At about 1,000 kilometers long, the winding road from the historic city of Timbuktu, in the arid north of Mali, to Bamako, the capital in the south, is not for the faint of heart. It’s in disrepair in many parts, and stalked by jihadists and armed groups — which is why many who can afford it opt to fly instead. So, on a recent August day, when Ali Nialy arrived in Bamako via a two-day bus ride, the first thing he wanted to do was let his parents back home in Mali’s restive north know that he had arrived safely.
But the phone call wouldn’t go through. Nialy wasn’t alone: That silence on the other end of the line has become all too familiar to Malians in recent months.
“I couldn’t find them for a week,” Nialy said of his parents. “I didn’t know where they were. I know Timbuktu, I live in Timbuktu, I know there’s a bit of security there. But I was afraid for my family. And my friends — I called them and I couldn’t find them.”
For people like Nialy, checking in with family after travel is more than a formality. Mali is in the ninth year of armed conflict, which was started by a separatist movement in 2012 and has since evolved into a conflict between various terrorists, armed groups, the Malian military, and the United Nations and French forces who support the government. In 2020, more than 6,000 civilians were killed in Mali and its two Sahelian neighbors, Niger and Burkina Faso, which are also suffering insurgencies — and the heavy-handed responses of the French and local militaries. In Mali alone, there were more than 320,000 internally displaced people in 2020, not including those who fled the country outright.
The further you are from the capital, the more dangerous it gets. Cities and villages in northern and central Mali — hundreds to thousands of kilometers away from Bamako, with little state presence before the conflict — have borne the brunt of the violence. Timbuktu, historically a center of Islamic learning and more recently a tourist draw, at one point fell to separatist rebels in 2012, and has been the site of sporadic terrorist attacks and incursions since.
Since July, armed groups around Timbuktu have found a new target: communications infrastructure.
Attacks on cell towers across northern and central Mali have seriously disrupted internet, phone, and money transfer services across large swathes of the country. In some cases, residents are completely cut off for days and weeks at a time before service flickers back on, briefly, before cutting out again. Many banks are basically useless, residents report, disconnected from their headquarters in Bamako.
The attacks on antennas operated by Orange and Moov Africa — the two main telecommunications providers in the country — are a new intrusion of the country’s ongoing war into civilian life, as residents describe themselves as “cut off from the world.”
“We’re going weeks without news about the country or our parents. All areas of life are affected,” said Anassa Maiga, a resident of Gao, which is located about 300 kilometers east of Timbuktu and near the dangerous tri-border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, where armed groups operate on the periphery of state control. “No banking transactions are possible during this period, which hurts the economy.”
The Islamic State, through its affiliate group in West Africa, has been known to occasionally cut off electricity in Mali’s cities — a tactic borrowed from Syria and meant to put pressure on local and central governments, Wassim Nasr, a jihadist movements specialist with the news network France 24, told Rest of World. But the cellphone tower attacks appear to have been carried out in part by the the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, also known as JNIM or its French acronym, GSIM, according to Nasr and other local journalists and researchers.
“Some say it is done to put pressure on the civilian population,” Nasr said. “But in my view, [the civilian stress] is the side effect.”
Instead, Nasr said, the government is the target, and there are strategic military implications behind the attacks. Amid a communications blackout, he points out, citizens can’t report jidhadist attacks or movements, and the government is put in a financial pinch — both by weak local economies and the repair of downed infrastructure. At $175,000 apiece, towers cost around $2,000 a month to run, according to industry estimates. Explosives are relatively cheap. And for the armed groups themselves, a lack of internet connection keeps them offline, with less data — or errant social media posts by foot soldiers — that can be used to track them, Nasr said.
While the Malian government has control of larger cities, cellphone towers are spread out across the countryside. Defending every tower would mean placing isolated groups of soldiers across the large swathes of the country that lie outside Bamako’s control, making them sitting ducks.
“It is difficult for us to control all the areas ransacked by these armed individuals,” said one military official, who requested anonymity to speak to the media. “[A group] trashes a site that we are securing. Tomorrow they can go after another site. It's a neverending cycle.”
Taking out one tower can disrupt networks for hundreds of miles. A local Orange official, Sidi Aly Touré, told Rest of World that one attack in July at Sendeké, in the Mopti region, affected two thirds of Malian territory, stretching from Timbuktu to Menaka to Taoudenit, near the northern border with Algeria. In these regions, it remains extremely difficult to make any calls or send a simple message over the internet. Touré said that some attacks have not just targeted towers, but also hit fiber-optic installations rented by Orange. “Apparently the bandits have found the sensitive point,” he said.
Ibrahim Aly Hamma Maiga, the Timbuktu director of Moov Africa Malitel, another major telecoms provider in Mali, said that because of the way antennas are linked, one attack can often affect the surrounding antennas, like dominoes.
“Timbuktu is far from Mopti, yet the facilities that are affected from this area directly impact the quality of the network in other regions,” he said. “This is what we call point-to-point linking. When a site is hit, all sites [that pass through the first connection] are cut off.” Mali’s massive geography and uneven population distribution make securing the antennas particularly difficult. The sprawling country has a population of just over 20 million people, mostly concentrated in the south, leaving the far-flung, more sparsely populated north more vulnerable.
Tom Wright, a spokesperson for the Paris-based Orange said in an email that the company was aware of the situation affecting its subsidiary in Mali.
“Malian telecoms operators are awaiting detailed instructions from the authorities in order to enable technicians to carry out reconstruction work in full security and to ensure that the newly-installed equipment is protected against new aggressions in the future,” he told Rest of World.
Malian government officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The economic damage from the blackouts has been severe. The expansion of mobile networks has meant that an increasing amount of commerce in Mali has become digitized. Despite the war, from 2014 to 2017, the share of Malians with a bank account rose from 20% to 35%, according to a 2019 report from the telecoms industry group GSMA Intelligence. In large part, that overall growth was driven by the rapid expansion of mobile money services, the report said.
After an initial total blackout, the services in Timbuktu eventually started coming back online in late August, in fits and starts, often in the middle of the night. Though Orange said money transfers are working “very well” throughout the country, those in northern and central Malian cities, including Timbuktu, tell a different story.
Service remains spotty, sometimes going out for days at a time, with serious consequences for banks and money transfer services. While reporting this story, Rest of World’s correspondent in Timbuktu could not get sufficient service to send emails, and phone calls were always brief and sporadic. At one point, the few banks that were still operating in Timbuktu were only serving about 10 people a day, Nialy said. Only the Mali Development Bank has a satellite connection, frustrating customers who question why other banks do not.
During the worst period of the blackout, Nialy had to mail documents back and forth between Timbuktu, where he’s based, and his office in Bamako, instead of sending scans via WhatsApp.
The damage isn’t limited to white-collar workers. Families and shopkeepers, and those relying on both domestic and international remittances, it is difficult to consistently send and receive money transfers via the local mobile money networks, Orange Money and Moov Money. With the banks being of little use, the antenna attacks have created a de facto economic siege.
But beyond the economic impact of the attacks, the blackouts create a constant sense of fear and unease. “The armed groups, the army, they use walkie-talkies, they don’t need service,” said Oudilayé Maïg, who found herself in the dark when she left Bamako to visit her grandmother in Gao this past August.
When she left for Gao — which fell into rebel and then jihadist control in 2012, before being returned to the Malian government with the aid of French military forces — she was going in blind. She knew that there had recently been problems with services there, but thought it was a typical disruption. It wasn’t until she arrived that she heard on the radio that there was “an act of vandalism by jihadists” on a cellphone tower. When an assault by jihadists in the countryside outside the city left 51 people dead, Maïg was unable to tell her parents she was fine.
“We can’t give information to our families, tell them what’s going on,” Maïg said. “Truly, it’s a situation that creates fear.”
Nasr, the France 24 analyst, acknowledges the Malian military is in a difficult situation, one that goes hand in hand with the last decade’s progress in expanding access to telecoms.
“Whatever the response is, it will be very costly,” Nasr said. More towers inevitably mean more targets. “If you put a soldier on each [antenna].. they’ll be attacked very easily. … If you keep going and putting up antennas, that will be costly too.”