BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — In Bamako’s working-class Darsalam neighborhood, a young gendarme stands near a newly barricaded street, his hand on the trigger of a rifle pointed slightly downward.
The armed policeman is a sign of how Mali’s bustling capital of more than 2.5 million people on the banks of the Niger River is on heightened alert as jihadist attacks have come dangerously close to the city .
At least 15 extremist attacks hit Mali in June and July, the boldest when jihadist fighters attacked Kati, the country’s largest military base, just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the capital.
Growing insecurity in Mali, a sprawling country of 20 million people, has increased instability in West Africa’s volatile Sahel region. Mali has seen two coups since 2020 in which the military pledged to do more to stop jihadist violence.
In recent months, the leader of the junta, Colonel Assimi Goita, who had himself appointed transitional president, ordered French troops and a force from the European Union to leave the country. The junta also limited the operations of a UN peacekeeping force. Instead, the Malian army works with the group of Russian mercenaries, the Wagner group. The Malian government officially denies the presence of Russian mercenaries, although several European diplomats have cited evidence that Wagner is in Mali.
“The withdrawal of French forces has certainly left a vacuum, particularly at the intelligence level, and this places Bamako and other parts of the country in a more vulnerable position to jihadist groups, and by past experience, to prevent infiltration and attacks is very difficult,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South.
“If these groups can infiltrate and attack Mali’s most protected base in Kati, then they can do the same against strategic locations in Bamako,” Lyamouri warned.
The pace of jihadist attacks accelerated and in June a leader of the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM group threatened to attack the capital directly.
The United States is moving all non-essential personnel out of Bamako and, like many other Western countries, has advised travelers to avoid traveling to Mali.
The Malian army has tightened security in the capital and closed the main roads “to counter this terrorist threat in Kati and Bamako. Some roads leading to the military camp or the residence of the transitional president are also cut,” Colonel Souleymane Dembele, spokesman for the Malian army, told The Associated Press. “Every day we arrest terrorists in or near Bamako.”
Although the heightened security aims to protect citizens, some of the measures have been detrimental to ordinary residents.
Assa Diakite looked in dismay at her crumbling cornfield near the Bamako airport military camp, in a video posted on social media. Her entire crop had been cut down by the army as a safety measure, she said.
“I’ve been a farmer here for 25 years and there haven’t been any problems so far,” she says. “The soldiers who mowed my crop say the maize plants blocked visibility around their camp and allowed jihadist rebels to hide in the fields to attack them. It was not my wish. I am a widow, and it is thanks to these crops that I feed myself and my family. I ask for help from the transitional president Assimi Goita.
A few days later, kind-hearted citizens donated money to help Diakite and other farmers whose fields had been cut down.
But even these acts of generosity can be attacked by jihadist rebels, who warn that cooperation with the military could lead to attacks from them. A recent jihadist audio message broadcast on WhatsApp has caused panic.
The jihadist message was addressed to the residents of Kati who, after the July attack on the army barracks, had vowed to search all their homes to root out the extremist rebels.
“When you see a kamikaze car (suicide explosive vehicle) coming from afar, taking care to avoid bars, concert halls, football stadiums, markets to target only a military camp, you must understand that (the ‘army) is our target,” the message read.
“But if you show us that you and the military are the same thing, then why do we bother to target only the military camp?” he warned ominously.
“This message is to tell people to be careful. … If you push us to extremes, that’s how we can react,” said Baba Alfa Umar, an independent geopolitical researcher who follows the situation in the Sahel.
Amid military moves, the junta has taken steps to address Mali’s political situation and prepare the ground for new elections, which it says will take place in February 2024. Last week, Mali’s transitional government appointed a team to draft a new constitution within two months.
A key point will be whether Mali continues to be a secular state. In 2012, extremist rebels linked to al-Qaeda launched their attacks saying they were fighting for Mali to be governed by Muslim Sharia.
“The question of secularism and the place of religion in the Malian constitution” is the crucial question to be decided in the drafting of the new document,” said Gilles Yabi, director of the West African Citizen think tank, Wati.
“The main question that interests Western partners and necessarily other Malians is the place of religion in politics. Should there be a separation between the religious sphere and the political sphere? Yabi said. He said that while the majority of Malians are Muslim, “there are Malian civil society actors who will also push for the Republic of Mali to remain secular.”
Baba Ahmed, The Associated Press