What Can Mali Teach the UN About Confronting Terrorism?

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This article was originally published by the IPI’s Global Observatory on 18 October 2016.

There was little media coverage of last month’s United Nations ministerial meeting on Mali—opened by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon—held on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York. This was in stark contrast to four years ago, when United States presidential candidate Mitt Romney mentioned the conflict in northern Mali during a debate with Barack Obama. Does this mean that Mali is falling off a busy multilateral agenda dominated by the refugee crisis, Syria, and the transition to a new UN secretary-general?

The optimists would see it as a sign that the situation is not as bad as it once seemed, and that the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), deployed in July 2013, is—alongside French counterterrorist force Barkhane—helping to prevent terrorist groups reoccupying northern Mali. Yet this goes against observations of “a doubling in the number of attacks perpetrated by violent extremist groups in northern Mali” and the fact that “attacks have spread to the center of the country” as Ban noted in his most recent Mali report to the Security Council.

The pessimists, then, would see the reduced attention being paid to Mali as a sign of fatigue in the face of limited progress over the implementation of the peace agreement signed in Bamako in June last year. This followed the Algiers inter-Malian peace negotiations between the government and the two coalitions of armed groups in northern Mali—the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and the Plateforme.

The implementation of key confidence-building measures included in the agreement—including joint patrols between the Malian army and ex-rebels now set for December, as well as the installation of interim authorities—continues to be delayed. Meanwhile, the CMA has faced high-level defections, while pro-government militia the Self-Defense Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA), a Plateforme member, has maintained military pressure on CMA members around Kidal since July 21-22 clashes over the control of the city, which left some 20 dead.

In a June 2015 article, I noted that little guidance and means have been given so far to UN missions for dealing with terrorist threats and implementing a stabilization mandate in contexts such as Mali. In a new publication, “Waging Peace: UN Peace Operations Confronting Terrorism and Violent Extremism,” the Global Center for Cooperative Security’s Naureen Chowdhury Fink and I offer some reflections on the broader political and practical challenges, opportunities, and risks facing UN peace operations in complex security environments.

Using Mali as one of our case studies, we argue that the value the UN can add to confronting terrorism and violent extremism is not in delivering a decisive military response but in supporting and strengthening preventive, multi-stakeholder approaches. We also submit that a UN system-wide debate on how the organization and its peace operations can adapt to this role provides it an opportunity to develop a more strategic approach to waging and sustaining peace, by addressing the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism rather than merely managing their symptoms.

This need for a longer-term perspective has become more pressing in Mali in light of a flurry of incidents since the beginning of this month. On October 3, an attack on the MINUSMA camp in Aguelhok killed one and injured eight others, among them members of a Chadian peacekeeping contingent. On October 9, six Barkhane soldiers were injured when their vehicles hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in Abeïbara. On October 11, Swedish peacekeepers within MINUSMA killed a man attempting a suicide attack against their patrol in Timbuktu. There have also been a number of attacks on the Malian army in past months, the latest, on October 13, killed four and injured another seven. An earlier attack that killed 17 Malian soldiers and injured another 35 led to the dismissal of Defense Minister Tiéman Hubert Coulibaly.

The only good news for UN peacekeeping is that, despite the heavy human and financial cost, MINUSMA has indeed proven it has a certain ability to adapt to this asymmetric threat environment. Counter-IED training and the provision of anti-mine vehicles seem to have reduced the number of fatalities from attacks on the UN mission over time. Security Council Resolution 2295 of June 2016 renewing MINUSMA’s mandate also authorized it to adopt a more “proactive and robust posture,” including when protecting civilians against asymmetric threats, and added some 2,500 troops.

The problem is that, despite the UN mission’s unprecedented intelligence-gathering capabilities, it has to date never been in a position to effectively prevent and preempt a terrorist attack on the basis of information alone. Furthermore, the main instance of MINUSMA peacekeepers using force remains the January 20, 2015, Dutch Apache helicopter strike on fighters of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA)—signatory of last year’s peace agreement—at Tabankort, rather than against “terrorists.”

Another growing concern has been that MINUSMA may become a “two-tiered” mission. On one side would be well-trained and -equipped NATO troops—a Netherlands and Sweden contingent recently joined by Germany is reported to be building a military airbase in neighboring Niger, from where France and the US already operate drones, in support of its MINUSMA contributions. This side would be much less of a soft target than African contingents, which would continue to be the main victims of terrorist attacks.

On October 8, an influential CMA leader, Cheikh Ag Aoussa, was killed when his vehicle exploded 1,000 feet from the MINUSMA camp, where he had been attending a regular security meeting with UN and French troops. This not only risked increasing tensions between armed groups further but also raised CMA suspicions that the explosive charge may have been attached to the vehicle inside the UN camp.

Ag Aoussa, a figure of the 1990s Tuareg rebellion after returning from Libya, had been the second-in-command to Iyad Ag Ghali of Jihadist group Ansar Dine in 2012. Following the January 2013 French military intervention in Mali, he repositioned himself within one of the CMA groups, the same way that many former fighters with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa integrated into the Plateforme groups. Slow progress in the peace process has not helped to decrease the appeal of jihadist groups, which have in the past served as a sort of military insurance policy against government forces, and have also provided lucrative illegal trafficking opportunities.

In this complex landscape, many experts agree that the best rampart against terrorism continues to be the implementation of the peace agreement and the return of a more legitimate state presence to northern Mali. Indeed, in June the Security Council decided that the “strategic priority of MINUSMA is to support the implementation…of the Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, in particular its provisions related to the gradual restoration and extension of State authority.” International Crisis Group experts Rinaldo Depagne and Jean-Hervé Jézéquel recently called for the rapid return of this authority even to the central area of the country, before it too becomes a source of instability. Depagne and Jézéquel flagged that the Malian government’s response to terrorism has so far been a brutal and unfit overly militarized one.

Although all parties to the peace agreement continue to participate in the Comité de Suivi de l’Accord (CSA)—the main follow-up mechanism, which met again last week—and some small positive steps have been recorded, such as the reopening of schools in Kidal this week, political will for enacting change seems to be lacking on all sides. Some in Bamako, despite the May 2014 humiliation of the Malian army by CMA fighters and affiliates, also continue to believe a military solution may be possible. The US ambassador to Mali recently asked the government to “stop all ties both public and private with GATIA,” further stating that “Mali needs to assume a greater responsibility for the peace deal’s implementation.”

At long last, Boubacar Keïta announced in September that the Conférence d’entente nationale (“National Accord Conference”) envisaged in the peace agreement will be organized in December. But, given the tense political context in both northern Mali and Bamako—with a string of defections of parliamentarians from the presidential majority—this and other agreement measures could be postponed again. This would further weaken the agreement and bring Mali one step closer to descending into inter-community violence. The failure to resolve the conflict in a sustainable manner, to reform the state, and to address the grievances and frustrations of different communities will also continue to make Mali a breeding ground for terrorism.

About the Author

Arthur Boutellis is Director of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.

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