The French Military Intervention in Mali, Counter-Terrorism, and the Law of Armed Conflict

Military Law Review, Vol. 223, No. 1, 2015

40 Pages Posted: 10 May 2015 Last revised: 24 Jun 2015

Date Written: May 8, 2015


The recent conflict in Mali underscores that non-state armed groups are increasingly a source of global insecurity. That conflict equally highlights the fact that developing and fragile states in Africa are especially vulnerable to myriad terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations that seek to exploit the limitations in the security sectors of weaker or less developed countries. Advances in both information technology and weapons systems, moreover, have given non-state armed groups heretofore unparalleled capabilities, enabling more lethal operational activity as well as recruitment on a global scale.

Such advances contributed, in no small part, to the ability of terrorist groups in Mali in 2012-2013 to exploit existing identity cleavages and tear the country in two. The conflict in Mali and the subsequent French intervention are, therefore, interesting objects of study on a number of levels. One particular area which the conflict and the French intervention illuminated, however, was the way in which international law is subtly adjusting to the new threats posed by non-state armed groups operating in the territories of fragile states, notably with regard to (a) the concept of intervention by invitation in an internal armed conflict, and (b) the concept of implied authorization for the use of force. This article provides an analysis of the conflict in Mali and the legal authority asserted by France to legally undergird its intervention in Mali; explores the contours of this changing international legal landscape; examines relevant provisions of the France-Mali Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA); and posits that the French intervention in Mali represents a subtle shift in international law vis-à-vis military force in counter-terrorism operations. This article then considers the implications of that subtle shift for U.S. counter-terrorism operations when U.S. forces are arrayed against non-state armed groups in ungoverned spaces, such as a potential intervention in Iraq or Syria against a group like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Through a review of the history of the conflict in Mali, relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions, the reaction of the international community to the French intervention, and evaluation of other indicia, this article demonstrates that the new paradigm of armed conflict – and the revolutionary shifts in the capabilities of modern non-state armed groups – has served as a catalyst for a degree of international legal evolution, ushering in a more permissive view of the legality of the use of military force by intervening states against non-state armed groups or violent extremist organizations operating in the territories of fragile states and/or ungoverned spaces.

Keywords: conflict, Mali, Tuareg, intervention, use of force, military, civil war, French intervention, Serval, Barkhane, France, MINUSMA, armed conflict, Sahel, MUJAO, Ansar Dine, terrorism, non-state armed groups, violent extremist organizations

JEL Classification: K33, K42, K39, H56

Suggested Citation

Stigall, Dan E., The French Military Intervention in Mali, Counter-Terrorism, and the Law of Armed Conflict (May 8, 2015). Military Law Review, Vol. 223, No. 1, 2015, Available at SSRN:

Dan E. Stigall (Contact Author)

U.S. Department of Justice ( email )

United States

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