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Non-international armed conflicts in Mali

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Mali is engaging in parallel non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) against various insurgent groups, most notably Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS). The Government of Mali is supported a peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), by the Joint Force of the G5 Sahel (FC-G5S), and by Wagner private military security company (PMSC).

A number of non-international armed conflicts are 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-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS).
  • Between 2013 and 2022, France provided 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.
  • 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. Its aim is to counter terrorism and tackling organized crime in the Sahel.  
  • Since December 2021, Mali has been supported by by Wagner private military security company (PMSC).

Since the interventions are taking place with the consent of the government, the foreign involvement does not affect the classification of the conflict, which remains non-international in character.

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.

On 18 August 2020, a coup d’état took place against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. The latter was criticized for his lack of action against jihadists forces, the rise of violence in the country and for corruption of the regime. Perspective Monde, ‘Renversement du president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta au Mali’, Ecole de politique appliquée, Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines, Université de Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada, 18 August 2020. Following the coup, a Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (CNSP) was created, headed by Colonel Assimi Goïta. CNSP aimed at creating a transitional organ ruled by a member of the military. On 21 September 2020, CNSP appointed Colonel Major Bah N’Daw as transitional President. Presidence de la République du Mali, ‘Bah N’Daw’.

On 24 May 2021, the military junta, on the order given by the Vice President, Colonel Assimi Goïta, arrested President N’Daw and Prime Minister Ouane as they were accused of having violated transition’s charter when they appointed a new cabinet without consulting the transition’s Vice President, Colonel Assimi Goïta. The later declared himself transitional president on 27 May 2021. The following day, the Constitutional Court declared him interim president. Cyril Bensimon, Morgane Le Cam, Elise Vincent, ‘Comment le Mali a vécu un deuxième coup d’Etat en moins d’un an’, Le Monde, 31 May 2021. While general elections were scheduled to take place in February 2022, they have been postponed to February 2024. ‘Mali's transition govt sets February 2024 for presidential election’, Africa News, 1 July 2022.

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.

Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS)

The Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS) declared its allegiance to the Islamic State in May 2015, and the latter recognized the pledge in October 2016. See UNSC, Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS), Narrative Summary, 23 February 2020. Violence between the group and the governmental forces of Mali is deemed sufficiently intense for the application of international humanitarian law (IHL).

Since its inception, the group has engaged in intense armed confrontations against Malian state forces. Sustained attacks have taken place for years and have not decreased. Notably, 2020 has been one of the deadliest years, when 166 armed confrontations involving ISGS were reported in Mali. This year has been particularly intense in the entire Sahel region, whereby jihadist violence has caused 4,250 fatalities, 60% more than the previous year; it has been reported that ISGS ‘is linked to more than half of these deaths.’ It is also worth recalling a particular deadly attack conducted by the group against state military basis in November 2019, which resulted in the death of approximately 100 soldiers. Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara Expanding its Threat and Reach in the Sahel, 18 December 2020; MenaStream, Attacks claimed by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, Mali.

In 2021, ISGS continued to conduct several attacks. The latter have also targeted civilians. In June, for instance, 16 civilians were killed by ISGS in Ménaka and Gao regions. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2021. However, since the beginning of 2022, the attacks perpetrated by ISGS seem to have intensified. Indeed, on 21 March 2022, 16 Malian soldiers were killed by ISGS militants in Gao and Mopti regions. 13 militants were also killed by the security forces. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2022. A few months later, ISGS militants have launched one of the deadliest attack on the military. Militants assaulted the town of Tessit in Gao region in a complex and coordinated attack, using drones, artillery, car bombs and explosive device. By attacking Tessit town, ISGS killed 42 soldiers. And at least 4 civilians were killed. ‘Mali says soldier death toll in Tessit has risen to 42’, Al Jazeera, 11 August 2022. Nevertheless, Malian military forces have also conducted actions aimed at weakening ISGS. For instance, in February 2022 joint action between the Malian army and the Takuba force in Gao region led to the killing of 8 suspected ISGS militants. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2022. In addition, a joint offensive was launched on 4 and 5 June 2022 by Malian forces and by the 2015 peace agreement signatory group with the aim to recapture Andéramboukane town from ISGS control. The operation failed, allowing ISGS to remain in control of the town, however it resulted in the death of 115 individuals, including 90 jihadists. Amnesty International, ‘Mali. De nouveaux témoignages font état d’homicides et de déplacements massifs dur fond de recrudescence de la violence dans la region de Ménaka’, 16 June 2022; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2022.

The group engaged in armed hostilities not only against Malian state troops, but also against French forces. A number of illustrative armed confrontations would confirm this point. In January 2018, ISGS conducted a military attack against French forces, which wounded three soldiers. In August 2018, at least two fighters of the ISGS killed by French forces. In October 2019, French forces killed at least eight suspected fighters belonging to the ISGS. In February 2020, French forces killed at least 50 suspected fighters affiliated to the ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In January 2021, suspected ISGS or JNIM combatants killed four peacekeepers belonging to the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA and wounded five more. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, Mali.

In September 2022, French President Macron announced the killing of ISGS leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui by the Operation Barkhane in tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Tom Wheeldon, ‘Sahrawi: The top Sahel jihadist killed in French ‘opportunistic hit’’, France 24, 16 September 2021. A few months later, on 12 June 2022, ISGS leader Oumeya Ould Albakaye was arrested by French Barkane forces. Célian Macé, ‘Sur le départ, Barkhane capture un chef de l’Etat islamique au Mali’, Libération, 15 June 2022.

Fighting between ISGS and other armed groups

Sustained confrontations have been reported between ISGS and other armed groups operating in Mali. Nevertheless, based on the information at our disposal we cannot conclude that violence is sufficiently intense to qualify the situation as a NIAC. In particular, ISGS has been engaged in clashes against JNIM, a jihadist group close to Al Qaeda. For instance, in April 2020 armed confrontations between the ISGS and Katiba Macina left at least 100 dead combatants belonging to the ISGS. In May 2020, armed confrontations between combatants affiliated to the Islamic State and JNIM and Katiba Macina fighters led to heavy losses among the Islamic State’s militants. More recently, in December 2020, clashes between the ISGS and JNIM armed groups caused the death of at least 20 fighters. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, Mali.

Tensions have also continued between ISGS and JNIM in several regions of Mali. In November 2021, clashes between the two groups have engendered the killing of at least 10 ISGS and 5 JNIM militants. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, November 2021. A few months later, on 5 and 6 February 2022, new clashes between ISGS and JNIM in Ansongo district left at least 10 ISGS militants dead. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2022. About 15 clashes  between the two jihadist groups were reported in the first half of 2022 in Sahel and in the Gao and Timbuktu region. Alessandro Bolpagni, ‘A Jihadists’ schism in central Sahel: conflict epilogue or prelude to a new escalation?’, Security Praxis, 14 June 2022.

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. It has been reported that, since 2017, more than the 64% of violent attacks involving Islamist groups is attributed to the JNIM. D. Eizenga and W. Williams, Africa Security Brief no. 38 – The Puzzle of JNIM and Militant Islamist Groups in the Sahel, Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, 2020.

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.

The intensity of violence between the armed group and governmental forces remained sustained in 2019 and 2021. For instance, on 17 March, JNIM attacked a military camp in Dioura (Mopti region, central Mali), which resulted in the death of 22 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2019. In August, the group ambushed state soldiers travelling on Hombori-Boni road, killing 5 of them. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, August 2019. In January 2020, it attacked the Sokolo military camp, causing the death of 20 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2020.

In February 2020, the government called for dialogue with JNIM. The following month, the armed group expressed its willingness to engage in peace talks, at the condition that French and MINUSMA troops withdraw from Mali. Nevertheless, JNIM kept engaging in armed confrontations against the government, notably on 19 March it attacked a military outpost in Gao region, killing 29 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2020. The following month, it conducted an armed attack against the Bamba military base, where the ensuing armed confrontation resulted in the death of at least 25 soldiers and 12 fighters. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2020. In 2021 violence has increased. For instance, on 2 January 2021 a roadside bomb planted by JNIM killed two French soldiers. the same day, French Operation Barkhane conducted airstrikes that killed 15 members of JNIM in Gassa-Douni locality. The following week, a suicide bomber member of JNIM-linked jihadist group Katiba Serma caused the death of six French soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, Mali.

On 3 February 2021, JNIM combatants attacked Boni army base and killed 9 soldiers. As a retaliation, French forces conducted airstrikes killing 20 militants. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2021. Other attacks were perpetrated against military forces, as it was the case in September 2021, when Katiba Macina, a sub-group of JNIM, ambushed a patrol and killed 5 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, September 2021. In October 2021, several actions were conducted against JNIM and its affiliated groups. Notably, Oumarou Mobo Modhi, JNIM-affiliated Ansarul Islam commander, was killed in Mopti region by French troops, Malian forces and US soldiers. ‘French Forces Say Killed Jihadists IED Expert In Mali’, Barron’s, 8 October 2021. A few days later, an airstrike conducted by Barkhane troops killed Nasser al-Tergui, JNIM-linked group Katiba Serma leader. Sudip Kar-Gupta, Myriam Rivet, Benoit Van Overstraeten, ‘French army: leading member of African-based Al Quaeda affiliate killed’, Reuters, 21 October 2021. Malian armed forces have also reported the killing of 12 militants including Samir Al-Bourhan, JNIM leader, in air strikes conducted on 14 April 2022. News Wires, ‘’A dozen terrorits’ killed in air strikes in central Mali, army says’, France 24, 17 April 2022. Two months later, Malian army organised air and ground operations near Makou town and killed 13 JNIM militants including 3 commanders. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2022.

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. Furthermore, 3 soldiers were killed in Mopti on 7 May 2021, after their vehicle struck IED planted by JNIM. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, May 2021. Similarly, 16 soldiers and 15 militants died in the same region after an ambush from JNIM on military forces with explosive device. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, October 2021.

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.

Past conflict: 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. Under IHL, a NIAC 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. Since the 2015 peace agreement did not lead to such a lasting cessation and armed clashes have continued on a regular basis, it did not determine the end of the NIACs at the time. Nevertheless, since 2017 no armed confrontations between CMA and the Plateforme on the one hand and the Malian troops on the other have been reported. Accordingly, it seems possible to conclude that the conflict is now over. 

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.

Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS)

The Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS) was founded in May 2015, as a splinter from Al Mourabitoun, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is considered a regional offshoot of the Islamic State (IS) and operates in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. While JNIM pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, ISGS pledged allegiance to the IS, which recognised the group as an affiliate in West Africa in October 2016. S. Mednick, ‘Burkina Faso’s new conflict front: Jihadists against jihadists’, The New Humanitarian, 17 August 2020; M. Pellerin, ‘Armed Violence in the Sahara, Are We Moving From Jihadism to Insurgency?’, Études de l’Ifri, November 2019; Centre for International Security and Cooperation, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

The leader of ISGS is Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. The group is currently militarily active and operates in several countries in the Sahel region and exercises control over part of the Malia territory. France 24, Islamic State replaces al-Qaeda as Enemy no. 1 in Sahel, 15 January 2020; Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara Expanding its Threat and Reach in the Sahel, 18 December 2020. It has been reported that it uses the following weapons: mortars, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, bomb-loaded trucks and suicide bombs. Stanford Centre for International Security and Cooperation, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. The ISGS ‘was listed on 23 February 2020 pursuant to paragraphs 2 and 4 of resolution 2368 (2017) as being associated with ISIL or Al-Qaida for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing, or perpetrating of acts or activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf of, or in support of”, “supplying, selling or transferring arms and related materiel to”, “recruiting for”, “otherwise supporting acts or activities of”, “either owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by, or otherwise supporting”, and “other acts or activities indicating association with” Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), listed as Al-Qaida in Iraq.’ See UNSC, Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS), Narrative Summary, 23 February 2020.

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 (MINUSMA)

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, over the past years it has been 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. It is worth mentioning an attack which took place in january 2019, conducted by the group AQIM, which killed at least 10 peacekeepers and wounded 25 more. Armed confrontations have continued during 2020 and are still ongoing. Notably, in January 2021 suspected ISGS or JNIM combatants killed four peacekeepers belonging to the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA and wounded 5 more. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, Mali.

The attacks against MINUSMA continued in 2021 and 2022. Indeed, on 2 April 2021, JNIM militants conducted an attack on the Mission in Kidal region, killing 4 peacekeepers and injuring 16 of them. ‘Four peacekeepers killed in complex attack on UN base in Mali’, UN News, 2 April 2021. A couple of months later, 13 peacekeepers were injured in Gao region when their car was bombed. Car bomb injures 13 UN peacekeepers in Mali’, The Guardian, 26 June 2021. It also seems important to mention that on 7 March 2022, a MINUSMA convoy triggered explosive device, killing 2 peacekeepers, wounding 4. ‘Two UN peacekeepers killed in Mali, four wounded’, UN News, 7 March 2022. 

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. Since then, it has been engaging in armed confrontations against the armed groups operating in the country. Human Rights Watch, ‘Mali: Events of  2017’, World Report 2018. In particular, in 2020 a number of clashes have been reported. In June 2020, several suspected jihadists killed within the counter-terrorism operation Barkane. Between October and November, the Operation killed at least 50 militants belonging to the group Ansarul-Islam and 30 other suspected jihadists. More recently, in January 2021, the operation led to the killing of at least 15 fighters belonging to the JNIM. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, Mali. In February 2021, French President Macron said the operation Barkhane reached its military objective for 2020, since it was able to prevent and neutralize several attacks conducted by jihadist groups. A. Mazoue, France touts military successes to win allies in G5 Sahel operations, France24, 16 February 2021.

The operations continued during the year 2021. For instance, airstrikes launched by Malian and French forces killed 26 suspected jihadists on 26 April 2021 in Alatona area. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2021. Nonetheless, in June 2021 France temporarily suspended its joint military operations with Malian troops and then announced the end of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. Tangi Salaün and John Irish, ‘France ends West African Barkhane military operation’, Reuters, 10 June 2021. As France announced the full withdrawal of its Barkhane forces from Mali within 6 months, the Malian Government decided to withdraw from the defence agreements concluded with France. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February and May 2022. The last Operation Barkhane soldiers left Mali on 15 August 2022. Malian Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, accused France of supporting jihadists and called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to cease French “acts of agression”. Morgane Le Cam, ‘France’s Barkhane military operation discreetly withdraws from Mali’, Le Monde, 16 August 2022; ‘Mali calls for emergency UN meeting over French ‘agression’’, Al Mayadeen, 17 August 2022.

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.

In January 2020, protests took place in the country against the foreign military presence. Consequently, the former Malian president met with French president Macron and the other heads of State of the G5 Sahel in Paris to discuss the issue. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, Mali.

In a G5 Sahel summit on 9 July 2021, French President Macron explained the evolution of French military in Sahel and the closing of 3 military bases in Mali by early 2022 and the reducing of the number of soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2021. On 15 May 2022, Mali announced its withdrawal from G5 Sahel organisation. ‘Mali government pulls military out of regional G5 Sahel force’, Al Jazeera, 16 May 2022.

Russian private military security company Wagner Group

By mid 2021, tensions started to arise between Mali and France, as the latter expressed its intention to reduce the number of its troops in Mali. As a consequence, Mali has started to seek the support of the Russian private military security company (PMSC) Wagner. Poline Tchoubar, ‘Doubt cast on photos alleged to show Wagner mercenaries training Malian soldiers’, France 24, 26 November 2021. As disagreements emerged between the Malian military junta and its international partners, elements from Wagner took the opportunity to step into clashes alongside Malian forces. It has been reported that the deployment of Wagner personnel in Mali has started in December 2021, and it has been criticised by the US and a number of European countries. C. Doxsee and J. S. Bermudez Jr., ‘Tracking the Arrival of Russia’s Wagner Group in Mali’, CSIS, 2 February 2022.

One of the first joint military operations reported took place against JNIM-affiliated Katiba Macina on 3 January 2022. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2022. By 7 January 2022, reports started to emerge on the deployment of the elements of Wagner Group in Mali. ‘Mali and France, a timeline of mounting tensions’, Al Jazeera, 1 February 2022. Wagner elements thus act alongside Malian forces in order to fight against jihadist groups. Nevertheless, the PMSC’s intervention is particularly worrying, as there has been mounting evidence that the group has been engaging in attacks against civilians, mainly in the Mopti, Ségour, Tombouctou and Koulikoro regions. ACLED, ‘Wagner Group Operations in Africa’, 30 August 2022. 

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

UN mission

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

Non-state parties

  • Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)
  • Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)
Last updated: Wednesday 19th October 2022