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Theft, murder and rape. Mali pays the price for the brutality of Jihadists and Wagner mercenaries.
At a time of increasing violence in Mali, despite attempts to negotiate with terrorist groups and the failure of the French Mission Barkhane and the UN Mission MINUSMA to help the Malian government reduce and alleviate the pressure of terrorist attacks, terrorism surrounds Mali.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) lost 30 of its fighters in clashes with the local branch of the Islamic State in Mali, calling on Malian tribes to support the group after it declared war on IS.
The Zallaqa Foundation, the official media arm of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, issued an official statement on Tuesday addressing the clashes between the group and the Islamic State organisation in Mali, saying that JNIM launched a military campaign on 27 October against IS positions in north-eastern Mali, explaining that the campaign is a revenge for the local population whose blood has been spilt by IS.
At the same time, the Wagner Group's crimes continue in Mali, where Russian mercenaries have been accused of committing a new massacre of civilians in Mali following a major military operation in the centre of the country surrounded by terrorism.
At least 13 civilians were killed last Sunday in the Mopti area at the hands of Malian forces backed by "white soldiers", local officials and a community association official told AFP.
The massacre occurred during a large-scale air operation in an area known to be a stronghold of extremist groups.
Local sources said the air strikes were followed by a ground offensive by Malian forces and Wagner mercenary fighters on a village near the town of Tenenko.
Mali violence is rising despite attempts to negotiate with jihadist groups. The French mission Barkhane and the UN mission MINUSMA have failed to help the Malian government reduce the pressure of jihadist attacks. Violence against civilians has increased in number and severity since the arrival of Russian mercenaries Wagner in December 2021. From February to early March, FAMa and Wagner conducted a series of raids in the Ségou region that left more than 50 civilians missing and killed.
In the first quarter of 2022, there were more civilian casualties in the conflict than in the whole of 2021. The most shocking event occurred between 27 and 31 March 2022, when the FAMa together with the Wagners massacred more than 300 civilians in the central Malian town of Moura in the Mopti region during a so-called four-day counter-terrorism operation.
According to ACLED data, 456 civilians died in nine incidents involving Malian and Wagner forces between January and mid-April 2022. Overall, 71% of Wagner's engagement in political violence in Mali took the form of violence against civilians.
With these violent operations, FAMa and Wagner have worsened the already complex situation on the ground. When faced with these situations, civilians tend to approach the groups for security and basic services. Nevertheless, jihadist groups such as Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) have committed, and still commit, similar violence against civilians, as well as impositions of a different extremist nature.
Wagner's Russian mercenary forces began operating in Mali in December 2021. The Malian government has stated that their presence in the country is as army instructors and not as private security contractors.
The Wagner Group has been accused of violence against civilians in the regions of Mopti, Segou, Tombouctou, and Koulikoro, the main areas of operations of the country's main jihadist group, Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Malian government forces and the Malian transitional authorities denied and dismissed allegations of violence, abuse and summary executions of civilians by FAMa and Wagner, calling them false and part of a war of disinformation against Mali, and instead claiming that the areas attacked, and the victims claimed were exclusively from jihadist groups.
Wagner has already had a significant impact on an already complex conflict environment, with its operations having a highly negative contribution and impact on the dynamics of the conflict, particularly on the security of civilians. Wagner's deployment in Mali has led to an increase in mass atrocities, torture, summary executions, looting, the introduction of booby traps as a counter-insurgency tactic, and influence operations in the cyber environment. Wagner, moreover, has since May 2022 started to conduct attacks against civilians or conduct military operations independently of Malian state forces and has also established bases and a permanent presence in several central and northern regions of the country.
Attacks against civilians by the Wagner Group have mainly targeted Fulani communities due to perceived links with armed jihadist groups, with JNIM, composed of the Katiba Macina and Serma factions.
The operations of the Qaedist JNIM
While the Wagner group with its violence is harassing the Malian population in different ways and different areas of central and northern Mali, in all areas of JNIM's operations, violent events attributed to it comprise over 64% of all violent incidents in the Sahel from 2017 to 2021. In the areas under its control, Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), to obviate the violence and impositions it implements, strives to try to give the group a non-violent appearance, often attempting to provide services to locals, such as protection from crime, price regulation and quality control in rural markets, providing health care, veterinary services, drinking water and food.
At the same time, however, JNIM, in the areas in which it operates or is stationed, has imposed strict rules of conduct, especially on women, such as dress codes, and a ban on mixing sexes in public transport such as taxis, boats or carts. In central Mali, JNIM militants have repeatedly whipped women who do not wear the hijab or niqāb. The Qaedist group has also strategically exploited inter-communal differences, interpreting pastoral grievances to drive recruitment, which however also takes place through other modalities, such as through Koranic schools, coercion and intimidation. JNIM also frequently resorts to an individual or collective punishment of those who resist their rule and laws, surrounding villages, blocking the movement of people and goods, and cutting off access to farms. The Qaedist group has also closed hundreds of government schools because they oppose their view of Shari'a, forcing residents to enrol their children in Koranic schools. JNIM also collects zakat which it uses largely to finance its activities and has been responsible for the killing or persecution of local notables who have resisted them.
Within the JNIM, the most violent and deadly group appears to be the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), composed of ethnic Fulani fighters, led by Amadou Koufa.
MLF is attempting to overthrow the existing traditional authorities and promulgate its vision of Shari'a over central Mali. MLF's activities and influence have also extended to northern Burkina Faso through links with Ansaroul Islam, a militant Burkinabe Islamist group founded by one of Koufa’s followers, Ibrahim Dicko.
Amadou Koufa, through MLF and its affiliate Katiba Serma, led by Abu Jalil al Fulani, promote violent extremism to fuel ethnic and intra-community tensions within Malian society, which have fueled stigmatization and reprisals on an ethnic basis, which Koufa has exploited to increase recruitment. MLF has imposed in the areas it controls and operates a very strict version of Shari'a to resolve disputes, institute taxes and impose strict rules of behaviour, especially on women, in dozens of villages in central Mali. MLF has pursued a similar modus operandi throughout northern Burkina Faso. The MLF has also targeted civilians more than any other group within JNIM. Most of MLF's militant events target the civilian population in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso, particularly with the killings of local imams and local leaders not aligned with the Koufa group's ideas or impositions.
MLF has recently spearheaded a military expansion into western and southern Mali becoming increasingly capable of threatening the capital Bamako and has strategically triggered and exploited inter-communal differences, interpreting pastoral grievances. The Macina Liberation Front has gained some local support through populist measures such as banning grazing fees and echoing the grievances of young pastoralists against the land tenure system established in central Mali.
Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin was born in 2017 from the merger of four jihadist entities. As of today, JNIM is essentially operational through its two strongest and most important components, Ansar Dine and the Macina Liberation Front. The leadership of JNIM has been assumed by the leader of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghaly, who has proven to be a capable political actor in northern Mali, maintaining ties with secular leaders in the Tuareg community and using these connections to maintain his security and political influence.
Amadou Koufa is officially Ghaly's deputy in JNIM and a senior JNIM's Shura Council member.
JNIM has managed to cultivate a wide range of local allies and weave strategic relationships with local politicians. The most striking example is Ansar al-Din, which allowed local politicians to occupy an important place in the rebellion and play a prominent role in the post-rebellion negotiations. JNIM shows how the experiences of jihadism are embedded in broad local political struggles and how local politics conditions and determines the operational changes of jihadist formations, and that crises push some actors to renounce their formal alliances with jihadists and vice versa pushes other actors instead to ally with them. JNIM has also managed to exploit the population's discontent with the foreign presence in the country, working against the French, MINUSMA's military and now against Wagner's Russian mercenaries. It is precisely against the Wagners that the recent propaganda of its official az-Zallaqa Media has focused, which has spread several claims of attacks against the Russian private military and statements against their presence in Mali, promising attacks and revenge.
The different patterns of violence in northern and central Mali reflect the different structures of the jihadist coalitions in those areas. The north is dominated by the leadership and operations of JNIM leader Ghaly, whose strategy has focused on targeting foreign forces and making deals with important personalities such as militia commanders, politicians, and clerics. In central Mali, however, Amadou Koufa acts as a field commander and Imam of JNIM but also as the architect of a different kind of strategy that draws support from ethnic minorities, creating a “jihadism from below” that has led to an ethnicization of the conflict, in contrast to Ghaly's “jihadism from above”.
The structure of JNIM functions as an association of jihadist groups that has no unified command and control structure. JNIM has multiple operational bases, different operational hierarchies, and numerous fighter groups, which makes it more difficult for security forces to target the group. The composition of the groups that make up JNIM (Tuareg, Fulani, Sahel Arabs) mirrors that of its leaders and allows the group to represent different areas. This breadth of ethnic and geographical representation has made the group strong, creating the perception of unity, influence, and expansion. Although JNIM presents itself as a united front in the Sahel, in the different areas in which it operates, its member groups operate driven by local dynamics. JNIM's operations in Mali are facilitated by the presence of many minorities, some of which are spread outside Mali, which allows the group to have access to a wide network of collaboration and to target other areas, such as Burkina Faso. The organization uses a federalist and para-state organizational model, imposing direct control of the territory.
Iyad ag Ghaly has repeatedly claimed that JNIM's goal is to “wear down the enemy by targeting them wherever they are” but also “strive to gain popular support”.
The JNIM is demonstrating the ability to organize increasingly sophisticated operations and attacks, being able to strike without difficulty in numerous areas and carrying out successful and deadly attacks against FAMa, pro-government militias, Wagner and the Burkinabe army.
According to numerous sources, JNIM leaders Ghaly and Koufa seem to be willing to enter negotiations with the governments of the areas in which they operate and with the local authorities, to stop the fighting. JNIM's demands seem to want to follow, with the support of AQIM, the line followed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. What is certain is that to pay the consequences of all this complex and the violent situation between jihadists (not to mention the presence of the Islamic State province in the Sahel) and the Russian mercenaries Wagner who support AQIM are exclusively civilians, who have no real alternative but to be victims of harassment and widespread brutality.
Published in Akhbar al-Aan
سرقة وقتل واغتصاب.. مالي تدفع ثمن وحشية الجهاديين ومرتزقة الفاغنر (akhbaralaan.net)
Daniele Garofalo is a researcher and analyst on Jihadist terrorism and an expert in monitoring Jihadist media channels.
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