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Violent Extremism and Crisis Management
Violent Extremism and Crisis Management
Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm
Speech / Global

Violent Extremism and Crisis Management

Speech by Richard Atwood, International Crisis Group’s Director of Multilateral Affairs & Head of New York Office, to the UN’s Group of Friends on Counter-Terrorism Meeting.

Thank you very much Ambassador. It’s an honour to be invited to speak on this critical topic and as part of such an important initiative.

I work for the International Crisis Group, an organisation that works to help prevent or end conflicts. We have experts in 40 or so countries, many of those suffering violent extremism. We try to talk to all sides in a crisis. We try to be a balanced source of analysis and policy advice to policymakers in and outside the countries affected. It’s the expertise of our analysts across the world that I’ll draw on in our discussion.

Crisis Group has been around for twenty years. This is probably the most difficult era we’ve worked in. There are more wars, they’re more difficult to end, and they’ve changed. One change has been in the nature of some of the groups fighting – particularly groups the UN now calls “violent extremists”.

These groups often combine radical ideology and terrorist attacks with insurgency or even conventional warfare. They may draw support from communities with legitimate political or economic grievances while getting funding through criminal activities. Some control and govern territory while claiming to want to overturn the state system. They are, I think, as much a symptom of instability in today’s world as its cause. A main question for our session is whether the UN and its members have the tools and can unite to counter this type of threat.

So let me look, first, at the nature of these groups and the threat they pose in some of today’s gravest crises; second, at some of the UN’s responses so far; and, third, at some of the policy dilemmas they raise.


Four years ago things looked quite different. The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen seemed to herald a change in Arab politics. It looked like the al-Qaeda insurgency in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State, had been at least weakened. Osama Bin Laden was killed. In Somalia, Al-Shabaab was strong but radical ideology didn’t – or didn’t appear to – play much of a role in other African crises. Overall violent extremist groups appeared less dangerous than at any time since the September 11th attacks a decade earlier.

Now, of course, the picture has changed.

The Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh – an alliance of former regime and army officials, a new generation of extremists and tens of thousands of foreign fighters – controls a large part of Iraq and Syria.

Its violence, its sectarianism, its rule of territory, its proclaimed goal of establishing a caliphate that sweeps away existing borders – many of these we’ve seen before. But what’s new are the scale, the size of the area it controls, its funding, its military prowess, the speed with which foreign fighters have arrived, the range of countries they come from. It uses asymmetric tactics but it’s a conventional army as much as an insurgent or terrorist group. It can fight on at least two fronts. At the moment it seems almost invincible, particularly because an alternative that disaffected Sunnis can get behind instead of IS looks unlikely to emerge any time soon.

In Syria, other extremist groups profit from the conflict’s radicalisation and its regionalisation. An al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is the strongest force in the opposition, while others, like Ahrar al-Sham, also appear to have transnational ties, though for the moment both are focused on fighting in Syria and are composed mostly of Syrians. The bombing campaign in Yemen has strengthened Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which now controls towns and has new alliances in the south and east. Many of the weapons being pumped in to groups fighting the Huthis are likely to end up in extremists’ hands – in Yemen and in the Horn of Africa.

In Somalia – where, again, many of these weapons may end up – African Union forces have pushed Al-Shabaab out of major towns. But it is clearly not defeated. It has thousands of fighters in the Juba Valley. It has an increasing presence in Puntland, around Bosaso port in the north, which could allow it to exploit Yemen’s instability and its long-established ties to the al-Qaeda affiliate there. Nor is Al-Shabaab contained in Somalia. It poses an increasing threat to neighbours, especially Kenya.

Other crises in Africa are also affected. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia and IS-affiliated militias control pockets of towns, often those with histories of radicalism. IS has expanded its control around Sirte over the past two weeks. We estimate that its fighters across the country now number between one and two thousand, including some foreigners and some with experience abroad, particularly in the Levant. The two main military coalitions are far more numerous and powerful but without a political agreement between Tobruk and Tripoli they are mostly fighting each other not extremists.

If Yemen’s crisis threatens the Horn, Libya’s has destabilised the Sahel. French and African Union forces pushed out of main population centres the extremist groups that captured northern Mali – and its smuggling routes – in 2012. But many simply dispersed into communities or across borders. Without a comprehensive peace deal, some of the predominantly Tuareg nationalist movements may be pushed into rekindling already fluid ties to extremists. Boko Haram, the latest in a series of extremist groups that have blighted northern Nigeria, has morphed from isolated sect into regional threat, not least because of an initially inept and brutal response. Despite what now appear to be more effective – though still much too heavy-handed – operations by Nigerian and Chadian forces, Boko Haram still terrorises a large area around Lake Chad.

And in South Asia, Afghanistan is suffering its worst fighting season for years. The Taliban’s increasingly sophisticated offensives threaten major towns, perhaps even in the north. A deal with its leaders appears some way off and, even if feasible, could lead more violent splinter groups to proclaim allegiance to IS. In Pakistan, despite military operations, extremists still operate in the tribal areas, the Punjab and cities like Karachi

So overall it’s a gloomy picture, certainly compared with a few years ago. Violent extremism is part of many, if not most, of the crises on the Security Council’s agenda. Extremist groups no longer act on the peripheries. They’re not a few guys making bombs in basements or caves. Some have advanced weaponry, often captured from their opponents. Some are among the most formidable fighting forces in crises engulfing whole regions. They pose a strategic threat.


That said, it’s difficult to generalise about what are very different groups. In fact, perhaps the one characteristic they share is their roots in local conditions. Their goals, their tactics, their capability, their levels of violence, their sectarianism, sometimes even their implementation of Sharia – these tend to reflect the places they’re fighting in, even if they have transnational ties, even if they attract foreign fighters.

The wars they fight in – some are old, some newer. But most are multi-layered. Our analysts in many places report how violent extremism plays into local competition for power, land, other resources. It can map onto struggles for national power.

So when our expert in Afghanistan talks to villagers in the south, many see violence there not as a battle between the Kabul government and its international allies on one hand and transnational extremists on the other. They’ll see it as the latest phase in a more-than-three-decades long civil war, often involving local grievances and rivalries. Although Boko Haram claims allegiance to IS, it is very much rooted in the political economy and underdevelopment of northern Nigeria. We can’t understand the rise of IS without looking at the way Sunnis have been treated in Iraq and Syria – the lack of alternative forms of protection or representation, the extreme violence they have suffered, often at least matching that of IS (and although we’re talking here mostly about Sunni extremism, clearly in much of the Middle East that is interlinked with, and mirrored by, escalating violence and radicalisation on the side of Shia-dominated governments and allied militias).

To miss this element – to frame these crises only as struggles between fanatics on the one hand and moderate allies on the other, rather than as multi-layered, complex conflicts, with almost all sides guilty of horrific violence – is misleading. In fact grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, by extremists and by their state and non-state rivals, have been a common element to many of these crises.

It’s also misleading to define these groups as just terrorists.

They combine terrorist tactics with conventional or insurgent warfare. IS’s recent capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, saw massive suicide vehicle-borne IEDs break defences and then assaults by ground forces. Al-Shabaab and the Taliban use terrorist attacks to destabilise areas they don’t control, while they tax and provide basic services in areas they do. Most of these groups play pragmatic tribal or clan politics, co-opting some, threatening others. They appear extremely resilient, adapting tactics depending on how much territory they control. They clearly learn from each other.

But it’s a mistake too to see all violent extremists as united. The fight between al-Nusra and IS in Syria reflects a wider split between al-Qaeda and IS, a split that’s personal, between leaders, but also reflects genuine disagreement over tactics and strategy. Similar tensions exist within movements, between indigenous and foreign fighters, for example, or between local and transnational goals. The rise of IS may mean that groups splinter, with some pledging allegiance to IS and others remaining nominally affiliated – though rarely in any direct operational way – to al-Qaeda.


Responses to these groups have also tended to be different in different places, which makes sense. Each group, each crisis is different. Each needs a tailored response. For the UN, particularly the Security Council and Secretariat, a few models may be emerging.

Sometimes, of course, the UN is not involved. Countries try to deal with the problem themselves: Egypt in the Sinai, for example; Algeria in its south; or Pakistan, generally fighting its own campaign against some – though not all – groups in the tribal areas, alongside U.S. drone strikes.

Or they might work together without the UN, like the Lake Chad Basin countries and Benin are doing with the Multinational Joint Task Force to fight Boko Haram. Basically these states are saying: we’re not weak states, we just have a problem that crosses borders and we need each other’s help. Maybe we’ll get support from the African Union. Maybe we’ll get a Security Council resolution – though for the Joint Task Force that now appears unlikely. But we’ll do most of the fighting and outreach, if there is any, ourselves.

A third option is UN peacekeepers, like in Mali. The Security Council deployed a mission, after the French Serval and African Union operations but alongside Barkhane, to help the state return to the north, protect civilians, stabilise population centres and steer a political process that can maybe pull those groups that can be reconciled away from those that can’t.

Mali has, however, been a difficult experience for the UN: prickly relations with Bamako; at times one step removed from the mediation, which Algeria ended up leading; a muddled mandate, mostly because Council members were motivated by counter-terrorism as much as stabilisation or genuine reconciliation between north and south or within the north. It’s also been difficult, though, because of the tragic number of casualties. Of all the groups we’re talking about those in Mali are certainly not the most potent. But their tactics, especially IEDs, have proven challenging for peacekeepers. It’s not clear that, as currently configured, UN peace operations work in these contexts, even if peacekeepers don’t fight extremists themselves.

A fourth model is a UN special political mission alongside national and international – but non-UN – forces.

In Somalia, an African Union mission, AMISOM, is fighting Al-Shabaab, taking high casualties, and in Kenya’s case serious blowback, alongside UN political and support missions. In Afghanistan and Iraq, up to the U.S. withdrawal, UN political missions were deployed alongside NATO or U.S. and Afghan or Iraqi forces. They were trying – though I think it’s fair to say without much success and maybe not always that much influence – to help build an inclusive political system that people can support instead of extremism.

It’s easy to see how this model – a UN political mission alongside non-UN forces – might be used again, especially given the difficulties in Mali. But it clearly has challenges. It’s difficult for the UN to stay neutral (though this is a wider challenge in crises involving extremists). Separating the coercive from the political side of an intervention can undermine both. Involving neighbours, who obviously have the strongest incentives to get involved but also the strongest national interests, can regionalise wars.

And military intervention in itself poses challenges: the presence of foreign troops was a driver of all three insurgencies – in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq; but in all three, once insurgencies gathered force, it becomes difficult to pull them out. AMISOM has been in Somalia more than eight years, but if it withdrew, Al-Shabaab would probably take back Mogadishu. The U.S.’s presence and policies in Iraq was a major factor behind the rise of what is now IS; but with hindsight it is not clear that pulling out was wise either. Nor is it clear how well the Afghan security forces would fare without international support.

Libya is a fifth model. No foreign military, though a UN envoy trying to strike a deal between the two main coalitions so that a unity government can then take on extremists. But he faces strong pressure from some regional powers for more explicit military backing to Tobruk; and from Europeans who are starting to view the crisis predominantly through the lens of migration.

And last we have Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal, Syria and Yemen. All are more difficult to define because of the fierce regional and international politics.

Overall the strategy against IS appears aimed more at its containment than its defeat. In Iraq, I don’t want to simplify, but basically there’s support to the Iraqi army and non-state militias; airstrikes, though not so many, against IS; efforts to curtail its funding and to stop foreigners travelling to join up; and some half-hearted attempts to give Sunnis more power, though Prime Minister Abadi has done more than his predecessor. But it’s mostly force, the UN plays no central role, and, again, the chance of an alternative to IS emerging that Sunnis will support appears slim.

In Syria, airstrikes target IS and al-Nusra; the U.S. is training vetted forces, though tiny numbers; and regional powers have now ramped-up support to rebels. But major disagreements on the Security Council and in the region over the role the Assad government should play have made the work of successive UN envoys impossible. And then in Yemen, at the moment the focus is on primarily the Huthis and less the dangerous branch of al-Qaeda.

Laid on top of all this there are cross-cutting policies: sanctions; other efforts to curtail extremists’ smuggling of oil or other resources; measures to stem the flows of foreign fighters both to and from wars; and much new work to counter violent extremism. All are important, of course, but in the war zones I talked about their impact is, while not peripheral, also not immediate.


These very different forms of crisis response often face a set of similar policy dilemmas. I mentioned already some related to peacekeepers and occupation. Let me look at four more.

An overarching one is how to strike the right balance between policies rooted in counter-terrorism and those rooted in conflict management. Is the main goal to kill or contain terrorists, through drone strikes and other targeted killings, arming militias, bombing campaigns, cutting off financing? Or is it to help forge reasonably inclusive political settlements, strengthen state institutions and win over populations?

In each place, responses have usually involved a combination – maybe they have to. But it’s not clear the balance has been right or even, in places, what the end goal is.

Partly this is because the presence of extremist groups tends to push policy toward counter-terrorism. While extremists may enjoy support from communities with legitimate grievances, their ideology and demands can be hard to accommodate in a political process. Particularly across the Middle East and parts of Africa, they profit from states’ loss of legitimacy, crumbling state institutions, weak morale in regular army ranks. But reversing those trends, even if possible, could take decades and in some places, like Iraq, those best equipped to fight extremists are other non-state militias, whose empowerment further weakens central state institutions even as they try – for the moment at least – to preserve the ruling order. Plus, the 1373 committee’s recent report on foreign fighters argued there appeared to be “no short-term possibility of ending certain conflicts” and even if IS could be defeated, its demise might scatter foreign terrorist fighters across the world.

So a focus on counter-terrorism – on managing symptoms of crises rather than trying to end them – is understandable.

But from what we see across the different places our experts cover, it’s unlikely to work. It’s probably not possible to defeat or even contain these groups unless the conflicts they feed off are brought under control. The longer wars continue, the stronger, the more entrenched, extremist groups will get and the graver threat they’ll pose even far beyond that theatre.

A related challenge relates to engagement.

There’s usually a line drawn between groups or individuals that are seen as reconcilable and those seen as irreconcilable, between those that can be dealt with, can be part of a political process, and those that can’t. Of course in each crisis different governments, different parts of the UN, may draw this line in different places. But how do they do this? Are lines static? How helpful are they?

It’s difficult to see some of the current crop of leaders – Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram, Abu Ubaidah in Somalia, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example – being brought in. But in some places the line is in the wrong place. Casting all political Islamists as violent extremists seems a mistake, for example. In Afghanistan, in Palestine, maybe in Mali, probably during the time of the Islamic Courts in Somalia, some groups that perhaps could have been engaged weren’t.

The third, again related, challenge relates to the divisions within and between groups I mentioned earlier. Ideally, a strategy to contain these groups would look to exploit these divisions. But even if that’s difficult – and of course trying to play the internal politics of groups is risky – at least avoid policies that do the opposite, that unite them or that drive communities into supporting them. It’s easy to find examples of indiscriminate military operations, arrests, repression of communities, lumping different currents together that have done that.

And a last challenge – perhaps in this forum the most sensitive but one we should be honest about – is how to get states to take the threat seriously. That may sound strange. Of course all leaders agree on the danger of violent extremism.

But in fact many disagree over how to tackle individual groups and how high a priority doing so is. At the moment, some appear more eager to contain rivals than genuinely tackle extremism. Even worse, a common thread running through the history of these groups is attempts by states or leaders to use them against their opponents, only to see them, inevitably, slip their control. I don’t need to mention here who’s guilty. But it’s a long list, stretching back at least to the radicalisation of the mujahidin in Afghanistan more than a quarter-century ago.


A look back at violent extremism over past couple of decades suggests a number of phases (again I realise I’m simplifying here):

One was when fighters mobilised for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan returned to join uprisings or shelter in places like Algeria, Chechnya, Libya and Sudan. For the most part crushed in or ejected from those countries, toward the end of the nineties some retreated back to camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban’s defeat in Afghanistan scattered many again, though others remained in the Pakistani tribal areas

Then the U.S. invaded Iraq, adopted its de-Baathification policy, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda insurgency escalated. Its extreme violence alienated communities, and the awakening, which saw Sunni tribes’ partner with U.S. troops, beat it back. The Arab Spring at first seemed to mark another defeat for violent extremists, particularly as it initially benefitted Islamists who were prepared to contest elections and might have ended up as an alternative to extremism. But then the Syria conflict radicalised; Prime Minister Maliki’s government again cracked down on Sunnis, including those that had risen up before against al-Qaeda; the Iraqi insurgency re-emerged as IS; extremism gained a more prominent role in more African crises; and now Libya and Yemen are escalating.

So the last few years have seen peaks and troughs – but with each peak getting higher. Are we now on the tip of another peak or will the spread and influence of violent extremist groups keep expanding?

What’s clear is that the main factor that has determined these groups’ strength is not their ideology, however deeply held it is by some, however it helps recruitment, particularly of foreign fighters, and however much well-funded proselytising of less tolerant forms of religion has created fertile ground.

What determines their strength is the combination of wider geopolitical currents and opportunities presented by local conflicts. Perhaps the main cause of the most recent resurgence of violent extremism is the instability, the fierce geopolitics, in the Middle East. So the counter-terrorism measures, sanctions, CVE – all these are, as I said, important. But as long as brutal, sectarian wars engulf the Middle East, these groups will probably get stronger. And sadly parts of Africa are likely to suffer the harsh consequences of wars further north.

Last, although this session is on crisis management, let me say a word about conflict prevention, which at the UN we all talk about but still proves challenging. Violent extremist groups bring a new urgency to prevention. Few of these conflicts were initially about violent extremism. That element comes later, as movements radicalise and attract foreign fighters. But once it’s there, crises are much more difficult to resolve.

Many of the deadliest crises on the Security Council’s agenda affect a belt running across from West Africa to South Asia. Its northern tip runs through the Sahel to North Africa and the Levant and its southern side the Great Lakes to the Horn and Yemen. I’m not saying this is a contiguous war zone or arc of instability – not at all. But quite a number of states, or parts of states, in this belt face crises. And most – not all, but most – of these crises have a violent extremist element.

Other states in this belt appear fragile. They confront stresses similar to those that are already suffering crises. Others are stronger, of course, but some of these stronger states are competing with each other, often using weaker states as a venue for that competition. And even some stronger states have their own problems ahead – succession challenges, leaders relying on a narrowing support base, youth bulges

So a second strategic challenge, one that will also determine how much violent extremism spreads, is stopping other states in that belt from succumbing. We can see how some – in the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel, North Africa, the Horn, certainly Central Asia, perhaps even the Gulf – might be vulnerable.

Thank you again very much for the opportunity to speak to the group today.

Le président du Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (G), donne l'accolade à Mahamadou Djery Maiga (D), vice-président et porte-parole du Conseil de transition de l'Etat de l'Azawad, le 20 juin 2015 à Bamako. AFP/Habibou Kouyate
Q&A / Africa

Mali’s Algiers Peace Agreement, Five Years On: An Uneasy Calm

La mise en œuvre de l’accord de paix au Mali demeure incomplète et laborieuse cinq ans après sa signature. Mathieu Pellerin analyse la situation actuelle et explique pourquoi il faut accélérer les efforts pour instaurer les réformes de fond prévues par l’accord de 2015. 

Five years after it was signed in June 2015, what has happened to the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali?

In June 2015, the Malian government, a coalition of pro-government armed groups from northern Mali called the Platform and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad, CMA) – an alliance of rebel groups – convened in Bamako and signed an agreement to restore peace in the country. The signatories were under great pressure from an international mediation team to accept the final text, which was drafted after less than a year of often indirect negotiations. The mediation team was led by Algeria and included the UN Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the European Union, as well as the United States and France, who were initially designated “friends of the mediation”.

The agreement seeks to restore peace in Mali principally through a process of decentralisation or regionalisation, reconstituting a national army from the members of the former armed groups that were signatories, and boosting the economy (particularly in the north), based on dialogue, justice and national reconciliation.

None of the agreement’s five pillars have been satisfactorily applied.

The parties claim to support the agreement five years after signing it in June 2015, but its implementation has proved to be extremely difficult. The Carter Center – appointed as the Independent Observer in Mali in late 2017 – reports virtually no progress on this front: in 2017, 22 per cent of the agreement’s provisions had been put into effect, compared to 23 per cent three years later. None of the agreement’s five pillars have been satisfactorily applied.

The parties have not carried out the substantive political and institutional reforms defined in Section II of the agreement (the first section lays out the agreement’s general principles), starting with regionalisation. So far, the measures have been temporary or too limited to make any real impact on the ground. It took months of negotiation between the signatories and international partners of the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee (Comité de suivi de l’accord, CSA) to appoint interim authorities in the northern regions, and with few tangible results. Three years on, these authorities have insufficient financial and human resources, and lack the training, to manage the regions effectively. The two new regions (Ménaka and Taoudenit) created in northern Mali, based on commitments made by President Amadou Toumani Touré in 2011, also lack resources. Voters in these regions could not choose deputies in the April 2020 legislative elections because the electoral districts had not yet been delineated.

On matters of defence and security (Section III), the process of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) initiated by the state and backed by MINUSMA has weakened. Despite the deployment of a reconstituted Malian army battalion in February 2020 in Kidal, a hotbed of rebellion and CMA’s centre of operations in Mali’s far north, this force has never patrolled the town, and the CMA – chafing at its exclusion from a command role – has now “assigned” the battalion’s third company to Gao. The leaders of the movements and the Malian state’s chiefs of staff have not discussed the framework for a lasting means of integrating former armed groups’ members in the national army and its chain of command.

On the fifth anniversary of the agreement, this DDR process involves only 1,840 combatants from the signatory groups in an “accelerated DDR” phase, and they are not even the ones who fully reintegrated. UN Security Council Resolution 2480 (2019) set the goal of reintegrating 3,000 fighters by 2020, but it remains distant, and the next phase is uncertain. With nearly 85,000 combatants registered by the signatory groups, DDR remains incomplete and a sensitive issue. The mixed units of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (Mécanisme Opérationnel de Coordination, MOC), consisting of Malian soldiers and combatants from the signatory armed groups and partly assigned to the reconstituted army, were supposed to provide security in large towns in northern Mali. They are rarely seen on patrol, however, and have been targeted for attack, especially the 2017 Gao bombing of their camp. Some former fighters belonging to the MOC or to the reconstituted army have been involved in banditry and trafficking.

The joint administration of a long-term development fund by the Malian authorities and armed groups remains a challenge.

The parts of the agreement on development (Section IV) and reconciliation (Section V) remain largely overlooked. Nothing points to the possibility of genuine economic growth supported by the state or donors. A long-term development fund designed to support initiatives in northern Mali has been set up, but its joint administration by the Malian authorities and armed groups remains a challenge. Mali’s truth, justice and reconciliation commission, established in 2014, has continued its role as defined in the 2015 agreement, and it began holding public hearings in December 2019, but it generates hardly any interest.

Why the standstill?

The delayed implementation is symptomatic primarily of a lack of will among the signatories. Neither the Malian government nor the other parties were enthusiastic about the agreement’s text in 2015; international duress, particularly from Algeria, France and the U.S., pushed them to sign it. Civil society organisations in both northern and southern Mali that were supposed to represent local populations were effectively excluded from the process. While the Malian state and the signatory armed groups feel that outsiders foisted reconciliation upon them, southern Malians remain strongly distrustful of the former rebels and an agreement that was largely opaque to them. Many from the south think that the agreement is the first step toward an eventual partition of the country. According to the Mali-Mètre opinion survey (March 2020), “the vast majority of citizens interviewed (80.1 per cent) stated that they had ‘no’ knowledge (61 per cent) or ‘hardly any’ knowledge (19.1 per cent) of the peace agreement”.

Apart from the lack of will, the Malian state and the CMA are also keen to preserve the status quo: the CMA enjoys considerable de facto autonomy in its areas of influence in northern Mali, while many of its members have paid employment in the bodies set up by the agreements, such as the CSA and the interim authorities. In parallel, this state of affairs allows the Malian state to delay implementation of the 2015 agreement’s more sensitive provisions, particularly those implying constitutional reform. In August 2017, pressure from the public – mobilised in part against the agreement’s implementation – forced the government to postpone a draft constitutional referendum. By maintaining the status quo, the government prevents social unrest while still honouring its commitment to the international community to continue implementing the agreement.

We are not going to lay down our arms before getting what we took them up for in the first place.

The main parties to the agreement are therefore in a deadlock: the lack of political and institutional progress is leading the signatory armed groups to reject defence and security commitments. In an interview, one CMA official summed up the situation as follows: “We are not going to lay down our arms before getting what we took them up for in the first place”.

The international mediation team that pushed for the signing of the agreement has failed in its commitment to act as “the guarantor of [its] scrupulous implementation”, as specified in its text. The CSA has not exerted enough pressure on the parties to ensure the agreement’s proper implementation, in particular with regard to its key political and security provisions. International actors seem content with the status quo that allows them to focus on the jihadist threat, particularly in central Mali.

If the parties have not clashed since the agreement was signed, why does the impasse pose a problem?

The current stability is significant, and represents a source of satisfaction for some. But it is deceptive. The peace agreement may be partly responsible for the calm, but it owes more to a combination of factors that may turn out to be short-lived.

If they have failed to secure genuine implementation of the agreement, the international forces present in Mali have succeeded at deterring the signatories from resorting to the use of force. Their presence, however, will not be permanent. With instability spreading in central Mali, and across its borders, international actors such as Barkhane (a French anti-terrorism operation in the Sahel) and MINUSMA are increasingly turning their eyes elsewhere, such as Burkina Faso and Niger. In this vast region, the limited military forces (5,100 Barkhane and 13,000 MINUSMA soldiers) cannot be present everywhere.

Moreover, the stability in northern Mali is paradoxically linked to the CMA’s position of strength. Since 2015, violations of the peace agreement have pitted the armed groups of two coalitions against each other (rather than against the Malian state) due to political rivalries between the strongmen of different Touareg tribes or clashes between traffickers. The Platform – the coalition of pro-Bamako armed movements – has steadily weakened since 2017, and many of the factions have split off to join its rival, the CMA. Skirmishes are now rare again in northern Mali. Although the three parties signed the agreement in 2015, the Platform’s dwindling power has now left the CMA facing off against the government. In the longer term, the non-implementation of the agreement could give a pretext for the CMA, now in a strong position in the north of the country, to revive its quest for autonomy.

The non-implementation of the agreement could give a pretext for the CMA to revive its quest for autonomy.

The stability is also linked to the discovery of gold in the Kidal and Gourma regions. Panning for gold has effectively enabled a type of spontaneous yet temporary demobilisation of combatants from armed movements, especially the CMA. But the gold deposits will eventually run out. The current phase of artisanal mining will either come to an end or – more likely – yield to a phase of semi-mechanised mining that requires fewer workers. At that point, taking up arms could become more appealing.  

The current situation is therefore based on a precarious balance and cannot be described as a lasting solution; a flare-up of violence in the medium term cannot be ruled out. The peace process must deliver considerable progress in order to avoid becoming an empty shell that the signatories will end up abandoning in order to resume their hawkish positions.

Could improving the agreement’s implementation help solve the problem of jihadist insurrections spreading across other parts of northern Mali?

Some international actors and the Malian state consider that the reconstituted army, which must bring together Malian soldiers and combatants from armed groups, should engage in the fight against terrorism. It is risky, however, to connect the struggle against jihadist groups to the peace agreement’s implementation.

First, this idea gives the illusion that the signatory armed groups are capable of tackling jihadists. Many members of these signatory groups have been killed in the jihadists’ suicide bombings and other attacks; they are often forced to negotiate unofficial non-aggression pacts with the militant groups. Moreover, the “anti-terrorist” alliance created by Barkhane with two armed groups belonging to the Platform between 2017 and 2019 in the Liptako-Gourma region has proved unable to stem the jihadist expansion. Worse, it has exacerbated the situation by heightening local intercommunal tensions (see Crisis Group’s most recent report on Niger). The armed groups see no advantage in weakening their position in the anti-jihadist fight while the Malian state continues to raise the spectre of revising the peace agreement. Furthermore, most armed groups from the north have combatants in their ranks who were former members of jihadist groups before the French intervention, or else have family or tribal links to jihadist elements.

The issue of territorial and political autonomy is the core motivation for taking up arms in this region.

Although fighting terrorism attracts international attention, it is only one of the problems facing northern Mali today. Even if international and national forces were to succeed in eliminating or sidelining the jihadists, the signatory parties would still demand a satisfactory response to their demands for territorial autonomy in the north, which would almost certainly derail the Malian peace process. The issue of territorial and political autonomy – arising for the fourth time since 1963 – is the core motivation for taking up arms in this region. This is reflected in the agreement’s provisions on the implementation of effective regionalisation. In Niger, the state has allowed elites from the north, including former members of armed groups, to participate fully in running local administration. These elites have thus become better integrated into political and institutional affairs at a national level. Mali could follow this example that resolves a fundamental issue: how to dissuade people from joining armed groups and encourage military actors to take part in political and economic matters; even though it would be naïve to suppose that weapons and trafficking would disappear overnight. The most pressing goal is to ensure that these realities do not play into the hands of those with hawkish agendas.

How can the peace process move forward without jeopardising progress toward stability?

Expectations must be realistic. No one should feel satisfied with the current situation. At the same time, no one should exert pressure that may rekindle violence, for example by organising an unsuccessful referendum or redeploying the reconstituted army, which the signatory groups would judge as heavy-handed. The parties must take careful steps toward more effective implementation of the agreement. Given the various parties’ reluctance to apply the agreement in full, there is no magical solution for the problem. There are, however, two main areas where the peace process could gain new impetus: trust in the peace process, and political will to see it through.

Southern Malians’ opposition to the agreement has prevented progress toward its implementation. Since 2017, the government has postponed the deadline for the referendum on constitutional reform now scheduled for late 2020. This reform seeks to bring Mali’s constitution into line with the agreement’s terms, particularly by setting up a senate and regional assemblies whose presidents would be elected through direct universal suffrage. Opposition to the agreement, compounded by widespread discontent with a state weakened by seven years of crisis and recent disputed legislative elections, makes a positive outcome in such a referendum unlikely this year. Southern and central Malians account for almost 90 per cent of the electorate, and their mistrust of an agreement they do not properly understand would most likely lead them to reject the planned constitutional reform.

It is vital for southern Malians to give more support to the process.

It is therefore vital for southern Malians to give more support to the process through the political elites and civil society organisations supposed to represent them. They played no part in the discussions that led to the signing of the agreement in 2015, and many reject a text negotiated without their input. The 2015 text gave the Malian government the job of providing information and raising public awareness about the agreement’s content, but as the Carter Center observed, the government did little in this regard. There are now more public campaigns protesting against the peace agreement than in support of it. Awareness-raising initiatives have focused on northern populations, disregarding the fact that the agreement also applies to southern Mali, particularly through the regionalisation reform and the creation of a senate.

Five years after the signing of the agreement, it remains essential to address this shortcoming. Without the support of the population of southern Mali, many of its local interest groups will continue agitating to put the agreement on hold and to renegotiate its terms. Renegotiation is not in the interest of either the international community or the CMA, and over time could even lead to a resumption of belligerent discourse. The denunciation of the peace agreement is one of the grievances voiced by the organisers of the Movement of 5 June - Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), a protest movement calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita that gathered tens of thousands of demonstrators on 5 and 19 June 2020, mostly in Bamako. Some of the movement’s leaders, such as filmmaker and former Minister Cheick Oumar Sissoko, have publicly called for the agreement to be revised, a position the M5-RFP has so far not adopted officially. The agreement remains a secondary issue for the movement, with other grievances aimed directly at President Keita taking precedence.

The CMA therefore needs to engage with southern Malians to explain that the agreement does not threaten to split up the country, and that regionalisation is a national reform and not limited to the north. The southern regions have everything to gain from a regionalisation process that would guarantee them a transfer of powers and resources unprecedented in Mali’s history. This awareness-raising could continue the work started with the inclusive national dialogue of 2019, namely the initiation of talks between the CMA and civil society organisations from southern Mali. Local elected representatives and traditional authorities from the north should be involved in these information campaigns in the southern regions. International partners sitting on the CSA monitoring committee, in particular MINUSMA, could help organise this work. Without guaranteeing the success of the referendum, such a move could still help relieve the pressure on the government exerted by southern elites that is holding up the agreement’s implementation.

The political authority in charge of implementing the agreement needs to be invested with greater power. The country’s president or, failing that, the prime minister, should become directly involved and support this authority, since these figures are the only ones able to give orders to the technical ministries and to resolve any disputes. The creation in 2016 of the president’s high representative to implement the agreement was a step in the right direction, but the person chosen for this job never had the necessary political clout or support to impose his views on a government that often remains unwilling to implement the agreement. The ministry of social cohesion, peace and national reconciliation, currently the government body in charge of this portfolio, has had no more success.

The key to implementation lies with the signatories themselves.

The top-level authorities of the signatory groups should be a more regular presence in Bamako, especially during the CSA’s most important sessions, since these constitute the main dialogue framework among the signatories. Otherwise, second-tier actors represent the groups, and their decisions fail to influence the other movements.

The international community must also continue to monitor progress, and to press for more, even though the current situation reveals the clear limitations of an externally imposed peace. The key to implementation lies with the signatories themselves.

The reality, however, is that Mali’s president must commit himself decisively and publicly to support the most sensitive provisions of the agreement – particularly the transfer of resources and power in terms of regionalisation and a reconstituted army. As long as he does not do so, the parties’ lack of will to implement the agreement will prove an insurmountable barrier.