Tuareg / Islamist Insurrection in Mali
The two main Islamic militant movements operating in northern Mali are Ansar al Din (“Defenders of the Faith”) and Jama’at Tawhid Wal Jihad fi Garbi Afriqqiya (“Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa,” or MUJWA). Ansar al Din was formed at the end of 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a former Tuareg rebel leader, who is often described as a pragmatic opportunist. MUJWA was created around the same time but very little was initially known about the group except for its stated objectives of waging jihad in West Africa and that it seemed to be heavily funded by drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. The rank and file were mostly Tuaregs, Mauritanian and Malian Arabs, as well as sympathizers from Nigeria and other Sahelian countries. Both Ansar al Din and MUJWA surfaced during fighting launched in January 2012 by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad [Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad - MNLA] is the Tuareg group that launched the latest uprising for northern autonomy in January 2012. The MNLA is led by secretary general Bilal Ag Acherif and head of the political wing Mahmoud Ag Aghali - neither of whom appear to have figured prominently in Tuareg politics. Azawad is the name Tuaregs use for the vast triangle of desert claimed as its homeland, encompassing the areas of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. The MNLA planned to create a secular, democratic state that will regroup all the ethnic groups in northern Mali, not just the Tuaregs. The MNLA is a new group, created in October 2011 by veterans of previous rebellions, as well as pro-Gadhafi Tuareg fighters returning from Libya. They brought with them the heavy arms and battlefield know-how that have catapulted the MNLA to a new level of military sophistication.
Previously fighting in loose association, the relationship between MNLA and the Islamic militants became increasingly strained in the spring of 2012, with the latter outmaneuvering and, in some areas, clashing with the MNLA to assume control over strategic towns in northern Mali. There had been much speculation about internal disagreements between MUJWA, Ansar al Din, and the foreign-led and better known al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This may be due to ideological disagreements, personality clashes, ethnic differences, or the control over the extensive smuggling networks in the Sahel and Sahara. The initial hostilities of the second Tuareg rebellion, which simmered from 1990 to 1996, were led by Iyad ag Ghali against the Malian military outpost in Menaka in June 1990. Intra-Tuareg tensions divided the Alliance for Democracy and Change (ADC), Mali's next large-scale Tuareg rebel movement (also led by the Ifogas Iyad ag Ghali). In late 2006 the ADC engaged with elements of what is now AQIM in northern Mali.
In November 2007 the Malian government announced the appointment of Iyad ag Ghali, the renowned Malian Tuareg rebel leader and president of the Alliance for Democracy and Change (ADC), to a post as advisor to the Malian Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ag Ghali openly desired to withdraw from his role as northern Mali's main power broker, and had asked President Toure for an assignment to either Saudi Arabia or Egypt earlier in 2007.
In early November 2009, the Dawa movement - aka Jamaat al-Tabligh - held an international conference in Kidal, Mali. This conference was neither the first of its kind in Mali nor would it be the last. Dawa had been present in Mali since the early-to-mid-1990s. The conference organizer was Iyad ag Ghali, a prominent Kidal Tuareg politician then serving as Malian Consul General in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Despite heavy recruitment efforts in Kidal, Gao and Mopti regions, Dawa appeared to have a very small following in Mali. Dawa and similar fundamentalist ideologies did not fit well in Malian culture. Although 90 percent of Malians are Muslims, the vast majority follow one of three Sufi sects, mixed for many with some level of traditional cultural belief and practice. Among other aspects anathema to fundamentalist Islamic practice, Tuareg culture places women squarely in control of households and highly values cultural expressions such as music and dance. Tuaregs prefer to worry about enjoying this life rather than worry about ensuring the perfect afterlife.
The Sahel region received increased attention over the course of 2012 due to existing security challenges and the disturbing turn of events that took place in northern Mali, as well as the looming humanitarian and food crisis. The complexity and the gravity of the situation in the Sahel calls for urgent action to be undertaken through comprehensive and coordinated approaches that address in an integrated manner the existing set of interlinked challenges. Effectively addressing the current situation in the Sahel also requires greater focus on addressing the underlying causes to these challenges and fostering greater regional cooperation.
Western and United Nations officials are concerned the Islamists could turn Mali into a base for terrorists and criminals. France deployed forces in Mali at the request from the country's interim government after Islamists began advancing southward. Mali was a French colony until 1960 and France still has a variety of economic and political interests there. Mali has been in turmoil since the March 2012 military coup, which triggered an uprising of separatist Tuareg tribes that seized control of the country’s south. The Tuaregs were soon suppressed by the better armed Al-Qaida affiliates who overtook control of the northern region, imposing Sharia law and destroying historical heritage sites in Timbuktu, and later started a southward advance.
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