Browse » Conflicts » Non-international armed conflicts in Mali

Non-international armed conflicts in Mali

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Since 2012, the Government of Mali has engaged in multiple and overlapping non-international armed conflicts against various Islamist insurgent groups, most notably Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, the Plateforme, and the Coordination of Azawad Movements. The Government of Mali is supported by France and a peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

A non-international armed conflict is taking place in Mali, involving international actors and non-state armed groups.

  • The Government of Mali is engaged in parallel non-international armed conflicts with a number of non-state armed groups, in particular Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen, the Plateforme and the Coordination of Azawad Movements.
  • France provides ongoing military support to the Government of Mali in its fight against rebel groups.
  • The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is a peacekeeping operation supporting the Government of Mali in its efforts to restore state control over areas in the hands of non-state armed groups. S/RES/2364 (2017), 29 June 2017.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question of whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict:

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group that exhibits a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict’ in our Classification section.

Since 2006, Mali has been affected by low-intensity armed violence between the government and a number of Touareg non-state armed groups based in the north of the country. At the beginning of 2012, violence increased as Touareg groups launched a series of offensives against the Malian Government. On 22 May 2012, President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown by a military coup d’état. Furthermore, on  April 2012 the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, an umbrella organization composed of Touareg non-state armed groups, declared the independence of Azawad, in northern Mali. Since then, Mali has engaged in a non-international armed conflict against a number of non-state armed groups. S. Casey-Maslen, ‘Armed Conflict in Mali in 2013’, in S. Casey-Maslen (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflict in 2013, Oxford University Press, 2014, p 148; ‘Mali Profile – Timeline’, BBC News, 20 July 2018.

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)

In recent years, the intensity of violence between the Malian armed forces and Jihadist groups, in particular Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), has been significantly high. Since the emergence of JNIM in March 2017, the group has carried out numerous violent attacks against Malian soldiers, French forces and members of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mali (The Sahel), Military and Security Updates – 2017’, Armed Conflict Database; ‘Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin / Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM / GSIM) – AQIM, Ansar Dine, Macina Liberation Front & Mourabitounes Coalition’, Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium. Nevertheless, the precise number of attacks attributed to JNIM is difficult to verify, as some have not been claimed, or responsibility is claimed by the group but is not verified. Nonetheless, based on the information available on attacks claimed by JNIM, the intensity threshold is met.

A number of illustrative confrontations reinforce this conclusion. In 2018, armed attacks against Malian forces increased significantly. During the first quarter of 2018, frequent small-scale attacks were carried out against Malian armed forces, mainly in the centre of the country. For instance, on 27 January 2018 JNIM conducted an armed attack against a governmental military base in Niafunké, near Timbuktu, which resulted in the death of 14 Malian soldiers. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mali (The Sahel), Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database; ‘14 Malian Soldiers Killed in Attack on Soumpi Camp’, The Defense Post, 27 January 2018. Furthermore, on 21 February 2018, an incursion by an Islamist group in Gao was repelled by Malian and French armed forces. ‘Mali: Islamist Incursion in Gao “repelled”’, BBC News, 21 February 2018. Between July and September 2018, attacks against Malian security forces increased and proved particularly deadly, with 19 soldiers killed and 24 injured. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mali (The Sahel), Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. The following months were equally deadly as armed confrontations between Jihadists groups, in particular JNIM, and Malian armed forces took place on a near-daily basis. International Crisis Group, ‘Tracking Conflict Worldwide’, December 2018.

JNIM uses heavy weapons, including rockets and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). For instance, on 25 January 2018 an IED exploded near the town of Boni in central Mali, killing at least 24 civilians. ‘24 Killed in Fresh Landmine Attack in Mali’, ENCA, 25 January 2018. Similarly, 5 civilians were killed and 18 wounded in central Mali as their vehicle passed over a landmine. ‘Mine Explosion Kills Five Civilians, Wounds 18 in Mali’, Eyewitness News, 11 February 2018. More precise information on the weaponry of JNIM is not available. However, as the group is a coalition of different armed non-state actors previously active in Mali – notably Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – it can be reasonably deduced that the arsenal previously held by each of these separate groups is now collectively held by JNIM following the March 2017 merger of the groups. it is worth noting that AQIM used small arms, as well as mortars, rockets and IEDs. Furthermore, it has been reported to possess AK-47 assault rifles, various small handguns, Semtex (a multi-purpose plastic explosive), PK 7.62mm GPMGs (General Purpose Machine Guns) and RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades), as well as SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, .50 caliber DSHKs (armour-piercing machine guns) and NATO-issued F2000 assault rifles. ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’, Mapping Militants Project, Stanford University.

The intensity of armed violence in the country is further exemplified by the number of individuals displaced. As reported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of October 2018 there were 139,978 Malian refugees in asylum countries, while 80,302 individuals were internally displaced. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘Mali Situation: Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Returnees’, 31 October 2018.

The Plateforme and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA)

Between 2014 and 2015, following three years of intense armed violence between non-state actors and the government, two coalitions of armed groups emerged: the Plateforme and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). The Plateforme is composed of a number of actors who were militarily active in Mali during the internal conflict that erupted in 2012, such as the Imghad Touareg and Allied Self-Defense Group (GATIA), the Coalition of the People of Azawad (CPA), the Coalition of Movements and Patriotic Resistance Front (CM-FPR) and the Popular Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MPSA). International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Plateforme’, Armed Conflict Database. On the other hand, the CMA is composed of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), factions of the CPA and a number of splinter groups. IISS, ‘Coordination of Movements for the Azawad (CMA)’, Armed Conflict Database.

In 2015, the two groups engaged in peace talks with the government, which led to the conclusion of a peace agreement on 20 June 2015. G. Nyirabikali, ‘Mali Peace Accord: Actors, Issues and Their Representation’, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 27 August 2015. Nevertheless, armed confrontations between the two coalitions did not cease.  International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mali (The Sahel), Military and Security Updates – 2015’, Armed Conflict Database. Specifically, significant violations of the ceasefire took place in 2017, which resulted in many casualties. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mali (The Sahel), Military and Security Updates – 2017’, Armed Conflict Database. Furthermore, as of 2018 both umbrella organizations still control considerable parts of the territory in the northern part of Mali. ‘Conflict in Mali’, Congressional Research Service, 19 September 2018. The United Nations Panel of Experts on Mali reported that signatory armed groups and splinter groups had conducted armed attacks against Malian security and armed forces.  UN Security Council, Letter Dated 8 August 2018 From the Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 2374 (2017) on Mali Addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2018/581, 9 August 2018, p 2.

It is worth recalling that the existence of a peace agreement does not in itself put an end to a non-international armed conflict: violence frequently continues after the conclusion of a peace agreement. In addition, a non-international armed conflict may also end without a peace agreement, for example when one of the parties to the conflict disappears. A non-international armed conflict ends in the case of a 'lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption'.  ICRC, ‘Article 3: Conflicts Not of an International Character’, ICRC 2016 Commentary on Art 3 of the First Geneva Convention, §491. The 2015 peace agreement did not lead to such a lasting cessation and armed clashes have continued on a regular basis. Therefore, the non-international armed conflict is deemed to be continuing.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

While the situation in Mali is complicated by a myriad of transient armed groups ‘who split and coalesce as new opportunities arise', it is possible to identify a number of armed groups and umbrella organizations that are party to the non-international armed conflict. O. Walther, C. Leuprecht and D. B. Skillicorn, ‘Political Fragmentation and Alliances Among Armed Non-State Actors in North and Western Africa (1997–2014)’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 26 September 2017.

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)

On 2 March 2017, several Islamist non-state armed groups involved in hostilities against the Malian Government and allied forces announced their intention to merge: Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al-Murabitoon formally announced the formation of a new entity called Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), literally the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims. The aim of the group is to encourage Muslims present in the region to resist oppression and to expel ‘non-Muslim occupiers’. SITE Intelligence Group, ‘AQAP-Affiliated Newspaper Interviews Leader of Newly-Formed AQIM Branch in Mali’, 6 April 2017; Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), ‘Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM)’, Armed Conflict Database.

JNIM is led by Iyad Ag Ghali (formerly leader of Ansar Dine), and appears to be predominantly under the direction and control of AQIM and Al-Qaeda central. C. Weiss, ‘Analysis: Merger of al Qaeda Groups Threatens Security in West Africa’, FDD’s Long War Journal, 18 March  2017. As of September 2018, JNIM members is estimated to have between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters. Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), ‘Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin’, Armed Conflict Database.

While there is relatively scant information available on the group’s internal structure, other factors suggest that the non-state actor meets the organization requirement, such as the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms and the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, which have been discussed above.

The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA)

The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) is an umbrella organization that was created in 2014 and actively participated in the peace process the following year. In 2015, it signed the peace agreement with the Plateforme and the Government of Mali. The objective of the group is to obtain self-determination for the northern regions of Mali and the broader Azawad. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Coordination of Movements for the Azawad (CMA)’ Armed Conflict Database. The CMA encompasses a number of armed groups that rebelled in 2012, most notably:

The Plateforme

The Plateforme was founded in June 2014 as a reaction to the creation of the CMA. It participated in the peace process in 2015 and signed the peace agreement with the CMA and the Government of Mali. The Plateforme is comprised of a number of armed non-state actors, in particular:

Notwithstanding the paucity of information regarding the organization of the armed groups that are members of the Plateforme, the capacity to conclude and implement ceasefire and peace agreements, as well as the aforementioned military capabilities, lead to the conclusion that the Plateforme and a number of the groups that have joined it meet the organization requirement.

International interventions

United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali

Following the increased armed violence between the Government of Mali and a number of armed groups in 2012, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) deployed the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) to support the government against the rebels operating in the north of the country. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorized the mission through Resolution 2085, which  authorized ‘the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) for an initial period of one year’. See S/Res/2085 (2012), 20 December 2012. On 1 July 2013, in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2100, AFISMA transferred its authority to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). S/Res/2100 (2013), 25 April 2013. Since then, MINUSMA has been active in the country, helping the government to tackle armed violence conducted by the opposition groups. In 2018, the UNSC renewed the mandate of MINUSMA until 30 June 2019 with the Resolution 2423. S/Res/2423 (2018), 28 June 2018.

MINUSMA has been described as ‘the world’s most dangerous U.N. mission’. ‘The World’s Most Dangerous U.N. Mission’The Washington Post, 17 February 2017. Indeed, it was the target of attacks by various armed groups in 2018. For instance, the UN camp in Aguelhok, in northeast Mali, was attacked twice by non-state armed groups in April and May 2018; two peacekeepers died, while 13 were wounded. On 16 April 2018, a UN base in Timbuktu was attacked by opposition groups, leading to the death of 15 rebels and 1 peacekeeper. ‘Militants Disguised as Peacekeepers Attack French and UN Bases in Mali’, News Corp Australia Network, 16 April 2018. Furthermore, on 27 October 2018, an armed attack against MINUSMA in the Timbuktu region killed two peacekeepers and injured several others. ‘Mali – Attacks Against MINUSMA (27 October 2018)’, France Diplomatie, 27 October 2018.

In light of the involvement of MINUSMA in the conflict and the number and nature of armed confrontations between the peacekeeping mission and the rebels, it is possible to conclude that MINUSMA is party to the conflict. Since it has intervened with the consent of the government, the involvement of the UN mission does not affect the classification of the conflict, which remains non-international in character.

France

France has been involved in the conflict in Mali since 2013. At the request of the Malian Government, ‘Operation Serval’ was deployed in response to the Touareg offensive in the north of the country. ‘Fin de l'opération Serval au Mali, la France lance au Sahel l'opération "Barkhane" contre le terrorisme’, Huffington Post, 5 October 2016. Following the rapid territorial expansion of non-state armed groups in northern Mali, the UNSC unanimously passed Resolution 2085, sanctioning France to support the Government of Mali in its efforts to retake territory controlled by the non-state armed groups. S/Res 2085 (2012), 20 December 2012. MINUSMA’s mandate explicitly welcomes the efforts of French forces in Mali, and authorizes French forces to intervene in support of MINUSMA when the mission is under imminent and serious threat, and upon the request of the Secretary General. ‘Security Council Extends Mandate of Mission in Mali, Unanimously Adopting Resolution  (2017)’, UN Press Release, 29 June 2017

On 1 August 2014, a new French operation came into existence: ‘Operation Barkhane’, in which 4,000 soldiers were sent to Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad in order to engage in regional ‘counterterrorism’ operations. See ‘Opération Barkhane’, French Ministry of Defence, 19 June 2018. The Government of France has provided soldiers, equipment and finance to train the Malian forces. Human Rights Watch, ‘Mali: Events of  2017’, World Report 2018.

Joint Force of the G5 Sahel (FC-G5S)

The Joint Force of the G5 Sahel (FC-G5S) was founded in March 2017 by G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), with the support of France and with the aim of countering terrorism and tackling organized crime in the Sahel. It is formed of approximately 5,000 soldiers. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Joint Force of the G5 Sahel (FC-G5S)’, Armed Conflict Database. The mandate of FC-G5S encompasses: ‘fighting terrorism, organised crime and human trafficking; restoring state authority; helping displaced persons to return home; contributing to humanitarian operations; and helping to implement development projects’. International Crisis Group, ‘Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force’, Africa Report no 258, 12 December 2017, p 2. The FC-G5S gained a number of victories, in particular against Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM); however, it has also been the object of armed attacks. Notably, on 29 June 2018  JNIM attacked the headquarters of the Joint Force in Sévaré. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Mali (The Sahel), Military and Security Updates – 2017’, Armed Conflict Database. In light of the low intensity and number of armed confrontations between the FC-G5S and the non-state actors active in Mali, it is possible to conclude that the Joint Force is not party to the conflict.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

Mali is also a party to Additional Protocol II (AP II) applicable to non-international armed conflicts. The ability of certain armed non-state actors to exercise territorial control over parts of Mali suggests that they fulfil the required criterion for the applicability of AP II, namely the ability to carry out sustained and concerted military operations, impose discipline and implement AP II. The Protocol therefore also binds all armed groups fighting against the Malian government, as long as a nexus exists between their fighting and that of groups exercising the required territorial control.

All parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

  • Mali
  • France
  • United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)

Non-state parties

Last updated: Thursday 31st January 2019