SIM Report: Mining and transport operations in southern Mali face expanding militant threat amid high political uncertainty

SIM REport: central & west africa, issue 15

MALI: Mining and transport operations in southern regions face expanding militant threat amid high political uncertainty

Mali faces a series of serious challenges ahead of 2022, including a high level of political uncertainty and instability, impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and endemic and expanding security threats. Several militant attacks on commercial operators between September and October highlighted a five-year trend of Islamist militants expanding their operational zone from the country’s central and northern regions to the south-west. Increasingly, this expansion is exposing commercial operators, specifically transport and mining, to growing security risks.

Recent attacks on commercial operators in the south

11 September: a commercial goods convoy was targeted by unidentified gunmen near Diedeni, Koulikoro region, leaving  two Moroccan truck drivers dead and one wounded. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. 

28 September: militants loyal to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) – a coalition of non-state armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda –  ambushed a mining convoy which was being escorted by the Malian armed forces in Kolokani circle, on the border between Koulikoro and Kayes, killing five soldiers, injuring several more, and torching several vehicles. Australian miner Fire Finch confirmed that the incident had targeted a convoy of one of its suppliers. Both incidents occurred along the busy RN3 road, which connects the capital Bamako via Kayes to Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal.

21 October: unidentified gunmen  kidnapped five Mauritanian construction workers, likely for ransom, near Blendio, in Sikasso region.



Expanding threat in the south-west

Although Mali’s southern regions have been less exposed to the threat of Islamist militants and inter-communal clashes compared to the central and northern regions of the country, where most attacks continue to occur, the number of recorded incidents in the south has grown markedly over the past four years. While Ségou appears particularly affected, likely due to its proximity to Mopti region, which is the country’s worst-affected, there is a clear trend of increasing attacks also in other southern regions.


Source: Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project

Sikasso, which is Mali’s southernmost region and hosts important transport routes between Bamako and ports in Conakry (Guinea) and Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), has seen a steady rise in the number of reported incidents since 2018. With about 40 security-related incidents in 2021, the region is clearly facing a growing threat, and a similar trend can be identified in Koulikoro, which also hosts important trade routes between Bamako and neighbouring countries. Moreover, northern Côte d’Ivoire has been facing parallel threats over the past 18 months. Although incidents have largely remained concentrated in its north-eastern regions, bordering Burkina Faso, there is no reason to assume JNIM and its allies will not attempt to expand their operations further west as in the case of Mali.

This trend is highly likely to add further stress on companies and local communities and require increased security spending by commercial operators over the coming years. Although few attacks directly threaten the mines in the south-west, most of which are located along its border with neighbouring countries, the latest incidents should nevertheless concern operators. That JNIM has claimed responsibility for the Fire Finch-linked attack indicates the group’s willingness to continue to expand operations in this region. French intelligence agency DGSE has also alleged the NSAG aims to expand its operations further south. However, the group’s specific ambitions with this expansion are less clear, in part due to somewhat differing modi operandi of its constituent members. Nevertheless, their motivations are likely guided by increased recruitment pools, for instance by exploiting inter-communal tensions, and control over financial resources, such as trade routes and artisanal gold mining.

ASSESSMENT

Furthermore, the latest attacks should be seen within the context of high levels of political uncertainty and instability, following military coups in both Mali and Guinea over the past six months. While the intentions of the junta in Conakry remain unclear, due to a lack of a clear roadmap back to democracy or policy agenda, friction is growing between Mali and its Western and regional partners in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). While the West African trade and political bloc has thus far taken a conciliatory stance towards the Bamako junta, Mali’s eviction of the ECOWAS envoy in October and threat of a toughening of sanctions may add further impediments to commercial operations. Possible measures may include a trade embargo, which will hamper the delivery of mining equipment and shipment of mining output across Mali’s borders.

As relations sour, it is probable that policy-making in Bamako will become more erratic and that interim authorities will take punitive measures against mining operations, a key source of revenue. Such concerns are for instance highlighted by the strategic importance of gold mining to Mali’s economy. In terms of output, Mali is Africa’s third-largest gold producer, and the sector accounts for about 66 per cent of export revenue and 21 per cent government revenue.

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