Countering Violent Extremism in Mali

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Prior to 2012, Mali was all but unknown in the United States. To international development experts, Mali served as an exemplar for other countries to emulate. To governance experts, it served as a paragon of democratization, having enjoyed more than two decades of stable democracy. A few counterterrorism and counternarcotics experts warned that malign actors were using Mali’s thinly populated and politically fractious north as bases or transit areas, but those threats seemed minor in comparison with the instability and violence sweeping over much of North Africa and the Middle East in 2010 and 2011, and some observers doubted whether the threats were more than trifles.

An unexpected military coup on 21 March 2012 brought Mali to the attention of the international news media. Such a collapse, in a nation considered to be one of Africa’s most prosperous and democratic, came as a shocking disappointment to those familiar with Africa. The military overthrow of an elected government was interpreted in many quarters as regression to a dark era of military domination of African politics.

What captured the most foreign attention, however, was the subsequent cataclysm in northern Mali. The coup precipitated the defection and disintegration of government security forces in northern Mali, paving the way for Islamists and separatists to seize control of the population centers. Led by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), extremists imposed draconian punishments on the northern population and desecrated holy sites. For eight months, the United States and other foreign actors attempted to restore democracy in Mali and negotiate a political settlement, hoping to strike a deal with Tuareg separatists at the expense of the Islamists.

The separatists and Islamic extremists refused to be split apart, and chose instead to invade southern Mali in January 2013. Their initial victories over the debilitated Malian forces portended a rebel victory over all of Mali. France, which had a large number of its citizens in southern Mali, decided that it could not tolerate such a victory. It intervened with military advisers and aircraft, followed by a more active role in the conflict in order to halt the enemy onslaught and retake the north.

In the space of a few weeks, French intervention saved southern Mali and drove the rebels from northern Mali cities. The French intended to hand the country over to Malian and other African security forces within a matter of months, but ended up staying much longer after realizing that the African forces were not equal to the task. As of this writing, the French retain a sizable military presence in Mali, which provides protection against major attacks and permits surgical operations against enemy leaders. Efforts to produce African forces that can replace the French forces have yet to bear fruit, and will likely require additional time and resources.

This monograph begins with historical analysis of rebellion, extremism, and the countering of violent extremism in Mali, in order to illuminate the context in which more recent events have taken place. It chronicles the rise of Islamic extremism in Mali, and explains how the Malian government and United States perceived and attempted to address that rise. Included in the explanation of the American response is the growing role of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in building the capacity of Malian forces. The monograph then examines the extremist military gains that began in 2011, the military coup of March 2012, the Islamist offensive in January 2013, and the French intervention. The narrative concludes with French efforts to hold stubborn enemies at bay while multiple international actors attempt to build local capacity. The final chapter analyzes the most important issues and challenges in countering Mali’s violent extremists, particularly in terms of SOF, and explains how they might be relevant in confronting violent extremism elsewhere in Africa or other regions.

- Download a PDF copy of Mr. Moyar's complete mongram

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