(Nairobi) – Islamist armed groups in Mali have killed hundreds of people and forced tens of thousands to flee their villages during apparently systematic attacks since March 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. Malian security forces and United Nations peacekeepers should bolster their presence in the affected regions, ramp up protection patrols, and help authorities provide justice for victims and their families.
Since early in the year, Islamist armed groups aligned with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have attacked dozens of villages and massacred scores of civilians in Mali’s vast northeast regions of Ménaka and Gao, which border Niger. These attacks have largely targeted ethnic Dawsahak, a Tuareg ethnic group.
“Islamist armed groups in northeast Mali have carried out terrifying and seemingly coordinated attacks on villages, massacring civilians, looting homes, and destroying property,” said Jehanne Henry, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government needs to do more to protect villagers at particular risk of attack and provide them greater assistance.”
Between May and August, Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 witnesses to attacks between March and June on 15 villages in Ménaka and Gao regions. The witnesses described a pattern of heavily armed men on motorcycles and in other vehicles surrounding their village, shooting indiscriminately, summarily executing men and other villagers, and looting and destroying property. Often other villages in the region were attacked around the same day, suggesting a plan or directive. Tens of thousands of people who lost their livestock, livelihoods, and valuables have fled for elsewhere in Mali or to neighboring Niger.
A number of armed groups are active in the region and implicated in grave abuses. Security analysts believe the Islamic State in Greater Sahara now largely controls three of the four administrative cercles, or circles, of the Ménaka region through various Islamist armed groups. In addition, former rebel Tuareg groups, aligned with the Malian government since a 2015 peace deal are present, notably a Dawsahak faction of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad, MSA-D) and the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (Groupe d’autodéfense touareg Imghad et alliés, GATIA).
There were almost weekly media reports of killings, destruction of villages, and mass displacement of civilians in Ménaka and Gao earlier this year. In May, the media reported attacks on several villages in Ménaka. A witness told Human Rights Watch that on May 22, heavily armed men on about 100 motorcycles invaded the village of Inékar in Ménaka and started shooting at the men, killing nine of his male family members. In June, the media reported an attack at Izingaz, in Tidermène circle, in which Tuareg groups alleged that 22 civilians were killed. In September, media reported that Islamist armed groups carried out a large-scale attack on Talataye commune in Gao, killing at least 42 civilians.
Community leaders have stated that nearly 1,000 civilians have been killed in the region since March. A local investigation committee member told Human Rights Watch that at least 492 were killed between March and June in Gao region alone, but believes the number is much higher since the committee did not investigate all attacked locations.
The current wave of armed Islamist group attacks followed a clash between the Islamic State group and MSA-D in early March. The Islamic State then apparently began to target Dawsahak villages, issuing a fatwa – a religious order or decree – against villagers they accused of allegiance to former rebel groups and a rival armed Islamist group, villagers said. The fighting between the armed groups led to attacks on towns and villages and their inhabitants in violation of the laws of war.
“They burned houses, took our animals and grain, and what they could not take they set on fire,” said a village leader who witnessed attacks on the town of Tamalate on March 8. A teacher who witnessed an attack on Intagoiyat village in March said, “They shot at everything. They just kill, they do not try to interrogate, they do not talk except ‘God is great’ and it’s over.”
The surge in violence coincides with France’s withdrawal on August 15 of its remaining troops deployed as part of a regional counterterrorism operation to Niger and other locations. It also reflects longstanding tensions among the region’s pastoralist communities, semi-nomadic herders dependent on dwindling water and pastures. While the vast majority of recent killings have been carried out by Islamist armed groups against the Dawsahak community, Human Rights Watch has also received reports of retaliatory attacks by pro-government armed groups against presumed Islamic State supporters.
Both the Malian army and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), have forces in Gao and Ménaka. However, these troops do not patrol far from the towns and – particularly in Ménaka – have little or no capacity to protect civilians, including displaced populations, in remote areas. The UN mission should continue to ramp up its patrolling, deterrence flights, and interactions with the affected communities, Human Rights Watch said.
Islamist armed groups have also attacked civilians in other parts of Mali this year. Human Rights Watch investigated the June 18 attack on villages in Bankass circle in Mopti region, allegedly by the Katiba Macina, an armed group aligned with the Al-Qaeda coalition, that the government reported killed 132 villagers.
Human Rights Watch has for several years also documented serious abuses by the Malian security forces and forces widely believed to be with the Russia-linked Wagner Group, a private Russian military security contractor, during military operations.
“Malian authorities should work closely with the UN to provide better security for the population in the northeast and other conflict-affected areas of the country,” Henry said. “The UN and Malian authorities should improve security arrangements in threatened areas, engage more with local communities, and impartially investigate all reports of serious abuses.”
For additional details about the attacks, please see below.
Attacks in Gao and Ménaka Regions
Between May and August, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed in person 17 people who witnessed serious abuses in Gao, and 13 in Ménaka by phone. Witnesses in Gao described attacks on villages in the Talataye commune. Those from Ménaka described attacks on villages in the Andéramboukane circle. All interviews were conducted in local languages in confidence, using an interpreter where necessary, and no compensation was provided. Names of witnesses have been withheld for their safety.
Many villagers said that the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara previously had imposed Sharia, or Islamic law, on their villages, requiring them to pay Islamic tax, known as zakat, and adhere to strict morality and dress codes, but had not carried out attacks. In early 2022, tensions increased between the Islamic State and MSA-D, leading to a clash in Tamalate, Ménaka region, on March 8. The Islamic State then attacked ethnic Dawsahak villages, accusing them of affiliation with MSA-D, GATIA, and rival Islamist armed groups, witnesses said.
Witnesses described the attackers as well-armed men on motorbikes, dressed in military fatigues and turbans, speaking Fulfulde (spoken by ethnic Fulani), Tamashek (spoken by ethnic Tuareg), and Arabic. In some cases, they carried the Islamic State’s black flag. As an apparent modus operandi, the attackers surrounded villages and then detained and summarily executed people, most of them men. These included some older men and men with mental disabilities, but also children. The attackers looted valuables, food, and livestock, and set fire to homes. In many cases, survivors said they could not bury or hold funerals for those killed for fear of another attack.
Although Human Rights Watch could not confirm the reported death toll, witness interviews and reports by the UN and other agencies indicate that hundreds of civilians were killed and tens of thousands were forced to flee, having lost their livestock, valuables, and livelihoods during the attacks. The following witness accounts, though not comprehensive, illustrate serious abuses by the Islamic State that violate international humanitarian law.
Gao Region, March 2022
Villagers described a series of attacks on predominantly Dawsahak villages in Talataye commune. They reported that between 5 and 35 civilians were killed in each incident. Human Rights Watch could not confirm these numbers. The UN peacekeeping mission reported that these attacks killed at least 100 civilians and displaced thousands.
Around March 17, a group of men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and PKM machine guns arrived in the village of Oudeini. They killed five men in the village and perhaps dozens more near a water point where men had gathered with their livestock, witnesses said.
A woman, 23, said: “They were going door to door. They brought out five men, ordered them to kneel and one of the attackers shot them dead.” The attackers then burned homes, looted valuables, and threatened to kill any women remaining in the village or marry them by force.
A man, 75, said: “I was at the well watering my animals around 9 a.m. The attackers first captured five people among us, made them kneel, and shot them. Then they came back to us and one started shooting at me at close range. Luckily for me the bullet went past my head, but he shot me in the leg.”
On the same day as the Oudeini attack, a group of Islamic State fighters targeted Intakofa village and surroundings, witnesses said. The men arrived on motorcycles, armed with Kalashnikovs and PKM machine guns, and shot at the villagers.
“They invaded our village, shooting as we fled,” said a shepherd. He hid with several other unarmed men in a well until nightfall, then in the forest, before returning to the village. He said villagers buried 24 men, all killed by gunshot: “We dug a pit to put the bodies in before fleeing.”
A member of a local investigation committee said that he helped bury a total of 92 bodies a week after the attacks on the area.
“The bodies were scattered over an area of 10 kilometers in Garnadamouss and Intakofa,” the committee member said. “Some bodies were lying on their backs, others had their hands tied behind their backs, others on their sides. Some were shot in the head, some in the stomach. We saw Kalashnikov bullet cartridges everywhere.”
The Islamic State fighters also attacked Inziguitiya village the same day, killing at least 35 men, villagers said. Upon arriving in the village, groups of fighters went house-to-house pulling people out of their homes, looking for MSA members and “collaborators.” They then executed some men and looted food and livestock.
A 35-year-old woman said: “The attackers arrived [at our home] and ordered the men to kneel down, then opened fire on them. I covered my children’s faces so that they did not have to watch the murder of their father.”
She said she sought safety in a nearby forest with other women and children, then returned the next day to bury the dead. “We first buried my husband and his friends and then we went around and picked up bodies all over the village.” She said they buried 35 men’s bodies, all with gunshot wounds to the head or chest.
One man said he hid in a well with a group of men: “When I got out, I found my friends were all dead around the well.”
A 42-year-old woman described an attack on her village in mid-March, in which the attackers shot and killed her husband and her father, and other men in the village:
They arrived on many motorbikes and surrounded the village while people were resting in their huts. Some men were able to escape, but other men like my husband were unable to escape.… As soon as my husband came out of the house, they opened fire on him and died on the spot. When I came out of the house, I nearly fell over my father’s body.
She estimates that 20 men altogether were killed in the attack. Before leaving, the attackers took all the food, jewelry, and valuables and set fire to the house.
The village of Inwelane was attacked on March 20. A woman said that a group of heavily armed fighters arrived at their village about 10 a.m.
“They did not question anyone, they opened fire on us, shooting everywhere,” she said. “They shot the men without saying a word. From 10 a.m. to noon they shot at men, looted animals, and burned what they couldn’t take away.”
She said attackers entered her home and shot her husband, killing him, and then her neighbor’s husband and 5-year-old child. She helped bury 30 bodies but believes many more were killed.
On March 26, the attackers returned to the village, witnesses said.
A villager said that the attackers stayed from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m.:
They were very numerous and well-armed. They arrived and opened fire on us. I left my home running, while I was running the bullets were flying above my head. I hid [in the bush] and observed them heading toward my house where they took out my wife and my children. They set fire to our house and gathered the crying women, and told them, according to my wife, that they will kill all their husbands as they are collaborators of the MSA and GATIA. They looted the whole village and burned all the crops. There is nothing left: my camels, cows, goats, are all gone.
Villagers said that around March 20, a group of heavily armed men they identified as Islamic State fighters surrounded In Delimane village, ordered families out of their homes, and then executed 20 men by gunfire. The attackers also threatened to forcibly marry the women if they did not flee the village.
“They brought out our husbands and told them to kneel,” one woman said. “They were facing east and then [one of the gunmen] opened fire on them, including my husband. They died on the spot. They told us that this is what they would do to all the Dawsahak, because they have a fatwa against us that gives them the right to kill our husbands and to take us women as their wives and to seize our animals.”
A man, 32, said: “They shot everyone in the head. I heard ‘taa taa taa’ and then the next day I participated in the funeral.” He said they were forced to pay money and gasoline to the attackers so they could hold the funeral. “We found that all 20 had been shot in the head. We put them in the same hole.”
Ménaka Region, March 2022
Witnesses described attacks on several towns and villages in the Ménaka region, mostly in the Andéramboukane administrative circle between March 8 and 28, and reported scores killed in each attack. The UN mission documented that at least 157 civilians were killed in Ménaka region during that period.
Following the killing of an Islamic State fighter in Tamalate, tensions rose between the group and MSA-D, and the two armed groups clashed on March 8, witnesses said. A village elder said:
I was in my house at the time of the clash. A few minutes later, the jihadists [Islamist fighters] invaded the village, shooting at civilians. The jihadists separated into two groups: one attacked the elements of MSA south of the town and another group attacked civilians in the north. I saw three men shot in the head. The jihadists shot at everything.
Also on March 8, in the early afternoon a large group of men wearing military fatigues on motorcycles and vehicles, and armed with Kalashnikovs and PKMs, attacked Inchinane, witnesses said. A village elder said that the entire village fled so they did not count the bodies but learned later that at least 100 people may have died in the attack.
One man, injured in the attack, described being dragged out of his house and shot: “I was in my house. Several motorcycles surrounded me. The attackers were heavily armed and had walkie-talkies. One of them pulled me out of the house and shot me near the head and on the shoulder. I fainted then and broke my arm.”
He said the reason for the attack was not clear: “The ISGS have imposed Sharia on us for more than three years. We pay zakat twice a year, exceeding Sharia rules. They forbade us to smoke cigarettes and we accepted that, but they came back to say we are collaborators of MSA and GATIA. I think it is just a pretext to exterminate us.”
Another villager recalled hiding in an abandoned house and overhearing attackers speaking in Tamashek, saying they could loot what they wanted. When he left the village several hours later, he saw bodies of men scattered around and later found out that his uncle and cousin were among them.
Villagers said that on March 28 they saw a large number of armed men, some riding motorcycles and others in three vehicles, surround the village. They were dressed in military uniforms and in civilian clothes and turbans, and carried the Islamic State black flag. During the attack they shouted, “God is great!”
A village official said he witnessed the attack from a hiding place and saw the attackers shooting at villagers. The attackers killed 15 people, including 2 women, 2 children, and at least 2 older men in their homes. He also said that they burned shops and homes.
“After they executed these people, the attackers gathered the animals and ransacked the houses, they took all valuables and gold, cows, camels, sheep, and goats. Everything was taken,” the mayor said. “Survivors could not bury the dead for fear of another attack and the whole village fled to Ménaka or Niger.”
He added: “They came before to collect zakat, but this time they came and attacked us for no reason. We have no militia in our village. We are just defenseless civilians.”
Also on March 28, at around 11 a.m., fighters wearing black turbans with a red stripe and carrying the Islamic State black flag attacked the village of Intagoiyat. They killed 105 people, including 17 boys and 3 girls, witnesses said.
“They started shooting at everything, killing and injuring villagers as they fled,” a 45-year-old teacher said. The attackers then went house to house and executed men before leaving at around 1 p.m. They then returned several hours later and killed more men.
A shepherd said that he and others tried to save some of the wounded and bury the dead, but they fled when the attackers returned in the evening. He saw them loot livestock, jewelry, money, and other goods, and destroy homes and a water pump. He said the survivors fled to Ménaka or across the border to Niger.
At about 6:30 p.m. on March 28, the Islamic State fighters also attacked Ingarzabane village, killing 43 men including 20 teenage boys, witnesses said. A village elder said he was able to escape as the gunmen attacked the village: “By the grace of God I was able to get out of the village under heavy fire of the attackers who shouted, ‘God is great.’” When he returned later, all the livestock had been stolen.
“They looted all they could take and shot those [animals] they could not bring, and set fire to houses,” he said. After three days he and survivors tried to bury the dead. “We found bodies scattered everywhere, in and outside the village. They were already decomposing and there was a foul smell everywhere. We were afraid the attackers would come back so we could not bury them all. We buried only five bodies.”
A shepherd, 46, said: “We counted 43 dead including children under 18. They burned our things and looted our animals. We became poor in an instant. I don’t have enough to feed my family now.”
On March 28, Islamic State fighters also attacked Inkalafane village, killing 35 civilians including 7 children under 16, villagers said. A 55-year-old shepherd who escaped the attack was in his village that morning when a large group of armed men arrived in an armed vehicle and riding motorcycles. He said that two months earlier, some of the men had come to the village to demand payment of zakat. But this time, he said, “they came to kill us, and most of the villagers understood this and fled.” He and others went to Ménaka. When they returned to the village, they found bodies scattered everywhere. “We were afraid to bury them all because we thought the attackers would come back to kill us,” he said. The fighters had stolen all the livestock and valuables and burned homes. “They took everything and left us nothing.”
Witnesses said that in an attack on Intakoreit village the same day, March 28, fighters killed about 40 people, including 2 men with mental disabilities and 7 children. A village elder said that the attackers came around 11 a.m. and opened fire on the village, then went house to house to take men out and summarily execute them. He hid in the forest and escaped but returned two days later to see the dead bodies. “Many of the victims were executed with a bullet in the head. The number of people executed was larger than those killed indiscriminately,” the villager elder said. He and other survivors could not bury the bodies for fear of another attack.
Attack in Mopti region, June 2022
In the past year, Islamist armed groups have also attacked civilians in other parts of Mali. In one particularly horrific incident on June 18, fighters from the Katiba Macina, a group within the umbrella coalition of Al-Qaeda-aligned groups, Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), allegedly attacked villages in Bankass circle in the Mopti region, killing 132 villagers, according to government reports. The attacks were believed to be in retaliation against the community for asking the Malian army to intervene, despite a preexisting agreement not to involve the authorities. The massacre forced thousands to flee to Bankass and other towns for safety.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed five witnesses to the Bankass attacks and community leaders from Dianwali, Deguessago, and Diallassagou villages. They said many armed men on motorcycles speaking Dogon and Fulani languages attacked their respective villages in the late afternoon, looted grains and food from homes, and abducted a large group of men whom they summarily executed in the forest.
A teacher from Deguessago village said: “They tied our hands and led us on foot like animals into the forest with weapons pointed at us. They made us walk for several kilometers until nightfall.” He and other survivors were allowed to leave the execution site before the killing started because they were not originally from the targeted villages.
An older man said: “We were all rounded up and led into the forest. We walked several hours one behind the other. Then in the middle of the forest they asked us to sit down. We were joined by another group of captured men. Fortunately for me one of the assailants recognized me and let me go.”
A woman in her 60s from one village said the fighters abducted her 30-year-old son, and she believes they killed him:
I was terrified. The attackers invaded our village shooting everywhere. At 5 p.m., they arrived at my door. They looted our house, taking our millet, our valuables, and captured my son. They grabbed him and tied his hand and left with him. Since then, I have not seen him again. A week after his capture, I was informed that the attackers executed all the captured men in the forest.