On the recent clashes in northern Mali

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch06 Mar 2015Karlijn Muiderman

A reconstruction of the attacks and the implications for MINUSMA

The beginning of 2015 has been marked by violence in many parts of Northern Mali. Most prominently in Tabankort, Kidal and Gao, but there have also been attacks in neighbouring regions. Including in the first week of March, in the capital, Bamako, which has until now been considered safe. The accounts of what happened vary. Based on information from the media, as well as interviews with experts, including local sources who talked to us confidentially, The Broker has reconstructed the chain of clashes, asks why they occurred and what the implications are for MINUSMA.

On 20 January there was heavy fighting in Tabankort, while the following day, demonstrations were held in many cities and villages and the UN was again under attack in Kidal. On 26 and 27 January there were demonstrations in Gao, where the MINUSMA camp was under attack. Last weekend more attacks followed in Bamako, Gao and Kidal (click the icon for more information).

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On 7 March, Al-Murabitoun, an ​extremist Islamist group led by Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar ​resulting from a merger with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO), ​attacked a popular expat restaurant in Bamako ​Two men entered the restaurant and opened fire at the guests. At least ​five were killed (a French businessman, a Belgian ​security officer of the EU delegation and three Malians) and nine ​were wounded​, two of which were international experts with the United Nations Mine Action Service​. While Bamako has been considered quite safe since the extremist Islamists were ousted by the French mission SERVAL early 2013, these attacks show that, with the increasing unrest, the extremists seem to be gaining strength again.

The same day in northern Mali, in Gao, two men were lynched by an angry crowd. The men were accused of preparing a grenade attack against a police post.

On ​8 March​, ​​the UN base in Kidal was attacked. ​It was a complex attack, with more than 30 mortars and shells being fired at the camp. It is not ​yet clear which group was responsible, or who ​delivered the weapons to them. Several people died, including Tuareg and Arab nomads in a nearby camp and a Chadian UN soldier. Many UN soldiers, mostly Chadian, have been killed since the start of the MINUSMA operation in Mali.

On 13 March, two soldiers were killed when an army vehicle hit an explosive in the region of Ségou. On 30 March, an ICRC truck was attacked, killing the Malian driver near Gao on his way to Niger to collect medical equipment. MUJAO seems to claim responsibility for the attack, as Mali Actu writes on the basis of information from the French Press Agency AFP.

On 17 March, a MINUSMA captain and a first lieutenant died in an Apache helicopter crash near Gao.

On 6 April, the Dutchman Sjaak Rijke was freed by French special forces after being kidnapped for more than three years by AQIM.
On 12 April two Malian soldiers were killed and others were wounded when their vehicle struck a landmine in the city of Diabaly in the region Segou. It is another recent attack that occured far from the north. 


Unrest is persistent in the valley of Tabankort because of its strategic location on an important route for both licit and illicit trade through the desert from Gao to Algiers, Algeria. Various groups battle for control of the area, for economic and geopolitical reasons. The UN has several camps located in the area and the peacekeepers became involved in the clashes between Northern groups battling for autonomy within the Malian state and those fighting for independence. (Click on the icon to read more).

On the battling coalitions and their hybrid formations

According to the MNLA (Mouvement national de libération d’Azawad/National Azawad Liberation Movement), it operates under the CMA (Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad/Coordination of Azawad Movements, also referred to as Coordination or Coordination coalition), to demonstrate its alliance with the HCUA (Haut conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad/High council of the Azawad Unity). The HCUA consists of Tuareg from the higher Ifoghas caste and former leaders from Ansar Dine, which is blacklisted from the peace talks. The Coordination is fighting for the independence of the northern region of Azawad. Its rival at the Algiers talks is the Platforme d’Alger, a coalition seeking greater autonomy for Azawad within a unified Mali.

The Platforme includes MAA-members loyal to the Platform (it is important to distinguish this group from other MAA fractions that have been loyal to the Coordination. MAA stands for Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad/Arab Azawad Movement); CPA (Coalition pour le Peuple d’Azawad/Coalition for the Azawad Peoples); MPSA (Mouvement Populaire pour le Salut de l’Azawad/People’s Movement for protecting  Azawad); the GATIA self-defence group  (Le Groupe autodéfense touareg Imghad et alliés); CMFPR (Coordination des Mouvements et Front patriotique de résistance/Coalition of Movements and Patriotic Front of Resistance; ‘black community’ of mainly Songhai and Peul).

While both groups are confronting the central government in Bamako, the Platform is referred to as pro-government as it wishes to remain united with the south, while the Coordination wants independence and is clearly anti-government.

Last, there are extremist groups which are on the UN’s blacklist and therefore excluded from the peace negotiations in Algiers (more on this later). They include AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb); MUJAO (Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest/Movement for unity and jihad in West Africa), AQIM and Ansar Dine (often translated as Defenders of the Faith). Their leaders sometims align themselves with non-blacklisted groups to enable them to influence the peace talks.

There are many reasons for the rapid changes, with groups continually emerging, changing and forming coalitions (GATIA for example was formed as a self-defence group in 2014 as a response to the lack of international support in their area). Coalitions are intended to strengthen groups’ positions at the peace talks, or to avoid the blacklist (as is the case with a number of  individuals from Ansar Dine). Security and geopolitical factors also play a role, as some of the groups have appeared to act more violently to acquire more territory and influence, which has motivated less violently inclined individuals to split off from the group. Internal ethnic divisions can be found in historical foundations, with lower castes confronting the historical elite status of higher Ifoghas Tuareg and Arab castes, while the black community (Songhai and Peuls) are strongly opposing elite capture of the north (black Africans were formerly enslaved by the elite Tuaregs and Arabs).

After the continuous attacks from the pro-independence ‘Coordination for Azawad Independence’ alliance (Coordination) against the ‘pro-government’ ‘Platform for more Azawad autonomy (Platforme), the Dutch UN troops based in Gao sent their two Apaches to disarm a rocket installation, killing at least one militant and injuring several more. In response to questions in Dutch parliament from the Socialist Party, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Defence said that the MNLA had threatened local people and UN personnel who were seeking shelter in the MINUSMA camp in Tabankort. The ministers also said that the intervention was in line with their mandate to protect the Netherlands’ Bangladeshi colleagues in the UN force. The MNLA had fired a rocket at the UN camp from a truck. The rocket landed 100 metres away from its target, and then the UN disabled the launcher.

There is no consensus about casualty numbers and what exactly happened after the attack on the Coordination coalition. The MLNA (the principal movement in the Coordination) reported five deaths, later amended to seven. Dutch UN troops observed one death and two or three people injured. Accurate numbers are not yet available and will most likely be very difficult to determine afterwards, as militant deaths are not registered and information from first-hand witnesses might be biased.

On its website, the MNLA claims that MINUSMA revealed its lack of neutrality in the conflict. This allegation is very important because support for the MINUSMA mission cannot be taken for granted in the North. The February 2015 report by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation notes a small majority against MINUSMA in Ménaka (58%), a small majority in favour in Kidal (57%) and a large majority in Gao (72.5%). Support therefore varies in different regions.

Popular demonstrations and clashes in other towns

The fighting in Tabankort fuelled other demonstrations, including protests by Coordination supporters condemning MINUSMA. The day after the battle, demonstrations were held in many cities and villages in the North and there was another anti-UN demonstration in Kidal. According to the Dutch government it started as a protest against the Charlie Hebdo publications by woman and children, but later developed into an anti-MINUSMA demonstration in response to the deaths in Tabankort. After persistent attacks, MINUSMA retreated from the airport and militants replaced the UN flag with the Coordination’s Azawad flag. The Kidal zone is still under control of the Coordination groups, so the situation there remains fragile.

Another important development that received little attention in the ministers’ answers in parliament is centred on the UN camp in Gao. The city is generally seen as pro-government and positive towards the MINUSMA presence, underlining the popular perception of MINUSMA as leaning more towards the government.

A day after the incident in Tabankort, a demonstration was held in Gao, which was claimed to be pro-MINUSMA because they had finally shown their teeth against the MNLA in Tabankort. According to other sources, however, it was not so much pro-MINUSMA as anti-MNLA. But the mood was to change radically three days later.

On 26 and 27 January, mainly young protesters demonstrated against MINUSMA, throwing stones in the direction of the camp. This was sparked by a leaked document stating that, to achieve a new ceasefire, the UN had been in contact with the Coordination regarding the establishment of a security zone of 10 km on each side of the line, allegedly between Analis and Araouane (150 km from Gao and 100 km from Timbuktu). Similar talks were also to have been held with the Platforme and the Malian government, but before they could take place, the document appeared on the Internet and social media, signed by MINUSMA and the Coordination and bearing the flags of the UN and the MNLA (Azawad is not a formal state, and can therefore not have a formal flag). The Platforme was not happy about the document and claimed that the security zone would force them to leave the area. The UN stated that the document was false and it was formally cancelled.

On 29 January, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to Gao to settle the unrest and presented MINUSMA as allies, but his actions were condemned as supporting vigilance, which further set the tone. A few days later the opposition criticized the government for the lack of state presence in the North.

During the demonstration on the 26th and 27th, several civilians died. MINUSMA claimed not to have opened fire, but in other reports the demonstrators blamed MINUSMA and called on them to leave. Again, the numbers of dead and injured are unclear. According to the UN, they used only teargas, while the MNLA alleges that several people died. The Dutch government confirms that there were victims amongst the population and has pledged to investigate the events. The UN has appointed a high-level team to conduct an inquiry into deaths and wounded victims among the demonstrations. Their findings will be presented late March.

On 18 February, at the peace talks in Algiers, the Malian government agreed with six other groups from the opposing coalitions to finally enforce the ceasefire that dated back to June 2014. This is a crucial step forward from the practical stalemate in the peace talks that had been exacerbated by recent incidents. On 1 March, a preliminary peace accord was signed by armed groups, including the MAA and MNLA, but on the same day they requested delaying the signing of the actual accord till the end of March to allow further consultation. The preliminary agreement has been signed by the Government-led coalition, but on 16 March the Coordination decided not to sign. The negotiations continue. This will therefore be a crucial period for stability in the North.

A war of communication

The clashes between the various groups and what is at stake for them are far more complex than simply a battle between the Tuareg or the MNLA and the central government in Bamako or MINUSMA. When the interventions started in 2013, France collaborated with the MNLA to oust the Islamist extremists. While a coalition with the Tuareg groups in Azawad was a good option during the ‘war on the Islamists’, important differences have now emerged within the Azawad groups. The Platforme is more open to compromise and is therefore more favourable towards the MINUSMA presence, but the MNLA and the Coordination seem to be distancing themselves from MINUSMA

The UN is operating in a political minefield in Mali and the different roles it is supposed to play are not appreciated equally by the various parties. Besides the UN, the government and the population are also in difficult positions. The UN has to help the government rebuild capacity in northern Mali, together with the groups controlling the area. The government, however, has proved to prefer to keep its distance from the northern part of the country in the past, which contributed to the instability in the first place. The UN has to collaborate with a melting pot of groups to protect the area, a daunting task since peace is essentially absent.

The recent violence further undermines the fragile situation in the North. A number of the groups do not see MINUSMA as a peacekeeper, but as an ally of the government and claim that its role to protect civilians and personnel with all necessary means is biased. Government officials on the other hand may portray the UN as having no teeth. Information is often ambiguous or framed. The anti-MINUSMA reports on the recent events on the MNLA website can have a negative impact on the UN.

The positions that the rebel groups in the North take towards each other, the government and MINUSMA change constantly. The mediating role the UN is supposed to play gives rise to tensions between the groups, which have different ideas about the political future of the Azawad region (Coordination wants independence, Platforme autonomy). At the very least, there should be more information based on monitoring of events and analyzing them in context. For example, little is being said about what is at stake economically and the motives for controlling the various areas.

The first cautious steps towards a peace accord have been made. A political solution endorsed by the local groups is crucial for the UN’s position and its chances of making this a successful operation. In our Sahel Watch programme, The Broker will continue to analyze and report on the dynamics of the situation. There are still many steps to be taken along the road to peace.