Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 210, 7 January 2021

Mali: Tensions simmer as militants target French soldiers once again
Apoorva Sudhakar

In the news
On 4 January, a North Africa branch of Al Qaeda, known as the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), claimed the IED attacks on an armoured vehicle in Mali's eastern region. In the attack, two French soldiers were killed, and one was injured. The two soldiers were on an intelligence operation when the attack occurred.

The attack comes barely a week after three French soldiers were hit in a similar IED blast on 29 December 2020. Like the latest incident, the three deceased soldiers were involved in an operation to curb the threat of armed rebels in western Africa.

In the latter half of 2020, several attacks were targeted at French military bases in the country. With the latest attack, the death toll of French soldiers deployed in Mali has gone up to 50 since France intervened to fight against armed rebels in 2013.

Issues at large
First, a brief background on the instability in Mali. Since June 2020, Mali has witnessed anti-government protests, a military coup, and a transitional government, largely led by former military officials. However, Mali has been mired in political instability since 2012. Simultaneously, the Islamic State started cementing itself in the West African region. At the same time, Mali has been the recent epicentre of Islamist extremism, Burkina Faso and Niger are also feeling its impact.

Second, the rising anti-French sentiment. In its latest statement, the GSIM listed reasons behind it attacks the French personnel: France's military presence in the region, recent publications of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Prophet Muhammad. The group also resented Macron's defence of the same under the banner of freedom of expression. This resentment has been resonated with by other Islamic countries across the world.

Third, the external presence in Mali. In 2013, France led its first intervention in Mali against Islamist insurgency and currently, there are more than 5000 French troops in the country. In December 2020, the UK announced its decision to deploy 300 British troops as a part of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mali has nearly 14,000 foreign troops from 56 countries.

Fourth, the rivalry between Islamist groups in the region. While threats from one extremist group are imminent, the rivalry between different groups adds to the region's instability. For example, the GSIM and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara have had frequent violent clashes. The IS, critical of other terrorist organizations in the region, including GSIM, Boko Haram, said these groups are not deadly enough to destabilize the region. On the other hand, the GSIM criticizes the IS for targeting civilians and has equated the IS with "French occupiers and criminal militias."

In perspective
Despite the French presence in the region, militant attacks against civilians and security forces in the western Africa region have increased in recent times. Further, the IS made a gradual but strong emergence in the region while security operations weakened its presence in the Middle East, thereby signalling a shift in terrorist organizations' operational base.

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