seem to have adopted an opportunist approach, joining up in order to obtain protection or arms and have a say in local conflicts. 

B. Renewed Tension with the Government

In January 2013, the advance of radical groups toward Konna and Diabaly in central Mali led to a new round of violence in the area.[fn]Konna is 65km to the north of Mopti and Diabaly is 150km to the east.Hide Footnote Operation Serval repelled the offensive but the Malian army returned in the wake of the French and committed abuses against local populations, including an unknown number of summary executions.[fn]Malian security forces, members of which were executed by Islamist combatants in Konna, accused Fulani nomads from the Mopti region of supporting the MOJWA. In retaliation, they probably executed religious leaders and some of their pupils (talibé), notably in Konna and Nyaminiama. “Exactions des militaires maliens: l’urgence d’une commission d’enquête indépendante”, press release, International Federation for Human Rights, 23 January 2013. For more on Operation Serval, launched by France in January 2013 to repel jihadist groups from northern Mali, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°201, Mali: Security, Dialogue and Meaningful Reform, 11 April 2013.Hide Footnote These events exacerbated the distrust between people, particularly some Fulanis, and the security forces.

As of spring 2013, the Malian administration redeployed in the Mopti region more quickly than in the northern regions, which were still occupied by armed groups. Despite optimistic official figures, absenteeism was nonetheless common within the civil service.[fn]According to a UN 2014 report, in the Mopti region, “99 per cent of state officials have been redeployed, 50 per cent in Gao and Timbuktu”. The same document states that all the prefects and the great majority of subprefects were back in post. “Report of the UN Secretary-General on the situation in Mali”, UN Security Council (UNSC) S/2014/403, 9 June 2014, p. 4. In fact, many state officials working for territorial administration live in the regional capital and make only short visits to the area they have been assigned to. Moreover, such visits become less frequent when security deteriorates. Hide Footnote The state’s return provoked tension with local populations. The security forces recovered small arms that some groups, including Fulani nomads, had acquired to protect themselves. This led to arms dealing, abuses and incidents, particularly in the Douentza circle.[fn]“Le cercle de Douentza pendant la crise: une étude de cas”, European Union (EU) delegation to Mali, November 2013. Crisis Group interview, nomadic community leader in the Douentza region, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote Some inhabitants of central Mali had welcomed the government’s retreat in 2012, which they perceived as a temporary relief from taxation and a whole range of predatory acts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nomadic leader from the Douentza circle, Bamako, February 2015; former elected representative in the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote Others had got used to it despite feeling that they had been abandoned at a difficult time. 

In many areas of central Mali, the government’s return in 2013 did not therefore help to restore security for people and goods. On the contrary, people have claimed that the security situation was better under the jihadists or when the state was absent in 2012.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, nomad from Douentza, Bamako, February 2015; former elected representative in the Ténenkou circle, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote Indeed, serious episodes of collective violence took place following the latter’s return. In March 2013, in Doungoura, at least twenty people, mainly Fulani, were killed and thrown down a well. This case was never clarified or solved. Although representatives of the victims quickly contacted them, Malian authorities waited for more than a year before sending a delegation to support the investigation mission of the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (known by its French acronym, MINUSMA) human rights office.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Tabital Pulaaku, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote With persistent insecurity since 2013, non-state armed groups such as former Ntéréré, and even jihadist elements, rather than Malian security forces, have offered their support to Fulani herders to protect the transhumance from predatory acts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, regional security expert, Dakar, April 2016.Hide Footnote

In this context, the state’s return to central Mali after 2013 seems more theoretical than real. Its presence is weak throughout large grey areas. Moreover, following the crisis in Kidal in 2014, part of the region has again fallen under the control of armed groups, such as eastern Douentza.[fn]Crisis Group interview, researcher specialising in central Mali, Mopti, March 2016. In May 2014, Malian Prime Minister Moussa Mara’s visit to Kidal caused major clashes between rebel armed groups and Malian security forces, which were defeated and again forced to retreat from a large part of the country’s north.Hide Footnote It is all the more worrying as the main actors in charge of Mali are neglecting this area and concentrating mainly on the northern regions. 

IV. Toward a New Insurrection?

At the start of 2015, a series of attacks against Malian security forces stationed in small towns in the centre of the country once again attracted attention to the area.[fn]On 5 January, about 30 combatants attacked the town of Nampala (Ségou region, close to the border with Mauritania) and killed at least eleven Malian soldiers. Ténenkou was attacked on 8 and 16 January. Internal document of the Malian security services on the attacks attributed to the Macina Liberation Front made available to Crisis Group. “Mali: attaque de bandits armés à Ténenkou dans la région de Mopti”, Info Mali (info-mali.com), 9 January 2015. Hide Footnote Subsequently, chronic low intensity violence appeared in rural areas. State officials and civilians said to be close to the authorities were threatened or killed.[fn]Victims were mostly “uniformed corps” (members of the security forces, including water and forest rangers), local elected representatives and individuals suspected of acting as informers for the security services. Government representatives’ homes and vehicles are regularly burned, for example on 12 September 2015 near Bankass after the attack on the police station. Crisis Group interviews, security experts, NGO managers and MINUSMA members based in the Mopti region, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote Some attacks targeted MINUSMA convoys.[fn]The first took place on 10 May 2015 near Ténenkou. On 29 May 2016, a mine decimated a MINUSMA convoy near Sévaré, killing five Togolese blue helmets. Hide Footnote Armed groups occupied unprotected villages and small towns for a few hours, time enough to preach sermons and broadcast messages, including calls for jihad. 

It is often difficult to distinguish between acts of banditry, local vendettas and attacks by radicalised groups.

The Malian and international media frequently attribute these acts of violence to the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), created in January 2015 and reportedly led by a radical Fulani preacher, Hamadoun Kouffa. On the ground, the situation is confused. The perpetrators of violence have various motives and the degree of coordination between groups is uncertain. It is often difficult to distinguish between acts of banditry, local vendettas and attacks by radicalised groups. Armed groups seem to be trying to use the endemic insecurity, local tensions and the deep distrust toward the government to achieve various objectives. 

A. Elusive Perpetrators

Hamadoun Kouffa is a relatively well-known Fulani preacher in Macina.[fn]His full name is Mohamed Alhassane Ahmadoun Barry or Ahmadoun Diallo, according to different sources. He is said to be about 60 years old and to have grown up in Sirakoro. His father was reportedly from the village of Kouffa in the Niafunké region in the centre of the country. Internal document, national security service, September 2015. Crisis Group interviews, Muslim leaders formerly close to Kouffa, Mopti and Sévaré, October 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote After having, in his youth, recorded love poetry on cassettes, he became a preacher in the Mopti region. In the 2000s, he became known for his sermons on the Quran in the Fula language, broadcast on local radio stations. He denounced the corruption of morals and state officials, the region’s major Marabout families, parliamentarians who supported the new Family Code and President Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), whom he nicknamed the “Pharaoh of Koulouba”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani public officials from Méma and Macina, Bamako, February 2015; Mopti, October 2015 and March 2016. The then president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), informed of the critiques directed against him, reportedly held back from arresting Kouffa to prevent him from claiming martyr status. Crisis Group interview, senior public official from Macina, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote Between 2009 and 2011, he joined the Tabligh Jama’at, a preaching movement born in Pakistan and known locally as Dawa.[fn]In Mali, this movement established itself especially in the Kidal region and is said to have been organised by Iyad ag Ghaly, who has since become the leader of Ansar Dine. See David Gutelius, “Islam in Northern Mali and the War on Terror”, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2007. Sources consulted by Crisis Group say it would be a mistake to conflate the Dawa and the networks of Kouffa or Iyad ag Ghaly: “the followers of the Dawa do not completely identify with Kouffa, they have their own network”. Crisis Group interviews, former Dawa member from Nampala and religious leaders from the Mopti region, Bamako, February 2015; Sévaré and Mopti, March 2016. Hide Footnote He became its spiritual leader in the Mopti region, alienating Marabout families and some followers who began to criticise his radical choices.

At the time of the 2012 crisis, his group was in decline.[fn]Crisis Group interview, religious leader of Fulani origin, Bamako, February 2015. In December
2009, the American embassy in Bamako believed that recruitment to Dawa was weak in Mali.
“Dawa meeting in Kidal not much to talk about”, U.S. embassy Bamako cable, 21 December 2009,
as made public by WikiLeaks.Hide Footnote
He then allegedly went to Timbuktu to support Ansar Dine.[fn]In 2012, during negotiations about Malian soldiers detained by Ansar Dine, Iyad ag Ghaly reportedly accepted their release, by virtue of Islamic law, on condition they were handed over to Hamadoun Kouffa, who he believed to be a good Muslim, and not to the delegation of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HICM) with which he was in discussions. In January 2013, Kouffa was seen at the side of Ansar Dine combatants in Konna during their offensive in central Mali. He led a prayer and harangued the town’s inhabitants, announcing the arrival of “new times”. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite in the Mopti region originally from Konna, Bamako, February 2016.Hide Footnote He was reportedly seen encouraging the population of Konna during the armed groups’ offensive but all trace of him was lost as the French strikes began. His name reappeared in January 2015 when his links with the MLF, to which most of the armed attacks in the Macina have been attributed, were demonstrated.[fn]B. Daou, “Attaques de Ténenkou: l’ombre de Hammadoun Koufa avec un Mouvement de Libération du Macina plane”, Le Républicain, 23 January 2015.Hide Footnote  

Unlike the armed groups in northern Mali, the MLF has no known military or political chain of command.[fn]Security forces and the media have mistakenly presented several individuals as Kouffa’s lieutenants. Crisis Group interviews, security officer in Mopti, Malian security ministry official, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote The armed groups that temporarily occupy towns in central Mali and preach there do not claim allegiance to any particular movement. The leaflets distributed or displayed in the mosques in the Mopti region are not signed by the MLF but by Ansar Dine, or use the name of Dina, a Fulani theocracy in the nineteenth century.[fn]For more on Ansar Dine, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012. Interestingly, in an audio message released in 2015, Iyad ag Ghaly, leader of Ansar Dine, referred to combatants in central Mali without mentioning the MLF but giving words of encouragement to “the lions of Macina and Douentza”. Audio recording of Iyad ag Ghaly, 19 October 2015 (translation by Crisis Group). For more on the history of the Dina of Macina, see Ahmadou Hampâté Bâ and Jacques Daget, L’empire peul du Macina, 1818-1853 (Paris, 1962).Hide Footnote The only video posted on the internet by a group active in central Mali, which dates from 18 May 2016, was also signed by Ansar Dine’s “Katibat Macina”.[fn]“First Video of Katibat Macina”, message from Jamaat Ansar Dine, Jihadology, 18 May 2016.In August 2015, Ali Hamma, a former combatant close to Belmokhtar, one of the main jihadist leaders in the subregion and emir of the al-Morabitoune group created in August 2013, contacted Agence France-Presse (AFP) office in Bamako to claim responsibility for the attack in Sévaré, saying that “Cheikh Hamadoun Kouffa has also given his blessing to the attack”. On the same day, Al Jazeera received a message from al-Morabitoune, also claiming responsibility for the attack. “Attaque de Sévaré: les explications d’un lieutenant d’Amadou Kouffa”, L’indicateur du Renouveau, 12 August 2015; “Un deuxième groupe djihadiste revendique l’attaque à Bamako”, Le Monde, 20 November 2015. Hide Footnote The MLF, if it really exists, has claimed responsibility for few actions other than two major attacks on a hotel in Sévaré in August 2015 and on the Hotel Radisson in Bamako in November 2015.[fn]In August 2015, Ali Hamma, a former combatant close to Belmokhtar, one of the main jihadist leaders in the subregion and emir of the al-Morabitoune group created in August 2013, contacted Agence France-Presse (AFP) office in Bamako to claim responsibility for the attack in Sévaré, saying that “Cheikh Hamadoun Kouffa has also given his blessing to the attack”. On the same day, Al Jazeera received a message from al-Morabitoune, also claiming responsibility for the attack. “Attaque de Sévaré: les explications d’un lieutenant d’Amadou Kouffa”, L’indicateur du Renouveau, 12 August 2015; “Un deuxième groupe djihadiste revendique l’attaque à Bamako”, Le Monde, 20 November 2015. Hide Footnote  Finally, it is unclear whether Kouffa survived the French bombardments of Konna in January 2013.[fn]He has not circulated any video recently even though audio recordings in Fula dating from 2015 were attributed to him by people interviewed by Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, member of the elite originally from Macina, Bamako, March 2016. Hide Footnote Dead or alive, his sermons continue to circulate and influence people. 

Little is known about the people who have rallied behind Kouffa or have been fighting in his name.[fn]According to the Malian State Security Department (known by its French acronym, DGSE), a Fulani called Hassan Dicko and nicknamed “Abou Leila” has acted as a link between armed groups in central and southern Mali. Considered to be Hamadoun Kouffa’s right-hand man, he was arrested on 5 September 2015. Internal document of the Malian security services made available to Crisis Group, Bamako, 2015.Hide Footnote His network reportedly attracts individuals from disadvantaged social backgrounds and Fulanis from the plains, seduced by his critique of traditional landowners in the Niger Delta. The financing of the movement seems largely local and to owe much less to the major trafficking networks than that of the armed movements in the north.[fn]The movement does not raise taxes from the population but it seems that herders and traders supporting it contribute financially. Fulani leaders, including an imam reputed to be close to Kouffa and a former MOJWA member together made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 2015. That year, many other Fulani members of the elite made the pilgrimage with financial assistance from the Fulani diaspora in Saudi Arabia. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, individual originally from the Douentza circle, interior ministry official, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote  

Several local sources now doubt that the MLF exists or deny it is solely responsible for the violence that has affected the centre of the country since the beginning of 2015.[fn]A Fulani public official born in Mopti spoke of the “imaginary Macina Liberation Front”. An NGO director from the same region said: “We Fulanis do not believe a Macina Liberation Front exists”. Crisis Group interviews, senior public official of Fulani origin, Bamako, March 2016; NGO director of Fulani origin, Mopti, March 2016.Hide Footnote It is clear that no single group can be considered as the perpetrator of all the attacks against the state and its allies. Neither are the different entities that have been implicated clearly unified in a movement with a common agenda. The name Macina Liberation Front, popularised by the media, does not adequately reflect the nebulous nature of this assortment of small groups with uneven structures.[fn]Crisis Group research found that the existence of this group was reported on 16 January 2015 by an Arab language newspaper on the h-Azawad website, which had ceased to operate by mid-2015. The information has been published by other newspapers, such as Jeune Afrique, and then by the Malian press. Malian journalists have been the first to mention Hamadoun Kouffa as the leader of a movement responsible for the attacks. According to the press, the group that attacked Ténenkou carried copies of Kouffa’s sermons. “Mali: au Nord, la mosaïque des acteurs complique la crise”, Jeune Afrique, 16 January 2015; “Attaques de Ténenkou: l’ombre de Hammadoun Koufa avec un mouvement de Libération du Macina plane”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Armed violence in the area has complex roots and involves many protagonists; the MLF label simplifies this reality.

B. A Juxtaposition of Armed Groups

Security sources say that several groups, rather than a single organisation, target the state. These groups do not necessarily coordinate their agendas even though they are in contact with each other.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security experts, Bamako and Sévaré, October 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote The attacks on towns in central Mali at the beginning of 2015 were reportedly carried out by a group that came out of Ansar Dine and was formed along Mali’s border with Mauritania. It allegedly includes Fulani and Tamasheq combatants, some of which are officers close to Iyad ag Ghali.[fn]A native of Nampala said there were both “white” and “black men” among the group that attacked the town and that some of them spoke Fula. Crisis Group interview, individual from Nampala, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote It planned to carry out a series of operations designed to impress the population and terrify the authorities, probably to facilitate the establishment of a new movement recruiting locally.[fn]Nampala suffered a similar attack in 2009, when sixteen Malian soldiers were killed. The rebellion organised by Ibrahim ag Bahanga claimed responsibility for that attack. However, local sources believe the attackers had contacts with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had a strong presence in the border region at that time. Crisis Group interview, public official, Bamako, February 2015. Hide Footnote This group then apparently withdrew to the border area (perhaps dispersing toward several destinations, such as Léré, Malian refugee camps in Mauritania and Wagadou Forest). It may be in the process of reactivating under the name of Katibat Macina of Ansar Dine and broadcast its first video in May 2016.

A second group was formed in the aftermath of the February 2015 attacks. Mainly active in the Ténenkou and Youwarou circles, it has recently recruited locally but also includes combatants who probably joined MOJWA or Ansar Dine during the crisis in 2012. Less well-armed and less well-versed in the tactics of war than the first group, it has not yet managed to take control of any town defended by the army.[fn]“These people have thrown away their clubs and taken up arms. They are not professionals”. Crisis Group interview, NGO representative from the Mopti region, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote It is quite active in rural areas, spreading its message among the local communities and harassing government informers and security forces convoys. 

Further to the east, a similar group is active, some members of which joined the MOJWA during the 2012 crisis. It is growing in the Douentza circle, to a lesser extent in the Bankass circle, and occasionally spills over the border into Burkina Faso, especially in the northern and Sahel regions. It is mainly formed of nomadic Fulanis, namely the subgroups Seedoobe (from Mali), the Djelgobe (from Burkina Faso) and especially the Toleebe (from Niger). This group has links with others that are active in Macina and along the border with Mauritania, although it is difficult to determine the extent and solidity of these contacts.[fn]Some sources even mention the possibility that they are in contact with both the Macina group and an AQIM battalion (qatiba) that is moving around in the Gourma. Crisis Group interview, security expert, Sévaré, March 2016. Hide Footnote  

In 2015, military sources estimated that each of these groups had a few dozen members. The degree to which they coordinate their activities remains uncertain.[fn]These groups circulate from east to west, between Méma, Farimaké, Macina and Hayre. Hamadoun Kouffa, who is relatively famous in the Macina and, to a lesser extent, in the Méma, is less well-known in the Hayre region. Crisis Group interviews, nomads from the Douentza circle, Bamako, February 2015 and March 2016.Hide Footnote Local and French security sources say a total of 150 to 200 men have basic military equipment: Kalashnikovs, grenade-throwers, motorbikes, a few 4x4 vehicles with heavy machine guns stolen from Mali’s armed forces (FAMA), and the capacity to use landmines or improvised explosive devices.[fn]Internal document of a national security service, September 2015. Crisis Group interviews, journalist and senior French officer, Paris, August 2015. Hide Footnote Nothing like the columns of 4×4 vehicles mounted with machine guns, mortars and sniper rifles commonly used in the north. This is because there is a stronger and older warrior culture in the north, the purchase of military equipment is funded by trafficking and more arms are available from Libya and stocks of weapons stolen from the Malian army in 2012.

C. The Multiple Reasons for Violence

The violence affecting central Mali involves movements inspired by the jihad, but is also the product of local disputes. The fight against terrorism should not therefore be the only response to this multifaceted violence.

Armed bandits are responsible for many incidents, notably attacks on fairs and markets, wrongly attributed to jihadist groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote Jihadist and armed gangs occupy the same territories. There might be some contact between them and they may even cooperate at times, but they are very different in nature.[fn]In the Méma and the Farimaké, Ntéréré groups who joined the MNLA in 2012 opportunely joined the MOJWA after it defeated the MNLA in Gao. It is difficult to know what remains of these links but several security sources mention contacts between these bandit groups and jihadist elements, and even a possible sharing of roles. Crisis Group interviews, member of MINUSMA, Sévaré, October 2015; security expert, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote Armed bandits have an ambiguous status in local society: some communities see them as a shield against government abuses or rival communities, while others denounce them as mere predators.[fn]They are known as “social bandits”, in the sense given to this expression by the historian E.J. Hobsbawm. “Armed men” such as the Hima brothers in the Douentza circle and Hama Foune Diallo, a native of the Macina, have a reputation for being both bandits and defenders of their communities. Crisis Group interviews, prominent figures, herders and public officials of Fulani origin, Bamako and Sévaré, October 2015 and March 2016. E.J. Hobsbawm, Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester, 1959).Hide Footnote

In addition to banditry, settlings of scores contribute to the increasing insecurity. In certain cases, local people seeking revenge for abuses by the “porteurs d’uniformes” (men in uniform), rather than jihadists, are responsible for the harassment and sometimes killing of public officials.[fn]In West Africa, the expression “porteur d’uniforme” refers to members of the security forces. For example, a forest ranger was killed on 6 April 2015 in Diafarabe and an informer of a water and forest ranger was killed on 9 March 2016 in Mbesso, 5km to the south of Diabaly. It is difficult to know whether such killings are local acts of vengeance or attempts by radical groups to chase the administration out. List of security incidents in the Mopti region since 2015, Malian internal document made available to Crisis Group.Hide Footnote This reveals a local desire to chase the government out, which deliberately or not converges with the jihadist agenda. Distinguishing between local settlings of scores and “jihadist” actions is therefore difficult.[fn]Crisis Group interview with a humanitarian worker active in Ténenkou, Sévaré, November 2015. According to other sources, combatants supporting Kouffa participate in local settlings of scores targeting civilians. “It was after the attack on Dioura that we started suspecting the Dawa people. Shortly after this attack, assailants went to Sikéré Tielo, a small hamlet populated by farmers. They killed someone who was in dispute with a person from the Dawa. The case had been referred to the Dioura town council, which reportedly demanded a fine of FCFA500,000 (about €750). Kouffa was the leader of the Dawa in this area”. Crisis Group interview, individual from Nampala, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote  

However, some violent incidents are due neither to banditry nor settlings of scores. The destruction of the Hamdallaye mausoleums on 3 May 2015 and sermons hostile to the authorities and foreigners clearly denote a jihadist agenda.[fn]In an audio recording attributed to him, Kouffa reportedly called on people to chase out the Malian security forces (“the big shoes”), their local informers and their international allies. Crisis Group interview, senior Malian officer, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote In the villages they visit, Kouffa’s followers call on communities to close French schools, veil women and insist that men’s trousers do not hang below their ankles.[fn]According to other sources, they also ban cola nuts and tobacco. They refer to regional history, emphasising that “the period of idolatry before the Macina theocracy is over”. However, they also reinterpret the past, of which the Fulani communities of central Mali are proud. Kouffa vehemently criticises the prominent Marabout families, heirs of Cheikou Amadou, founder of the Dina. Moreover, Kouffa’s followers are held responsible for the destruction of several mausoleums of prominent figures in the history of the Dina, including Cheikou Amadou himself. Some Fulani members of the elite in Bamako feel this is unforgivable. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani senior public officials and religious leaders, Bamako, Mopti and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote In Hayre and around Ténenkou, similar groups ban celebrations at major social ceremonies like, for example, costly weddings. Their discourse is never exclusively religious. Its social, political and economic dimensions help gain local support.[fn] This forms part of the broader trend for religious discourse to reflect Malians’ social and political concerns. See Benjamin Soares, “Islam in Mali in the Neoliberal Era”, African Affairs, vol. 105, no. 418 (2005).Hide Footnote  

Kouffa’s criticisms of prominent Marabout families, who are large landowners, can appeal to some youths and the less well-educated population, although these families remain well-respected.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, elected representatives, members of civil society and Fulani religious leaders, Bamako, Mopti and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote For example, economically marginalised groups support Kouffa’s challenge to the Dioko – customary rights to exploit natural resources.[fn]The murder of the Mayor of Dogo is an example. The investigation is currently being carried out but this killing seems to be linked to a conflict between two Fulani groups for access to pastures. In this conflict, Kouffa’s followers have supported the Tioki Fulanis (transhumants) who have been challenging the land rights of a sedentary Fulani group in the Macina. Crisis Group interviews, members of the two communities in conflict in Dogo and in Diallube commune, Sévaré and Mopti, October 2015, March 2016.Hide Footnote The radical religious discourse resonates with older protests against the local political and social order. Generally speaking, local concerns are used to justify the call to jihad. What is at stake differs from one area to another and there is not necessarily any interest in pursuing a common agenda. And at the individual level, it is difficult to say at what point interest in the jihad prevails over more local concerns.

V. Make Central Mali Secure: Military Operations, Political Dialogue and Self-defence Groups

The government’s response has so far focused on security. Although this has had some results, violence continues to spread. Communities are taking up arms to defend themselves, probably with the support of sectors of the Malian security forces. Armed militias are undeniably becoming stronger and there is a danger that a major wave of violence will unfold.

A. The Security Response and Its Limits

Following attacks against them in February 2015, the security forces strengthened their positions in the main towns of the country’s centre, particularly Sévaré, Ténenkou and Douentza. This has allowed them to hold these small cities and avoid further defeats. However, armed groups continue to harass them in rural areas. In response, Operation Seno produced some results in autumn 2015 in the Bankass circle.[fn]Operation Seno was mounted after attacks on sedentary Dogon groups in the Bankass region. Despite having only the equivalent of a company at its disposal, the FAMA engaged and repelled an armed group reportedly close to the MLF. The clash took place in Tiébanda forest, near the border with Burkina Faso, where Islamists were trying to set up a base. Crisis Group interviews, member of the Malian security forces, researcher specialising in central Mali and MINUSMA member, Sévaré, February 2016.Hide Footnote But this type of intervention aims to contain the expansion of armed groups rather than to deal with the causes of insecurity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Malian security forces, Sévaré, February 2016.Hide Footnote Like Seno, search-and-sweep operations organised by the FAMA lead to arrests. Carried out following denunciations, they are sometimes based on false information. This causes tensions with the population and some serious abuses have been reported.[fn]Opinions diverge on the atrocities committed by the FAMA: some feel they are inevitable given the lack of resources and emphasise that they are less common today than they were in 2013; others consider that the atrocities and disappearances of suspects are still too many. Crisis Group interviews, security experts, members of FAMA and Fulani members of the elite, Bamako and Sévaré, February 2016. See also, “Mali: Abuses Spread South”, Human Rights Watch, 19 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Mali’s military partners are thin on the ground in the centre. MINUSMA has a limited presence but a new mandate, voted on 29 June 2016, provides for reinforcements.[fn]“Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Mali”, UNSC S/2016/498, 31 May 2016, p. 17. In the Mopti region, MINUSMA only deploys one police unit in Sévaré and three Togolese army infantry companies in Douentza, more than 150km (by road) to the north east of Mopti. “Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Mali”, UNSC S/2016/281, 28 March 2016. On 29 June 2016, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2295, increasing the number of MINUSMA military personnel by 2,049 (from 11,240 to 13,289 deployed soldiers) and the number of police officers by 480 (from 1,440 to 1,920). It asked MINUSMA to take a more robust stance and focus on prevention. Following the UN Secretariat’s strategic assessment of MINUSMA, the resolution also said the mission’s strategic priority should be the effective implementation of the peace agreement, in particular, the reestablishment of the government’s authority. “United Nations Resolution 2295 (2016)”, UNSC S/RES/2295, 29 June 2016.Hide Footnote However, there is a risk of reproducing the situation prevailing in Gao and Kidal – a larger force focused on self-protection, holed up in a fortified stronghold in town and incapable of restoring order to neglected rural areas. 

Meanwhile, Operation Barkhane does not cover the area, even though its soldiers have intervened to support Malian forces during a few joint operations.[fn]Launched on 1 August 2014 to take over from Operation Serval in the fight against terrorist armed groups in Mali, the French military force Barkhane is meant to pursue this fight within a more regional framework and facilitate its appropriation by the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad) over the entire Sahel-Saharan region.Hide Footnote It did not participate in Operation Seno, widely seen as a test for the Malian army, currently going through a process of reconstruction. More recently, when clashes with armed groups threatened to become more intense, as in the Douentza circle and along the border with Mauritania, it provided temporary operational support. From 22 February to 6 March 2016, Operation Gabi mobilised Malian, Burkina and French forces.[fn] “Les armées malienne et burkinabée font patrouille commune à leur frontière”, Le Monde, 6 March 2016.Hide Footnote The results were limited: armed groups avoided combat and went into hiding during search operations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of the Barkhane Force, Bamako, March 2016.Hide Footnote Armed groups in central Mali, less structured than the political-military groups in the North, often avoid direct confrontations. The FAMA and their allies do not manage to be effective against this diffuse threat.

B. An Area Neglected by the Algiers Talks

The peace process has ignored central Mali. As a participant in the inter-Malian negotiations that took place from June 2014 to February 2015 in the Algerian capital said: “in Algiers, we did not see many Fulanis from the centre”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former member of the MINUSMA mediation team, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote None of the armed movements’ main representatives were from this area.[fn]Meetings took place between Tabital Pulaaku and Ganda Izo, an armed group recruiting mainly among the Fulanis in the Gao region. They did not lead to a lasting alliance, the Fulanis from the Gao region remaining poorly represented at Tabital. Crisis Group interviews, members of Tabital Pulaaku, Bamako, February 2015.Hide Footnote Some public figures from the area approached MINUSMA to try and negotiate the official inclusion of their group in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process.[fn]In December 2103, a Fulani member of the elite from the Mopti region approached MINUSMA’s DDR unit with a list of about twenty applicants for demobilisation. Suspected of wanting to take advantage of DDR funds, he was referred to the groups that signed the Ouagadougou agreement, the only interlocutors at that time recognised for the purposes of disarmament. Crisis Group interview, former MINUSMA member, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote Underrepresented in the armed movements that signed the Ouagadougou (2013) and Bamako (2015) agreements, they have been sidelined from the peace process.[fn]The underrepresentation of armed groups from central Mali also reflects their lack of resources and military forces. Crisis Group interview, former MINUSMA member, Bamako, February 2016.Hide Footnote

The peace agreement signed in June 2015 in Bamako applies to the northern regions and contains only rare references to the centre.[fn]Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, resulting from the Algiers process, 20 June 2015.Hide Footnote Many public figures there, particularly Fulani, feel that history is repeating itself: peace is being built without them if not against them. Many believe that “you need to take up arms to be heard”. Some of them argue that the armed network that supports Kouffa has emerged precisely because there was no local armed group to bring the area into the spotlight. In this context, calls for the creation of self-defence groups are becoming increasingly common. 

C. The Temptation to Form Militias

The nomadic populations of central Mali have been tempted to resort to arms for some years now.[fn]However, some Fulani members of the elite Crisis Group talked to reject the idea of taking up arms or forming a Fulani army. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Fulani religious leader and traders, Bamako and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote The absence of government combined with insecurity during the occupation in 2012 accelerated this dynamic. In Bamako, some members of the elite close to the government supported the idea of arming and supervising local self-defence groups.[fn]Djiguiba Keita, “Après Tenenkou, l’Etat va-t-il abandonner Macina?”, Maliweb, 20 January 2016.Hide Footnote The transitional authorities were reluctant to do this because the regular army lacked equipment and because they feared they might lose control over these groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite and nomadic leader from Douentza, Bamako, February 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote  

While the return of public officials to central Mali is most often theoretical, persisting insecurity is currently reviving the wish of some communities to form self-defence groups. In the Macina, Fulani village chiefs have been meeting since 2013 to raise funds, mobilise young people and raise awareness to the idea among the elite in Bamako in order to obtain government support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Bamako and Sévaré, February 2o16.Hide Footnote MINUSMA mediated to bring them together in Bamako in May 2014, which temporarily helped to reduce tensions without resolving the issue of local security.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former MINUSMA member, March 2016.Hide Footnote In May 2015, a delegation of village chiefs again went to Bamako to demand “steps to ensure the security of people and their goods in the central Niger Delta”. They publicly supported the creation of local self-defence brigades. They held meetings to pass on this message in the centre. Some prominent individuals, concerned that taking up arms would aggravate local tensions and fuel criticism against existing power structures, expressed scepticism.[fn]A meeting took place in Bony (Douentza circle, about 100km to the north east of Mopti) in August 2014, but the Fulani elites in the town were opposed to the idea of forming self-defence groups and wanted to disarm the Fulani Seedoobe nomads with whom they compete. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite and researcher, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote

Some Malian officers and politicians favour the formation of self-defence groups in the centre of the country.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Fulani members of the elite, Fulani religious leader and traders, Bamako and Sévaré, November 2015, February 2016.Hide Footnote Security forces are divided about whether it is useful to use paramilitary groups as local intermediaries for their operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of FAMA and security ministry official, Bamako and Sévaré, February 2016.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, MINUSMA is uncertain about the capacity of the elites in the centre, particularly Fulani representatives of the Tabital Pulaaku Association, to reach agreement among themselves on a joint project to achieve security. It also doubts that they are representative and capable of mobilising trained combatants, which they have lacked so far. As a member of MINUSMA said: “the Fulanis have not found their Gamou”, the name of the Malian general viewed as the main defender of the Tuareg Imrad cause in Mali.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MINUSMA member, February 2016.Hide Footnote

Members of the elite from Central Mali do not share a common agenda or vision to form a unified self-defence group. Some of them believe that forming self-defence groups may help fill the vacuum left by the FAMA’s inability to make the area secure: they would go where the regular security forces are unable to go for lack of resources. Others seek to use these groups to build a local political support base or attract aid funds (DDR, funding for peace). Still others believe that the fight will be more long term: Fulani communities in the centre of the country should form a common front in order to establish a position of strength with which to regain their place in the Malian mosaic.[fn]“We need to restore the balance of power so that we will not need intermediaries to protect ourselves. No Tamasheq will respect us if we do not do this”. Crisis Group interview, Fulani member of the elite, Bamako, November 2015.Hide Footnote These agendas are not necessarily contradictory but they do not serve the same interests and do not share the same vision of local security. Worryingly, even the more peaceful elements now seem resigned to the emergence of self-defence groups to try and contain the violence.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, Malian intellectual of Fulani origin, May 2016.Hide Footnote  

Faced with the gradual expansion of the centre’s insecure areas, the government is hesitating about what response to make. At the start of 2016, members of the Fulani elite in Bamako acted as intermediaries at meetings between senior government officials and political-military leaders of small armed groups active in the centre of the country.[fn]“At the instigation of some members of Tabital Pulaaku, a National Security Council led by Modi-bo Sidibé, ex-governor of the Ségou region, was formed to identify armed Fulanis with a view to including them in the DDR program. That implies that once they have been identified, they will be cantoned, disarmed and will participate in joint patrols with other armed groups”. Facebook page of the Kisal Association. Malian authorities allegedly paid some Fulani political-military chiefs from the centre to come to Bamako and help with “assembling their groups”. Crisis Group interviews, Fulani member of the elite who participated in these meetings and senior security official, Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote Shortly afterwards, the Malian press announced, with customary exaggeration, that “several hundred elements” of the MLF were in the process of joining the DDR program.[fn]Sékou Tamboura, “Situation sécuritaire dans le Macina et le Seno: 500 djihadistes d’Amadou Koufa rendent les armes”, L’Aube, 7 March 2016.Hide Footnote Lists of combatants were produced and centralised by members of the elite in Bamako who met with the MINUSMA in February and March 2016. Negotiations also took place to enable these groups from the centre to join the Coordination of Azawad Movements (known by its French acronym, CMA) and the Platform, the two coalitions of armed groups that signed a peace agreement with the government in 2015, and therefore benefit from MINUSMA-led DDR process. However, the control of these groups and the issue of their affiliation generate worrying tensions.[fn]In June, a group of Fulani combatants close to Ganda Izo, preparing for DDR, was reportedly attacked in the Gourma region, to the east of Douentza, by the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defence Group and allies (known by its French acronym, GATIA) who either did not accept their presence or were trying to recruit them into their own ranks. The death toll from the confrontation is unknown. Behind it lies the struggle to control armed groups in the centre and gain access to DDR resources. Crisis Group telephone interviews, members of Ganda Izo and GATIA, Malian researcher, June 2016.Hide Footnote

It is unlikely that the elements concerned are the most committed militants of the Kouffa network.[fn]Indeed, militants close to Kouffa reportedly threatened young people wanting to join the DDR program. Crisis Group interviews, security expert and Fulani member of the elite, Sévaré and Bamako, February 2016. Hide Footnote The initiative may nonetheless help to put a brake on recruitment by radical groups and encourage the more opportunistic elements, who are responsible for some of the violence in the centre, to turn away from them.[fn]Facebook page, Malian national reconciliation ministry, consulted in March 2016.Hide Footnote But there is a risk it will cause a misunderstanding: some sectors see this initiative as an opportunity to extend DDR to the centre and begin to buy local peace by distributing funds; others are concerned that it constitutes a kind of recognition that will only encourage militias to form. In Mopti, in January 2016, a meeting of representatives of different communities supported by the national reconciliation ministry repeated an appeal “to create monitoring units composed of young people and hunters in every part of the country or, if that is not possible, to create vigilance brigades in sensitive municipalities (where access is difficult and the army cannot intervene quickly)”. [fn]Facebook page, Malian national reconciliation ministry, message posted on 29 January 2016 (Crisis Group translation).Hide Footnote

In May 2016, violent clashes between armed Bambara and Fulani groups resulted in the death of at least 30 people and hundreds of nomads fled to Mauritania’s refugee camps.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, expert visiting camps in Mauritania, June 2016.Hide Footnote Members of the security forces allegedly helped to arm traditional Bambara hunters in order to halt the advance of jihadists in the centre. Shortly afterwards, armed Fulani elements, reportedly close to the jihadists, gathered near Mali’s border with Mauritania, raising fears they would reinforce jihadists in the area. In Bamako, the authorities are concerned and have revived the idea of forming Fulani self-defence groups distinct from the jihadist groups as a way of reducing the attraction that the latter are exercising over Fulani nomads.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, member of a Fulani Association in Mali, May 2016.Hide Footnote The current rise in tensions is leading to the constitution of armed groups that are more or less controlled by the authorities.[fn]The creation of the National Alliance for Safeguarding Fulani Identity and Restoring Justice (known by its French acronym, ANSIPRJ), a new political-military movement for the defence of the Fulani populations, was announced on 18 June 2016. It is led by Oumar Al-djana, a young Fulani teacher who claims to be a former MNLA member. The creation, still largely theoretical, of a new armed movement falls within the broader context of competition between Fulani elites to form an armed movement to represent them. “Oumar Aldjana: ‘Nous avons créé un mouvement pour mettre fin aux exactions contre les Peuls’ “, Jeune Afrique, 20 June 2016.Hide Footnote  

Without efficient action to reduce tensions, the centre could quickly become the new epicentre of violence in Mali.[fn]In the words of the Malian researcher, Boukary Sangaré. “Le Centre du Mali: épicentre du djihadisme?”, Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP), 20 May 2016.Hide Footnote Jihadist elements gain from these troubles by making themselves useful to some communities and consolidating their own positions. However, tension originates less from the supposed radicalisation of any community than from the government’s lack of legitimacy and the inability of the authorities to peacefully regulate local conflicts to secure the area. 

VI. Looking Beyond the Security Challenge: 
A Test for Crisis Prevention and Management Policies

Some groups affiliated to terrorist movements already exist in central Mali, but their numbers remain small and it is difficult to ascertain to what extent they coordinate their activities. Policies designed to combat violent radicalisation should not focus on anti-terrorist operations led solely by the security forces, especially as their methods are partly to blame for local people rejecting the government. They should take into account the broader context that is fuelling the increase in armed violence, as described in this report. As Crisis Group recently highlighted, resolving local conflicts will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism will do to prevent crises.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016. Full Report only available in English.Hide Footnote

Without the armed violence that has again affected the north since 2012, it is unlikely that resentment in the centre of the country would have so quickly resulted in political-military mobilisations. The two regions are undeniably connected but there are also major differences between them. For example, joining armed groups as a form of social integration and the criminalisation of the economy, especially drug trafficking, are much less developed in the centre. Specific responses must therefore be designed in each region. The Malian government should design a special plan to respond to the specific problems and forms of violence affecting the centre. This would avoid losing too much energy trying to extend to the centre the benefits of the peace agreement negotiated for other regions by their own representatives.

A. The Objective: A Government with Renewed Legitimacy in the Territories

The danger of increased armed violence in central Mali results less from the action of terrorist organisations than from years of negligence by the authorities and what are viewed as their unfair policies. The priority for the government, with the aid of Mali’s partners, should therefore be to restore its presence in the area in order to build good relations with the local populations. It must first understand the extent of rejection of the state by local people and rebuild its legitimacy not by returning to repressive, partial and authoritarian policies but, on the contrary, by playing its role of regulator, guaranteeing access to basic services and being on hand to help the people, including nomadic groups. 

This requires results in areas where work has already begun. Justice, which is too often corrupt and at the service of the powerful, must be independent and autonomous from those who hold political and economic power. The government must guarantee the populations’ access to basic services. In addition to justice and security, which are priority fields for intervention, the government must also invest in education and natural resources management. It should rethink its presence among the population, including nomadic groups. In today’s world, it is essential, for example, to intensify efforts to create nomadic schools. 

In terms of security, the government must reassure citizens and restore public order. As Crisis Group emphasised: “Jihadists’ ability to offer protection … is … usually more central to their success than ideology”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The government must again prove it has the capacity to protect. That requires, firstly, that the security forces regain credibility in the eyes of the populations. To break the cycle of predation by the “porteurs d’uniforme”, senior officers must punish abuses in a conspicuous way. 

The government must also start working on local security as soon as possible. The Malian security forces are currently too few in number to cover the entire territory.[fn]The Mopti region, which is twice the size of Belgium, reportedly has only 753 gendarmes, police officers and National Guard members to maintain order. Crisis Group interview, MINUSMA member, Sévaré, March 2016.Hide Footnote A territorial or communal police force, funded by regional or local authorities, should be put in place.[fn]Mali and its partners could learn from recent efforts in Niger to develop a local police force in the Agadez region. This project, still at the evaluation stage, was developed with the support of the EU, the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the Danish cooperation agency. Crisis Group interview, member of the EU delegation to Niger, Niamey, May 2016. Hide Footnote It would ensure security in places where other security forces only rarely venture. It could take responsibility for affairs that are under the remit of the police. The army, which has no investigative capacity, currently secures the area, but that is not its role.[fn]The Malian Security Forces (known by their French acronym, FDS) include the armed forces (FAMA) under the authority of the defence ministry and the internal security forces (national police, gendarmerie and National Guard) under the authority of the interior and civil protection ministry.Hide Footnote In addition, local recruits to a territorial police force would further reconciliation between local populations and the forces responsible for ensuring their security. Their powers and recruitment procedures should be clearly defined. The aim is to create representative police forces that serve local people and not communal militias that serve particular communities or interest groups. 

Finally, the government should try to end divisions between local elites, by encouraging them to take part in the political debate rather than resorting to arms to resolve their differences and rivalries. It is necessary to prevent political competition from leading to the formation of the kind of armed militias present in the north. Moreover, the stigmatisation of some nomadic elites because of their recent association with groups such as MOJWA is counterproductive in the long term. It is essential to avoid a situation in which some communities, feeling excluded, would be tempted to join radicalised groups to make their voice heard. In partnership with the government, local elites can play a central role. They should accept their share of responsibility for the current turmoil and stop blaming each other and manipulating desires for vengeance.

B. A Realistic Approach in Accordance with Government Resources

The hope that the 2012 crisis would provide a wake-up call to the nation and lead to ambitious governance reform has been largely disappointed. Public resources often continue to disappear before reaching intended beneficiaries. Development partners have been largely unable to reform aid policies. Worse, because of the insecurity, it has become more difficult for development aid to reach the more remote areas. The government remains constrained by limited budgetary resources. Investments in social services suffer as a result of the priority given to defence and security. In this context, recommendations to reform public administration in central Mali do not have much chance of success. 

A realistic approach is needed, one that carefully assesses what can be done in a situation suffering from such constraints. Rather than designing major new reforms, which rarely get much further than the ministries and departments in Bamako, the government should concentrate on practical action in the field. It must identify and work with all local actors, including members of civil society and those who, by necessity, made a pact with jihadist groups. The priority now is to invest in the neglected regions of the centre.

Given the extent of the needs in different parts of this still fragile country, the centre must find its champions, for instance a consensual figure able to win the support of the local people. The government could appoint a high representative for the central regions responsible for coordinating initiatives and preparing a special plan. The peace agreement has disregarded the centre so much that it cannot be implemented there. 

The different sectors of civil society in the centre, not only armed groups or those in power, must be closely involved in the preparation of such a plan, to ensure that the elite will not take the lead. The peace agreement signed in Bamako, rather favourable to the armed movements, was not the product of an inclusive process.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°226, Mali: An Imposed Peace?, 22 May 2015. Hide Footnote Only the DDR program, which pre-existed it, could be extended to the centre of the country, along the lines provided for in the agreement, to facilitate disarmament and reduce the increasingly worrying availability of war weapons.[fn]But it would be risky to extend to central regions the appointment of interim authorities as provided for in the peace agreement. That would provoke enormous tensions between the groups that might expect to choose these transitional authorities. Moreover, appointments to the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee (known by its French acronym, CSA) of public figures from the centre would undoubtedly lead to arguments between signatory parties, which already clashed on these issues in 2015. That would paralyse even more the bodies responsible for monitoring the agreement. Hide Footnote

Mali’s partners should allow those in their ranks who have a more detailed knowledge of these regions (European Union, Netherlands, etc.) to take responsibility for dealing with matters relating to central Mali. Duplication and pointless competition should be avoided.

Together, the government and involved partners should identify and focus on priority causes: security, justice, education and natural resources management are probably among the areas requiring immediate strategic intervention. It is less a question of developing the economy of regions that are rich in natural resources than of rebuilding the ability of the authorities to regulate conflicts and guarantee access to basic services. Finally, it is necessary to stop prioritising security solutions in the fight against radical groups. Military efforts are certainly useful but they must not be the main response. The challenge is to restore the state’s presence and ensure that the population recognise its legitimacy.

VII. Conclusion

Violent extremist groups prosper in areas of tension where the state is absent, where its authority is contested or where it is only present in the form of its security forces, especially if those commit abuses. They take hold when conflicts between communities for access to natural resources worsen and when the government is too weak and traditional authorities too contested to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes. In these circumstances, radical groups know how to win ground by making themselves useful and by supporting some groups against others. They provide protection, arms and military know-how, but they are also able to respond to strong local demands for justice, security and, more broadly, moral standard in politics. Central Mali provides them with particularly fertile terrain in which to establish themselves. They avoid big gestures but chase the state and its representatives from large swathes of territory and gradually replace them with their own people. 

It is still time to prevent and contain this phenomenon. The government is contested but not entirely rejected, even among sympathisers of radical groups. Moreover, these groups remain poorly coordinated and a minority. Much of the violence is still perpetrated by predators who have no coherent political agenda and sometimes use religious arguments. By intervening in the centre, the government and its partners must, however, focus on the correct objective. The aim is not to destroy a few dozen armed individuals. Something else is at stake: the government must restore its credibility by taking action that is fair and useful to the communities, including nomadic ones. 

It is important for the government to show that it serves all citizens and that the political system is sufficiently open to allow them to participate in the management of their own affairs and security. Central Mali could become a showcase for the implementation of local government policies and early action to avoid national states collapsing and violent radical groups establishing themselves. For this to happen, it must not be neglected any longer.

Dakar/Bamako/Brussels, 6 July 2016

Katiba Macina fighters on motorcycles in central Mali. Screen grab of a video by Az-Zallaqa. Title: "They Are Liars".
Report 276 / Africa

Speaking with the “Bad Guys”: Toward Dialogue with Central Mali’s Jihadists

War between the state and jihadists in central Mali has led to growing intercommunal violence. To spare civilians additional harm, the government should explore the possibility of talks with the insurgents about local ceasefires and humanitarian aid – while remaining open to broader discussions.

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What’s new? The war in central Mali has reached an impasse, with the state unable to defeat jihadist insurgents by force. The insurgency and military operations against it have exacerbated intercommunal violence. As a result, some Malians call for negotiations between the government and militant leaders.

Why does it matter? The calls for dialogue, while no longer marginal, are still resisted by the government, its foreign backers and parts of Malian society, who see no room for accommodation with the jihadists. Yet experiences negotiating local compromises and humanitarian access with militants suggest that at least some are pragmatic.

What should be done? The Malian state should mandate religious leaders to test the possibility of talks with militants, potentially aiming first for local ceasefires and other means of mitigating civilian suffering before broadening the scope. It should also sponsor wider dialogue among central Malians, including jihadist sympathisers, about the grievances underpinning the insurgency.

Executive Summary

Military operations aimed at defeating the Katiba Macina jihadist insurgency in central Mali have reached a stalemate, with the conflict fuelling ever deadlier intercommunal violence. In this light, some Malians call on the government to engage the militants in political dialogue. Obstacles to such talks are serious: the Katiba Macina’s demands seem to leave little space for accommodation; it has ties to al-Qaeda-linked militants; and the idea of dialogue generates resistance among many Malians and foreign powers. Nonetheless, central Mali residents, aid groups and religious scholars frequently engage the group to discuss local compromises, humanitarian access and religious doctrine, revealing at least some pragmatism among militants. Given the remote prospects for defeating the Katiba Macina militarily, the Malian authorities should empower religious leaders to explore initial talks with its leaders while seeking a wider dialogue among central Malians, including those sympathetic to the insurgency.

Since 2015, the Katiba Macina has established a strong presence in central Mali, capturing vast rural areas and expelling state officials. By framing longstanding socio-economic and political grievances in religious discourse, the movement’s leader Hamadoun Koufa has won support, in particular – though not exclusively – from Quranic school students and ethnic Peul herders. The group has provided basic justice, security and relief from decades of state predation in areas under its control. Both the Katiba Macina’s violence and military operations against it have widened pre-existing cleavages among ethnic groups, leading self-defence militias to proliferate and intercommunal clashes that now kill more people than fighting between militants and the security forces. Central Mali’s death toll is now the country’s highest, with civilians bearing the brunt. As the war’s costs mount, calls from activists, politicians and religious leaders for dialogue between the government and Katiba Macina leaders are growing louder.

Enormous challenges stand in the way of such dialogue. For now, both Mali’s top officials and jihadist leaders reject it. At first blush, the jihadists’ aspirations – in principle, the overthrow of Mali’s state and democratic institutions, their replacement with a theocratic system inspired by the group’s interpretation of sharia and the severing of relations between Mali and its Western partners – leave little room for conciliation. The Katiba Macina’s links to the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, a jihadist coalition that pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda, likely narrow its leeway to engage officials. Malian secular elites, Sufi Muslim scholars, human rights groups and victims’ associations express disquiet that talks with jihadists could lead to compromises on the role of Islam in public life. Those communities in central Mali that have suffered at its hands would likely resist negotiations. Some Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., expressly oppose the idea. No outside power explicitly backs it.

Despite these challenges, state and non-state actors have regularly engaged the Katiba Macina over the past four years. Malian officials have struck deals over hostage releases. Communal leaders, aid organisations, including Western groups, and religious scholars have discussed with the group its local rule, humanitarian access to areas under its control and the righteousness of its discourse. One initiative that appears to have shown promise involved the Malian government itself mandating religious and traditional leaders to explore what accommodation with jihadists might entail. Such contacts have mostly been local and limited in their objectives; as yet, they have not sought to introduce ceasefires or other means of reducing violence, let alone achieve peace. But they have revealed a degree of pragmatism among Katiba Macina militants, suggesting that even if the odds are stacked against success, dialogue with the group is worth trying.

The Malian government should consider two ways of engaging central Mali’s jihadists and their supporters:

  • The first would involve empowering Islamic scholars, including three religious figures that Katiba Macina leader Koufa himself has said he would be willing to meet. The scholars could seek to engage Koufa or at least people close to him, initially perhaps to explore ways of reducing civilian harm, such as through local ceasefires. They might also discuss the return of officials, especially those providing services like education and health that residents want, to areas under jihadist control. They might subsequently be able to work on proposals for political and religious reform or open a channel through which officials could talk with militant leaders.
  • The second would entail a more comprehensive dialogue among central Malians aimed at establishing a shared understanding of the causes of violence and how to address them. This dialogue would not necessarily include jihadists themselves, but it should involve groups that have tended to support them, notably Quranic school students and nomadic Peul. Given the state’s chronic weakness in central Mali, the dialogue should examine what its return to the region would entail, particularly in terms of regulating access to natural resources, restoring local security and justice provision, devolving authority, ensuring political representation, and improving both Francophone and Quranic education. A first step would be for Mali’s president to empower an envoy to explore how such a dialogue might be organised in the wake of state institutions’ collapse in parts of central Mali.

Pursuing these options would not mean an end to military operations. Indeed, dialogue should be part of a comprehensive plan for central Mali involving military pressure, development aid and efforts to disarm self-defence militias and militants alike. But such an approach would entail a shift of tack, with force used alongside efforts to bring Katiba Macina leaders to the table, rather than in the likely futile hope of defeating the movement on the battlefield.

Dakar/Brussels, 28 May 2019

I. Introduction

From 27 March to 3 April 2017, hundreds of delegates from across Mali’s ten regions attended a Conference of National Understanding (Conférence d’Entente Nationale) to promote peace and reconciliation in the war-torn country. In their final report, the delegates urged the Malian government to engage in dialogue with jihadist insurgents, including Iyad ag Ghaly, a Tuareg rebel turned jihadist leader and head of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM), a coalition comprising a number of militant groups formed in 2017, and Hamadoun Koufa, leader of the Katiba Macina, a JNIM member. Among the delegates’ dozens of recommendations, this one stood out. For years, at least officially, the Malian authorities had eschewed such dialogue. The delegates’ recommendation did not change their minds. A few weeks after the conference, officials including President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta reaffirmed their position: “no dialogue with terrorists”.[fn]See “Mali : Polémique autour d’un eventuel dialogue avec les jihadistes”, RFI, 24 May 2017. In a major interview the next year, Keïta reiterated that “there is no way to negotiate with jihadists”. “Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta : ‘Pas question de négocier avec les djihadistes’”, Le Monde, 23 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The Malian government and its foreign partners have long vowed to defeat jihadists, mostly now fighting under the banner of the JNIM or a smaller group calling itself the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, on the battlefield. For several years, the Malian army has mounted operations with this aim, alongside French troops under the auspices of Operation Barkhane, soldiers of neighbouring states in the G5 Sahel joint mission and forces of the UN’s stabilisation mission (MINUSMA). Yet for years the jihadist groups not only remained strong but also extended their reach into new territories. That expansion has slowed if not stopped: government forces and jihadists today seem locked in a mutually hurting stalemate, as both sides take heavy casualties while capturing no new ground. Clashes are, however, fuelling even deadlier intercommunal conflict. The 2017 push for dialogue came in reaction not only to the failure of military operations to achieve peace, but also to the broader escalation of violence to which the military operations have greatly contributed.

Malian officials are not alone in resisting dialogue. Their foreign partners, particularly France and the U.S., are not keen either.[fn]Visiting Mali in April 2017, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault answered a reporter asking about the possibility of dialogue: “How do you negotiate with terrorists? This is a fight with no ambiguity”. Reuters, 7 April 2017. When asked about the U.S. position on dialogue with jihadists in Mali, a U.S. diplomat based in Bamako reiterated that the U.S. has an official position against dialogue with terrorists. Crisis Group interview, U.S. diplomat, April 2019.Hide Footnote Indeed, jihadists leaders themselves reject dialogue, at least rhetorically. In August 2017, Hamadoun Koufa rejected a reported invitation to peace talks. In a widely circulated audio recording, he said:

What dialogue? What are we going to bargain about in this dialogue? Is God for bargaining? God cannot be bargained [about]. … Either we prevail and establish the will of God or we perish.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 21 August 2017.Hide Footnote

The reluctance all around raises questions as to whether the two sides will ever agree to talk with one another or even what there is to talk about.

This report is part of a series exploring policies aimed at countering the spread of jihadism and curbing levels of violence in the central Sahelian countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Building upon Crisis Group’s recent report on the Mali-Niger border, it focuses on central Mali as an area where a number of actors, ranging from local residents, religious scholars and NGOs to state authorities, continue to gauge the possibility of dialogue.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°261, Frontière Niger-Mali: mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote Looking at the demands and organisational structure of the Katiba Macina, the dominant jihadist movement in central Mali, as well as at the constraints faced by the Malian government, it investigates in particular whether various forms of engagement with jihadist groups could help reduce conflict, reinvigorate state authority and bring peace. It offers some ideas on how such dialogue might work, issues that it can address, goals it might achieve and actors who can influence the outcome for the better.

Jihadists of the Katiba parading in the bush. Screen grab of a video by Az-Zallaqa. title: "They Are Liars".

II. The Crisis in Central Mali

Over the last four years, the Katiba Macina has established a strong presence throughout central Mali. Militants have expelled state authorities from a large swath of territory, shut down government schools and attempted, with mixed success, to replace the state in providing basic public goods and services. The government and its foreign partners have stepped up military operations aimed at defeating the group and restoring state authority. Thus far, while the campaign has reinforced the state’s presence in towns and stopped the jihadists’ advance, it has left rural areas under their influence. Both the insurgency and the army’s campaign against it have fuelled intercommunal violence that has claimed many lives.

A. The Katiba Macina: An Ingrained Insurgency

In early 2015, as the Malian government and international backers focused efforts on fighting Islamist insurgents in Mali’s north, militants opened a new front in the central region of Mopti.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°238, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote Hamadoun Koufa, a preacher and companion of Iyad ag Ghaly, called for jihad against the state, launching the movement that came to be known as the Katiba Macina.[fn]In the insurgency’s early stages, media coverage often called it the Front de Libération de Macina. The jihadists themselves never used that name, however. Locals refer to the militants by various names, including yimbe ladde and bahee or pilki, respectively “bushmen”, “bearded men” and “turbaned men” in Fulfulde. For background on Iyad ag Ghaly, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012.Hide Footnote Within a year, the group had chased the Malian army and state authorities out of many areas in Mopti and established a stronghold in the inner Niger delta, the river’s fluvial wetlands and floodplain.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit.Hide Footnote Its influence spread through much of Mopti and parts of the adjacent Segou region.

The Katiba Macina has its origins in Mali’s 2012 crisis. That crisis saw jihadists and Tuareg separatists expel the army from the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, with the jihadists subsequently turning on their erstwhile Tuareg rebel allies and controlling towns in those regions for almost a year. Many people from central Mali – in particular northern areas dominated by ethnic Peul – enlisted in jihadist movements, notably the Movement of Oneness and Jihad, which had its stronghold in Gao, and ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine movement, which occupied Kidal and Timbuktu. Recruits’ motives varied. Some were enticed by the promise of adventure or money. Others joined to obtain weapons and military training they could use to protect their communities amid the general breakdown of law and order.[fn]See Boukary Sangaré, “Le centre du Mali : épicentre du djihadisme ?”, Groupe de Recherche et d’Information sur la Paix et la Sécurité, 20 May 2016.Hide Footnote In 2013, after a French-led intervention routed the jihadists from northern towns, many central Malian fighters returned home, only to face harassment from the army.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit.Hide Footnote Starting in 2015, they regrouped and launched a new insurgency.

 To mobilise support, they tapped deep-seated local grievances and exploited social fractures. The grievances included widespread resentment of state officials’ predation, pastoralists’ feelings of victimisation related to the government’s resource management and the shrinkage of pastoral land due to farmers’ expansion. The social tensions were especially salient among the Peul, notably between sedentary and nomadic sub-groups, and between autochthonous and immigrant Peul over access to pastures.

Important as these socio-political grievances are, it was Hamadoun Koufa’s ability to lend them religious resonance that appears to have given his movement additional purchase in society. Koufa’s use of Islamic discourse recalls the Diina, a 19th-century politico-religious movement led by Sékou Amadou, a Peul cleric whose jihad led to the creation of the Macina state in 1818 – it was dissolved in 1862 – and the consolidation of Peul hegemony in the region. To this day, many Peul in central Mali consider the Diina’s era their golden age. Some of those who support Koufa view his uprising as a way to reinstate it. Koufa’s discourse has also attracted many students from Quranic schools, an important segment of central Malian society that until recently was on the margins of political struggle. The students appear to have found in the insurgency a means of empowerment.

That said, not all Katiba Macina’s members sign up willingly. Jihadist leaders often force families in the inner delta to enrol their children at pain of sanctions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Ouro Modi and Sare Seini, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote Senior commanders or sympathisers may influence younger relatives to join, which sometimes they do only reluctantly.[fn]A Katiba Macina defector said, “I was working at my uncle’s shop in Diafarabe, cercle of Ténenkou. In 2016 my uncle closed the shop and started travelling while I sat at home. One day he took me with him to Ouro Modi, and then Ténenkou, where he introduced me to the yimbe ladde. I was assigned the task of bringing fuel from the city to the markaz. This is how I found myself in the group. In 2018, my uncle was arrested and imprisoned in Bamako. I fled to come to Konna, region of Mopti”. Crisis Group interview, Katiba Macina defector, Mopti, February 2019. A cercle is a second-level administrative division in Mali. Each region is subdivided into cercles.Hide Footnote

More people in central Mali are learning to live by the gun.

Unlike many jihadist movements, the Katiba Macina has no political wing but a single leadership – centred around Koufa – that justifies every action with religious argumentation. Koufa himself wields a great deal of authority. His charisma, degree of Islamic knowledge and connection to ag Ghaly make him the movement’s uncontested leader. A second tier of leaders comprises his original disciples and Islamic scholars who joined him later. An advisory council (majlis as shura) discusses important social and political decisions, including the liberation or execution of hostages and prisoners.

As a fighting force, the Katiba Macina comprises a core group of combatants who have received military training, carry weapons and live in the bush. These yimbe ladde (“bushmen”, in Fulfulde), as locals call them, rely on sympathisers in villages for material and logistical support, as well as intelligence. Some refer to these non-combatants in villages as “dormant cells”. They often serve as intermediaries between the yimbe ladde and others, whether locals or humanitarian NGOs seeking to work in areas under jihadist control. While only men can be yimbe ladde, women play a major role in the dormant cells, helping collect intelligence, facilitate recruitment and deliver supplies to the bush.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, female jihadist sympathisers from the cercle of Ténenkou, Mopti, February 2019.Hide Footnote

The Katiba Macina has a cohesive chain of command but is decentralised. Aside from its core in the inner delta, it comprises many units, each called a markaz (“centre”, in Arabic), scattered across central Mali. Each markaz has a leader, the “amirou markaz”, assisted by a military commander, a shura, or advisory, council and a qadi (“judge”, in Arabic).[fn]In many cases, the amirou markaz is a Quranic scholar and assumes the judge’s function as well. The rank-and-file jihadists in each markaz are generally from nearby villages. The markazes vary in size and significance, but a few are considered most important, including Dialloubé and Guelédié in the cercles of Mopti and Ténenkou, respectively.Hide Footnote Every amirou markaz in principle sits on the movement’s main majlis as shura, which is headed by Koufa and includes other Islamic scholars.

Each markaz exercises authority over its own surroundings, often in collaboration with communal leaders, but the Katiba Macina’s leadership does appear to assert its command. Katiba Macina defectors and former hostages testify that each amirou markaz reports decisions taken at the local level to the Katiba’s central command.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Katiba Macina defectors and former hostages, January-February 2019.Hide Footnote That said, it is unclear precisely how this works in practice and how much autonomy each markaz enjoys. It seems, for instance, that markazes outside the inner delta enjoy more freedom than others.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote A number of affiliated groups with varying levels of attachment to the core also operate in the areas surrounding the Delta, notably in the Haire (in the cercle of Douentza), Seno (in the cercle of Koro Bankass and Bandiagara), Kareri, Mema and Farimake.[fn]See the map in Appendix A.Hide Footnote

The Katiba’s strong and ideologically committed leadership presents a challenge to ending the insurgency but potentially an opportunity for those who would broker dialogue. On one hand, peacemaking efforts that exclude Koufa may well prove – and indeed thus far have proven – ineffective. Nor does it appear likely that trying to weaken the movement by prising away mid-level commanders or entire markaz will work. On the other hand, the cohesive leadership means that the state would have a credible, authoritative interlocutor were it able to engage Koufa himself.

B. Intercommunal Violence

The jihadist insurgency in central Mali is fuelling ever deadlier intercommunal violence. This violence originates in the historical mix of competition and collaboration among ethnic groups over access to natural resources. Peul, Bambara, Dogon, Bozo and other groups share the same land and water and pursue vocations – farming, fishing and herding – that can coexist but also come into conflict, for instance when farmers seek to plant land previously used as pasture for livestock.[fn]According to conventional wisdom, each of these groups specialises in a particular profession: the Peul are herders, the Bambara and Dogon are farmers, and the Bozo fishermen. In reality, some Peul sub-groups practice farming, while Dogon, Bambara and Bozo own livestock as well.Hide Footnote Tensions have sharpened in recent decades as both human and livestock populations have burgeoned while natural resources have dwindled due to environmental change.[fn]See Marie Brossier, Cédric Jourde and Modibo Ghaly Cissé, “Le Centre du Mali : Relations de pouvoir locales, logiques de violence et participation politique en Milieu Peul (Region de Mopti)”, Centre FrancoPaix, Université du Québec à Montréal, May 2018. On livestock, see Matthew Turner, “Capital on the Move: The Changing Relation between Livestock and Labor in Mali, West Africa”, Geoforum, vol. 50, no. 4 (September 2009). For the effects of climate change on competition for resources, see Leif Brottem, “Hosts, Strangers and the Tenure Politics of Livestock Corridors in Mali”, Africa, vol. 84, no. 4 (November 2014).Hide Footnote Bandits increasingly roam the countryside as traditional livelihoods erode. More people in central Mali are learning to live by the gun.[fn]Crisis Group has observed this phenomenon along the Mali-Niger border as well. See Crisis Group Report, Frontière Niger-Mali : mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The jihadist insurgency stems from intra-ethnic as well as inter-ethnic rivalries. Communities are themselves divided along lines of social status: noble, common and slave lineage; sedentary and nomadic lifestyle; and autochthonous and settler heritage. These cleavages have also produced tensions over political representation and access to resources, leading intermittently to small-scale intra-communal violence.

If the jihadist insurgency is partly a product of such cleavages, it and the army’s operations against it also deepen them, thus aggravating general insecurity. While the Katiba Macina mainly attacks the military and other state institutions, militants also target civilians whom they accuse of collaboration with security forces. Peul dominance among the jihadists lends an ethnic dimension to the insurgency and has prompted members of other ethnic groups, notably the Bambara and Dogon, to establish self-defence militias called dozo or donso (“hunters”, in Bambara) in the absence of state security forces.[fn]In traditional Mandé-speaking societies, dozos are communal guardians as well as hunters. As the conflict has evolved, however, some of them have diverged from their original mission to become something more like a militia. See Jean-Hervé Jezequel, “Centre du Mali : enrayer le nettoyage ethnique”, Crisis Group Q&A, 25 March 2019.Hide Footnote Dozos, traditionally armed with hunting rifles, now carry submachine guns. Until recently, direct confrontation between jihadists and dozos was rare; instead, dozos tended to respond to jihadist attacks on villagers with indiscriminate reprisals against Peul civilians.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Direct clashes have become more common as violence has escalated and jihadists more openly claim Peul identity. Dozo militias have helped Malian troops with intelligence gathering, though of late their reprisals against other groups have compelled the army to scale back cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military officer, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote

The death toll in Mopti has risen steadily since the insurgency began, with civilians caught in the crossfire. From 2015 to 2018, the number of conflict-related fatalities grew more than tenfold.[fn]In 2015, the number of conflict-related casualties in Mopti was 78, increasing to 114 in 2016, 292 in 2017 and 853 in 2018. ACLED data. See also the map in Appendix A.Hide Footnote Over a thousand people have died, hundreds been injured and thousands more displaced. Mopti has become the deadliest region in Mali, accounting for nearly half of the country’s violent deaths.[fn]Recently, several human rights organisations have documented dozens of episodes of tit-for-tat violence, largely perpetrated by dozos against Peul civilians, and to a lesser – but not negligible – extent, by jihadists who are mostly Peul against Bambara and Dogon villagers. See “Dans le centre du Mali, les population prises au piège du terrorisme et du contre-terrorisme”, FIDH/AMDH, November 2018; “‘We Used to Be Brothers’: Self-Defense Group Abuses in Central Mali”, Human Rights Watch, December 2018; UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, “Situation of Human Rights in Mali: Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Mali”, January 2019. Hide Footnote

The Katiba Macina initially distanced itself from identification with any one community but that has changed. In the past, the movement emphasised its multi-ethnic composition and focus on fighting what it called the enemies of sharia.[fn]Boukary Petal, the Katiba Macina’s second most vocal ideologue after Koufa, says in an audio recording: “Our fight is not a fight for the sake of Peul or Arabs or Touareg or Bambara. No! Our fight is a fight between faith and disbelief, democracy and the book of God, idolatry and monotheism. … We do not fight so that Peul become superior to Bambara. … All ethnic groups must stop their rivalries, because we have nothing to do with it and we do not want it. They must stop hating each other”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2015.Hide Footnote Yet Koufa has recently shifted his discourse to claim Fulani identity and called upon all Peul to join the jihad.[fn]In a recent message, Koufa said, “O Peul! You have seen from the outset of our jihad to this day what the unbelievers have done to Peul – massacres and extermination, as France, the UN and the Arabs looked on. The French incite others against the Peul because we raised the flag of Islam and wanted to resubmit ourselves to God’s judgment (may He be exalted)”. He adds, “My [Peul] brothers, wherever you are, remember these words, ‘Come support your religion’”. See JNIM video, “Light or Heavy, March to Battle”, 29 September 2018.Hide Footnote He issued this call in response to a debate raging on social media where Peul in Mali as well as in the diaspora were inveighing against the community’s victimisation at the hands of other groups, creating a sense of cross-border Peul solidarity. Koufa seized upon this sentiment not to stir up more ethnic strife but to channel the anger at France, the G5 Sahel forces and the Malian army, which he labelled the Peul’s real foes.[fn]In an audio recording, Koufa said, “The G5 is the legalisation of Peul killing in the countries that compose it. Mali has changed its law to legalise the massacre of Peul. Burkina Faso has also legalised it. … Because of the G5 Sahel, the blood of Peul is cheaper than that of wild animals, because wild animals are, at least, protected by rangers”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, October 2018.Hide Footnote But by assuming a more explicit Peul identity, he risks further associating, in the eyes of other communities, all Peul with the Katiba Macina’s violence.

C. The Limits of Counter-terrorism and Development

The Malian government and its foreign partners, including France, have privileged a military response to address the jihadist insurgency in central – as well as northern – Mali, though they admit that stabilising the country requires more than that. As a Malian official puts it, “the government’s logic is simple: terrorism must be combated militarily, but the causes of terrorism must be addressed through good governance and development”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Malian minister, January 2019. In his 7 January 2019 address to parliament, former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga declared: “Whatever military action we take will quickly reach its limit if we do not follow it with political steps to restore consensus, cohesion and development”. Primature du Mali, “Le Premier Ministre Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga à l’Assemblée Nationale”, 7 January 2018. French Defence Minister Florence Parly also recognised the limitations of the military approach in her Twitter thread announcing the alleged killing of Koufa. She said, “the weakening of terrorist groups is essential for allowing the return of public services, access to education and the gradual normalisation of daily life. Military action is effective only if it is followed by a development policy”. Tweet by Florence Parly, @Florence_Parly, French defence minister, 10:46 am, 23 November 2018.Hide Footnote In this vein, the government’s official strategy for central Mali envisages both a military campaign and an injection of development aid. It is incapsulated in the Plan de Sécurisation Intégré des Régions du Centre, which was announced by the government in February 2017 but not officially initiated until a year later. The Plan envisages four steps: retaking territories captured by the Katiba Macina; bringing back state officials; enabling economic development; and, lastly, communication to explain the strategy to people living in areas affected (two additional initiatives, a disarmament program and intercommunal dialogue, were subsequently added and are examined in Section V).[fn]République du Mali, Ministère de la Sécurité et de la Protection Civile, “Plan de Sécurisation Intégrée des Régions du Centre (PSIRC Mopti et Ségou)”, February 2017.Hide Footnote

In reality, efforts have focused primarily on the military campaign. Since launching the plan, the government increased significantly its military presence in the centre, setting up over a dozen new posts in major towns and villages (in effect, creating “garrison towns”) in Mopti and Segou.[fn]In his address to the Malian National Assembly, Prime Minister Maïga enumerated the new military posts in the towns and villages of Mopti: Djenné, Diankabou, Sindégué, Kouakourou, Sokoura, Mondoro, Dialloubé, Toguere Koumbé, Diougouni and Konna. These new posts came in addition to others in cercles capitals, including Ténenkou and Youwarou. The goal of increasing the number of military posts is to achieve better military coverage of central Malian territory. See Primature du Mali, “Le Premier Ministre Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga à l’Assemblée Nationale”, 7 January 2018.Hide Footnote These operations have scored local successes. In some garrison towns, for instance, schools have reopened, the state administration is gradually returning, and economic activities, including those the jihadists banned, have slowly resumed.

In addition to the Malian army’s efforts, the French Operation Barkhane has also made sporadic counter-terrorism raids in Mopti. Barkhane has no official presence in central Mali, as it concentrates resources further north, particularly on the Malian border with Burkina Faso and Niger. Nonetheless, between March 2017 and February 2019, it has conducted at least six operations in Mopti, often combining airstrikes with ground action, sometimes in collaboration with the Malian army.[fn]The Barkhane sorties include Operation Panga in March-April 2017, Bayard in April 2017, Dague in May-June 2017 and Youwarou, Dialloubé 1, Serma and Dialloubé 2 between November 2018 and February 2019. For more information, see Barkhane’s official website.Hide Footnote Some of these operations targeted Katiba Macina commanders in an attempt to “cut the head off the snake”.[fn]The figures targeted were Yahia Aboul Hammam, the top al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb commander in Timbuktu; Mouhamed Ould Nouni, leader of al-Murabitun; Malick ag Wanasnat, Iyad ag Ghaly’s right-hand man; and Mohamed ag Almouner and Mansour ag AlKassim, commanders of JNIM and ISGS, respectively. Parly claimed the death of Koufa before the French National Assembly. “We are targeting [jihadists] at the top of the pyramid because it is the best way to weaken [their] base”. Assemblée Nationale Française, “Questionnement au gouvernement 28/11/2018”, La Chaine Parlementaire, 11 November 2018.Hide Footnote In November 2018, the French mission claimed to have killed Hamadoun Koufa himself in Youwarou cercle. Four months later, however, Koufa appeared in a video, apparently safe and sound.[fn]They Are Liars: Interview with Sheikh Muhammad Kufa”, JNIM, video.Hide Footnote

[The jihadists] rely on a sophisticated system of intelligence gathering to reward villagers who comply with their rules and sanction dissenters.

Other foreign forces also play a role. The G5 Sahel joint force, composed of units from five Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – had its headquarters in Sevaré, Mopti until June 2018. But in that month a jihadist attack destroyed the building, forcing the G5 Sahel command to relocate to Bamako. MINUSMA also has two bases in Mopti, at Sevaré and Douentza.[fn]The new MINUSMA mandate adopted on 28 June 2018 (UN Resolution 2423) directed the mission to “reprioritize its resources and efforts to focus on political tasks and its support for the restoration of State authority to the Centre of Mali, which is in the midst of a growing cycle of violence”. UN Security Council, “Resolution 2423 (2018)”, 28 June 2018.Hide Footnote Recently, in reaction to the upsurge in intercommunal violence, UN peacekeepers have stepped up operations, notably in the Koro, Bankass and Bandiagara districts. While the G5 Sahel focuses on counter-terrorism, MINUSMA is primarily concerned with protecting civilians and restoring the state’s presence. Thus far, neither has succeeded in halting violence in central Mali.

While military operations have helped return the state’s authority to garrison towns, they thus appear unlikely to defeat the Katiba Macina. Indeed, insurgents have shown considerable agility in the face of pressure, moving into the bush, where they can better hide out, and adopting guerrilla tactics like ambushes, roadside bombs and landmines. While the Malian army controls towns and their immediate vicinity, the jihadists rule the countryside, erecting checkpoints on rural roads and patrolling rivers. In this manner, they have effectively placed garrison towns under siege.[fn]On 20 March 2019 the jihadists stormed Dioura, a garrison town in the cercle of Ténenkou. They killed dozens, mostly military personnel, looted military equipment and set what remained of the garrison on fire.Hide Footnote They impose embargoes on villages they accuse of collaborating with security forces, forbidding the movement of people and goods in or out.[fn]The notable cases of villages under embargo include Toguéré Coumbé in the cercle of Ténenkou, Dialloubé in the cercle of Mopti and Kouakourou in the cercle of Djenné. See also fn 83.Hide Footnote They have also developed networks that allow them to rule villages without having to maintain a physical presence, limiting their exposure to military crackdowns. They rely on a sophisticated system of intelligence gathering, comprised of sympathisers in the “dormant cells”, to reward villagers who comply with their rules and sanction dissenters.

The development component of the government’s and its international partners’ approach has arguably made even less of a difference than military operations. The Plan de Sécurisation Intégré envisages delivering services as a means to improve communities’ lives, strengthen the state’s legitimacy and thus gradually sap support for the insurgents, as army operations weaken them militarily.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Malian and foreign officials involved with the Plan de Sécurisation Intégré, Bamako, December 2018 and April 2019.Hide Footnote In reality, development projects are rare in areas under the Kabita Macina’s control. Militants tend to allow in humanitarian groups but refuse access to development agencies. In the infrequent instances where agencies can deliver services, little suggests that the services boost the Malian state’s legitimacy, even when they benefit the local populations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian aid workers operating in Mopti, Dakar, Bamako and Mopti, December 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote Overall, prospects appear gloomy for strengthening the weak local governance and the state’s poor relations with society that underpin the insurgency while at the same time mounting military offensives against militants.

D. Breaking the Taboo

As the Katiba Macina’s military defeat has come to appear less likely, the idea of engaging it through dialogue has gained traction. An increasing number of outside experts, including Crisis Group, have recommended at least testing the waters to see whether negotiations might complement military action.[fn]Jean-Hervé Jezequel et al, “La France doit rompre avec la rhétorique martiale qui prévaut au Sahel”, Le Monde Afrique, 21 February 2018. See also Crisis Group Report, Frontière Niger-Mali : mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, op. cit.Hide Footnote In Mali itself, several civil society activists, politicians and Islamic scholars, began already in 2012 calling on the authorities to start a dialogue with the jihadists.[fn]Hide Footnote The April 2017 report of the Conference of National Understanding echoed these pleas.[fn]Advocates for dialogue at the Conference included religious leaders such as Mahmoud Dicko, civil society organisations such as the Association Adema, opposition leaders and delegates from the armed group Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad. Crisis Group interviews, Conference for National Understanding participants, October 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote

At the conference, dialogue advocates gave various reasons for their stance.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote For some, dialogue was the “pragmatic choice” given that military action had yet to end the insurgency. Others cited it as a means for the government to assert its sovereignty in the face of foreign pressure against such initiatives. Still others promoted dialogue with jihadists as a matter of consistency, since Malian governments have talked with leaders of past rebellions.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Indeed, Bamako has attempted to end successive insurgencies through negotiations. Over the last thirty years, Mali has endured three periods of uprising, in 1990-1996, 2006-2009 and 2012-present, resulting in repeated peace agreements. The last such deal, the 2015 Bamako Agreement, which followed French-led operations that ousted jihadists from northern towns in early 2013, formally excluded ag Ghaly and other jihadist leaders. That said, some of the armed groups that signed the Bamako deal enjoyed close ties to ag Ghaly or other militants; indeed, many fighters formerly with jihadist groups rehatted themselves as members of the signatory armed groups. Those who favour dialogue with jihadists argue that if the government is willing to talk to separatists – particularly separatists who themselves have close links to jihadists – why not talk to jihadists themselves?[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of civil society organisation who attended the 2017 Conference of National Understanding, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Yet both the Malian authorities and jihadist leaders themselves have resisted talking. Many Malian officials view jihadists as nothing but “nihilistic” criminals without an identifiable political agenda.[fn]A former minister and member of the current ruling coalition says: “Contrary to separatist groups, which have territorial claims, jihadists are nihilists. They just want to kill us. Would you say to someone who plants a bomb, ‘Please remove your bomb?’ We have known jihadists long enough to realise that only force works with them. ... Speaking with Iyad would be a capitulation”. Crisis Group interview, January 2019.Hide Footnote Some insist on “no negotiation with terrorists” as a principle. On the other side, the hardest-line among the jihadists view the Malian government as not only illegitimate but infidel. Many militants, in principle including Hamadoun Koufa himself, demand nothing less than its overthrow and replacement with an “Islamic state”.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017. See also fn 3.Hide Footnote Between these two extremes lies a spectrum of officials and insurgents who, to one degree or another, are more amenable to dialogue. But thus far the less compromising attitudes have prevailed.

III. Obstacles to Dialogue

Three factors complicate prospects for dialogue with the Katiba Macina: its ideological program and the ambiguous support it enjoys locally; its transnational ties; and strong domestic and foreign opposition to such talks.

A. Are Jihadist Demands “Exceptional”?

Unlike Mali’s northern separatist movements, the Katiba Macina has no list of political demands. Yet its discourse, disseminated via audio and video recordings, as well as its governance practices in areas it has conquered, reveal that it does want something: namely profound change in Mali’s state institutions and foreign relations.

The movement’s rhetoric revolves around three ideas, akin to those propagated by jihadists elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote The first is that Malian state institutions and the whole democratic system of government are un-Islamic and illegitimate. It is incumbent upon all Muslims to overthrow the system by force and replace it with theocratic governance based on sharia – as the Katiba Macina interprets it.[fn]In several audio recordings, the jihadists have emphasised the non-Islamic character of the Malian state. They have often referred to Malian officials as taghout (“idol” or “false god”, in Arabic). Koufa explained the Katiba Macina’s views in one recording: “God has given us the power to fight the protectors of laws that are not God’s law on this territory and at this moment. We have given up our families, parents and homes. We did all this so that God’s law can be implemented”. He added: “You cannot consider those who protect laws that run contrary to God’s law to be Muslims”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2016.Hide Footnote Secondly, the West and “Westernised” Malian elites, particularly France and Francophone state officials, are enemies of Islam. They are thus legitimate targets, though state officials can spare themselves if they break ties with their Western allies.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017.Hide Footnote Thirdly, militants believe that they represent the purest form of Islam and that they must teach local Muslims to adopt their stricter approach. They consider Muslims who collaborate with the Malian government to be apostates (murtaddin), and they apply the same label to some of their local theological rivals and critics.[fn]Koufa has blasted Islamic scholars who disagree with him as cowards and undercover French agents. Of some he has said, “The Wahhabites and the Da’awa have advocated for jihad, but why do they not engage in it now? What should we conclude? Either they are scared or they are hypocrites”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2016. He considers Muslims who accept secular laws to be apostates. But he has not called for indiscriminate attacks on these Muslims.Hide Footnote

At first glance, this discourse appears to set aspirations well outside the realm of what the Malian state can offer. The Malian state is ostensibly committed to secularism (understood as the separation of religion and politics), representative democracy based on elections and strong relations with Western countries, particularly France.[fn]In 2013, during peace discussions with armed groups in the north, including jihadists, President Keïta defined his government’s three red lines: 1) Mali’s national unity and territorial integrity; 2) the secular nature of the state; 3) the stability of the Sahel and the African continent.Hide Footnote The gap between the Katiba Macina’s and the state’s respective positions is so wide that many on both sides see little point in talking. True, the movement has shown pragmatism. Its discourse and practices have evolved over time as local conditions have changed. As discussed in Section IV, the jihadists often have to juggle both being true to their ideology and making compromises in order to avoid alienating those whom they seek to rule. Yet if the grievances that motivate many to join Katiba Macina – shrinking pastoral land, abusive government officials and socio-economic neglect – are not religious, Koufa frames them within a religious discourse that would make reaching a negotiated settlement more difficult.[fn]In jihadist discourse, the boundary between ideology and interest is blurred. When proselytising, jihadists say their ideas emanate from God but also strive to tie these ideas to human well-being. The sharia is not only God’s law, they say, but it is also best for humanity.Hide Footnote

Many central Malians consider the Katiba Macina’s rule as too extreme and out of tune with customs that are also widely accepted locally as Islamic.

While Koufa himself self-identifies as jihadist and claims to be fighting for the establishment of sharia in Mali, his success in mobilising local support owes more to his ability to exploit ingrained socio-economic and political discontent in central Mali and fill the gap left by a largely absent state.[fn]In many of his audio recordings, Koufa identifies himself and the Katiba Macina recruits as “jihadists”. In his August 2017 audio recording, he says: “We jihadists attack only our known adversaries, the allies of France”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017.Hide Footnote During its early years, 2015 and 2016, the Katiba Macina focused on delivering public goods and services where it held sway. In reality, it struggled to provide much more than rough dispute resolution, attempts at regulating access to land, water and pasture, and a reduction in cattle theft.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Ouro Modi and Sare Seini, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote But given decades of government mismanagement and abuse, and the corruption and inaccessibility of the Malian court system for people in rural areas, even that won the jihadists some local support.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Over the course of 2017, as the movement consolidated control over larger areas, militants began to collect zakat, the alms regarded by Muslims as a religious obligation, and impose a draconian moral code that banned several local customs and severely restricted freedoms, in particular for women and youth. They outlawed playing music or football, consuming alcohol and social mixing between the sexes. They imposed a dress code requiring women to cover their bodies head to toe; though most women in central Mali have traditionally worn headscarves, covering the full body was uncommon. Not all women reject such a code; indeed, some approve of it.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote But many others chafe at a requirement that complicates daily practices like washing clothes in the river and farming.[fn]See Nomade Sahel, “La Situation des femmes dans le Delta central du fleuve Niger (Mali) de 2015 à nos jours”, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote Jihadists also stopped women from travelling unless accompanied by their husband or a male relative, constraining women traders’ circulation around rural markets. They often enforced this code violently, including by whipping, abduction and even killing offenders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Ouro Modi and Sare Seini, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

The brutal enforcement of ultra-conservative mores has meant that some of – though by no means all – the sympathy the jihadists initially won has dissipated.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Some locals approve of strict Islamic law as a concept. Many still appreciate the reasonably predictable dispute resolution, the degree of security (especially the tough measures against cattle theft), and the absence of corrupt and predatory state officials. Moreover, since 2018, when Malian army operations started reversing some of the jihadists’ gains, local Katiba Macina leaders appear to have been readier to enter deals with villagers that see them temper enforcement of some rules. Still, many central Malians consider the Katiba Macina’s rule as too extreme and out of tune with customs that are also widely accepted locally as Islamic. The jihadists’ use of violence is a particular source of anger.

The Katiba Macina’s aspirations and the questionable level of support its rule enjoys among many central Malians pose a challenge for dialogue. Many people in central Mali would likely oppose any notion that jihadists speak in their name. While many peace talks involve compromise with unpopular and violent groups, the Katiba’s recent experiences show that at least some of the social mores it might hope to negotiate in talks enjoy at best limited local support. Even were the state inclined to make such concessions – and nothing suggests that it is – it would risk running up against local resistance.

B. The Katiba Macina’s Outside Connections

The Katiba Macina’s transnational ties pose another challenge. Contrary to other jihadist movements in Mali such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara – respectively led by Algerians and Sahrawis – the Katiba Macina is primarily indigenous. All the movement’s key figures are from central Mali, and they exploit local grievances to recruit. Yet Hamadoun Koufa answers formally to Iyad ag Ghaly, who has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

In March 2017, Koufa appeared in a video alongside ag Ghaly and three other jihadist leaders to announce the merger of their movements, including ag Ghaly’s Ansar Dine (of which Katiba Macina is considered part), AQIM’s Sahelian branch and the Katiba al-Murabitun, into the JNIM coalition.[fn]Al Murabitun is a jihadist group created in 2013 out of the merger of elements from former Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa and al-Mulathamine, another movement then led by the Algerian jihadist figure Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Al-Mourabitun split in 2015, into a pro-ISIS faction, which later became the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and a pro-al-Qaeda faction, which merged with JNIM.Hide Footnote In the video, ag Ghaly, who assumed the coalition’s leadership, announced his allegiance to the Algerian Abdelmalik Droukdel, head of AQIM, as well as to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and by extension Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada (Zawahiri himself has pledged allegiance to successive Taliban leaders).[fn]See the JNIM’s founding statement, “And Hold On Firmly to the Rope of God Together and Do Not Become Divided”, 2 March 2017. Al-Qaeda global leaders – first Osama bin Laden and now Ayman al-Zawahiri – have always pledged allegiance to the Taliban, dating from al-Qaeda’s founding in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.Hide Footnote The transnational connection poses problems. For some Malian officials, political talks with members of a movement, al-Qaeda, that at least rhetorically recognises no borders and claims to be fighting for establishment of a global caliphate make little sense.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Malian officials, Dakar and Bamako, November and December 2018.Hide Footnote

The tone of the Katiba Macina’s discourse shifted around the time of its affiliation with JNIM and al-Qaeda. In 2015, when Koufa listed the Katiba Macina’s enemies, he pointed to oppressive Malian state officials, whether military or civilian, and those who collaborate with them.[fn]Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, “How to interact with civilians”, June 2015.Hide Footnote But starting in 2017, anti-French rhetoric and references to Crusaders started to predominate.[fn]In an audio recording likely made in 2018, Koufa declares: “It is France, not Mali, that is our enemy”. He redefines even local enemies as French allies, who refuse to adhere to sharia at France’s behest. He considers the Malian president himself to have been chosen by France. “France has become God”, he says. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2018.Hide Footnote The shift appears to partly reflect the Katiba Macina’s ties to JNIM, several of whose components are fighting French Barkhane forces. It has created concerns that Koufa may now be less interested in negotiating over local grievances and that, in any case, he could not enter dialogue unless authorised by more transnationally motivated jihadist leaders. Indeed, Koufa has rejected offers to engage in talks with Peul Francophone elites, arguing that they were part of a French conspiracy to pinpoint the jihadists’ bases and gauge firepower and manpower, and he has declared that all peace talks must go through ag Ghaly.[fn]In a 2018 audio recording, Koufa says, “We hear a lot about Peul holding meetings with France, MINUSMA and the Malian state to facilitate the return of peace between us and the Malian state. … We want you to understand: we can talk to each other and you can negotiate with us. ... [But] we know that you come to gather information on our positions, our manpower, our weapons and our mode of command. This is the mission that France has entrusted you with”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2018. In 2017, when a number of prominent Peul including Aly Nouhoum Diallo called on Koufa to attend peace talks, he replied: “If you want dialogue, go discuss it with our amir, Iyad ag Ghaly. … He is our guide. ... He is Malian. It is undeniable. If you want peace, go talk with him; otherwise, you won’t have peace, not on this earth or in the hereafter”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017.Hide Footnote

Katiba Macina has shown willingness to engage in transactional negotiations with the government.

That said, the extent of ag Ghaly’s authority over Koufa and the latter’s commitment to transnational goals are hard to evaluate. Since 2017, Koufa has appeared twice beside ag Ghaly and Yahya Abul Hammam, the former top al-Qaeda commander in Mali.[fn]See the JNIM’s founding statement, “And Hold On Firmly to the Rope of God Together and Do Not Become Divided”, op. cit.; and JNIM video, “Light or Heavy, March to Battle”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The quality of the Katiba Macina’s recent video footage and its attacks’ complexity, including the use of roadside bombs, suggests the transfer of expertise from JNIM. Yet, even if important, ag Ghaly’s authority appears loose.[fn]While the Katiba Macina appears dependent on Ansar Dine and JNIM for financial and logistical support, its increasing effort to collect zakat (alms) suggests a desire for financial autonomy.Hide Footnote The JNIM itself espouses transnational goals, including establishing a caliphate, and the Katiba Macina’s membership in that coalition does appear to be slowly moving it away from its solely local roots. That said, the fervour of Koufa’s rhetoric against France may also stem from the Katiba Macina’s own battles with French troops. Most of his discourse remains locally focused, despite the al-Qaeda ties he nominally enjoys via ag Ghaly. His participation in the JNIM may well have been motivated by his long association with ag Ghaly and the desire to garner training, funds and expertise, rather than a commitment to its transnational aspirations.

The Katiba Macina has shown some flexibility toward dialogue. In August 2017 Koufa mentioned that he would be ready to speak with religious leaders, in particular three well-known Salafi scholars, including Mahmoud Dicko. He said:

Our wish is that you send us the scholars, they are more able to understand what we are looking for. If you send us the ulama [a body of Muslim scholars], they are welcome to come discuss with us. These are Mahmoud Dicko, Mahi Banikane, Cheick Oumar Dia and others so that they can see how we live here, and we will appreciate it together.[fn]Audio recording in response to Peul leader Aly Nouhoum Diallo, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In addition, as recently as early 2019, the Katiba Macina has shown willingness to engage in transactional negotiations with the government, such as to exchange hostages for militants held prisoner.[fn]In February 2019, after long negotiations, the jihadists freed two hostages, including the former prefect of Ténenkou and a journalist, in exchange for nineteen militants.Hide Footnote That the militants whom the Katiba Macina wanted released included men from outside central Mali, notably a high-profile fighter and former jihadist police chief from Gao, suggests that the JNIM may have condoned the transactional negotiations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, counter-terrorist specialist from the Sahel, Dakar, April 2019.Hide Footnote

C. Domestic and Foreign Pressures

Pressure from both domestic and foreign actors who oppose the idea of dialogue or fear its possible outcomes also militates against talks.

Malian actors including secular elites, Sufi scholars, human rights organisations and victims’ associations voice concerns about dialogue. Secular elites view it as part of a larger threat to the separation of religion and politics in Mali. They point to increasingly assertive attempts by Islamist activists to carve out a place for themselves in the political arena.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°249, The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote This concern is all the more resonant given that Mahmoud Dicko, whom many secular leaders regard with suspicion, is a key figure both in promoting the role of Islam in politics and in pushing for dialogue with jihadists.

Many clerics also reject the Katiba Macina and its intolerant tenets – perhaps not surprisingly given that the insurgents oppose the Islamic establishment as much as the state.[fn]Koufa first came to prominence due to his preaching that criticised the clerical class in Mopti, which is largely Sufi. See Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit.Hide Footnote Sufis from Mopti are particularly hostile to dialogue with jihadists, believing that any compromise struck with them would likely privilege Salafi strands of Islam to the detriment of others.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim scholars, Mopti, Bamako, October 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote In 2012, when the jihadists conquered northern Mali, the Malian Association for Unity and Progress of Islam in Mopti considered sending a delegation to debate the jihadists on religious matters. But most association members rejected the idea. Even today, several members of such associations continue to oppose the idea of dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, a religious scholar member of Association Malienne pour l'Unité et la Progrès de l'Islam, Mopti, January 2019. He justified his position against dialogue as follows: “Now that they have the upper hand, how can we negotiate with them? It’s either they dictate what they want or we have to fight until everyone gets tired of fighting. Then we can talk about negotiation. That’s how all states have dealt with the issues of terrorism”.Hide Footnote

Many Western policymakers worry that engaging in dialogue with jihadists would bestow legitimacy upon these groups and their ideas.

Among central Malians, views toward dialogue are mixed, though predicting how they would respond to talks is hard. Thus far, debate about dialogue with jihadists occurs mostly among Bamako elites. In central Mali, such notions remain quite marginal. Given the deteriorating security context and the fear that violence could escalate further, some in the inner delta, including within communities that have borne the brunt of jihadist violence, admit that they would welcome dialogue that reduced levels of bloodshed even if it entailed concessions to jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, delta inhabitants, including from the districts of Ténenkou and Mopti, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote Outside the delta, the idea of dialogue with the Katiba Macina is likely to provoke anger, in particular among the Dogon and Bambara.

Opposition is not only domestic. Western countries, in particular France and the U.S., clearly reject dialogue, citing several reasons. Militant groups with which Koufa has ties are designated by the UN and others as terrorists. This classification does not prohibit talking to them but it can complicate doing so.[fn]The UN Security Council and the U.S. both list the JNIM, Ansar Dine and Iyad ag Ghaly as terrorists, but neither explicitly lists Koufa or the Katiba Macina. If the UN or U.S. were to designate Koufa and the Katiba Macina as part of Ansar Dine, that determination could complicate dialogue. U.S. law bans the provision of material support or advice to those designated, which can pose challenges to mediators.Hide Footnote It is difficult for French politicians to support dialogue with groups that have killed French soldiers.[fn]In April 2017, on an official visit to Mali, French Foreign Minister Ayrault justified France’s anti-dialogue position by evoking a dead countryman: “How do you negotiate with terrorists? … Iyad ag Ghaly rejoiced at the death of French soldier Julien Barbé”. See Moussa Bolly, “Mali : Paix et reconciliation nationale : Paris interdit à Bamako de négocier avec Iyad”, Le Reflet, 14 Avril 2017.Hide Footnote Relatedly, some countries view the jihadist insurgency in Mali as an extension of their own struggle with jihadists around the world. Many Western policymakers worry that engaging in dialogue with jihadists would bestow legitimacy upon these groups and their ideas. True, the U.S. has over the past year renewed efforts to reach a settlement with the Islamist Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, with senior U.S. officials holding repeated meetings with Taliban leaders. But whether those talks will create a precedent, making talking to militants in Africa or elsewhere easier to accept, as of yet is unclear.[fn]U.S. talks with the Taliban leadership are motivated by U.S. leaders’ desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. In addition, the Taliban is a considerably larger and more powerful insurgent movement than the Katiba Macina and enjoys relations with a number of foreign powers. Despite its longstanding ties to transnational militants, its leaders do not pledge allegiance to them and it has no aspirations beyond Afghanistan.Hide Footnote

IV. Engagement with Jihadists in Central Mali

The prevailing view of jihadists as beyond the pale has not prevented local leaders, humanitarian organisations and Islamic scholars from engaging them. These contacts have allowed jihadists and their interlocutors to address issues such as the management of daily affairs in places under jihadist control, humanitarian access to vulnerable populations and even jihadists’ practice of Islam.

A. Local Bargains

The jihadists have chased state authorities out of many rural villages, but they have not exactly taken their place. Rather, they reside in the bush and visit villages only periodically, often in small groups, to preach, settle disputes and police moral conduct. This shadow governance leaves local leaders in charge of managing local affairs, albeit under the Katiba Macina’s watch and according to its rules.

The collaboration is not always smooth. The Katiba Macina’s rule can impose a heavy burden. For instance, the jihadists frequently abduct those they accuse of disobedience and seize the herds and other property of suspected government informants. They have resorted to collective punishment to enforce rules, for example shutting down weekly rural markets because women have failed to respect their dress code or because people have smoked cigarettes. They have imposed blockades on several villages that they accuse of working with the military.[fn]In mid-2018, following the Malian army’s deployment in Toguéré Coumbé, Dialloubé and Kouakourou, respectively in the cercles of Ténenkou, Mopti and Djenné, the Katiba Macina imposed a blockade, banning all movement in and out. They accused the villagers of collaboration with the military. Due to the blockade, villagers could not reach their farms or weekly rural markets. The jihadists also abducted people and impounded thousands of livestock belonging to village notables. Recently, the jihadists have significantly eased the embargo on Dialloubé following negotiation with local notables.Hide Footnote

In some instances, village notables have won concessions from militants. For example, in Tenenkou cercle, as elsewhere, the ban on women travelling without a male relative has restricted women’s mobility, in particular that of women traders accustomed to shuttling between weekly rural markets to buy and sell goods. After discussions between notables and local Katiba Macina leaders, the jihadists allowed women to travel as long as the mode of transport, whether donkey cart, boat or car, was segregated by gender.[fn]These negotiations, with jihadist brigades operating in the Kadial forest between Ténenkou and Mopti, occurred around June 2017. Crisis Group interviews, Ténenkou residents, February 2019.Hide Footnote In some areas, villagers have negotiated the reopening of schools, notwithstanding jihadists’ opposition to what they portray as the Western-influenced Malian curriculum. In others, villagers have voted in elections, despite militants’ antipathy to representative democracy. The implicit bargain is that those elected exercise their authority without challenging that of the Katiba Macina.[fn]In the cercle of Youwarou, only two schools operate, including one in Gatchi Loumo, which is open due to talks between village notables and jihadists. The other, in Youwarou village, is open after the military’s deployment there. Mayoral elections have occurred in several districts, including Nampala and Dogo, respectively in the cercles of Niono in Ségou and Youwarou in Mopti.Hide Footnote Since 2018, as the Malian army stepped up operations and increased pressure on the group, such local accommodation appears to have become more common.

Negotiating access appears to be easier for health care providers than for agencies working in sectors like education or development.

Local negotiations still often fail. In Toguéré Coumbé, a village in Tenenkou cercle under blockade since March 2018, the residents have appealed several times for the Katiba Macina to lift the blockade – to no avail.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of Toguéré Coumbé, Bamako, December 2018; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Local negotiations take various forms. In most cases, village notables send emissaries to petition the jihadists, usually in forums where delegates from different villages gather. Villages also organise assemblies, knowing that “dormant cell” members are present and will convey discussions to militant leaders. On the jihadists’ side, the amirou markaz usually take charge and report the outcome to the Katiba Macina’s top leadership. The amirou markaz’s personality plays a significant role in determining how much militants compromise.[fn]In markazes where jihadist leaders are local, talks tend to be more cordial than in those where jihadists are from villages far away. Crisis Group interview, former yimbe ladde fighter, February 2019.Hide Footnote Overall, the movement’s relationships with influential families in areas where it operates are complicated: at first, it often undercut those families’ authority but more recently it appears to have been more willing to compromise with them than with others.[fn]For example, at first, the jihadists attempted to cancel royalties collected by landowners called Jowrow from foreign herders who were seeking access to a particular pasture in the inner delta called the Bourgou. Militants argued that the Bourgou belongs to God, who wants it to be open to all. But the Jowrow pushed back, and the jihadists reinstated the royalties in a reduced amount. Crisis Group interviews, members of Jowrow families from Mopti cercle, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Humanitarian Access

Though the Katiba Macina speaks in strident anti-Western terms, it has nonetheless allowed humanitarian organisations, including predominantly Western NGOs, to operate in areas it controls. This stance is in keeping with a fatwa (legal ruling) issued in 2018 by a jihadist judicial committee in Timbuktu urging member groups not to attack but rather to facilitate access for humanitarians.[fn]Houka ag Alhousseini, head of a judicial committee reputed to be close to jihadists in Timbuktu, issued a two-page letter on 14 March 2018, in which he authorised humanitarian organisations to operate in areas under jihadist control. He justified this fatwa by citing the benefits that those organisations could bring to the local population. Fatwa signed by the Timbuktu Judicial Committee in Crisis Group’s possession, March 2018.Hide Footnote Koufa himself has mentioned that his group is not opposed to humanitarian aid, provided that agencies respect certain conditions, among which he cited a prohibition on foreign staff.[fn]Koufa said, “We are not opposed to your humanitarian action, provided that it is not foreigners who will lead it. If a mayor wants to dig a well, he can go get funding from to the United States and dig his well [but only] with natives. … We do not want to see a single stranger”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, op. cit.Hide Footnote While not all NGOs that operate in jihadist areas are aware of this announcement, it appears to have made negotiating humanitarian access easier on the ground.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, heads of humanitarian NGOs working in jihadist-controlled areas of Mopti, Dakar and Bamako, December 2018; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Humanitarian organisations use varying tactics to negotiate. Some rely on local beneficiaries while others hire intermediaries. Some health care agencies started sending doctors to local clinics without obtaining the jihadists’ permission; they then sought approval only after the medics had established a good reputation.[fn]According to an international NGO worker in Ténenkou’s health sector: “We began sending medical agents to Ténenkou before engaging in contact with the jihadists. It was afterward, when we had our legitimacy, and proved that we are independent and neutral, that contacts with jihadist sympathisers began to take shape. We do not speak directly with the jihadists but with their sympathisers in the village. Sometimes these are local notables. Every time that we have a mission in the villages, we inform those sympathisers and they convey the information. When we arrive at the jihadist checkpoints, they check our ID cards, cars or boats and then let us pass”. Crisis Group interview, Bamako, December 2018.Hide Footnote In general, negotiating access appears to be easier for health care providers than for agencies working in sectors like education or development.[fn]Koufa said, “Any mayor or deputy who comes to build a school, a road, bring humanitarian aid, dig a well on behalf of the Republic of Mali, France or any other country, he will be our enemy, except dispensaries or hospitals”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, 2018.Hide Footnote

Three factors in particular explain why such negotiations are possible. First, humanitarian organisations offer services that locals badly need. In jihadist-occupied zones, welfare services have been lacking for years, in many cases at least since 2015, when the state administration deserted these areas. Secondly, the Katiba Macina benefits from granting access. The movement can show residents that it cares about their well-being and foster an image as a service provider, all the more important given its struggles to offer those services itself. Humanitarian organisations also boost the jihadists’ claim to legitimacy by implicitly recognising them as de facto authorities. Thirdly, the agencies stress their respect for humanitarian principles: their neutrality in the conflict, their independence of foreign influence and their impartiality in treating the conflict’s victims, whether or not they are combatants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, heads of humanitarian NGOs working in jihadist-controlled areas of Mopti, Dakar, Bamako and Mopti, December 2018 and January 2019.Hide Footnote

Sufi as well as Salafi scholars have spoken out to discredit the religious foundations of jihadist tenets in several venues.

Jihadists impose conditions on humanitarian agencies but also make compromises. They require organisations to forbid aid workers from listening to music, consuming alcohol and smoking, and to instruct female staff members to cover their heads. Particularly contentious is their attempt to force NGOs to use separate vehicles for transporting female and male workers. But while humanitarian organisations abide by some conditions, they often resist others. An international NGO that operates in Tenenkou has refused to segregate female and male staffers in vehicles and employs foreign Christians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, head of a humanitarian NGO that operates in Mopti, Bamako, December 2018.Hide Footnote Yet it is still able to operate in jihadist-held areas. Aid organisations can flex their own muscles, using services they provide and local support they enjoy as leverage.

Still, such negotiations are not without problems. The jihadists have refused humanitarian access to many organisations. Even aid agencies that have secured access can face harassment at checkpoints. The Katiba Macina has held NGO workers as hostages for weeks. In 2018, militants abducted two NGO workers in the cercle of Douentza and held them hostage for several days.[fn]International NGO Safety Organisation, “INSO Rapport – Mali Central – Mopti : Détention irrégulière d’Agents ONG”, 15 January 2019.Hide Footnote They have repeatedly confiscated cell phones and other equipment. The militants often cite suspicions that humanitarian organisations conduct espionage on behalf of Western countries or collaborate with security forces to justify this harassment.[fn]Crisis Group interview, elected official abducted together with NGO agents by jihadists, Bamako, September 2018.Hide Footnote

C. Religious Debate

Over the last three years Katiba Macina ideologues and Islamic scholars have engaged in debates over the righteousness of jihadist discourse. The Katiba Macina emerged in Mopti, a historical centre of Islamic learning, where numerous Quranic schools host students from all over the Sahel. Sufi orders, in particular the Qadriyya (also called Malikiyya) have dominated the area, though recently Salafism and the Da’awa movement (the local branch of the Tabligh Jama’at) have made inroads.[fn]The jihadist insurgency’s outbreak exacerbated existing tensions among these religious currents. While all of them have unequivocally distanced themselves from the Katiba Macina, the jihadists are often associated with Salafists and sometimes also with the Da’awa. Koufa was an adherent of the Da’awa before he turned jihadist. In Mali, the terms Salafism and Wahhabism are used interchangeably to refer to a Sunni current originating in the Arabian Peninsula that advocates a practice of Islam inspired by the first generation of Muslims (al-salaf al-salih) and a literal reading of Islamic scriptures. The Tabligh Jama’at is also a Sunni movement but has its roots in South Asia. It is locally known as the Da’awa, is supposedly apolitical, rejects violence and emphasises that Muslims should engage in missionary work. Salafi scholars often criticise the Tabligh as deviant because its missionary practices go against the ways recommended by al-salaf al-salih and because they emphasise missionary work over Islamic learning. For more on Islamic movements in Mali, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°249, The Politics of Islam in Mali: Separating Myth from Reality, 18 July 2017.Hide Footnote Sufi as well as Salafi scholars have spoken out to discredit the religious foundations of jihadist tenets in several venues, including mosques, radio and television broadcasts, and social media, particularly WhatsApp.

In their argumentation, these scholars emphasise that jihadist violence is unjustified in an almost entirely Muslim society, and that it is suicidal – and therefore un-Islamic – for Muslims to declare jihad against the Malian government and powerful Western countries.[fn]Responding to Koufa’s audio recording released in August 2017, Alpha Ibrahim Sow, a religious scholar from central Mali now living in Egypt argued that “wanting to take up arms today to go to war against France or the West is a monumental mistake comparable to suicide that cannot be justified in Islam”. “Replique en Fulfulde d’Alpha Ibrahim Sow a Hamadoun Koufa”, 12 September 2017.Hide Footnote They argue that jihad today should be a peaceful struggle preaching piety and intercommunal harmony.[fn]Alpha Ibrahim Sow identifies five types of jihad: preaching to spread the word of God; emigration to escape persecution in emulation of Prophet Muhamad’s flight from Mecca to Medina; promotion of peaceful coexistence with Muslims and non-Muslims alike; armed self-defence, but only if Muslims are in a position of strength; and finally offensive jihad, in response to aggression and when Muslims have the requisite military might. He argues that “in our countries today, the rightful jihad is that of peaceful coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect between religions”. Ibid.Hide Footnote Islamic scholars also criticise the Katiba Macina’s forcible imposition of sharia and argue against specific fatwas the jihadists have issued.[fn]For example, in 2017, in Kouboulou, a village in the cercle of Ténenkou, a female maccudo (slave descendant) refused to cover herself according to the jihadists’ rules. She argued that female slaves in Islam are entitled not to cover themselves. The jihadists whipped her anyway. A prominent Islamic scholar in Mopti who follows the Maliki school of jurisprudence endorsed the woman’s argument, using the example to contend that the jihadists are ignorant of sharia. Crisis Group interview, imam, Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Though they draw little attention, these challenges to jihadist discourse resonate. Katiba Macina leaders take them seriously, particularly as Koufa rationalises the movement’s every action with religious argumentation. His persona as a religious leader has made enforcement of sharia the uprising’s core element.

At the beginning, the exchange took a harsh, accusatory tone. Several establishment Islamic scholars cast the yimbe ladde as khawarij – a derogatory term referring to a nihilistic and violent movement that appeared in the Arabian Peninsula in the 8th century. For their part, jihadist ideologues denigrated the religious scholars as French allies and sellouts to the government.[fn]Audio recordings in Crisis Group’s possession, August 2017 and October 2018.Hide Footnote They even declared some critics to be unbelievers and threatened to kill them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim scholars who have received threats from the Katiba Macina, Bamako, December 2018 and April 2019; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Starting in 2018, a more reasoned debate took shape between a handful of Peul Islamic scholars and Katiba Macina ideologues, though it did not last long. Citing Quranic verses that enjoin Muslim combatants to choose sulh (reconciliation) over war, the Peul scholars invited the jihadists to an open discussion. At first, the Katiba Macina accepted, mandating Imrana Cissé, one of their ideologues, to conduct the discussion, which took place via WhatsApp, on their behalf.[fn]In an audio recording, Imrana Cissé, who represented the jihadists in the religious debate defined their criteria for engagement. He said, “To all those who want to debate jihad and its conditions as written in the Quran. … We are ready to discuss all topics. … We have only one condition: if you win this debate with evidence from [Islamic] books, we will lay down our weapons. If you do not, you will abandon the government and follow us”. Audio recording in Crisis Group’s possession, September 2018.Hide Footnote As the debate gained momentum, many saw it as a sign that jihadists might be willing to engage in other forms of dialogue. Some weeks later, however, Koufa put an end to it, citing security concerns.[fn]Koufa said, “There was a debate between us and the ulama. … They asked one of us about why we engage in jihad. … When the debate dragged on, we discovered that the real intention of the ulama was not to debate. It was something else”. He reportedly feared that those scholars would reveal his location to the security forces.Hide Footnote

Though the debate ended prematurely, scholars who participated stressed the exchange was valuable. First, their interactions with Imrana Cissé allowed them to make public the inconsistencies in jihadist arguments. One scholar insisted that the debates had a positive impact on youth at risk of being seduced by jihadist discourse. He said the debates made them aware of the discourse’s fallacies and persuaded them not to join the jihad.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Muslim scholars who debated the Katiba Macina via WhatsApp, Mopti and Bamako, January and April 2019.Hide Footnote But the scholars also recommended that the government take measures to meet some of the insurgents’ demands, particularly as they relate to the role of Islam in public life. They and others who followed the debate on WhatsApp viewed this attempt at religious dialogue as a window of opportunity for more ambitious initiatives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, pro-dialogue Muslim scholars and civil society activists, Bamako, October and December 2018; Mopti, January 2019.Hide Footnote

The various engagements between the Katiba Macina and non-state actors from civil leaders to humanitarians and religious scholars have been narrow in scope but have shown promise. They have aimed to solve specific problems, such as easing jihadist sanctions or allowing humanitarian access, or at settling arguments over religious interpretation, rather than serving the broader goal of peacemaking. Nor have they challenged the jihadists’ authority, though those mediating have been far from obsequious. The engagements suggest that within the Katiba Macina there are pragmatic negotiators. True, Koufa curtailed the discussion between Imrana Cissé and religious scholars, but his ideological commitment has not stopped dialogue altogether, including with self-identified critics and foreign organisations staffed and funded by those the jihadists consider infidels.

V. Two Governments’ Different Approaches

Over the last two years, the government has taken two markedly different approaches to central Mali’s crisis. Between March and mid-December 2017, then Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maïga rolled out his signature program, the missions de bons offices, aimed at advancing peace through dialogue, including with figures close to the Katiba Macina. In December 2017, however, a new prime minister, Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, came in with an approach relying first and foremost on military action, envisaged intercommunal dialogue in a supplemental role and explicitly excluded jihadists.

A. Political and Intercommunal Dialogue

The Malian authorities have been more willing to engage Katiba Macina than official rhetoric suggests. In the past, they have opened channels of communication with the jihadists with an eye to initiating peace talks. But these measures have been both ad hoc and inconsistent.

In March 2017, a community-based organisation called Amicale Jawambe du Mali claimed that high-level Malian officials, including the defence minister and the governor of Mopti had instructed it to mediate between the government and the “dormant cells” – people in villages with close ties to the Katiba Macina.[fn]The Jawambe (sing. Jawando) is a sub-group of Peul, who as per the traditional socio-professional division of labour work as merchants and advisers to the chief. The Amical Jawambe claims that it can mobilise religious scholars and use local traditions, in particular the historical relations between pastoralist Peul and the Jawambe, to mediate contacts with the jihadists. One member of this association summarised this mediation approach, saying, “When a Peul is in conflict, a Jawando can bring him back to reason, just as when a talibe (Quranic student) is in trouble his master can bring him back to his senses. It is on this traditional basis that the current mediation will take place in order to speak with the young people who took up arms on behalf of Islam”. Crisis Group interviews, members of Amical Jawambe du Mali, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote The Amicale Jawambe created a commission called Jam e-Dina, composed of ten members, including traditional chiefs, religious leaders and other local notables. This commission claims to have engaged jihadist sympathisers and supporters in villages regularly. It even reportedly set up a meeting between Mahmoud Dicko, former head of the High Islamic Council of Mali, and the Katiba Macina’s emissaries, though the meeting did not come off, apparently for logistical reasons.[fn]Mahmoud Dicko says he could not travel because the meeting was scheduled at a time when the inner delta, where the meeting was set to take place, is completely flooded. Before the dry season arrived, he was sacked from the missions de bons offices. Crisis Group interviews, religious leaders closely involved in the mission, March and April 2019.Hide Footnote Though unsuccessful, the Jam e-Dina’s outreach may have helped lay the groundwork for larger-scale initiative.

Despite showing some initial promise, the missions de bons offices were short-lived.

This initiative, the missions de bons offices, was the most ambitious the government has launched since the crisis in central Mali began. It aimed to advance peace through dialogue between a team of religious leaders and traditional notables, on one side, and armed groups in the north and centre, including the Katiba Macina, on the other.[fn]According to a top official closely involved in the missions de bons offices, those efforts involved “choosing the right people to solve the issue of security”. He assumes that, where state institutions are weak, traditional leaders can play a significant role in advancing peace. Crisis Group interview, former senior official, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote The government appointed Mahmoud Dicko to lead the team, which also comprised traditional chiefs from Kayes, Sikasso, Koulikoro and Ségou, as well as representatives from other associations.[fn]Prime Minister, Lettre Nº 0362 PM-CAB, “Organisation d’une mission de bons offices à Kidal, dans le Delta intérieur et la Boucle du Niger”, 24 May 2017.Hide Footnote Through the missions de bons offices, Dicko and his team attempted to establish contact via intermediaries with both Iyad ag Ghaly and Hamadoun Koufa.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, religious leader closely involved in the mission, March and April 2019. Dicko claims that Iyad ag Ghaly agreed to negotiate. He says his intermediary Cheikh ag Aoussa told him as much. On the same day that ag Aoussa informed him of ag Ghaly’s answer, however, ag Aoussa was assassinated with a car bomb.Hide Footnote Their goal was to identify influential families and Quranic school teachers who educated many of the jihadists and who together could convince the jihadists to enter peace talks.

As regards the Katiba Macina, Dicko attempted to make contact with Koufa’s inner circle by organising large meetings in Bamako, Segou and Mopti where he convened religious leaders, in particular teachers at Quranic schools, to discuss how to bring about peace. At these meetings, he called upon religious scholars to convince the jihadists to lay down their weapons and come to the negotiating table. He suggested various ways in which the jihadists and the government could compromise, including the appointment of a qadi by local district authorities, reform of Quranic schools, and bans on bars, brothels and gambling where necessary.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

 Despite showing some initial promise, the missions de bons offices were short-lived. The efforts mobilised many people and revealed some support, in particular but not only among Quranic school teachers, for such dialogue.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote It made clear who was responsible, in this case Mahmoud Dicko, for establishing contacts – important in an environment where potential mediators between the state and militants often compete for opportunities that can entail access to resources.[fn]For more on tensions and competition among elites from Central Mali, see Crisis Group Report, Central Mali: An Uprising in the Making, op. cit. For another example of this competition for mediation positions in the central Sahel, see Crisis Group Report, Frontière Niger-Mali : mettre l’outil militaire au service d’une approche politique, op. cit.Hide Footnote More broadly, the mission illustrated that the Malian authorities can at least envisage an approach to tackling the jihadist insurgency that involves dialogue. In December 2017, however, Prime Minister Maiga resigned, effectively ending the program.[fn]President Keïta distanced himself from the missions de bons offices. “Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta : ‘Pas question de négocier avec les djihadistes’”, Le Monde, 22 February 2018.Hide Footnote The choice of Dicko, a religious personage many Malians view as controversial, appears also to have generated opposition from Western countries.[fn]Dicko has taken strong conservative positions on family code reform, called for the Islamisation of Malian public life, and been an outspoken critic of homosexuality and Western influence. Senior Western officials apparently protested directly to the prime minister about his role. Crisis Group interviews, Bamako, October 2018.Hide Footnote That Dicko’s relations with President Keïta had also become increasingly strained also likely contributed to bringing the mission to an end.[fn]Dicko supported President Keïta until 2016, but since then relations between the two had been increasingly strained.Hide Footnote

B. Disarmament and Intercommunal Dialogue

Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga’s government adopted an approach to the conflict that centred more on military operations aimed at opening space for the state apparatus to return to central Mali than on efforts to negotiate a settlement. As described in Section II, this approach primarily entails the redeployment of security forces, state officials and development projects, outlined in the February 2017 Plan de Sécurisation Intégré des Régions du Centre du Mali, backed up by aggressive military operations. But after publishing the plan, Maïga’s government complemented it with two further other elements: first, a DDR program for combatants – including jihadists – who surrender weapons; and secondly, intercommunal dialogue sponsored by NGOs that aims to promote national cohesion but explicitly excludes the Katiba Macina. Officials presented these efforts as an integrated strategy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, advisers to the prime minister and government officials in Mopti, January and March 2018.Hide Footnote In reality, however, the DDR and dialogue initiatives are largely disconnected from the military campaign, limiting the effectiveness of the whole approach.

On 24 December 2018, Prime Minister Maïga launched a new DDR process in Mopti. It came as foreign countries stepped up pressure on Malian authorities to take steps to calm escalating intercommunal violence. The government fixed a deadline of one month for all armed groups and individuals to enrol.[fn]The DDR commission’s president distributed registries to several armed groups in Mopti and invited them to register their combatants. Other registries were provided to each of Mopti’s eight cercles to allow non-affiliated armed individuals or even jihadists to enrol in the DDR process.Hide Footnote The program aims to disarm non-jihadist self-defence militias, many of whom were involved in intercommunal violence, but also jihadists. It thus appears to attempt to pull the rug out from under jihadist leaders and ideologues by peeling off less committed members and isolating those more militant.[fn]Former Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga announced that the DDR program’s goal was to “provide an exit to those who enrolled [in jihadist groups] for lack of better perspectives”. See Primature du Mali, “Le Premier Ministre Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga à l’Assemblée Nationale”, 7 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The success of the disarmament program thus far is hard to evaluate. In February 2019, the government announced that an impressive number – over 5,000 – combatants had signed up.[fn]UN Security Council, “Situation in Mali: Report of the Secretary General, March 2019”, S/2019/262, 26 March 2019.Hide Footnote A few jihadist fighters may also have joined. Yet without a blessing from their leaders and suspecting that the government would use the program to arrest them, the vast majority of Katiba Macina militants have thus far boycotted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member of DDR commission in Mopti, Mopti, January 2019. A video portraying a group of armed individuals presented as jihadist defectors enrolled in the DDR program has circulated in social media.Hide Footnote As militants refused to disarm, it has become harder to persuade the communal militias often involved in fighting the jihadists to do so. Continuing intercommunal violence also acts as a strong disincentive. Of the 5,000 combatants that the authorities cite as having joined the program, it is unclear how many have actually disarmed.

Meanwhile, the government has tasked NGOs with mediating intercommunal dialogue in central Mali, though explicitly excluding the jihadists from their mandate.[fn]At least one international NGO, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and Promediation, has received a mandate from the Malian government to mediate in central Mali for the purpose of mitigating conflict. Crisis Group interviews, mediation NGOs, October and January 2019.Hide Footnote On 28 August 2018, following a Center for Humanitarian Dialogue mediation, 34 village chiefs from Mopti met in Sevaré to sign an agreement that aimed to end intercommunal violence. Some militias initially laid down their weapons as a result. But as jihadists attacks continued, the truce fell apart. In some areas, the incidence of assassinations, raids and livestock thefts in the area has since risen.[fn]In January and March 2019, central Mali registered the two deadliest attacks since the conflict began in 2015. On 1 January 2019, suspected Dogon militias stormed the village of Koulogon Peul, killing 36 civilians, injuring nine, and burning down over a hundred houses and dozens of granaries. On 23 March, in similar circumstances, suspected Dozo militias attacked the village of Ogassagou Peul killing 157, injuring 65 and setting fire to over 200 houses. An attack on Ogassagou’s scale is unprecedented in Mali’s history. See MINUSMA, “Communiqué de presse : Conclusions préliminaires de la mission d’enquête spéciale sur les graves atteintes aux droits de l’homme commis à Ogossagou le 23 mars 2019”, 2 May 2019.Hide Footnote Much as with the disarmament program, such ceasefires appear unlikely to hold if they do not include all those fighting on the ground, including jihadists.

VI. Dialogue Options for Ending the Stalemate

Given the limits of the Malian government and its Western partners’ current approach, it could add to the mix dialogue involving – though not limited to – Katiba Macina militants. The government could pursue two channels for such engagement. The first would involve seeking to reinitiate talks with Katiba Macina leaders, by reviving the idea of debate between religious scholars and Hamadoun Koufa, though taking steps to minimise backlash. The second would aim to foster a more inclusive political dialogue involving all central Malian communities, including those who support and sympathise with the jihadists, that aims to reach at a shared understanding of the conflict’s causes, how to tackle them and the state’s role in doing so.

Pursuing these options would entail not an end to military operations, development work and DDR but a shift in tack. If thus far the goal has been to exhaust jihadists to the point where they have no option but to surrender or leave the region, the military instead could maintain a level of pressure but accept temporary and local ceasefires when those leading mediation efforts believe it is time to give more space to dialogue. Meanwhile, the government’s DDR program should at a minimum continue to leave the door open for jihadists who either joined the insurgency unwillingly or joined by choice but now regret doing so and wish to lay down their guns. Bamako should, however, recognise that few are likely to do so while their leaders are sworn to continue fighting. It should avoid aggressive efforts to prise away militants that are unlikely to work and could undercut efforts to open lines of communication to their leaders.

A. Renewed Efforts to Engage Katiba Macina

The Malian government should also consider renewing its efforts to engage people close to the Katiba Macina, with an eye to communicating with the movement’s leaders. Such efforts would be both controversial and challenging, with success far from guaranteed. But given the paucity of good options, they are worth pursuing.

The Malian government could seek to initiate local dialogue with confidents of Katiba Macina leader Hamadoun Koufa. Koufa rejected in August 2017 the invitation for talks from Peul elites, saying that any such talks should take place with Iyad ag Ghaly as his leader. Whether he would be prepared to engage now without a green light from ag Ghaly and, indeed, whether dialogue with ag Ghaly himself might be an option are unclear (a forthcoming Crisis Group briefing will explore prospects for the latter). But Koufa’s past expression of willingness to at least enter into religious dialogue with three Islamic scholars, one of whom was Mahmoud Dicko, might offer an entry point.[fn]See also fn 68.Hide Footnote The government could encourage such a dialogue, by explicitly mandating and empowering religious leaders, including the three scholars, to engage in discussions with Koufa or his representatives.

The initial dialogue might also open a channel through which officials could discuss transactional deals, like ceasefires or aid access.

Such talks could probably initially yield at most small dividends, but could build in ambition over time. The Islamic scholars might, for example, start by seeking to simply establish contacts and explore options for steps that might reduce violence, such as local ceasefires and the negotiated return of some officials, potentially those providing services that communities want, notably veterinary and health services, to areas under jihadist control. They might eventually be able to explore with Katiba Macina representatives areas of potential compromise and produce concrete proposals for political and religious reforms. These might involve, for example, the creation of an official position of qadi appointed by local authorities in certain central Malian districts – as is the case in Mauritania and Nigeria – or the integration of Quranic schools in the national education system to improve their graduates’ job prospects. The initial dialogue might also open a channel through which officials could discuss transactional deals, like ceasefires or aid access, or political steps or even hold direct talks with Koufa over such issues.

The government would have to take steps to defuse the resistance such efforts are likely to generate. As described, some Bamako elites and many central Malians would likely view engagement as a step toward a deal with jihadists and sharia rule, while foreign powers might see it as legitimising a terrorist outfit with blood on its hands. Officials could make clear that those talks do not signal acceptance of the jihadists’ vision for the country as legitimate. To counter potential resistance from Western governments, they could guarantee that militants pledging to renounce transnational connections would be a requirement for any agreement. Malian leaders could also signal to Western counterparts that they share a heavy financial and military burden for a war that appears to be dragging on with no foreseeable end and have an interest in at least permitting the Malian government to explore all options for resolving it.

Challenges notwithstanding, there may be some scope for accommodation. In reality, Islam already regulates much of life in rural Mali, particularly in matters of family, marriage, inheritance and divorce. Most Malians, particularly in rural areas, look first to traditional or religious authorities to settle family and land disputes, for example, and only after exhausting these traditional avenues they resort to the state’s inefficient courts.[fn]See “Résumés des Résultats : 6ème Tour de l’Afrobarometer Enquête en/au Mali 2014”, Afrobarometer, 2015.Hide Footnote Were, for example, the government to formalise sharia courts, the impact on people’s behaviour or the state’s authority is unlikely to be dramatic. Indeed, doing so might shore up the state’s legitimacy if people in areas affected see the step as part of a reduction in violence and responding to local needs.

B. A More Inclusive Dialogue for Central Mali

Given that jihadism is but one dimension of central Mali’s crisis, the Malian government should also pursue a wider dialogue with the region’s many constituencies, including those based on ethnicity. This would aim to arrive at a shared understanding of the grievances and cleavages underpinning violence, how to address them and, given the state’s chronic weakness in central Mali, what its return to the region would entail. Issues on the table could include, for example, how to regulate access to natural resources and restore forms of local security and justice provision, what forms of decentralised authority and political representation make sense and the nature of education, both Francophone and Quranic, in the region. Such a dialogue could help assuage fears of those constituencies worried about engagement with militants that their voices will count for less. It would not necessarily have to include the yimbe ladde directly; indeed, doing so would likely be impossible unless efforts to engage Hamadoun Koufa bear fruit. But it should include parts of society most sympathetic to them, including Peul nomads and Quranic school students.

The missions de bons offices offer lessons as to how such a dialogue might be framed and conducted. It should go beyond the periodic forums the government has tended to organise in the past.[fn]Since 2016, several forums have been organised in Mopti, including the Forum de paix et de reconciliation de Mopti in January 2016 and the Forum des victimes et associations des victimes de la région de Mopti in April 2017.Hide Footnote It should be as inclusive as possible and led by a range of people, including state officials, traditional authorities and religious and civic leaders. It should aim to generate grassroots mobilisation, nurturing or empowering strong leadership within communities. Contrary to the mission de bons offices, which ended prematurely due to the change of government, it should be catalysed and then publicly and consistently supported by the Malian presidency.

Much as in the north, the challenge is all the graver given the collapse of central Mali’s political system after years of insurgency.

Obstacles to such a dialogue are serious. The three years of negotiations in Algiers that resulted in the 2015 Bamako accord, which aimed to give different constituencies from Mali’s north a say, and subsequent struggles to implement that deal, show how hard it is to hold inclusive talks, reach agreement and follow through.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°226, Mali: An Imposed Peace?, 22 May 2015; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°104, Mali: Last Chance in Algiers, 18 November 2014; and Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°115, Mali: Peace from Below?, 14 December 2015.Hide Footnote Much as in the north, the challenge is all the graver given the collapse of central Mali’s political system after years of insurgency. Most elected officials have fled their constituencies and retain little influence. The legitimacy of traditional authorities who remain is often contested. Nor is it clear that jihadists who control rural areas would allow people to participate, though this might potentially be an area on which the religious scholars seeking to engage Katiba Macina leaders could seek compromise.

One first step the government could take would be to appoint a presidential envoy with a full mandate to explore how such a dialogue might work and then lead it. The envoy should work with local elites and influential figures, such as Quranic school teachers and traditional notables, to reduce the chances that jihadists will stop the process even if they oppose it.

VII. Conclusion

Central Mali now suffers worse violence than anywhere else in the country, with thousands killed over the past four years. The state’s response, involving mostly military force complemented with some development aid, has thus far done little to reduce levels of bloodshed. If military operations have enhanced the state’s presence in towns, Katiba Macina insurgents control much of the countryside and continue to recruit by tapping deep-rooted local grievances. Little suggests the movement will be defeated any time soon. Meanwhile, both jihadist attacks and the counter-insurgency campaign have fuelled intercommunal bloodshed, which now exacts a higher toll than fighting between the security forces and militants. While development aid is critical for central Mali, the track record there and elsewhere in the Sahel suggests that it is an ineffective counter-insurgency tool, unable to sap popular support for militants and unlikely to much improve people’s lives absent at least a modicum of security.

As existing policies flounder and few good options remain, the Malian government should consider options for engaging militants and their supporters, whether by establishing lines of communication to Katiba Macina leaders or engaging in a wide dialogue including the social strata most sympathetic to them. Such efforts are fraught with difficulties: notably the resistance they would likely generate among communities that have borne the brunt of jihadist violence in Bamako and in foreign capitals; and the fact that Hamadou Koufa himself so far has rejected dialogue. They will almost certainly not lead to an immediate cessation of hostilities and may not even over time yield major dividends. Nor are they an alternative to force: the Malian government and its international partners should maintain military operations that since early 2018 have at least checked the militants’ advance. But an approach that pairs those operations with efforts to engage in dialogue might help bypass the current gridlock and open new opportunities for reducing violence and advancing peace.

Dakar/Brussels, 28 May 2019


Appendix A: Evolution of Violence in Central Mali (2015-2018)