Islamist and al-Qaeda forces, along with former Gadhafi mercenaries, have wrested control over Mali’s entire northern territory with the recent seizure of a key Malian city, an unsettling outcome which marks just one of the ugly after-effects of Libya’s civil war.
The recent seizure of Timbuktu, located 600 miles north of Mali’s capital of Bamako, by rebel forces battling the Malian government represented the government’s last major stronghold seizure in the north. Having already lost the northern Mali cities of Kidal and Gao only days earlier, the capture of Timbuktu has marked the effective end of the Malian government’s control over its northern territory, a desert region larger than France.
More importantly, there are now fears that a rebellion that began in January as a separatist movement is being overtaken by Islamist and al-Qaeda factions. These factions are not interested in a creating a separate secular state but rather are intent on turning the entire country of Mali into a Sharia-run Islamic state.
Initially, the rebellion against the Malian government had been launched as a separatist movement by the nomadic Tuareg people to form an independent state in Mali’s northern Azawad region. The Tuareg were led by fighters who had once worked as mercenaries for Muammar Gadhafi before his death in October 2011. Once they returned home, these mercenaries launched a push for Tuareg independence under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Fueling the Tuareg push for statehood was a huge stash of Libyan weaponry the Tuareg mercenaries had looted from the Gadhafi regime’s unguarded armories and ammunition depots. Yet despite its influx of weapons, the heavily armed MNLA had spent the first two months of the rebellion making little progress, taking a few dozen small towns but failing to capture any of the major population centers in the north.
That, however, all changed with an assist from the Mali military when on March 21 it staged a coup in the capital of Bamako that ousted the country’s democratically elected leader, Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure. That coup, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, was undertaken because disgruntled Mali government soldiers were upset over ineffectual efforts by Toure to fight battles against the Tuareg, in particular Toure’s decision to send poorly trained conscripts to fight.
The coup also prompted the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to react by closing the borders of the landlocked desert nation and threaten to impose economic sanctions on the country if the military junta did not begin immediately handing back power. Those sanctions, among the strictest ever imposed by ECOWAS, included blocking food, fuel and medical imports into the country, rendering a potentially staggering impact on Mali’s already 15 million impoverished citizens. Yet, despite Amadou Sanogo’s promise to reinstate the Malian constitution and organize a transfer of power back to civilians through democratic elections, the junta has ignored demands for an immediate exit from power.
Not surprisingly, opposition forces took immediate advantage of the ensuing political chaos caused by the junta and quickly launched an offensive that saw its forces take the cities of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. Those victories have now apparently been enough to satiate the MNLA’s appetite. According to MNLA spokesman, Hama Ag Mahmoud, the MNLA does not intend to advance further south on the capital of Bamako. Instead the separatist group would cement its control over newly-captured areas, an understandable position given that the territory it has seized is what it originally sought in order to create an independent state.
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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