MOPTI, Mali — Two separate attacks on U.N. peacekeeping bases in Mali earlier this month have escalated security concerns for NGOs and international organizations in the country’s northern and central regions. The already-volatile area has seen a rise in incidents against NGOs in recent months, and analysts fear local extremist groups may be forming in the country’s central and southern regions in response to limited governance.
The insecurity is wreaking double havoc: It has increased humanitarian needs, as public services deteriorate and livelihoods are compromised. Meanwhile, aid organizations are struggling to operate and address those needs given the complex safety risks.
“In this insecurity and fighting, you have elements who simply don’t respect humanitarian organizations and, in fact, they openly target humanitarian organizations,” John Ging, director of operations for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Devex. “The influence we have and our ability to negotiate respect for and security for our operation in an environment in central and northern Mali has limitations,” he said.
The attacks on U.N. peacekeepers on August 14 took place in Timbuktu, in Mali’s north, and Douenza, in the central region. In the former case, armed assailants targeted the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali’s headquarters, leaving six dead. One peacekeepers and a Malian soldier died in the second incident.
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For aid organizations, the primary threats include thefts, carjackings and kidnappings. In a reminder of the risks, militants released a video of hostages abducted as early as 2011 just ahead of a visit to Mali by French President Emmanuel Macron in early July. Though one of the hostages, South African Stephen McGown, was released a few weeks later, the incident rattled the aid community. Relief groups have developed personalized security protocols to cope with ever-present risks. Security experts also urge the development community to work with and through local partners at all stages of programming and implementation to mitigate risks and build trust.
A backdrop of insecurity
Mali has maintained a high-security risk profile since 2003, when Algeria’s militant Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat fled across into the country’s northern region. The country today is home to overlapping conflicts, including between roaming pastoralists and farmers, as well as jihadists groups.
Military efforts to establish security have so far had mixed results. Government military forces and working with the U.N. Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in Mali and the French-led Barkhane forces, which have been present in-country since 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Though Islamic militant groups have had no territorial control since the French operation, Vincent Rouget, West Africa analyst at the global risk consultancy firm Control Risks, said they have “proven very mobile, very agile and very capable of evading surveillance and conducting attacks increasingly outside of their stronghold in the desert north.”
The crumbling security situation in this landlocked country may pose a threat to neighboring countries, experts told Devex. The countries making up the Sahel region — Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — launched the G5 Sahel Joint Force earlier this summer to combat Islamist militants. Even with large financial support from the European Union, from France and from each country making up the force, Rouget believes that the deployment of more forces will not necessarily be an effective solution to this problem. He said the approach, in some cases, could even exacerbate tensions and lead to more discontent with the presence of expatriates.
The deteriorating security situation is having a devastating impact on the local population, said Ging. “People are really exposed to very dangerous, volatile and difficult situations … and that feeds directly into the escalation in their need and dependency on humanitarian support because they are negatively impacted in their own capacity to cope,” he said.
The European Union has agreed to support the Sahel region in its fight against extremist groups, imposing security in the troubled region and allowing it to develop economically. With an initial funding agreement, Sahelian leaders say the force should be operational some time this year.
During his visit to the Mopti region in April, Ging found that nearly 300 schools were closed, more than double the amount closed last year. Across the greater central and northern Mali, 507 schools were closed out of 2300 schools total.
Providing desperately needed humanitarian support has also proved a daunting task, often obstructed by the highly uncertain situation, Ging told Devex.
Security risks now extend across the central region of Mali, impacting even the traditionally stable towns of Sevare and Segou. The lack of government presence in these areas has provided fertile ground for Islamic militants and radical discourse to take hold, Rouget explained.
Militants in this area tend to be decentralized, he said. While operating under the Al Qaeda umbrella, they work independently from one another, making them more difficult to root out. Rouget described them as local cells fighting against the state.
Experts working in the Mopti region are divided over whether these groups have specific targets, or whether the insecurity is more generalized. A UNOCHA representative in Mali argued that attacks happen to all types of people, not just aid workers. Whereas, an office manager for an aid relief agency told Devex that the U.N. and NGOs are singled out.
Rouget sees militants targeting those they consider “crusaders,” or Western nationals and those working with them, including French soldiers, U.N. peacekeepers, Malian military and gendarmerie and NGOs. In order to gain local support, these groups usually attempt to avoid Muslim casualties, he said. Attacks are often highly targeted, avoiding large scale suicide bombings employed by other jihadist groups such as Boko Haram, for example.
According to the Mali chapter of the International NGO Safety Organisation, incidents against NGOs are on track to be double compared to last year. As of June 2017, the country saw 98 incidents compared to a total of 114 NGO incidents in 2016.
Tomas Musik, INSO section director responsible for operations in Mali, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, accounts this significant increase in overall security incidents to a rise in criminality.
“This rise is due in part to the political context which remains unabated between pro-government security forces and opposition groups, which you could qualify as the radical jihadi groups,” Musik said.
Carjackings are particularly common, usually impacting NGOs and aid workers, as they tend to be the ones using vehicles. “There is some targeting which is not related to an NGO mandate or lack of acceptance from the community, but which is rather due to lack of exposure and the fact that NGOs remain present very extensively in the field and compared to presence of government or private sector,” he said.
Keeping aid workers safe
To increase aid worker safety, experts recommend international organizations work more closely with local populations. No white expatriates currently work in Mali’s central region.
“Humanitarian organizations work very much at the basis of community acceptance, so a central part of how humanitarian organizations enhance their own security is direct engagement with community leaders: Seeking support and respect from them for the humanitarian activities whether it’s the staff, the locations, or the movement of supplies,” Ging told Devex.
Musik stressed the importance of delivering quality work and assistance to communities, involving the local populations to define needs and targeted response plans, and making sure that the community feels represented.
“Groups must have a really sound understanding of geography because the threat varies hugely across regions and across localities,” Rouget added. He said it is critical to understand if an imminent threat exists, or if an area only experiences sporadic attacks. For single visits, he said, it is important to consider details such as choice of hotels and restaurants, as well as where one spends time outside the office, since many large attacks in Mali have occurred during weekends.
“As an organization, what you can do is provide your staff who are deployed [in unstable zones] with training and get them properly equipped to face hostile environments, and also more broadly to try to instill a culture of security awareness, which is not necessarily easy to do with NGOs and humanitarian aid workers but really make staff aware of the threat level and make sure they don’t take unnecessary risks,” Rouget urged.
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