Jack Watling and Paul Raymond
The U.N. mission in Mali is mistaking aggrieved cattle-herders and bandits on motorbikes for an Islamist menace. Here’s why it matters that they get it right.
BAMAKO, Mali — On Friday, November 20, two gunmen attacked the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako, taking 170 hostages and killing 19 before security forces stormed the building.
Three years after Al Qaeda-linked fighters overran northern Mali, the country is ravaged by terrorism. In spite of a French counter-insurgency operation, U.N. peacekeepers, and a peace agreement signed this summer between the government and Tuareg separatists, attacks plague communities from north to south. The Radisson is the highest-profile target to date. Two Islamist groups immediately claimed joint responsibility: Algerian-led Al Mourabitoun and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
But two days later, a third group — the Macina Liberation Front (known by its French acronym, FLM) — declared that it had carried out the attack. Based in Mali’s central region, east of Mopti, this little-known group has been conducting small-scale raids on police stations and assassinating local officials since early 2015. It is believed that most of its fighters are disadvantaged Fulani, a mostly nomadic, cattle-herding people spread across west and central Africa.
There were good reasons to doubt the FLM’s claim. The group said there were five gunmen rather than two, and hostages described the attackers as speaking English — more likely for foreign jihadists than for impoverished Fulani. Nevertheless, Mali’s President announced the following Monday that “it is the FLM who are behind this,” pledging to defeat terrorism.
Despite the discrepancies, the narrative gained traction, with journalists making fantastic claims about the group’s reach. Newsweek labeled the FLM “Mali’s Boko Haram,” comparing an inchoate collective of bandits on motorbikes to the world’s deadliest Islamic insurgency. According to a Jamestown Foundation report, the FLM has up to 4,000 fighters and “represents a new militant trend in southern Mali.” Residents of Mopti find such assertions overblown.
“I call that propaganda,” said Mamadou Bocoum, director of a radio station in the city, who has reported on dozens of attacks attributed to the FLM. “They open fire, then disappear into the bush,” he said.
“All the attacks they have carried out were done by a maximum of six people. They’ve never made it to seven.”
To the uninitiated, these claims and counterclaims might seem like hairsplitting. But behind the dispute over the nature of this new terrorist group lies an important cautionary tale about the so-called “war on terror.” Rushing to attribute a global agenda to groups that are primarily motivated by local grievances can boomerang, spurring radicalization and escalating violence against civilians. The FLM is just such a case.
While the FLM does get guns from Ansar Dine, one of the largest jihadist groups in Mali, analysts familiar with the central region warn that the FLM’s membership is a nebulous group of young bandits and dispossessed cattle herders motivated by poverty and local concerns. Only a minority of its members have been radicalized — and stemming the violence necessitates negotiation, not repression. Some experts warn that treating them all like jihadists is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing local insurgents to seek support and solidarity with jihadist groups pushing internationalist agendas.
Rumors of a new jihadi movement around Mopti began to circulate in early 2015 following a wave of shootings, assassinations and attacks on state infrastructure. The violence grabbed the attention of MINUSMA, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, set up after French and Malian forces liberated the north in 2013 to provide security, protect civilians, and restore state authority. The attacks around Mopti were alarming because, until that point, the central region had been relatively stable. Many began to speculate about a new jihadist insurgency.
“No one knew what was happening,” recalled Aurelien Tobie, who at the time was an analyst with the EU’s delegation in Bamako.
But in January 2015 a declaration in Al-Akhbar, a Mauritanian news outlet that regularly publishes statements by jihadist groups, announced the formation of the FLM. The announcement said the group, led by Amadou Koufa, a radical cleric, was dedicated to the resurrection of the Macina Empire: a nineteenth-century theocracy that spanned central Mali.
That answer, as Tobie notes, seemed to confirm fears that the tendrils of global jihad had penetrated Malian society. MINUSMA staff cited the declaration in their briefings. “Decision-makers arrived at meetings with briefings claiming that there was a new Islamist movement,” said Tobie.
“Even though there was only one source, the number of briefings made it seem like there was more.” Soon any attack in the central region was being attributed to this new jihadist group, creating a feedback loop that reinforced the false narrative. The attacks were real, but they were presented as evidence of an organized group linked to Al Qaeda.
The problem, according to Tobie, is that “that wasn’t what was happening.”
Among the diplomatic community in Bamako, Tobie was known as “Mr. Mopti” for his extensive contacts among the Fulani in Mali’s central region. By June 2015, he had conducted a survey of community leaders that painted a very different picture of the recent attacks. Many Fulani are nomadic cattle herders who pay wealthier landowners for grazing rights. The government and NGOs concentrate services on the fixed settlements, which primarily benefits the landowners, and has caused resentment among herding communities. Tobie found that the attacks attributed to the FLM were actually carried out by Fulani cattle herders against the Fulani land-owning elite and the Malian government over pastoral rights and political representation. The alleged jihadist agenda was, in this reading, an afterthought.
In 2012, Fulani landowners feared that Ansar Dine and other jihadist groups would push south into their lands, and armed local herders to defend them. But after the jihadists were driven back, the herders kept their guns and started to demand more rights. “So members of the upper class started grassing on people, telling the government that they had collaborated with jihadists,” Tobie explained.
Following the denunciations from local landowners, the state attempted to stamp out what it perceived to be a jihadist insurgency. It implemented a crackdown that Human Rights Watch claims involved “physical and psychological abuse — notably death threats, torture, and denial of food, water, and medical care.” The army moved into communities and seized Fulani who were suspected of being jihadists. Herders who felt that the government was persecuting them retaliated by turning their weapons against informants, the army and peacekeepers.
“When you look at the attacks, they are directed against members of the Fulani elite, and against symbols of state authority,” Tobie said.
“The FLM haven’t tried to establish sharia or other trademarks of Islamist movements.”
As the violence escalated, the herders found that they needed more weapons. Fulani landowners were no longer willing to supply them. Amadou Koufa, a radical local preacher who was close to the leadership of Ansar Dine, saw an opportunity. If Ansar Dine provided cash and guns, the FLM would carry out attacks under the black flag of jihad. It was a marriage of convenience: the FLM got arms to continue their fight with the government, and Ansar Dine could use the FLM in propaganda as the Malian face of jihad. While this did not mean that the FLM were all now jihadists, it confirmed the government’s simple narrative that the country faced a jihadist insurgency that needed to be crushed by force.
But a lot of the violence attributed to the FLM is simply banditry. Some suspected FLM militants captured in the spring didn’t seem to known which group they were fighting for. Taking advantage of the region’s instability, Ansar Dine has been known to hire bandits to carry out raids for $160 — another reason the jihadists’ presence seems larger than it really is.
As long as the relationship between Ansar Dine and the FLM persists, there will be continued opportunities for radicalization. Some FLM members have already taken on the jihadist ideology of their more extremist partners. This is reflected in a minority of attacks that bear a closer resemblance to attacks by other jihadist groups. In August, the FLM claimed an attack on a hotel in Sévaré, near Mopti, killing 13 people, including four MINUSMA contractors.
This has further convinced the government that the only way to solve the FLM problem is by force. On November 16, the Malian army announced it had arrested a key financier of the movement, based on local denunciations. But many fear this approach will exacerbate the problem.
“This is a marginalized group that has its own local concerns,” said Yaya Ag Mohamed Ali, Mali’s former Minister for Tourism and an influential member of the Fulani elite. “The state should try to talk to this group and the international community should facilitate dialogue.”
There are good precedents for negotiation. MINUSMA has talked directly to Tuareg separatists, who were also once allied with jihadist groups, to dissuade them from attacking civilian settlements and convoys of school children.
As long as MINUSMA considers FLM to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, negotiation is prohibited. “What would we negotiate with them about?” asked Radhia Achouri, MINUSMA’s head of communications.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
The international community’s failure to grasp the nuances of Mali’s local conflicts has undermined its efforts to ensure stability. In spite of the peace agreement in June, MINUSMA field reports show that there are three or more violent incidents a day carried out by bandits, separatist fighters and members of pro-government militias. Recognizing that many of these violations are driven by local rivalries is key to bringing stability to the country.
As the government ratchets up the rhetoric against the FLM, locals in Mopti fear that it is alienating Fulani, who feel they are being targeted as an ethnic group.
“You run the risk of Mopti becoming worse than the north,” said the radio director, Mamadou Bocoum. “We thought all the Tuaregs were rebels. But all the Tuaregs weren’t rebels and all the rebels weren’t Tuareg. We should avoid doing the same thing and jeopardizing social cohesion in Mopti.”
This reporting was supported by funding from the International Reporting Project.
First published on Foreign Policy on 16 December 2015.
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.