Early in March, four Islamic extremist factions in Mali merged and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. What does this mean for the conflict-ridden country?

On 2 March 2017, a new jihadi group announced its formation in Mali. Calling itself ‘Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen’ (Supporters of Islam and Muslims Group), it is an amalgamation of four existing factions: Ansar Dine, al-Murabitun, Macina Liberation Front (MLF), and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The leader of Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag-Ghali, was appointed the group’s leader.

The declaration of the merger came just a week after former Tuareg separatist rebels began joint patrols with Malian forces in the north of the country under the 2015 peace agreement, which was aimed at helping calm a region under threat from Islamist extremists.

While global fears about jihadism are dominated by ISIS, Mali is a hotbed for al-Qaeda aligned militants. All of the groups in this merger were already connected to al-Qaeda.

Ansar Dine emerged in 2012 and allied itself with al-Qaeda, although it was never a formal affiliate. It presented itself as a religious alternative to the largely secular Tuareg separatists which were formed in resistance to the French dominance and operated in northern Mali. The Macina Liberation Front (MLF), an affiliate of Ansar Dine, emerged around the beginning of 2015. AQIM, which grew out of the Algerian civil war, aligned itself with al-Qaeda in the 2000s, with al-Murabitun splintering from the group in 2013. They joined forces again in December 2015, following collaboration on an attack the previous month.

Mali saw increased insecurity in 2012 alongside the emergence of Ansar Dine. Islamists including Ansar Dine and AQIM took over northern Mali, exploiting a power vacuum after a military coup against the president. A French intervention, together with Malian and UN troops, pushed the extremists from their strongholds the following year. As Islamist operations in northern Mali became more difficult, the extremist groups separately progressed south, infiltrating communities and towns. Nonetheless, large swathes of northern Mali continue to come under attack from jihadi groups.

From October to December 2016, the Global Extremism Monitor revealed the vast majority of attacks in Mali were instigated by Ansar Dine. These attacks were small scale and mainly targeting French and Malian forces, civilians suspected of collaborating with security forces, and aid workers. 

In the same period, al-Murabitun were considerably quieter. Following this period of minimal action, the group claimed responsibility for an attack in January, when a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden vehicle into a military camp in Gao, killing 77 people and injuring at least 115. Subsequently the group warned of further action to punish “all who were lured by France.” Whether or not this was in light of the upcoming merger, former al-Murabitun members will have to increase their activities in the newly formed organisation in order to match those of Ansar Dine.

Ag-Ghali, the leader of the newly formed group, said that the groups were inspired to merge by of the unification of various jihadi factions in Syria. However, cooperation will not be easy. In the past, Mali’s jihadi groups have experienced the same divisions that plagued the global Salafi-jihadi movement following ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate in Syria. A few AQIM units defected and pledged allegiance to ISIS, while one of al-Murabitun's founders, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, along with a group of his followers also pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in May 2015.

More recently, groups in Mali have demonstrated an increased willingness to collaborate on attacks and avoid competing with each other, something that previously impeded their efforts in the north. Belonging to different groups in Mali has not precluded collaboration previously, and long-standing jihadis such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Murabitun and former military commander of AQIM, must aid alliances through his extensive network of militants.

The merger brings the threat of increased insecurity not only to Mali but also to neighbouring West African countries which, until recently, have been relatively free of deadly attacks by extremist groups. In March 2016, AQIM and al-Murabitun demonstrated their capacity for attacks abroad through a coordinated on an attack in Ivory Coast on the Grand-Bassam, killing at least 19 people. 

If the new group is able to maintain unity and successfully organise itself post-merger, its potential for impact as one organisation is vast. While small scale attacks by the newly merged group are likely continue targeting UN, French, and Malian forces, the group will be able to use its new capacity for much larger violence.