A Divided Military Fuels Mali’s Political Crisis

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 12

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali (Source: Claude Truong-Ngoc)

Both short- and long-term prospects for renewed stability in Mali’s restive northern region took a heavy blow with the May collapse of the Forces armées du Mali (FAMA) in the face of Tuareg and Arab resistance in the northeastern Kidal region. The collapse reflected long-standing divisions and rivalries within the Malian Army that have gone unresolved despite new efforts at equipping and training the Malian military.

While the international community has pledged over $4 billion in funds intended for reconstruction, patience is beginning to run out with the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who appears to have wasted little time in re-introducing various ills of the previous government, including nepotism, poor governance practices and a lack of fiscal accountability most visibly manifested in the unnecessary purchase of a $40 million Boeing 737 jet for presidential use that has endangered Mali’s eligibility for foreign aid. Funds targeted for military reconstruction have produced new uniforms and a new logo for the army, but little else (Guardian, May 18).

When a small group of Islamist insurgents attacked the city of Gao shortly after its January 2013 liberation by French forces, a much stronger Malian force made an unsuccessful appeal to French forces to intervene. Malian operations chief Colonel Didier Dacko did not find the French refusal surprising: “I do not blame [the French] for not coming immediately. It was the first time that the two armies were facing a common enemy, with no real coordination,” adding that "Our army is the exact image of our country. The coup has accelerated its decay” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 19, 2013).

Miscalculation in Kidal

The trouble in Kidal began with a poorly considered visit to the region by Prime Minister Moussa Mara on May 17, intended as a demonstration of Bamako’s sovereignty over the region. Mara insisted on visiting Kidal despite several days of violent protests and runway occupations designed to prevent his plane from landing. Mara eventually arrived at the military base by helicopter, but violence erupted with Tuareg and Arab rebel factions seizing the government house, abducting civil servants as hostages and slaughtering some eight government officials. A Malian military offensive was launched on May 21 to retake Kidal, but faltered in the face of heavy opposition from the Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA – largely Ifoghas Tuareg), the Mouvement national pour la libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – largely Idnan and Taghat Mellit Tuareg) and the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA).

Once fighting broke out, Malian troops, many of them recent graduates of EU military training, quickly broke and abandoned their positions across northeastern Mali to take refuge in Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA – United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) camps or to flee south or north on the road to Algeria. With Malian forces on the run in most regions of northeastern Mali, MNLA forces easily occupied the towns of Anefis, Aguelhok, Tessalit, Menaka, Ansongo, Anderamboukane and Lere, seizing weapons and vehicles abandoned by the Malian troops without a shot being fired in many cases (Reuters, May 22). Without French intervention, the MNLA and its allies might have easily retaken all of northern Mali.

Malian authorities maintain that the forces opposing them in Kidal were far larger than originally estimated (2,000 as opposed to 700) and were reinforced by elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the allied Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA), an unlikely combination in the current political circumstances of northern Mali (Mali Demain [Bamako], June 5; L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 5).

The question of who actually ordered the disastrous offensive on Kidal remains unanswered (the president denies it was his decision), though the resignation of former Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs and former intelligence chief Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga appears to have served to satisfy the demand for a scapegoat (Le Débat [Bamako], June 9). The new defense minister is Ba N’Dao, a retired colonel in the Malian Air Force.

Regardless of who ordered the attack on Kidal, the actual assault was directed by operational commander Brigadier Didier Dacko and led by Brigadier Ag Gamou, who was later accused by French sources of “pouring oil on the fire” (L’Opinion [Paris], June 10). Ag Gamou and his Imghad Tuareg militia have been engaged in a lengthy and bitter struggle with the Ifoghas Tuareg elites in Kidal, making Ag Gamou a provocative choice to lead the assault on Kidal. Leading a column of loyalist Tuareg, Red Berets and elements of three battalions of EU-trained Green Berets equipped with light armor, artillery and BM-21 Katyusha rocket launchers, Ag Gamou’s force appears to have encountered a superior force of rebels from the MNLA, HCUA and MAA. The Malian offensive quickly collapsed with the loss of as many as 50 soldiers, including Ag Gamou’s right-hand man, Colonel Ag Kiba. No attempt at intervention was made by the 1,200 MINUSMA police and troops from Guinea, Chad and Senegal stationed in Kidal’s Camp 2. France eventually responded to the violence by sending an additional 100 troops from Abidjan to Gao, bringing the French deployment up to 1,700 soldiers (Reuters, May 21).

Return of the Red Berets?

Much of the weakness of the Malian Army is based on distrust between different factions that predates the January 2012 Tuareg/Islamist rising in northern Mali, but which was exacerbated by the March 22, 2012 military coup led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and the “Green Beret” faction of the Malian Army. The coup was opposed by the 33rd Parachute Brigade “Red Beret” airborne units that also formed the presidential guard of Amadou Toumani Touré, himself a former Red Beret. Though unable to prevent the coup, the Red Berets succeeded in spiriting the president to safety before mounting an unsuccessful counter-coup in late April 2012 (see Terrorism Monitor, February 22, 2013). The failed counter-coup was followed by the brutal torture and murder of roughly 30 captured Red Berets, who subsequently disappeared into mass graves near the Kati military base outside of Bamako that served as Sanogo’s headquarters. 33rd Brigade commander Colonel Abidine Guindo was arrested in July 2012, for his role in the counter-coup and detained for 16 months. The two factions clashed again on February 8, 2013 (Le Flambeau [Bamako], February 13, 2013).

A reconciliation was effected between the two factions in June 2013, that allowed the Red Berets to return to active service in northern Mali, with Sanogo describing the fatal conflict within the military as a series of “misunderstandings and differences of view” (Le Progrès [Bamako], June 29, 2013). However, after having failed in his attempt to position himself as a senior statesman in democratic Mali following the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in September 2013, Sanogo and twenty of his relatives were charged with “kidnapping, abduction and murder” in connection with the murders of the Red Berets (AFP/MaliActu, June 6). Also charged were former defense minister General Yamoussa Camara, former state security director General Sidi Touré and two of Sanogo’s aides, Captain Amadou Konaré and Lieutenant Tahirou Mariko (L’Aube [Bamako], March 27). Responsibility for guarding the president was eventually passed on to Mali’s Garde Nationale.

It was not only Red Berets who suffered under Sanogo’s command, however, as demonstrated by a September 2013 mutiny at the Kati military base by soldiers of Sanogo’s Green Beret faction angry at the cancellation of promised promotions (L’Aube [Bamako], March 27). The disturbance was ended by the intervention of Malian Special Forces under Lieutenant Colonel Elisha Daou, which arrested some 30 mutineers. The bodies of five of these soldiers, still in uniform but bound with rope and irons, were found in two bizarre graves alongside the heads of five crocodiles (L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 25). Many other victims of Sanogo’s manhunt for mutineers remain missing.

On June 6, Malian authorities revealed they had disrupted a new military plot against the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta allegedly led by members of the Red Berets. Some officials denied the plot was actually a coup and those detained were officially charged with intending to “destabilize the institutions of the Republic and endangering the security of the State” (22 Septembre [Bamako], June 9).

Among those arrested were the alleged ring-leader, Lieutenant Muhammad Ouattara, and ten non-commissioned officers, though there were reports authorities believed the plot was sponsored by “some senior military officers” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 6; Reuters, June 6). Otherwise, details of the plot remain scarce and there is wide skepticism in Bamoko over the reality of the alleged coup. Ouattara previously spent 8 months in detention following the Red Beret’s unsuccessful counter-coup in April 2012 and was sent north to the Gao region after his release (L’Aube, June 9).

Al-Hajj ag Gamou and the Pro-Bamako Tuareg Militia

Brigadier Ag Gamou, the leader of the failed assault on Kidal, is one of Mali’s most experienced and controversial officers. After joining the Libyan Army at age 16, the future militia leader saw service in Chad, Lebanon and Syria before returning to Mali as a rebel leader in the 1990s before his integration into the Malian Army. Ag Gamou was decorated for his service as an ECOWAS peacekeeper in Sierra Leone before being posted to northern Mali, where he cooperated with Arab militia commander Muhammad Ould Abd al-Rahman Meydou in driving Tuareg rebels under the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga from northern Mali in 2009. Promoted to Brigadier in September 2013, Meydou is a Tilemsi Arab and highly capable desert fighter whose command is composed mostly of Bérabiche Arabs from the Timbuktu region (L’Indépendant [Bamako], September 13).

Finding himself isolated in the Gao region by the 2012 Islamist occupation of northern Mali, Ag Gamou rescued his men by declaring his allegiance to the Islamists before moving them through Islamist lines to the Niger border, which he then crossed with his troops while declaring his change of loyalties was only a subterfuge. While in Niamey, Ag Gamou survived an assassination attempt intended as payback for his trickery. When Chadian and Nigérien forces moved north to join the French-led Operation Serval, Ag Gamou’s troops joined them and played an important role in hunting down Islamists in the rough terrain of the Adrar des Ifoghas. 

Despite these successes, Gamou found himself recalled to Bamako in March 2013, after arresting three MNLA rebels in Kidal who were cooperating with French forces involved in Operation Serval. According to sources within the military, Ag Gamou continued to operate independently and without regard for the chain of command, a habit developed during his time under former Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré, who gave the Tuareg militia leader a largely free hand to carry out operations in northern Mali as he saw fit (Procès Verbal [Bamako], April 3, 2013). While in Bamako, elements of MUJWA attacked a home belonging to Ag Gamou’s relatives, killing two (including a four-year-old girl) and severely injuring the child’s mother. Despite his controversial status, Ag Gamou was promoted to Brigadier General on September 18, 2013, a move received with popular acclaim in the Gao region (Le Débat [Bamako], January 3).

In February, a group of Fulani tribesmen attacked Gamou’s home village of Tamkoutat in the latest stage of an ethnic conflict between local Tuareg and Fulani herders. Gamou saw a political motive in the attacks:

They put pressure on me by attacking my family because they accuse us of having acted for various military forces to return the Malian government in the north. They used the same procedure as [the January 2012 MNLA/Ansar al-Din massacre of Malian troops at] Aguel-hoc, tying their victims’ hands behind their back and slaughtering them one by one (Nouvelle Libération [Bamako], February 13).

Recently, representatives of the MAA and the Coordination malienne des Forces patriotiques de résistance (CMFPR – largely Songhai and Fulani “loyalist” self-defense militias such as Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso) involved in peace talks in Ouagadougou proposed Ag Gamou as the new Malian chief-of-staff to replace General Mahamane Touré, who resigned following the Kidal affair, suggesting that Ag Gamou was the individual most capable of uniting the badly divided military (L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 4).


The Kidal incident has revived popular anger at the French and the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, with both being accused of working in favor of Tuareg separatists. This perception is a natural development stemming from French cooperation with the MNLA during the Spring 2013 Operation Serval campaign against armed Islamists in northern Mali and subsequent French attempts to slow the reintroduction of central government authority in the Kidal region before a general peace treaty is agreed upon. In the meantime, the Keïta government has announced it will expand its underfunded and underequipped military by introducing mandatory national service for men and women aged 18 to 35 earlier this month (Reuters, June 5). Military training will last for a period of six months, though it was not clear whether this measure would be applied in northern Mali, where it would likely be a non-starter with both Tuareg and Arab groups. There is a sense that Keïta’s new measure is at least in part a response to student protests in Bamako.

President Keïta has lost the confidence of the international community – the IMF, World Bank and EU have frozen aid and development programs in the face of unanswered accountability questions. Within Mali, the president has lost credibility and must now enter negotiations with rebels in Ouagadougou in a position of weakness. While there are serious questions regarding the reality of Ouattara’s Red Beret coup attempt, the conditions nevertheless exist in Mali that would encourage another military coup – corruption, military collapse, plummeting morale, internal challenges to sovereignty, international isolation, ineffective governance and loss of confidence.

Andrew McGregor is Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world.