Foreign Policy

Coup Plotters in Mali Had been Educated by U.S. Army

The United States has halted all security assistance training and support for Malian military forces that carried out a coup in the West African country after new details emerged that the coup was orchestrated in part by military officers who received training from the U.S. military. 

Col. Assimi Goita, a Malian military officer who declared himself provisional leader of the country, participated in U.S.-led military exercises and training aimed to counter extremist groups operating in the Sahel region.

“It’s clear that several participants in the mutiny … have received U.S. training or assistance,” said J. Peter Pham, the State Department’s special envoy for the Sahel region of West Africa, on Friday. He stressed that the United States condemned the actions by the military officials to topple the government.

“Until our review of both the situation on the ground and of individuals is complete, let me say categorically there is no further training or support of the Malian Armed Forces, full stop. We have halted everything until such time as we can clarify the situation.”

The coup, staged this past week, could present a significant setback in U.S. and multinational efforts to roll back the militant groups, some of which are affiliated with the Islamic State and al Qaeda. It underscores the deep-seated governance problems in the Sahel that helped lead to the rise of extremist groups. 

Pham said the mutiny, which deposed Mali’s president and prime minister, could hinder multinational efforts to combat terrorism. “Let’s be honest, it’s certainly not going to help,” he said. “We will do our best to try to minimize any negative impact, but clearly when you have a mutiny involving a military that is part of the effort, it cannot but impact the effort. We hope not excessively, and not to the detriment of all of our shared interests in containing the threat of Islamist extremists and other violent actors in this region.”

Mali is a major hub for yearslong multinational efforts to counter terrorist groups in West Africa. In the aftermath of a 2012 military coup in Mali, extremist groups seized large swaths of territory in the country. Despite nearly a decade of international counterterrorism operations and security assistance programs, these groups have kept their grip on parts of central Mali and spread further south into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. The United States and other European countries have coordinated with a patchwork of multinational organizations, including the United Nations, G-5 Sahel, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to build up the capacity of Mali’s military to counter the growing terrorist threat.

The Washington Post first reported that Goita, the head of the new junta, was trained by U.S. and European forces, including U.S. Special Operations forces. Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesperson, told Foreign Policy in a statement that the U.S. military is “looking into other Malians who have participated in U.S. training and, though counter to that training, may have played a role in the recent mutiny.”

“The act of mutiny in Mali is strongly condemned and inconsistent with U.S. military training and education,” Semelroth added.

ECOWAS representatives are expected to travel to Mali soon in an effort to reverse the coup. While the coup leaders have given no indication they would restore the previous government, they released two senior Malian officials on Friday who were detained in the putsch, Reuters reported: Finance Minister Abdoulaye Daffe and Sabane Mahalmoudou, the president’s private secretary. 

Experts say the extremist groups were able to easily gain much territory and support in recent years in large part by exploiting grievances of local populations disaffected by corruption and mismanagement from the Malian government. 

The latest wave of political unrest in Mali came to a head on Tuesday when soldiers mutinied at an army base outside of Bamako. The mutineers detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Prime Minister Boubou Cissé, and other government officials. Hours later, Keita resigned and dismissed parliament on state television. A spokesperson for the soldiers, who have christened themselves the “National Committee for the Salvation of the People,” called for a “civil political transition” to democratic general elections, the BBC reported

The coup, which left four dead and at least 15 injured, followed more than two months of demonstrations in Bamako, where thousands had taken to the streets to protest alleged corruption, the lack of economic opportunity, the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and ongoing insecurity in the country’s north and central regions due to an Islamist insurgency. The protests were led by a coalition of religious and political leaders, known as the June 5 Movement, who have since expressed support for the mutineers, though their connection to the soldiers remains unclear—as does the extent to which the coup was planned.

Rida Lyammouri, an expert on conflict in the Sahel and senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, believes the coup wasn’t necessarily planned over time and instead rode the momentum of civil unrest in Bamako.

Pham said that U.S. officials have been in touch with members of the new junta, but he stressed it did not mean the United States was recognizing their authority. “Clearly because of our interest in obtaining a restoration of constitutional order, looking after the welfare, safety, and freedom of those who’ve been detained, we’ve had to have contacts with the so-called National Committee of Salvation for the People,” Pham said. “These contacts are operational, they do not imply recognition. It’s an acknowledgement these people are to a certain degree in control of certain things.”

Pham also said that U.S. diplomats had been in contact with an influential Malian religious leader, Mahmoud Dicko, who was a key figure in the anti-government protests and could play the role of a kingmaker if the military coup-plotters transition power to interim civilian rule. U.S. and other foreign officials “have engaged with Imam Dicko at least to hear his views and see his perspectives and I think that’s certainly part of their duty to maintain contact with all relevant actors on the pol spectrum,” Pham said.

Experts and officials said it is too soon to tell how the coup will impact the precarious security situation in the Sahel, but they said any surge in support for the coup plotters will likely be short-lived. “The honeymoon will end very quickly, because there’s no affection for the military, there’s just disaffection for the civilian leaders,” said Judd Devermont, a former senior CIA analyst on Africa now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

International bodies, including the U.N., the African Union, and ECOWAS, have joined in the United States in condemning the coup. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, expressed concern that Islamist militants will use the moment to expand their reach in the country. That happened after the coup in 2012, also at the Kati base, which ousted then-President Amadou Toumani Touré and contributed to the fall of northern Mali to Islamist groups.

However, other experts point out the Islamist extremist groups have themselves suffered major setbacks in Mali in recent months as a result of infighting and ongoing French-led counterterrorism operations. “I don’t see extremist groups taking advantage of what’s occurring in Mali right now, unless different military factions in Mali started to clash,” Lyammouri said.

Corinne Dufka, the West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, is also skeptical that the coup will lead to an expansion of Islamist operations, and she said that it’s “standard fare” for international bodies to take a strong stance against unconstitutional changes.

Devermont, the former CIA analyst, cautioned that if the coup leaders hand control over to an interim civilian leader, the international community should not rush Mali into new elections, thereby repeating the same mistakes made after the country’s 2012 coup. 

“In 2012 and 2013, we got the same cast of characters back in power, and so the same problems that led to that first coup repeated themselves in that second coup in 2020,” he said. 

“We need to have interim civilian leadership, but there has to be a reimagining of the Malian state, to bring back public confidence in the Malian state, which is severely lacking and underpins the mess that we’re in.”

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