Mali has become the deadliest nation for United Nations peacekeepers.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, is now the bloodiest active peacekeeping expedition in the world, with 60 soldiers killed so far according to the UN since the missin began in 2013.
Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters fired rockets at a MINUSMA camp in the northern city of Gao on Tuesday, killing a Chinese peacekeeper and seriously injuring three others, reports said. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the group's North Africa chapter, issued a statement saying its al-Murabitoon battalion engaged in a clash with "Crusader occupation forces," according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
The problem the UN soldiers face is that in the West African country they aren't really keeping the peace; hostilities are still going on, and Western nations led by France are actively fighting Muslim armed groups in the region as well.
"They are peacekeepers in what is generally not a peacekeeping mission," said Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "It is still an active insurgency."
The goal of MINUSMA's 12,700 peacekeepers is to stabilize the country while French troops combat jihadists who took over an uprising of Tuaregs, Berber-speaking nomads who in 2012 declared an independent state in the Sahara Desert, in the country's north, under the name of Azawad.
Al Qaeda uses its attacks not only to strike against the French and international troops — even though UN forces do not fight insurgents — but to advertise its presence in the country and potentially recruit Malians who might be considering joining the global jihad, John Karlsrud, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said.
"With an international peacekeeping force in Mali, it makes what you do much more visible," Karlsrud said. "It's almost like a rallying tool."
Tuesday's violence wasn't isolated. It came on the heels of attacks on Sunday that resulted in five dead peacekeepers near Mopti and a May 19 incident when five Chadian soldiers hit a landmine and then died under fire from another Islamist militant group, Ansar Dine.
In 2014, after beating back an Islamist advance, the 3,000-strong French force — which is not part of MINUSMA — then shifted its focus to keeping down the rebellion in the north and rooting out Al Qaeda and other cells that were still staging attacks.
Despite those efforts, the jihadists remain resilient. The French had driven extremists out of Gao in 2013, for example. Today, they and others appear to be working smarter, potentially with the help of informants throughout the country, said Lebovich.
"For about the past year and a half there has been an escalation in the pace of the attacks and in some cases the violence of the attacks," he said. "Their coordination is improving. Their tactics are improving. They are initiating them in accordance with what clearly seems to be better intelligence on where Malian and UN and even French forces are moving."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to send another 2,500 troops to the UN peacekeeping mission, according to Reuters, which obtained a copy of Ban's report on the matter. The council is slated to renew the mission at the end of the month.
According to Lebovich, MINUSMA could use better equipment or supplies, but Ban's proposal may not change much.
"It would have to be a part of a sustained effort to essentially conduct a low level anti-insurgency in Mali," he said. But UN peacekeeping missions aren't designed to take sides and target specific actors in a conflict: "How can you have a UN peacekeeping mission that is also tasked with conducting a counterinsurgency?"
Rebel forces like the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad at least temporarily renounced their claims to an independent state, and oppose the jihadists who are still seeking to overthrow the government in Bamako, led by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
But the government has failed to give northern communities the autonomy or funding they have requested to boost their shattered economy, Lebovich said. A few thousand more troops wouldn't change the frustration that has been mounting as a result.
"There is a somewhat widespread opinion that something needs to change," he said. "There are people who think the only way to get something from the state in Mali is to take up arms. That is something that does not bode well for the future of Mali. I desperately hope that I'm wrong."
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr