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However, while the MNLA may be satisfied with its current military achievement, it’s far from clear if the rebellion’s Islamist factions are of the same mind. For example, the Islamist Tuareg group known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) — which has only around 300 fighters as opposed to the MNLA’s 3,000 insurgents — is believed to be playing a larger and more powerful role in the Malian conflict than the MNLA.
Those fears were recently echoed by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe who said, “It appears that an extreme Islamist-jihadist faction (Ansar Dine) is taking the upper hand among the different Tuareg factions.” For starters, it was the Ansar Dine, led by Salafist leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, which was the group which actually captured the city of Timbuktu, raising its black Islamist flag over the city and claiming it as its new base.
In addition to Timbuktu, it is reported that the Ansar Dine has already begun to flex it muscle by imposing new Islamic measures in recently captured cities of Kidal and Gao, measures which include the banning of Western-style clothes, music and alcohol.
The rise in influence by the Ansar Dine may be traced to its reportedly growing alliance with al-Qaeda-linked groups that inhabit the vast sub Saharan region: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). AQIM’s alliance with Ansar Dine was most recently on display when three of its top leaders — Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam — met in Timbuktu with Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly and the city’s imams only days after the town’s capture.
For its part, MUJWA, which split from AQIM last year, has issued statements that it has been taking part with the Ansar Dine in the recent advances that have swept across northern Mali. AQIM — which operates in parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Mauritania — has long terrorized the Sahara. Specifically, it has subjected the region to terror attacks, kidnappings of Westerners, weapons and drug trafficking, and a burgeoning partnership with the Nigerian Islamic terror group Boko Haram.
Like the Tuareg, AQIM also took advantage of the downfall of the Gadhafi regime to rearm itself with looted weapons, including thousands of shoulder-fired heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. That shopping spree is reportedly still ongoing with recent reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a top fugitive leader in AQIM, has been in Libya searching for new weapons. Unfortunately, as one analyst said, there is “a direct connection” to the fall of Gadhafi and the weapons which continue to flow out of Libya to help the Tuaregs, Islamists and al-Qaeda establish power in the region.
While it still remains unclear how much power each of these groups will eventually amass, it’s certainly clear that the biggest loser stands to be the more than 200,000 Malian people who have been uprooted since the violence began, a number that only promises to grow larger.
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