The armed group ISIL (ISIS) has almost doubled its territory in Mali in less than a year, United Nations experts have said in a new report.
The stalled implementation of a peace deal and sustained attacks on communities have offered ISIL and an al-Qaeda affiliate also operating in the region a chance “to re-enact the 2012 scenario”, it said.
That is the year when a military coup took place in the West African country and rebels in the north formed “an Islamic state” two months later. The rebels were forced from power in the north with the help of a French-led military operation, but they moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali in 2015 and remain active.
In August 2020, Mali’s president was overthrown in a coup that included an army colonel who carried out a second coup and was sworn in as president in June 2021. He developed ties to Russia’s military and its Wagner Group of mercenaries, whose head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in a plane crash on a flight from Moscow last week.
The 2015 peace agreement in Mali was signed by three parties: the government, a pro-government militia, and a coalition of groups who seek autonomy in the northern part of the country.
The UN’s panel of experts said in the report circulated on Friday that the impasse in implementing the agreement – especially the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration of combatants into society – is empowering al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, known as JNIM, to vie for leadership in northern Mali.
“In less than a year, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has almost doubled its areas of control in Mali,” the panel said, pointing to ISIL’s dominance of rural areas in eastern Menaka and large parts of the Ansongo area in northern Gao.
Sustained violence and attacks mostly by ISIL fighters in the region have also made the signatories to the peace deal “appear to be weak and unreliable security providers” for communities targeted, the UN experts said.
JNIM is taking advantage of this weakening “and is now positioning itself as the sole actor capable of protecting populations against Islamic State in the Greater Sahara”, panel members said.
They noted that Mali’s military rulers are watching the confrontation between ISIL and JNIM from a distance.
The experts cited some sources as saying the government believes over time the confrontation in the north will benefit Malian authorities, but said other sources believe time favours the armed groups “whose military capacities and community penetration grow each day”.
In June, Mali’s military rulers ordered the UN peacekeeping force and its 15,000 international troops to leave after a decade of working on stemming the insurgency. The UN Security Council terminated the mission’s mandate on June 30.
The panel said the armed groups that signed the 2015 agreement expressed concern that the peace deal could potentially fall apart without UN mediation, “thereby exposing the northern regions to the risk of another uprising”.
The UN force, known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), “played a crucial role” in facilitating talks between the parties, monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the agreement, and investigating alleged violations, the panel said.
The 104-page report painted a grim picture of other turmoil and abuses in the country.
The panel said armed groups that signed the 2015 agreement and transnational organised crime rings are competing for control over trade and trafficking routes transiting through the northern regions of Gao and Kidal.
“Mali remains a hotspot for drug trafficking in West Africa and between coastal countries in the Gulf of Guinea and North Africa, in both directions,” the experts said, adding that many of the main drug dealers are reported to be based in the capital Bamako.
The panel said it remains particularly concerned with persistent conflict-related sexual violence in the eastern Menaka and central Mopti regions, “especially those involving the foreign security partners of the Malian Armed Force” – the Wagner Group.
“The panel believes that violence against women and other forms of grave abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law are being used, specifically by the foreign security partners, to spread terror among populations,” the report said.