May 9, 2016
quietly drinking tea on a December morning in a village in central Mali. But
Amadou, a local chief from the Segou region whose name I have changed for his
protection, was worried.
“I know of
10 young men who’ve joined the jihadists in recent months,” he said. “And many
more who sympathize.”
I was in
Mali to research human rights abuses, something I’d done since 2012, when the
country went through a spectacular meltdown after a near-simultaneous takeover
by Tuareg separatists and Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda in the north, and
a military coup in the south.
Islamists’ abusive regime in northern Mali was cut short in early 2013 by a
French-led military intervention. Mali appeared to be on the mend as a United
Nations peacekeeping mission was deployed, a relatively transparent election
took place, a peace deal to end the crisis in the north was negotiated and
billions of dollars in development aid were pledged.
2015, a new Islamist group emerged in Mali’s previously stable central and
southern regions. The group, which appears to be the latest franchise of Al
Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and is often referred to as the Macina Liberation
Front, has attacked military posts and executed mayors and councilmen. Its new
area of operation is largely inhabited by the Peul ethnic group (also known as
the Fulani), which makes up about 15 percent of Mali’s population.
2015, I’ve documented more than 25 execution-style killings by these Islamists.
In March a village chief described how the militants gunned down his son in
retaliation for his cooperation with the military. Residents of another village
described seeing Islamist fighters detain a man accused of being an informant.
Three days later, a resident told me, “the village woke up to find his head in
front of his shop.”
documented dozens of cases of torture and mistreatment by the Malian Army as it
visits, Peul traders, herders and elders described a growing Islamist presence
that exploited not only their poverty, but also their longstanding grievances
with the government. They anxiously spoke of the Islamists’ recruitment
success, driven, they said, by several factors.
people cited the government’s failure to protect them from banditry, which had
grown since firearms began to proliferate in the early 1990s. Herdsmen
described how bandits wielding AK-47s had taken their cows and sheep. “When you
steal my animals you take with them the future of my children,” one resident
credited the Islamists with drastically reducing banditry, something the army
had failed to do. “Every time we call the authorities, they fail to show up,” a
young man told me. Others said the Islamists had intervened to recover stolen
motorcycles or cows. “The jihadists are the law now,” one said.
also described frequent abuses by the security forces and predatory behavior
marring nearly every contact with government — demands for bribes for acquiring
ID cards, vaccinating animals, passing checkpoints. Meanwhile, “there are few
schools or clinics in our villages,” one resident said. Other people told me
that the government failed to ensure justice in cases of inter-communal
violence — tit-for-tat disputes over land or water — or security force abuses.
with dozens of detainees, nearly all Peul, who described torture and
mistreatment by the army. Amadou was one of 10 men hogtied, suspended by an
iron bar and beaten. In some cases, their teeth were knocked out; others were
burned or subjected to mock executions.
circles pulsate with theories about what causes individuals and communities to
support groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And for good reason:
Premeditated mass murder of ordinary people in shopping malls, subways and
hotels has become tragically common.
people have died in attacks by Islamist extremists in Mali, Burkina Faso and
Ivory Coast. The attacks appeared to signal Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s
escalation of the “soft target” game, perhaps in competition with the Islamic
State. Disturbingly, according to the elders I spoke with, several of the
people who helped carry out these attacks were reportedly Peul.
As the world
ponders what inspires violent extremism, policy makers should listen to people
like Amadou, who are on the front lines. They insist that their young men are
not being wooed over the Internet or joining out of religious conviction, but
rather, as one imam told me, “because the jihadists provide a better
alternative to the state.” Another man told me that many are unable even to
recite the Quran.
elders and villagers say that the way to stop this has nothing to do with
preventing terrorists from using social media or stemming the flow of foreign
fighters. They want a government whose security forces protect instead of abuse
them; whose civil servants serve instead of exploit them; and whose justice
system ensures their right to redress.
— especially France and the United States — have too often turned a blind eye
to these problems. Instead, they should insist that Mali professionalizes and
holds accountable the security forces; better supports the chronically
neglected judiciary; and takes concrete action against corruption. Only when
steps are taken to address these issues and people finally feel secure in their
own basic rights may extremist groups start losing ground?
Corinne Dufka is the West Africa director at
Human Rights Watch.