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Despite Low Mass Killing Risks, Likelihood of New Conflict in Mali Increase as Peace Talks Falter

In the early morning of March 6, a masked gunman attacked a crowded nightclub in Bamako, the capital of Mali. In a combination of automatic gunfire and grenade blasts claimed by the northern Mali-based militant group Al Mourabitoun, the gunman killed five people, including four civilians. Beyond Bamako, rebel violence since the conclusion of a French-led military operation against militants in the country’s northern region in early 2013 has periodically targeted civilians throughout Mali.

Recent violence against civilians, both in Bamako and in multiple northern cities, suggests ongoing peace negotiations between the Malian government and a fractured set of northern rebel groups may yield few dividends for the country’s civilians. On March 18, the Malian government announced plans to cease participation in talks with northern rebel groups, after the rebel coalition rejected a statement of principles between the two negotiating parties. As representatives of both parties have labored in the northern town of Kidal over the particulars of peace, fighters affiliated with militant groups like Al Mourabitoun have continued assaults on military and civilian targets throughout Mali’s northern province.

The Early Warning Project’s statistical assessment places Mali ninth among countries most at risk of a new episode of mass killing. Members of the Project’s expert opinion pool see an even lower relative risk of mass killing: a quarterly summary of opinion pool forecasts released in early March placed Mali 29th in a list of 36 countries of concern. Fighters aligned with groups like Al Mourabitoun may continue to launch attacks on civilian and military targets in 2015, but Mali experts say these attacks are unlikely to transform into a new episode of mass killing.

The Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessment suggests political elites’ perceptions of threats to their own authority drive much of Mali’s current risk of future mass killing. The “elite threat” model relies on proxy measures of coup and conflict onset to assess potential windows of opportunity for new mass killing. In this circumstance, Malian rulers would orchestrate large-scale targeted attacks on civilians to repress political competition. 

A recurrent history of violent conflict since Mali’s independence also shapes the country’s contemporary risk of mass killing. Bruce Whitehouse, associate professor of anthropology at Lehigh University, says a “cycle of impunity” has encouraged continued violence between rebel groups and Malian security forces since the early 1990s. “Each side feels it’s the aggrieved party,” Whitehouse continues, “causing them to overlook grievances against their own side.” This perpetual sense of political insecurity and uncertainty among governing elites and rebel leaders often prompts violent responses to disputes that may be more peaceably resolved through negotiation, according to Whitehouse. These violent events are often smaller-scale incidents that rarely escalate to the level of mass killing. An extrajudicial execution of civilians organized by Malian security forces in the northern town of Sévaré in January 2013—among the gravest incidents of reprisal violence during the country’s recent violent conflict—killed approximately two dozen civilians. 

Negotiated settlements to Mali’s persistent conflict have allowed small improvements to the general standard of living among some marginalized communities in the country’s northern province. For many more, a precarious trade-off between economic development and the maintenance of peace has prompted new conflict, if not large-scale targeted attacks against civilians. Since the resolution of Mali’s second Tuareg rebellion in 1995, Malian officials have used disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs, a common staple of global post-conflict reconstruction efforts, to encourage rebel fighters to lay down their arms. These programs often provide perverse incentives for individual and collective participation in new rebel activities, according to Georg Klute, professor of African anthropology at the University of Bayreuth, in eastern Germany. Klute, who has spent significant time in the field with rebel groups in northern Mali since the 1970s, cites several examples of Malian civilians who enrolled in rebel militias solely to seek compensation from government DDR programs. These actions do not necessarily encourage new mass killing, but the instability and renewed conflict they foster may heighten future risk. 

The experts we interviewed found a low risk of mass killing in Mali. Their assessment aligns with the findings of the Early Warning Project’s statistical risk assessment and the Project’s expert opinion pool. Both histories of past conflict and incentives embedded in ongoing peace talks, however, suggest Mali will remain among the Early Warning Project’s top countries of concern as current talks stall. We will continue to rely on feedback from our expert opinion pool to assess the impact of developments in Mali’s peace talks, the evolution of rebel violence against military and civilian targets, and related factors on the risk of new mass killing.