September 20, 2023
IntelBrief: A New Treaty Among African Juntas Amid Deteriorating Security
More than three years after the first of Mali’s two military coups this decade and almost two years after the arrival of Wagner mercenaries, Mali’s security situation is worsening by the day. Despite the lack of tangible security gains and the loss of most of its territory to terrorist groups, the Malian junta has made tremendous political strides in the region. The ruling military government pushed French forces — and therefore, French influence – out of the country, ended the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force (MINUSMA), and coordinated with the neighboring juntas in Burkina Faso and Niger to establish a new defense treaty.
The tripartite alliance was declared on September 16, just over two weeks after Russian delegates met with junta leaders in Bamako and Ouagadougou and just after the United States said it would resume military operations in Niger following the late July coup. In addition to its counterterrorism components, the new defense treaty ensures mutual assistance among the three governments in case of “rebellion” or “foreign aggression.” This could lead to Mali and Burkina Faso coming to the aid of Niger’s junta if the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) fulfills its threat to use military force to restore the deposed Nigerien President Bazoum. It also means Burkina Faso and Niger can assist Mali in its renewed war against rebel factions in the country’s north.
As for the withdrawal of MINUSMA, UN Security Council Resolution 2690 has scheduled the retreat to be completed by year’s end. The first phase of the withdrawal was achieved at the end of August with the closure of four bases. MINUSMA deployed more than 13 thousand personnel from fifty-five countries and is the UN’s deadliest active mission, having suffered more than 150 casualties since 2013. As part of the mission, deployed military and police forces provided logistical and medical assistance to the Malian military and documented human rights abuses committed by all parties active on Malian soil. Though MINUSMA’s primary mission was to secure the implementation of a 2015 peace agreement signed by the national government, as well as various pro-government and rebel groups, Bamako never fully abided by the agreement’s stipulation that it would decentralize Mali’s northern provinces. As a result, signatory rebel groups never disarmed, leading to a political stalemate. Deviating from its original mission, MINUSMA reoriented towards securing the return of Malian authorities and administrations into the country’s north after Malian and regional al-Qaeda loyalists united under the banner of Jamaa’t Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) less than two years later. However, MINUSMA has been an easy target for jihadist groups, as it was not conceived as a counterterrorist force, despite multiple French attempts to modify its mandate.
As it has sought to occupy MINUSMA’S evacuated military facilities, the Malian junta has provoked a new war in northern Mali, and the village of Ber quickly captured the attention of local and regional actors. After an April jet flyover marked an initial show of strength by the junta, its military operations began in earnest on August 13. Operations in the north and the central parts of the country have been conducted in coordination with the Wagner Group, undermining rumors of the private military company’s disengagement after the short-lived mutiny and subsequent death of Yevgeny Priogzhin. Beside attacking retreating MINUSMA forces, JNIM has also attacked incoming Malian and Wagner forces on the outskirts of Ber, as did rebel factions. To repel attacking rebels, Malian forces engaged using Turkish-made Bayraktar drones for the first time. While local sources – including those within JNIM – say there is no coordination between the al-Qaida jihadis and northern rebels, JNIM attacks on Malian forces in Bamba and Gao benefit the rebels by preventing, or at least delaying, an efficient military buildup in the area.
In the last few months, JNIM has consolidated its positions in the Liptako-Gourma region following brutal battles with Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP). Both groups are profiting from the inefficiency and the brutality of the Malian junta, which is alienating swaths of the population in the country’s north, south, and center, and ISSP is working to win support from local disaffected populations. The Malian junta reportedly agreed to a ceasefire with Islamic State, hoping to regain its position around the town of Anderamboukane, which offers a strategic position on the Nigerien border and the road to the Nigerien capital. However, the Malian military was unable to sustain its presence in these areas. Now, with the redeployment of Nigerien forces into Niamey and the suspension of French military assistance, the Nigerien side of the border has been left mostly unchecked.
Africa – and the Sahel, in particular – has become the epicenter of global jihadi activity, and Mali is at the heart of that fight. Amid shifting alliances and political turmoil across the continent and facing untenable military pressure in the Levant, jihadi leadership has an opportunity to secure an important interest that goes from the Sahel to Nigeria, through the jungles of Congo, and all the way to the shores of Somalia. Western decision makers should closely scrutinize the struggles of the Malian, Burkinabé, and Nigerien juntas to hold on to power and their rapprochement with Moscow. The brutal efforts conducted by Bamako and Ouagadougou against jihadi factions are not bearing fruit. On the contrary, human rights abuses committed by security forces, local militias, and Wagner mercenaries (in the case of Mali) are fueling jihadi recruitments. The sunna (the law) of istibdal, i.e., the notion of replacing those Muslims who have abandoned their religion by others who are prepared to defend it, often put forward by jihadi groups, justifies in their eyes the renewed focus on Africa. Further, the expulsion of French forces and MINUSMA peacekeepers has given JNIM and ISSP unprecedented freedom of movement in all three countries. In parallel, Mali is leading the creation of a new pro-Russian alliance in the Sahel. Everything goes through Bamako: the Malian capital serves as a vehicle for Russian influence in the heart of Africa, much as the war in Syria helped renew Russian influence on the international scene a decade ago. The recent tripartite defense treaty is a clear sign that counterterrorism is not what counts most in the balance of the juntas. The recent activities of the Malian junta are designed to guarantee its own survival. In this regard, and while the war in Ukraine is still raging, American and French reactions to events in Africa are being carefully assessed by friends and foes.
Wassim Nasr is a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center, focusing on jihadist dynamics in the Middle East and Africa and European responses. He is a French journalist who has been monitoring jihadist groups for more than a decade for the French news outlet France24 in French, English, and Arabic. He has conducted multiple investigations and several high level interviews on this topic. He is the author of État islamique, le fait accompli (2016). He has also served as a contributor to The Soufan Center, The Hoover Institute, the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, and as a speaker at the Global Security Forum, organized by The Soufan Center.