WHAT’S HAPPENING? French troops have officially withdrawn from Mali, following an inconclusive ten-year-long struggle to contain jihadist groups in the
French troops have officially withdrawn from Mali, following an inconclusive ten-year-long struggle to contain jihadist groups in the country.
– Failure from the international community to contain jihadist groups in the country will plunge Mali into further insecurity.
– Deepening insecurity in Mali is likely to cause waves of migration towards the Global North, exerting more pressure on EU borders and its political stability.
– Jihadist groups are likely to carry-out attacks in EU territory, and in France in particular.
THE 10-YEAR STRUGGLE
On November 9, French President Emmanuel Macron officially announced the end of Operation Barkhane, a key military campaign against jihadist militancy in the Sahel. Under Barkhane, 3000 French troops – 5,500 at their peak – worked jointly with the governments of the G5 Sahel, a group consisting of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mali. While France is set to maintain troops in Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger in a lighter capacity, it has vacated Mali entirely. This decision does not signify the successful completion of the Malian mission, but rather stems from the widespread unpopularity of the French in the country.
Jihadist groups and militant non-state actors have thrived in Mali over the past decade, particularly in the north and the Liptako Gourma region, the tri-border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The remoteness of these areas, a lack of governance and climate-related stress on local populations have all contributed to the region’s fragility and instability, where groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (JNIM) and Islamic State (IS) have taken a firm root.
Thousands of people have died directly or indirectly from conflict in the region, and the widespread destruction of livelihoods has displaced more than two million people. As France revaluates its broader counterterrorism strategy, it leaves Mali with a bleak outlook. After ten years of intervention under Barkhane, jihadist groups retain considerable territory and influence in the country, now seemingly more threatening than ever.
THE LONG ROAD TO NOWHERE
Part of Mali’s violence epidemic can be traced back to 2011, when Muamar Khaddaffi’s regime collapsed in Libya. Tuaregs returning home from his disbanded army revived a long-standing rebellion in northern Mali, while many joined militant Islamic groups. It is in this context that Mali first requested the aid of its former colonial power in 2012, as joint Tuareg and fundamentalist Islamic fighters threatened to take over Bamako. The subsequent French intervention—Operation Serval—ended in 2014 with the Malian government reclaiming its territory. Yet the jihadist threat had never been fully eliminated, which set the precedent for Operation Barkhane, beginning that same year and covering all G5 Sahel countries.
Since then, the inability of French troops to rid Mali of jihadist elements has become the primary reason for their unpopularity. Despite successful operations and the assassination of key insurgent commanders, violence linked to groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and Islamic State increased by 70% in 2021 compared to 2020, with the number of attacks on civilians practically doubling.
France’s limited success in tackling Malian terrorism is due to a combination of factors, the first being the inherent difficulty in undertaking military operations in areas as immense and remote as Mali. Troops and resources were stretched thin, against an enemy with both local knowledge and the ability to blend into communities. Volatility and adaptability have become the strengths of such groups, whose understanding of local grievances often surpass those of intervening forces. France was no exception.
But critically, French intervention in Mali was overwhelmingly military-minded, and failed to address the key underlying issues promoting violence, such as a clear governance crisis.
Popular trust in French forces decreased through the years, a feeling exacerbated as their inability to fulfil their mission became more apparent. Operational errors—such as an airstrike on a wedding, killing 19–did not help with their popularity.
The increasing unpopularity of Barkhane soon bridged over to Malian government officials, following political miscalculations on both sides. Relations between France and Mali soured after Assimi Goita seized power through a coup in August 2020. The junta’s decision to upend elections the following year led the EU—including France—to issue financial sanctions on Goita’s close circle, including the transitional prime minister.
Alienating the Malian government first led to the expulsion of the French ambassador in Bamako in February 2022, after which thousands of Malians celebrated in the streets. Goita himself criticized both the inefficiency of French forces and France’s “neo-colonial arrogance” in Africa. The anti-French wave culminated in August, when the Malian government formally requested the departure of all French forces.
It is noteworthy that Mali is a major importer of Russian weapons and has increasingly relied on the Wagner Group—a militia with Russian ties—to stabilize the country. Since then, France has accused Russia of leading a disinformation campaign to undermine the legitimacy of Barkhane. This could potentially explain some of the more extreme claims that have come out of Malian circles, such as France selling weapons to the jihadist groups.
AN UNSTEADY FUTURE
The departure of French forces from Mali is significant. A power vacuum—even temporary—is sure to benefit armed groups such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda, creating wide-ranging insecurity both domestically and regionally. While France was not alone in its efforts to combat terrorism in the country, it seems unlikely that other missions will be able to fill the void.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is also a major player, although its influence has waned since 2016. As the deadliest and costliest blue helmet operation worldwide, doubts have been cast on its role and sustainability. Sweden, Great Britain, El Salvador, Benin and Ivory Coast have all withdrawn their forces in recent months; while Egypt, one of the largest single contributors to the mandate, has temporarily suspended its participation due to increasing attacks on its peacekeepers. Given that the above countries represent more than a quarter of MINUSMA personnel deployed this September, it is hard to imagine it will step-in after Barkhane.
The Wagner Group seems no more credible. Their firepower is limited, mainly due to poor equipment and their numbers not exceeding a thousand in the country. In their recent failure to contain insurgents in Mozambique, it is noteworthy that the militia demonstrated inexperience and poor preparation in countering local threats. What is more, allegations of massacres and human rights abuses on the Malian population—possibly in coordination with the Malian government—are further damaging the country’s integrity, producing easy recruitment propaganda for militant groups.
The immediate consequences of France’s withdrawal from the country are difficult to assess, given that attacks on civilians and military targets have been on the rise for several years. However, relatively unopposed expansion and a new-found freedom to recruit, travel and coordinate operations in and out of Mali is likely to strengthen insurgent networks.
Most obviously, the Islamic State’s local branch (ISGS) has increased its activity since March, relentlessly attacking civilians and gaining territory in north-eastern Mali’s Menaka region. In-fighting and competition for local hegemony between rival insurgent groups has also been on the rise since the French departure, so far also benefiting ISGS.
Further criminality, armed conflict and a rise in inequality can be expected, particularly affecting women and young girls. The simultaneous political vacuum affecting Mali , with two coups in nine months, means the root causes for violent attacks are highly unlikely to be addressed in the medium-term, also benefiting jihadist groups. Domestically, regimes are likely to become more militarized, as well as more vulnerable to coups.
Despite France retaining a strong presence in West Africa, rising insecurity in Mali is highly likely to destabilize the wider region, adding to the toll of migrants and victims of violence. Neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger are particularly vulnerable as they undergo political transitions.
Anti-French sentiment has spread to Burkina Faso, although the government’s recent request for French arms and funding regarding its anti-terrorism task force (VDP) make any severing of ties in the short-term unlikely. Recent trends have shown that jihadist groups in the Liptako Gourma region are pushing towards the South, threatening to destabilize coastal states like Togo and Benin. New alliances and forms of cooperation between coastal and Sahel countries can be expected, notably through the Accra Initiative. France is highly likely to capitalize on West African countries with whom it entertains strong economic and diplomatic relations, such as Côte d’Ivoire. Strengthening such partnerships would provide France with a base for regional diplomatic and military influence, as well as a base to counter growing anti-French sentiment.