In discussions of Mali’s chronic problems, one factor tends to be overlooked: organized crime. Illicit activities have a long tradition in remote areas across the Sahel. Mali’s vast north, an area larger than France, is sparsely populated, and historically marginalized by the Malian state. Many people survive by smuggling items like subsidized food or cigarettes. Criminal rents are how people make a living in the marginalized north, but have also funded a myriad of armed groups and corruption networks. Efforts by international actors like the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA), or by regional alliances like the G5 Sahel, increasingly recognize the threat organized crime poses to regional security, governance, and economic development. But why have their efforts fallen short?
Democracy’s resilience into the 21st century is rightly questioned. In 2017, a host of countries worldwide saw threats to civil and political liberties, popular participation, and fundamental human rights. Corruption and state capture by predatory political elites led the news in old and new democracies alike. Verbal and physical attacks on civil society, the press, and minorities were reported in virtually all world regions. And new virulent, nationalist ideologies threaten human rights and the carefully crafted post-World War II international liberal order.
There are strong calls to give UN peacekeeping operations more robust mandates to engage in counter-terrorism tasks. But the idea of UN peacekeepers conducting counter-terrorism operations is not without its problems.
Terrorist attacks have been increasing rapidly over the last decade. According to the Global Terrorism Index, 29,376 people were killed in terrorist attacks in 2015. This was the second deadliest year after 2014, when 32,765 people were killed. The spike in 2014 and decline in 2015 is largely a result of the rise and subsequent weakening of Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS).
Fatigue after long engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and the continued impact of the financial crisis has significantly dampened the interest in new out-of-area operations among Western member states. At the same time, the threats of terrorism and migration remain at the top of the foreign policy agenda. It is in this environment that policy makers are turning to the UN, to see what role it can play in the global security burden-sharing. This means a more transactional relationship with the UN, not necessarily considering the longer-term impact of undermining its impartiality and legitimacy.
In January 2013, Hamadou Kouffa led Islamist forces from northern Mali south toward Konna and Diabaly, an act that precipitated an African and French intervention eventually driving the militants out of entrenched positions. Two years later, Kouffa reemerged on the international scene at the head of the newly founded Macina Liberation Front (Front de Libération du Macina, FLM). Since January 2015, Kouffa’s group has claimed responsibility for several attacks in central Mali, including assassinations of local political figures and security forces, as well as the destruction of an ‘idolatrous’ mausoleum.
In its goals and methods, FLM resembles other Islamist terrorists operating in the Sahel and Sahara, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). What makes the FLM different is the attempt to rally nomadic Fulani herdsmen to its cause. Kouffa, a Fulani marabout, communicates to FLM members in the Fulani language, and the name Macina harkens back to a nineteenth-century Fulani state based in central Mali and governed under Islamic law.