This a very brief post, reeling from the event in Gao. It makes no claims to definitiveness, and predominantly asks questions and wonders.
The week of 25 June saw the MNLA expelled from Gao by Islamist militants belonging to the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar Ed-Dine, the latest in a string of tactical and strategic defeats for northern Mali’s pro-independence and more or less secularist rebel group. The group has been outmaneuvered at nearly every turn by Ansar Ed-Dine, AQIM and MUJWA since the armed rebellion began to move south to Timbuktu and Gao from Kidal. MUJWA appears to have deftly leveraged its local connections in Gao among local Arabs to exploit strong animosity between Songhai armed elements and the Tuareg-dominated MNLA. The MNLA’s pro-session agenda and abuses of the local population on arrival in Gao coupled with long-standing hostility between members of the Ganda Iso and Ganda Koy militia groups (elements of which were involved in atrocities against Tuaregs during previous rebellions) appears to have allowed MUJWA to direct popular discontent with living conditions in the city resulting from the rebellion onto the MNLA, marginalizing it and forcing its members in the city to take flight (resistance to the MNLA’s behavior in the city is not difficult to hard to imagine, especially given reports of the the group’s pillaging and abuses related by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch and how the group declared unilaterally declared independence for the Azawad in an area that was the capital of the Songhai Empire, without even mentioning previous conflicts in detail). The victory of Islamist forces at the Battle of Gao is, as things stand now (with MNLA forces on the run from both Gao and Timbuktu) a significant development in the conflict in Mali; armed Islamists are happily setting out to destroy sacred Islamic shrines in Timbuktu, inviting foreign jihadists (some of whom are reported to have already arrived) to help fortify their victory in Gao and guard it from an external intervention. The brief rumor that MNLA forces had killed the elusive AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, like so many other instances where the group has attempted to demonstrate value to outsiders by talking smack about AQIM, appears to be utterly false.
MUJWA’s propaganda during the Battle of Gao displays its intelligent exploitation of local grievances. A video released to regional media (and posted to the jihadist forums) shows the group’s effort to link its narrative to Songhai nationalist feelings; the video bears the name “Askia,” the name of a Songhai emperor with strong symbol power. The video shows MUJWA’s men defending anti-MNLA demonstrators from MNLA gunfire, with subtitles carefully narrating the events; how this demonstration was initiated is unclear but it believed that it may have begun as a protest against the city’s Islamist groups but was flipped at the MNLA with the help of provocateurs or other means. The video itself is evidence of northern Mali’s Islamsits’ increasingly sophisticated media operations and use of psychological warfare against their adversaries. The video made it to the Internet only a day after the events occurred, edited and sound-tracked; how the video made it to the Internet so quickly from a city where Internet access is severely limited and sparse is an important question that needs to be answered in time. It also shows the group’s local focus; in previous posts this blogger has pointed out MUJWA’s links to Gao’s local criminal and Arab communities and the concentration of its activities in and around that city (though its armed actions have been strongly focused on Algeria, including a suicide attack in Ouargla which is important not only for its distance from the Mali border but also because MUJWA claims the attacker was from Ouargla which could mean he was an AQIM fighter who joined MUJWA when the group formed late last year or more seriously that he joined the group at some later stage). MUJWA has moved from former AQIM subcontractors, members and even drug runners to finding tactical support among members of the city’s other ethnic groups in the city, in the process projecting an image of ‘popular support’ which may or may not reflect sympathy with the Islamist groups per se as much as a perception of a common enemy. Interestingly, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s communique setting out his version of events during the fighting in Gao makes no mention of MUJWA; he denies any sectional or ethnic ‘conflict’, specifically between Arabs and Tuaregs (which perhaps speaks to the view that MUJWA is heavily composed of Gao-area Arabs), and states that ‘we didn’t intend to declare war on any party, and neither any of the members or groups of the movement, as have been claimed by one of the leaderships of the movement, as it was an ending for this deliberate injustice, aggression and killing, which came from the main headquarters of the movement.’ [Here ‘the movement’ refers to the MNLA. See a PDF of the statement from the Ansar al-Mujahideen English forum here, in Arabic here and on ANI here. The events in Gao received relatively significant attention from members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum where three or four threads are running covering events in Gao, focused on the initial video from Gao, reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was leading the fighting in the city and news updates on the situation; as with most posts covering Mali on the forum, members posting are generally ecstatic and view events there as proof of the rapid progress of the jihadist movement in Africa since the beginning of the rebellion, though posts on northern Mali remain sparse if interesting and sometimes lengthy. Ansar Ed-Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana will answer questions from members of the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum soon enough (a ‘sticky’ thread with seven pages of questions is open on the ‘Events and Issues of the Islamic Ummah’ sub-forum); his answers there may clarify some of the group’s relationships with AQIM, MUJWA and the MNLA and its attitude toward foreign fighters, who appear eager to travel to the area to get some of the action if we [unreasonably] judge by the comments on forums and elsewhere, though there are many reports about fighters from Algeria, Tunisia, and beyond in any case. MUJWA made a public invitation in an AlAkhbar interview to foreign jihadis last week as well.] MUJWA’s relationship with Belmokhtar appears as though it may still be auxiliary if not subordinate; the group continues military activities in Algeria and elsewhere, while being evidently focused on Gao. How do the overlapping relationships between northern Mali’s Islamist armed groups function, where does AQIM end and MUJWA begin? Where does Ansar Ed-Dine begin and AQIM end? At what point do such distinctions begin to matter, where do they fade? There is much to learn.
To the lay observer, MUJWA’s actions continues to be vexing; the group’s initial rhetoric speaks of a campaign to spread jihad in west Africa but most of its actions appear to have been against Algerian targets; it has emerged from a Salafi-jihadi organization and milieu but has used local ethno-nationalist imagery in its messaging and the group’s funders are also widely rumored to be involved with drug trafficking and other dirty tasks seemingly at odds with its ideological orientation. Questions emerge: what is MUJWA’s purpose in relation to Ansar Ed-Dine and AQIM? How thoroughly has it expanded its membership and appeal to locals in Gao and the surrounding region? Why and how does it continue to reach relatively (Tamanrasset) and absolutely (Ouargla) deep into Algerian territory, in areas widely considered to be heavily militarized and guarded by the Algerian military and security services (it should be mentioned that many of these areas have relatively high levels of security but this may be insufficient in terms of orientation or emphasis in terms of disposition or posture with respect to the current situation, especially since reporting from last year onwards indicates that major build ups took place in the southern provinces and these exact arrangements are not well known as yet)? Who are its key funders and political leaders, strategists and tacticians and to what extent to they overlap with AQIM proper and Ansar Ed-Dine? If the group is soliciting outside jihadists to Gao, how might their arrival, combined with hardcore elements in the organization itself, cause the group to overreach or make itself less welcome in Gao (especially if, as some have wondered, it begins attacking shrines in the city)? What is to be made of reports from June that MUJWA escorted convoys of the Qatar Red Crescent in Gao, and that these ambulances provided its fighters with support during the fighting in Gao ‘against the MNLA‘ (especially in light of other reports about Qatar providing support to ‘all’ the armed groups in northern Mali seen in the French and especially Algerian presses)? As always there are at the moment more questions than answers and sustained interest.