Conflict Moves West in Mali, Towards the Senegalese Border

Conflict Moves West in Mali, Towards  the Senegalese Border

The Katiba Macina, a jihadist group originating in the Mopti region in Mali, has started in the recent months to settle in the Kayes region, in the West of Mali. This situation threatens to extend the Malian unrest into neighboring countries, particularly Senegal, which has been safe up to now from attacks by jihadist brigades.

Amadou Kouffa, the leader of the Katiba Macina, a group of between 150 and 300 fighters moving between the central Malian region of Mopti and the Western region of Kayes, has recently issued a call to all the Fula people, an ethnic group present in all of West Africa. He urges them to take up arms in Senegal and join his fight on both sides of the border. The Fula, named after the theocratic Fula kingdom of the 19th century, appeared in 2017 following the preaching of Amadou Kouffa, a Fula priest linked to Iyad ag Ghali.  Ghali was a leader of the 2015 insurrection in the North of Mali. Reinforced after his victory over an ISIS faction in the past months, Kouffa has extended his influence over the center and the West of the country. This situation threatens to extend the conflict to neighbouring countries and prevent the central Malian government in Bamako from controlling the rest of the country.  This would cancel Bamako’s gains of the past years against the armed groups fighting for control and political power.

A Group Born of the Demands of the Fula People

Amadou Kouffa garnered his reputation by advocating on behalf of the Fula people against the Malian government, which has discriminated against them.  Amadou Kouffa is also a member of the Fula.  The Fula, an ethnic group partly comprised of nomadic herders, often clashes with other groups in Mali and West Africa.  The Fula are often harassed, and must pay heavy taxes to access pasture for their cattle. With a scarcity of water and pasture for nomadic people due to global warming, tensions about these resources have boiled over into inter-ethnic conflict. This situation worsened after 2015, when the Malian government armed Dogon Militias to fight against Tuaregs and Jihadists in the North of Mali.  In time these groups turned against the Fula to ensure their domination over pasture and other resources.

This situation was a fertile breeding ground for Kouffa to build a brigade, which quickly became organized and grew through the diffusion of his preaching by mobile phones and videos. More recently, he started recruiting outside of the Fulani community, and made global jihad his goal, opposing traditional power structures such as the Dozos hunters, a social elite and traditional ally of the government.

Threats to Expand to the West

Originating in the center of Mali, the Katiba Macina clashed violently with the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the West of Mali, due to a defection of some of Kouffa’s troops joining ISWAP. Amadou Kouffa emerged as the winner of this fight, claiming afterwards Western Mali up to the Senegalese border, in a bid to deny ISWAP any part of the region.  To do this, they established a base in the Kayes region in May 2020, according to the newspaper DakarActu.  This base is only a few hundred kilometers from the Senegalese border, with no standing military forces between them. The Katiba Macina started recruiting and preaching in the region following the establishment of this base, attacking national forces on multiple occasions in the Summer. They are extremely mobile, and use hit-and-run tactics.  

A member of Kayes’ town hall described to Dakar Actu the current situation:

“The threat is real. They are in all the circles of the region except Kénieba. Otherwise, after the attack on the toll station of Diéma followed by Sandaré, they held sermons in Korera and Gavinane. So, the situation is worrying because they want to surround the Kayes region.“

 A Possible Internationalization of the Conflict?

The establishment of Katiba Macina on the border, far from their traditional roots, points toward the possibility of an incursion on Senegalese territory, like they did in Burkina Faso. This would effectively establish bases on both sides of Senegal’s border with Mali.

This possibility is heightened by the imminent liberation next October of trained jihadists in Mali who will probably join Katiba Macina’s ranks. Moreover, the preaching of Amadou Kouffa has recently been targeting Senegalese Fula, enticing them to join his ranks.  This is similar to Katiba Ibn Whalid which established itself in the South of Mali in 2015, and recruited Ivoirians and Burkinabe to fill its ranks, easily crossing borders to escape pursuit.

The possibility of an incursion is also heightened by the lack of infrastructure in the Senegalese region bordering Mali. Two battalions of the Senegalese Army have been deployed near the border since November, in the Matam region, to reinforce the Army’s capacities. However, the delays in the construction of vital roadways in the region, isolating the populations living on the border socially and economically, as well as the scarcity of water and the perceived inaction of the state to remedy these problems are soil in which the Katiba ranks can grow.

Finally, the recent military coup in Mali risks antagonizing the Kayes region’s population even more, as the military elite have overtaken critical political roles. Indeed, the past strategy of the Malian Army against groups such as the Katiba Macina have proven to be unproductive, and worse, alienate the local population, as they have been heavily criticized for corruption, looting and murders as a means of putting down resistance in the North of the country. According to the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR), the government’s anti-terrorist campaign has actually reinforced the jihadist phenomenon. In some villages, the jihadists are perceived as guaranteeing security, safety and the kind of stability the state is unable to provide.  However, a recent interview with the transitional Prime Minister, in which he announces the beginning of a dialogue with the Islamist groups (including the Katiba Macina), is a new and positive development, even though it has yet to be realized.  Indeed, militia members have testified to the IFHR that they are willing to lay down their weapons if they had assurance that the authority would take their needs into account and help them integrate into civilian life.

The situation thus presents many risks, with the conflict within Mali out of control, and the possibility of the unrest spreading beyond Mali’s borders. These risks, exacerbated by the recent coup and the apparent lack of attention to the Fula’s claims for social justice and more generally of the Malian people, portend the possibility of a complete breakdown of the country, with the economic and political capital of Mali cut from the rest of the territory. Such a situation would have catastrophic consequences for West Africa, providing a safe haven for Jihadists all over the region and making impossible efforts to reduce the jihadist phenomenon in the region.

Categories: Africa, Security

About Author

Theo Locherer

Théo Locherer has received a master’s degree in international Relations from the University of Edinburgh. He worked previously as an international development coordinator in Senegal for the Mbour regional Parliament. Before writing at GRI, he was a volunteer risk analyst for Peace Brigade International in France. His focus is on maritime security, more specifically in West Africa and South East Asia.