Mali: What's next after the Kati attack?

Are we heading towards more sophisticated attacks with more diversified targets to make the maximum number of victims?

A week after the jihadist attack carried out on Friday 22 July in the suburbs of Bamako against the Soundjata Keïta military camp in Kati, Mali's largest garrison and the residence of Colonel Assimi Goïta, the head of the military that holds power in Bamako, we still don't know much about what really happened. Yet the daring operation could herald a new turn in the Malian conflict, experts warn.

Hours after the attack, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Mali (EMAG) pointed to the Macina Katiba, the active central branch of al-Qaeda's local branch, the Group for the Defence of Islam and Muslims, better known by its Arabic acronym Jnim.

"The armed forces have just contained yet another desperate attempt by the Macina Katiba terrorists who, early this morning at around 5am, attempted to carry out kamikaze actions with two booby-trapped vehicles packed with explosives against an installation of the Directorate of Material, Hydrocarbons and Transport of the Armed Forces (DMHTA)," reads the communiqué issued that day by the EMAG.

The Malian army was not wrong. On Saturday 23 July, "Az-Zallaqa", the media organ of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), claimed responsibility for the raid, which it described as a response to the operations of the Malian Armed Forces (Fama) and the Russian military company, Wagner, against the "oppressed and the reliable".

"If you can buy mercenaries to kill defenceless innocents, it is also our right to destroy and target you," the statement said in Arabic.

Since taking power at the end of May 2021, after ousting the transitional president and prime minister they themselves had installed nine months earlier, Mali's ruling military has decided to regain the initiative against jihadist groups. Their new strategy against the jihadist insurgency that started in the north of the country in 2012 and then spread to the centre with the birth of the Macina Katiba in 2015, under the impetus of the Fulani preacher Amadou Kouffa, has had some successes, according to pro-government media. But also sometimes accusations of abuses against civilians, as was the case in Moura, where at the end of March the army claimed to have neutralised 203 jihadists in an operation that lasted several days and combined ground and air actions.

Arbitration within the GSIM

According to Wassim Nasr, a France24 journalist and specialist in jihadist groups, "since the Dogofry, Nampala and Moura massacres, there has been preparation and arbitration within the Jnim, and the Macina Katiba in particular, to know what message to send to avenge their own. According to him, "the arbitration was around the nature of the target to be aimed at, either a soft target in Bamako, notably a place of assembly or a poorly protected government building, or even a Western embassy, or to focus on military targets which is theoretically more difficult".

According to the expert, these "trade-offs" and related "comings and goings" have been the cause of several alerts issued by Western chancelleries, such as that of the United States of America, in recent months in Bamako. Between 29 April and 16 June, US diplomats in Mali issued three alerts about planned attacks on government targets, the airport or Western representations in the Malian capital.

In the end, the jihadist group chose to attack Mali's largest camp.

"The target that was attacked is quite particular. It is the heart of Malian power that has been attacked. It is not only the military power, but also the political power because today, Kati has a double symbol. The symbol of the military power of Mali, because it is a garrison town. It is where you have most of the military leaders. It is also where most of Mali's military leaders have been trained. The Head of State and the Minister of Defence reside there as well as a number of senior officers. It is therefore the heart of political power in Mali," says Ibrahima Maiga, a researcher on peace and security issues in the Sahel region.

In its claim, the Jnim reports an attack carried out by "two suicide bombers, one of whom was from Burkina Faso, and "inghimassi", "immersionists", who volunteer to die, against the "most powerful barracks in the capital, near the president's house and the residence of the minister of defence".

According to the jihadist group's communiqué, "the mujahideen burned several cars and then withdrew to safety."

A message to the junta

"By doing this, the GSIM is sending a message to the Malian government. They want to prove that they are able to strike at the heart of Bamako's governance and security apparatus. This is a strong message, even if we can consider that in terms of military impact, it is not a success," Wassim Nasr says.

"The choice to use scarce resources, two suicide bombers and their booby-trapped vehicles, knowing that they could have done much more damage by attacking a civilian target, is a political message that is also addressed to the Malian population," the journalist explained. He noted that the jihadists have "a certain intelligence capacity", but also "real gaps" in the Malian security system.

"They are also saying: Wagner has been there for a few months, but that doesn't prevent us from acting in our areas of activity where we have a lot of freedom because the French army has withdrawn from the country. So the air cover is no longer there. The French technological intelligence capacity is no longer there either. This leaves the jihadists with a great deal of freedom of action and movement that allows them to operate further south from their historical bases to the gates of the capital," adds the specialist.

Juan Diego Castillo, an expert on jihad in the Sahel, also sees in the attack on Kati "a progressive collapse of the security barrier around the capital" due to the audacity shown by the Islamist insurgents who had already shown the day before an impressive capacity for coordination by acting simultaneously in Douentza, Koro, Sevaré, Bapho, Segou and Kolokani, localities in central Mali where three soldiers were killed, according to the Malian army.

The analyst fears that the Kati operation is just the beginning of a series of more complex and bloody operations to come. "Are we moving towards more sophisticated attacks with more diverse targets to make the maximum number of victims?

Wassim Nasr believes that "this could be subject to new arbitrations, between those who favour targeted attacks and those who want to satisfy revenge."

A few days after the Kati attack, an audio recording widely shared on social networks and whose author claims to be from the Macina Katiba, warns the civilian population against supporting the Malian armed forces, otherwise, he warns, the jihadists could be led to strike civilian targets.