The emergence of the new group, recruiting among central Mali’s marginalised Fulani ethnic minority, has sown panic among residents, forced some officials to flee, and undermined the efforts of a 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission to stabilise the West African state.
Inspired by veteran jihadist Amadou Koufa, a radical preacher from the central Malian town of Mopti, the MLF has introduced a volatile new ethnic element to the Islamist conflict in a nation riddled with tribal tensions.
Security experts fear that the rise of a jihadist group among the Fulani – whose 20 million members are spread across West and Central Africa – could regionalise the violence.
“The risk is that links develop between Fulanis throughout the region and it could be the next major regional conflict,” said Aurelien Tobie, a conflict adviser formerly based in the Malian capital Bamako.
“Everywhere Fulanis are marginalised, they have a strong identity and there are connections between them.”
The assassination was the latest in a wave of killings in the Mopti region targeting those opposed to Mali’s array of Islamist groups. Many of the militants come from the ranks of jihadist fighters that seized the northern two-thirds of Mali in 2012 alongside Tuareg rebels.
A French-led military intervention in early 2013 scattered the insurgents, after Paris said the Islamist enclave could become a launchpad for terror attacks on Europe. Some militants have since gone to Mali’s center belt to regroup and recruit, using it as a staging post to strike at areas in the south once considered safe
During the Islamist occupation of northern Mali, Mopti was the last bastion of government power before the lawless desert. That image was destroyed this month when armed men attacked a hotel in nearby Sevare and killed at least 12 people, including five United Nations contractors.
One of the attackers wore an explosive belt that did not detonate, in the first suicide attempt outside the north.
The army blames the MLF for the siege and at least two other attacks in Mali’s centre and south which are hindering attempts by the government and the U.N. peacekeeping force to restore order.
The Sevare attack has also been claimed by a group led by veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which has rebranded itself as Al Qaeda in West Africa. Experts say the claims are not mutually exclusive and there are fluid relations between Mali’s Islamist cells.
“The strategy of those loyal to Koufa appears to be to empty the region of administrative leaders, government officials and others collaborating with the army to both establish their authority and, perhaps, recruit more easily,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.
To achieve this, Dufka said, the Islamists are employing tactics of intimidation and targeted killings.
She documented five summary executions of people accused of collaborating with the army this year. A resident said several other village leaders had fled to Bamako, fearing reprisals.
Military sources say MLF is formed partly from local fighters who went north to fight three years ago but then returned to Mopti as French military pressure increased.