A recent terrorist attack in Mali has left at least 54 dead, and this number may rise as more bodies are identified. Security sources report that the attack involved at least three suicide bombers, who detonated explosives inside a military camp in Indelimane, in the north of the country. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for this latest attack via their Amaq news agency, but evidence has not yet been provided to back this.
Saturday’s attack has been one of the deadliest to target members of the Malian military. It comes a month after two attacks near the border between Mali and Burkina Faso resulted in the death of at least 40 soldiers. Rather than targeting civilians, these most recent attacks in Mali have appeared to focus on military targets. In doing so, it appears that extremist groups operating within the region are trying to actively harm ongoing efforts to remove their presence. Commentators have noted that these attacks have a two-fold effect; the initial attack causes death and destruction, as is the case with most other forms of extremism, but a secondary goal is the diminishment of morale. Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Africa programme, told Al Jazeera, “Yesterday’s attack is only the latest in a series of brutal attacks that have often culminated in the massacre of any defeated garrison, attacks clearly aimed at destroying the morale of national armies in the Sahel.” Melley added that, “The answer cannot be security alone. Development and better public administration are key – but of course that is hard to provide when government personnel are at risk of targeted killing and it is not safe for development agencies to operate.”
Extremist violence has been occurring in West Africa for some time. There are four distinct jihadist organizations operating in the area, each with links to either al-Qaeda or ISIS. Mali in particular has been hard-hit by the ongoing conflict. In 2012, northern Mali came under the control of fighters with al-Qaeda links, following a failed attempt by the Malian army to quell an uprising. While these fighters were forced out of the region thanks to a military campaign led by France, they maintain a strong presence. Violence has spilled across the border into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, where existing inter-communal conflict has been exploited by extremist organizations. In 2014, a number of West African nations – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad – came together to form the G5 Sahel (G5S), aiming to combat terrorism in the region through a joint initiative. The recent attacks in the region are a massive blow for the initiative.
Saturday’s attack reflects the ongoing challenge of combatting extremism in a geographically-unique area of the world. Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Vall notes that there are “no real borders between the countries of the Sahel”, and this makes it difficult for security forces to exert control. At the same time, the attacks indicate that the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has so far had a minimal impact on international terrorist activity. While al-Baghdadi’s death has been celebrated as a victory in the global ‘War on Terror’, the decentralized nature of groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda has meant that there now exist a number of affiliated, semi-autonomous groups. Of the four organizations which governments of the Sahel region must contend with, three are linked to al-Qaeda. The fourth, Boko Haram, has been associated with ISIS since 2015, and is responsible for some of the most deadly attacks in the region. In the coming months, it remains to be seen how effectively the G5 Sahel can respond to these groups, and whether further intervention from the global community is required to support the activities of local governments.