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On 29 June, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved the renewal of the mandate of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) until the 30th of June 2018.
Despite the efforts of MINUSMA, the alleged success of the French Operation Serval (2013) and the ongoing Operation Barkhane, new terrorist-labelled groups have emerged in Mali, the frequency of attacks has increased and insecurity has extended to the central regions of the country. Also, due to slow political progress, the cantonment stage of MINUSMA’s Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process has been significantly delayed.
By continuing to deliver DDR programming as ‘Business As Usual’, and not acknowledging important aspects of Mali’s continuously changing security environment, the Security Council has missed the opportunity to use MINUSMA’s mandate renewal to strengthen the DDR process.
Complex security environment
The current DDR programme is based on the traditional postulate that armed groups can be split into two single entities: the signatories of the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement on one side and the violent extremists on the other. It is assumed that it is possible to reintegrate combatants of the first group into society or the national defense and security forces, while combatants of the second kind would be irreconcilable.
The success of DDR relies in part on a profound understanding of the links between rebels, extremist groups, illicit networks and the local population. The ethnically pluralistic and socially rigid society of northern Mali counts more than a dozen armed groups including separatists, local militias, criminal networks and jihadi groups, such as Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - which recently merged into the coalition Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). These groups are not monolithic: they frequently split, coalesce and shift allegiances. Meanwhile, they are inextricably interconnected and rely on the same illicit resources, cross-border networks and foreign support.
As Mali’s peace negotiations did not include the jihadist groups, the beneficiaries of the DDR process are limited to fighters from the signatory parties - the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and the Platform of armed groups (the Platform) - excluding the jihadist groups. The prevailing Western policy makers’ discourse has cultivated this simplistic dialogue-eligible versus enemy terrorist dichotomy and puts pressure on the Malian government to follow the same line. However, in the complex Malian political landscape, such simplifications mean that MINUSMA’s DDR process has a large blind spot.
Political and criminal violence
The current DDR programme does not sufficiently take into account the causes of the violence. While it is traditionally assumed that Mali’s jihadists are motivated by religion, Islamist violence should not be delinked from other forms of political violence as it is inherently connected to issues of resentment, political or economic exclusion, and takes root in localized conflict dynamics. In fact, extremist groups have become deeply rooted in - or are part of - Mali’s societies, and have contributed to fill state-created gaps in community service provision, including basic healthcare, security and policing.
In addition, groups from all sides, including state actors, are said to be involved in the competition over control of smuggling routes. Historically an international crossroads for trade, the northern region of Mali is still a hub for trafficking cigarettes, drugs, weapons, people and other contraband. Illicit activities in the region are estimated to generate US$3.8 billion annually. The UN estimates that about US$ 1.25 billion worth of cocaine alone crossed West Africa in 2013. The insufficient acknowledgement of this broader context means that MINUSMA’s DDR process is bound to ignore important aspects.
The current DDR process is also insufficiently acknowledging the needs and motivations of individual combatants. Groups are deeply fragmented and an individual’s affiliation can be ephemeral. People use certain jihadi strategies to serve their own interests in a certain context. Reasons for joining are not necessarily the same as those to remain. As a Tuareg interlocutor explains in a report from 2014: ‘In the last year alone, there are people who have changed from Malian military, to separatist rebel, to jihadist, to French ally, all while being narco-traffickers’.
In a recent survey, former jihadists mentioned poverty, the absence of state services, unemployment and the need for protection and belonging as the most important reasons to join an extremist organization. For instance, more than €750 can be earned for information that can be used to target MINUSMA or Barkhane convoys, €1,500 for a landmine and more than €30,000 for a valuable hostage - considerable sums in a region where the minimum wage is less than €50 a month. Any DDR process which takes insufficient account of such alternative strategies is likely to struggle.
These aspects of the Malian security environment have a number of important implications.
Firstly, it implies that DDR cannot be artificially divorced from counter-terrorism operations, as it is certain that combatants with all kind of profiles will participate. MINUSMA’s DDR programmes will have to move beyond the traditional dichotomy of terrorist versus rebel and require guidelines and frameworks for dealing with defectors of extremist groups. MINUSMA cannot continue to handle Jihadist groups as external security issues that are addressed by the French military Operation Barkhane.
Furthermore, it means that unless it is imbued with a comprehensive approach, dealing with political and economic exclusion or localized conflict dynamics, a DDR process is unlikely to be sustainable.
Lastly, it implies that at the individual level, DDR processes need to be tailored more to swing-combatants who tend to change affiliations in pursuit of their own individual objectives.
By not reviewing MINUSMA’s DDR mandate, the Security Council missed a crucial opportunity. As long as MINUSMA insufficiently addresses the above aspects in its DDR programmes, it risks missing chances to rein in those combatants who otherwise may continue to use violence. Moreover, by not developing MINUSMA’s DDR strategy further an opportunity is missed to feed into the broader UN debate on what role the next generation of DDR programmes should have in countering and preventing violent extremism.
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