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Why some Malians join armed groups

It’s more about disillusionment than radicalisation

A member of the the CMA (Coordination des Mouvements de l'Azawad) secure the perimeter of the CMA HQ during the visit of Major General Michael Lollesgaard, Force Commander of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MI UN Photo/Marco Dormino/Flikr

More than two years after some of Mali’s armed groups signed a peace accord, insecurity in the country is both escalating and spreading.

When the latest chapter in Mali’s long history of insecurity first broke out in 2012 it was initially restricted to the north, but in recent years the violence committed by a wide range of groups has been growing in the centre of the country.

In the third quarter of 2017, “the security situation worsened and attacks against MINUSMA [the UN mission in Mali] and Malian defence and security forces increased and intensified,” UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in his latest update to the Security Council on 26 December.

“Terrorist groups… appear to have improved their operational capacity and expanded their area of operations [leading to] an increase in the number of casualties owing to terrorist attacks,” even if attacks between parties to the peace accord have stopped, he added.

“The peace process has yielded but a few tangible results,” Guterres concluded.

According to Ibrahim Maïga, a researcher with the African Institute for Security Studies, “we have entered a new phase of the war.”

“It is much more unpredictable than in 2012. It is much more diffuse. Before it was focused on urban centres, now it is happening in rural areas and the pockets of insecurity are much more numerous,” he told IRIN.

The “non-state armed actors” – to use the jargon of conflict analysis ­– behind this violence are many in number and raison d’être, while alliances and splits come and go.

Broadly, these groups fall into four categories:

  • The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) – a loose coalition of armed movements with shared interests in issues such as self-determination and territorial control.
  • The Platform of Armed Groups – a diverse range of nominally pro-government armed groups.
  • Violent extremist organisations, many of which fall under the umbrella of the Jamâ’ah Nusrah al-Islâm wal-Muslimîn (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims or JNIM.)
  • Other groups, notably local self-defence units which are not aligned to the above.

The multiplicity of these groups, their constant evolution, and insecurity in areas where they operate makes it impossible to determine how many Malian citizens are within their ranks. None of the organisations IRIN spoke to wanted to provide even a rough estimate.

Some sense of the scale of the phenomenon can be gleaned from proposals about how many members of the groups which signed the 2015 accord are set to be integrated into the regular security forces. The government puts the figure at 4,900; some of the signatories insisted it should be as many as 14,000. Jihadist forces and self-defence units were not party to the accord.

One area that has been researched extensively is why Malian citizens decide to join armed groups. And, according to the results of several field surveys, “radicalization” and immediate monetary gain barely figure as “pull” factors.

Instead, what emerges is a picture in which taking up arms is often a considered response to deteriorating circumstances.

“There is a multitude of factors, almost as many motives as there are members” of armed groups, explained Maïga of the ISS.

Youths, aged between 18-35, “make up the largest proportion of the groups, of their fighting forces. Without youths, it’s hard to be an active, dangerous group,” he said.

More than two-thirds of Mali’s 18 million inhabitants is under the age of 24.

In 2016, ISS interviewed dozens of former members of Malian jihadist groups to assess their motives, which the research group determined fell into 15 broad categories: Personal reasons, education, protection, social, ethical, influence, economic, family-related, political, religious, psychological, coercion, environmental, cultural/community/sociological and unknown.

The ISS findings are in line with those of other organisations that conducted similar research.

Here’s an overview of some of the key (and overlapping) factors at play:

Governance vacuum

For decades, perceptions of marginalization and neglect have fuelled insurgencies in northern Mali. The 2012 rebellion and conquests by jihadist groups led to a mass withdrawal of the state’s presence in the north.

Recent years have seen a similar exodus of government workers in Mali’s centre, as conflict spread there.

“It’s a question of governance,” Amara Sidibé, who works with an association of young Malians called Plus Jamais Ça (Never Again), told IRIN when asked about the attraction of armed groups to civilians.

“The youth feel abandoned. There is a total absence of the state, of justice, a lack of jobs. There are no health centres, schools, or places to get official documentation,” he said.

Security and protection

Abdoul Kassim Fomba, the national coordinator of Think Peace Mali, a think-tank that works on peace-building and counter-extremism, explained that “when the state is not present, people tend to place their trust in armed groups.”

According to Mercy Corps, an international NGO, “the government’s inability to provide effective security—and the subsequent widespread impunity for perpetrators of violence—have left many in conflict-affected regions seeking justice and security from non-state actors.”

“Youths in anti-government and violent extremist groups in particular shared deep grievances rooted in their perceptions of the government’s relative neglect and mistreatment of their communities, primarily in Gao and Timbuktu,” it said in a recent report based on field research conducted together with Think Peace Mali.

“Non-violent youth were more likely to say the level of government service provision in their communities was similar to or better than that of others, potentially contributing to a lower likelihood that their communities would create or support armed groups,” the report noted.

In an analysis of insecurity in central Mali, the International Crisis group explained that in the absence of the state’s presence “some authorities and local elites are tempted to try to improve security by supporting the creation of community-based self-defence militias.”

The very concept of “security” has many dimensions for Malians living in the centre and north of the country, according to the views gathered by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Coalition of Civil Society for Peace and the Fight Against the Proliferation of Light Weapons.

“Security means different things to different people,” SIPRI said in a paper based on the survey.

Respondents stressed that “security is as much a developmental question as an issue of exposure to violence.”

As well as physical violence, factors related to security cited by the survey’s respondents included “unemployment, poverty and access to public services.”


The deficit of functioning state services extends to the justice sector.

Mariam Sy, a young architect who works with Plus Jamais Ça told IRIN “the justice system is so corrupt. Decisions are biased, who pays the most wins.”

Putting an end to violence “has to start with justice. We need an equitable functioning justice system. And for a functioning justice system there needs to political will, leaders able to take decisions for the good of the population,” she said.

According to Afrobarometer, “the Malian justice system has faced deep threats and disruptions, especially in the north… access to justice remains severely compromised. Public trust in the judiciary is low, and perceptions of corruption are high.”

“Delays, the system’s complexities, and perceptions of bias lead many Malians to rely on traditional and local authorities to dispense justice, rather than engaging with the courts,” said the organisation, which conducts public surveys on attitudes to democracy and governance across Africa.

The Mercy Corp report noted that “youth cite experience with injustice – including abuses and corruption – as motivators for joining anti-government groups.”

And according to the ICG’s study on central Mali, “radical groups know how to win ground by making themselves useful and by supporting some groups against others. They… are able to respond to strong local demands for justice, security and more broadly moral standing in politics.”

Community and identity

“The search for social success and recognition” plays a key role in decisions made by young Malians to resort to violence, according to research published by Interpeace and the Malian Institute of Action Research for Peace.

“A crisis of authority” and the breakdown of a social fabric that ties young people to the family, the community and school has left many youths “without guidance.”

“Youth’s violent acts are an expression of their need to find a place in society, to be recognised and valued,” the field research found.

“Too many analyses regard youths as passive entities upon whom violence is exercised, or as vulnerable beings easy to mobilise or indoctrinate. [But] youths are fully-fledged actors in the dynamics of violence and make their own choices, even if these choices are often limited or defined by context,” the research report said.

Fomba, of Think Peace Mali, noted that such important choices are sometimes made at a collective, rather than individual level.

“There are many armed groups that defend the interests of their own communities. So the communities identify with certain armed groups, and to show their good faith they give a member of their family to join the group so they can fight for their community,” he told IRIN.

The research by Think Peace Mali and Mercy Corps also cited youths who said “joining pro-government armed groups offered them a path to entering the military, promising them eventual economic stability and enhanced social status, even if joining initially offered little financial gain.”

The way forward

According to Mercy Corps, “solutions to prevent violence are found at the community level. If we can recognise the strong influence of the community and address risk factors at the group level, we are more likely to turn youth away from violence.

“If local governance can become more inclusive and more effective at delivering state services, perceptions of exclusion that have led communities to support armed groups will change.”

Or as ICG, which warned of the blowback risks of Mali’s predominantly military response to its security challenges, puts it: “preventing crises will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism will do to prevent crises.”

“It’s a long road,” said Sy. “To get to the Mali we dream of could take 20 years, but you have to start somewhere and we refuse to lose morale.  We have no other choice, it’s our country.”


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