Bandits, Radicals, and Rebels: Violence in Mali

Posted on: 17th June 2015
Andrew Hernann
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, Adjunct Lecturer

In May 2015 over 57,000 northern Malians became newly displaced, while attacks also continued by armed groups from Kidal and Gao to Bamako. As much of the country is pushing for reconciliation, the question is, who is behind these attacks, and what are the causes of this continued violence?

On 15 May 2015 the Malian government and a number of armed groups signed the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, as part of the Algiers political process. The head of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a loose coalition of the main Tuareg rebel groups, also stated that it would sign the agreement on 20 June 2015.

Many officials and (former) rebels are celebrating the agreement's lofty objectives, including the transference of certain revenues from state to local authorities, and the creation of elected regional assemblies. But for many residents in northern Mali, the most significant – and long awaited – component of this agreement is the ceasefire. Many of the rebel groups have already agreed to this, and the United Nations peacekeeping forces are attempting to enforce it.

Given the current fears of global Salafi-jihadi movements, including, most prominently, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), many analysts speculate whether recent attacks in Mali are the work of Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa(MUJAO), the same fighters who coopted the occupation of the north in 2013. There is also fear that many northern Malians themselves – due to continued marginalisation and the hardships they experienced while displaced – may have subsequently become religiously 'radicalised.'

The dominant narrative among northern Malians insists that the majority of Salafi-jihadi fighters during the occupation were from abroad, and that those who were actually Malian were coerced. This is not entirely true. Some people from the north likely joined the groups out of social or economic desperation, but particularly within Ansar Dine, its leader, Iyad Ag Ghali (who is a northern Malian Tuareg), was able to convince certain Tuareg families and individuals to support his vision of Sharia. And there were others – though the amount is difficult to quantify – from across the north (and south) who willingly joined the jihadi movements.

Many Timbuktians rejected jihadi Islam for their own moderate, cosmopolitan Islam.

Nonetheless, neither occupation nor displacement significantly amplified northern Malian susceptibility to so-called Islamic radicalisation. Particularly among Timbuktians, with whom I conducted research in 2013, the occupation experiences actually had the opposite effect. Evoking their world famous mosques, universities, and manuscripts, many of my Timbuktian contacts criticised AQIM and MUJAO for imposing such an extreme form of Sharia. Almost every Timbuktian with whom I spoke in 2013 posed the same question: "Who do [the Salafi-jihadis] think they are, coming to teach us Islam? We're the ones who should be teaching them!"

That is exactly what many who did not flee attempted. Timbuktian imams, religious educators, and laypersons alike at different times and in different ways sought to discuss alternative interpretations of the Quran and Sharia with their occupiers in an effort to disrupt their rigid and oppressive views. And, in an effort to prevent radicalisation within the Timbuktian community, many emphasised what they termed their more moderate, cosmopolitan approach to Islam among themselves. In fact, refusing to associate the violence of the occupation with Islam, most of my contacts corrected one another (and me) if we referred to the militants as 'Islamists.' Instead, they almost exclusively called them 'terrorists.'

If much of the northern Malian population is not being radicalised, though, who and what are the causes of intensified violence throughout Mali? Some perpetrators are best described by the fairly catch-all term 'armed bandits.' Typically these are (former) members of rebel or Salafi-jihadi groups. It seems that, in the absence of an organised campaign, militants act somewhat independently of the groups to which they used to belong, but this may not always be the case. Rather, they still might associate with and act on behalf of a particular militant organisation, though in a less official, or 'part time' capacity. Nonetheless, residing in under-populated zones in northern Mali, these armed bandits coerce resident communities, rob public and private transport, and attack the military and police. Problematically, after these raids, by burying their weapons and changing out of their militant garb, the bandits are able to quickly disguise themselves as locals.

Many jihadis can also be part time bandits.

At the same time, though, jihadi organisations like AQIM continue to target UN and Malian personnel and institutions in both northern and southern parts of the country. Significantly these seem for the most part to be the same organisations and many of the same individuals that occupied the north and fled into the Sahara Desert following the French-led intervention in January 2013. I suspect, however, that the instability perpetuated by bandit attacks and the military response that they demand, have (purposefully or inadvertently) increased opportunities for AQIM to strike by providing targets. But it is important to differentiate AQIM and MUJAO's terrorist attacks from the armed bandits' raids. They operate differently and, in many ways, with distinctive goals.

AQIM and MUJAO share some of the goals of other al-Qaeda affiliates and Salafai-jihadi organisations. They espouse global jihad in an effort to establish their interpretation of Sharia. This has more to do with formalising a neo-caliphate in response to the perceived immorality of modernity in general than it does airing particular grievances against specific states. Most bandit groups, who are likely predominantly Malian (evidenced in their fluency in local languages), however, conduct their strikes for different reasons: one is financial.

Lacking AQIM and MUJAO's international funding sources since the groups nominally pulled out of most areas seized during the occupation, former rebels have found themselves even more disenfranchised and desperate than prior to the occupation in 2013. Now outlaws (until a full peace agreement that can reintegrate former fighters into society), some have turned to banditry to satisfy economic – not to mention alimentary and medical – needs.

However, we must not reduce banditry in northern Mali to only its financial strain. Another reason for their mobilisation is political. Many use raids as a way to threaten UN forces and the Malian state, expressing their disapproval of the agreement. Both prior to and following the initial signing of the agreement, bandit attacks have occurred, threatening its strength and durability. There is still a chance that banditry will diminish when the CMA signs the agreement on 20 June 2015, although most Malians remain doubtful. As I stated in a previous commentary, many of the causes of the occupation relate to disparate nationalities and northern perceptions (particularly among certain Tuareg groups) of their marginalisation vis-à-vis the Malian state.

Of course, the agreement attempts to address some of these issues. But, there have been accords in the past, the provisions of which – according to many northerners – Bamako has repeatedly failed to fulfill. Further, Mali seems to have re-developed militias to serve as military proxies, positioning certain Tuareg families against others. The continued use of such undemocratic methods of regional stabilisation and dominance convinces few northern Malians of Bamako's sincerity regarding a prolonged ceasefire or investment in the north. Consequently, there remain some, perhaps many, rebels who maintain separatist sentiments.

For the moment, it does not seem that extensive religious radicalisation in Mali is the primary issue perpetuating regional insecurity (though it should not be ignored). Rather, continued political and economic problems in the north – including the ongoing displacement of tens of thousands of northern Malians – risks further destabilising the region, intensifying inter-ethnic conflict and radicalising nationalist sentiment among certain members of the population. Unfortunately, this makes the whole of Mali more vulnerable to well funded and well organised Salafi-jihadi groups who remain active in the region.