Rebel alliances strengthen in Mali's north, rattling neighboring countries

The northern two-thirds of Mali is now under control of Tuareg and Islamist rebels who want to redraw national boundaries and export revolution. Displaced minorities tell of brutality.

Derek Henry Flood
A billboard at the entrance to King Fahd Bridge in Bamako depicts the country's current political chaos with a weeping north and a questioning south, Wednesday, May 30.

Here in Mali's capital city, after a military coup, it's not entirely clear who is in charge.

Mali's elected president, Amadou Toumani Toure, has been thrown out of power by mid-ranking officers. Those officers have put in place a politician, Dioncounda Traore, who was promptly beaten by civilian protesters in his own palace and is now seeking medical treatment in France. The coup leaders, in the meantime, have promised to hand over power to a civilian government once elections have been held, although they have not given a timeline yet. 

Up north, however, there is no question who is in charge.

With the May 26 announcement of an independent state of Azawad, two rebel groups -- the salafist group Ansar Eddine, and the ethnic Tuareg group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad -- Mali's three vast regions of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, are now effectively out of Bamako's reach. And while many experts had predicted the philosophies of these two groups would keep them at odds -- Ansar seeks a theocracy based on Islamic sharia law, while the MNLA seeks an independent state for ethnic Tuaregs -- there is little sign of competition, and many signs of consolidation.

For Mali's neighbors, some of whom have their own ethnic insurgencies and Islamist rebel groups to contend with, and for aid groups, who had already been warning about a looming food crisis in Mali, this is the worst-case scenario. With two-thirds of Mali's territory now either ungoverned or under the control of groups who seek to redraw national boundaries and to export revolution, the March 22 coup in Mali has given West Africa its own Afghanistan or Somalia, a no-go zone for aid groups and a haven for extremist groups to govern their own affairs, train and arm themselves, and prepare the next revolution across the border. 

On Tuesday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the formation of Azawad. 

"ECOWAS strongly condemns this opportunistic move, which will only worsen the plight of the populations already suffering atrocities and deprivation in the occupied Malian territory, and further threaten regional peace and security," ECOWAS said in a statement.

Ansar Eddine, which is said to have two distinct jihadist groups – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – has been hoisting black banners similar to those used by the Islamic State of Iraq at the height of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency in Baghdad. Ansar says that it seeks not to secede from the Malian republic but to create a theocratic state.  

Mali’s Tuareg guerrillas -- who have fought several rebellions since Mali gained its independence from French rule in 1960 -- began the current bout of rebellion in mid-January with weapons and vehicles taken from the crumbling Qaddafi regime. Now, as they consolidate their rule over northern Mali, they have access to arms depots left by the Malian military.

Rebels racing through Gao

The MNLA advocates a partition of the country to create an independent, primarily ethnic-Tuareg homeland, which they refer to as Azawad. Though the MNLA says it wants to eliminate aspects of the Malian state it believes to be corrupt, and not target other ethnic groups, the Monitor spoke with Christian refugees from the northeastern city of Gao who told of having fled to Bamako for their lives.

Mohammed-Ibrahim Yattara, a community leader for Gao’s small local Protestant denomination, described in detail the wanton destruction caused by marauding rebel fighters. Dr. Yattara told of the MNLA and Ansar Eddine working in tandem to trash all of the city’s bureaucratic infrastructure and local institutions including medical facilities and his now abandoned church. He displayed a series of cellphone images showing the immense damage rebels had caused in Gao along with parts of large rocket munitions brought in by the fighters.

Careening through Gao’s dusty warrens in heavily armed Toyota fighting trucks, intimidating residents of every stripe, the rebels were uniformly brutal, says Dr. Yattara. “The only difference between the two groups is their flag.”

Gamer Dicko, a Bamako-based journalist for the state-run Malian Press Agency, told of a dire situation in his hometown of Gossi in Timbuktu Region’s far southeast. Half-Tuareg himself, he said he was unable to return home to visit his aging parents since the rebel takeover, fearing for his personal safety.

The massive ungoverned space in northern Mali presents one of the most formidable global security challenges since the Taliban takeover of the majority of Afghanistan’s territory from 1994-2001. The conflict is in a relative stalemate as northern rebels leaders and squabbling southern-based political elites try to hammer out various power compromises.

Aside from the Malian Tuareg nationals who conquered a huge swath of territory in a series of raids in late March, witnesses now sheltering in Bamako reported transnational jihadis hailing from throughout the region belonging to AQIM, MUJWA, members of the northern Nigerian salafist group Boko Haram, and freelancers who reportedly spoke none of the regional languages and attempted to use English to communicate.  

The efforts of ECOWAS, led by Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Campaore, to intervene have borne little fruit in Mali thus far.

Here in Bamako, meanwhile, residents live day-to-day, coping with the highest degree of political uncertainty imaginable.

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