A volatile mix of intercommunal conflict and violent extremism near Mali's border with Niger and Burkina Faso has become a looming crisis, experts are warning.
Yearslong regional violence has spiked in recent months, making headlines and raising concerns that overstretched security forces could lose control of an already tenuous situation.
On June 14, gunfire near Liptako, Mali, forced a French Gazelle helicopter to make an emergency landing, defenceWeb, a South African defense news site, reported. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a local affiliate of ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack, which wounded the crew, the report added.
The helicopter and its crew were part of Operation Barkhane, a French-led counterterror operation based in the Sahel. At the time, they were conducting an attack on ISGS hideouts, which left 20 suspected militants dead.
Pauline Le Roux, a visiting assistant research fellow with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said ISGS emerged in 2015 from the remnants of other extremist groups in the region. It gained international notoriety in 2017 when it claimed responsibility for an attack in Niger that left four U.S. Green Berets, four Nigerien soldiers and a Nigerien interpreter dead.
The extremist group has proven difficult to eradicate, and Le Roux said it has taken advantage of the sparsely populated border region between the three countries. Nearly 90% of ISGS's attacks occur within 100 kilometers of the three countries' borders.
"When they faced defeat, they basically relocated to other areas," Le Roux told VOA. "This three-border region is quite porous. You have forests; you have vast desert zones. And so, it's been quite easy for them to change locations."
Extremists have also benefited from long-standing tensions between communities in the border region. Those conflicts have turned violent with increasing frequency, creating opportunities for militias to recruit, and pushing security forces to the limit of their capabilities.
For many years, intercommunal conflicts have flared between nomadic and agrarian groups in the region, Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told VOA.
But the situation has deteriorated since 2012, when militias began recruiting members of the Fulani, a local ethnic group, sparking reprisals and more violence, Dufka said.
"Other ethnic groups felt the need to organize ethnically allied civil defense groups. And those groups have not only defended their villages but, as we have seen, they have gone on the offensive and killed many, many Ful[ani], whom they blamed for supporting — or being direct members of — the armed dissident groups," Dufka said.
All the while, radical preachers fanned the flames, Le Roux added.
"They endorsed feelings of injustice and discrimination, and they used these grievances" to foment violence, she said.
Climate change has also contributed to conflict, increasing competition for an already short supply of water and arable land.
But it is rising ethnic tensions that give analysts the greatest concerns.
"Right now, what is extremely worrying is the fact that these interethnic tensions appear to be growing and to become the most worrying trend, at least in Mali," Le Roux said.
"The lethality and the frequency of these very serious incidents is increasing at an alarming rate," Dufka added. "The violations are really at a fever pitch."