Pro-Mali militia fighters in the Mali-Niger border region
Over the course of the last week, intercommunal violence within Mali’s northern Menaka region has escalated in dramatic fashion. Dozens of civilians from Tuareg and Fulani communities have been killed in massacres while ongoing counterterrorism operations are being conducted against the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
Starting between April 26 and April 27, at least 40 people from the Daoussahak Tuareg were killed in two separate attacks on remote villages in the Menaka area near the Gao region. While no one has claimed credit for the massacres, two pro-Mali militias, the Imghad and Allies Self Defense Movement (GATIA) and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), have placed the blame on ISGS.
GATIA is a signatory member of the Platforme alliance, a group of largely pro-Malian state armed groups in the northern half of the country. MSA was founded last year by former members of several pro-Azawad groups [Azawad refers to northern Mali], but is allied to GATIA and other Platforme groups. The two have been counterterrorism partners with Mali, Niger, and France in the Gao and Menaka regions.
On the same day as the murders of the Tuareg, GATIA and MSA have been accused of killing dozens of Fulani in Niger near the borders with Mali in retaliation for the massacre of the Tuaregs. This is not the first time the two militias have been accused of extra-judicial killings. Last month, the UN reported that there have been at least 95 extra-judicial killings in the Menaka region since the beginning of the year. GATIA and MSA are believed to be responsible for the majority of the murders.
On May 1, suspected ISGS militants again targeted two Tuareg camps near the borders with Niger, which left at least 16 people dead. These massacres came after another joint GATIA-MSA operation alongside Malian and Nigerian troops against ISGS fighters. While yesterday, more intercommunal violence was reported.
The counterterrorism operations being conducted in the Menaka area have steadily deteriorated into large scale intercommunal conflict between Tuaregs, Fulani, and other populations inhabiting the Mali-Niger border areas.
Since February of this year, operations against ISGS have been occurring as part of a renewed push to combat the jihadist group. Last October, four US Special Forces soldiers and five Nigerien soldiers were killed in ambush by ISGS militants in the locale of Tongo Tongo close to the Malian borders.
A few weeks later, troops from the G5 Sahel [an alliance between the Sahelien states] deployed to the tri-border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The troops, which are from the three aforementioned countries, are meant to combat rising militancy and criminal activities in the region.
They join French troops, which have long conducted anti-jihadist operations in the tri-border region. Lastly, suspected ISGS militants launched a suicide car bombing against French troops near the Malian town of In-Delimane earlier this year.
However, the renewed push against the ISGS militants did not begin in earnest until Feb. 22. French troops, along with militants from GATIA and MSA, battled the jihadists in the In-Delimane area of Mali’s northern Gao region. In a statement released by GATIA, the joint operation reportedly left at least six jihadists dead. According to RFI, the operations lasted until Feb. 24.
On Feb. 25, more clashes between the Tuareg alliance and ISGS were reported between the Malian town of Akabar and Bani Bangou in Niger. In these raids, at least 12 jihadists were reportedly killed and another six were captured according to a statement released by the alliance. On March 6, French troops clashed with jihadists near In-Delimane.
While no group was specified, militants belonging to ISGS are widely suspected to have been the target. Militants belonging to al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) are also known to operate in this area too.
One day later, the GATIA-MSA alliance released a statement saying that its forces clashed with ISGS in the Tinzouragan area of Gao. At least five jihadists were killed, including a high level commander named as Djibo Hamma. Other militants and vehicles were reported captured.
On March 11, seven more jihadists, including a reported senior leader, identified as Almahmoud Ag Idar, were killed by the Tuareg alliance near Tabardé, Mali. It is also likely in this battle that the Tuareg forces recovered a vehicle used by US Special Forces in the Oct. 4 ambush.
In late March, French troops, along with soldiers from Mali and Niger, as well as militants from GATIA and MSA, launched a coordinated offensive in the Mali-Niger border region. On April 1, the combined forces reported a large-scale assault on ISGS.
The Tuareg groups reported two separate clashes, one in Akabar, Mali and the other in Bani Bangou, Niger, which killed at least 20 jihadists. However, the French military first reported at least 30 jihadists, but this number was later raised to 60. The actual number of jihadists killed is unclear. On April 6, GATIA and MSA reported more clashes in the Mali-Niger border region. At least 15 jihadists were reportedly captured by the alliance, as well as vehicles and weapons.
Jihadist groups, both ISGS and JNIM, can take advantage of the growing violence by positioning themselves as self-defense or community defense groups for marginalized communities. In many respects, the two already do so and recruit from the Fulani, Tuareg, or Arabs in the Menaka region. However, the massacres allow for a heightened sense of tension and fear among the local populations in which the jihadists can exploit.
By continuing to ally with and utilize militias such as GATIA or MSA, Mali, France, and Niger, stand to lose whatever legitimacy they had with the local populations. Jihadists can also exploit anti-government or anti-French sentiments which have been further exacerbated by the eye for an eye killings currently taking place in the Menaka region.
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Actually what we may be witnessing is the start of a campaign of ISGS to trigger a sectarian war as AQI under Zarquawi did in Irak (targetting shia to induce retaliation against sunnis and then placing AQI as the only defender of sunnis), tactic later taken up by Daesh. In the new game of killing in Central Mali, ISGS is targetting touareg civilians (Daoussak herders long in conflict with Tolebe Peulh pastoralists) so as to induce retaliations by these on the Peulh civilians which is the community more open to djihadism and that the ISGS wishes to enlist in jihad.