Islamists Gain Upper Hand in Parts of Northern Mali
The Malian Tuareg Rebel group that drove government forces out of large swathes of the country's north in recent weeks has split after its Islamist wing claimed at least one of northern Mali's three regional capitals for itself, setting the stage for increased jihadist activity in the area.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
The Islamist wing of the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), known as Ansar al-Din, has turned on its erstwhile partners by driving them from at least one of three regional capitals recently captured from the Malian army, and is reported to be holding talks with regional jihadist groups.
The rift represents a significant setback for the political aims of the MNLA core leadership and could herald a further deterioration of security in northern Mali as the two sides fight over territorial control of strategic towns, and at the same time establish safe havens for regional Islamist insurgents, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Reports of senior AQIM figures meeting in Timbuktu with the leadership of Ansar al-Din, who want to impose Shari'a in Mali, will probably herald a wider alliance between the two, and could provide Islamists with a launching point for attacks further south, and the MNLA will struggle to implement its political goals as a result of this.
Tuareg Islamists fighting under the black banner of Ansar al-Din—an Islamist offshoot of the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)—have claimed northern Mali's crown jewel Timbuktu for themselves after driving out MNLA fighters with whom they captured the city on 1 April. According to witness cited by Agence France-Presse (AFP), Ansar al-Din fighters chased their MNLA counterparts out of the city and burned their flag. Militants loyal to Ansar al-Din—which wants to impose Shari'a throughout Mali—were reportedly ransacking the city, destroying "un-Islamic" property and forcing women to don veils. Similar scenes were reported in the two other regional capitals in the north, Gao and Kidal, both overrun by Tuareg rebels between 30 March and 1 April, although reports are unclear as to whether Ansar al-Din ejected MNLA fighters from those towns as well. The three regional capitals were captured after a lightning offensive by the rebels succeeded in driving out the demoralised garrisons of Malian soldiers; pulled back from the front lines after a coup in Bamako on 21 March threw the military effort against the rebellion into disarray (see Mali: 23 March 2012: Rebels Make Gains in Northern Mali as Army Abandons Positions After Coup). Tuareg rebels were reported to have advanced as far south as the town of Mopti in central Mali on 3 April—only an eight-hour drive from the capital, where the residents were reported to be following the lead of the town's military garrison and fleeing southwards.
Three of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM's) senior Mali-based "emirs" (commanders), Abou Zayd, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam, were witnessed arriving in Timbuktu to meet with the Ansar al-Din leader, Iyad ag Ghali yesterday (3 April) in a military camp within the city limits. Ag Ghali himself is a long-time Tuareg leader who has spent time in Saudi Arabia, and announced the creation of Ansar al-Din as a separate entity from the MNLA in mid-March (see Mali: 14 March 2012: Islamist Faction of Malian Tuareg Rebel Group Emerges, Calls for Shari'a). Unconfirmed eye-witness reports cited by AFP say he arrived in Timbuktu with a contingent of AQIM fighters shortly after the city fell and drove out the MNLA fighters to a base outside the city. Ag Ghali has family ties to AQIM: his cousin Abd-al-Karim al-Tarqi is reportedly one of the few Tuareg commanders in the group.
The Foreign Minister of former colonial power France, Alain Juppe, confirmed links between AQIM and Ansar al-Din in an interview yesterday, saying the two were "closely tied" and the latter could be attempting to "install an Islamic regime across the whole of Mali", and called for concerted multi-lateral action to stem the deterioration of the situation in the north and a Security Council resolution condemning the rebel attacks.
Initially formed as an umbrella for hard-line Tuareg groups that rejected the Algerian-brokered 2009 peace plan that ended the previous rebellion in northern Mali, the MNLA drew anti-government forces of all stripes, including heavily armed Tuareg fighters returning from Libya after the fall of Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi. The group launched the latest Tuareg rebellion to erupt in Mali on 17 January, when its fighters attacked towns in the border region near Niger, rapidly making gains by taking advantage of poorly supplied and under-equipped Malian army units (see Mali: 18 January 2012: Malian Army Clashes with Newly Formed, Hard-Line Tuareg Group). The MNLA was founded on primarily political grounds: it seeks autonomy for the Azawad region in Mali, part of the Tuareg ancestral homeland that spans the borders of Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Libya. The Ansar al-Din faction, however, seeks solely the imposition of Shari'a over the Malian territory, setting it apart from the original political aims of the MNLA founders. This distinction lies at the heart of the split between the erstwhile allies, and manifested itself in the ejection of MNLA fighters from Timbuktu after the common goal of the capture of the far-flung regional capitals had been achieved. MNLA leaders have previously publicly eschewed the Salafist goals of Ansar al-Din, and said that the relationship between the two sides was one of "coexistence, not co-operation". The relationship between the two appears to be souring rapidly, however, following the incident at Timbuktu.
Outlook and Implications
The marriage of convenience between the MNLA and Ansar al-Din appears to be breaking down as their goals prove increasing irreconcilable. A spokesman for the political bureau of the MNLA, Moussa ag Assarid, said in a statement on 3 April that the group now controlled "all the territory it needed" and was prepared to agree on a border with Mali behind which the group would establish an autonomous, democratic state.
The plans of both groups for northern Mali are unacceptable to the Bamako government, as they are to Alain Juppe, who said France was "very committed to Mali's territorial integrity". However, the MNLA, whose goals are at least political and potentially negotiable, represent the lesser of two evils for the moment, particularly for France and the United States, who have expended much political and economic capital attempting to secure the Sahel and fight the expansion of militant Islamist networks.
The potential for the two sides of the Tuareg rebellion to turn on one another and fight over access to strategic hubs and ideological goals is high, particularly in the context of the near-total power vacuum produced by the rout of the Malian military in the region and the breakdown of all government authority in the north. The problem will continue to be exacerbated by continued political uncertainty as the military junta in power in Bamako maintains its intractable stance and appears to be playing for time despite concerted international pressure on it to step down. Even if power is returned to a civilian government imminently, however, the Malian state may not succeed in re-establishing its authority in the north for months and possibly years to come.
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