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Drug Trafficking, Violence and Politics in Northern Mali
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

Soldiers from the Tuareg rebel group MNLA drive in a convoy of pickup trucks in the northeastern town of Kidal on 4 February 2013. REUTERS/Cheick Diouara
Report 267 / Africa

Drug Trafficking, Violence and Politics in Northern Mali

Dans le Nord du Mali, un trafic de drogue particulièrement concurrentiel suscite de graves violences et entrave l’application de l’accord de paix de 2015. Le Mali et ses partenaires devraient chercher à réduire les effets les plus délétères du narcotrafic en démilitarisant ses acteurs.

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What’s happening? Drug trafficking in northern Mali is generating a level of violence that is unparalleled in the subregion; many of the armed groups in the north rely on the drug trade to finance operations, meet logistical needs and acquire weapons and vehicles.

Why does it matter? Drug traffickers’ rivalries obstruct the implementation of the 2015 inter-Malian peace agreement, and contribute to disputes among the groups who signed that deal. Violent interceptions are fuelling the militarised protection of drug convoys that is in turn delaying disarmament.

What should be done? Stamping out drug trafficking is unrealistic in the short term. Instead, Mali and its partners should strengthen control mechanisms, ranging from local dialogue to punishments, so that stakeholders can agree on how to demilitarise drug trafficking in northern Mali.

Executive Summary

Drug trafficking in northern Mali is generating a level of violence that is unparalleled in the subregion. The Malian state’s inability to bring the area under control has spawned particularly fierce conflicts among traffickers. Weapons circulating after the rebellions of the past two decades have exacerbated the progressive militarisation of trafficking networks, whose rivalries fuel political and inter-communal tensions. Smuggling narcotics is not only a means by which armed groups gain funds but a source of conflict in itself. Thus far, policies against drug trafficking have proven ineffectual; indeed, it is unrealistic to expect the problem to be eradicated any time soon. But Malian authorities and their international partners could take steps to at least demilitarise trafficking and reduce violence. These include backing regional stability pacts that informally regulate smuggling, redoubling efforts to rid all armed groups who signed the 2015 peace agreement, including those working with traffickers, of heavy weaponry, and using coercive measures (notably targeted sanctions) against those who refuse to disarm.

The influx into northern Mali of drugs (hashish in the 1990s, cocaine in the 2000s) has shaken up the local economy. Initially monopolised by Arab tribes, the enormous profits generated by the drug trade have, since the mid-2000s, attracted other groups’ involvement. The resulting competition – and the inflow of arms across the Sahel – has militarised smuggling, with traffickers using heavy arms and militias to protect or intercept convoys. Drug money has caused disputes among communities and upended traditional hierarchies. Conflicts degenerate into protracted feuds because criminal groups increasingly fall back on their communities for support. For years the Malian state, unable to prevent or regulate trafficking, has backed some armed groups against others, with officials seeking to gain resources and prevent them falling into rebels’ hands – although the government has denied this.

Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

The 2012 Malian crisis worsened a situation that had been deteriorating already for a decade. After the rout of state forces from the north, traffickers adapted, forging closer ties to the region’s various armed groups, including in some cases jihadists (though the link between jihadism and drug trafficking in the Sahel tends to be overstated). Major traffickers maintain relations with both Malian authorities – which the latter denies – and political and military groups in the north; indeed often trafficking networks are embedded in, or overlap with, those groups, who themselves depend on trafficking to finance their operations and to buy weapons. That said, ties between armed groups and traffickers are not trouble-free: they do not always share the same interests. Rivalries among trafficking networks sometimes provoke confrontation between armed groups that those groups would prefer to avoid.

Drug trafficking remained a side issue during the inter-Malian talks that sought to end the crisis and which took place first in Ouagadougou in 2013, and then in Algiers in 2014 and 2015. Though discussed behind-the-scenes, the subject was virtually absent from the June 2015 peace agreement. On the other hand, subsequent local deals known as Anéfis 1 (October 2015) and Anéfis 2 (October 2017), have sought to regulate trafficking. In particular, they have included influential figures involved in trafficking and by keeping routes open for all transit have attempted to diminish armed competition and theft around those routes and to prevent rivalry among traffickers from escalating into fighting among the armed groups that signed the peace agreement. International actors, understandably reluctant to enter into open discussions about regulating trafficking, thus far view these efforts warily.

Actions to combat drug trafficking in northern Mali remain limited and ineffectual. National and international policymakers acknowledge the need to combat the drugs trade. But many avoid shouldering responsibility, citing the (often valid) reason that the problem falls outside their remit. On the ground, the fight against trafficking appears a lesser priority for international actors than implementing the peace agreement, conducting counter-terrorism operations and combatting clandestine people smuggling. Their reticence to act against traffickers also can be explained by the complexity of the networks involved and the fear of upsetting business interests, which could reach into the upper-most levels of regional governments. Moreover, for UN peacekeepers already under attack from jihadists, picking another fight would bring further danger, particularly given many armed groups’ involvement in trafficking.

The global struggle against the drug trade has known few successes. To be effective, measures should be global, coordinated and agreed between countries of production, transit and consumption, whose interests often conflict. Meanwhile Mali, like other transit countries exposed to violent competition over trafficking, needs a strategy based on its own needs and developed with the regional context in mind. Its efforts should focus on curtailing drug trafficking’s most destabilising consequences. The Malian government and its foreign partners should seek to demilitarise trafficking in northern Mali as best possible in order to reduce associated bloodshed and facilitate the peace agreement’s implementation. They should prioritise three interlinked strategies:

  • Encourage local security agreements such as the Anéfis deals, which complement the inter-Malian peace process; replicate such deals elsewhere in the north; and, without condoning trafficking, allow those agreements to include those involved to establish non-aggression pacts around transit routes and ensure that any fighting over trafficking not escalate into clashes between the major armed groups in the north that signed the 2015 peace deal.
  • Use security mechanisms put in place by the peace agreement, notably the Technical Commission for Security (Commission technique de sécurité, CTS) set up to help enforce the deal and which now comprises UN and French forces, to reduce the circulation of heavy weapons and regulate the movement of vehicles used to transport such weaponry by all signatory armed groups – including those connected to traffickers – in the north. Already the CTS provides a mechanism that allows UN peacekeepers and French forces to monitor such convoys; stepping up these efforts could accelerate disarmament and thus the demilitarisation of trafficking.
  • Adopt coercive measures, including targeted sanctions and the confiscation of heavy weaponry, in order to curb the activities of the most violent drug traffickers, who continue to employ the military resources of signatory groups. The Security Council, based on the findings of its panel of experts, can already sanction those who violate the 2015 peace deal while the security committee established in Mali by the peace agreement can also confiscate heavy weapons of signatory groups’ unauthorized military convoys; these mandates could provide sufficient grounds for action against those refusing to demilitarise.

Dakar/Brussels, 13 December 2018


On 23 February 2013, French aircrafts involved in Operation Serval, launched the previous month, bombarded an armed convoy that was preparing to take the small town of In-Khalil, on Mali’s border with Algeria. The bombing mission’s motive was the supposed presence of jihadist fighters in the convoy; unofficially, it also aimed to protect elements of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, MNLA), a separatist group that had occasionally fought alongside the French troops and had just deployed in this border city.[fn]Crisis Group interview, French army officer who participated in Operation Serval, 2016. Formed on 16 October 2011, the MNLA launched the fourth rebellion in Mali’s history on 17 January 2012. The MNLA benefited from the return in 2011 of several hundred former Tuareg soldiers who had operated in the ranks of former Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, including Mohamed Najim, who became the movement’s chief of staff. Some elements of the MNLA fought alongside French troops in Operation Serval in 2013 for anti-terrorist purposes.Hide Footnote Another version of the facts quickly circulated: the targeted elements were in the service of Arab traders who wanted to recover goods looted by Tuareg traffickers and bandits, especially those from the Idnan tribe, with whom they fight for control of the crossing point between Algeria and Mali in the In-Khalil and Bordj Badji Mokhtar (Algeria) region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Arab trader, member of Operation Serval and member of MINUSMA, Bamako, May and October 2013. See also “Mali : des Arabes maliens comptent les dégâts et indexent les Idnanes”, maliactu.net, 31 March 2013.Hide Footnote These traders believed their losses to be several billion CFA francs (several million euros), mainly vehicles, but also, according to sources close to these groups, drug shipments.[fn]Ibid. Hide Footnote

During several years, the non-settlement of the In-Khalil episode poisoned relations between armed groups. In particular, it heightened the tensions between the MNLA and the Azawad Arab Movement (Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad, MAA) – at least its wing close to the Malian state –, provoking localised clashes.[fn]Created in late 2012, the MAA brings together most of the Arab tribes of Timbuktu and Gao and initially called for more autonomy for northern Mali. In 2014, the movement experienced a split between a wing mainly composed of Lamhar Arabs of the Tilemsi, which decided to support the Malian state, and another mainly composed of Berabiche Arabs of Timbuktu but which also includes some Arabs of Gao such as the Mechdouf, who joined forces with the Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, CMA), an alliance of rebel groups. Rivalries between traffickers within the original MAA played a role in this split.Hide Footnote This issue came into discussions between the Malian state and armed groups during several international meetings in Nouakchott, Mauritania and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 2013, at the Algiers peace talks in 2014 and 2015, and at the local mediation initiative of Anéfis (northern Mali) in October 2015. The latter led to a reconciliation agreement between the Idnan and Arab tribes – relating in part to the open conflict between them since the In-Khalil episode. This affair illustrates the links established among politico-military groups, communities and drug traffickers. It also shows that they sometimes play a decisive role in episodes of armed violence.

Northern Mali is not a drug-producing area, nor even the only transit zone in West Africa. The consequences of drug trafficking in the country are unparalleled in the region, however. Since the 2000s, drug trafficking has played a role in the development of unprecedented forms and levels of violence. As the central state weakens and armed insurrections – including jihadists – rise, drug trafficking has become both a central stake and an essential resource for the struggles that are redefining political power relations in the country’s north.

This report studies the specific role of drug trafficking in northern Mali’s political economy.

Armed violence in this area is often simplified schematically to competition between traffickers, or even the equivocal concept of narco-jihadism, confusing the figures of the jihadist and the drug trafficker, who actually have complex inter-relationships. This report analyses how drug trafficking causes armed violence in northern Mali. It studies the specific role of drug trafficking in northern Mali’s political economy, including in the development of armed groups, both on the side of the Platform coalition of pro-government groups and of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) alliance of rebel groups.[fn]The Algiers Platform of Movements of June 14, 2014 (Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin 2014 d’Alger) is an alliance of Malian pro-governmental armed groups, the main ones being the Self-Defence Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (Groupe autodéfense Imghad et alliés, GATIA), a branch of the MAA, and a branch of the Coordination of Resistance Movements and Patriotic Forces (Coordination des mouvements et Forces patriotiques de résistance, CM-FPR). The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) is an alliance of rebel groups formed in October 2014, consisting mainly of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, (Haut conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad, HCUA), the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, MNLA), a branch of the MAA and a branch of the CM-FPR.Hide Footnote The report’s recommendations are not intended to put an end to trafficking – an unrealistic objective in the short term – but, by calling for a review of the hierarchy of priorities, to suggest concrete avenues for curbing violence related to drug trafficking and therefore to mitigate its most harmful effects.

This report is based on several dozen interviews in Mali and Niger with members of all the armed groups who were signatories of the Inter-Malian peace agreement of June 2015, as well as diplomats, economic actors in northern Mali, Malian and international security officials, and community leaders. Most interviews were conducted in Bamako or Niamey in March, April or May 2018. Some were conducted in northern Mali and in the Gao region at the time of the peace agreement’s signing and the Anéfis agreement in 2015. A few interviews took place in Mauritania.

Extreme caution is required in the collection and processing of data on criminal networks and their links with politico-military groups. This report does not study all forms of trafficking and trading in northern Mali. It focuses on drug trafficking because of the large number of actors involved in it (unlike arms trafficking), the very specific links between drug trafficking and armed violence in this region (much more, for example, than smuggling of migrants, which involves other actors) and, lastly, its influence on political power relations in Mali (especially in peace negotiations and then in implementation of the 2015 agreement).

Increasingly Competitive and Militarised Trafficking in Northern Mali

Thousands of years old, trans-Saharan trade is not a static economy. Trafficking, which has developed since the 1960s with the emergence of nation-states and borders, has undergone several phases. The illicit circulation of subsidised products from Algeria has long been central to the survival of northern Malian society. From the 1990s and especially the 2000s, circulation of new products that are both illegal and have high added value, including arms and drugs, has opened a new phase, characterised by progressive militarisation. The image of the cunning small-time smuggler playing games with customs officers, in vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, has been replaced by that of the drug trafficker at the head of criminal networks or even private armies who protect the convoys and their cargoes. This relatively recent militarisation of a portion of the economy has very significant consequences for political relations in northern Mali.

The Development of Drug Trafficking: Between Disruption and Continuity

Trans-Saharan trade has long depended on an economy of protection essential for crossing the Sahara. The caravan trade aroused the lust of armed actors who regularly engaged in razzias (or rezzous), forcing traders to hire guards for their merchandise (slaves, cattle, grains, salt).[fn]The term razzia comes from the Arabic word ghazi which refers to a warrior expedition, and more precisely the Algerian Arabic variant of the word, ghaziya.Hide Footnote These razzias, which occurred everywhere in the Sahel-Sahara belt were especially widespread in the mid-nineteenth century, in part because of the arrival in the Sahara of weapons from Europe. The French colonial administration steadily reduced these predations but never completely put an end to them.[fn]Julien Brachet, “Le négoce caravanier au Sahara central : histoire, évolution des pratiques et enjeux chez les Touaregs Kel Aïr (Niger), Cahiers d’Outre-Mer, vol. 57, April-September 2004.Hide Footnote The ancient practice of rezzous in Aïr (Niger) and Adagh (current region of Kidal, Mali) as well as the development of the goumiers, a sort of police force charged by the colonial forces to counter the rezzous, has left indelible marks on the collective imagination.[fn]Gerd Spittler, Les Touaregs face aux sécheresses et aux famines : les Kel Ewey de l’Aïr (Niger) (Paris, 1993); Pierre Boiley, Les Touaregs Kel Adagh. Dépendances et révoltes : du Soudan français au Mali contemporain (Paris, 1999).Hide Footnote The rapid and violent interceptions of shipments that are now common constitute in some respects a new form of rezzous.

Since the end of the 1990s, cannabis (hashish) resin, then cocaine, have given a new dimension to this criminal economy.

But the criminal economy that prevails in northern Mali today only partly reflects these ancient forms of predation. Since the end of the 1990s, cannabis (hashish) resin, then cocaine, have given a new dimension to this economy: in equal quantities, cocaine is 25 times more profitable than hashish, which itself is twelve times more profitable than cigarettes.[fn]Profits have been calculated in equivalent quantities on the basis of the sale price prevalent in the Algeria-Mauritania-Mali border area and Kidal. Crisis Group email correspondence, economic actor in Kidal, July 2018.Hide Footnote The circulation of hashish in the Sahel is explained by the rise in Moroccan production in the early 1990s and by the fact that direct routes to Europe, more closely monitored, have become riskier.[fn]Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, “Production de cannabis et de haschich au Maroc : contexte et enjeux”, L’Espace politique, vol. 4, 2008.Hide Footnote In the early 2000s, some traffickers specialised in the cocaine industry, which enjoyed a golden age between 2006 and 2009. In November 2009, a Boeing from Latin America filled with cocaine landed in Tarkint (Gao region), bringing this traffic to light.[fn]“Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa”, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), February 2013. Despite political pressure aiming to stifle this matter, media and diplomatic pressure led to the arrest and incarceration in 2010 of Mohamed Ould Aweinat, a trader of the Mechdouf tribe stemming from Tilemsi. He was released in early 2012 in exchange for the mobilisation of part of the Arab community against the rebellion led by the MNLA.Hide Footnote Since the end of the 2000s, other products have appeared, mainly intended for local consumption, such as methamphetamines and pharmaceuticals (tramadol, rivotril) being sold as narcotics.[fn]“Transnational Organized Crime in West Africa”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Estimates of the volume of drugs passing through northern Mali are poor, as they are based mainly on seizures, which are very rare in the Sahel-Sahara belt. Worldwide, the trend is toward increased production of cocaine and hashish, driven by continuously growing demand, notably in Europea.[fn]After falling 70 per cent between 2000 and 2013, global production of cocaine has tripled since 2013. Morocco remains the world’s largest producer of hashish. “World Drug Report 2018”, UNODC, 2018.Hide Footnote In 2018, only 5 per cent of the cocaine produced in Latin America passed through West Africa, according to UN estimates.[fn]“World Drug Report 2018”, op. cit.Hide Footnote But the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) finds that nearly one third of Moroccan production of hashish, about 300 tonnes, passed through the Sahel in 2010, most likely a very large portion via northern Mali.[fn]Jean-Luc Peduzzi, “Physionomie et enjeux des trafics dans la bande sahélo-saharienne, Note from IFRI, January 2010.Hide Footnote Since then, the proportion of Moroccan hashish passing through the Sahel has likely increased, due to heightened policing of the maritime route between Morocco and Spain.

Drugs passing through northern Mali follow relatively stable regional axes, although the routes may be adjusted. All the hashish comes from Morocco and reaches Libya and Chad, and then Egypt, via Niger or the south of Algeria; cocaine leaves West African ports to reach those of the Maghreb.[fn]Flows of Indian hemp produced in Ghana and Nigeria pass through southern Mali to reach Senegal, but these flows do not yet pass through northern Mali.Hide Footnote The locality of In-Khalil, located a few kilometres from the Algerian locality of Bordj Badji Mokhtar, was the main hub in the 2000s for drug and arms trafficking in northern Mali.[fn]In-Khalil came out of the sand in the early 2000s as a result of a surge in smuggling of subsidised Algerian products. The prices of basic necessities in northern Mali are often lower than in the south, where goods generally come from West African ports. See Judith Scheele, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara (Cambridge, 2012); Sami Bensassi, Anne Brockmeyer, Mathieu Pellerin and Gaël Raballand, “Algeria-Mali Trade: The Normality of Informality”, Middle East Development Journal, vol. 9, 2017.Hide Footnote The state’s disengagement in 2012 contributed to the diversification of the routes in the north and created or stimulated the emergence of new hubs such as Tabankort (Tilemsi Valley in the north of the Gao region), Ber or Lerneb (to the east and west of Timbuktu, respectively). Routes taken between these hubs vary depending on the security situation and the pressure exerted by the states of the sub-region and international actors.[fn]It is common for supplies to be interrupted for several months, especially of Moroccan hashish. Thus, between November 2017 and April 2018, very few shipments of hashish from Morocco passed through Mali. This may be due to strengthened security measures in border countries or the arrest of a key player. Crisis Group interview, member of an armed group that was a signatory to the peace agreement of June 2015, Bamako, April 2018. After the arrest in 2010 of Bubo Na Tchuto, vice-admiral of the Guinea Bissau navy, by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the supply of cocaine to Malian partners was reportedly interrupted for several months. Crisis Group interview, economic player from Gao, Niamey, June 2015.Hide Footnote A senior Malian army officer said: “In the desert, everywhere is a route … but some are safer than others”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bamako, May 2016.Hide Footnote

Entretien de Crisis Group, Bamako, mai 2016.Hide Footnote

The sociology of actors has also become more complex since the mid-2000s. Traditionally, Arab tribes, notably the Lamhar of Tilemsi (Gao region) and the Berabiche (mainly in Timbuktu and Taoudénit) have held a quasi-monopoly on drug trafficking. They employed men from other groups as guards and couriers but retained control of the flow of goods. The revenue generated by drugs has encouraged an increasing number of individuals to specialise either in the capture or the protection of convoys. Drug trafficking, especially that of hashish, was relatively “democratised” by the end of the 2000s, involving new actors from the main communities of northern Mali. Although they are still among the only ones who own drug shipments, Lamhar and Berabiche traffickers now share the market with many other actors.[fn]On the eve of the crisis in 2012, Idnan Tuaregs, to this point responsible for transporting convoys of the Lamhar Arabs, attempted and partially succeeded in taking control of the drug flows in the In-Khalil region. Crisis Group interview, Lamhar trader, Bamako, May 2015.Hide Footnote

A la veille de la crise de 2012, des Touareg idnan, jusqu’ici chargés de l’acheminement des convois des Arabes lamhar, ont tenté et partiellement réussi à prendre le contrôle des flux de drogue dans la région d’In-Khalil. Entretien de Crisis Group, commerçant lamhar, Bamako, mai 2015.Hide Footnote

Drug Trafficking and Armed Violence

In order to develop, drug trafficking needs a state that is indifferent, complicit or incapable. It can nonetheless suffer in the total absence of the state and the disorder that generates. The inability of Malian security forces to control vast desert territories, unlike in Mauritania and especially in Algeria, has fostered the development of more independent and competing trafficking networks. In northern Mali, traffickers have to protect their cargoes from intercepts. With significant financial resources, they rely on private security firms that generally use pickup trucks equipped with heavy machine guns (often 12.7mm or 14.5mm in calibre).

Securing routes between the different drug trafficking hubs generates significant economic activity. Rebel fighters bring to the trafficking networks the military know-how they need. Although the channels are often run by traders, those who provide transport and convoy security have the profile of fighters. In the absence of a successful disarmament process, the weapons used in the last two rebellions in Mali (1990-1996; 2006-2009) continue to circulate. The 2011 Libyan crisis amplified this dynamic with the return to northern Mali of several hundred Tuareg fighters formerly under the orders of the late Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. For these men, whose main capital is handling weapons, joining the drug trafficking economy (conveying or intercepting) is attractive.[fn]Some of them were already involved in various trafficking activities while living in Libya.Hide Footnote

In the Sahel as elsewhere, the level of violence generated by drug trafficking fluctuates according to the products, places and times. In northern Mali a variety of factors – the Malian state’s weakness in the north, the circulation of weapons in the wake of the 1990s Arab-Tuareg rebellions, the competitive nature of the market accentuated by the interplay of rivalries between tribes – have combined to feed an unprecedented militarisation of this trafficking. The case of In-Khalil is symptomatic: beyond the state’s control, this drug trafficking hub has gradually aroused a rivalry between several community-based networks, which affiliated with armed groups during the 2012 rebellion and confronted one another. To impose themselves on the drug market or to protect the convoys, traffickers began a process of steady militarisation that the Malian state could not contain. Indeed, though the authorities deny it, they stimulated this process by supporting some traffickers against others.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official of the Ministry of Internal Security and Civil Protection, Bamako, October 2015.Hide Footnote

Entretien de Crisis Group, haut fonctionnaire du ministère de la Sécurité intérieure, Bamako, octobre 2015.Hide Footnote

Trafficking and Communities
Drug trafficking has a significant effect on the local balance of power, particularly on relations between communities.

Although the settling of scores between traffickers does not directly affect civilians, drug trafficking has a significant effect on the local balance of power, particularly on relations between communities. Major traffickers and bandits have acquired local and even national influence, and have invested in their communities to build a “clientèle”. They have thus become “local notables”, while remaining controversial figures.[fn]Not all drug traffickers adopt the same strategy. Some prefer to stay in the shadows while others have sought to obtain positions as mayors, deputies or chiefs of tribal factions. Judith Scheele has noted the complex relationship that traffickers have with their communities, emphasising that some tended to emancipate themselves by building their personal networks on a personal rather than tribal basis. Judith Scheele, “Tribes, States and Smuggling: The Border between Algeria and Mali”, Etudes rurales, vol. 184, 2009. This analysis is fair but the stiffer opposition between communities since the beginning of the 2012 crisis has led drug traffickers, like other political actors, to withdraw to their communities of origin.Hide Footnote

Many traffickers have acquired the status of “social bandits”, taking on rival tribes but redistributing part of their earnings to their relatives, reproducing practices similar to the old razzias.[fn]Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester, 1959). See also Spittler, Les Tuaregs face aux sécheresses et aux famines, op. cit.Hide Footnote In Kidal, for example, a leading trafficker has invested heavily in his village of origin (building a dam, digging a well and buying generators) and takes charge of his community’s health care. Some may even finance religious festivals or mosque construction.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community actors from northern Mali, Bamako, 2012-2018.Hide Footnote They are symbols of economic and social success in northern Mali, despite the moral disapproval that sometimes surrounds their criminal activity.[fn]“It is said that any marriage concluded with drug money will remain necessarily sterile and is hardly better than prostitution”. Scheele, “Tribes, States and Smuggling: The Border between Algeria and Mali”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Most traditional and religious authorities have condemned the circulation of drugs as haram (forbidden by the precepts of Islam). This may have held back some pious tribes, such as the Kel Ansar or Kel Essouk Tuareg, from participating in trafficking.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote But others have overlooked these prescriptions taken part in this lucrative activity. Drug trafficking has gradually become a major source of jobs and redistribution of wealth within families and tribal factions.[fn]A faction, in a nomadic area, is a grouping of families, usually from one or more villages in a commune and belonging to a tribe. A tribe is therefore composed of several factions.Hide Footnote

While drug trafficking is giving rise to new economic elites, some former notables are also tempted by the promise of drug money. Certain traditional leaders have encouraged their young relatives to engage in trafficking, or at least tolerated their involvement, as a way of consolidating their position. For example, in the Kidal region, young people of the Kounta or Ifogha tribes, who enjoy much political and religious prestige, have engaged in trafficking or predation for the more or less direct benefit of their elders.

The emergence of major traffickers has altered the sociology of northern Mali elites. It has intensified a process of tribal splitting that started with the 1993 policy of decentralisation and has proved corrosive for “traditional” forms of authority.[fn]Law 93-008/PM-RM of 11 February 1993 determines the conditions for free administration of territorial authorities.Hide Footnote Those who succeed in drugs use their financial resources to consolidate their territorial base and some create their own tribal faction.[fn]The creation of a tribal faction is subject to deliberation by the municipal council before being approved by the prefecture.Hide Footnote This dynamic is particularly common in the Timbuktu region. The Oulad Ehich and Oulad Oumrane, two factions of the Berabiche Arab tribe, each composed of two sub-factions in 1994, today count eighteen and fifteen, respectively.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the Azawad Arab Movement (MAA), Bamako, April 2018.Hide Footnote While drug trafficking does not on its own explain the trend toward tribal “splitting” (and sometimes the creation of new administrative districts, called “circles”), it is one driver, since the enrichment of new actors pushes them to empower themselves and demand control of the circles. Tribal leaders’ authority erodes, thus weakening the traditional conflict resolution mechanisms.

Rivalries between traffickers, who organise their networks partly along lines of family and tribal solidarity, sometimes descend into open conflict. For instance, the conflict between the two Arab tribes of the Tilemsi valley, the Mechdouf and the Lamhar, is directly linked to rivalries between a few major traffickers. Allies until 2005, especially against the Arabs of the Kounta tribe, the Mechdouf and the Lamhar parted ways over a dispute between networks of traffickers, aggravated by the political influence acquired by the Mechdouf under President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2007.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Arabs from Tilemsi, Bamako, April 2018.Hide Footnote This rivalry turned into armed conflict during the 2012 rebellion, helping the split of the Azawad Arab Movement (MAA) into two branches in 2014, one of which joined the Platform coalition and the other the CMA.

Competition between drug traffickers from different communities exacerbates pre-existing tensions, particularly between “noble” and “vassal” tribes.[fn]These rivalries have as their common substratum social relations built historically on supposed statutory domination of the latter by the former. The Kel Adagh Tuareg, from the nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century, paid a tax to the Ouillimiden Kel Ataram, who then dominated the Adagh. See Georg Klute, “Hostilités et alliances. Archéologie de la dissidence des Touaregs au Mali”, Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 137, 1995.Hide Footnote The tensions between the Kounta and “vassal” Arab tribes degenerated into open conflict in 1999 and again after 2002.[fn]Scheele, “Tribes, States, and Smuggling: The Border between Algeria and Mali”, op. cit. The Kounta are an Arab tribe with great social and religious prestige. Most of the other Arab tribes of the Gao and Kidal regions were historically their tributaries.Hide Footnote Similarly, recurrent conflicts between the Ifogha and Imrad were accentuated from the mid-1990s, in parallel with the decentralisation process and the organisation of the first local elections.[fn]The rebellion of 1990 led to the splitting of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement populaire de libération de l’Azawad, MPLA), dominated by the Ifogha, and creation of the Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of the Azawad (Armée révolutionnaire de libération de l’Azawad, ARLA), mainly Imrad. See Boiley, Les Touaregs Kel Adagh, op. cit., pp. 513-517.Hide Footnote Due to the development of smuggling, then of drug trafficking, the “vassal” tribes have strengthened themselves commercially, militarily and politically to emancipate themselves from their former overlords.[fn]This reversal of social orders is not unique to Mali. It is found in other contexts marked by the development of drug trafficking, such as in Colombia. Diana Villegas, “Le pouvoir de la mafia colombienne des années 1980 et 1990”, Pouvoirs, vol. 132, 2010.Hide Footnote

These struggles between tribes – or those who claim to represent them – are both political and economic: the revenue generated by trafficking has become important because it allows each tribe to finance its own fighting apparatus while weakening that of its enemy tribe.[fn]For example, in January 2010, the interception by the Ifogha and the Kounta of cocaine being transported by the Lamhar and Imrad prompted the Lamhar to kidnap the Kounta chief in the Gao region. See Wolfram Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 13 September 2012.Hide Footnote The tensions between the Tuareg of the Idnan tribe and Arabs of the Lamhar tribe, accentuated by the 2007 legislative elections, are also due to rivalries for territory between trafficking networks from these two tribes in the Kidal region.

Traffickers between the State and the Rebels

Drug trafficking disrupts local community dynamics and also interferes with local and national political dynamics. Indeed, the resources generated by trafficking are now a valuable, if not essential, asset to go into politics in northern Mali. Control of trafficking has therefore become important for those who wish to assert privileged links with the state or, conversely, to rebel against it. The trafficking economy, community affiliations and state interests are thus intertwined.

The major traffickers become political entrepreneurs whose influence is palpable in electoral campaigns in northern Mali. Some are embarking on political careers, running in local or legislative elections. Others prefer to remain in the shadows and finance the electoral campaigns of their protégés or relatives. Access to political power is a source of both direct enrichment (access to public procurement) and political benefits: notably parliamentary immunity, diplomatic passports, access to the highest state institutions and access to public contracts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, actors involved in drug trafficking, Bamako, Nouakchott, Niamey, 2013-2018.Hide Footnote These national political networks are essential guarantees of influence as well as protection of trafficking activities. They are coupled with political support at the highest level in the sub-region.

The new element from the 2000s is the presence of major drug traffickers among the Tuareg and Arab tribes on which the state relies.

Traffickers are also connected to the state administrations through their investments in the legal economy (transport, construction and real estate sectors), aiming to diversify their activities and launder their money. This economic penetration occurs in Mali, but also and especially across the wider region (mainly in Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania and Algeria).[fn]A prominent Lamhar trafficker from Mali has the reputation of having direct access to the presidents of neighbouring countries and of travelling regularly to regional capitals aboard his private plane. Crisis Group interview, security officer, Niamey, December 2017.Hide Footnote

This politico-economic influence lets traffickers progressively impose themselves as indispensable political actors at different levels of a state open to such relations. Anxious to control the north, the Malian state has since the 1990s forged alliances with tribes considered to be “loyalist”.[fn]This policy of community preference had already sharpened tensions between the Ifogha and Imrad in 1994. The MPLA of Iyad ag Ghali (dominated by the Ifogha) had then reportedly served as a paramilitary force of the Malian army to counter the movements that had not signed the Tamanrasset agreements in 1991, including the Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of the Azawad (ARLA) led by Elhadji Gamou (dominated by the Imrad).Hide Footnote The new element from the 2000s is the presence of major drug traffickers among the Tuareg and Arab tribes on which the state relies. By allowing these actors to form armed militias in 2008, the state intended to find local supporters to fight the rebellion of Ibrahim ag Bahanga.[fn]After the signing of the Algiers agreement in 2007, Ibrahim ag Bahanga continued the rebellion launched by the Democratic Alliance for Change (Alliance démocratique pour le changement, ADC) in 2006. He was at the head of the National Alliance of the Tuareg of Mali (Alliance nationale des Touareg du Mali, ANTM) until his death in August 2011.Hide Footnote For their part, the militia leaders were primarily interested in regaining control of the trafficking routes.[fn]Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region”, op. cit. See “Prominent Tuareg’s View of Arab Militias, Rebellion and AQIM”, U.S. embassy Bamako cable, 18 March 2009, as made public by WikiLeaks.Hide Footnote

At the same time, drug traffickers also made connections to rebel groups. In 2006, as a new Tuareg rebellion was emerging, the main rebel movement, the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC), solicited the few active trafficking networks in the Kidal region to participate in the war effort.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, leaders and members of armed groups of the Kidal region, Bamako, 2013-2018. See also Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The latter were pressed to choose a camp, which helped militarise the networks, in particular to deal with the increasingly frequent interception of convoys.[fn]The traffickers of the Ifogha and Kounta tribes intercepted each other’s convoys, as did the Berabiche Arabs and traffickers from Kidal (the Idnan, Ifergoumessen and Taghat Malet factions, among others). Crisis Group interviews, Berabiche and Tuareg leaders, Nouakchott, July 2012. See “Tuaregs and Arabs clash over drugs and cash in northern Mali”, U.S. embassy Bamako cable, 31 August 2007, as made public by WikiLeaks.Hide Footnote

Les interceptions s’opéraient entre trafiquants de la tribu des Ifogha et de la tribu des Kounta, mais aussi entre Arabes bérabiche et trafiquants originaires de Kidal (fractions idnan, ifergoumessen, taghat malet notamment). Entretiens de Crisis Group, chefs bérabiche et touareg, Nouakchott, juillet 2012. Voir « Tuaregs and Arabs clash over drugs and cash in northern Mali », câble de l’ambassade américaine à Bamako, 31 août 2007, révélé par WikiLeaks.Hide Footnote

Trafficking at the Heart of the Malian Crisis

In northern Mali, trafficking, community conflicts and state interests intertwined in the mid-2000s. But with the 2012 crisis, these links took on a new dimension. Trafficking networks, organised partly on a community basis, infiltrated the 2012 rebellion more thoroughly than previous insurrections. The traffickers used their links with armed groups to continue or even develop their activities. The 2012 rebellion does not come down to the involvement of drug traffickers, however.

In 2012, a Weakened Link between Drug Traffickers and the State

In early 2012, the central state and its representatives precipitously evacuated the north of the country while a flexible coalition of armed groups seized the area. The separatist MNLA was gradually supplanted by jihadist groups. By June, three of these groups had taken control of the three main northern cities: the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) of Gao, Ansar Dine of Kidal and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of Timbuktu. The state’s debacle was such that the trafficking networks not only had to deal with the region’s new “strongmen”, as in 2006, but also to get closer to them.

The allegiances varied. At Kidal, from late 2011, many traffickers supported or even joined the MNLA, as they had supported the rebel movement of Ibrahim ag Bahanga in 2006. In addition, several tribes in the region changed sides to join the separatist movement, and the traffickers from these communities were required to support it. Imrad Tuareg and Berabiche Arab paramilitary groups, some of whom had integrated into the Malian armed forces, remained generally loyal to the state. Threatened by the emergence of the separatist groups, they fought the rebellion at early 2012 but ended up withdrawing, like the state.[fn]Largely isolated, the Imrad component, led by Colonel Elhadji Gamou, took refuge in Niger in April 2012 in order to reorganise, while waiting for the Malian state to be able to support them again. The Nigerien authorities welcomed these elements, considered as loyalists and that included Malian military personnel, after having officially disarmed them at the Niger-Mali border, then confined them in the outskirts of Niamey. Crisis Group Whatsapp interview, Niger army officer, 28 July 2018.Hide Footnote For their part, the Lamhar Arab traffickers, who had seen their influence with the Malian presidency decrease after the 2007 legislative elections, opportunely drew closer to the MNLA at the end of 2011, then allied with the MUJWA in Gao in the first months of 2012.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the Arab community of Tilemsi, Bamako, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote

Alliance choices sometimes caused division among drug traffickers and communities. Confronted with the state’s sudden withdrawal, Berabiche traffickers hesitated: should they maintain an alliance with a central authority that had made significant concessions to them (including the creation by then-President Amadou Toumani Touré of the strong Arab majority region of Taoudénit)? Or should they lean toward the rebels, who may sustainably control the northern routes? To cope with the uncertainties associated with the crisis, families or groups sometimes assigned different members to retain ties with both of the opposing camps.

During the 2012 crisis, the traffickers’ links with the state were no longer essential to protect their affairs as the latter had lost control of the northern part of the country. But drug traffickers and the state did not completely split up. Some traffickers still have real estate in Bamako, where parts of their families and businesses are located, although most of their profits are invested in Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania or Algeria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, actors close to the drug trafficking circles, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote They have maintained relations with the Malian authorities, while their minimal use of banks has protected them somewhat from political or fiscal pressure.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Only the drug traffickers from Kidal may have broken all connection with the authorities.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

With the gradual return of the state to the north, the drug trafficking networks resumed playing power games around appointments to key positions in the customs service, national police and army, confirming that they wish to maintain links with the state.[fn]Some army officers stationed in Gao and Timbuktu serve as relays with the south of the country, where certain goods come from. One of them was recently killed in Timbuktu in a settling of scores. Crisis Group interviews, MAA and MNLA members, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote The Malian authorities readily acknowledge the closeness between certain politicians and drug traffickers at the time of former President Touré but emphasise that these links were broken under the current president.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official of the Ministry of Internal Security and Civilian Protection, Bamako, October 2015.Hide Footnote

Entretien de Crisis Group, haut fonctionnaire du ministère de la Sécurité intérieure, Bamako octobre 2015.Hide Footnote

Traffickers and Jihadists: Complex Relationships

The supposed alliance between drug traffickers and jihadists, summed up in the term “narco-terrorism”, gives rise to many fantasies.[fn]Wolfram Lacher, “Challenging the Myth of the Drug-Terror Nexus in the Sahel”, West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD), July 2013; Mathieu Pellerin, “Narcoterrorism: Beyond the Myth”, in “Re-mapping the Sahel: Transnational Security Challenges and International Responses”, European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), June 2014.Hide Footnote Up until 2012, the links were limited, and jihadists such as the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has held high positions in AQIM in northern Mali, was probably never involved in drug trafficking, contrary to the received wisdom.[fn]Mokhtar Belmokhtar has often been presented as a cigarette smuggler, earning him the nickname of “Mister Marlboro”. But according to journalist Lemine Ould Mohamed Salem, who has investigated Belmokhtar’s activities in depth, he was never involved in cigarette and even less in narcotics smuggling. Lemine Ould Mohamed Salem, Le Ben Laden du Sahara : Sur les traces du jihadiste Mokhtar Belmokhtar (Paris, 2014).Hide Footnote If links exist, they have to be the subject of a more detailed analysis.

In 2012, traffickers and jihadists learned to put up with each other, understanding that conflict would not serve their immediate interests, and even that cooperation could be beneficial. This rapprochement of circumstance is a priori unnatural from the point of view of religious dogma. Several elements suggest that jihadists are disapproving of or even hostile toward drug traffickers.[fn]Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) reportedly issues fatwas against drug trafficking in the mid-2000s and Ansar Dine in 2012, but Crisis Group has not been able to confirm this.Hide Footnote While they occupied the main northern cities in 2012, the jihadists reportedly burned cargoes of cigarettes and hashish in Gao and In-Khalil.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian actors working in the north, MAA and MNLA members, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote But beyond one-off condemnations, none of the three jihadist movements present in the area – AQIM, Ansar Dine and the MUJWA – displayed opposition to drug trafficking, and none seem to have waged an active and sustained fight against it, either before or after 2012.

Paradoxically, the launch of Operation Serval in early 2013 may have favoured a rapprochement between some jihadist groups and certain traffickers.

In Gao, the MUJWA and the Arabs of Tilemsi, who are key actors in drug trafficking, have maintained close links. Although certain Arabs have committed themselves to the MUJWA for ideological reasons, the majority of Lamhar operators have supported the movement (with donations of vehicles and fuel, especially) in order to pursue their commercial activities and protect themselves from the MNLA – in particular its Idnan component, rivals of the Lamhars in trafficking – with whom they were in open conflict until Gao’s capture in June 2012.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Arabs of Tilemsi, Bamako, March and April 2018. After the MNLA refused to ally with Ansar Dine in the spring of 2012, the MUJWA and AQIM attacked the MNLA, headquartered in the Gao governorate. On 26 June 2012, a coalition of the MUJWA supported by the Lamhar and the Songhaï dislodged the MNLA from the governorate, injuring its secretary-general, Bilal ag Cherif.Hide Footnote

Paradoxically, the launch of Operation Serval in early 2013 may have favoured a rapprochement between some jihadist groups and certain traffickers. The military pressure exerted against the jihadists pushed them to seek the support of the traffickers. Solidarity seemingly arose as soon as Operation Serval was triggered: some traffickers who shared a tribal affiliation with AQIM and Ansar Dine fighters reportedly offered logistical support to help them escape the French strikes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of armed groups originally from Kidal, Bamako and Niamey, 2016-2018.Hide Footnote In Kidal, the hostility that Ansar Dine showed toward certain traffickers in 2012 declined in 2013, when the movement went into hiding.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote In addition, the drying-up of ransom money encouraged jihadist groups to show greater tolerance of trafficking. Letting some of the fighters pursue their trafficking activities made it possible not to pay them.

Finally, the local roots of jihadist groups and the growing influence within them of Arab-Tuareg leaders from northern Mali – particularly in the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a coalition of jihadist groups based in northern Mali formed in March 2017 – seem to influence the way in which these groups position themselves with respect to drug trafficking. Indeed, the Malian fighters who make up the majority of the GSIM’s contingents and are not committed on a solely religious basis sometimes retain their past relations and interest in drug trafficking.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, armed groups from Kidal, Niamey and Bamako, March and April 2018. For more information on the religious foundations, see Mathieu Pellerin, “Les trajectoires de radicalisation religieuse au Sahel”, IFRI, February 2017; see also “Si les victimes deviennent bourreaux”, International Alert, June 2018.Hide Footnote

There is no evidence that the main GSIM leaders, including Emir Iyad ag Ghali, are directly involved in drug trafficking. Some sources, however, refer to the participation of members of secondary circles and close relatives of the group’s leaders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of armed groups that were signatories to the peace agreement of June 2015 and international officials, Bamako and Niamey, April and May 2018. Crisis Group email correspondence, members of armed groups in Gao and Kidal, May and June 2018.Hide Footnote Trafficking networks within or around the GSIM and/or jihadist groups who participated in its creation have probably become more important in recent years. This is hardly surprising in a region where the fluidity of allegiances leads individuals to switch from the separatist cause to jihad and then to the drug trade (or in the opposite direction). There are no clearly defined boundaries between these different activities.

Traffickers: Resources and Constraints for the Armed Group Signatories of the Peace Agreement

Drug trafficking is probably one of the main sources of income for the armed groups who are members of the CMA and the Platform coalition.[fn]The financing of armed groups is a complex question that is difficult to analyse with precision. Many seek financial and/or material support from communities of the areas they occupy or from communities they are close to. The tribal contribution reportedly is common within the various branches of the MAA, and occasional for the HCUA, the Congress for Justice in Azawad (Congrès pour la justice dans l’Azawad, CJA), the GATIA or the MNLA. Those who have significant financial resources, particularly traffickers, are expected to make important contributions. Crisis Group interviews, members of armed groups from Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, Niamey and Bamako, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote It is an activity that is not only sought after but also dangerous to leave to the adversary. Several politico-military groups have therefore developed links with drug traffickers both to benefit from the dividends of drugs and to deprive their rivals of them.[fn]In 2015, Crisis Group quoted the secretary-general of an armed group: “If you don’t take hold of the drug, it will end up killing you”. Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°115, Mali: Peace from Below?, 14 December 2015, p. 6.Hide Footnote A Platform coalition senior official acknowledged that “if they are not allowed to carry on with their traffic, they may create their own group or join the CMA”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote The less well-armed groups are also those who appear to be less involved in drug trafficking, such as the Coordination of Resistance Movements and Patriotic Forces (CM-FPR).

In addition to their financial contributions, traffickers provide material support to the military operations, supplying or lending fuel, ammunition and, especially, vehicles.[fn]The traffickers can then be reimbursed for the logistical support. Crisis Group interviews, MNLA, MAA, HCUA and GATIA members, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote They provide it all the more willingly that they have a personal interest, whose nature varies. When tensions between the two wings of the Arab Azawad Movement were at their climax between 2013 and 2015, an important Arab trader from Tilemsi reportedly supported the CMA’s war effort against the Lamhar drug traffickers of the MAA with whom he was in conflict.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MAA member, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote Several sources indicate that another major drug trafficker, initially without affiliation, joined the Self-Defence Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA), a member of the Platform coalition, after his brother died fighting the CMA in Ménaka, in the east, in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, MNLA, MAA, HCUA and GATIA members, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote

But traffickers are also a constraint for the armed groups, because their interests do not always coincide. They may be reluctant to contribute to or provide assistance for a specific operation.[fn]During a meeting of Arab tribes as part of the organisation of the MAA in 2013, it was decided that the seven wealthiest economic operators present at the meeting would contribute FCFA3 million per month (4,585 euros). From the third month, these operators decided not to honour their commitment any longer after observing that the checkpoint established at Ber allowed the group to collect enough revenue. Crisis Group interviews, MAA members, Bamako, April 2018.Hide Footnote A CMA leader explains: “Sometimes you need to mobilise vehicles to make war, but they belong to a trafficker who uses them to secure a convoy; it is a problem”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote Fighters of groups such as the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (Haut conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad, HCUA), the GATIA and the MNLA, who generally are unpaid, sometimes seek to intercept drug traffickers’ convoys or to move drugs themselves. When they succeed, they can provide more resources to their movement but they are also tempted to put their own commercial interests first.[fn]This hardly happens in the different MAA branches, partly because they pay their fighters. Crisis Group interviews, leaders of the CMA and the Platform coalition, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote Some even desert the battlefield to take refuge in Algeria or Mauritania.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the CMA and Platform coalition, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote Just before fighting the Platform coalition in 2017, the CMA had to remobilise traffickers who had disengaged from the movement by pointing out that in the event of defeat they would all lose access to the city of Kidal – where some of their families live.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CMA member, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Finally, rivalry between traffickers can undermine the internal cohesion of armed movements. Indeed, the “democratisation” of access to trafficking can sometimes lead to tensions and settling of scores within a single movement. When Ménaka fell in May 2015, a shipment of drugs escorted by actors close to the MNLA (member of the CMA) was intercepted by members of another tribal group also affiliated with the MNLA.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, MNLA, MAA, HCUA and GATIA members, Bamako, March and April 2018.Hide Footnote In March 2018, the convoy of a major trafficker affiliated with the MNLA was intercepted by another actor affiliated with the same group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, MNLA member, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote Tensions may also arise within a tribe. In late 2016, two networks of traffickers from an Ifoghat faction of Tamesna (east of the Kidal region), affiliated with the same movement, came into conflict over a drug shipment.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of an armed group based in Kidal, Niamey, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Entretien de Crisis Group, membre d’un groupe armé basé à Kidal, Niamey, mai 2018.Hide Footnote

Most of the international actors involved in Mali know that trafficking finances most of the armed groups.

In northern Mali, armed groups have not been built around the interests of drug traffickers, but trafficking is one of the main resources that enables them to achieve their political goals or to defend themselves against armed rivals. In conflict situations, relations with the drug traffickers are therefore essential for the armed groups. On the other hand, as the political situation stabilises in northern Mali, these links could wither away.

Trafficking: The Cause of Clashes between Armed Groups?

Most of the international actors involved in Mali know that trafficking finances most of the armed groups. Some also believe that rivalries between traffickers lie behind many of the military clashes in the north of the country. The reality is more nuanced.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the MINUSMA, Bamako, March 2017 and April 2018.Hide Footnote The competition for control of trafficking explains certain episodes of violence but is not the only reason for clashes between armed groups. It comes on top of other factors relating to diverging political (and often community) interests.

Some of the clashes that occurred between 2013 and 2015 were aimed at control of trading hubs such as In-Khalil, Tabankort, Ber and Lerneb, which reportedly have also served as temporary warehouses for the drug trade.[fn]The battle of In-Khalil in February 2013 crystallised the tensions between the Idnan component of the MNLA and the Lamhar Arabs within the MAA. As part of the Anéfis process of October 2015, an agreement was signed for the open access to In-Khalil. In Tabankort, armed groups clashed several times in May and July 2014, and the CMA and the Platform clashed in January 2015. This basin located south east of Anéfis constitutes both a major commercial crossing point and a strategic barrier between the Kidal, Gao and Ménaka regions. It is therefore a natural demarcation between the CMA and the Platform coalition (and the tribes that compose them). In the Timbuktu region, although Ber was the bastion of the Azawad Arab Movement as early as April 2013, the division of the MAA into two branches pushed the so-called “pro-Bamako” branch to fall back to Lerneb. This split was mainly due to community and commercial rivalries within the Berabiche community.Hide Footnote These battles reinforced the idea that armed conflict was mainly motivated by drug trafficking interests. In addition, rumour has attributed to the military leaders of some of the main armed movements (or their relatives) a leading role in drug trafficking.[fn]The rumour is often well founded. The son-in-law of the leader of a major politico-military movement in northern Mali was recently arrested in Niger for hashish trafficking . “Final Report of the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2374 (2017) on Mali”, UNSC S/2018/581, 9 August 2018.Hide Footnote

In May 2015, the Platform coalition, supported by the Malian army, took over the city of Ménaka, in violation of a ceasefire signed in February. Taking Ménaka, a historical bastion of rebellions, like Kidal, represented a political victory for the state and the Platform coalition. A few weeks later, in June 2015, the inter-Malian peace agreement was signed, containing a provision to make this city the capital of a new region.

At the same time, the capture of Ménaka was also of interest to traffickers related to the Platform coalition, who saw it as a useful support point to avoid the Kidal region, under the control of the CMA Ifogha. The offensive in Ménaka also coincided with the presence in the city of a truck carrying a large shipment of hashish escorted by actors affiliated with the CMA and coveted by members of the Platform coalition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, leaders of the Platform coalition and the CMA, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote The traffickers’ interests were closely intertwined with political considerations, and the presence of a truckload of drugs probably facilitated mobilisation of the Platform coalition’s fighters, motivated by potential gains. The leading traffickers may be influential in the armed groups who signed the peace agreement, but they rarely hold high-ranking positions. The interests of these traffickers and these groups’ leaders may sometimes converge but not systematically.

Indeed, a situation that is too chaotic may harm traffickers’ interests, with insecurity hindering the passage of convoys. During phases of conflict between armed groups, many traffickers arrange to maintain contacts in each camp. Thus, between 2013 and 2015, when tensions were high between the CMA and the Platform coalition – and especially between Ifogha and Imrad – traffickers linked to each camp agreed to jointly ensure the security of drug convoys.[fn]This was particularly the case during the fighting in Tabankort in 2015. Crisis Group interview, leader of the Platform coalition, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote In the Kidal region, traffickers refused to let themselves be drawn into the conflicts between the CMA and the Platform coalition and proclaimed themselves “non-aligned” to protect their commercial interests.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, trader based in Kidal, November 2017.Hide Footnote Several traffickers officially affiliated with the MNLA (member of the CMA) have worked with Arab and Imrad partners affiliated with the Platform coalition.[fn]When the GATIA attempted to seize Kidal in 2015, a trafficker close to the MNLA reportedly had sheep delivered to the movement’s fighters to ensure their future cooperation. Crisis Group interview, GATIA member, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote

The vast majority of clashes between traffickers are not publicised and have no impact on the balance of power between armed groups. “Local mediators” who may or may not be linked to armed groups help settle them.[fn]For instance, Sheikh ag Aoussa, chief of staff of the HCUA (member of the CMA), was known to intervene in conflicts between rival traffickers in the Kidal region, and sometimes even beyond, thanks to his longstanding relations with the Arabs of the Tilemsi. Crisis Group interview, economic operator of the Kidal region, Niamey, May 2018. Another case indicates that mediators who are close to the state can also play this role. In August 2007, after Berabiche traffickers intercepted a convoy escorted by members of the Ifogha community in Mauritanian territory, a Berabiche officer of Malian state security negotiated with both parties for restitution. This officer was then a central figure in the creation of the Berabiche paramilitary group supported by President Touré. “Tuaregs and Arabs clash over drugs and cash in northern Mali”, op. cit.Hide Footnote They only lead to conflict between armed groups when certain factors come together, such as the presence among the traffickers of a senior leader of an armed group, extreme tension between the armed groups or issues related to their control of strategic axes. Since insecurity is harmful to the movement of convoys, and therefore to the traffickers’ interests, they may favour a form of stabilisation of northern Mali.

Traffickers and the Inter-Malian Peace Process: Actors and/or Obstacles?

Although many Malian and international actors acknowledge that drug trafficking is a major contributor to Mali’s instability, the question has surfaced only marginally and unofficially in the peace process, which took place mainly in Algiers in 2014 and 2015.[fn]For an analysis of the peace process since 2012, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°226, Mali: An Imposed Peace?, 22 May 2015, and Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°104, Mali: Last Chance in Algiers, 18 November 2014.Hide Footnote But local mediation processes, initiated by the actors of the conflict, have sought ways to regulate the tensions between traffickers.

The subject of trafficking has been central to several local initiatives of inter-community mediation.

Trafficking was the subject of discussions behind the scenes of the negotiations in Ouagadougou in June 2013 and Algiers in 2014-2015. Shortly after the meeting in Ouagadougou, the Malian state lifted the arrest warrants issued against several figures of the rebellion, some of whom were designated as drug traffickers, as part of confidence-building measures intended to make negotiations easier.[fn]Eight of the 30 rebel actors whose arrest warrants were lifted in October 2013 were also drug traffickers. “Levée de mandats d’arrêts contre des chefs rebelles : le prix de la paix ?”, maliactu.net, 22 October 2013.Hide Footnote Diplomats in Algiers have been reluctant to openly address a subject taboo because of its high-level political implications. But the subject came up in “corridor discussions” that punctuated the negotiations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, participants in the Algiers process, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote It was up to the main traffickers or their relatives, members of official delegations, to ensure that their interests were not threatened and that those of their rivals were not favoured.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat present during Algiers negotiations, Bamako, April 2015.Hide Footnote In the end, the fight against trafficking is only very briefly mentioned in the Inter-Malian peace agreement of June 2015, in Articles 1, 29 and 30, the latter providing for “the establishment … of special units for the purpose of combating terrorism and transnational organised crime”.[fn]Article 1, paragraph (h) provides that the parties reiterate their commitment to the “fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of transnational organised crime”. Article 29 specifies that this fight can be done “including through existing regional strategies and mechanisms”. “Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali Resulting from the Algiers Process”, Bamako, June 2015, available at: https://photos.state.gov/libraries/mali/328671/peace-accord-translations/1-accord-paix-et-reconciliation-francais.pdf.Hide Footnote

The subject of trafficking, however, has been central to several local initiatives of inter-community mediation, in particular two peace processes “from the bottom up” that took place in October 2015 and October 2017, respectively, in Anéfis in northern Mali.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Mali: Peace from Below?, op. cit.Hide Footnote Anéfis 1 sought to reduce the violence between community leaders from the Kidal region, which included traffickers.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The gentlemen’s agreements concluded among the Arabs of Tilemsi (around In-Khalil) and between Idnan and the Arabs of Tilemsi have restored the freedom of movement and goods in the region.[fn]The Anéfis pacts secured the return of Arab traders who were close to the Platform coalition in the In-Khalil locality from which they had been driven away in 2013. For in-depth analysis, see Crisis Group Briefing, Mali: Peace from Below?, op. cit.Hide Footnote While this process brought together the armed groups, economic actors and community leaders, the Malian state sent a mission of three ministers on the first day of the meeting, and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) facilitated it. This has made a connection possible, albeit discreet and limited, between the inter-Malian political process supervised from Bamako and local initiatives that can be complementary.

The Anéfis 2 pact, concluded in October 2017, also aimed to strengthen security in the Kidal region, in particular by reducing the destabilising impact of drug trafficking. Representatives of armed groups who signed the peace agreement have sought to isolate the clashes between traffickers so that they no longer involve either the CMA or the Platform coalition. As such, the Qadis Commission, a panel of Islamic judges created by Anéfis 2 and responsible for helping reconcile the signatory groups in case of conflict, has declared itself incompetent to deal with incidents related to trafficking.[fn]Four commissions were set up to address security, justice, political and reconciliation issues. Much of the discussions bore on issues of justice and reparation after the CMA strongly condemned attacks on civilians in Kidal by a GATIA military leader in the spring of 2017. Crisis Group interviews, CMA and Platform coalition members, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote In fact, several conflicts that occurred after Anéfis 2 between traffickers affiliated with the CMA and with the Platform coalition did not lead to escalation or reprisals between groups. For its part, the Qadis Commission did not respond to complaints filed by traffickers whose cargo had been intercepted.[fn]These traffickers probably sought to obtain reparations from the group with which the interceptors were affiliated. Crisis Group interviews, members of the CMA and the Platform coalition, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote In attempting to reduce the risk that rivalries between traffickers would escalate into clashes between the CMA and the Platform coalition, Anéfis 2 is a continuation of Anéfis 1.

Unlike Anéfis 1, which was unable to prevent the resumption of the conflict ten months after it was signed, Anéfis 2 seems more sustainable and better observed. There is no guarantee, however, that this local conflict management mechanism would survive renewed tensions between the CMA and the Platform coalition, or intense clashes between traffickers, especially since many trafficking networks are beyond the control of CMA and Platform coalition representatives. In addition, though it limits the destabilising effect of conflicts between traffickers, the Anéfis 2 agreement does not set up a mechanism for preventing them. Nevertheless, at this stage it is the only means accepted by the signatory groups for reducing the violence associated with drug trafficking.

The Fight against Drug Trafficking: Limited Results

Measures to fight drug trafficking in Mali remain limited in scope and effect. Most national and international public actors recognise the need to combat organised crime, but many of them abdicate responsibility for doing so, on the grounds that it is not within their competence. 

Seizures in Limited Quantities

The Malian authorities are active in the fight against drug trafficking, largely encouraged in this effort by the European Union, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the French police. The Central Narcotics Office (Office central des stupéfiants, OCS) was established in 2010, with the aim of covering the entire territory, while the activities of the police narcotics brigade are limited to Bamako. At its inception, the OCS had representatives in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, but suffered from a lack of resources that prevented it from carrying out large-scale operations. It recently reappointed several agents to the north, but the bulk of its staff and operations are now concentrated in the south.

The OCS has made most of its seizures in the south and particularly in Bamako. A certain number of seizures can also be credited to the Malian customs (particularly in the Kayes region, in the south west of the country), mainly of Indian hemp produced in Ghana or Nigeria and destined for Senegal, as well as cocaine.[fn]There was an exceptional seizure, in December 2015 in Kayes, of 500kg of hashish from Morocco. “Kayes : 500kg de cannabis saisis à Nioro du Sahel”, Studio Tamani, 29 December 2015.Hide Footnote The last major cocaine seizure in the south took place in 2010 at Nara (Koulikoro region), close to the border with Mauritania; the confiscated drugs then went missing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official of the Malian security services, Bamako, May 2014.Hide Footnote Since then, only small quantities of cocaine, transported from Latin America by “mules” (individual smugglers) in aircraft, have been seized in Bamako and Mopti (in the centre of the country).[fn]Neighbouring countries such as Mauritania or Niger have made larger seizures, including of hashish. For example, a Nigerien police operation last June led to the incineration of 2.5 tonnes of hashish that had passed through Mali, and to the incarceration of several Malian traffickers who were close to the Platform coalition. “Lutte contre la drogue au Niger : Incinération de 2,5 tonnes de résine de cannabis à la périphérie de Niamey”, Tamtaminfo.com, 25 June 2018. This operation, however, may be simply the result of a settling of scores between Nigerien trafficking networks. If the fight against drugs became an instrument of rivalries between trafficking networks, it could increase the violence associated with trafficking. Crisis Group interviews and email correspondence, Nigerien army officer, official of an international agency combating organised crime, Bamako, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote The limited seizures are probably the result of both the lack of resources and police officers’ fear of interfering with networks rumoured to be connected to the authorities. These rumours persist though the authorities deny any such connections.[fn]Regarding the ineffectiveness or even counter-productive effects of international support for the fight against organised crime in the Sahel, see Adam Sandor, Assemblages of Intervention: Politics, Security and Drug Trafficking in West Africa (Ottawa, 2016). Crisis Group interview, senior official of the Ministry of Interior Security and Civilian Protection, Bamako, October 2015.Hide Footnote

In the north of the country, seizures are rare and the fight against drugs is often the subject of local political manipulation. In 2008, Colonel Gamou, then commander of army operations and strongman of the Imrad community, on which the Malian presidency relied, carried out a major cocaine seizure in Kidal. It led to the arrest of several traffickers from Ifogha and Kounta communities, who were then rivals of the Imrad community and of the Tilemsi Arabs, who were supported by the state.[fn]The seized drugs allegedly disappeared. Crisis Group interviews and email correspondence, Kidal elected representative, member of an armed group, Bamako, March 2016 and July 2018.Hide Footnote Since 2012, no major drug seizure has taken place in the north, other than a few seizures of tramadol, a potent analgesic, partly intended for local consumption.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OCS representative, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote No major seizure of hashish has reportedly been carried out in northern Mali since the end of the 2000s, or possibly even before.

State defence and security services officials will be ineffective as long as they are not fully redeployed to the north, the balance of power remains with trafficking groups that have enough political influence to hinder investigations. Lacking sufficient resources, they seldom venture into rural areas to intercept traffickers’ heavily armed convoys, which allegedly are frequently protected by either armed signatory groups or high-level public actors (though the authorities deny it).[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official of the Ministry of Internal Security, Bamako, October 2015.Hide Footnote Several cases of pressure on state agents in Gao and Timbuktu, particularly between 2010 and 2012, have been reported.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former OCS agent based in northern Mali, Nouakchott, June 2015.Hide Footnote

The Ménaka region in the east of the country, one of the drug transit areas between Mali and Niger since 2015, is a case in point. No seizures have taken place there recently despite the gradual deployment of close to 500 security and defence personnel since 2015.[fn]Crisis Group interview, governor of Ménaka, Bamako, March 2018.Hide Footnote The region remains largely under the control of armed groups, whether signatories of the peace agreement (MSA, GATIA) or jihadist (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM)).

International Actors in the Fight against Drug Trafficking: The “Hot Potato” Policy
There is a significant gap between strategic ambitions and operational reality.

Most international actors in the Sahel make fighting organised crime a priority.[fn]This is the case, for example, for the Sahel strategy adopted by the European Union in 2011, or more recently the roadmap for intervention established by the French special envoy for the Sahel, Jean-Marc Châtaigner, on behalf of Alliance Sahel.Hide Footnote For its part, the G5-Sahel, a joint initiative of five countries in the region (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), has in its mandate fighting cross-border organised crime, of which drug trafficking is an essential component.[fn]For more information on the G5 Sahel and its mandate, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°258, Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, 12 December 2017.Hide Footnote Mali’s main partners also point out that drug trafficking has a strong influence on the levels of violence in the north of the country and that it is a source of funding for terrorist groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, MINUSMA and European Union representatives, Bamako, May 2018. The French foreign affairs minister in office at the outset of Operation Serval, Laurent Fabius, referred to the “narco-terrorist” threat. “Fabius pointe la ‘menace narcoterroriste’”, Le Figaro, 9 December 2012.Hide Footnote

Yet there is a significant gap between strategic ambitions and operational reality.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Malian officials, representatives of international actors, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote On the whole, and with rare exceptions such as the European Union’s Capacity Building Mission for Malian security forces (EUCAP Sahel Mali), the fight against drug trafficking is seen in the field as a secondary issue; it would require too much resources to lock down the relevant area and combat drug trafficking efficiently.[fn]The UK, through its Serious Crime Unit, stands out from other partners by a strong interest in problems related to organised crime, although these efforts focus mainly on migratory networks, and human and arms trafficking.Hide Footnote In Mali, it ranks well below implementation of the peace agreement, anti-terrorist operations and trying to stop clandestine migration.

Deployed since January 2015, EUCAP Sahel Mali includes battling organised crime in its mandate.[fn]See the web page of the European External Action Service dedicated to the EUCAP Sahel Mali mission: https://eeas.europa.eu/csdp-missions-operations/eucap-sahel-mali/40878/%C3%
A0-propos_fr.Hide Footnote
Its activities mainly concern strategic advice, training and coordination between security actors. As such, it can play a useful role in general reorganisation of internal security services driven by the Ministry of Security. But in the field, its action, mainly concentrated in Bamako, has up to now done little to curb drug trafficking in the north of the country, where Malian forces are redeployed very weakly.

The reluctance of international partners can be explained by the complexity of drug trafficking networks and the fear of interfering with business interests that reach the top of certain countries’ governments.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international actors, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote These links, often suggested but hard to bring to light, make police interventions particularly delicate. Thus, several major traffickers in northern Mali have continued to travel freely, including through the sub-region’s airports, even though the Malian state issued international arrest warrants against them in January 2013.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nigerien security officer, Niamey, December 2017.Hide Footnote Most international actors say they do not know who to depend on within the Malian state apparatus to act against drug trafficking.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international actors, Bamako, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote Without more willingness on the part of governments to fight drug trafficking, it will remain unsuccessful.

Neither Operation Barkhane, conducted since 2014 by the French army, nor MINUSMA has a mandate to combat drug trafficking. But the renewed mandate of MINUSMA in 2018 gives greater attention “to the financial sources for conflicts in Mali”, among which drug trafficking is named in particular, “in order to help define integrated and effective strategies” in cooperation with the UNODC and the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS).[fn]“United Nations Security Council resolution 2423 (2018) adopted on 28 June 2018”, UNSC S/RES/2423, 28 June 2018.Hide Footnote In Mali, Barkhane operations targeting the logistics flows of jihadist groups sometimes enable incidental interception of drug shipments.[fn]“Final Report of the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2374 (2017) on Mali”, op. cit.
 Hide Footnote
In northern Niger, Barkhane has already intercepted shipments of hashish during operations that did not have fighting trafficking as a goal.[fn]During an operation conducted around Salvador Pass (Niger-Libya border) on 9-10 May 2015, the Barkhane force seized 1.5 tonnes of hashish. “La force Barkhane a saisi 1,5 tonne de drogue dans le Nord du Niger”, Opex360.com, 19 May 2015.Hide Footnote

During an operation conducted around Salvador Pass (Niger-Libya border) on 9-10 May 2015, the Barkhane force seized 1.5 tonnes of hashish. “La force Barkhane a saisi 1,5 tonne de drogue dans le Nord du Niger”, Opex360.com, 19 May 2015.

Hide Footnote But the French military operation is not intended, at least for the moment, to replicate such seizures.

International forces are, however, in ambiguous situations when they collaborate for the purposes of counter-terrorism with armed groups that they know are also linked to trafficking networks. French soldiers admit to closing their eyes to their allies’ drug trafficking,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, French army officers, February and June 2018.Hide Footnote while others, including diplomats, even believe that if these flows can not be interrupted it is better to help direct them to allies rather than to groups linked to jihadists or to other countries in the sub-region.[fn]Crisis Group interview, French diplomat, July 2017.Hide Footnote It is difficult to know if these positions are only personal predilections or if they reflect an unofficial political strategy. But in practice, if not in intent, certain French military interventions are influencing the drug trafficking economy.[fn]The French strikes on In-Khalil on 23 February 2013 forced the MAA to withdraw from this hub for the benefit of the MNLA, suspected of being an ally of France. “Mali: bombardements français sur une base d’un groupe armé, quatre blessés”, Agence France-Presse, 25 February 2013. Similarly, Barkhane’s support of the Azawad Salvation Movement (Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad, MSA) and the GATIA in Ménaka since 2017 allows the traffickers linked to these two groups to strengthen their control of the strategic routes of this region, to the detriment of competing networks, particularly those linked to the CMA.Hide Footnote

Les frappes françaises sur In-Khalil le 23 février 2013 ont forcé le MAA à se retirer de ce carrefour stratégique au profit du MNLA, suspecté alors d’être l’allié de la France. « Mali : bombardements français sur une base d’un groupe armé, quatre blessés », Agence France-Presse (AFP), 25 février 2013. De même, l’appui apporté par Barkhane au Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA) et au Gatia à Ménaka depuis 2017 permet aux trafiquants liés à ces deux groupes de renforcer leur contrôle sur les axes stratégiques de cette région au détriment de réseaux concurrents, notamment ceux liés à la CMA.Hide Footnote

Toward “Demilitarisation” of Drug Trafficking

The fight against drug trafficking has had few real successes and remains a challenge for all states engaged in it.[fn]Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, “L’échec de la guerre contre la drogue”, Après-demain, vol. 44, 2017.Hide Footnote To be effective, it should be global and coordinated among the authorities in the countries of production, transit and destination. At the same time, strategies should be developed on a case-by-case basis according to regional and national contexts. In the Sahel, efforts must focus on the most destabilising consequences of drug trafficking for the region and Mali in particular. Other than the specific violence that drug trafficking produces in northern Mali, there is no reason to launch a stronger frontal attack than in the neighbouring countries that are also transit or even production areas. Most of the trafficking comes from a single product, cannabis resin, which a growing number of states are legalising for regulated use.[fn]In 2018, 35 countries have already partly or wholly decriminalised the use of cannabis. Pierre Breteau and Maxime Vaudano, “Légalisé, dépénalisé, prescrit… le cannabis dans le monde en neuf graphiques, Le Monde, 6 January 2018. The most recent is Canada, in October 2018.Hide Footnote

En 2018, 35 pays ont déjà procédé à une dépénalisation partielle ou totale de l’usage du cannabis. Pierre Breteau et Maxime Vaudano, « Légalisé, dépénalisé, prescrit… le cannabis dans le monde en neuf graphiques », lemonde.fr, 6 janvier 2018. Le dernier en date est le Canada en octobre 2018.Hide Footnote

In northern Mali, prohibition is unrealistic in the immediate future.

In northern Mali, prohibition is unrealistic in the immediate future. Malian authorities and their international partners should first attempt to demilitarise drug trafficking and reduce the associated violence. To do this, they have to go beyond police repression and make use of a wide range of tools. To reduce the military capabilities of groups that supervise drug trafficking, they should focus on three interdependent axes: supporting the processes of local political negotiations, such as that of Anéfis, which can reduce the conflict associated with drug trafficking; strengthening, as part of the peace process, the mechanism for disarmament (with priority given to heavy weapons and control of armed convoys) by integrating all armed groups that have links with drug trafficking; and finally, using coercive measures, including the UN sanctions regime, against drug traffickers who perpetrate or sponsor the worst violence.

Demilitarisation must be understood to mean the reduction of drug traffickers’ ability to mobilise a large number of heavily armed and mobile fighters. At the end of this process, criminal groups will remain in northern Mali but their ability to generate destabilising violence would be drastically weakened. The goal may seem modest and offend police institutions that are uncomfortable with leaving criminal groups in the region.[fn]Crisis Group interview and email correspondence, UNODC official, Dakar, October-November 2018.Hide Footnote Yet in the short term, demilitarisation is perhaps the only realistic objective, especially since many major traffickers and leaders of politico-military groups have an interest in pacifying the circulation of goods, licit or not, in northern Mali.

Including the Drug Trafficking Problem in Regional Security Pacts

The peace agreement signed in Bamako in 2015 deliberately ignored the role of drug trafficking in armed violence. It was thereby deprived of the ability to put in place tools to limit its destabilising effects. But local pacts initiated by influential actors in northern Mali, as in Anéfis since 2015, could place drug trafficking and its role in the violence at the centre of discussions. This is all the more conceivable as most armed groups and traffickers are looking for local arbitration mechanisms. The relative failure of Anéfis 1 to curb violence, however, shows that local pacts are not a miracle solution.

The often informal rationale of these pacts is adapted to the practices of local actors but is more difficult to reconcile with the institutional logic of the Malian state and even more so that of international actors.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence and telephone interview, member of international forces present in Mali, November 2018.Hide Footnote Yet all have a provisional interest in accommodating themselves to the local pacts: the deals must be conceived of as temporary tools, made necessary by the current extreme weakness of the Malian state in the north of the territory. They constitute instances of dialogue, consultation and arbitration among the most influential local actors. The commissions set up by these pacts are not intended to be entrusted with policing duties. But they should be allowed to have recourse to the security bodies created by the peace agreement of June 2015, starting with the Technical Security Commission (CTS) set up to supervise the implementation of the ceasefire and investigate violations. They could report to the CTS clashes between traffickers that they are powerless to stop.[fn]The CTS is one of the main interim security measures introduced by the June 2015 peace agreement. Chaired by the MINUSMA, it includes representatives of the Malian armed forces and signatory groups as well as two representatives of the MINUSMA and one representative of each member of the international mediation team et the Barkhane operation. “Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali”, op. cit., p. 20.Hide Footnote

Mali’s international partners do not have to go as far as to support consultation bodies that include – among others – criminal elements. But they should promote regional pacts, which are complementary to the inter-Malian peace process. Without supporting them officially or financially, they could encourage them to set up arbitration mechanisms in each of the five regions of northern Mali to reduce the violence caused by drug trafficking. For this, local actors will have to reaffirm the terms of Anéfis 1 in more depth, in particular the principles of non-aggression and free access to the trade hubs. Once these rules have been established, it will be a matter, this time by consolidating the achievements of Anéfis 2, of using arbitration mechanisms to encourage systematic condemnation of violent interception of convoys. This is indeed a form of predation that remains a main driver of the drug economy’s militarisation.

Reducing the Circulation of Heavy Weapons and Controlling the Movement of Armed Convoys

Limiting access to arms, and in particular heavy weapons, which destabilise the north and feed militias that are able to compete with a weakened state, should be a priority for the Malian state and all international actors.[fn]In Mali, these include 12.7mm and 14.5mm machine guns and ZU 23mm cannons. These armaments are mounted on pickup trucks to protect or attack convoys.Hide Footnote Efforts to stabilise Mali are in fact intrinsically linked to the reduction of drug traffickers’ capacity to perpetrate violence. In other words, forces such as the MINUSMA, Barkhane and the G5 Sahel have no choice but to work actively toward demilitarisation of drug trafficking in order to fulfil their mandate, whether or not it mentions fighting organised crime.

Two complementary tools set up by the 2015 peace agreement can be used to demilitarise drug trafficking: the CTS and the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Program (DDR). With the impetus of Barkhane and MINUSMA, since 2017 the CTS has put an emphasis on the control of convoys with heavy weapons and the systematic registration of convoys of more than five vehicles. These measures targeting signatory armed groups also have a significant impact on the military resources that the drug traffickers can mobilise. But this CTS mission is not fully recognised by all the armed groups that are members of it.

International forces, and Barkhane in particular, should resist the temptation to favour certain armed groups involved in trafficking because they are participating in the fight against jihadists.

The reduction of drug trafficking’s deleterious effects also depends on the launch of the DDR program provided for in the peace agreements. Though not explicitly targeting the drug traffickers, the DDR program will still have an effect on them by depriving them of the military resources available to the signatory groups. The DDR program has fallen far behind schedule, however, due to disagreements among signatories, particularly on the number and rank of the fighters to be reintegrated. Resistance to the DDR program is also linked to the benefits that the owners of weapons derive from the work done for the drug traffickers. There again, the DDR program and drug trafficking issues cannot be separated. As Anéfis 1 shows, the drug traffickers may have an interest in pacification of the north but they will only accept disarmament, even partial, of the drug convoys if they are convinced that it will not expose them to predation by their rivals. For this reason, to have any chance of success the DDR program must target simultaneously as many armed groups with interests in drug trafficking as possible.

International forces, and Barkhane in particular, should resist the temptation to favour certain armed groups involved in trafficking because they are participating in the fight against jihadists.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°261, The Niger-Mali Border: Subordinating Military Action to a Political Strategy, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote If they are not careful, they risk repeating the mistake made by the Malian state in the 2000s of favouring one coalition of armed groups linked to drug trafficking over another. This would have the effect of further militarising the trafficking components of these groups while dissuading rival groups from disarming, or even encouraging them to arm themselves more. The solution will rather be demilitarisation of the largest number of trafficking networks. This will certainly not eradicate the problem of drugs circulating in the Sahel but it will limit its worst effects on the stability of northern Mali.

Sanctioning the Most Violent Drug Traffickers

The gradual demilitarisation of traffickers therefore relies, on one hand, on local arbitration mechanisms that associate drug traffickers and, on the other hand, on an effective DDR process. To this dual approach must be added to coercive means in order to sanction drug traffickers who refuse to commit to the path of demilitarisation.

The Technical Security Commission set up by the Inter-Malian peace agreement could impose sanctions to increase the pressure on these actors. It should condemn repeated violations of the rules for registration of convoys and confiscate the heavy weapons from unauthorised convoys that belong to signatory armed groups. This sanction, the only one provided for by the CTS, is hardly being implemented at the moment. In the past, signatory groups boycotted the CTS when it denounced their shortcomings or non-observance of the rules.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, member of an international organisation sitting on the CTS, November 2018.Hide Footnote If this recurs, the CTS should call upon the Agreement Monitoring Committee (Comité de suivi de l’accord, CSA), which oversees the application of the agreement. Its involvement would be all the more useful that the international mediation that sits on it has gained a greater power of arbitration between the parties since the signing of the Peace Pact on 15 October 2018, an additional document which is supposed to revive the implementation of the 2015 agreement.[fn]The Agreement Monitoring Committee, chaired by Algeria, brings together the members of the international mediation team (including Algeria, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the European Union and MINUSMA) as well as the signatory parties. It oversees the proper application of the June 2015 Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The October 2018 Peace Pact strengthens the powers of the international mediation team by entrusting it with the ability to arbitrate with binding decisions in the event of divergences between the government and the signatory parties. “Mali Peace Pact”, 15 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Due to the weakness or absence of Malian security forces in the affected areas, the MINUSMA, chair of the CTS and an impartial actor, should take action against those who circulate unregistered armed convoys or engage in violent interception of convoys. These activities, since they often involve fighters affiliated with signatory groups, are in effect violations of the ceasefire that the MINUSMA is mandated to prevent. The MINUSMA’s mandate should more explicitly provide for implementation of CTS decisions, as the force commander sits on that body. For example, MINUSMA contingents should adapt their rules of engagement to seize heavy weapons in cases provided for by the CTS. The most influential CTS members, in particular France and the MINUSMA, must strengthen their cooperation to effectively limit the circulation of heavily armed convoys.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, member of an organisation sitting on the CTS, November-December 2018.Hide Footnote They must not only issue useful rules, but also act against potential offenders.

The MINUSMA, busy with thwarting jihadist attacks and better protecting civilians in central Mali, is reluctant to assume this role, which few stabilisation missions take up.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN representatives, New York, November 2018.Hide Footnote Strengthening the MINUSMA’s role in controlling armed convoys involves risks, especially an increase in attacks against its personnel that already force it to take a defensive attitude. UN officials also stress that any coercive measure against the signatory groups could compromise the UN assistance services and undermine the mission’s credibility.[fn]Ibid. An internal UN report raises fears that the MINUSMA’s inability to enforce CTS decisions – due to a lack of resources and the troop contributing countries’ adversity to risk – undermines its credibility. “Internal UN report”, January 2018.Hide Footnote But since the peace process cannot move forward without reducing clashes between drug traffickers, the MINUSMA should tackle this problem by playing a concrete role in reducing the violence associated with drug trafficking.[fn]Arthur Boutellis and Stéphanie Tiélès, “Peace Operations and Organised Crime: Still Foggy?”, in C. de Coning and M. Peter (eds.), United Nations Peace Operations in a Changing Global Order (New York, 2018), pp. 169-190.Hide Footnote In fact, the MINUSMA’s revised mandate adopted in June 2018 pays more attention to drug trafficking as a source of funding for the conflicts in Mali.[fn]“United Nations Security Council resolution 2423”, S/RES/2423 (2018), Article 31, 28 June2018.Hide Footnote

In the long term, the joint force of the G5 Sahel, whose mandate includes the fight against cross-border crime, could take over from the MINUSMA or supplement its action. For its part, Operation Barkhane might consider revising its mandate to support the MINUSMA in controlling the circulation of heavy weapons and rolling stock, since it also has an interest in the proper application of CTS decisions on the subject. It is not a question of explicitly including the fight against organised crime in Barkhane’s mandate – an ambitious objective in the Sahel – but rather providing support to the MINUSMA or the G5 during ad hoc operations against armed groups engaged in drug trafficking who resist the CTS’s decisions.

Soldiers of international forces present in Mali are reluctant to engage in the fight against drug trafficking. They point out that it requires excessive military oversight and intervention resources.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence and telephone interview, member of international forces present in Mali, November 2018.Hide Footnote While preventing the circulation of illicit products on this immense territory seems unrealistic, targeted and localised military operations can have a dissuasive effect on trafficking groups.

The sanctions regime established by UN Resolution 2374 of 5 September 2017 against those impeding the implementation of the peace agreement is another tool for fighting the most violent drug traffickers. A member of the panel of experts created pursuant to this resolution is responsible for trafficking issues.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Niamey, April 2018.Hide Footnote The sanctions, including the travel ban that will affect the businessmen involved, should as a priority target the traffickers or criminal groups who use heavy weapons to intercept or protect convoys, as well as those whose support for or funding of terrorist groups is proven. Sanctions should not be used to eliminate influential economic actors, which would risk reviving the conflict, but rather to encourage them to reconcile their commercial interests with the imperative of demilitarisation of northern Mali, a crucial step for stabilising the region.

The fight against drug trafficking, including through the sanctions regime, is not without risk. Given the importance of trafficking for armed groups, taking on the traffickers in northern Mali could disrupt the balance that has prevailed between the CMA and the Platform coalition since the Anéfis 2 pact was signed. This risk can be mitigated by simultaneously targeting the two rival groups. In view of the personalities incriminated by the first report from the panel of UN experts on Mali, this balance is for the time being only partially ensured.[fn]The panel of UN experts on Mali has chosen to target only Ahmoudou ag Asriw, an officer of the GATIA, mentioning in particular a clash that took place at Amassin (Kidal region) in April 2018, where his vehicle was attacked and intercepted by another group. It would probably have been wise to target the latter as well. Indeed, interception is the driving force behind militarisation of trafficking in northern Mali. “Report of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Mali”, 8 August 2018.Hide Footnote

Le groupe d’experts des Nations unies sur le Mali a ainsi choisi de ne cibler qu’Ahmoudou Ag Asriw, un officier du Gatia, mentionnant notamment un accrochage survenu à Amassin (région de Kidal) en avril 2018 où son véhicule a été attaqué et intercepté par un autre groupe. Il aurait sans doute été judicieux de cibler également ce dernier. En effet, l’interception constitue le moteur de la militarisation des trafics au Nord du Mali. « Rapport du Groupe d’experts des Nations unies sur le Mali », 8 août 2018.Hide Footnote


In northern Mali, the link between drug traffickers’ interests and armed violence has never been stronger than since 2012. Trafficking alone cannot explain the conflict that prevails in this region, but it aggravates the underlying intra- and inter-community cleavages, and sharpens the tensions between pro-government and pro-rebel networks. At the same time, increased competition between networks makes traffickers less and less controllable, including by the politico-military groups for which they are a resource but also a matter of concern.

From this point of view, the willingness of armed groups expressed at Anéfis 2 to distance themselves from the conflicts between traffickers is an opportunity to reduce armed violence and the causes of clashes associated with drug trafficking. By working to demilitarise traffickers, international actors can limit their negative effects in the short term. The fight against drug trafficking, meanwhile, plays out less in northern Mali than in the countries of production and consumption.

Dakar/Brussels, 13 December 2018

Appendix A: Map of Main Malian Locations Mentioned in this Report
Crisis Group
Appendix B: Politico-military Movements Signatory to the Inter-Malian Peace Accord and Their Allies
Crisis Group
Appendix C: Acronyms

ADC                    Democratic Alliance for Change (Alliance démocratique pour le changement)

ANTM                 National Alliance of the Tuareg of Mali (Alliance nationale des Touareg du Mali)

AQIM                  Al-qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

ARLA                  Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of the Azawad (Armée révolutionnaire de libération de l’Azawad)

ATT                     Amadou Toumani Touré

CJA                     Congress for Justice in Azawad (Congrès pour la justice dans l’Azawad)

CMA                   Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad)

CM-FPR             Coordination of Resistance Movements and Patriotic Forces (Coordination des mouvements et Forces patriotiques de résistance)

CSA                    Agreement Monitoring Committee (Comité de suivi de l’accord)

CTS                    Technical Commission for Security (Commission technique de sécurité) created by the June 2015 Peace Accord

DDR                    Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration

EUCAP              European Union Capacity Building Mission

EUISS                European Union Institute for Security Studies

GATIA                 Self-Defence Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (Groupe autodéfense touareg Imghad et alliés)

GSIM                  Group to Support Islam and Muslims

HCUA                 High Council for the Unity of Azawad (Haut conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad)

IFRI                     French Institute of International Relations (Institut français des relations internationales)

ISGS                   Islamic State in the Greater Sahara

MAA                    Azawad Arab Movement (Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad)

MINUSMA         UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali

MNLA                 National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad)

MPLA                 Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement populaire de libération de l’Azawad)

MUJWA              Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa

OCS                    Central Narcotics Office (Office central des stupéfiants)

UNODC             UN Office on Drugs and Crime

UNOWAS          UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel