More than two years after some of Mali’s armed groups signed a peace accord, insecurity in the country is both escalating and spreading.

When the latest chapter in Mali’s long history of insecurity first broke out in 2012 it was initially restricted to the north, but in recent years the violence committed by a wide range of groups has been growing in the centre of the country.

In the third quarter of 2017, “the security situation worsened and attacks against MINUSMA [the UN mission in Mali] and Malian defence and security forces increased and intensified,” UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in his latest update to the Security Council on 26 December.

“Terrorist groups… appear to have improved their operational capacity and expanded their area of operations [leading to] an increase in the number of casualties owing to terrorist attacks,” even if attacks between parties to the peace accord have stopped, he added.

“The peace process has yielded but a few tangible results,” Guterres concluded.

According to Ibrahim Maïga, a researcher with the African Institute for Security Studies, “we have entered a new phase of the war.”

“It is much more unpredictable than in 2012. It is much more diffuse. Before it was focused on urban centres, now it is happening in rural areas and the pockets of insecurity are much more numerous,” he told IRIN.

The “non-state armed actors” – to use the jargon of conflict analysis – behind this violence are many in number and raison d’être, while alliances and splits come and go.

Broadly, these groups fall into four categories:

• The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) – a loose coalition of armed movements with shared interests in issues such as self-determination and territorial control.

• The Platform of Armed Groups – a diverse range of nominally pro-government armed groups.

• Violent extremist organisations, many of which fall under the umbrella of the Jamâ’ah Nusrah al-Islâm wal-Muslimîn (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims or JNIM.)

• Other groups, notably local self-defence units which are not aligned to the above.

The multiplicity of these groups, their constant evolution, and insecurity in areas where they operate makes it impossible to determine how many Malian citizens are within their ranks. None of the organisations IRIN spoke to wanted to provide even a rough estimate.

Some sense of the scale of the phenomenon can be gleaned from proposals about how many members of the groups which signed the 2015 accord are set to be integrated into the regular security forces. The government puts the figure at 4,900; some of the signatories insisted it should be as many as 14,000. Jihadist forces and self-defence units were not party to the accord.

One area that has been researched extensively is why Malian citizens decide to join armed groups. And, according to the results of several field surveys, “radicalization” and immediate monetary gain barely figure as “pull” factors.

Instead, what emerges is a picture in which taking up arms is often a considered response to deteriorating circumstances.

“There is a multitude of factors, almost as many motives as there are members” of armed groups, explained Maïga of the ISS.

Youths, aged between 18-35, “make up the largest proportion of the groups, of their fighting forces.

Anthony Morland is IRIN’s Project Editor. He filed this article from Bamako

Without youths, it’s hard to be an active, dangerous group,” he said.

More than two-thirds of Mali’s 18 million inhabitants is under the age of 24.

In 2016, ISS interviewed dozens of former members of Malian jihadist groups to assess their motives, which the research group determined fell into 15 broad categories: Personal reasons, education, protection, social, ethical, influence, economic, family-related, political, religious, psychological, coercion, environmental, cultural/community/sociological and unknown.