Clarifying the Conflict in Mali: Whose Who (Part I)
Before the Harmattan Winds
After a two night slow boating trip up the Niger River from Mopti I arrived at the ferry landing . At the northernmost bend of the Niger the ferry docked. I disembarked with hundreds of people, the things they carried, goats and sheep. Children were splashing in the brown water. Women were washing pots, pans and clothes. Men hauled solid blocks of salt onto the flatbeds of run-down pickups. I was guided towards an old blue pickup. Issa Coulibaly signaled me to hop in the back with him, Jake and Kunal. A man in a blue Tagelmust, the traditional indigo blue turban worn by Taureg men in the Sahara drove us through the desert to Le Boctou Hotel. Stepping out of the pickup the driver raised his hands to towards the orange sky, “Welcome to the middle of fucking no-where”, he said gruffly. Harsad – good-bye.
I spent several days wandering the dusty streets of Timbuktu in 2006. Le Boctou stands at the center of town caught in a distant past, frozen in the silence of Sahara vastness. I stayed here for a night listening to the susurrous wind and the bleating of fornicating goats until sunrise. On my second night I enjoyed millet beer in a calabash and a sweat drenching dance party hosted in a mud brick home equipped with a sony stereo blaring DMX, Magic System, Notorious BIG and Tata Pound. Antiquity and modernity collided. Dionysius surged through our veins as we broke into dance circles hollering into the otherwise reticent night.
Virtually everyone with the means to escape fled this dusty town when the militant islamist group Ansar Dine, “Defenders of the Faith” took advantage of the gains the Taureg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad made in the January 2012 uprising, deposing the secular Tuareg rebel forces. Ansar Dine conquered Timbuktu spreading chaos and imposing a brutal brand of Sharia law last June. Dancing is now prohibited. Listening to music is an offense punishable by amputation.
Like Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Douentza, Diabaly and Konna, these northern Malian cities have fallen to a dynamic alliance of Islamist forces. The Islamists’ advancement south, only 50 miles from Mali’s second largest city, Mopti, provoked French intervention. Airstrikes have bombarded targets in Konna and surrounding villages since President Francois Hollande ordered them last Friday. But hours after the French foreign minister declared France had blocked “the advance of the terrorists”, militants pushed into the town of Diabaly installing themselves among the people. The whack-a-mole challenge of ousting mobile militants familiar with the terrain and hardened by decades of war has begun. So too has the media’s oversimplification of the conflict in Mali and the strategic posturing by external, invested political leaders.
Over the next few blog posts I will try to clarify what is happening in Mali. I hope to clarify which armed groups are involved, how they differ and what they stand to gain or lose in the current conflict. Later I will try to illustrate the political and economic incentives driving state and corporate actors to support war in Mali’s northern extremes, shedding light on the complicity of western governments in the creation of this terrifying crisis.
The Maghreb region is a cauldron of instability that has reached its boiling point in Mali. Conflicts in North African countries spanning the Sahara are particularly vulnerable to spilling over into other countries due in large part to the way national boundaries were constructed without consideration to ethnicity. Some ethnic groups like the Taureg who constitute a majority in the territories under siege but who also represent significant populations across the Sahara in Niger, Mauritania and Chad for instance, were forced to live within a nation ruled by culturally and linguistically distinct sub-Saharan groups in Bamako. Essentially Tauregs constitute a majority in the Saharan north of countries where they otherwise represent a small minority. While Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gets the most attention, for reasons that I will soon discuss, other armed groups, a diverse mixture of islamist, secular and ethnic confound the situation. Al Jazeera correspondent May Ying Welsh has a concise piece, Making sense of Mali’s armed groups breaking down the armed factions engaged in the struggle for power and survival. Differentiating the groups involved and understanding their particular ambitions is imperative if we are to make any sense of the conflict in Mali.
Let’s identify who is currently involved in the war in Mali and identify some of the drives that compel them to wage it.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)
The secular Taureg rebel group, The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) desire an independent state in northern Mali, particularly a state in a region they claim as the homeland of the peoples of northern Mali (this includes Songhai, Fulani, Arab peoples), Azawad. Tauregs, traditional desert nomadic traders have been vying for this part of the country since 1963. Although the exact boundaries of this idealized state are vague, it is clear that Azawad refers to the towns and territory that Tauregs, Songhai, Fulani and Berabiche Arabs have historically roamed through and occupied in the Saharan north. Dreams of reclaiming this vast desert territory have led to decades of tensions between the desert dwellers of the north and sub-Saharan groups in the South that have fomented rebellion.
The first Taureg rebellion was quashed by the Malian army relegating Taureg’s to a virtually unrepresented ethnic group in the poverty stricken north. The second Taureg rebellion in 1990’s descended the country into an effective civil war fought in Mali’s northern territory. Though that conflict ceased with the 1995 Peace Accord and the ceremonial Burning of the Guns in Timbuktu, the Tauregs remained restive, resentful of their lack of participation in the military, and politics and frustrated by the lack of resources invested in their region. By 2006 a short outburst had gripped the north as Tauregs attacked government buildings in Gao, citing lack of opportunity as an aggravation. Last March Captain Amadou Sanago, a disgruntled soldier led the junior ranks of the Malian Army to defect and stage a coup in Bamako. Corruption and the Malian government’s negligence in equipping the armies to beat back the Taureg rebellion unfolding in the North was Sanago’s reason d être . Sanago briefly came to power as transitional President. His promise to equip the Malian military to take back territory lost to Tauregs in the North went unfulfilled. Emboldened by the fallout of Qadaffi heavily armed and war hardened Taureg mercenaries returned to Mali to reclaim their historical homeland from the weak government in the South. A new power dynamic emerged that transiently put the MNLA in control of the Azawad region. The Tauregs triumph over towns and cities located in the Azawad proved short lived as more powerful forces sought power in the Saharan wild.
Ansar Dine, Tamashek for Defenders of the Faith is a group comprised predominantly of local Ifoghas Tauregs. Berabiche Arabs and other smaller ethnic groups seeking opportunity have also joined the ranks. Ansar Dine is bent on establishing Sharia Law throughout Mali and across the Islamic world. In an Al Jazeera column William G. Mosley noted that Ansar Dine has been “less concerned with territorial autonomy than the ability to impose Sharia law in the northern regions of the country”. The militant groups leader, Lyad Ag Ghali became a power player during the Taureg rebellion of the 1990’s, gaining further esteem when he helped the government in Bamako, then presided over by Amadou Toumani Toure (the President disposed last March) negotiate a ceasefire with Tauregs who raised arms in the 2006 conflagration. Ghali also played a role negotiating ransoms of behalf of Bamako with another Islamist group in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum recently said that AQIM’s presence in northern Mali was part of a deal between the group and the deposed President of Mali Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), a deal brokered by ATT’s close political associate Lyad Ag Ghali. Hostage ransom money from European governments was allegedly spread around to Malian officials while AQIM was given free rein in Taureg areas, with a wink and a nod from the Malian Army
Further allegations hold that President Toure brokered a deal with AQIM allowing them to operate in Mali’s extreme north as long as they kept the ambitions of self-determined Tauregs in check. Toure has also been accused of diverting funds given to Mali by the US to fight terrorism in the Sahara, the so-called “second front” of the war on terror, to support AQIM with the military supplies needed to achieve their end of the deal, keeping the Tauregs in check and lining the pockets of Bamako officials including Toure himself with the booty of ransom.
Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)
MUJAO is a splinter group of AQIM. May Ying Welsh described the armed group as “the most opaque of the al-Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali.” Their aims, like Ansar Din are to establish Sharia law. They differ from Ansar Din more on composition than in constitution as their ranks swell with foreign mujahedeen rebels.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
AQIM developed in Algeria during the civil war between the military government and Islamic guerrillas that raged throughout the country in the 1990’s. Members of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the dominant force fighting to overthrow the government formed the Salafist Group for Preaching Combat in 1998 following the decline of GIA’s popularity after a wave of civilian massacres provoked outrage. When Nabil Sahraoui became the national emir of this faction in 2003 he was reported to have pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. The relationship was reaffirmed in 2006 by Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al Zawahiri. Abu Musab Abdul Wadud now commands AQIM.
AQIM has been present in Mali since 2003. Mali’s uncontrolled northern territory provides an opportune haven for AQIM to conduct operations. Kidnapping western tourists and journalists helped AQIM raise an estimated $250 million in ransoms over the last decade. Drug smuggling across the Sahara has also been a vital source of revenue. Funds raised from these activities have helped the Islamist group purchase weapons needed to ultimately overthrow the Algerian government. Establishing a “pure” Islamic society in Algeria and continuing to wage war against western imperialist forces are other declared objectives. Mali’s vast uncontrolled region is a strategic location for AQIM to carry out its goals.
Many Malians blame the MNLA for initiating the rebellion and problematically conflate them with innocent Tuareg civilians and Islamist groups. Relying on such oversimplifications one turns a blind eye, justifying the killing of anyone civilian, Islamist, or rebel in the name of fighting Al-Qaeda. But that is and has been the intention of all state and corporate actors with a stake in the region.