In mid 2011 the Australian, British, New Zealand and US governments issued warnings advising against all travel to northern Mali, including the provinces of Kidal, Gao, Koulikoro (north of Mourdiah), Ségou (north of Niono), Tombouctou (including the city of Tombouctou (Timbuktu)), Mopti, and areas bordering Mauritania east of Nioro in the Kayes province.
And following a coup attempt in March 2012 (more on that in a moment) further warnings were issued for the remainder of the country.
The Australian government advises "do not travel" to the capital Bamako, nor to the provinces of Koulikoro (north of Mourdiah), Segou (north of Niono) and Kayes (east of Nioro).
The British government also maintains its advice to avoid ALL travel to the north, and also advises against all but essential travel to the remainder of the country.... and publishes a handy map.
(FCO map issued 27 March 2012)
The US State Department advises against all travel to all of Mali.
Because of the fluid and dynamic situation (code for chaos!) these advisories may change frequently and quickly, so check the British FCO advice, the Australian smartraveller advice and the US Travel state advice for the latest.
There's been a coup d'etat.
There's been growing "dissatisfaction" with a long running Tuareg rebellion (a new uprising was launched in January 2012) and "unfettered" growth of al Qaeda in the north. Many in Mali believe the government of President Toure has done too little to oppose the Tuareg, and in addition may even have done a deal with al Qaeda to save his government from direct attack. This spilled over on 22 March when some army officers decided if President Toure wasn't going to do anything about it, they would.
The coup sparked chaos, and there was widespread looting in the capital and many other towns. 48 hours later the coup leader called for an end to looting and ordered troops back to their barracks - which seemed to happen. Although much order has been restored, a curfew in the capital lifted and the airport and borders reopened, the situation is unpredictable - with talk of a possible counter-coup.
Al Qaeda has been active in the region since 2003, has kidnapped many westerners in that time and openly declares it will continue to do so.
The westerners are often kidnapped then 'sold' to al Qaeda, who then demand substantial ransoms.
Al Qaeda has recruited criminal gangs and the Tuareg to carry out the kidnappings.
As Bob Thomson of the Ottawa Citizen wrote: "...many of them have been co-opted into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's dream of a North African caliphate and for enriching rogue warlords in the name of Islam through an increasingly established kidnap and ransom industry..."
Which is why the north is so dangerous for western visitors.
Al Qaeda and the Turaeg, their ranks swollen by Gadaffi-trained soldiers who fled the revolution in Libya, are taking advantage of the chaos and pushing south.
Kidal (at the time of writing) was surrounded by rebels. 100 kilometers to the southwest Anefis is ripe for the taking after government troops staged a 'tactical withdrawal'.
This enlarges their territory in which kidnap operations can be conducted.
Cultural festivals are often prime locations for kidnapping plots, and criminals tend to target tourists.
(A festival participant.)
These events take place far from the reach of police and security authorities. Access is along roads notorious for banditry. The festivals gather together relatively large numbers of foreigners in one location easily identified by criminal gangs. Several Westerners were abducted from festivals like these in 2009. One British national who attended a festival in Anderamboukane was executed. Others were taken and unharmed.
More kidnappings and murders occurred in 2010 and 2011, including the abduction and execution of two French nationals in Niger near the Mali border. Italian and Spanish tourists have also been kidnapped in addition to Saudi individuals. Embassy officials have also been targeted, especially those who work at the American Embassy, as have Canadian diplomats.
Travellers should avoid major festivals like the Tuareg "Festival in the Desert" and the "Sahara Nights" festival, which both take place in northern Mali, and the "Tamadach Festival" in the eastern part of the country because of the high risk of abduction.
Other areas to avoid include Gao and Timbuktu in northern Mali and anywhere along the Nigerian border.
The provinces Kidal, Koulikoro, Segou and Mopti and the borders with Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso are additional no-go areas for travelers.
The border area with Guinea is also known for banditry and kidnapping attempts. Carjacking and banditry are possible in all of these areas.
The AQ-M may also try to attack or abduct Western travellers in southern Mali in both the capital city Bamako and in Segou.
Kidnappers may be armed and use firearms and explosives.
The risk of attack in many areas increases after dark.
Travellers may also happen upon landmines in north and northeast Mali.
Local governments in and around Mali are also regularly attacked by the AQ-M, and security officials have been killed in Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
Other rebel groups also operate in the area, including Tuareg outfits in Nampala, which caused problems along Mali's border with Mauritania in late 2008 and in the Kidal area in early 2009.
Drug, weapons and human trafficking also takes place in Mali and surrounding countries due to their convenient but remote location between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is rare that travellers will happen upon this type of activity, but if they do, a violent assault is possible. These criminals will do anything to avoid apprehension by police or government forces.
These government issued warnings are serious, not issued lightly. You should consider them carefully. There are 197 countries in the world, only a dozen or so are issued with travel warnings of this severity, so it means something.
If you decide to go despite these warnings, be aware, it's extremely unlikely your travel insurance will provide cover.
Please contact your insurer if you intend to travel to Mali to discuss your options.
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