The criminal justice system in Mali: Some deficiencies facing the terrorist threat

Observatorio de violencia y terrorismo de extrema derecha (febrero 2023)
Actividad yihadista en el Sudeste Asiático durante el primer trimestre de 2023

Forum Régional sur la Justice au Nord du Mali : échanger pour agir plus efficacement. Fuente: MINUSMA

Apunte 4/2023

Carolina Collado

Forum Régional sur la Justice au Nord du Mali : échanger pour agir plus efficacement. Fuente: MINUSMA


The view of a criminal justice system as a process and not as a set of largely displaced institutions and organisations is necessary for the interest of preserving peace and security in Sahelian countries, such as Mali. This system is integrated into four components: “(1) legislation, (2) law enforcement, (3) courts, and (4) corrections”[1]. Considering that the main counterterrorism efforts in the country are oriented towards hard-line military and policing strategies that do not encompass many rural areas, an integrated approach to terrorism is essential. While the international community has intervened in Mali both through capacity-building and military training, the need for immediate physical responses to prevent or retaliate against terrorist actions has delayed the reconfiguration of an effective criminal justice system.

In this sense, the basis of its function relies on the trust of citizens towards its institutions and on the shared meaning of justice in a particular society, which must be aligned with legal norms and proceedings. In Mali, however, according to the Afrobarometer, several surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015 revealed that only “45% of Malians said they trust the courts somewhat or a lot”[2], which leaves more than half of the population barely or not at all trusting them. Eventually, the underlying corruption of authorities, political leaders, and security forces has contributed to such public perception over time. The obvious mismanagement and misuse of public funds facing not only security threats but also economic and social grievances by the Malian government have caused the marginalisation of certain groups in society, some of which have been victimised by terrorist groups, which have been able to exploit these vulnerabilities[3]. In addition, percentages may have worsened throughout the last ten years due to ongoing military operations by local and foreign security forces, having been accused by international organisations, such as the United Nations, of violating the human rights of terrorism suspects and civilians.

Moreover, during the past decade, prisons have experienced a large inflow of Violent Extremist Offenders (VEOs) due to the rampant levels of jihadist terrorism in Mali[4], multiplying the existing prison population. As though this may respond to the enforcement of counterterrorism tactics and strategies displayed by the G5 Sahel, the French Barkhane Operation (already ended), MINUSMA, and EUTM Mali, it is also related to the collision between the increase in the number of arrests and the delay of previous judicial proceedings, as well as existing indefinite pre-trial detention periods. Since the Tuareg revolution in 2012, Northern Mali has experienced an “enduring institutional vacuum” by the state[5]. Drawing from the premise that the criminal justice system in Mali was beforehand overwhelmed, not because of the outrageous prison population but because of a lack of infrastructure and resources, it has proved to be unprepared for the arrest of hundreds of jihadi suspects.

Certainly, ongoing terrorist violence has highly disrupted the already malfunctioning system. In the prison setting, as a provisional solution, new detainment centres have been used, such as the Gendarmerie Camp One managed by Operation Barkhane authorities, which used to be the first stop for VEOs. In addition, the State Security Prison has been used as “an unofficial detention centre” where inmates would be questioned for indefinite periods of time[6]. Similar cases in counter-terrorism history have shown how this type of measures not only violate basic civil rights but also undermine government and security forces’ legitimacy. In this context, the current system has failed to prevent further inmate radicalisation caused by overcrowded facilities and malpractice. Although the international community has engaged in training prison staff and different methods to counter and prevent radicalisation have been considered, leading to the creation of a “national strategy at the penitentiary level”[7], some activities, such as undertaking risk assessments of VEOs or psychological counselling, continue to be a challenge. This is due to the complicated reality of Malian society, which proves that measures regarding rehabilitation and reintegration must adapt to the surrounding context.

In addition, some action has been taken by Malian authorities and international actors, such as the MERIT project led by the International Centre for Counterterrorism and the United Nations Interregional Crime Research Institute in preventing violent extremism and enhancing “rehabilitation and reintegration in and after prison”[8]. As mentioned above, prison must not only be seen as a punitive kind of measure but also needs to be oriented towards an abandonment of criminal activity and social reintegration. In the case of VEOs, a deradicalisation process is essential as part of this rehabilitation, especially bearing in mind the young age of detainees. Also, the MINUSMA’s Justice and Corrections Section, for instance, dedicates part of its efforts to providing support and technical assistance regarding infrastructures and proceedings, as well as training judges and criminal justice workers[9]. The latter reveals the need for such reforms in the justice sector to be a part of an integrated approach to terrorism. For this reason, some of the training efforts have also been provided to religious and community leaders, given their important role in society as conductive of public trust.

Another deficiency that is essential in upholding the rule of law and guaranteeing the effectiveness and legitimacy of the criminal justice system is the security surrounding the prison setting. The vulnerability of Malian prisons against terrorist groups may eventually put at risk the serving of sentences due to the possibility of encountering both internal and external raids perpetrated with the aim of freeing jihadists. As has already been noticed in different African countries, prisons are not only the perfect setting for proselytism to take place but also constitute a tangible target for terrorist groups to undertake such raids. In fact, in Mali, on November 2016, 21 prisoners were freed from a prison in Banamba[10]. On top of this, there are other issues that eventually strike these overpopulated facilities, such as poor hygiene and poor prison personnel[11].

Lastly, the predominant punitive approach to terrorism offences has paradoxically been undermined by Malian government attempts, led by former president Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, to negotiate the release of the Al-Qaida linked coalition – JNIM (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin) – members. In exchange, an eventual albeit uncertain truce between the State and this jihadist organisation was sought. The institutionalisation of the rule of law, however, must be an essential requisite to be met by authorities, not serving as a political instrument. This will not only deter future terrorist recruitment activities but will also avoid the need to consider negotiating with terrorist groups which do not hesitate to conveniently use violence whenever they deem it appropriate.

In conclusion, Mali has faced a number of security threats, along with other social, economic, and political issues in the past decade which not only pose a direct threat to human security but also question the state’s sovereignty and legitimacy. In other words, the capacity of the state has been undermined, both by the way in which its own authorities have managed the security crisis – mostly from a reactive point of view, although some efforts in the soft-line arena have been made – and by non-state actors, such as terrorist groups. Thus, the rule of law has become non-existent in some areas of the country, linked to the delay of judicial proceedings, overcrowding of detainment centres and prisons, and a vacuum left by the judiciary in some areas. This has reinforced the already conspicuous distance between the population and the state, generating even more mistrust in its leaders. Moreover, counterterrorism in Mali has been characterised by its preeminently punitive approach, meaning that rehabilitation and reintegration initiatives have been left aside, leaving space for radicalisation to flourish. There is no doubt that ending the impunity of VEOs requires counterterrorism strategies to not only focus on tackling jihadism at a tactical and operational scale, which is also necessary but to do so from a holistic approach that considers the whole process of the criminal justice system.


[1] Patterson, G.T. (2018). Clinical Interventions in Criminal Justice Settings. Chapter 11 – Criminal Justice Initiatives Using Evidence-Based Practices and Principles. Available at:

[2] Wambua, P. and Logan, C. (2017). In Mali, citizens’ access to justice compromised by perceived bias, corruption, complexity. Available at:

[3] Transparency International. (2022). CPI 2022: Corruption as a fundamental threat to peace and security. Available at:

[4] Van der Heide, L. and Coleman, J. (2020). The last frontier: Prisons and violent extremism in Mali. Available at:

[5] International Development Law Organization. (n.f.). Journeys to justice: exploring customary systems in Mali. Available at:

[6] Van der Heide, L. and Coleman, J. (2020). The last frontier: Prisons and violent extremism in Mali. Available at:

[7] Vermeersch, E. and Dal Santo, E. (2020). Violent Extremist Offenders Rehabilitation and Reintegration in prison. A focus on the challenges and way forward in Mali. Available at:

[8] ICCT, (n.d.). Countering violent extremism in Mali (MERIT). Available at:

[9] MINUSMA, (n.d.). Justice and Corrections. Available at :

[10] Reuters. (2016). Gunmen free 21 prisoners in raid on southern Mali town. Available at :

[11] Van der Heide, L and Coleman, J. (2020). The last frontier: Prisons and violent extremism in Mali. Available at: