Islamic State kills hundreds of civilians in northern Mali

Over the last few weeks, a series of massacres perpetrated by the local Islamic State wing in the rural areas of Mali’s northern Menaka region, an area close to the borders with Niger, has left around 400 civilians dead. Exact numbers of those killed remain unknown. 

Tuareg civilians, activists, and militant groups have steadily reported on these massacres since they began on March 8. Those killed mainly belong to the Dawsahak ethnic group, a separate but close community to the Tuareg. 

The Islamic State has confirmed its offensive inside Menaka, though it has framed the killings against rival Tuareg militants and not primarily against civilians. 

The killings also mark the first large offensive of the Islamic State’s newly organized Sahel Province, an organizational restructuring of its Sahelian forces away from the West Africa Province into its own administrative unit. The group was previously informally called the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

Preceding the spate of massacres, the Islamic State assassinated an officer belonging to the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), a pro-Bamako and largely Tuareg militia in Mali’s north, on March 1 in the town of Tamalat. Days later, the MSA responded by clashing with the Islamic State, killing eight of their militants. 

In retaliation, between 153 and 176 people, mainly civilians, were murdered by Islamic State militants in Tamalat on March 8. The massacres came after a clash between militants from the Islamic State and the MSA before the MSA troops were overrun. 

Since the Tamalat massacre, the MSA, aided by its ally in the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Movement (GATIA), have engaged in a cycle of violence with the Islamic State. While the militias have attempted to push back the Islamic State, the jihadists have continued to massacre civilians as a response. 

The MSA-GATIA alliance previously engaged in a similar conflict with the Islamic State in Mali’s Menaka region in 2018, though the numbers of civilians killed were not near the levels of the current conflict. 

Series of Killings and Clashes

The MSA reported additional clashes with the Islamic State in Tamalat a day later on March 9, before local media reported the two sides skirmishing in the town of Inchinanan between March 9 and 10. Clashes continued in the town over the next two days leaving at least 97 civilians killed according to local activists. According to the MSA, the Islamic State lost around 12 of its fighters in clashes in the town.

That same day, the Islamic State entered the town of Anderanbokan, burning the local market, and killing at least another 35 to 42 civilians.

A day later on March 13, the MSA reported its forces were successful in repelling an Islamic State attack on the town of Etanbaw, pushing the jihadists back into Niger. The Malian army supported the MSA by launching airstrikes against the Islamic State’s militants in and near nearby locales.

Two other massacres committed by the Islamic State on March 15 left another 20 civilians dead, while the MSA and GATIA clashed with the Islamic State twice between March 16 and March 17 killing at least 20 jihadists.

And on March 21, the Islamic State attacked three additional villages, killing at least another 80 civilians. The MSA has reported massacres in an additional two villages, though exact casualty figures were not given.

In total, the Islamic State’s men are responsible for the deaths of at least 385 to 415 civilians in less than a month, though this number is likely higher.

Islamic State’s spin

The global jihadist group, in its weekly Al-Naba newsletter, officially commented on the events in Menaka in its latest issue released this week. While the Islamic State confirms its men have clashed repeatedly with the MSA the last few weeks, it leaves out that most of its victims have been civilians. 

For instance, the group says its men within its Sahel Province have killed at least 250 members of the MSA in many of the same villages described in statements by the MSA itself or local activists. 

Photos released by the Islamic State additionally only show its men attacking MSA members, spoils from the Tuareg militia, and dead MSA fighters. 

By obfuscating the true nature of its current offensive in northern Mali, the Islamic State is attempting to portray its killings as against the “apostate” MSA, a militia that has a long history of conflict with the Islamic State. To the Islamic State and its supporters, this is a more ideologically or religiously-approved target.

Instead, the jihadist group is mainly targeting civilians as retribution for the MSA (and GATIA’s) response to the Islamic State’s killings. 

Revenge killings are a common modus operandi for the Islamic State in the Sahel. For instance, in early 2021 the group murdered hundreds of civilians in Niger’s Tillaberi region in response to local communities mobilizing to protect themselves against the jihadist violence.

And during the aforementioned conflict between the MSA-GATIA alliance and the Islamic State in Mali’s Menaka in 2018, the Dawsahak and their communities were routinely targeted by the Islamic State. 

It is so far unclear if the Islamic State’s recent murder spree has ceased, however, the massacres demonstrate the group’s overall stregnth and threat to not only regional governments but also the local communities across the Sahel. 

Security in the Sahel has rapidly deteriorated in recent years, as violence stemming from both al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and from communal tensions, has rocked Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. State responses, as well as actions taken by non-state actors, have also added to the perilous security situation across the region.

Caleb Weiss is a research analyst at FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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