The world’s deadliest peacekeeping mission has recorded a twofold increase in fatalities among its troops from improvised explosive devices this year over last year, reinforcing what analysts say: more sophisticated attacks are being carried out by jihadists in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel region of West Africa.
Half of the 28 uniformed peacekeepers deaths recorded this year by Minusma, the United Nations peace operation, came from IED attacks, according to internal data shared with PassBlue by the mission. Of the 21 peacekeepers who died from assaults, or “hostile acts,” this year (so far), all of them have been African, according to the mission. Africans make up most of the peacekeepers in Minusma.
Jihadists’ greater use of IEDs, as the homemade bombs are known, is occurring as the French military reduces its presence in the Sahel region, and as Mali itself, having undergone two coups in the last year, may be turning to Russian mercenaries for security help, possibly destabilizing the area further, Western nations and the UN say.
Seven Togolese peacekeepers who were part of a four-truck logistics convoy carrying food from Douentza to Sévaré were killed on Dec. 8, after one of their two armored escort vehicles hit an IED in the Bandiagara area of central Mali, where security has deteriorated dramatically over the past year. A 28-year-old woman was among those killed, the youngest person in the vehicle, a source told PassBlue.
Three men were injured, with two of them transported to a hospital in Dakar, Senegal; one is in critical condition, according to a Minusma spokesperson, Myriam Dessables. She added that the convoys traveling on the road between these two cities are reinforced by mine-protected vehicles and “supported by explosives research and detection teams.”
El-Ghassim Wane, the head of Minusma, condemned the attack and said that it could constitute a war crime, in accordance with international law. After the attack on the Togolese, IED attacks this year now total 37.6 percent of the 242 military peacekeeper deaths registered by the mission. The overall fatalities hit 268, including 26 civilian staff deaths.
Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled) who documents violence in Mali and the Sahel, described the attack against the Togolese as “the deadliest” in central Mali and “the third deadliest in all of Mali since the mission began in 2013.” Two other attacks in the restive Kidal region, in the north, claimed the lives of 11 Chadian peacekeepers in 2019 and 7 Guinean troops in 2016.
“Peacekeepers are frequently referenced in jihadist propaganda, and by JNIM and affiliates,” Nsaibia said, referring to Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, a coalition of four jihadist groups with links to Al Qaeda that was formed in Mali in 2017 and is also active in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. “The concept of fighting foreign forces, described as invaders or occupiers, is central to how these groups frame their cause.” Yet the attacks by the African-based JNIM end up killing not so much “foreign forces” but fellow Africans.
Nsaibia has documented increasingly sophisticated use of IEDs, with greater explosive charges and deadlier attacks “using a combination of IEDs and small arms, machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades” against military targets throughout the region. While Minusma has always been working in the most dangerous zones in Mali, “attacks on peacekeepers have steadily increased, especially remote violence; that is to say, IED attacks and mortar and rocket fire, which are the preferred modi operandi of the militants, rather than attacking international forces head on,” he said.
African troops make up 68 percent of the 14,563 uniformed personnel currently serving in Minusma, according to figures in a recent UN Security Council report. UN data analyzed by PassBlue show that African troops and personnel make up 84 percent of the 268 deaths registered by the mission since its inception in 2013, with 242 of them comprised of military peacekeepers. The vast majority of the dead are men.
Chad, the current largest contributor, with 1,545 uniformed troops, has experienced by far the highest number of fatalities in Minusma, totaling 74 deaths, followed by Togo. That country, also in West Africa, registers 26 deaths, taking into account this month’s attack. Chad announced it was deploying 1,000 more troops to Minusma this month as the French reduce their military forces in Timbuktu. (The Chadian plan must be approved by the Security Council.)
Chadian troops tend to be based in the remote north of Mali, with the deadliest attack on peacekeepers having occurred in Aguelhok, in the Kidal region. That assault killed 11 peacekeepers, during which “JNIM militants combined suicide car bombs, mortar fire and assault squads,” Nsaibia said.
Despite operating for only nine years, Minusma has recorded the third-highest number of deaths of any UN peacekeeping mission historically. The 43-year-old UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) posts the biggest death toll, with 324 fatalities, followed by the UN African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (Unamid), which withdrew personnel earlier this year, after 14 years in operation — recording 295 deaths, only 27 more than Minusma. While categories for deaths registered by the UN can include accidents and illness, more than half the deaths registered by Minusma, 154 out of 268, have been caused by “malicious acts.”
Internal Minusma data show the largest number of military peacekeeper casualties in 2014, 2016 and 2017, with 40 deaths each year. Since the mission began operating in 2013, 91 peacekeepers have died from IEDs; 19 occurred in 2014, the most of any year. Since 2017, the number of deaths from IEDs dropped significantly before rising in 2021, with 14 peacekeeper deaths from IEDs. Before and during deployment, peacekeepers undergo IED training by the UN Mine Action Service to help with threat mitigation and detection.
The recent increase in overall peacekeeper deaths in Mali, and those resulting from IEDs between 2020 and 2021, illustrate the rapidly rising threat of jihadist attacks as the French military operation Barkhane scales back. The closing of its bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu could create challenges for securing Minusma bases, Nsaiba said. But Dessables of the mission told PassBlue that “base defense plans are well studied” and that the “force can protect its bases and maintain their security.”
French military presence has faced strong opposition in Mali, with growing suspicion of the French troops’ emerging recently in neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, where local demonstrators blocked a convoy that French officials said was delivering logistics to its base in Gao, in northern Mali. As France cuts its troop presence in Mali, the European Union’s Takuba task force, established in early 2020, will continue training Malian forces and deploying its own troops throughout the north of the country.
The United States released a statement this month about the Malian government’s potential plan to hire the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group at a reported $10 million a month to provide security to the country. France and the European Union have released similar statements. The spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said last week about the Wagner group working in Mali: “We’ve made clear what our concerns are about the presence of foreign mercenaries, and that position remains unchanged.” President Emmanuel Macron of France just canceled a trip to Bamako scheduled for this week, disagreeing over the visit’s logistics.
Earlier this year, Minusma reported a surge in jihadist violence in central Mali by JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. The report said that from April through June “at least 527 civilians were killed, injured or abducted/disappeared, an overall increase of more than 25 percent from the first quarter” of 2021. A September Security Council report expressed “concern” about the deteriorating security and unprecedented attacks against the base in Aguelhok, in Kidal, where French troops have also withdrawn.
The report recorded 31 attacks against Minusma during a four-month period: 15 in Kidal, 8 in Gao, 4 in Mopti and 2 each in Ménaka and Timbuktu.
Nsaibia said that although the death toll has fluctuated over the years and there is no evidence of a “steady annual increase,” there are signs that “the mission has arguably become more dangerous.”
Dessables said the mission was continuing to work with the Malian defense and security forces and international partners to ensure that soldiers can detect IEDs and reduce deaths and injuries. “Minusma takes this threat very seriously,” she said.
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Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.