Cover: Mali's Next Battle

Mali's Next Battle

Improving Counterterrorism Capabilities

Published Apr 20, 2017

by Michael Shurkin, Stephanie Pezard, S. Rebecca Zimmerman


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معركة مالي التالية: تحسين قدرات مكافحة الإرهاب

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Research Questions

  1. What is the current terrorist threat in Mali?
  2. What are Mali's counterterrorism requirements?
  3. How can the United States constructively engage with Malian security forces?

This report examines Mali's counterterrorism requirements in light of recent evolutions in the country's security environment. In spite of the achievements of France, the United Nations, and the European Union, the terrorist threat in Mali is growing, but Mali's military remains largely ineffective. Part of the challenge is the interconnected nature of Mali's terrorist problem and the political strife that afflicts Mali's northern half, which the peace agreement signed in Algiers in June 2015 only somewhat addresses. Moreover, Bamako's response remains focused to an inappropriate degree on acquiring the military capabilities it hopes will help redress the balance of power in the North while leveraging proxy ethnic militias. These militias, though more effective on the battlefield than Mali's own forces, have the potential to further aggravate northern Mali's instability.

The report argues that it is not possible to strengthen Mali's counterterrorism capabilities in isolation from its general military capabilities, which are in need of fundamental reforms. Such reforms should include making the armed forces more inclusive of minority groups and more attentive to relations with northern communities, improving the effectiveness and accountability of defense institutions, building human capital and leadership, and enhancing operational capabilities. In all cases, the United States must coordinate its efforts with the other actors on the ground in Mali, especially the French and the European Union, to ensure complementarity.

Key Findings

The Terrorist Threat Persists in Mali

  • General insecurity related to Mali's internal problems continue to facilitate terrorist activities and hamper efforts by Mali and its international partners to effectively deal with them.
  • The signing of a peace accord — though a prerequisite for future progress — will have, at most, a limited effect.
  • Mali cannot handle the terrorist threat in its territory without outside help.
  • The task before the United States is to identify opportunities to engage with Mali and its other international partners to bring greater security and stability to Mali and the region.

A More "Republican" Malian Armed Forces Will Have a Better Chance Bringing Security to Mali

  • A "republican" force would fully integrate members of northern communities and former combatants, making it more likely to be accepted by all categories of the Malian population.
  • Malian leaders speak of adopting a more global approach but default to quickly acquiring tactical capabilities that would enable them to perform better on the battlefield.
  • Among the problems with Mali's interest in acquiring offensive military capabilities is the strong likelihood that Mali's armed forces will succeed only in exacerbating preexisting tensions in the North.

There Are Few Capabilities or Types of Equipment That the Malians Do Not Need

  • The emphasis should be on capabilities suited for Mali's internal security mission in the North, as well as Mali's poor ability to absorb assistance and maintain equipment and skills.
  • Three particular types of operations Mali's armed forces need to strengthen are complex attacks on fixed positions, long-endurance patrols, and static defense. Mobility should be a priority.


  • The United States should strive to work cooperatively with Mali's other international partners, including the European Union, to ensure complementarity of efforts.
  • The United States should support France's Operation Barkhane with aerial refueling; lift; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — especially aerial tankers.
  • U.S. contributions in the form of fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft likely would make a significant contribution to the French effort by enhancing French tactical mobility. Even helping France with its medical evacuation requirements would free up scarce helicopters for combat operations.
  • The United States should support the UN's operation in Mali, especially with counter-IED and static defense. The United States could also work with UN-contributing forces during predeployment training and work bilaterally with the Dutch and Swedish.

This research was sponsored by the Office of African Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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