Macron has vowed to 'eradicate' extremists in Mali, but military might alone isn't enough.
French President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Mali for a summit on Sunday with the leaders of five countries across the Sahel: Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, known as the G5 group - a united force fighting against extremists. Following the conference, Macron committed to a 5,000 strong multinational military force based in Sévaré in central Mali to fight jihadis in the region.
The day before the conference, the extremist group 'Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen' (Supporters of Islam and Muslims Group), based in Mali, released a proof-of-life video showing six foreign hostages seized in the region in recent years. One of those hostages, Sophie Petronin, is French. The narration states the French hostage "is hoping that the new French president will come to her rescue."
Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen was announced in March 2017. The group 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. All of these four groups were connected to al-Qaeda before the merge.
With the merge came an increased threat of insecurity, not only to Mali, but also to neighbouring West African countries. Extremists have recently shown this through assaults at the heart of the country in Bamako as well as coordinated attacks abroad such as AQIM and al-Murabitun's attack in Ivory Coast on the Grand-Bassam. The possibility of coordination of personnel and equipment across the groups was aided by well-connected figures like Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of al-Murabitun and former military commander of AQIM.
These threats, amidst others, were addressed at the summit on Sunday. Macron said France would provide military support for operations as well as 70 tactical vehicles. A 5,000 strong force is due to be deployed by September to work alongside the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. Macron claimed, "We cannot hide behind words, and must take action."
However, France's intervention in Mali is not new. In 2013, a French intervention, together with Malian and UN troops, pushed extremists in the north of the country, including Ansar Dine and AQIM, from their strongholds. As Islamist operations in northern Mali became more difficult due to this intervention, the extremist groups separately progressed south, infiltrating communities and towns. In July 2014, Operation Barkhane came into action, a French force based in the Chadian capital to fight extremists across the entire Sahel.
The UN is also heavily active in the region. In July 2013, a UN peacekeeping mission was launched, which is now known as the deadliest UN peace mission. In the past four years, at least 118 peacekeepers have been killed.
Macron is evidently behind defeating the extremism in the region. Since winning the election in May, he has not only visited his troops in Mali twice, but he said France would "put all our energy towards eradicating" the threat. However, extremist activity is not easy to curb in the Sahel. It contains swathes of ungoverned spaces where it can run rife. Whilst cross-country coordination has been occurring for several years now, in order to eliminate the extremism, the new pledge will have to maintain, and improve on, collaboration.
Furthermore, a comprehensive approach that tackles the underlying ideology must be taken to drive out the militants. Mali has a rich Islamic tradition, with cities such as Timbuktu having served as influential centres of learning. Reviving and recapturing the local Islamic tradition can be acheived by empowering religious leaders, giving them the tools and support needed to prevent the next generation of extremists from being radicalised.