Mali is to launch a major new military operation in seven troubled regions in the east and center of the country to “counter terrorist and criminal threats” and assert the authority of the state.
Under the direct command of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Operation Maliko is “instituted to restore the State of Mali in its sovereign functions in some of its Regions, based on the action of of the Malian Armed and Security Forces,” read the Thursday, January 30 decree signed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
The “desired end state” of Operation Maliko is an end to “terrorist and criminal threats,” the return of displaced populations, the restoration of public administration and the rule of law, and “the authority of the state asserted over the entire territory.”
Maliko is divided into two theaters of operations with separate commanders: the East Theater, headquartered in Gao, covers the Gao, Ménaka and Kidal regions; and the Centre Theater covers the Segou, Mopti, Timbuktu and Taoudénit regions, with its headquarters in Sévaré.
The two Theater Commanders – each drawn from general or senior officer ranks – will have authority over military and security forces, paramilitary forces and military assets in their geographical areas. They are responsible for planning and conducting operations, civil defense, force protection and the security of “major assets and installations.”
The commanders will have wide-ranging powers “corresponding to defense and security requirements,” including the ability to impose restrictions on movement, modes of transport, and access to specific areas, as well as sealing off and searching localities.
The scale of the new operation is unclear, but Prime Minister Boubou Cisse last week announced a drive to recruit 10,000 new defense and security forces members, potentially boosting numbers by up to 50%. This would “allow our armed and security forces to be much more present in quantity and I hope in quality in areas where they were not,” Cisse said.
Cross-border, regional and international cooperation
Operation Maliko “takes into account cross-border, regional and international cooperation,” the decree read, a reference to the various military interventions in the region, notably the France-led Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel.
On January 13, President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel states – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania – announced a new Coalition for the Sahel which will see increased coordination between French and local forces focused on the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border zone and targeting Islamic State as a priority.
On Sunday, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that the number of French troops deployed to Barkhane will be boosted to 5,100, an increase of 600 since the start of the year – 220 of those troops have already deployed to the region.
Maliko’s theaters correspond to similar geographic divisions within Barkhane. The area of the tri-border zone in Mali is described by France as the Liptako-Gourma and it roughly corresponds to Operation Maliko’s East Theater in the Gao, Ménaka and Kidal regions, although France also conducts operations, particularly in Mopti, in Maliko’s Centre Theatre.
The new Sahel Coalition will see Barkhane and G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S) troops operating under joint command, and Parly noted that while most of the reinforcements will be deployed in tri-border zone, part of the additional force “will be committed directly to the G5 Sahel forces to accompany them in combat.”
Last week, the G5 Sahel military chiefs of staff agreed allow defense forces from each of the states to pursue terrorist fighters up to 100 km into neighboring countries, doubling the earlier 50 km limit. They further agreed to allow forces from one country to “support another force in another zone,” Burkina Faso’s General Moïse Miningou reportedly said.
France in the Sahel
The French military presence in the Sahel began in 2013 with Operation Serval in Mali, and evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region. The Barkhane force – which is supported by deployments from Denmark, Estonia and the United Kingdom – focuses activity in insurgent-hit Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, working alongside local troops and other international operations, including the FCG5S and the United Nations stabilization mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
Parly also acknowledged last week’s announcement that the Czech Republic intends to send 60 troops to join the new France-led special operations Task Force Takuba in the Sahel, and said she expected additional announcements shortly.
France has for months been trying to build support for Takuba, and the Czech Republic is only the second country to publicly say it intends to to join the new task force. Estonia said in November that it would deploy troops to Takuba. A defense ministry spokesperson told The Defense Post then that special forces will deploy to Mali in the second half of the year and that force will “assist, advise and accompany” the Malian Armed Forces.
Takuba will declare initial military capability in the summer and “will be fully operational by the autumn,” Chief of the General Staff of the French Armed Forces General François Lecointre said last week.
Islamist insurgents in the Sahel
The complex insurgency in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012, when a Tuareg separatist uprising was exploited by al-Qaeda-linked extremists who took key cities in the desert north. Former colonial power France began its Operation Serval military intervention the following year, driving the jihadists from the towns.
But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Many armed groups including Islamic State are active in the Sahel region, but the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Since May 2019, ISIS has attributed insurgent activities in the Sahel area to ISWAP, its West Africa Province affiliate that split from Boko Haram in 2016, rather than to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. ISWAP’s main area of operations is the Lake Chad area of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Macron has said the Sahel Coalition would prioritize the fight against ISIS in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area because it is the most dangerous.