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Mali: Growing Trend of Violence Against UN Peacekeepers

Ms Sindhu Dinesh is a Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 25, 2021

    On 2 October 2021, a United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) peacekeeper died and four others were seriously injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Tessalit, Kidal region. Strongly condemning the incident, Mr El-Ghassim Wane, the Special Representative of the Secretary General and Head of MINUSMA, remarked that, “this incident is a sad reminder of the permanent danger that hangs over our peacekeepers and of the sacrifices made for peace in Mali.”1 The worsening security situation in Mali is fuelled by political instability and economic crisis. As per UN official statistics, 255 peacekeepers have lost their lives in Mali as part of MINUSMA, as on 31 August 2021.2 The growing trend of attacks on international entities besides the government units and civilians in Mali is an issue of serious concern. Against this backdrop, this commentary provides an insight into the security situation in Mali and attempts to explore the questions—What do the terrorists and insurgent groups in Mali seek? Why has the violence increased? Why have peacekeepers been targeted frequently?   

    Security Situation in Mali

    Over the last few decades, Mali has been troubled by issues like ineffective governance, poor economic conditions, human rights violations and feeling of marginalisation among communities in the northern region. In recent years, these challenges have been exacerbated by the increase of insurgency and jihadist elements, absence of political will to protect civilians, issues of corruption and internal strife among different sections in the society.

    The security crisis in Mali began with the armed rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs of the separatist organisation Mouvement national de libération de l'Azawad (MNLA) which seeks to establish a separate Tuareg state called Azawad in northern Mali.3 The MNLA was aided by external Islamist militant groups like the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine.4 The crisis was aggravated by the military coup in 2012. Owing to the subsequent political instability and violent conflict, northern Mali became a breeding ground for various insurgent, violent extremist and terrorist outfits. While local insurgent movements like the Tuareg rebels have turned into organised terrorist outfits through linkages with fighters from AQIM; external terrorist groups like the AQIM Sahel Branch laid inroads into the region in 2017 by merging with local affiliates to form the Union for Supporting Islam and Muslims (also known as Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin [JNIM]) further worsening the crisis.5 Frequent attacks on civilians by armed extremist groups like JNIM, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and others have led to the displacement of over 3,70,000 people.6 It is of grave concern that besides consolidating their control over the northern and central areas of Mali, these groups have begun to expand into the southern regions.7

    The weakening of the State institutions by frequent coups, three in less than a decade, has further deteriorated the security situation.8 The most recent coup in May 2021 was led by Col Assimi Goïta, the interim vice-president of the transitional government, who seized power from the transitional President Bah Ndaw and the Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. He announced that he felt obligated to arrest the members of the transitional government in order to preserve the “transitional charter and defend the republic” as they had failed to consult him on the reshuffle of the Cabinet which removed two influential military-appointed Cabinet Ministers.9 The resulting political instability has inadvertently strengthened the terrorist elements who take advantage of the lack in checks and balances. These groups seek to gain territory in order to carry out their operations. The involvement of several external actors like the French troops, MINUSMA, G5 Sahel Force and others to aid the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) has yielded limited success. The JNIM and another AQIM offshoot associated with the Islamic State have claimed several attacks against UN personnel and state targets in Mali and Burkina Faso.10 The security crisis is amplified by the growth of organised crime networks involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling in the region suspected to be the source of funding for the terrorist groups. It has been reported that the continued strengthening of the militant groups in Sahel region based out of northern Mali could allow the Islamic State and Al Qaeda to establish a safe haven and engage in intensified militancy.


    The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was instituted in 2013 by the UNSC Resolution 2100 of 25 April 2013 to perform security-related tasks and support political processes in Mali.11 Through the adoption of UNSC Resolution 2164, its functions were expanded to include protection of civilians, support reconciliation efforts and national political dialogues amongst others.12 As of March 2021, MINUSMA includes 13,289 military personnel, 1,920 police personnel and 1,619 civilians contributed by over 60 countries.13 Owing to the security conditions, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has continually extended the mandate of MINUSMA each time by a year. It was extended up to 30 June 2022 by passing of the UNSC Resolution 2584 on 29 June 2021.14 These resolutions also include dimensions like ensuring political transition; renewal of asset freeze and travel bans on persons obstructing the 2015 Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Mali; and extending the mandate of a 15-member Expert Panel to aid in monitoring the situation and facilitate political dialogue.

    Attacks on MINUSMA Peacekeepers and Its Implications

    The attacks on UN Peacekeepers has increased over the last few months. In April 2021, four peacekeepers were killed and 19 were seriously injured in an attack on their camp in Aguelhok, Kidal.15 Furthermore, in January 2021, four peacekeepers lost their lives and seven were seriously injured by IED attacks.16The complexity of the security situation in Mali and high fatalities of peacekeepers has led to MINUSMA being perceived as the most dangerous UN Peacekeeping mission. In an official statement referring to the 2 October 2021 incident, the UN Secretary General called on the Malian government to immediately identify the perpetrators to ensure swift justice, reiterating that attack on peacekeepers amounts to “war crimes” under the international law.17

    Numerous resolutions too have been passed by UNSC on the situation in Mali such as 2584 in June and 2590 in August this year, amongst others.18 However, the continued incidents of violence raise concerns about the utility of issuing statements alone. There is an urgent need to proactively implement them and ensure accountability on actions. Owing to the security crisis, MINUSMA has been aided by ad hoc missions like the G5 Sahel Joint Force. However, these multiple missions need to be closely coordinated to complement one another rather than causing unnecessary overlap in their activities.19

    The primary reason underlying the violence against the peacekeepers is the indigenous resentment against the presence of foreign military troops on Mali soil.20 The militant outfits dub the peacekeepers as “Crusader Occupation forces” and specifically target them.21 Insurgent elements of the Tuareg groups perceive the foreign presence as a weakness of the state authority and interference in the internal affairs of Mali. The slow progress on implementation of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali, signed in 2015, is an added dimension. The peace deal also known as “Algiers Accord” was mediated by Algeria and signed between the Government of Mali and two northern armed coalitions assuring disarmament, addressing northern political grievances, promoting development and re-establishment of state authority in the north.22 The implementation of the agreement has been stalled due to delayed response from the government, the emergence of new armed factions since 2015 as well as armed struggle between the northern factions due to competing objectives which has complicated the security scenario.23

    It could also perhaps be that attacking peacekeepers, which is covered by the international media, gives negative limelight to the violent factions and reinforces a sense of relevance. This is incited by poor progress or non-implementation of strict measures against the perpetrators by Malian authorities. Since the government is itself dependent on the foreign troops to prevent acts of terrorism, it is not equipped to militarily react to attacks on the foreign actors like the UN Peacekeepers, effectively.24 Other reasons for the lack of strict measures is the malfunctioning of judicial system, corruption, lack of training and constraints in resources.25 Mali ranks 19th in the Fragile States Index 2021 implying that the state presently lacks the ability and infrastructure to enforce accountability for attacks against peacekeepers.26

    Yet another facet to the issue is the framework and functioning of UN peacekeeping operations. UN Peacekeepers are equipped to protect civilians from attacks by armed groups but not to engage in counter-terrorism activities.27 Although MINUSMA is the only peacekeeping operation authorised to counter asymmetric threats, it does not have the tools to deal with organised armed terrorists making them easy targets.28

    Any form of attack on the blue helmets is unacceptable and the UN must take efficacious measures of accountability. India pioneered this effort by organising an open level debate titled “Protecting the Protectors” during its UNSC Presidency in August 2021 chaired by External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar. The resolution must gain traction by being proactively implemented at the earliest so as to avoid further incidents of violence and loss of faith on humanitarian aid by countries. The security crisis in Mali has spilled over to the region and the increased violence against peacekeepers needs to be given due attention by the international community before the crisis escalates out of control.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.