FPI Bulletin: Counterterrorism Lessons From Mali

December 14, 2015

The terrorist strike at a Bamako hotel on November 20 put Mali back in the international spotlight for the first time since the French military intervention of January 2013. The al-Qaeda-linked gunmen who executed the attack took more than 150 hostages while killing 20 individuals, including an American, an Israeli, and a Belgian.  While the attack came as a surprise to much of the international community, the country has been in a downward spiral for more than a year. Mali’s elites bear most of the blame for the deterioration, but much of Mali’s trouble can be traced its foreign allies, especially the United States. As in Libya and Syria, America’s hesitation to act despite substantial warnings of rising extremist threats has led to the emergence of terrorist safe havens.

Until the spring of 2012, Westerners viewed Mali as a success story of African democracy. Beneath a veneer of calm, however, the population simmered with disillusionment over endemic corruption within the national leadership. Cronyism in the Ministry of Defense, accompanied by limitations imposed by civilian U.S. officials, impeded the efforts of American Special Operations Forces to develop Mali’s army. The U.S. government and other foreign donors gave little attention to problems of Malian leadership, preferring instead to concentrate their aid on social and economic development, which in their view provided the best antidote to Al Qaeda and Mali’s other extremist groups.

The deficiencies of the Malian government might never have been exposed were it not for the Western intervention in Libya. In 2011, the United States, France, and their NATO partners used air power to help rebels overthrow the Qaddafi regime, yet refused to employ any ground forces to help stabilize the country during the post-Qaddafi transition. The absence of Western ground forces prevented the securing of Libyan jails, from which Islamic extremists poured, and of Libyan arsenals, from which the extremists equipped themselves.

At the end of 2011, heavily armed militants migrated from Libya into northern Mali to launch an offensive against the Malian army. U.S. Special Operations Forces stationed in Mali warned that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups were gaining rapidly in strength, and recommended greater assistance to Mali’s security forces. The U.S. ambassador to Mali and civilian officials in Washington dismissed these warnings as hyperbolic.

In early 2012, governmental inefficiency and corruption prevented the resupply of Malian army units that were fighting extremist groups in northern Mali. The deaths of Malian soldiers and their families following the exhaustion of ammunition supplies at remote bases provoked outrage within the military, culminating in a military putsch on March 21, 2012. The Obama administration terminated all assistance to Mali’s security forces, citing a U.S. law that bans military assistance following a coup.

The disorganization of the new government and the loss of American assistance enabled Al Qaeda to seize all of northern Mali. Along with France, the country’s former colonial ruler, Mali’s neighbors called for military action to retake the north. The United States instead emphasized development aid and negotiations with the rebels. Economic development proved elusive in the absence of security, as rebels stole or destroyed whatever foreign largesse was to be had. The rebels strung out the negotiations while they recruited local Malians and welcomed foreign jihadists in preparation for an offensive in the new year.

As extremists consolidated their grip on northern Mali, the French stepped up their preparations for military intervention. At a NATO summit in late 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Michael Sheehan promised French officials in private that the United States would provide “whatever it takes” to help them in Mali. Later, after American inaction prompted French sources to disclose that promise to the press, U.S. officials denied that the American statements amounted to definite commitments. The officials asserted that the true meaning might have been “lost in translation,” and that “neither Mr. Panetta nor Mr. Sheehan directly urged France to use force and didn’t promise specific support.”

The Al Qaeda offensive into southern Mali commenced on January 5, 2013. Within five days, the Malian capital of Bamako was in mortal peril. French President François Hollande, who was particularly concerned about the fate of 6,000 French citizens in Bamako, decided to send in French forces to save southern Mali.

Recalling the American pledge of “whatever it takes,” Hollande asked the United States to provide refueling aircraft, since the French military had few tankers capable of keeping its strike aircraft in the air for prolonged periods. To the astonishment of the French, the Obama administration said it would not meet the French requests until it received extensive information about the targets that French bombers were striking. For several weeks, the Obama administration dragged its feet on the request, while administration officials gave the press excuses for American inaction. “No one here is questioning the threat that AQIM poses regionally,” an unnamed administration official commented. “The question we all need to ask is, what threat do they pose to the U.S. homeland? The answer so far has been none.”

Fortunately for the French, they were able to stop the rebel onslaught without American support. They subsequently recaptured the cities of northern Mali, driving Al Qaeda into hiding. Ensuing French attempts to transfer responsibility for security to a multinational African force, however, ran aground because the African troops were, in the words of one senior U.S. official, “completely incapable.” In another attempt to build local capacity, the European Union cycled Malians through short military training courses. Seasoned insurgents routed the new units as soon as they reached the north. By the fall of 2014, the extremists had regained control of most of the north.

In the face of persistent enemy strength, French President Hollande cancelled troop withdrawals and maintained a French presence of 1,000 troops in Mali. With so few troops in a country twice the size of Texas, though, the French largely confined their activities to surgical strikes on extremist forces. Enemy control of the population sharply constrained the gathering of intelligence for the strikes.

Over the past year, requests from Mali and its neighbors for a larger military presence have again been drowned out by voices calling for negotiation. In June 2015, a coalition of northern rebel groups agreed to a peace deal, but the extremists did not sign on. In the absence of an effective governmental presence in the north, the extremists retain a safe haven from which to plot new depredations, such as the Bamako hotel attack, which made headlines across the globe, and whose victims included an American, a Belgian, and an Israeli.

The Bamako attack offers fresh evidence of several deficiencies in America’s approach to Islamic extremism. Top civilian officials badly underestimated the extremist threat in early 2012. By dismissing warnings of rising enemy strength as alarmist, the Obama administration avoided tough actions that could have nipped the problem in the bud. As events deteriorated in Mali, the United States had an opportunity to take charge of an international coalition, but instead chose to sit back and prod the French forward with empty promises of support. Although the French were able to thwart the 2013 offensive without the American support they expected, they have not been equal to the task of restoring security across northern Mali. They lack the military resources to hold territory and have not brought competent African forces into Mali in sufficient numbers.

So far, the reconsolidation of terrorist safe havens in Mali has not led to direct attacks on Europe or the United States. Yet each time that al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, or their partners gains control of substantial territory and population, the threat level rises. The French have undertaken an admirable effort to check the growth of extremism in Mali, yet the effort has exposed the limits of their capabilities. One key lesson of the French effort is that American leadership remains essential to any substantial campaign against violent extremists, whether in Mali, Libya, or Syria. Another is that the best time to act is well before the situation has spiraled out of control. The cost of confronting Islamic extremists is much lower before they succeed in sowing local violence and instability. At such an early stage, it may be possible to enable local partners to handle the threat, before the insertion of foreign combat forces becomes the only viable option.


This bulletin is adapted from Dr. Moyar’s monograph, Countering Violent Extremism in Mali, published by Joint Special Operations University in November 2015.

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