A Second Afghanistan in Mali?

Vol. 12, No. 15    June 15, 2012

  • Mali, like other sub-Saharan countries, has been facing growing attacks from al-Qaeda’s North African branch – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Islamists are involved in a multi-million-dollar ransom industry fuelled by kidnapping Westerners and drug-trafficking in Northern Mali, where al-Qaeda militants and other Islamist combatants share ground with the Tuareg, a minority of perhaps 1 million of Mali’s 15 million people and about a third of the population of Northern Mali.
  • In March 2012 the country collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled the rebels to take control of the northern part of Mali, approximately two-thirds of the country. This is the fourth rebellion led by Tuareg nomads since independence in 1960. The last ended only in 2008.
  • In October 2011 the Tuareg fighters gathered in the oasis settlement of Zakak in the hills by the border of Algeria. They were joined by career rebels, Malian army deserters, and young activists in a conclave that gave birth to the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad).
  • The Tuareg offensive occurred after the return of Tuareg fighters to Mali following the fall of their historical patron, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, in neighboring Libya. Most probably their rebellion would not have taken place had Gaddafi remained in power. Gaddafi’s Malian fighters returned to Mali bringing with them battle experience and equipped with heavy and sophisticated weapons looted from Gaddafi’s arsenals.
  • As has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Syria lately, the Tuaregs’ struggle for an independent homeland has been hijacked by better-organized and armed Islamists from Mali and abroad, creating a safe haven for militants in the Sahara – a west African Afghanistan. The implications of such a development could become a new nightmare for the West.

Until recently, Mali was regarded as an example of African democracy. Western intelligence agencies have been following events in Mali since, like other sub-Saharan countries, it has been facing growing attacks from al-Qaeda’s North African branch – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Islamists are involved in a multi-million-dollar ransom industry fuelled by kidnapping Westerners and drug-trafficking. Northern Mali has long been a rear base for drug traffickers, with al-Qaeda militants and other Islamist combatants sharing ground with the local Tuareg. Still, Mali was a homogenous political entity with a vibrant leadership dedicated to fighting terrorism and Islamist extremists.

However, in March 2012 the country collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled the rebels to take control of the northern part of Mali, approximately two-thirds of the country.

The Fourth Tuareg Rebellion

When Mali’s Tuareg nomads launched their rebellion in January 2012, many in Africa and elsewhere thought it would be just the latest in a long line of desert uprisings to be swiftly terminated with offers of cash and jobs. The Tuaregs, a minority of perhaps 1 million of Mali’s 15 million people and about a third of the population of Northern Mali, are traditionally nomadic people who live in countries touching the Sahara Desert, including Mali, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Libya, who have resisted central authority since colonial times. Mali is no stranger to rebellions. This is the fourth led by Tuareg nomads since independence in 1960. The last ended only in 2008.1

In October 2011 the Tuareg fighters gathered in the oasis settlement of Zakak in the hills by the border of Algeria. They were joined by career rebels, Malian army deserters, and young activists in a conclave that gave birth to the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad), a collation of different factions and agendas, with a force estimated at the time to be 1,000 strong and whose open goal was attaining independence. The Azawad is an immense territory equivalent in size to France and Belgium combined. It is situated north of the Niger River and includes three administrative sub-divisions: Kidal, Timbuktu, and Gao. In the Malian context, Azawad refers to the northern part of Mali, considered by the Tuaregs to be their homeland.2

The Impact of the Fall of Gaddafi

The Tuareg offensive occurred after the return of Tuareg fighters to Mali following the fall of their historical patron, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, in neighboring Libya. Most probably their rebellion would not have taken place had Gaddafi remained in power. Gaddafi’s Malian fighters returned to Mali bringing with them battle experience and equipped with heavy and sophisticated weapons looted from Gaddafi’s arsenals.

Furthermore, the situation in Mali itself played into the hands of the Tuaregs. Inspired by the South Sudanese precedent, and taking advantage of the weakness of the central government and of a poorly equipped army, the Tuaregs launched their offensive in January and subsequently won town after town in the northern part of the country. In late March, troops upset with the government’s handling of the Tuareg rebellion, and opposed to any compromise with the rebels, staged a coup d’etat led by young officers against President Amadou Toumani Toure (commonly called ATT), creating a chaotic situation which was fully exploited by the Tuaregs. In less than three months, the Tuaregs became masters of their historical homeland and on April 6, declared independence for their Azawad nation.

The fall of ATT was dramatic for the West. Washington had tried to bolster Mali’s army by providing $17 million in military aid over the past year to equip and train its forces, as well as providing political support. Regular surveillance flights supported by the U.S. Pan-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Initiative used to patrol the skies looking for suspect or unusual movement in the area. The deteriorating situation in Mali brought the U.S. to cancel an annual exercise called Flintlock 2012, which was due to bring African, European, and U.S. troops together to train together in late March. One of the aims of Flintlock was to build the counterterrorism capacities of African armies.3

Islamists Hijack the Rebellion

As has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Syria lately, the Tuaregs’ struggle for an independent homeland has been hijacked by better-organized and armed Islamists from Mali and abroad, creating a safe haven for militants in the Sahara – a west African Afghanistan.

As rebel forces took major tows in northern Mali such as the ancient city of Timbuktu, it appeared that MNLA fighters were operating alongside a newly formed Islamist movement known as Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), whose stated goal is to impose Islamic law (Shari’a) all across Mali.

Ansar Dine’s leader is Iyad Ag Ghali, who, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, is “northern Mali’s undisputed power broker.”4 In two decades Ag Ghali led two previous Tuareg rebellions, and served briefly as Mali’s Consul General in Saudi Arabia where he adopted the most extreme Salafi form of Islam before being expelled by the Saudi authorities. Once back home he acted as an intermediary between hostage-paying European governments and kidnappers belonging to AQIM.

While some wonder whether Ag Ghali is motivated more by religion or by personal ambition, he has taken on at least the appearance of a fundamentalist.5 Gone is the large mustache that he used to sport. On a video released by Ansar Dine, he has a full, graying beard.

Colleagues say he became more religiously active in the 1990s when Tabligh Jamaat, a fundamentalist but nonviolent Islamic movement from Pakistan and India, started preaching in northern Mali. Tabligh Jamaat, founded early in the last century, is an offshoot of the Deobandi school of Islam, which is very hardline. Most of the Taliban leadership is Deobandi.

After Ag Ghali was assigned in 2007 to Mali’s consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Saudis became concerned about the amount of time he spent on his satellite phone and his ties to Tabligh Jamaat. They considered his activities incompatible with his status as a diplomat. He had been appointed to Saudi Arabia after he helped negotiate a peace accord that ended a brief Tuareg rebellion. “Some Tuareg rebels are irked at what they view as Ag Ghali’s self-centered decision to abandon northern Mali during a time of crisis, leaving his Tuareg rebel colleagues in the lurch,” a leaked U.S. Embassy cable noted in 2008.6

Today, the doubts about Ag Ghali’s motivations are resurfacing. His family is part of a group of Tuaregs who have traditionally ruled the region around the town of Kidal, and he has been active in the rebellions there for years. Other leaked U.S. diplomatic cables describe Ag Ghali as a master manipulator, especially when there is a chance to make money. “Ag Ghali is so adept at playing all sides of the Tuareg conflict to maximize his personal gain,” notes a cable from October 2008 released by WikiLeaks. “Like the proverbial bad penny, Ag Ghali turns up whenever a cash transaction between a foreign government and Kidal Tuaregs appears forthcoming.”7

Ag Ghali’s age isn’t clear. He was born in Abeibara in northern Mali in the late 1950s. In the 1970s, like many other young Tuareg men, he left to join Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion in Libya. He was sent to fight against Chad in the 1980s, and fought in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. By the early 1990s, Ag Ghali returned to Mali to take part in a Tuareg rebellion in which he was a senior commander and then helped negotiate a peace deal with the government.

The leaked cables show that Ag Ghali spoke with staff at the U.S. Embassy in Bamako several times about events in Mali between April 2006 and January 2010. “Soft-spoken and reserved, Ag Ghali showed nothing of the cold-blooded warrior persona created by the Malian press,” according to a May 2007 cable written after one such meeting.8

Diplomats in Mali said Ag Ghali formed Ansar Dine last year after being rebuffed in separate efforts to head both the MNLA and his Ifoghas clan. Diplomats also say that his links with al-Qaeda are through a cousin who is a local commander. Yet if imposing Shari’a has won Ag Ghali little popularity, it has been crucial in drawing him closer to AQIM, which he now needed for its firepower and the cash it had accumulated after years operating in the area.

The MNLA now appears to risk tearing itself apart over a proposed power-sharing deal with Ansar Dine – with the latter saying that Shari’a is a non-negotiable part of the deal, even as it consolidates its position on the ground.

The alliance between the groups is tense. The MNLA seeks an independent secular state while Ansar Dine professes a Shari’a state. It is unclear which holds more sway in the strech of Sahara taken from the government. In Timbuktu, Ansar Dine has gained the upper hand and announced Shari’a law. The MNLA had already hoisted its green, black, red and yellow flags over Timbuktu, but Ansar Dine fighters pulled them down, burned them, and replaced them with their black flags. Ansar Dine’s next step was to burn Timbuktu’s holy sites, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in order to stress the direction they will be following in the near future: pure Salafism.

Mali is still far from the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan of the 1990s. However, the rapidly unfolding events are turning the area into a magnet for jihadists. Reports from Northern Mali tell of militants from Algeria, Mauritania and Nigeria (Boko Haram militants) present in the northern city of Gao. A leader of Africa’s al-Qaeda branch, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was also spotted in Gao. Belmokhtar, an Algerian, lost an eye in combat in Afghanistan and is known as “the one-eyed sheikh.” Fighters from a breakaway branch of al-Qaeda called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa have also been seen in Gao. So are al-Qaeda militants, who are not afraid to appear in public. Pakistani and Afghan jihadis apparently have been training recruits for Islamic groups in northern Mali. Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist fundamentalist group, was also reported to have set up training camps in the Malian town of Gao.9

Surprisingly, both the MNLA and Ansar Dine declared on May 26 their fusion into a single movement while announcing the establishment of an Islamic state in Northern Mali and the creation of a “Transitional Council of the Islamic State of the Azawad.”10 Three days later  it seemed that this agreement had hit trouble over how strictly to impose Shari’a, and there are even news reports of armed clashes between MNLA and  Ansar Dine fighters in the town of Kidal. A further deterioration of relations between MNLA and Ansar Dine could only worsen the security situation in Northern Mali.11

Destabilization of the area works in favor of the terrorist groups. The rebels’ seizure of three major airstrips in the north – near the towns of Gao, Timbuktu, and Tessalit – means that these could be used for everything from drugs and weapons to yet more foreign fighters. The overflow of weapons and combatants from Libya into an already unstable area adds another layer of insecurity.

The implications of such a development could become a new nightmare for the West. Western intelligence agencies as well as those in Africa will have to concentrate their efforts in order to contain the new threat coming from Mali and stop al-Qaeda and its affiliates/associates/allies from establishing a safe haven in the sub-Saharan region. Failure to do so could be interpreted as weakness and as an invitation for terrorist activities in countries targeted by al-Qaeda.

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Notes

1. David Lewis and Adama Diarra, “Arms and Men Out of Libya Fortify Mali Rebellion, Reuters, 10 February 2012.

2. Ibid.; Andrew Harding, “Sand and Fury: Mali’s Tuareg Rebels,” BBC, 3 March 2012; “Mali: des Touaregs proclament l’independence, la junte accepte de transferer le pouvoir,” Le nouvel Observateur, 7 April 2012.

3. “U.S. Postpones Mali Military Exercise amid Attacks, Associated Press, 10 February 2012.

4. David Lewis, “Mali: The World’s Next Jihadi Launchpad?,” Reuters, 4 June 2012; Celeste Hicks, “Tuareg Rebels Make Troubled Return from Libya to Mali,” BBC News Africa, 9 February 2012.

5. Martin Vogl, “Spotlight on Leader of Islamist Group in Mali,” Associated Press, 27 April 2012.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Michelle Faul, “Mali Attracts Fighters in Void after Coup,” Associated Press, 6 April 2012; “Niger Says Afghan, Pakistani Jihadis in N. Mali,” Reuters, 8 June 2012.

10. “Les rebelles islamistes renforcent leurs positions au nord du Mali,” La Croix, 28 May 2012.

11. “Mali Rebels Split over Shari’a in New State,” Reuters, 29 May 2012; “Mali Rebel Groups Clash in Kidal,” BBC News Africa, 8 June 2012..

About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.