"The Jihadists are the law now," an elder from central Mali told me. "The very day the French-supported operation finished, the Islamists were back in the villages," confided another villager last week, referring to a military operation near the Mali-Burkina Faso border in April.
The French-led military intervention in northern Mali in 2013 was hailed as a military success, ending the region's occupation by ethnic Tuareg separatists and armed Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. But since 2015, attacks against Malian forces and abuses by Al-Qaeda-linked groups have moved southward to Mali's previously stable central regions and, last year, spread into neighboring Burkina Faso.
The endurance of the jihadist recruitment success and their appeal to many villagers suggests that military operations on their own will not be sufficient to defeat the threat. President Emmanuel Macron should keep this in mind when he visits the country this Friday.
Since 2015, I've interviewed scores of witnesses and victims to abuses in central Mali. They described how, in recent months, groups of up to 50 Islamist fighters closed down schools, banned women from riding on motorcycles driven by men other than their husbands, and imposed their version of Sharia (Islamic law). "We used to spend days celebrating a marriage or baptism, dancing and singing together," one man said. "Not anymore."
Men accused of being informants for the Malian government often turn up dead. Since 2015, Islamists have executed at least 40 men in their custody, including village chiefs and local officials. Some were murdered in front of their families. Several people said they felt pressured to have one of their sons join the Islamists.
Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January.
However, an equal number of villagers told me they welcomed the presence of the Islamist groups in central Mali and saw them as a benevolent alternative to a state they associate with predatory and abusive governance. Many seethed as they described Malian army abuses during counterterrorism operations, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions. Since late 2016, I have documented the alleged extrajudicial killing by soldiers of 12 detainees, the most recent in early May, and the forced disappearance of several others.
Villagers described how soldiers detained and executed three family members in January. "We heard gunshots in the distance," one witness said. "I followed the tracks of the army truck and found our people in a shallow grave." This week, I received a desperate email from the brother of a man forced into a white pickup by men in uniform on February 3. "We have heard nothing; we have searched everywhere," he said.
While the behavior of the state security services has improved in recent years, Malian authorities have made little effort to investigate those implicated in violations.
The armed Islamist groups operating in central Mali, an area inhabited by several ethnic groups, have concentrated their recruitment efforts on the Peuhl or Fulani. Villagers said the Islamists are recruiting by exploiting frustrations over poverty, abusive security services, rampant banditry, local Peuhl clan rivalries, and, especially, corruption.
"The jihadists speak a lot about corruption... how the authorities steal, torture and do bad things to us," one elder said. "Honestly, they don't need to try very hard to recruit the youth... they're going themselves."
Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum.
Villagers also said the Islamists are increasingly filling the governance vacuum. They welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves, including by executions. Others praised Sharia rulings in favor of victims of domestic violence or spousal abandonment. Elders from both the sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities credited the Islamists' efforts in late 2016 to resolve deadly land disputes. This meaningfully reduced communal violence in some regions, they said.
"We are fed up with paying bribes every time you meet a man in uniform or government official," one villager said. "The Islamists get all this done without asking for taxes, money, or one of our cows."
The burden to resolve this situation lies first and foremost with the Malian government. But military operations, including those supported by the French, are not enough to pull Mali from this deepening quagmire.
French strategy in Mali and the wider Sahel won't succeed without helping Mali to address the issues underlying decades of insecurity and the growing support for abusive armed Islamist groups. After all, it was corruption, poor governance, and abusive security force conduct that led to Mali's spectacular collapse in 2012.
When President Macron visits Mali on Friday, he should urge the government to professionalize the security forces and hold them accountable, to support the chronically neglected judiciary, and to take concrete action against rampant corruption. Strengthening Mali's weak rule of law institutions is complicated work, but no counterterrorism strategy can succeed without it.