The Tuareg separatist MNLA has long denied any ties with the Islamist Ansar Dine or al Qaeda. But now they’re not so sure - and that does not bode well for the breakaway region of northern Mali.
One day, they’re allies burying their differences. The next day, they’re not – but they’re still trying to sort it out. A few days on, it’s splitsville: irreconcilable and official. Then hours later, they’re back together again – or not.
In the ungoverned breakaway region of northern Mali, the Tuareg separatist group MNLA has been on-again, off-again with the Islamist Ansar Dine, forging and breaking alliances, with all the impetuousness of a Hollywood couple.
But unlike a celebrity romance, the mercurial Malian rebel alliance saga has been largely ignored by the international community, although the implications are grave for regional and global security, as well as for the countless ordinary citizens entrapped by the latest destructive forces of history.
In a shock announcement on Saturday, May 26, the secular MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad) announced its merger with Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group, declaring that the two groups had agreed to turn northern Mali into an Islamist state.
But days later, as analysts were attempting to study the implications of the new development, a top MNLA official emailed a statement that categorically rejected the organization’s merger with Ansar Dine due to differences over the two groups’ interpretations of sharia law.
Nevertheless, hours later representatives from both groups insisted their organizations were still bound by the May 26 in-principle agreement.
Such confusion has reigned across northern Mali for over two months, ever since the region fell from government control following a March 22 military coup that ousted a democratically-elected president.
“The situation has been changing almost every minute; it’s very dynamic,” said Jeremy Keenan, a professorial research associate at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies. According to Keenan, the real question to ask is: “In the beginning, we were hearing that the MNLA controlled between 2,000 and 3,000 men returning from Libya, whereas Ansar Dine had only about 100 to 200 fighters. So, where are the MNLA’s great, battle-hardened fighters?”
That question cuts to the heart of many myths and reports in a lawless, no-go zone the size of France, where a motley mix of rebel groups control different areas, and even sites, within a city.
A ‘very big mistake’
The MNLA appeared to be in the lead shortly after the northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu fell from Malian government control, with MNLA officials declaring the independence of the north in early April. In interviews to the press, MNLA spokesmen – many of them based in Paris – vehemently denied any Islamist or al Qaeda links.
When pressed about the presence of Ansar Dine fighters in the area, MNLA representatives insisted they had the situation under control and would turn their attention to Ansar Dine when they could. It was only a matter of time, they suggested, before their larger, better organized group rid itself of those turbulent jihadi cronies.
But over the past few months, the tide appears to have turned in Ansar Dine’s favour.
MNLA leaders seem more willing these days to compromise on their dearly-held – and much-emphasized – secular principles. Analysts note that the ideological volte-face is a matter of exigency, rather than conviction. In statements defending their May 26 announcement of a merger with Ansar Dine, MNLA spokesmen have somewhat weakly argued that all Tuaregs are Muslim.
Yet the Islam of hardline jihadist groups like Ansar Dine is very different from the Islam practiced in northern Mali, a region that is home to the ancient Muslim city of Timbuktu, or “the city of 333 saints”, all of whom are considered heretical by the type of austere Salafists that make up Ansar Dine.
The MNLA’s insistence that it has no ties to al Qaeda has also worn thin following the disclosure that the group is holding talks with Ansar Dine.
According to Salma Belaala, a political science scholar at the University of Warwick and an expert on North African Islamist groups, the recent revelations of negotiations between the MNLA and Ansar Dine are a game-changer in the world of jihadist groups.
“I think the MNLA did a very big mistake when they formed a coalition with a radical Islamist group like Ansar Dine,” said Belaala shortly after the May 26 merger announcement. “They will totally lose support in France and the international community.”
France ‘passes the buck’
France, the former colonial power and Mali's fourth-largest aid donor, plays a vital role in training and equipping Malian government forces and is an important player in the region.
Shortly after northern Mali fell from government control in early April, then-French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe acknowledged that Paris was in contact with the various players in Mali, including the MNLA, which he called a credible interlocutor. Juppe also stressed there was a clear distinction between the MNLA, which was seeking independence, and Ansar Dine Islamists, who had been "infiltrated" by al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
France’s relations with the Tuareg date back to the colonial era and have encompassed anti-colonial rebellions, as well as decades of cultural ties with educated Francophone Tuareg elites.
In a country with a history of animosity between the Berber Tuareg groups, based in the Saharan-Sahel north, and the black settled sub-Saharan African groups dominating the south, suspicions over the former colonial power’s role in the latest Tuareg rebellion run so deep that, earlier this year, France’s ambassador to Mali had to write an open letter denying allegations of a French conspiracy.
In his blog, “Bridges From Bamako”, Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the US-based Lehigh University, noted that, “It’s certainly true that the Tuareg have a sympathetic following among the French and that rebel spokesmen have frequently appeared in the French media.”
But in an interview with FRANCE 24 from the Malian capital of Bamako, Whitehouse explained, “If a Malian in Bamako sees an MNLA spokesman on a French channel, they conclude the French government wants that message to come out, which is a selective interpretation, because the same broadcaster can also interview a Malian official denouncing the rebellion. It’s almost impossible for most Bamakois to look at the question of French involvement impartially. There’s so much bias toward France’s role; it goes back to the colonial era.”
Most experts agree that Paris is well aware of the sensitivities surrounding what is commonly called “Françafrique”, a term referring to France’s neocolonial relations with its former African colonies. That, they say, accounts for France’s reluctance to get actively involved – or to be seen as being actively involved – in the Malian crisis.
Noting that shortly after his election, French President François Hollande urged the African Union to ask the UN Security Council to help restore stability in the region, Keenan believes that, “Hollande is passing the buck to the UN Security Council.”
Overrated fighters ‘sitting around’ in Gaddafi’s barracks
Whatever the support, be it real or imagined, that the French government or people may have had over the decades for the Tuareg cause, it has certainly cooled following the MNLA’s negotiations with Ansar Dine. Even within Mali’s divided Tuareg community, there is little evidence of popular support for the MNLA or Ansar Dine.
Why, then, did the MNLA risk what little international and domestic goodwill it could muster at such a critical time by negotiating with Ansar Dine?
The answer, Keenan suggests, is that in the anarchic breakaway region of northern Mali, Ansar Dine militants have upstaged the MNLA’s fighters on the ground.
Circling back to Keenan’s earlier question – What happened to the Tuareg group’s celebrated battle-hardened fighters returning from their mercenary stints in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya? – the answer, according to Keenan, is that the MNLA’s military skills were overrated.
“They haven’t done much fighting,” said Keenan. “When they were in Libya, most of the guys hadn’t been fighting, they were just sitting around in barracks. They definitely brought a lot of ammunition with them [from Libya] but they were not hardened fighters.
When it comes to the people actually fighting, the cold-blooded killers, they are from Ansar Dine. They are the warriors defending the faith, the ones trained to kill.”
‘A West African Afghanistan’
While the embattled transitional government in the south is locked in a power struggle with coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo, and the Malian army is in shambles as senior military officials jockey for power in Bamako, northern Mali risks turning into what French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently called “a West African Afghanistan”.
MNLA officials – or some of them, at least – may vociferously denounce any deal with Ansar Dine, but the dangerous marriage between the two groups is almost irrelevant in the chaotic reality of northern Mali today.
According to residents of northern Mali, foreign jihad fighters have been flocking into the region in recent months, with senior AQIM figures such as Algerian-born Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar (also known as “Mr. Marlboro” for his smuggling operations) and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam sighted in cities such as Timbuktu.
MUJWA (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), a little-known jihadist group that some analysts believe emerged from AQIM units in the Sahel, the rock-and-sand belt between the Sahara desert and the African savannah, is also believed to be operating in the region.
In a historically unpoliced region that has long been a home to smugglers – including, in recent times, the drug trafficking routes from South America – the MNLA does not have the luxury of being fastidious about who its partners are. Neither, it seems, can it go it alone in what is increasingly becoming one of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones.