Fact Sheet: Attacks on Civilians Spike in Mali as Security Deteriorates Across the Sahel
Published: 21 September 2023
- Violence targeting civilians has increased by 38% in Mali so far this year1Comparison based on ACLED data for January-August 2023 relative to January-August 2022.
- The main perpetrators of these attacks are JNIM (over 180 events, 33%), Malian state forces and/or the Wagner Group (nearly 160 events, 29%), and IS Sahel (nearly 90 events, 15%)
- Battles and attacks have spread to new locations in northern Mali amid joint military and Wagner Group operations and the resumption of hostilities with Algiers Accord signatory armed groups
- JNIM has also launched a new offensive, carrying out a series of large-scale attacks on military positions and imposing blockades on towns and major transit routes
- Overall, in the wake of successive military coups promising to improve security across the region, political violence levels in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have together increased by 5% relative to the same period last year, and by 46% compared to 2021
More than 60 people were killed in a suspected jihadist attack on a river boat near the village of Abakoira in Mali’s northern Tombouctou region earlier this month,2George Wright, BBC, Mali: At least 49 civilians reported dead in attack on river boat, 8 September 2023 marking one of the deadliest incidents yet in an ongoing surge in violence targeting civilians amid simultaneous military and armed group offensives across the Sahel.
The river boat attack was likely connected to JNIM enforcement of a blockade on the town of Timbuktu and its surrounding areas, which entails the prohibition of commercial transport on main roads and waterways along the Niger river. The incident was preceded by a much less deadly attack on a boat en route to Timbuktu near the village of Akka in Youwarou circle of Mopti region. JNIM actions also include frequent shelling — six incidents since mid-August — targeting Timbuktu, including the airport. A shelling incident on 11 September led to the suspension of flights to and from Timbuktu by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service and Malian airline Sky Mali.
JNIM’s blockade comes in response to a Malian military (FAMa) and Wagner Group offensive in the Tombouctou region. The FAMa and Wagner offensive was initiated by an attack on a CMA checkpoint in Foita, killing two CMA combatants. The convoy reportedly killed more than 50 civilians over three days as it progressed between Léré and Timbuktu. The offensive culminated in a three-day battle for the town of Ber, after which FAMa and Wagner forces managed to capture the town and install themselves at the former United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) camp. Several arrests and approximately a dozen extrajudicial killings by FAMa and Wagner have been reported after these forces took control of the town of Ber. The battle of Ber also brought ex-rebel bloc Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) into the fold in opposition to state forces, before their subsequent withdrawal from the town. CMA is currently, along with former pro-government militia factions of the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Group (GATIA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), grouped together as the Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP) coalition, which – after the resumption of hostilities between the central government in Bamako in the country’s south and the former rebel enclave in Kidal in the north – also adopted the name “Azawad National Army.”
As FAMa and Wagner advance north, they have the Kidal region in their sights. FAMa and Wagner patrols and airstrikes have extended to Almoustarat and Anefis areas in Gao and Kidal regions. JNIM and CSP launched simultaneous attacks on military positions in the Tombouctou and Gao regions. On the same day as the riverboat attack, JNIM overran the Bamba military camp. The following day, it perpetrated a complex attack involving suicide car bombs on Gao Airport. Meanwhile, CSP attacked military positions in the town of Bourem. The attack on Bourem was repelled after an aerial intervention. Following the failed assault, CSP forces attacked and overran the FAMa camp in Léré in the Tombouctou region. In the process, CSP shot down a Malian military jet. The simultaneous CSP and JNIM counter-offensives are likely aimed at stalling the FAMa and Wagner offensive in northern Mali. The Malian military has already lost several aircraft early in the offensive, along with helicopters recently destroyed or damaged in central Mali.
As hostilities escalate between FAMa, Wagner, JNIM, and CSP in the north and center of the country, civilians face an increased risk of being caught in the crossfire and displaced. In addition, the Malian transitional government faces both a reawakened Tuareg rebellion and a growing jihadist insurgency, posing greater threats to the stability and security of civilian areas throughout Mali.
Violence Targeting Civilians Surges Amid Multiple Simultaneous Offensives
The river boat attack comes during a wider surge in civilian targeting in Mali, which has seen a 38% increase in attacks so far in 2023 compared to the same period in 2022 (see graph below). The spike is driven by the country’s main armed actors, including JNIM, FAMa, Wagner, and IS Sahel, each operating according to its own objectives and logic when engaging in violence targeting civilians.
JNIM has become increasingly aggressive in response to FAMa and Wagner offensives and because of the alliances between these actors and the Dan Na Ambassagou and Dozo (or Donso) militias in central Mali. As a result, JNIM has intensified its crackdown on these militias and perceived allied communities, resulting in regular attacks on villages, embargoes, forced evictions, and displacement. JNIM actions in Mopti and Segou regions — two of the main centers of civilian targeting (see map below) — have contributed to the group emerging as the current leading perpetrator of violence targeting civilians in Mali.
FAMa and the Wagner Group have expanded their operations in central Mali since the start of the latter’s deployment. These operations have recently extended to northern Mali as the transitional authorities seek to retake areas that have been largely out of state control for over a decade. As part of these operations, they have targeted civilians from various communities, believing them to be supporters of militant and rebel groups. However, brutality and instilling fear among civilians are also a central element of Wagner’s strategy in Mali, with tactics introduced and not previously observed being used by partner forces of the Malian state. These tactics include torture, summary executions, beheadings, ejection of prisoners from aircraft, and the booby-trapping of corpses.
Meanwhile, IS Sahel militants have sought to consolidate control in the Menaka region and parts of Gao by targeting communities such as the Songhai, various Tuareg factions, and the Dawsahak, which they perceive as either close to the state, their jihadist rival JNIM, or the ethnic militias GATIA and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA).
Regional Security Situation Continues to Worsen
The general upsurge of violence in the central Sahel comes against a backdrop of successive military coups (see graph below). Mali experienced two coups in 2020 and 2021, neighboring Burkina Faso saw two coups in 2022, and Niger became the last of the three central Sahel states to succumb to a military coup in 2023. The common denominator is that violence has escalated in all three countries amid the political instability caused by the coups. Militant groups have played a central role in the deterioration of the security situation by attempting to demonstrate that their vision is the only alternative, regardless of whether incumbent regimes are quasi-democratically elected or led by the military. To achieve this goal, militants have intensified their violent campaigns in the aftermath of the coups to further destabilize the countries in which they operate, expand their influence, and undermine the state. Jihadist rivalry has additionally contributed to instability, with JNIM and IS Sahel clashing over territory and targeting communities seen as close to each group. However, recent reports of a truce between JNIM and IS Sahel could strengthen the insurgency if it holds.
The junta-led governments have adopted different strategies to confront the jihadist insurgency in the region. Their decisions have contributed to the escalation of violence, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso. At this early stage, no significant changes in Niger’s approach can be observed, but it is possible that the junta-led regime will favor a purely military strategy, following in the footsteps of neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali since their coups. The three countries recently concluded a mutual defense pact, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), promising to assist each other in the event of rebellion or external aggression.
Mali, as part of its partnership with Wagner, has turned away from its traditional partners, such as France and the MINUSMA, which have supported Malian authorities for nearly a decade. France withdrew its last troops in August 2022, and MINUSMA’s withdrawal is underway and expected to be complete by early 2024. The resumption of hostilities between Bamako and Kidal not only threatens the Algiers Agreement (for which MINUSMA was a guarantor), but further complicates the conflict landscape with the prospect of a full-blown civil war. The escalation and spread of the conflict and additional armed actors taking part in hostilities are a clear sign of this downward trend.
In neighboring Burkina Faso, the situation is critical as conflict has reached civil war-like proportions. Eight months into 2023, the country is by some measures the most conflict-affected in all of West Africa. So far this year, ACLED’s conservative estimates indicate that more than 6,000 people have been killed — the highest death toll since the crisis began in the country in 2015. Intensified military operations, mass mobilization for the state-backed volunteer program, and militant violence have contributed to the ongoing escalation. Mass atrocities and extrajudicial killings by militants, volunteer fighters, and security forces continue unabated, with more than 1,600 civilians killed so far this year. The number of reported civilian fatalities has already exceeded last year’s total by 17%.
The first month of junta rule in Niger was marked by a 42% increase in political violence compared to the previous month, primarily due to continued activity by IS Sahel and JNIM, organized banditry in the southern Maradi region, and intercommunal violence between ethnic Djerma-Songhai and Fulani — with the involvement of presumed IS Sahel militants — in the western Tillaberi region. ACLED data show that violence targeting civilians perpetrated by IS Sahel quadrupled in August compared to July. Armed confrontations also spiked in August as JNIM and IS Sahel militants perpetrated two deadly attacks each on military and security forces in the Tillaberi region, resulting in the deaths of at least 40 soldiers.
The military juntas in all three countries of the central Sahel have justified their coups by citing the deterioration of the security situation. However, as the regional conflict only continues to intensify and become more complex, they appear far from fulfilling their promises to improve stability and security.