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New Armed Groups and Changing Ethnic Politics
A new militia in northern Mali, the Front de libération nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA) has emerged, opposed to both shari’ah (promoted by AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA) and independence for the Azawad in northern Mali (promoted by the MNLA); the group is being described as an Arab armed group, drawn from members of the Arab militia that fled Timbuktu following the advance of the MNLA, Ansar Eddine and associated forces; the group is led by a Mohamed Lamine Sidad (also transliterated as Mohamed Laime Sidat). The Arab ethnic focus speaks to distrust between Arab and Tuareg residents in the Timbuktu region especially. Historically, smuggling groups were often run by Arabs and Tuaregs separately and many Arabs in Timbuktu have feared being dominated by Tuaregs, and losing access to trade routes, during the course of the uprising. This highlights an increasingly important ethnic dimension to the evolving situation in northern Mali which has been ignored in some reporting that takes a macro-level view of the MNLA-led rebellion, although this is becoming less and less the case: Tuaregs are one of several ethnic groups in northern Mali and themselves are divided along tribal and caste lines; not all ethnic groups in the “Azawad” support the MNLA or Ansar Eddine; not all ethnic groups or castes support the rebellion at all. Individual members of one ethnic, tribal or caste group may support secession whilst others may not. The Songhay, Arab, Tuareg and other ethnic groups in northern Mali have not all rallied around the rebellion or any one faction. Many things remain in play.
An article worth reading, or summarising, from Al Jazeera by Mohamed Mahmud Abu al-Ma’ali, a Mauritanian journalist who also has worked with ANI sheds some light on this. “A Salafist Emirate in Azawad….Has the hour of its birth come?” the article discusses the relationships between the main armed groups in the area and the possibility of a “Salafi emirate” being established in northern Mali. The article provides interesting details on the relationship between AQIM, Ansar Eddine and MUJWA, and fits with some other reports about these groups working closely together, overlapping in objectives, personnel and even leadership. The recent announcement that Iyad Ag Ghali, who leads Ansar Eddine was naming Yahya Abu el Hammam (an AQIM man) as the leader of the Timbuktu region also fits into the basic narrative provided by Abu al-Ma’ali. Because there is suspicion of Ag Ghali and Ansar Eddine among many Arabs in Timbutuku, the group has probably allowed AQIM to take a leadership role, since the group has stronger commercial and tribal links there and its membership is more heavily Arab. Other reports have AQIM or MUJWA taking a leadership role in Gao as well.
Abu al-Ma’ali’s article begins with an overview of three of the main armed groups operating in northern Mali: The MNLA, Ansar Eddine (or Harakat Ansar ed-Din al-Salafiya) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The essay analyses the social and ideological background of each group, as well as its ideology.
The article describes the MNLA as a grouping of “secularists and independents” whose ideological orientation is not well understood among the general population of the Azawad. Although the MNLA claims to represent all tribal and ethnic groups in the Azawad its recruits and leadership are limited to the Idnan Tuareg.
The writer describes Ansar Eddine as a “popular Salafi-jihadi movement” (without commenting on its size), and describing Iyad Ag Ghali’s transformation from a secular leader of the 1990s Tuareg rebellion and nobleman of the Ifoghass Tuareg into a Salafi-jihadi leader after spending time as the Malian Consul General in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. It does not mention specific religious scholars, leaders or movements associated with Ansar Eddine or Ag Ghali. “Under the eyes of the al-Qa’ida and with blessings from it, Ag Ghali founded the new organization ‘the Ansar Eddine Movement’. The writer claims that the new movement attracted “hundreds of people from the Ifogass tribe [. . .] and other Tuareg tribes’. Further, “it has become clear that Iyad Ag Ghali took advantage of his social status and the intellectual direction of Salafism to reap the fruits of ten years of work done by al-Qa’ida in this region, who have clearly been spreading the call of Salafism among the population during that period”. Although the writer believes that al-Qa’ida “planted the seeds of Salafism in the virgin soil” of the Azawad, h writes that Ag Ghali has successfully made the population “respond to [his] call by meeting the dismensions of tribal separatism, Tuareg nationalism, and brining it harmony with the call to jihad”. The article goes on to describe the attacks on Agelhok and Tassilit, saying that Ansar Eddine established shari’ah in these areas, “preventing women from going out unveiled…making men wear beards in the streets and with people started to talking about life there as they did about life in Kandahar on the eve of the Taliban’s victory.”
The author describes MUJWA as a dissident faction of AQIM, which emerged when leaders refused to take advice from sub-commander about setting up a separate katiba made up “especially from the sons of the Arab tribes in the Azawad”. The writer says that AQIM’s leaders, “having learned from their experience with internal fighting in Algeria” decided to led the MUJWA men leave the organization while continuing “coordination with them, as a separate movement, allied in direction and goals.” In addition to former AQIM subcommanders Mohamed Ould Lamine Ould Kheirou (Abu Qaqa) and Malian Sultan Ould Badi, the writer claims MUJWA has “attracted dozens” fighters from the tribes in northern Mali and “the interface between jihadi groups and the Arabs of the Azawad just as Ansar Eddine has become the interface of jihadist groups and the Tuareg.”
A previous post on this blog, speculating about varied explanations for the emergence of MUJWA look at only three ways of thinking about the group. Abu al-Ma’ali’s is somewhere in between two of the three (see here). These developments also recall some of the arguments about AQIM’s appeal among Moors, Saharan Arabs, in Mauritania and northern Mali some time ago. This writer and others have speculated that Ansar Eddine would probably seek to use AQIM as a means of making headway in Timbuktu for these ethnic and tribal reasons (see this post) and Andrew Lebovich (see here) have speculated that Ansar Eddine and AQIM would seek to leverage AQIM’s links to the Arab Berabiche communities in Timbuktu and Abu al-Ma’ali’s analysis points in this direction as well.
The next section in Abu al-Ma’ali’s article, “Al-Qa’ida: ‘The Official Sponsor of the Emirate of Azawad’”, describes the evolution of AQIM and its predecessor groups in northern Mali and the Sahel from 2003 onward in terms of changes in strategy in waging jihad against the governments of the region. It describes how members of the organization’s affiliate groups in Mauritania made truces with the government there, setbacks for AQIM in northern Algeria and how it “enhanced its military arsenal and organization” in Libya in 2011. The author then declares that the group has prepared with MUJWA and Ansar Eddine to “announce” the establishment of an emirate in the Azawad.
This is followed by “Preparation for Military Control,” which describes how the the three Salafi-jihadi groups in northern Mali have plotted to control the three main cities in the Azawad. It describes how the group took towns by besieging them or by negotiating with local leaders. Ansar Eddine “waited to pounce” on the Tuareg majority city of Kidal, the author writes. Meanwhile MUJWA and AQIM moved on Gao and Timbuktu, because the groups’ connections to Arab tribes would help allay tensions between Arabs and Tuaregs that might arise “as a result of the chaos that defined Mali after the coup” of Captain Sanogo.
Opportunities — Presented and Seized
This writer has repeatedly stressed that AQIM is not fated, destined or predetermined to be the key actor in northern Mali or the Sahel generally. A particular set of relationships and power relationships between the MNLA, Ansar Eddine, their tribal and ethnic support bases and the decaying Malian state and its leaders, agents and constituents offered AQIM and MUJWA the opportunity to engage in a new kind of activity and to assume a degree of direct they had not previously in northern Mali.
The MNLA, reportedly the largest of the armed groups in the north (and according to some accounts the better armed) was played by Ag Ghali’s faction, which kept its cards and intentions close to its chest before springing once events began to move more rapidly. They were out politicked and in the course of this phase of the struggle in northern Mali, they have been set back. AQIM, by far, is the winner at this stage in the rebellion. It leaders now stand poised to enter governing positions as opposed to marginal, criminal ones. AQIM is in a different position as a result of the rebellion, perhaps stronger than ever in northern Mali, more deliberately provocative and confident than ever — and surely more visible. This also makes its leaders more vulnerable and open to perhaps the kind of arrogant mistakes that make some men resentful, jealous or wrathful. There are still other armed factions forming and operating in northern Mali; the equation has not been worked out and already regional forces, whose capacity to roll these problems back is unclear, are prepared to enter the fray, adding new variables and uncertainties. If the men speaking confidently with the chests puffed out on Al Jazeera were targets before their “conquest” in Azawad, they surely remain so and offer ever more incentives to their enemies.
Where this group had been a parasite, feeding on state corruption and weak will. There is a view that was held and is probably still held by many that regardless of what name armed or criminal elements in northern Mali went by they were all seeking to exploit the security vacuum in the region; in the autumn of 2011 and winter of 2012 the MNLA seize the opportunity to pursue political objectives, profiting from an arms windfall, desperate socio-economic conditions and crumbling legitimacy in Bamako. This also presented other opportunities for the armed groups, in the way of exposing tribal and ethnic differences and creating a crisis scenario that also produced a race for control, physically and ideationally. Ansar Eddine and AQIM and MUJWA have been the main victors in this phase of the rebellion. AQIM’s Salafi-jihadi ideological framework was given an opportunity — as a result of Ansar Eddine’s need to fill ethnic and military priorities as it moved south and as it competed with the MNLA — to become manifest at a political level. The first step in that direction has been their active participation in taking populated areas during the advance south. This was a group whose origins had largely been as a financing operation for AQIM’s northern operations; it is now in a position to apply a political program. As their relationship with Ansar Eddine is clarified by means of deeds — the application of shari’ah, their dealings with local elites and the MNLA, the handling of the hostage situation with Algeria and so on — the area will become a target for regional militaries and their allies. As things stand there is probably no going back to the way things were before the rebellion, particularly the tolerance allowed to AQIM’s operations (and other groups involved in illicit trade, particularly those linked to the extremely lucrative drug trade) from by the Malian state which allowed the group to fester and grow. Things might have been different if at various points Malian or external actors made different decisions about AQIM, about the Tuareg file, about how to address “root causes” and in which contexts they addressed them. Such things do not just happen, they are made to happen.
A Few Good Articles
Some articles worth looking at given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Mali, from the last couple of years (not intended as an exhaustive or complete list in any way; readers are welcome to share but, please do not post such things as “this list needs to include…” or “this list is incomplete because it does not have such and so”; yes, it is short and incomplete — please share good articles, though!).
Merret. “Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb: A ‘Glocal’ Organization,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 31, No. 6, 2008.
Filliu. “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?” Carnegie Middle East Program Working Paper No. 112, June 2010.
Taje. “Vulnerabilities and factors of insecurity in the Sahel,” Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD), No. 1, August 2010.
Guidere. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique: Le tourant des revolutions arabes,” Maghreb-Machrek, No. 208. 2011.
Lohmann. “Who Owns the Sahara?: Old Conflicts, New Menaces: Mali and the Central Sahara between the Tuareg, Al Qaida and Organized Crime,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, June 2011.
European Parliament Committee on Political Affairs. “Working Document on the impact of the Libyan conflict on neighbouring ACP and EU states,” 24 October 2011.
Marret. “Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI),” 11 January 2011.
Fabiani. “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Implications for Algeria’s Regional and International Relations,” IAI Working Papers 11/07, April 2011.
Oris and Arenas-Garcia. “AQIM and Mauritania: Local Paradoxes, Regional Dynamics and Global Challenges,” IECAH, 2012.