Mali’s attack and the future of jihadism in the Sahel
Three almost simultaneous violent events in Mali.
The most mediatized one had to be the attack in the capital Bamako. Five deaths, including two Europeans. The Bamako expat community is shocked, but not surprised. La Terrasse is a popular bar-restaurant for expats, and it is right on the Rue Princesse, which have been targetted by Western embassies security warnings as a no-go street since 2012. In spite of three years of alerts, the Malian security services have not been able to prevent the violence. Another embarrassing episode for the Malian government.
This attack was claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliated group Al-Murabitun. It aimed at revenge against the « miscreant West who insulted and mocked the prophet », and for the death of Ahmed Al-Tilemsi, killed by the French forces in Northern Mali last December.
A violent week-end in Mali. And what it means for the future of ISIL and AQIM in the Sahel
This to be added to two other events happening within 24 hours in Mali. The UN mission headquarters in northern city of Kidal were anonymously attacked Sunday morning with rocket propellers, killing two civilian children and a UN peacekeepers. It is the latest of many similar attacks in the capital of Tuareg rebels resistance.
The third is a crowd lynching two “fair skin” teenagers, probably Tuaregs, in Gao suspected of preparing a bomb attack, with raw pictures shared on Facebook. It is symptomatic of a dense situation in a city that remains very traumatized from last year’s troubles, and which social fabric remains the hardest part to repair.
The last two events are easier to make sense: they happen at a moment where armed groups are consulting their bases about the agreement with the Malian state. It means tensions among groups, and within groups. While the Malian government was hoping for a signature on March 1st, it did not get it: only a commitment while communities remain fragmented. It is a local answer to local tension, and is the prelude to possible upcoming tensions are negotiation have to resume.
But the Bamako attack is different as its target was the international community far beyond the statement of its group.
Uncannily, the attack happens few hours after that the Boko Haram leader pledged allegiance to ISIS , turning its back to Al-Qaeda.The unsurprising attack in Bamako may be a way for AQIM to remind its relevance for jihad, but that is a somewhat overstretching the analysis. The attack was premeditated, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group that mixes AQIM members and former members of the break-up group MUJWA, has proven over the years that impulsive reactions is not its thing. It still has strong ties in Mali in certain communities, and the global recoil of the Al-Qaeda brand against ISIS is not demise for the organisation in the Sahel. Such an analysis overlooks the fact that former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat: it has historical and sociological roots in the region.
But it nevertheless enters this global fight for meaning between Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The ISIS approach of creating a caliphate with statehood abilities is unlikely in a region that have struggled since centuries against an imposed statehood. The wide territory and the complexity of allegiances of its few inhabitants can make the Sahel, at best, a good rear-base. But the ISIS political project will end there. And the attempts of Boko Haram for a desperate publicity stunt might not be replicated in its Northern neighbor.
But while ISIS is unlikely to find grounds in Northern Mali, groups are still struggling to find their own while negotiations are not over about the future of the country. Jihadism is one of the (minor) issue in the current negotiations, as no “terrorist” movement has been invited during round-tables in Algeria.
But, in this context, AQIM remains a meaningful treat: an idea that will remain in the back of the head, and will come back. Not making the headlines does not mean that it is eradicated. And even if the current Alger negotiations might paved the way to a solution to Kidal and Gao, the authorities will have to start considering a strategy against AQIM other than expecting foreign forces to sweep the organization away.