Large-scale attacks by the Sahelian branch of the so-called Islamic State have driven a major humanitarian emergency in northeastern Mali and contributed to the highest civilian fatality count in the country’s decade-long jihadist conflict.
Testimonies collected by The New Humanitarian in recent weeks highlight extensive needs on the ground and capture the frustration of local officials and displaced people who say the government isn’t doing enough to support them.
“Not even a simple hello has been received from the government, not even to find us a space to settle,” one official, from the badly affected commune of Talataye, told The New Humanitarian late last year. Their name is being withheld for security reasons.
The Islamic State group – known as Islamic State Sahel Province or IS Sahel – was a major target of France’s counter-jihadist mission, Barkhane, which completed its withdrawal from Mali last year after relations soured with the ruling junta.
Analysts say French forces contributed to a worsening of the security situation in Mali. Yet their departure has given breathing room to IS Sahel, which has launched an offensive on an “unprecedented scale”, according to conflict monitoring group ACLED.
“Since the end of the Barkhane operation, we can feel the rise in power of the Islamic State,” said Baba Dakono, a political and security analyst based in Bamako, Mali’s capital.
Since March 2022, IS Sahel has committed a series of massacres in Ménaka and Gao, the main regions where armed groups have been contesting them. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands have escaped their homes.
“Since the end of the Barkhane operation, we can feel the rise in power of the Islamic State.”
Displaced people are sheltering in camps in major urban centres, but “they are not [living] in good conditions”, said Mohamed Aly Yattara, who fled his home last year and is now living in Ménaka town.
Aid groups say access to communities in the northeast is limited due to insecurity. They are also contending with an increasingly restrictive junta that has tightened controls over NGOs and suspended the activities of those receiving French funding.
IS Sahel emerged in 2015 after its former leader peeled away from a separate jihadist group along with a few hundred fighters. It primarily operates in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
It took time for the group to be recognised by IS central command and it was badly weakened by French-led operations in 2020 and 2021. Airstrikes eliminated its top leaders, but the group was able to rebound.
Rights groups say recent killings have mainly targeted the northern Daoussahak group. IS Sahel has accused the community of collaborating with rival non-jihadist armed movements, though some Daoussahak are also part of the jihadist coalition.
Attacks have been especially deadly because IS Sahel’s definition of apostasy includes almost anyone who disagrees with it, and because the group is less lenient towards civilians than other jihadist movements.
“They killed all the men, and pierced the water tank, and poured poison into the pool.”
“It is a group that is particularly violent, and often the cause of tragedies that go beyond comprehension,” said Dakono, who is the executive secretary of a local organisation called the Citizen Observatory on Governance and Security.
A member of a women’s association in Talataye – a village and commune in Gao region – said IS Sahel attacked her mainly Daoussahak community last June but were repelled. She said fighters then returned in September and “destroyed everything”.
“They killed all the men, and pierced the water tank, and poured poison into the pool,” said the woman, whose name is also being withheld due to reprisal risks. “[They] burned all the cereals that could not be taken away… and left Talataye in ashes.”
Asked what motivated the atrocity, the association member added: “[IS Sahel] just wants to control the area [and] bring the people to submission while promising security and that any opposition would not be accepted.”
Alhassane Gaoukoye, a researcher and author from Ménaka, said the Malian army has conducted airstrikes and patrols in towns, and confronted militants in some areas. But he said it is “very rare” that they intervene in militant-controlled terrain further afield.
Dakono said the army has strengthened in recent years and acquired new equipment. But he argued that the government appears to be “almost indifferent to what is happening” in the northeast.
“This is what is most worrying, given the almost dramatic evolution of the situation,” Dakono said in an interview late last year. “There has been a little or no communication at all from the government, which is quite surprising.”
This silence has vexed affected people. It feeds into a longer history of perceived marginalisation of the north by the southern government, which has contributed to previous revolts by parts of the region’s diverse Tuareg community.
“No flag at half mast, no national mourning. Aren't we Malians?” an influential member of the Daoussahak community – which is closely related to the Tuareg – told the junta’s legislative body last year.
Some displaced people said they have received assistance from the government, though others said they have only been helped by international NGOs and UN agencies. All called for more support from whoever could provide it.
“The state and its partners must react to find solutions to food issues,” said Yattara, the displaced person in Ménaka. “We would like to see a quick solution to alleviate the suffering of the people in these areas.”
According to a December report from humanitarian organisations, there are around 60,000 displaced people in Gao and 31,000 in Ménaka. More than 410,000 people are displaced across Mali and nine million need assistance.
The anti-IS front
Non-jihadist armed groups have done much of the fighting in the place of the army. These include the Daoussahak faction of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), and the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA).
However, Albachar Ag Hamadou, an MSA member, said these two groups “cannot cover all the territory, given that IS Sahel fighters are very mobile… and are guided by Malians that know the terrain well.”
Gaoukoye, the Ménaka-based researcher, accused the MSA and GATIA of committing their own abuses and illicit activities (as have rights groups). “Does the international or the national press talk about it?” he asked, rhetorically.
Gaoukoye called the Islamic State title a “Western representation” that lacks local nuance. He said the group includes people marginalised from other armed groups, those seeking revenge for past injustice, and foreign fighters with economic motives.
Also confronting IS Sahel (having once collaborated with it) is the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaeda-affiliated umbrella coalition known by its acronym JNIM.
According to media reports, JNIM’s leader recently met with non-jihadist armed groups in the north, including former separatists and government-aligned militias. Interlocutors reportedly discussed concentrating their respective efforts on fighting IS Sahel.
Dialling down tensions
Militant violence isn't only affecting the north. It is roiling central regions and spreading further south, with recent JNIM attacks striking close to Bamako. Across the country, jihadists killed significantly more civilians last year than they did in 2021.
Mali’s populist junta has, meanwhile, picked fights with its neighbours, regional bodies, and Western countries. Tensions are also growing with the UN peacekeeping mission, whose human rights chief was expelled on Sunday.
“There are many fronts open… so they have to take the most important ones to manage them.”
While the junta enjoys a fair amount of public support, Gaoukoye called for it to “lower tensions with neighbours” and stop losing energy on “pettiness and geostrategic mistakes”.
“We are in a fight against our neighbours, with France, and… at the same time we are facing armed bandits,” he said. “In my opinion, there are many fronts open… so they have to take the most important ones to manage them.”
Asked for their message to the government, the local official from Talataye simply requested aid. “I call on the government to come and help the displaced people,” they said, “because nobody can predict the end of this crisis.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.