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Drugs and violent extremism: First national Dialogue in Mali use on violent extremism in Mali

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Bamako n’est pas loin, Bamako is not far. This phrase is just one of the many evocative market names for psychoactive substances (drugs, or medical products for non-medical use like tramadol etc.) that are rampant in Mali. If you are taking a long 20 hours bus ride from Gao to Bamako, you might be offered some, with the promise that the journey will be shorter-the time you wake up you will be in Bamako.

The names of these substances are as evocative as they are varied. "Panneaux solaires" (solar panels) implies an energy boost in the morning, only to leave you drained like an old battery toy at night. "200" is often tramadol, recognized by its dosage. There's even a more sinister "qui m’a poussé" (who pushed me). These names, sometimes humorous, sometimes dark, paint a vivid picture of the drug landscape in Mali.

What happens if the problem of drugs use, and violent extremism coexist and converge in one same area? More than 75 participants, including religious and community leaders, women’s groups, youth groups, ex drug users, psychologist and doctors, government officials ambassadors, mayors, head of education services from different regions, NGOs, civil society organizations, fighting against drugs trafficking or violent extremism, including prison administration officials, gathered in the first ever national dialogue to discuss the issue.

In cooperation with the Permanent Secretary of the National Strategy to counter violent extremism and terrorism (Politique Nationale de lutte contre l’extrémisme violent et le terrorisme (PNLEVT)), the Permanent Secretary of the Interministerial Mission on Drugs (Mission Interministerielle de Lutte contre les drogues MILD), and the network of NGOs working on violent extremism (COPEV),  UNODC, through its Terrorism Prevention Branch (TPB), Sahel programme and Drug Demand Reduction Programme, organized this dialogue in Bamako on 12 and 13 December 2023.

The Minister of Religious affairs chaired the opening ceremony and called for action to tackle both issues of drug use and violent extremism. UNODC Sahel Programme Coordinator, Cristina Iampieri, recalled that “Violent extremism and drug consumption pose major threats to the Sahel. In isolation, each of these scourges has the power to destabilize an entire country, undermining the future of its youth. But their convergence in the same territory requires an urgent and in-depth analysis of their potential interactions”. 

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During the dialogue, participants increased their mutual understanding of the escalating issue of drug use and other psychoactive substance abuse, like tramadol and rivotril. They confirmed for instance the use of tramadol in cooking, and one participant confirmed that she was also following this practice.  Participants were separated in different groups. Most of the groups had known at least one case of violent extremist using drugs to commit violent acts. But they also mentioned self defence groups using drug for courage and self confidence in the aim to “imitate” violent extremists in preparation of retaliation. They mentioned the conditioning of kamikaze, kept separate from the group, drugged, and indoctrinated in preparation of their final act. Groups have also pointed out the vulnerability of terrorist attacks survivors to drugs, illustrating the complex interplay between trauma, drug use, and violent extremism.

All agreed on a directly proportional link between drugs and violence, including the violence driven by extremist ideologies, although more research is needed.  Together participants declared the set up of a platform to further collect information on the issue of drugs use on violent extremism and collectively identify potential solution. They also adopted strong recommendations, including, developing a dedicated study on both topics and their linkages, the mobilization of all actors for the operationalization of the National Policy on Combating Violent Extremism and Terrorism, and strengthen the capacity of all community leaders (religious, youth, women, etc) to prevent, detect and respond to drugs use and violent extremism.

All the participants and representatives praised the initiative and underlined the relevance of this activity. They all expressed the need to attend other discussion platforms and frameworks of multi stakeholders related to the two topics, including the nexus between them.

“I will now go back to my village, speak with the mayor, and organize a local dialogue to inform my community of what I have learned here in Bamako”, declared one female participant, adding that “if a woman has attended an event like this, when she goes back, the community will listen to her”.