Mounting Madness in Mali

It has been over a year since the ethnical and geo-political tensions in Northern Mali between the Tuaregs and the Songhai spilled over into full-on civil war. Emboldened by a string of popular revolutions in the Muslim world and bolstered by increased arms trafficking into the Sahel, the largely nomadic Tuareg Berber population in Northern Mali began seeking independence from the state of Mali. The constitution of their still unrecognized state, Azawad, was originally crafted as an explicitly secular document. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), formerly the largest Tuareg rebel group, used guerilla warfare and their knowledge of the Saharan terrain to quickly occupy not only predominantly Tuareg lands but also sweep southwards into significant regional cities such as Timbuktu and Gao. By August the rebel offensive had been halted, and informal cease-fires were declared along the front lines. Many onlookers, at least those few who paid attention to the crisis, hoped that this impromptu truce would lead to dialogue between the two factions and eventual mediatory negotiations. Few could have predicted the significance of a fundamentalist fringe organization active in the de facto state of Azawad at the time: Ansar Dine.

French troops in Mali prepare for the counteroffensive.

Ansar Dine, “the helpers of true religion,” is a militant Islamic terrorist organization with financial and administrative links to Al Qaeda. The organization has been active in the Sahel since the 1990’s but has, until recently, been largely shunned from Tuareg separatist movements. This relationship changed in late 2012. After the MNLA took power in Northern Mali, the secular separatists were left with the daunting task of policing over 800,000 square miles of desert, and filling the power vacuum left by the Malinese government. In what can be called the most imprudent decision of the war, the MNLA allowed the militant Ansar Dine to police newly captured southern cities so that the ethnic Tuaregs could focus on instilling stability in their historic homeland. Seeing a chance to further their own cause, Ansar Dine immediately instituted Sharia Law in Timbuktu and Gao—two historically religiously tolerant cities that have large Muslim and Christian populations living as equals. Over time, Ansar Dine became even more extreme, eventually banning western music, public assemblies, and even sunglasses. The punishments for breaking the law were all severe, ranging from mutilation to public execution. In the face of this militant fundamentalism, western nations, many of which had previously withheld judgment on the civil war, sided with the Malian government and called for the MNLA and Ansar Dine to surrender, effectively ending all hopes of an independent, secular, internationally recognized nation of Azawad.

While the MNLA tried to initiate peace talks, Ansar Dine would not back down. In September, the militant Islamists formally ousted the MNLA from power and, with funding from Al Qaeda as well as unknown private backers, began a new offensive on the Malian capitol of Bamako. This new offensive further galvanized the international community against the idea of a free state of Azawad and forced France, the foremost colonial power in the region prior to Mali’s independence in 1960, to send troops and supplies to aid the Malian government. After fierce fighting in the suburbs of Bamako, Ansar Dine was thoroughly routed, losing the cities of Gao and Timbuktu in a swift Franco-Malian counteroffensive.

The French are continuing to pursue the Ansar Dine into the heart of Azawad and are even procuring American and British logistical assistance as they seek to tackle the situation and instill order in the region once again. The Malinese are also aided by neighboring countries Mauritania and Niger, two nations which have seen a remarkable influx of displaced Malian refugees. Still, the situation pro-government troops face in the area has been compared to that of American forces in Afghanistan: the desert of Northern Mali is unforgiving, unfamiliar, and tribal. The rebel forces are able to both employ guerilla tactics to hamper the efforts of French soldiers and quickly fade away into the desert using their superior knowledge of the local geography.

The complexity of the situation in northern Mali can hardly be overstated. Many key actors are modifying tactics and switching sides. The MNLA, after running out of money in mid August and being overpowered by Ansar Dine, which previously garnered substantial funds from their part in the North African drug trade, is now officially in support of France’s military intervention. Many Tuaregs who had formerly left the bankrupt MNLA to become members of the power Ansar Dine are now deserting the fundamentalist group in droves. Malian soldiers remain incredibly war weary and hesitant to fight on the front lines. This trend can be, if not forgiven, at least be understood when taking into account the horrendous casualties that loyalist forces took during the early months of insurrection. Both France and America have pledged military support to help end the conflict and bring the Sahel under Malian control once again. For now however, the Ansar Dine is still able to hamper regional stabilization. Car bombs, C4, and automatic assault rifles strapped on Humvees are just some of the tools of war this Al Qaeda funded group has at its disposal. Although French troops have been slowly advancing on the Ansar Dine and have recaptured several key towns in the north, an end to fighting, and the Azawad Question, seems very far off.

— Mac Zech, World News Editor

 

Posted by on February 14, 2013. Filed under World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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