Islamist Militants Shift Strategy, Seek Haven in North Mali

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Islamist militants in the Sahel are shifting their strategy and focusing on establishing bases in the sparsely populated north of Mali, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and groups with ties to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have made creating operating stations a priority, Diop said in an interview in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on Saturday. At least 43 peacekeepers have been killed in Mali since the United Nations began deploying soldiers in 2013, making it the deadliest UN mission that’s currently operational.

“The terrorist threat we’re tackling now is different from anything in the past,” he said. “They also need their own territory like ISIS or Boko Haram. They want to create safe havens from where they would launch attacks, even against Europe.”

The French military has paired with armed forces in Mali, Niger and Chad to combat a surge of suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks in the semi-arid Sahel region that stretches across several countries in West Africa. Weapons from Libyan arms stocks that were looted after the collapse of Libya’s government in 2011 have stoked conflict in the region, with militants moving freely in the Sahara desert between North and West Africa.

Militants hit the capitals of Chad and Mali for the first time this year. Boko Haram set off two bombs in N’Djamena in the past month, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb killed five people in a shooting at a restaurant in Mali’s capital, Bamako, in March.

Beach Attack

To Mali’s north, in Tunisia, a man killed 38 tourists at a beach resort this month in an attack that Islamic State claimed responsibility for. The U.K. told its citizens to leave Tunisia because of the growing likelihood of more attacks.

“The threat of Islamic State isn’t far from us; we need to be prepared, we need to counter it,” Diop said. “So unless the Libyan crisis has a solution -- a political, and probably also a military solution -- we’re not safe in Mali.”

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected this year, has vowed to defeat Boko Haram. The militants, who want to impose their version of an Islamic state in Africa’s largest economy, have killed thousands of civilians and forced an estimated 100,000 people to flee across its northern borders to Niger and Chad.

Buhari fired the heads of the armed forces Monday and appointed new ones as Boko Haram’s attacks hit the worst level since he took power six weeks ago.

There’s a criminal economy in northern Mali that fuels the unrest, Diop said. Traffickers compete with each other to move drugs, goods and migrants through the Sahel, which is hard to patrol because of its desert-like temperatures and lack of roads.

“French forces are doing an excellent job,” Diop said. “But in the longer run it will be necessary to build a regional and local capacity to fight terrorism. For that we will need at least an endorsement from the UN, and that could open doors to support from the international community.”