Analysis: Jihadist exploitation of communal violence in Mali

In a press briefing earlier today, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) detailed an alarming rise in communal violence among different ethnic groups in central Mali.

Quoting numbers from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the OHCHR statement reported that the UN “has documented 99 incidents of intercommunal violence resulting in at least 289 civilian deaths.” The UN office said that 76 of those incidents – some 77 percent of the total – have “occurred in the Mopti region alone, 49 of them since 1 May.”

The UN office pinned the blame largely on communal violence between traditional hunters [referred to as Dozo] from Bambara communities, Dogon communities, and Fulani people. While the UN noted that conflict is nominally rooted in the name of counterterrorism against al Qaeda’s Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the excuse is just a cover being used for indiscriminate killings between the three communities.

Regardless, JNIM is firmly involved in the conflict.

The press briefing said that “Dogon and Bambara communities have themselves in turn been targeted by JNIM and Fulani (Peulh) militias.” Within a span of three days this month, the UN documented five cases in which JNIM took part in communal violence against Bambara or Dogon people near Djenne or Koro in Mali’s central Mopti region.

While JNIM has not claimed involvement in any communal clash this year, last year it took responsibility for clashing with Donzow [plural of Dozo] from Bambara communities in central Mali. The al Qaeda group claimed that the Bambaras were “backed by the Malian army” which was likely to justify its actions in the name of protecting the Fula and to downplay its role in the communal fighting

Parts of JNIM, specifically Katibat Macina (also known as the Macina Liberation Front), are comprised of ethnic Fulani jihadists. Malian authorities have accused Fulani jihadists of stoking tensions between the Fula and Bambara in central Mali. The UN has now accused JNIM of doing the same. Jihadist involvement in communal clashes in central Mali has also been widely reported by Human Rights Watch.

Surprisingly, the OHCHR also spoke highly of how Malian authorities have handled the situation. “We commend the Government of Mali for the efforts it has already taken to intervene in the cycle of violence in Mopti region,” OHCHR’s press release said.

However, Malian troops have been accused of committing extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests of people they suspect of militancy in central Mali.

Earlier this year, Malian troops were blamed for executing seven civilians in the central Segou region. This incident reportedly led to an internal investigation, but it is unknown if any action resulted from the investigation. Additionally, an alleged jailbreak in April resulted in 14 people being killed in central Mali. Crimes committed by Malian authorities only further the cycle of violence as public trust of the state wanes and civilians turn to jihadist forces for protection.

JNIM stands to gain from this as it can exploit these tensions, as well the cycle of violence, to build public support by positing itself as a local defense force. In a worsening security climate, the jihadists can build public support off of the fear of the central government or rival communities, which in turn helps recruit new soldiers and widen its support base across central Mali. That also allows for JNIM to utilize cross-border networks for attacks elsewhere, such as in Burkina Faso. In many respects, all of this is already occurring in both Mopti and Segou.

While not directly mentioned in the OHCHR release, there is also intense communal violence in Mali’s northern Menaka region. Dozens of civilians from Tuareg, Arab, and Fulani communities have been killed while ongoing counterterrorism operations are being conducted against the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Since February, ISGS has been blamed for several massacres against Tuareg civilians in the border region between Mali and Niger, while two pro-Malian Tuareg militias have done the same to Fulani communities in the region.

As the Tuareg militias are nominally operating under a counterterrorism apparatus supported by Mali and France, little has been done to curtail its involvement in extrajudicial killings. By continuing to ally with and utilize the militias, 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 which continue to take place in the Menaka region.

Worsening communal violence, as well as weak efforts to help stop the violence, only further serve the interests of jihadist groups operating throughout Mali. By openly taking sides in the violence, the central government in Bamako continues to lose legitimacy among the civilians of central Mali. This can be exploited by JNIM to further its cause. Additionally, a similar situation is taking place among local communities in the far north, where both ISGS and JNIM stand to gain so long as Mali and France continue to rely on pro-government militias.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • What is most disturbing about the the seven people killed and buried in a shallow grave near Sokolo village in the Diabaly municipality of the Segou region is that some of those detained (and apparently killed) had actively complained about unfair distribution of land in a newly developed irrigation system. Land used for pasture by Fulanis was taken to develop the irrigation system while most of the land including the most productive parcels were assigned to Bambara farmers, with a small number of parcels of smaller size and poorer quality being allotted to the Fulani. Their complaints to the parastatal irrigation agency the Office du Niger and two lawsuit have failed to lead to any action to redress the alleged unfair land distribution. Fulani long-term residents and internally displaced people sheltering in the Sokolo area (having fled earlier violence in Ke Macina) have been forced to flee fearing for their lives.

    A mission from MINUSMA attempting to investigate was held up for several hours by the Army and only succeeded in confirming that an undetermined number of people were buried there. The bodies have yet to be exhumed, but evidence of the hair on the head os some bodies and the stench of death emanating from it confirm the existence of a mass grave. The commander of the local garrison was transferred elsewhere and replaced. No report has emerged of anyone having been punished for this extra-judicial killing. Local authorities have held meetings to calm tension between the Fulani and Bamabara communities around Sokolo and further conflict has so far been avoided. But the root cause of the conflict (unfair access to land, water and income) has not been addressed.

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