West Africa Weighs Options in the Face of a Surge in Militant Attacks


West African nations, facing a growing threat from Islamist militants, are set to deploy a military force to augment the 15,000-strong UN peace-keeping force which, so far, has failed to deal effectively with the insurgency.

The Spokesman-Review reports that militants gave been attacking not only UN peacekeepers in Mali, but have expanded their area of operations beyond Mali’s borders. The growing wave of attacks has led the G5 Sahel group – a recently formed alliance of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania — to agree to assemble a 4,000-strong force by the end of the year.

Malian Defense Minister Tiena Coulibaly announced the establishment of the new force last week.

“The frequency of attacks is certainly increasing in both Mali and northern Burkina Faso,” Sean Smith, a West Africa analyst at risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft, said by phone from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital. “The good thing is that the countries are cooperating better than they’ve ever cooperated before, but the reality is that the number of attacks has risen every year since 2013 and there’s no sign of them abating.”

Violence gripped Mali in 2012, when Tuareg separatists joined forces with al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist group Anser Dine to establish the independent Republic of Azawad in north Mali. France sent an expeditionary force in January 2013, and the Islamists were defeated, allowing the reunification of Mali.

The remnants of Anser Dine have since engaged in deadly hit-and-run attacks and bombings. The Mali government and regional states, in an effort to separate the Tuareg from the Islamists, have agreed on several peace deals granting a degree of autonomy to the Tuareg, but the Islamists have pressed on with their campaign of terror, vowing to persist until all foreign troops leave West Africa.

“The terrorists want to create permanent insecurity,” Coulibaly said last week. “Their business is well coordinated, well thought out. I don’t think the attacks are planned only when the opportunity presents itself: they’re calculated to undermine the morale of our troops.”

To aid the Mali army keep security in the country – and to prevent the Islamists from expanding their terrorist campaign to neighboring countries — the UN has deployed more than 10,000 soldiers to the region. The main task of that force has been to help Mali restore its authority over the restive north, while a mobile French military force, aided by considerable air power, moves across the vast, but largely unpopulated region to hunt down Islamist militants.

Coulibaly noted that the UN Security Council has so far refused Mali’s request to give the peacekeeping mission a “more robust” mandate. Coulibaly said that to be effective, the UN force, like the French, should be able to engage in combat with militants. “They need helicopters, they need armored vehicles and they need a mandate to fight terrorism,” he said.

Yvan Guichaoua, a lecturer in international conflict at the University of Kent in England, told Bloomberg that viewing the conflict in Mali solely from a military perspective is a mistake.

“The Malian crisis has the characteristics of a civil war; most jihadist fighters are Malians,” he said. “If there is no substantial effort from the administration to try to restore some kind of legitimate authority, the fight against terrorism will be counterproductive.”

The militants’ campaign in Mali has become increasingly more deadly, and more destructive. In addition to ambushing and killing small groups of Mali soldiers, the militants have begun to use suicide trucks to kill large number of people. The UN says that its peacekeeping mission in Mali has the highest rate of dead and injured soldiers of all current UN operations around the world.

The Mauritanian news agency al-Akhbar reported in March that four militant groups – including Anser Dine — merged into one organization called the Support Group for Islam and Muslims. The new group is led by a Tuareg chief from Mali.

The violence spilled over into Burkina Faso earlier this year, where militants on motorbikes have attacked several border posts near Mali. In March, Niger declared a state of emergency in two western regions near Mali following a series of cross-border raids that killed more than twenty Nigerien soldiers.

The International Crisis Group, in a letter to members of the Security Council, said that it is not clear what the benefits would be of introducing a new West African force into the mix, given that the threats are “complex” and that the UN is already struggling to contain the violence.

“Their deployment risks aggravating what amounts to a security traffic jam,” the Brussels-based research group said. “Militants are capitalizing on local disputes and the state’s absence and lack of legitimacy” (see “ICG’s open letter to the UN Security Council on peacekeeping in Mali”).

This article is published courtesy of Homeland Security News Wire

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