Africa file: The rapid withdrawal of France undermines the anti-terrorist posture in Mali

Africa file: The rapid withdrawal of France upsets the anti-terrorist posture in Mali

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Takeaway key: French forces are accelerating their withdrawal from Mali following a breakdown in Franco-Malian relations. The withdrawal will remove the necessary support for other local, regional and international forces in Mali, leading to a drastic reduction in pressure on Salafist-jihadist groups in the Sahel. These groups, in particular the Sahelian branch of Al-Qaeda, will use this opportunity to establish a safe haven in northern Mali.

Figure 1. The Salafist-Jihadist movement in Africa: January 2022

See the full map.

Source: Authors and Kathryn Tyson.

France announced its withdrawal from Mali on February 17. France is going to cease its counter-terrorist mission Operation Barkhane in Mali and will withdraw all forces inside six months. About 2,000 to 2,500 French soldiers will be to stay in the Sahel and adopt a “by, with and through” strategy, supporting the local military. Some troops go move from Mali to bases in Chad, Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel, already joining around 1,600 French troops deployed in the Sahel outside of Mali. The European Special Operations Task Force Takuba will also leave its running bases in Mali and Continue operations from Niger and Burkina Faso.

This withdrawal accelerates and extends earlier French withdrawal plans, announcement in July 2021, following a deterioration in Franco-Malian relations. The Malian army launched two coups in 2020 and 2021, installing an increasingly brazen military junta in its bid to hold onto power. The junta’s efforts have also estranged it from many international partners and neighbors. The junta has resisted international and regional calls for a return to democracy, and it announcement a postponement of the elections for five years in January. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded with sanctions and border closures. The French Ambassador to Mali called the illegitimate junta, leading to his expulsion. Tensions between Mali and its partners also affected counter-terrorism operations after Mali restricted access to its airspace, and European partners criticized the Malian government’s 2021 deal with Russian private military company Wagner Group.

Figure 2. Foreign and Malian military positions in Mali

Source: Gray Dynamics, United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in MaliAEI Critical Threat Project

The French withdrawal will reduce direct operations targeting Salafist-jihadist groups and deprive local and foreign forces still active in Mali of military and logistical support. Barkhane’s forces had regularly led *raids and Airstrikes targeting Salafist-Jihadist militants in the tri-border region between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. France will continue these operations inside Niger and Burkina Faso but not in Mali. Barchan also *provided[1] necessary capabilities that other forces in Mali will struggle to replace. This support includes logistics and *intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). American troops and platforms mainly based in Niger to augment French capabilities.

The French withdrawal will seriously degrade the effectiveness and capabilities of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). UN leaders acknowledge that Barkhane’s withdrawal will have an impact on MINUSMA. At Barkhane *presence in theater and on MINUSMA bases contributes to force protection, including*limit Movement capacity of Salafist-Jihadist groups freely near the bases. Barkhane’s withdrawal could also spur the Withdrawal of the German contingent of MINUSMA, which provides drones and ISR.

The EU Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali remove following the departure of Barkhane due to force the defense and Politics concerns. EUTM is *unable move personnel beyond southern Mali without the support of MINUSMA and Barkhane. Barkhane *provides rapid reaction forces that assist EUTM cadres. The Malian junta has also *limit foreign forces” to access to its airspace, rendering European forces unable to meet medical evacuation standards.

Barkhane’s withdrawal will aggravate the difficulties facing the Malian Armies (FAMA). Barkhane and other partners provide ISR and logistical support to FAMA. FAMA is already facing a serious offer *difficulties. The combination of Barkhane’s withdrawal and the presence of the Wagner group will probably lead most partners to end SRI cooperation with Mali. France can Continue some form of SRI and “operational” Support to FAMA after the withdrawal, but the duration of this support is unclear. Intelligence provided by France and its partners is likely to be less effective due to a lack of in-country personnel and an overreliance on imagery and drones.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force will face challenges caused by the French withdrawal and the political situation in Mali. The G5 Sahel alliance includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The G5 Sahel *lack the logistical infrastructure to function without the support of Barkhane. The G5 Sahel too benefits EUTM training. Mali could also stop cooperation with the Burkinabé and Nigerien components of the G5 Sahel because of their participation in ECOWAS sanctions. diet targeting Mali.

The French withdrawal will quickly reduce the pressure on Salafist-jihadist groups in Mali. This assessment recognizes the flaws of Operation Barkhane. Operation Barkhane suffers from structural weaknesses and strategic failures and ultimately failed to stabilize the region or prevent Salafist-jihadist expansion into new parts of the Sahel. Military-focused counterterrorism missions typically fail to address the governance issues and local grievances that drive Salafist-jihadi insurgencies – and can often render them worse. Nevertheless, the rapid withdrawal of military and logistical capabilities from Barkhane – without the prospect of a better alternative – will provide a sharp advantage to Salafi-jihadi groups.

Ending the French mission allows the Malian junta to prioritize its core interests while capitalizing on public frustration with France. The junta is likely to prioritize consolidating power and defending its economic interests in southern and central Mali, while dilatory a return to democracy. The Malian government historically sees the north as a peripheral security threat managed by negotiating with local actors. The junta will likely aim to tackle insecurity in the north by negotiationswhich would allow the junta to attack the requests improve security through talks with Salafist-Jihadist groups. The junta will also deflect responsibility for the consequential security problems by blame instability in France.

The Sahelian branch of Al-Qaeda deepen its foothold in northern Mali by pinning down ineffective counterterrorism forces and combining force and negotiation to influence local and national Malian actors. Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) will probably be target MINUSMA and FAMA to fix these forces in their positions, possibly urging them to withdraw if they cannot adequately secure their bases. JNIM will capitalize on its increased freedom of movement to adopt a more overt security and governance role. The group will likely prioritize its efforts in the countryside initially, but could gain the ability to operate openly in towns in northern Mali as military missions deteriorate. JNIM will use force to control local populations in combination with co-opting local brokers and providing governance structures, such as courts.

JNIM could also consolidate its position in northern Mali by to negotiate with local actors. A likely interlocutor is the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), a Tuareg organization formerly bound in Ansar al-Din. Ansar al Din is now part of JNIM and its founder is the Emir of JNIM. The founder of the HCUA would be first efforts to negotiate with the JNIM in a framework organized by the Malian government. JNIM and HCUA leaders have a long history of cooperation and competition dating back to the 1990s.[2] The groups continue military Cooperation at the lower levels. JNIM could also intimidate certain factions to cooperate, including through assassinations.

The JNIM can also engage the Malian government in negotiations at the national level to secure its position in northern Mali. Mali’s transitional government may seek to maintain popular support by negotiating with JNIM. Transitional Prime Minister of Mali recognized broad public support for the negotiations in July 2021. The Malian government has also negotiated with JNIM to secure a high-level prisoner exchange in October 2020. JNIM leaders see the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan as a validation of their strategy and will likely attempt to replicate this approach in the Malian context.

JNIM’s competition with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) may also be a vector for JNIM to increase its control over civilian populations. JNIM and ISGS have been in competition for influence, including on gold mines and smuggling routes in the tri-border region. ISGS activity could increase JNIM’s grip on the population if JNIM is able to portray itself as protecting ISGS residents*massacres.

A JNIM safe haven in northern Mali will benefit Salafi-jihadi networks across North and West Africa. JNIM will use northern Mali as a rear area to support its efforts in central Mali and Burkina Faso. The JNIM will also increase its ability to derive revenue from smuggling and trafficking routes and extortion from the population. Salafist-jihadi leaders will be able to operate more easily from Mali with the reduced threat of counterterrorism operations. Ties between Salafi-jihadi networks in the Maghreb and the Sahel also mean that JNIM will be positioned to send fighters, weapons and money to support future Salafi-jihadi campaigns in North Africa.


[1] For a detailed account of the interactions between military missions, see Elin Hellquist and Tua Sandman, “Synergies Between Military Missions in Mali”, Swedish Ministry of Defence, March 2020, https://www.foi.se/rest-api/report/FOI-R–4915–SE.

[2] Alexander Thurston, Jihadists in North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 114 and 140.

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