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Foreign affairsBreak-away Mali region now under al Qaeda-affiliate control

Published 4 June 2012

Following a March 2012 military coup in Mali, Tuareg secessionists in northeast Mali have seized two-thirds of that country — an area larger than France — and proclaimed the Independent State of Azawad; things have not gone as planned: three months after secession, an al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fundamentalist movement, Ansar Dine, is in control of the vast territory; the Financial Times observes: “[W]hat initially appeared to be a quest for a secular homeland has turned into something much more dangerous, for Mali and far beyond: the possibility of an Islamist-aligned mini-state that could offer a base to the jihadist groups and criminal gangs that roam the Sahara”

Following a March 2012 military coup in Mali, and the disintegration of the Mali military into rival factions, Tuareg secessionists in northeast Mali have seized two-thirds of that country — an area larger than France, but with a mostly-nomad population of between one-and-a-half and two million people – and proclaimed the Independent State of Azawad (see “Tuaregs set Sahara aflame, proclaim new country,” HSNW30 April 2012).

Reports from Azawad now portray a grim picture of the situation on the ground: three months after the declaration of the independence of Azawad, an al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fundamentalist movement, Ansar Dine (or Defenders of the Faith) is controlling the vast territory. The Islamists have marginalized the Tuareg-based National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA); are in the process of imposing a strict Sharia law on a reluctant population; have called in hundreds of foreign jihadists – some from as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan; and have increased cooperation with the North African branch of al Qaeda – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

One of the noticeable results of this Islamic take-over of Azawad has been a wave of Tuareg refugees fleeing the newly independent territory: the Financial Times reports that in the last three months, some 400,000 thousands – or about a quarter of the population – have left Azawad to villages and cities in the southwest of Mali.

The deepening crisis in Mali is not only a humanitarian crisis. As the Financial Times observes: “[W]hat initially appeared to be a quest for a secular homeland has turned into something much more dangerous, for Mali and far beyond: the possibility of an Islamist-aligned mini-state that could offer a base to the jihadist groups and criminal gangs that roam the Sahara.”

The January rebellion by the Tuareg against the central Mali government was the fourth such rebellion since Mali gained independence from France in 1960, but the first to seek a separate homeland for the northern Azawad region. This time, the Tuareg rebellion was helped by two developments: well-armed Tuareg soldiers, who were used by Colonel Qaddafi as mercenaries in an effort to suppress the anti-Qaddafi uprising in Libya, returned to Mali after the fall of Qaddafi and boosted the ranks of the MNLA. The second development was the 22 March coup which toppled to Mali government and divided the country’s military.

The Financial Times reports that fighting alongside the MNLA, quietly at first, was Ansar Dine, formed by a disgruntled veteran of previous Tuareg rebellions. Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, served in Mali’s consulate in Saudi Arabia in 2007, but the Saudi authorities, alarmed by Ghali’s ties to a fundamentalist Islamic group in Saudi Arabia, asked him to leave. He returned to Mali, and used his connections with Islamic fundamentalist movements to become a mediator in several multimillion-dollar negotiations over Western hostages kidnapped by AQIM in north and west Africa. In late fall 2011 he actively agitated to become the leader of the newly formed MNLA, and, at the same time, also become the leader of his Tuareg clan, but was rebuffed in both attempts. In response, and using money he collected in commissions for his mediating efforts, he formed his own militia – the Ansar Dine.

The New York Times reports that Ansar Dine, bolstered by money, foreign Jihadi soldiers, and close connections with AQIM, soon proved more disciplined and effective than the MNLA. The main reason is that the Tuareg community is deeply divided over the issue of independence, with the uprising supported by only a section of the Tuareg population. Also, the rebellion, and the cause of independence of Azsawad, has little or no support from ethnic groups such as the Songhai, the biggest ethnic group in northern Mali. With the secular-nationalist Tuareg forces divided over both ends and means, the more disciplined Ansar Dine, without much difficulty, has become the de facto ruler of Azawad.  

Smoking in public and listening to music are now prohibited in Azawad. Bars have been destroyed and hotels closed. Women must cover their faces and bodies and be accompanied a male relative when venturing out of their homes. Men, too, must watch out: the Islamists decreed that men’s trousers cannot descend to the ankles, and men caught with ankle-length trousers are subject to public lashing. .

A quarter of the Azawad population has already fled the draconian Sharia laws Ansar Dine has been imposing. The Financial Times reports, though, that even before the Mali military regroups and, as expected, launch a campaign to reunify the country, Ansar Dine may soon have to fight to keep its hold over the territory: other ethnic groups in the north, such as the Songhai, are likely to form their own militias to take on the Islamists, leading to civil war.