“In less than a year, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has almost doubled its areas of control in Mali,” the expert panel said in a report shared by the Associated Press, referencing the group's control of rural areas in eastern Menaka and large parts of the Ansongo area in northern Gao.
ISIS attacks in the area have also eroded trust in signatories of a 2015 peace agreement, it added, with actors appearing "to be weak and unreliable security providers” for communities targeted by the extremists.
The terror group and Al Qaeda-affiliated rivals have taken advantage of the delay in implementing the agreement to stage attacks and are looking to re-establish an Islamist state in the north of the country, as happened in 2012, the UN experts said.
The Al Qaeda affiliate Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) is now positioning itself as the sole actor capable of protecting populations against Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the experts said in the report circulated on Friday.
Mali, which has witnessed several coups in recent years, has supported the military junta which took power last month in neighbouring Niger.
The instability there has threatened counterterror efforts across Africa's Sahel region, where experts have warned of a huge increase in ISIS and militant activity.
France and the US, which both have troops in Niger, suspended counterterror operations following the coup, while Mali's leaders have warned Ecowas, the bloc of West African states, against a military intervention there.
Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have told Ecowas that sending troops into Niger would also be seen as a declaration of war against them.
With ISIS' presence waning in the Middle East, the terror group is now on the rise in Africa, experts have previously told The National.
While it has to battle rivals in Mali, it has managed to gain a strong foothold in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.
In June, Mali's junta ordered the UN peacekeeping force and its 15,000 international troops to leave after a decade of working on stemming the extremist insurgency.
The Security Council terminated the mission’s mandate on June 30.
The peacekeeping force, Minusma, also played a crucial role in facilitating peace talks and monitoring violations of the peace agreement, the experts' report said.
In June, a UN peacekeeper was killedand nine others wounded in an attack on their convoy.
More than 300 Minusma personnel were killed during the UN mandate in the country, making it the world's deadliest peacekeeping mission.
The panel said the armed groups that signed the 2015 agreement expressed concern that the peace deal could fall apart without UN mediation, “thereby exposing the northern regions to the risk of another uprising".
It also accused Russia's Wagner Group of being involved in "persistent" sexual violence in central and eastern parts of the country.
“The panel believes that violence against women, and other forms of grave abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law are being used, specifically by the foreign security partners, to spread terror among populations,” the report said.
Last month, the US sanctioned Malian officials, including the Minister of Defence, for alleged links to the Wagner Group.
Washington has also accused the paramilitary group of helping engineer the Minusma departure from Mali.