The Very Real Risk of Terrorism and Kidnapping in Mali

There are travel warnings in place for Mali. Al Qaeda has been active in the region since 2003. This is what you need to know about the chaotic situation.

The mud building of Djenne, Mali Photo © Getty Images/alantobey

In mid 2011 the Australian, British, New Zealand and US governments issued warnings advising against all travel to northern Mali. Following a coup attempt in March 2012, further warnings were issued for the remainder of the country.

Due to the fluid and dynamic chaos unfolding in Mali, Government travel advisories may change fast, so check the British FCO advice, the Australian Smartraveller advice and the US Travel state advice for the latest information. But as it stands, most governments are advising against all travel to Mali, due to the risk of terrorism, kidnapping and violence.

Following the French/African military intervention in January 2013, there’s a high threat of attack against foreigners. The UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali and international security forces are regularly targeted by these groups, and attacks are increasingly frequent.

A peace agreement was signed in 2015 between the complex web of conflicting groups, but it has failed to take hold.

Coup d'etat

There was a coup d'etat in 2012 following growing dissatisfaction with a long running Tuareg rebellion (a new uprising was launched in January 2012), and growth of al Qaeda in the north.

Many in Mali believed the government of President Toure did 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 in March 2012 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.

The current political situation is unstable, and things are no better than they were back in 2013.

Rebels, warlords and kidnapping

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. For the latest information on events unfolding in Mali since 2012, Washington Post has written a great overview. But for your safety, this is what you need to know.

Music festival danger

Cultural festivals are often prime locations for kidnapping plots, and criminals tend to target tourists.

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.

Travelers 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.

Trouble in the South

The AQ-M may also try to attack or abduct travelers 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.

Travelers 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 travelers 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.

Travel warning

Take all government warnings into account when planning your trip around Africa.

If you decide to go despite these very serious warnings, be aware, in most cases your travel insurance provider will not cover you.

Please contact your insurer if you intend to travel to Mali (or anywhere listed as Do Not Travel) to discuss your options.

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