Although I’d hoped to take a break from this blog over the summer, I’ve been watching recent events in Mali with a growing sense of alarm. Below is a list of some notable terrorist incidents in parts of Mali that were, until recently, considered “safe.” The map shows locations of seven incidents I have enumerated, but note that this is not an exhaustive list of terrorist activity in Mali.
- Kayes region: In November 2012 the radical jihadi/criminal organization known as MUJAO claims credit for kidnapping French citizen Gilbert Rodriguez Leal in Diéma (1), near the Mauritanian border. MUJAO announces Leal’s death in April 2014. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Diéma.
- Bamako district: On 7 March 2015 gunmen kill five people during an attack on La Terrasse nightclub in Bamako’s Hippodrome neighborhood (2). The group Al Mourabitoune, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claims responsibility. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, the bars and restaurants of Hippodrome were a frequent destination for off-duty Peace Corps Volunteers in the capital.
- Koulikoro region: On 8 August 2015 the national gendarmerie post in Baguinéda (3), a small town located just 15 km outside the District of Bamako, is attacked by unknown assailants. According to Studio Tamani, they manage to sack the offices and burn a vehicle before escaping into the night; none has been apprehended. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Baguinéda and its environs.
- Sikasso region: In June 2015, gunmen on motorcycles mount separate attacks on police posts near the border with Cote d’Ivoire in Fakola (4) in the Kolondieba district and in Misseni (5) in the Kadiolo district. Islamist group Ansar Dine later claims responsibility. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to both districts.
- Ségou region: On 1 August 2015, unknown gunmen kill two Malian soldiers and wound four in an ambush on the Diabaly-Nampala road in the Niono district. This follows a January attack on the town of Nampala (6) in which ten Malian troops died. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to the Niono district.
- Mopti region: On 7 August 2015 attackers kill at least five civilians and four Malian soldiers at the Hotel Byblos in Sévaré (7). While Al Mourabitoune allegedly claims responsibility, some reports highlight the attackers’ links to the Macina Liberation Front, a recent offshoot of Ansar Dine. Prior to the national-level unrest that began in early 2012, Peace Corps Volunteers had been posted to Sévaré, which at one time was also home to a regional Peace Corps office.
This list suggests a disturbing trend: the “bad guys” who, for the most part, once contained their nefarious activities to Mali’s unruly northern reaches–particularly the regions of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal–have penetrated into the rest of the country. Of Mali’s nine administrative regions plus the District of Bamako, each has now been the scene of at least one terrorist attack, and most have seen terrorist violence within the last 90 days.
The spread of this violence, directed both at military personnel and soft civilian targets, is particularly worrisome at this moment in time because the Peace Corps, the U.S. government-funded development agency, is getting ready to re-deploy Volunteers to Mali. Peace Corps had very sensibly pulled all its Volunteers out of the country in April 2012 in the wake of the army coup in Bamako and militant takeover of the north. Last year, it sent a very small number of “Peace Corps Response” volunteers to Mali for short-term service; they completed their in-country training and were sent to their posts in November 2014. Now the agency is gearing up to send a much larger number of Volunteers to posts in southern Mali.
When I heard from the Peace Corps director that this move was in the offing early last year, I thought it was prudent. In light of the recent events outlined above, however, I think the risk of Peace Corps Volunteers becoming targets of terrorist activity in Mali is unacceptably high. As the list of violent incidents grows longer, and more and more unprecedented tragedies take place, Malian security forces have not been able to keep foreigners, UN personnel, or even their own troops safe from harm. PCVs should not be sent into this environment.
I write these words with a heavy heart. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer whose service in Mali years ago is the origin of my career as an anthropologist and Africanist scholar, I wish every American who sought the opportunity could serve for two years in a peaceful, secure place like the Mali I remember. Unfortunately, as recent events illustrate, the Mali of today is no longer that place. Gone are the days when the threat of a kidnapping, shooting, or suicide bombing was unknown to Malians, or even known only to northerners. The threat is now pervasive and shows no sign of diminishing.
Thus far I have kept to myself my serious reservations about the return of PCVs to Mali. I know that Peace Corps staff and U.S. Government officials are strongly committed to the safety of Volunteers wherever they are posted, and they have always taken action to protect PCVs in Mali. Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder: If we’ve misjudged the threat and a Volunteer is taken hostage, wounded, or killed in Mali, how could I justify this silence? There is no way I would want my own son or daughter to be exposed to the level of danger that currently prevails for Westerners throughout Mali.
We must engage with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. For me, this means recognizing the risks in Mali for what they have become. If any U.S. Government employee, PCV, trainee or trainee’s relative, or anyone living in Mali would like to weigh in on this question, I invite them to do so in the comments section below.
Postscript, 12 August: With tonight’s attack on the Sogoniko bus station in Bamako, the security situation in southern Mali edges closer to the abyss. As a PCV I spent countless hours at that station waiting for Sikasso-bound buses. Could anyone possibly make the case that Mali is a safer place for Americans today than it was in April 2012, when Peace Corps evacuated the country? Or is the primary distinction simply the fact that the U.S. supports the Malian regime now, and it didn’t back then?