Mali: Terrorism Report 

Background: The Northern Mali Conflict 

On 16 January 2012, several insurgent groups began fighting a campaign against the Malian government for independence and greater autonomy for northern Mali, an area known as Azawad. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an organization fighting to make Azawad an independent homeland for the Tuareg people, had taken control of the region in April 2012. They were assisted by Al-Qaeda (AQ) through its branch in Sub-Sahara Africa: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formally known as Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). With AQIM came splinter organizations that take orders from AQ: Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWO), and Al-Mulathameen  (“Those who Sign with Blood”). The partnership between AQIM and the MNLA would not last long as the Islamic Terror Groups had plans for the state of Azawad–they wanted to form an Islamic State.

In January 2013, France led Operation Serval, with the assistance of ECOWAS. It was an intervention, to repel the advance of the MNLA and Islamic Terror Groups (ITGs). The operation was successful in stopping and pushing back the MNLA & ITGs. From here, Mali would enter its insurgency phase of the conflict. Realizing defeat, the MNLA, withdrew from the fighting. At this time, MNLA was also involved in a number of clashes with ITGs.

AQIM and its affiliates withdrew its fighting forces to the border areas of Mali. The ITGs would switch to typical insurgency tactics; ITGs began to focus their campaign on hit and runs, ambushes, kidnapping and raids on soft targets.

  • Languages spoken in Mali:
    Bambara “Bamanankan” 80%
    French 21%
  • Official currency: West African CFA franc
  • Capital: Bamako
  • Land Size: 1,240,000 square kilometres / (480,000 sq mi)
  • Population: 17.99 million (2016) World Bank
  • Religion: 90% “Islam”/ 5% “Christianity”/ 5% “indigenous”
  • Current President 2017: Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta
  • Time zone: GMT (UTC+0)
  • Calling code: +223
  • Independence: from France 20 June 1960 as Mali 22 September 1960

Other Non-State Actors:

Below lies a list of non-state actors operating in Mali:

  1. National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) (Active)
  2. Coalition for the People of Azawad (Active)
  3. Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) (Active)
  4. Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA)

Mali Security Forces:

  1. National Police Force (Police Nationale du Mali)
  2. Gendarmerie
  3. Republican Guard
  4. National Guard
  5. Army
  6. Air Force
  7. Paramilitary units falling under the  “Ministry of Internal Security and Civil Protection”

Non-Mali Security Forces:

  1. France ECOWAS
  2. Chad
  3. Burundi
  4. Gabon
  5. South Africa
  6. Rwanda
  7. Tanzania
  8. Uganda
  9. China
  10. Germany
  11. Sweden
  12. United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)


Stated Aims of Islamic Terror Groups (ITGs):  

The aim of the Islamic Terror Groups (ITGs) is the construction of a caliphate with strict sharia law in the Merghreb and Shahel. All groups operating in the region aim to remove Western influence, and their short-term goal is to remove all foreign troops from Mali.

Relations with the Government: 

There are allegations of the corruption of local state officials in Northan Mali and surrounding areas, which indicates compliance with some of the ITGs. While financial motivation was most likely a factor, religious connections or tribal affiliations cannot be discounted. The ITGs are capable of exploiting the poor border security and corruption in the border regions to traffic arms and equipment though Mali’s borders, as well as to transport their personnel. This affects the ITG’s strike range and transportation, since attempts at strengthening the border security are unlikely to be implemented. If the current border security situation is kept up, it is highly likely that this will increase the ITG’s areas of operations (AO) as more state officials are likely to be included in the system.

Islamic Terror Groups (ITGs) in Mali 2017: 

In 2017 we saw the merger of some of the ITGs operating in Mali, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin‘ (JNIM) (Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) is a jihadist terrorist organisation in the Maghreb and West Africa, formed by the merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali after its leaders swore allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri (AQ).

Islamic State in Iraq and Levent (ISIL) also gained a partner in the Mali this year, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Once again, reports indicate that this group is responsible for attacks as early as mid-2016, and while this is possible, it probably would have been underneath one of the previous organizations. It appears that ISGS is a relatively new, small group that doesn’t have a lot of backing at this time. Having said that, they were able to launch an assault on U.S. special forces soldiers on the Mali-Niger border, which resulted in four U.S. soldiers KIA.

ITGs Areas of Operations: 

While ITGs largely confined their attacks to Mali, the groups have demonstrated their ability to attack beyond the borders of Mali. Their reach hit Côte d’Ivoire in March 2016, and a new affiliate in Burkina Faso, Ansarul Islam, increased their AO further in 2016. After Operation Serval in 2013, the ITGs attacks were mainly in Mali, but since then a year by year expansion of the group can be seen, and their abilities to attack has grown. Now the ITGs are active in Niger, Mali, Algeria, and Burkina Faso. With ISGS, I think it’s highly likely that this group will link up with IS affiliates in Libya and Nigeria further expanding their AO.

Most affected Regions of Mali:

  1. Gao
  2. Mopti
  3. Kidal

Above Graphics courtesy of Grey Dynamics 



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Tactics of the Islamic Terror Groups (ITGs) in Mali: 

The ITGs operating out of Mali has demonstrated a preference toward guerrilla-style ambushes on soft targets, primarily the Mali security forces and United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). One tactic preferred by the ITGs is to ambush a patrol, usually initiated by either VBIED or IED, followed by a force of equal or greater numbers to the patrol. They have also shown their ability to identify weak FOBs of the Mali security forces, and they would begin their assault with IDF/mortars: 82mm & 120mm.

One other method commonly used is kidnapping soft targets, or unarmed foreigners with little to no security. Not only in Mali, but the ITGs have demonstrated the ability to kidnap and conduct cross-border activates in Niger and Burkina Faso.


   Above Graphics courtesy of Grey Dynamics


Training of Islamic Terror Groups (ITGs)

In 2012, during the expansion into Mali, AQIM was the dominant ITG in the region, with many of its fighters having been trained in Afghanistan with AQ during the Russian occupation. Trained in explosives and guerrilla warfare, most of the fighters are also tested and battle-hardened. During 2012, AQIM and its affiliates were able to train in camps in Northern Mali.


The ITGs makes use of local grievances as a means of recruiting.  Foreign occupation, foreign companies extracting natural resources, tribal issues are all means to exploit people in the area. With the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, this has only spurred more young people in the region to take up arms and join the fight. This brings us to ISIL influence in the region–with the formation of ISGS, many people have clearly shown their affinity for the organization.




Some Reported
AK47 Semtex SA-7 Surface to Air Missiles
7.62mm Ammo HE detonators / Trigger Devices .50 Caliber DSHK (AA)
Various Pistols PKM 7.62mm GPMG F2000 Assault Rifles
Storage Box/ Tough Box RPG-7

AK-103 Assault Rifles


Anti-Air Weapons:  

It’s highly unlikely that the SA-7s from the Libyan arsenal remain operational, especially since there were no documented uses of MANPADS during the 2012-2013 conflict. There remains a realistic possibility that ITGs had or have access to Soviet SA-7 “Grail” (9K32 Strela-2) surface to air missiles, alongside more sophisticated rifles stolen from the Libyan arsenal after the fall of Qaddafi. It is unknown at this time if they possess the knowledge on how to use the SA-7 platform, or if the weapons are still operational.


The ITGs in the area unlikely to be affected by weapon embargoes and can replenish stockpiles as needed; they most likely have weapon stashes throughout Northan Mali into Libyia. The main bulk of income will be through KFR operations, and between 2005-2015 it is estimated that AQIM alone amassed $65 million through these operations.



Islamic Terror Groups (ITGs) in Mali are unlikely to seize territory at present. Instead, the ITGs will attempt to disrupt Mali and neighboring countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Mauritania. It’s clear that the ITG’s area of operations (AO) is expanding, and due to recent mergers and the creation of JNIM, the ITGs are likely to increase their operational tempo. As the Islamic State has set up a branch in the Mali, both groups will be trying to prove who is the dominant organization in the region.

In the past, JNIM has conducted a number of successful Kidnap for Ransom (KFR) operations and it has become an effective source of revenue for the group. It’s highly likely that JNIM will increase its KFR operations over the next 18 months as it looks to expand its AO. JNIM is also likely to clash with ISGS in the region–the most dominant group will essentially have access to the smuggling opportunities: drugs, guns and persons. ISGS will be pushing hard to grow in the region, and it’s highly likely that it will reach out to ISWAP (otherwise known as Boko Haram). This will bolster the ranks of ISGS, creating new sources of revenue and opening supply routes. The effects will be seriously felt in Niger with both ITGs pressing either side.