August 20, 2020

IntelBrief: Military Coup in Mali Raises Concerns about Stability in the Sahel

Colonel-Major Ismael Wague, centre, spokesman for the soldiers identifying themselves as National Committee for the Salvation of the People, speaks during a press conference at Camp Soudiata in Kati, Mali, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, one day after President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was forced to resign in a military coup. (AP Photo/Arouna Sissoko)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A military coup in Mali to oust the country’s political leadership has raised prospects of spiraling instability that could result in an opportunity for jihadist groups.
  • The military coup follows demonstrations in Bamako led by a Salafi preacher, who thus far appears not to have played a central role in the coup, but who has attempted to negotiate with jihadist groups in the past.
  • The military coup leader recently visited Russia, raising questions about his training, experience, and contacts and whether the coup will result in Mali reorienting its foreign policy and military alliances away from France.
  • Mali’s last coup in 2012 led to countrywide instability that crossed borders, having spillover effects throughout West Africa.

On August 18, Malian soldiers from Kati barracks outside Bamako launched a coup to depose president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK). IBK had been under growing pressure in recent months. The two main jihadist groups in Mali, Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), have been growing in power and accelerating their operational tempo of attacks. JNIM has begun launching attacks as far south as Yangasso in the Ségou region of central Mali, approximately 200 miles from Bamako. At the same time, Saudi-educated Malian Salafi preacher Mahmoud Dicko has become the figurehead of the June 5 movement, which has organized mass protests in opposition to IBK. The movement claims IBK is corrupt, mismanaging the country, and has remained in power through rigged elections. Dicko’s ultimate intentions are unknown, although some suggest the man known as the ‘Malian Khomeini’ would seek to impose sharia law and restrict the rights of women and minority communities. However, his rhetoric seems distinctly populist and others believe that if his movement came to power he would respect Malian secularism and democracy. In any case, there are no indications that Dicko was behind the military coup or even informed about it beforehand.

Still, Dicko remains a factor in another important way. Historically, JNIM’s predominantly Fulani Macina Brigade’s leader, Amadou Kouffa, had ties to Dicko. Kouffa himself was a Salafi preacher before the Malian civil war broke out in 2012. Kouffa and Dicko have had exchanges through couriers since 2012 about ending the conflict and although negotiations have failed, the removal of IBK from office could empower Dicko and potentially reignite peace talks. Nonetheless, IBK had expressed willingness to negotiate with JNIM, but little progress was achieved. JNIM seeks a French and United Nations military withdrawal from Mali. France certainly would oppose such conditions and had supported IBK in power, at least as the best of all other alternatives until Mali’s next elections. Now France and other Western governments are on edge about the current political crisis and what the implications are going forward. One of the few certainties at this point is that IBK and Mali’s Prime Minister Boubou Cissé have been taken to Kati barracks where IBK has agreed to resign under pressure.

The coup leader is being reported as 25-year-old Colonel Malick Diaw, who has thus far not indicated any hostility to the French presence in Mali. There are reports that Diaw simply intends to depose IBK, but is not otherwise attempting to overthrow Mali’s government altogether. Diaw, or possibly another colonel involved in the coup, is reported to have recently returned to Mali from Russia, which inevitably leads to questions about whether experiences and contacts there supported the coup. Russia does not maintain a large footprint in the Sahel, but has increased military-to-military contacts with Mali and criticized France’s approach to counterinsurgency in the country. In contrast to Diaw, the leader of Mali’s January 2012 coup, Amadou Sanogo, had been in the United States prior to the coup. He eventually stepped down, but Mali’s political crisis has not subsided since 2012. Moreover, the Malian government has failed to restore security throughout the country and jihadist attacks have increased, while the groups have successfully recruited new members. The counterinsurgency against JNIM and ISGS has consistently faced numerous setbacks, which continue to the present.

Military officers involved in the French-led Operation Barkhane would not welcome any political instability in Mali that could undermine its current efforts to combat JNIM and ISGS. The United States also has military advisers in the country, in an effort to help the government and security forces stem the tide of an eight-year long insurgency that has destabilized Mali's neighbors. In a fast-paced situation like this military coup attempt in Bamako, there are numerous state and non-state actors in Mali, neighboring countries, and abroad watching developments, but France is the most important external actor. How this all plays out will undoubtedly have a major impact on regional stability and France’s military operations in West Africa. Meanwhile, France and the United States will continue efforts to strengthen security cooperation initiatives in the region in order to prevent jihadist groups from carving out a safe haven from which they can make further inroads in Mali and other parts of the Sahel.