TSG IntelBrief: Islamists Gain Ground Amid Mali Coup
April 4, 2012

Islamists Gain Ground Amid Mali Coup

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The failure of the Malian government to put down a rebellion by Tuareg separatists in the northern part of the country along with complaints from soldiers that they were battling insurgents with inadequate weapons and supplies led to a March 22 uprising by low-ranking soldiers that toppled the democratically elected government. While the Malian military was distracted by the coup and subsequent cutoff of foreign military assistance, the rebels went on the offensive, capturing the three regional capitals in the north and effectively seizing control of half the West African country.

• More ominously, fighting alongside the separatists were Islamists from two militant groups, the Ansar Eddine (“Supporters of Religion”) and the Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Garbi Ifriqiya (“Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa”), both with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Reports indicate that the Islamists have assumed a leading role in the administration of the captured towns, imposing their version of shari’a on residents.

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As of early April 2012, the tragic irony of Mali’s “accidental coup” is that it has apparently led to the very result that its authors claimed to have been trying to avert.

What began on March 21 as a protest by low-ranking soldiers discontent with the government’s handling of the rebellion in the northern part of the country by Tuareg separatists, quickly turned overnight into a general uprising that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré with just weeks left in his second and final term office. The mutinous troops were angry that they were being sent to battle the insurgents in the harsh Saharan regions with inadequate weapons and supplies. In fact, the first communiqué issued by the “National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State,” as the hastily formed junta led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo was christened, declared that in “putting an end to the competent regime of Amadou Toumani Touré,” it would hand power pack to an elected president “as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity no longer threatened.”

While it received support from some citizens in the capital of Bamako, where there had been popular protests against what is alleged to have been the government’s ineffective response to the rebellion in the north, the junta quickly found itself isolated diplomatically. The United Nations Security Council “strongly condemned the forcible seizure of power” and demanded “the restoration of constitutional order and the holding of elections as previously scheduled.” The African Union likewise condemned the coup and, lamenting the “significant setback for Mali,” suspended the country from membership in the organization. Mali’s biggest aid donors—the United States, France, and the European Union—suspended all but humanitarian assistance to the country. Critically, the Americans and French cut their military assistance programs. The World Bank and other multilateral institutions likewise halted their programs. Perhaps most significantly, on Monday the subregional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) approved a set of potentially crippling sanctions: the borders between Mali and member states were be closed effective immediately; the landlocked country would be denied access to the ECOWAS sea ports; the regional monetary union is to cut off the flow of currency (the CFA) to Mali; the country’s accounts at the regional central bank and other assets would be frozen; and junta members would be banned from travel and their personal assets frozen.

Meanwhile, the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) took advantage of the situation playing itself out down south in the capital to score impressive gains on the battlefields of the north. Last Friday, after forty-eight hours of intense fighting, MNLA forces took control of Kidal, the capital of the eponymous northeastern region. The following day, MNLA, joined by fighters from Ansar Eddine (“Supporters of Religion”), a local Islamist militant group with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), took Gao, capital of the neighboring region and site of the Malian army’s principal garrison in the north. Completing the trifecta on Sunday, Tuareg fighters and their Islamist allies took the historic desert town of Timbuktu after Malian forces apparently abandoned their positions. In effect, Mali has been cut into two parts. And while the MNLA denies that it has connections to extremist movements, news reports indicate that not only Ansar Eddine fighters, but also militants from the AQIM splinter group the Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad fi Garbi Ifriqiya (“Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” usually known by its French acronym MUJAO) took part in the fighting. Moreover, local sources report that the black flags of the extremist groups are now flying in Kidal and Gao and that music and Western clothes are already being banned in those towns, while others acknowledge that the same dark banners were raised over fabled Timbuktu early Monday morning. Credible accounts have emerged of massacres following the capture of Gao and France 5 television reported on Tuesday that the leaders of AQIM’s southern command have been seen in Timbuktu.

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Allies of Convenience?

The MNLA presents itself as an umbrella group representing the various peoples of “Azawad,” the name used for the Tamashek-speaking parts of Mali—the three northernmost provinces of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu and part of Mopti—as well as sections of neighboring countries. However, in practice it is an overwhelmingly Tuareg movement, composed of longtime Tuareg dissidents seeking to turn the three provinces of northern Mali into an independent state, reinforced by battle-hardened ethnic kin who returned last year from Libya, bringing with them heavy armaments looted from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals. The MNLA’s military commander, Muhammad ag Najim, was, in fact, a colonel in the Libyan army who had served Gaddafi since the 1980s in various Saharan adventures.

Ansar Eddine (the name is a Bamanized version of the Arabic, Ansar ud-Din) is led by Iyad ag Ghaly, a Tuareg chieftain who, under the influence of Salafist preachers, has made his principal objective the imposition of shari’a, rather than self-determination for his people. In 2003, he was the intermediary who collected the ransom payment for fourteen European hostages held by AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). He has been something of a bane to MNLA’s more nationalist leaders as his ties with al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate have permitted the separatists’ opponents to lump them together with the extremists. That said, fighters loyal to him have played a significant role in the success of the Tuareg rebellion and they have not hesitated to assert control over the captured towns.

MUJAO, which also played a role in the recent fighting and is reported to now control one of the two military camps in Gao, is a splinter group of AQIM. It emerged late last year when it claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of three European aid workers from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria and demanded a multimillion dollar ransom in exchange for their release. While it shares the same extremist ideology as its parent organization (in fact, it has accused the latter of being more interested in trafficking and other criminal activities than jihad), MUJAO is unique in that its leadership is composed of non-Arab Malians and Mauritanians.

The three groups appear to be allies of convenience, although the dynamics of their relations is clearly shifting as they gain control of territory and populations.

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An Ominous Development

The tactical alliance between the Tuareg separatists and the Islamists groups takes on an even more ominous cast when one considers that the Malian government, distracted by political maneuver and isolated by sanctions, has effectively surrendered the northern half of the country to them. Irrespective of whether an independent state of “Azawad” is ultimately viable—it is unlikely to be so—it will nonetheless be a daunting task to dislodge the Tuareg fighters and their Islamist allies from the region. Until they are pushed out, however, the area, long a strategic crossroad between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, is likely to be a magnet for all manner of shady actors.

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Forecast:

Near-Term:
• While it is likely that some sort of a negotiated agreement will be reached between the junta and the Mali’s international partners leading to the creation of a transitional authority and eventual elections, this will take some time, during which the Tuareg separatists and their Islamist allies will consolidate their hold on the north, potentially serving as a magnet for extremists as well as criminal elements.

Long-Term:
• Combining access to weapons (out of Libya) with territory and populations among which they can move more freely will be a boon for AQIM. The struggle to root out extremism and to expand governance in the Sahel will become that much greater of a challenge.

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This report was produced in collaboration with the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

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