On 18 August 2020, a military coup overthrew the Malian President Ibrahim Abu Bakr (Boubacar) Keita. The coup leaders seized power after the political turmoil and demonstrations experienced by the country since June 2020. This development has raised many questions about the future of international efforts to combat terrorism in the African Sahel region. The coup represents a major challenge to those efforts, especially as it coincides with a French and European trend to strengthen military efforts to combat terrorism and confront the growing terrorist threats in the region.

Causes of the military coup in Mali

  • Escalating protests against the ousted President Ibrahim Abu Bakr Keita. Thousands of Malians gathered in the streets of Bamako, demanding his resignation due to the failure to resolve the armed conflicts in the north of the country, the ongoing economic crisis, and the failure to eliminate terrorist networks.[1]
  • The growing rebellion within the army due to delayed payment of salaries, and the emergence of a wave of grumbling and discontent among the military because of what they considered indifference to the killing of some soldiers in acts of violence in the centre of the country. In April 2020, the Malian Intelligence Services had arrested six individuals, including a former officer linked to the 2012 coup who was charged with trying to destabilise the institutions of the Republic.[2]
  • The military rebellion inside the Kati military base (15 kilometres from the capital Bamako), which is the same base where the 2012 coup began,[3] where junior officers, including Colonel Malick Diaw, deputy commander of the base, and Colonel Assimi Goita, former head of the Special Forces in Mali,[4] led the 2020 coup.
  • The external role. The overthrow of President Keita constituted a coup against France’s ally in the region. Despite the lack of sufficient information on the nature of the external role in the coup, the state of international competition, especially the US-French rivalry and the Russian-French rivalry, raises suspicions about a US and Russian role in supporting the coup, especially that many of the coup leaders had received military training on counterterrorism in the US and Russia. Some leaks from Malian military sources indicate that the leaders of the coup had been in Russia since January 2020 as part of a training programme organized by the Russian armed forces, and that those leaders returned days before the ouster of President Keita.[5]

International and regional positions

  • France, the US, China and the United Nations (UN) condemned the overthrow of the ousted president.[6] The EU suspended its training duties of the Malian army after the coup.[7] The US also announced the suspension of its military aid.[8]
  • In its turn, the African Union (AU) suspended Mali's membership until the return of the constitutional order, and demanded the release of President Keita, the Prime Minister and the officials detained by the coup leaders. The AU Peace and Security Council also condemned the ouster of President Keita, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately suspended Mali's membership.[9]

Potential risks to the war on terror efforts

  • Undermining Mali's ability to fight terrorist organisations within its borders, especially that the coup leaders are a segment of the Malian army that was supposed to focus on counterterrorism. These would devote less time to fighting terrorism if the military junta remained in power.[10] For its part, terrorist organisations will seek to exploit this vacuum to expand in northern Mali, which is likely to lead to the return of the Tuareg rebellion, and the threat to the stability of the peace agreement signed in 2015 with the northern rebels, especially since the provisions of the agreement related to disarmament and demobilisation have not materialised to a large extent.[11]
  • The increase in terrorist threats in neighbouring countries. The coup provides more space for cooperation between terrorist organisations which threaten Northern African countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya; West African countries such as Mauritania and Nigeria; and the countries of the Gulf of Guinea. Data indicate that since the beginning of 2020, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have witnessed nearly 937 violent incidents, a monthly increase of 13 percent over the previous year.[12]
  • Undermining French counterterrorism efforts, especially after France has tended to strengthen its military presence (5,100 soldiers) in the region and formed, in cooperation with European countries, the Special Operations Forces "Takuba", in addition to the impact of the coup on the role of the G5 Sahel Joint Force.[13]

The future of the war on terror in the region

  • Increasing possibilities that international counterterrorism efforts will falter, especially after the suspension of foreign military aid and the fall of one of the five leaders on whom France has relied in the fight against terrorism. While Paris struggles to persuade Europe to extend a helping hand to it in the region, the military coup may dampen the enthusiasm of European partners, who are already hesitant, regarding Takuba and other initiatives.[14] However, Operation Barkhane continues despite French condemnation of the coup. In addition, the international forces present in Mali to combat terrorism, such as the UN Mission, are still in their positions, despite their limited resources to confront the violence and the high death toll among their ranks, which affects the willingness of the participating countries to contribute troops to peacekeeping and counterterrorism operations.[15]
  • Continuation of French efforts to combat terrorism in the region. France has announced, through Defence Minister Florence Parly, that "Operation Barkhane ... continues". France's swift response showed that its determination to maintain a military presence in West Africa remains intact despite pockets of anti-French sentiments.[16] In addition, the coup leaders declared their commitment to cooperating with foreign forces, and did not call for the departure of those forces. However, the French efforts are at risk of being hampered by the increasing costs of operations that are difficult to maintain over time without achieving their goals.[17]
  • Increasing Russian involvement in counterterrorism operations. Russia aspires for a security role that competes with France in the region, even as France has not made any progress in confronting terrorism, especially after the escalation of anti-French protests in Mali. On the other hand, thousands of Malians came out waving Russian flags, and Russia signed a security cooperation agreement with Mali in June 2019. Information indicates that the Russian Wagner Group is already in Mali.[18] However, the French presence represents a major challenge to Russia, as France maintains military bases and pumps military aid to those countries. It has offered Mali alone nearly 600 million euros (708 million dollars) in ongoing military missions.[19] On the other hand, Russia relies on the role of the Wagner Group in counterterrorism. Russia has been absent for a while from the continent and is trying to return and strengthen its security presence. However, it does not have sufficient experience like France in dealing with terrorist threats in the region.

Conclusion

The most likely scenario seems to be the continuation of the French military operations in the war on terror. However, France will certainly face many challenges such as poor security cooperation with the military junta and the possible decline in European support for its operations. Russia will try to exploit the situation to strengthen its security and military presence in the region. However, this does not necessarily mean that Russia will be able to play an alternative role to France, or that Russia has more tools and cards than France to strengthen its presence. The future of the Russian role will depend to a greater extent on the political developments in Mali and the chances of power transfer to an elected civilian government or the military’s continued stay in power, and the position on security cooperation with Russia and France.

References

[1] Milena Caye, Mali’s Recent Coup: Implications for Counterterrorism in the Sahel Region, 23/8/2020, available at: https://www.crossfirekm.org/articles/malis-recent-coup-implications-for-counterterrorism-in-the-sahel-region

[2] Judd Devermont, The Malian Military Ousts a Wayward Government, August 19, 2020 , available at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/malian-military-ousts-wayward-government

[3] Jędrzej Czerep, Coup d’état in Mali, PISM, No.  62/2020, 20 August 2020, p.1, 2.

[4] Raúl Redondo, Russia and the coup d'état in Mali, 24/8/2020, available at: https://atalayar.com/en/content/russia-and-coup-d%C3%A9tat-mali

[5] Idem.

[6] Milena Caye, op. cit.

[7] EU freezes Mali training missions after military coup, 26/8/2020, available at: https://www.dw.com/en/eu-freezes-mali-training-missions-after-military-coup/a-54710608

[8] Steve Balestrieri, US Suspends Military Support to Mali After Coup D’état,26/8/2020, available at: https://sofrep.com/news/us-suspends-military-support-to-mali-after-coup-detat/

[9] Judd devermont, op.cit.

[10] Milena Caye, op.cit.

[11] Bisa Williams and John Goodman, Mali’s Coup Could Destabilize the Sahel, August 27, 2020, available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2020-08-27/malis-coup-could-destabilize-sahel

[12] Judd devermont, op.cit.

[13] Steve Balestrieri, op.cit.

[14] L'engagement français au Sahel à l'épreuve du coup d'Etat au Mali, 21/8/2020, available at: https://www.lepoint.fr/societe/l-engagement-francais-au-sahel-a-l-epreuve-du-coup-d-etat-au-mali-21-08-2020-2388455_23.php

[15] William G. Nomikos, Melanie Sauter, Rob Williams and Patrick Hunnicutt, The military has ousted Mali’s president. That raises questions about the country’s ongoing security challenges, 26/8/2020, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/26/military-has-overthrown-malis-president-that-raises-questions-about-malis-ongoing-security-challenges/

[16] Elaine Ganley, French Troops Stay in Mali After Coup, No End in Sight, Aug. 25, 2020, available at: https://apnews.com/89dbef60ab8bfa0d70bd6491b4027c37

[17] Marine Carballet, Coup d’État militaire au Mali: «Barkhane se retrouve visible au cœur du désordre», 20/8/2020, available at: https://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/monde/coup-d-etat-militaire-au-mali-barkhane-se-retrouve-visible-au-coeur-du-desordre-20200820

[18] Joseph Siegle et Daniel Eizenga, Attention au coup d’État “populaire”, 1 /9/ 2020, available at: https://africacenter.org/fr/spotlight/attention-au-coup-detat-populaire/

[19] Elaine Ganley, op.cit.

 

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