Antiterrorist Special Forces used to quell Mali’s protests under scrutiny

Protesters demanding President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s resignation take to the streets in the capital Bamako, Mali on 19 June 2020.

Servicemen from the Antiterrorist Special Forces (FORSAT) were deployed in response to protesters in Bamako, leading to clashes which left at least 12 people dead and 164 injured.

Who ordered FORSAT’s intervention? The controversy is mounting in Mali.

A few days after demonstrations against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta left at least 12 people dead and 164 injured, and as opposition leaders under the banner of the June Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) planned to organise a gathering to pay homage to the victims this Friday in Bamako, the controversy over the involvement of Antiterrorist Special Forces (FORSAT) units in the crackdown against protesters continues to build.

On Tuesday, in a confidential, sternly-worded letter addressed to Salif Traoré, Minister of Security and Civil Protection – who resigned on 11 June – and marked as “urgent”, Prime Minister Boubou Cissé’s chief of staff, Amadou Ousmane Touré, requested a number of clarifications.

Who decided to ‘enlist’ FORSAT?

“It has come to my attention that the Antiterrorist Special Forces operating under the Ministry of Security and Civil Protection were deployed during interventions to maintain public order on 10 July 2020 and in the following days to provide additional backing to the security force units deployed to ensure the security of civil disobedience demonstrations led by the M5-RFP coalition,” reads the letter written by the prime minister’s chief of staff.

He then goes on to demand that a report examining “the grounds for enlisting FORSAT’s intervention, the authority responsible for ordering its intervention and whether such authority complied with the relevant procedure set out.”

The authenticity of the letter, which was leaked on social media and has further fuelled the controversy, was confirmed by an official from the prime minister’s office.

Condemned from the outset by M5-RFP members, the deployment of these military forces in response to protesters has also been criticised by the Party for National Rebirth (Parti pour la renaissance nationale – PARENA), despite the fact that PARENA is a member of the presidential majority coalition.

In a statement issued on 12 July, Foreign Minister Tiébilé Dramé’s party expressed “its deep concern regarding the violence that led to loss of human life” and lamented “the misuse of the role of the Antiterrorist Special Forces.

Boubou Cissé in the crosshairs

Opposition members and the M5-RFP coalition are directing their criticism at the prime minister. “Boubou Cissé cannot continue to serve as prime minister now that he has blood on his hands,” said Issa Kaou Djim, one of the M5-RFP leaders arrested during demonstrations last weekend and later released by authorities.

Formed in the wake of the terrorist attacks which struck Bamako in 2015 – at La Terrasse bar in March and the Radisson Blu hotel in November – FORSAT “has a domestic jurisdiction and acts solely on the order of the security minister” according to the decree dated 22 March 2016 on the creation of the Antiterrorist Special Forces.

The text further reads that FORSAT is “tasked with combating terrorism in all its forms. No other security role may be assigned to it.”

Made up of elite police, gendarmerie and national guard units which preceded its existence, i.e., the National Police Intervention Group (Groupe d’intervention de la police nationale – GIPN), the National Gendarmerie Intervention Force (Peloton d’intervention de la gendarmerie nationale – PIGN) and the National Guard Special Forces (Forces spéciales de la garde nationale) – FORSAT has a total of 180 servicemen.

According to an officer from FORSAT: “People get mixed up and don’t make the distinction between the GIPN and FORSAT. The GIPN is a component of FORSAT and went out in the streets to maintain public order during the recent protests because it’s one of their duties. But FORSAT, on the other hand, was never deployed and is solely concerned with antiterrorist operations. The security minister alone has authority over FORSAT, but this post is currently vacant.”

This is not the first time the antiterrorist force has been called out for its public security interventions in response to protests. Last June, the coalition of opposition parties known as the Front pour la sauvegarde de la démocratie (FSD) asserted that FORSAT units had been deployed in Sikasso in response to protesters demonstrating over the legislative.