How Islamists are gaining sway in Mali

Many famous Islamist groups built support by providing health care and food, filling gaps left by the state, writes a guest blogger. Islamist groups now have the greatest sway in Timbuktu and Gao.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

The term “Islamist” has become so broad as to be meaningless, but for the present we are stuck with it. A simplified definition for “Islamism” might be an ideology that seeks to bring Islamic values into policymaking at the micro level – ie, not just saying, “The spirit of Shari’a guides our constitution,” but rather, “X, Y, and Z law, regulation, or policy will be explicitly grounded in perceived Islamic doctrine(s).”

If we count groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah as Islamists, which most standard definitions would, then we could say that many of the most famous Islamist groups in the world have built much of their popular support by providing services to ordinary people: health care, food, etc. Islamists have sometimes attempted to step into the gaps left by various states – as do many other different kinds of religious actors – and meet people’s needs, whether out of religious conviction, political calculation, or both.

In attempting to understand what “Islamism” is we have an important case underway right not in Gao and Timbuktu, northern Mali. The situation in northern Mali, since the outbreak of a Tuareg-led rebellion in January of this year, has been complex. The Moor Next Door and Andrew Lebovich have recently analyzed the proliferation of armed groups in the region, and I suggest reading their work for more background information. To cut a long story short, Timbuktu and Gao are two of the three regional capitals of the “Azawad,” the territory that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) claims to have liberated. Yet it appears that Ancar Dine (Arabic: “Defenders of the Faith”) and even Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have the greatest sway in Timbuktu at the moment, and perhaps in Gao as well. Ancar Dine in particular is establishing a political administration based heavily on offering services to civilians, especially but not only in the realm of security.

The Washington Post reports:

[Ancar Dine] is stepping up efforts to provide law and order as it tries to gain recruits and the support of local residents.

They’ve even set up a telephone number that residents can call in case of an emergency.


When bus passengers called the emergency telephone number in Gao a week ago after attackers attempted to rob their bus, the Islamists came, repelled the attack and cut the throat of one of the bandits.

From Timbuktu, there have been reports of Ancar Dine distributing food and offering care (French; h/t Andrew Lebovich).

How these efforts fit with the larger aim of instituting “shari’a” in northern Mali remains to be seen; the immediate aims seem to be (1) recruitment, (2) staking out political turf, and (3) attempting to establish long-term relationships with local populations. Imposing law and order is, of course, not just a means of outreach to locals but also a requirement for solidifying control over an area.

The next step the Islamists want to take seems to be fleshing out their administrative structure. Magharebia reports that Ancar Dine “plans to install Algerian national and al-Qaeda emir Yahya Abou Al-Hammam (real name Jemal Oukacha) as the local governor.” From the rhetoric quoted in the article, it sounds like law and order will continue to be the emphasis for both groups.

Ancar Dine, according to almost every report, has a real partnership with AQIM. But in light of the efforts at law and order, and providing services, how compatible are the two groups, really? And how compatible is the goal of establishing political control with the goals of a terrorist organization? As Magharebia points out, AQIM still holds several Western hostages. On top of that, a Swiss woman was kidnapped over the weekend in Timbuktu by unknown gunmen. Ancar Dine may find that such incidents threaten its political aims. Perhaps hardliners would argue that kidnapping outsiders has no bearing on the security of locals or locals’ perception of the would-be administrators, but it seems to me that the violence, secrecy, money, and outside attention associated with kidnapping could easily disrupt larger efforts at stability. Ancar Dine may well be quite unhappy with the kidnappers, whether they are AQIM or not.

Stepping back, Ancar Dine certainly has a strategy for establishing a durable presence in northern Mali. One of their biggest problems, though, is time. The Malian national army or an outside military coalition hope to return to northern Mali at some point soon, while MNLA hopes to establish its own supremacy. And locals may soon – or already – be disillusioned with the fighting, the uncertainty, and the attempts to turn ideology into policy.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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