Overview: The Government of Mali remained a willing U.S. counterterrorism partner despite serious challenges and limited capabilities in the northern portion of the country. Widespread terrorist activity increased in Mali’s largely ungoverned northern regions and center. Little progress in the implementation of the June 2015 peace accord between the Government of Mali and two coalitions of armed groups continued to hamper the return of public services and security to the north and parts of the center. Mali continued to rely heavily on the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and French forces to help marginally stabilize and secure the northern regions. Terrorist groups increased their attacks on all accord signatories, including former rebel groups with whom they had briefly allied. Terrorism, insecurity, and lack of accountability or effective governance resulted in a significant increase in intercommunal violence, particularly in central Mali. The conflict area has moved farther south than at any time since the 2012 triple crisis of the political insurgency, military coup, and terrorist assault on the country. Security in the center of the country rapidly deteriorated in 2018. Terrorists took advantage of long-standing intercommunal and ethnic tensions to significantly increase violence against civilians. Mali was very cooperative in working with the United States to prevent acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens.
The French military’s Operation Barkhane continued its integrated counterterrorism mission for the Sahel region. Cooperating with Malian forces and signatory armed groups, Operation Barkhane sought to degrade terrorist elements operating in northern and central Mali, particularly ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslim (JNIM) – the umbrella group that formed after the Sahara Branch of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Murabitoun, Ansar al-Dine, and the Macina Liberation Front merged. Domestic and international security forces believed most, if not all of these groups, were coordinating their efforts.
MINUSMA maintained its northern presence in 2018, and continued its work with the Malian government and various militia groups to facilitate redeployment of government administrators and security forces to the north. Human Rights Watch documented numerous allegations of human rights violations by Malian security forces in counterterrorism operations, particularly in the center of the country.
2018 Terrorist Incidents: JNIM and ISIS-GS continued to conduct terrorist attacks, primarily targeting Malian and international military forces. Attacks by terrorist groups expanded beyond the traditional conflict zone in the north to Mali’s center and southern regions. Terrorist incidents included the following:
- On April 14, more than 40 heavily armed assailants attacked the MINUSMA Supercamp and adjacent French Barkhane camp in Timbuktu. Attackers employed suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs), rockets, and small arms. Attackers wore blue helmets and disguised their vehicles with UN markings and Malian army colors. One UN peacekeeper was killed and seven others were wounded. Seven French soldiers and two Malian civilians were also wounded in the attack.
- On June 29, occupants of a vehicle painted with UN markings perpetrated a complex SVBIED and small arms attack against the headquarters of the G-5 Sahel Joint Force in Sévaré, Mopti region. Two Malian soldiers and one civilian were killed. Eight civilians were injured.
- On July 1, a SVBIED and two armed individuals on motorcycles struck a French Barkhane convoy in Gao, wounding 11 French soldiers.
- On October 26, more than 80 heavily armed assailants attacked the MINUSMA outpost in Ber, approximately 60 kilometers east of Timbuktu. The attackers used two one-ton SVBIEDs, rocket-propelled grenades, indirect fire, and at least four heavy machine guns during the assault, which killed two UN peacekeepers and critically injured 12 others.
- On November 12, terrorists detonated a SVBIED outside a UN residential compound in Gao, approximately one kilometer from the MINUSMA Supercamp. The explosion killed three Malian civilians and injured six UN personnel.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: There were no changes to Mali’s counterterrorism legal framework in 2018. The government detained 155 people on terrorism-related charges. Ten terrorism cases were tried in the Bamako Appeals Court. Four individuals were convicted and received sentences ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment.
In October, members of the Groupement Spéciale d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GSIGN), an embassy-trained National Gendarmerie advanced intervention unit, began its first deployment to the Segou region in support of the government’s Integrated Central Region Security Plan and Operation Dambé, a military counterterrorism operation. The unit had immediate impact, supporting current gendarme posts, intervening in an armed robbery, and arresting suspected terrorists. In Bamako, the next phase of training began with the creation of an additional 32-man team with the GSIGN at the new Department of State-funded training academy.
The Malian armed forces under the Ministry of Defense (MOD) remained the primary entities responsible for securing Mali against terrorist threats. The General Directorate of State Security under the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection (MOS) had the authority to investigate and detain persons for terrorism offenses. The Special Judicial Unit (PJS) and Special Investigative Brigade (BIS) focused on prosecuting terrorism cases under their mandate to fight transnational crime. The PJS consists of magistrates overseeing the judicial process and development of a case, while the BIS is made up of investigators who develop case files in consultation with or under the direction of an investigative judge. Combined counterterrorism missions involving law enforcement and military units lacked delineation and coordination.
Press reported that Malian security forces dismantled a terrorist cell comprising two Burkinabes, an Ivoirian, and a Malian on December 6. The cell was preparing attacks in Ouagadougou, Bamako, and Abidjan during the end-of-year festive period, according to press reports.
Although Mali has basic border security enforcement mechanisms, law enforcement units lacked capacity, training, and the necessary equipment to secure Mali’s vast and porous borders, which extend approximately 4,500 miles and touch seven countries. The gendarmerie, which reports to both the MOD and the MOS, and the National Border Police, which reports to the MOS, both provide paramilitary support to prevent and deter criminal activity at borders. Customs officials under the Ministry of Economy and Finance monitor the flow of goods and enforce customs laws at borders and ports of entry. Mali receives INTERPOL notices, but the INTERPOL database is unavailable at some points of entry. Exit and entry stamps used by border officials have inconsistent size and shape, undermining efforts to authenticate travel documents.
Malian passports, including diplomatic and official versions, incorporate security measures including micro-printing, ultraviolet features and a full-color digital photo. Unfortunately, imposters can obtain fraudulent documents, such as birth and marriage certificates, with relative ease.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: There were no changes in 2018. Mali is a member of the Inter-Governmental Action Group against Money Laundering in West Africa (GIABA), a FATF-style regional body. Mali’s FIU, the National Financial Intelligence Processing Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group.
Countering Violent Extremism: The Ministry of Religious Affairs is responsible for developing and monitoring the national strategy for the prevention of radicalization and terrorism, as well as working with the High Islamic Council and other religious associations to promote moderate Islam and maintain a secular state.
International and Regional Cooperation: Mali remained active in regional organizations and international bodies, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN, the AU, and TSCTP. The Malian military participated in multinational border security operations under the G-5 Sahel mandate. Although not a member, Mali also participated in GCTF regional workshops and events. In 2018, Mali was a pilot country of the International Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism Capacity-Building Clearinghouse Mechanism, an online database under the GCTF to identify and de-conflict gaps in counterterrorism and CVE programming.