As a convoy of United Nations police on a night patrol stopped to chat with residents on the sand-blown streets of the central Malian city of Sevare, Sada Cissoko could no longer hold back his emotions.
“There are soldiers from all around the world in Mali, but despite the drones and the resources spent, things are only getting worse,” Cissoko, a 48-year-old counselor at a local school, said visibly agitated. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Once a stable democracy, Mali is now on the front-line of an intensifying push by al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated militants and the simultaneous deployment of thousands of Western and United Nations troops in the Sahel region. It’s playing out in a wide arid area in West Africa south of the Sahara desert that’s a key gateway for the trafficking of migrants and drugs to Europe.
Mali is home to the deadliest UN peacekeeping mission in the world, with more than 100 UN soldiers killed in attacks since the 15,000-strong mission deployed five years ago, following a jihadist insurgency in the north that few people had ever imagined possible in the religiously moderate country. There have been as many as 60 raids since the beginning of the year, killing at least 45 Malian soldiers and five peacekeepers.
Last week, in an unprecedented assault, militants loyal to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, arrived in vehicles painted in UN and Malian army colors and opened fire on a UN camp in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu, destroying the airport terminal and wounding 14 French and UN soldiers.
“JNIM’s capabilities are clearly growing as demonstrated by the recent attack on Timbuktu airport,” said Sean Smith, senior West Africa analyst at risk-advisory company Verisk Maplecroft. “The mounting levels of regional and international troops stationed in the country appear incapable of preventing JNIM from becoming more potent.”
This year, a new West African force known as the G5 Sahel plans to deploy 5,000 soldiers to strengthen regional border security. The U.K., Germany, Sweden and Canada are supporting the UN operation with troops or equipment. In neighboring Niger, the U.S. is building a military airbase where it has 800 soldiers. France’s Barkhane mission involves 4,000 troops hunting down militants in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
“Given France’s colonial and post-colonial history in Mali and West Africa, portraying Barkhane as a neo-colonial occupying force is a very simple and convenient way for militant groups to recruit,” Smith said.
The increasing U.S. military role in the area was highlighted late last year after four U.S. troops were killed in an ambush in Niger. That prompted some members of Congress to predict an expanded Pentagon presence in the region.
“You are going to see more actions in Africa, not less,” South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters in October.
International armies are facing a wide range of militant groups across the region, ranging from Mali and Niger to various factions of the Nigeria-based group Boko Haram. Its insurgency around the Chad lake basin has cost the lives of thousands of civilians and brought Nigeria’s northeast region to the brink of famine.
No Military Solution
In Mali, while the combined forces have killed hundreds of militants, they’ve been unable to push back any of the groups or halt their recruitment. There’s no military solution to the conflict, said G5 Deputy Commander Yaya Sere, who’s from neighboring Burkina Faso.
“It’s clear that the military alone won’t be able to rout the jihadists,” he said in an interview in his office in Sevare. “The key is development.”
Landlocked Mali ranks 175th out of 188 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index, and billions of dollars in international aid to the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita have done little to alleviate the dearth of jobs. Mali mainly produces cotton and gold and has an insignificant manufacturing industry.
The appeal of Islamist militant groups is easy to understand, said Boubacar Hassane, a senior UN military observer in Sevare. Youth unemployment, government corruption and human-rights abuses by the army aid the jihadists’ recruitment campaign.
“It’s because of poverty,” Hassane said as he sat in his office where detailed maps of central Mali adorned the walls. “A guy without a job can’t get a wife. Imagine, there’s nothing out there for him and then the jihadists offer him money. They pay well — sometimes even $200 a day. No other job will ever pay that much.”
— With assistance by Pauline Bax