More General Thoughts RE: Mali, AQIM, armed groups, etc.

Events in Mali are developing rapidly; for the moment, readers may refer to this blogger’s Twitter feed and those of others better informed (for example: Martin VoglMartin Plaut,Peter DorrieHannah ArmstrongTommy Miles, and Andrew Lebovich, and the articles here). Media reports have AQIM and MUJWA operating together with Ansar Eddine in Gao and Timbuktu; reports are mixed and the situation continues to be fluid. The MNLA appears to have been sidelined in some areas by Ansar Eddine, which is reported to have a heavy presence with members of AQIM in Timbuktu, and in others to be operating in proximity to MUJWA and/or Ansar Eddine. At present it is clear there are at least partial divisions in that Ansar Eddine may seek to expand beyond the Azawad, while the MNLA is more likely to attempt to hold territory in the north toward its goal of establishing a state there. Ansar Eddine (and the other Islamist/Salafi groups), though, look ready to try and extend their reach further south. In such a case they may find themselves at an even greater cross purposes than they did early on. The MNLA, highly media conscious, may attempt some kind of manoeuvre  to take some of the initiative from the Ansar Eddine and other armed factions. Ansar Eddine appears much stronger than previous reports suggested, and it may have come to an agreement or understanding with AQIM or MUJWA as a result of a common worldview or revenge politics directed toward the MNLA or a need to find ins at the local level in Timbuktu, for example. But there in particular if reports about AQIM having established itself there with the rebels moves beyond the group’s usually more low key and more pragmatic style; a prominent role there exposes it to targeting by the Mauritanian air force or others. This is especially true if reports about AQIM leadership figures showing up in Timbuktu or returning to Mali from neighbouring countries are true (including Yahya Abu al-Hammam and Belmokhtar; they are reported to have taken control of some military bases/installations in the area). The heavy hand in Timbuktu or Gao could also instigate pressure from ethnic militias in the area and with tribes. At the same time such figures may also help Ansar Eddine, whose leader Ag Ghali draws much of his support from Kidal, cement control in the area. From the distance and without more reliable reporting and definitive accounts from locals questions remain numerous and assumptions and contingencies must be reconsidered and interrogated vigorously.


9 thoughts on “More General Thoughts RE: Mali, AQIM, armed groups, etc.

  1. I’m not so sure about the sincerity of the independence goals of the MNLA. Earlier rebellions have all ended in face-saving compromises, promises of some local autonomy and money/army jobs generously spread around.

    Given the immense difficulties in setting up a state in Azawad, not to mention getting it recognized, and the raw hostility of the international community and the rest of the neighborhood (maybe Gaddafi would have backed it, but alas, the colonel is not around anymore; and try convincing Algeria of the need for Tuareg separatism), I think one should assume a fair number of the MNLA cadre is actually gunning for more limited goals. Or at the very least they can be convinced to settle for a fruitful compromise, if other options fail. Even so, maximalist rhetoric serves their purposes.

    Also, I’d like to request more parapgrahs in your blog posts. This is a bit hard on the eyes.

    • I suspect some of what they are after is control of smuggling routes. Not certain to me a state in Azawad is viable and doubt countries in the region want one; Ansar Eddine and the other Islamist factions probably have more maximalist objectives. The coup having come when it did probably encouraged more ideological elements and made a compromise more difficult for structural and political reasons. Also, I wonder if there is a stronger ideological component to this current uprising as compared to previous ones, both from returnees and from the idea men in the MNLA. Other people probably know better than I do, though.

      I’ll use more paragraphs for longer posts, but since I wrote this one in the wee hours, I’ll probably just keep it as is. In the future, though, more paragraphs for sure.

    • Aron, Kal,
      I’d like to take issue with the way most (occasionally myself as well) speak about “The MNLA”, and draw conclusions about “it”. It is clearly a whole host of factions. The privileged voice to the outside world is that of a very specific group, and there is little evidence they are at all representative of the MNLA combatants. MNLA’s Paris/Belgian press corp and its Political Bureau are the only voice we hear. And they are ideological, laic, republican, and largely welcoming to pan-ethnic participation. I think most are sincere, but these may be the voices of those not living in their home countries, with higher education, and immersed in the European discourse of national liberation struggles and/or the North African discourse of Amazigh nationalism.

      But not only are they not the people on the ground, it is unclear if they even still have reliable contact with the people on the ground. The fact that the Political Bureau is dominated by young people drawn from the late Ag Bahanga’s movement complicates issues, and there are repeated reports of severe splits even within the European self-identified leadership. Voices once prominent in the MNLA press releases have entirely disappeared, without explanation, over the last two months, and there appears to have been a series of power struggles over the ownership of their websites as they changed webhosts, spokesmen, and even went down for a few days. Toumast Press even admitted after Iyad’s appearance in Tombouctou that the politburo has split with “members who were irrationally attached to Iyad Ag Ghali”. And the politburo is less than a dozen people, several of whom have made no public statements.

      I’m increasingly convinced, when looking at the north of Mali, that we should be watching specific commanders, factions, leaders, communities : some are clearly cooperating in some way with Ancar Dine et al, some maybe not; some have seemingly retired from the country (note the smash and grab attacks within range of the Mauritanian border) or some hold up in their homes, bases, or defensible positions; some are true independentistas, some just pillaging.

      Why then should we analyze MNLA communiques as representative of what’s going on in Mali. They are indicative of the ideology and self-estimation of the people writing them. This is to the extent they are honest: read their quite fantastic reports on Aguelhoc & Tessalit, or even the repeated claims of direct control over the November 2011 attacks in Abeibara.

      Given this, the idea that “the MNLA controls northern Mali” and that the war is over seems spurious.

      And it does reorder a bit Kal’s important question “if there is a stronger ideological component to this current uprising as compared to previous ones?” What that is that ideology (or ideologies), who shares it, and how it is indicative of how young urban or expat Touareg identify their place within nation(s), communities, ethnicity, race, and even class. These are not only airy questions for sociologists. They will help determine both the settlement of this conflict, and the scope or purpose of future conflicts.

      • These are really important questions: I agree, the unit of analysis should be closer to the individual, unit level as opposed to the whole group. Baz Lecocq wrote about some of this is in his recent book and I think it’s well worth looking at in the current context. Obviously it’s easy to use larger units of analysis for these problems but at the end of the day, the MNLA does have fractures and divisions but we need to look more closely to identify where those are and where they come from and what they might lead to. The same, I would wager is true of the other armed groups, including Ansar Eddine and AQIM and MUJWA; the existence of MUJWA I think is proof of these things. But the war is clearly not over, and there’s probably a lot more to come, unfortunately.

      • Tommy — Great stuff. I’m sure you’re absolutely correct, and I don’t know the specifics at all, so I’ll humbly bow to you on this.

        Especially agree about the ‘war is over’ trope. I can hardly see a single actor in the region who would tolerate the current state of affairs, starting with the Bamako gov or what remains of it, onwards to the neighbors (esp Algeria), USA, France etc. Leaving aside the military options, there are a myriad ways in which they could intervene – buying off commanders, separate peace agreements with factions, proxy interventions, etc.

        And of course, as you say, there’s no reason to assume that the current state of affairs in N. Mali would hold anyway, even if left alone to simmer. To the contrary, I’d expect a round of factional and tribal infighting when the spoils are to be divided, regardless of the politics, and such a situation would undoubtedly invite foreign influence.

        By the way, enjoy:

      • Oh, and a thought: what will this do to Libya’s south-west? I don’t see why blowback should go only one way, one time. Libya is clearly very weak and vulnerable to outside influences right now, starting with its inability to police borders even in the most nominal way.

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