The jihadist coalition Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), a subsidiary of al-Qaida, is now openly menacing (French) Mali’s capital Bamako. The threats are more than rhetorical – the July 22 attack on the country’s core military base at Kati, just outside Bamako, showed JNIM’s reach and daring. Jihadist incursions into southern Mali and even into Bamako are not at all new; Bamako suffered a major terrorist attack as far back as 2015. Yet the overall trend line in Mali is more and more violence, and the south (French) is under greater threat than ever before, meaning that jihadist threats to encircle and blockade Bamako are at least partly credible.
What scenarios, then, are possible? Olivier Walther of the University of Florida, a leading expert on patterns of violence in the region (I have contributed to some of his multi-authored reports for the OECD), outlined one grim scenario in a short, provocative thread the other day:
Here are a few other scenarios:
- Hard jihadist blockade: This would put Bamako in the position of Djibo, a major town in northern Burkina Faso. On and off for the past few years, jihadists have cut off Djibo from surrounding areas, accelerating displacement, further ruining the local economy, and compelling desperate negotiations that often advantage the jihadists. This would be much harder for jihadists to achieve with Bamako, however – it would entail controlling or at least terrorizing six major routes (versus just three in Djibo), and targeting a national capital instead of a provincial town.
- Soft jihadist encirclement: This would put Bamako in the position of Niger’s capital Niamey, which is surrounded by regions and departments under a state of emergency. Niamey is not cut off from surrounding areas per se, and a degree of normalcy continues there, but traveling even nearby the city can bring unexpected risks, as occurred with the August 2020 killing of some French humanitarians and their Nigerien driver not far from the capital.
- Increased terrorism in the city: This would make Bamako into an analogue of Maiduguri, Nigeria in the years after Boko Haram’s resurgence starting in 2010 – something far short of jihadist control, but still suffering a frequent clip of terrorist attacks (and I don’t mean just attacks by jihadists, but more specifically terrorism in the sense of attacks meant to instill fear among the civilian population). What that ultimately gains jihadists is unclear; in Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s terrorism set off a cycle of violence between the group and the security forces that initially seemed to benefit Boko Haram, but then state-backed vigilantes (reflecting, in part, popular fatigue with the violence) helped partly push Boko Haram out of the city.
- The fall of Bamako followed by a rapid French intervention: The outright fall of Bamako to JNIM, whether violently or through surrender, would in my view almost immediately provoke a kind of Operation Serval Part 2. The fall of Bamako would very likely entail the fall of the ruling junta there as well, unless some very low-probability and bizarre scenario emerged whether the junta and JNIM shared power (I can’t see it). The fall of the junta and the jihadist takeover of Bamako, then, would almost certainly have the French screaming “I told you so!” and organizing an intervention. I do not think the French government’s appetite for counterterrorism has diminished, overall; I think they’re just frustrated specifically with the Malian transitional authorities, and that they would go back into Mali without hesitation if the political situation there change. If France came charging in, they would send JNIM scurrying, and after the dust settled Mali would be back to something like where it was in 2013, except worse, with JNIM rebuilding in the countryside and a flimsy, pro-French civilian government in Bamako. Then the cycle of the last decade would likely repeat, perhaps with a beefed-up G5 Sahel Joint Force as a replica of the African Union Mission in Somalia.
- The fall of Bamako followed by a rapid African intervention: What if Bamako fell and France somehow passed on an intervention? Perhaps in this scenario French authorities would calculate that the French public could not stomach Operation Serval Part 2, or perhaps a vestigial junta (could Bamako somehow fall, and the junta try to rule from elsewhere in the south?). That might leave France (and the US) in support roles as the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), or some subset of Mali’s neighbors and peers (Niger + Chad, as in their intervention in Nigeria in 2015?) organized a military intervention. The question then would be whether African forces would organize rapidly or not; in 2012, when jihadists controlled northern Mali, there seemed to be some hesitation on ECOWAS’ part, or at least a preference for attempting negotiations. Would that allow JNIM to look something like Somalia’s al-Shabab in 2009-2010, carving out a substantial territory that it openly governed? Of course, even in al-Shabab’s case their control over the capital was eventually broken.
- The fall of Bamako followed by stalemate: Would both France and ECOWAS (and Niger, Chad, Senegal, etc.) hesitate to intervene? What then – would there be a kind of Talibanization of JNIM, where they agree to implement their vision within the borders of a single state? Where would that leave JNIM’s ventures in Burkina Faso and further afield? Would JNIM use Mali as a launching pad for some kind of more ambitious attacks elsewhere (potentially returning Mali to the scenario of a rapid French intervention)? Or would the scenario settle into a long-term stalemate, even longer-lasting than al-Shabab achieved in Mogadishu circa 2009-2011? I find this one unlikely but not impossible.
- The fall of Bamako followed by chaos: What if Bamako falls but no one really “wins”? That is, what if Bamako proves ungovernable for JNIM, amid what would likely be a very unenthusiastic population, massive civilian flight, an immediate suspension of most international assistance and programming, crippling diplomatic and economic isolation of an already desperately poor and landlocked country, etc.? How would other Malian actors react – would there be a bizarre scenario of JNIM controlling Bamako but not Kidal, Timbuktu, Gao, etc? Would JNIM march into Bamako and then march into Mopti, Segou, etc? Or would there be some kind of war of all against all?
- A failed jihadist attempt to take or hold Bamako, followed by blowback for JNIM: Blockading a city or terrorizing it is not the same as attempting to take it and hold it. What if JNIM seriously tried to take control and then lost to the Malian armed forces – or even to a popular uprising? JNIM leaders must know that even in the best-case scenarios for them, taking Bamako would entail considerable exposure. If JNIM captured Bamako, would Iyad ag Ghali, Amadou Kouffa, Yusuf al-Annabi, and other senior leaders show their faces, as the jihadist leadership did in northern Malian cities in 2012? Or would they rule through proxies? If they show their faces, they’re essentially putting targets on their back, but if they don’t show face, why bother taking the city in the first place – and could they trust mid-level commanders to run a whole capital for them? There is a significant possibility of jihadist overreach here – no matter how much their capabilities have grown, it seems to me that overt state-building efforts still carry more risks than rewards for jihadists. I suppose that’s why ultimately, I still think the first few scenarios I described are much more likely than these scenarios further down the list.