In January 2012, conflict erupted in northern Mali as an influx of arms from Libya, economic discontent, and longstanding tension between Malian Tuaregs and the rest of Malian society converged. The Malian army attempted to stabilize the rapidly escalating violence, but they were too few, untrained, and poorly equipped, and the lack of order devolved into fierce war between Tuareg separatists and Islamist organizations. Though many militia groups have been involved in this conflict, each with its own ideology and ethnic or tribal make up, the main contenders for power have been Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine on the side of the Islamists, and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) on the side of the Tuareg separatists. The former are seeking to impose shari’a in Mali, while the latter seeks an independent Tuareg state; both oppose the Malian central government, and are fighting for control of territory and resources in Azawad, Mali’s vast mineral-rich northern region.
The growing Islamist presence in the region has caused alarm in the West. In January 2013, France sent several hundred troops to Mali, and has driven Ansar Dine and AQIM out of the northern strongholds of Gao, Kidal, Konna, and Timbuktu. Though the Islamists have been driven underground, the instability in Azawad is likely to continue, as the conflict has deepened existing ethnic tension and added a new, religious dynamic to longstanding grievances and rivalries. AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the MLNA have attempted to manipulate ethnic and religious divides in order to ensure the loyalty of their members and the cohesion of the organization. AQIM has not been successful on this front, due to its foreign leadership and strain of radical Islam; most Malians joined AQIM for economic rather than ideological reasons. The MNLA is mostly made up of Tuaregs from a specific tribe (Idnane), while Ansar Dine has recruited Tuaregs from a rival tribe (Ifogha), as well as from other ethnic groups like the Songhai, Fulani, and Bella.
Of the three, Ansar Dine has been most successful at integrating different ethnic groups. Though MNLA has recently been able to gain territory and influence by capturing towns where the French military has driven out the Islamists, the organization’s makeup is mostly homogenous. AQIM is structured through a brittle hierarchy, with foreign leaders, Tuaregs as foot soldiers, and Malian Arabs as middlemen.
Until recently, Tuareg separatists were the main source of conflict in Azawad. The Tuaregs of Azawad have felt culturally, socially, and economically marginalized in Malian society, and began a series of wars of secession almost immediately after French decolonization. Historically, the government has dealt with Tuareg secession movements through (mostly symbolic) diplomatic talks, and by allowing the Tuaregs unofficial control of Azawad. This latter “strategy” created a lawless region within Mali, enabling Islamist groups to train and operate. As the Islamist groups Ansar Dine and AQIM gained control of Azawad, they introduced new and divisive practices of Islam, violently targeting Tuaregs and other individuals who disagreed with them.
In order to understand how religion and ethnicity play into the current conflict, it may be helpful to envision Malian society as divided along three intersecting fault lines. The first is economic hardship: 53 percent of Malians, and 65 percent of Malian youth, are unemployed, and 51 percent of Malians live on less than $1.25 a day, according to estimates by the International Monetary Fund. The second fault line involves race, ethnicity, tribe, and profession; in other words, matters of descent. The main ethnic groups of Azawad are Tuareg, Songhai, and Arab. Traditionally, Malian society was organized through a caste-like system; certain professions were assigned to certain tribes and ethnicities, and interpersonal relationships were determined by one’s place in the hierarchy. Moreover, during the colonial period, French rulers exacerbated existing conflict between the nomadic Tuaregs of the north and the sedentary black farmers of the south to promote infighting and prevent the population from contesting their rule. Ethnic, racial, and tribal affiliation has shaped loyalties and rivalries within Malian society, creating a framework for militia groups to use to their advantage.
Since AQIM and Ansar Dine established themselves into the north, religion has become a third fault line in Malian society. Prior to the Islamist incursion in Azawad, religion was not a major cause of tension or division. Mali is a secular state, and though 90 percent of the population is Sunni or Sufi Muslim, relations between Muslims and religious minorities have historically been friendly and accepting. The Malian practice of Islam is moderate and has adapted to and absorbed local customs. Even traditional Tuareg and Berber animist practices are generally tolerated, and many Malians feel that Islamist groups threaten their way of life.
Despite Mali’s history of religious tolerance, the region of Azawad is certainly no stranger to violence. There have been four Tuareg rebellions to date: the first occurred from 1962-64, the second from 1990-95, and the third from 2007-2009. The current, ongoing conflict began in January 2012, after Tuareg militants and mercenaries returned from the Libyan Civil War. The MNLA began waging war against the Malian army in Azawad. Because the MNLA soldiers were heavily armed and had received extensive training from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Islamic Legion, they easily overpowered government forces. In March 2012, dissatisfied Malian soldiers ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré because of his handling of the northern conflict. As of the beginning of last year, it seemed that the MLNA was gaining significant traction in Azawad, and that the Malian government might be forced to consider their demands for secession.
Then, in June 2012, the MLNA lost control of Azawad to Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, a splinter group of AQIM). During its control of Azawad, Ansar Dine (supported by AQIM and MUJAO) set up a tribunal and implemented fundamentalist law. They amputated the limbs of thieves, required women to wear the hijab, imposed a curfew, and destroyed the aboveground tombs of holy men. They attacked Tuaregs and displaced nearly 300,000 people, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Their strict and violent practice of Islam alienated most Malians, including the Muslims whom they claimed to represent.
In addition to the group’s reputation for violence and intolerance, AQIM’s segregation along racial and tribal lines has created an unstable framework for the organization that has already begun to disrupt its internal coherence. Most of the other militias in the north began in Azawad and have an ethnic rather than a religious dimension; AQIM differs in that it is a transplant Islamist organization connected to the much larger Al Qaeda network. The leaders of AQIM are from Algeria or Mauritania; however, its members are mainly Tuaregs from the Ifogha tribe and Arabs from the Berabiche tribe. Because Malian Arabs share cultural and linguistic connections with the Algerian and Mauritanian leadership, they are generally privileged over Tuaregs. Additionally, most of the leadership does not speak Tamasheq, the Tuareg language, making Malian Arabs the de facto translators between the leadership and its foot soldiers.
But why would Malians join a group with foreign leaders that practice a different, more radical form of their religion? The answer becomes clear when one considers the economic hardships that are common in Azawad, regardless of tribal, ethnic, or religious affiliation. Both Tuaregs and Arabs mainly associate with AQIM for economic reasons (i.e. profits from the drug and weapons trade) rather than ideological affinity, according to a cable from the US Embassy in Mali, released by WikiLeaks. AQIM’s strain of Islamic fundamentalism is not compatible with Tuareg customs and the Malian Islamic practice, which is much more moderate than the Wahhabi/Salafi doctrine. Thus, AQIM has served solely as a way for marginalized individuals or groups to earn money and status. Until recently, these concrete personal benefits outweighed any disagreements with the group’s extreme ideology.
Though AQIM still has a strong hold on Azawad, their promises of economic gain and social advancement may not make up for the repellent effect of their extreme ideology, because there are other militia groups in the area which can offer similar benefits without threatening the Malian way of life. Moreover, AQIM has been unable or unwilling to utilize existing ethnic tensions to their benefit, and instead marginalizes Tuareg members who may be able to gain more elsewhere. Finally, their experiment in implementing shari’a provoked terror and resentment in the people of Azawad, who may now be even less likely to support them. After the French withdraw, it is likely that Ansar Dine or the MNLA, who are able to use local allegiances to their advantage, will edge out AQIM. AQIM’s inability to adapt itself to specific local tensions in Azawad undermines its members’ allegiances and threatens the group’s longevity and influence in the region. It is likely that the Malians who joined AQIM for purely economic reasons will defect and join other militia groups, which promise the same economic benefit without marginalizing their members.
One of AQIM’s most serious challengers is the MLNA, a secular Tuareg separatist movement. The MNLA is entirely based on creating an autonomous state of Azawad; as such, they have no religious agenda, which may be a draw for Malians who are fed up with the Islamists' strain of fundamentalism. The group controlled Azawad from April to June 2012, seizing and occupying military bases and prompting hundreds of thousands of residents (mostly Tuaregs and Arabs) to flee in fear of reprisal killings from the Malian army. In January 2013, the MLNA followed the French army and recaptured towns in Azawad, which had been “liberated” by the French. Because AQIM and Ansar Dine have been driven underground, the MNLA currently has the greatest degree of control over Azawad.
Though the MLNA claims to represent all ethnic groups of the north, its members are almost entirely Tuareg. The exclusive nature of the group and the violent civil wars they have caused in the north has sown resentment among other ethnic groups, such as the Bella, Songhai, and Fulani. In addition, many resent Tuaregs for their relative political influence. Though Tuaregs are impoverished and marginalized, their status as an indigenous group has afforded them a small array of benefits: They are overrepresented in parliament and in the army, and they were given free reign in Azawad. Thus, though the members of the MNLA are fiercely loyal to the organization, outsiders are extremely alienated from the movement and will be difficult to win over.
AQIM and Ansar Dine have taken advantage of the resentment of Bella and Songhai, who join the Islamists because they do not want to see the Tuaregs gain further privileges or take control of the north. Although both the MNLA and Ansar Dine have a strong base of Tuareg members, both organizations draw upon existing tribal rivalries, which helps solidify their support among specific communities, yet deepens the divide between them.
Within this context, France currently supports the opening of talks between the MLNA and the government. France assumes that the secular MLNA is more in line with their interests than Islamists, despite the fact that the MLNA also has a history of extremism and terrorist attacks. The Malian government has steadfastly refused to engage in talks with the MLNA, fearing (perhaps rightly) that increasing the power of the MLNA would inevitably lead to another secessionist rebellion. For their part, the MLNA should be wary of accepting the help or endorsement of the French. Colonial resentment is very much alive in Mali; many of those afflicted by the violence blame France for decolonizing Mali without leaving infrastructure or transitional bodies to help transition to independence. The MNLA’s main flaw is their inherent alienation of Bella, Songhai, Fulani, and other minority ethnicities, as well as their poor relations with Ifogha Tuaregs, which has driven otherwise unaffiliated Malians into the open arms of the MNLA’s rivals. Though the MNLA needs ideological and financial support in order to overtake the other militant groups in Azawad, it will alienate even more Malians than it already has if it gets too friendly with the French.
But first, the MNLA will have to deal with Ansar Dine, their former collaborator and now their greatest rival. Like AQIM, Ansar Dine adheres to the Wahhabi strain of Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia. The group achieved notoriety for destroying World Heritage sites in Timbuktu because of their connection to Sufism, which is viewed as apostasy. Though they have a mostly Tuareg base, they are not a separatist movement—a deliberate choice which has won over minority ethnic groups who do not want to lose Azawad to Tuareg control.
Many members of Ansar Dine served as mercenaries in the Libyan Civil War of 2011 and obtained weapons after the fall of Qaddafi; the influx of high-tech weapons into an already tense and lawless area was one of the catalysts of the current conflict. Ansar Dine initially worked with the MNLA to gain control of the north, but split with them after achieving significant territorial gains. The two groups are now bitter rivals, and clash as much in their ideology as they do in their ethnic and tribal make-up. Unlike the MLNA, Ansar Dine is well armed, well-funded, and has been able to bring together Tuareg, Bella, Songhai, and Arabs into an integrated fighting force. They also differ from AQIM, in that they have been able to unite these different groups and tribes against the MNLA. Their leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, is a former government elite, has close connections with the Ifogha Tuaregs, and leads an Islamist group, putting him in the perfect position to act as a mediator between the three factions. Thus, Ansar Dine appears to have beaten out the MLNA and AQIM.
Ansar Dine, as a homegrown group that has been able to unite Malians of all ethnicities under the banner of religion, will stick around, though they may be temporarily driven underground by French forces. Though they lost the support of locals after implementing an extreme form of shari’a, Ansar Dine has proven that it is more than capable of using violence to suppress dissent. The MNLA poses the greatest threat to Ansar Dine at the moment, but they will only be able to suppress Ansar Dine if they are given financial support and training. Even if they obtain the backing they need, existing Tuareg resentment from other ethnic groups might spark backlash against the MNLA. If the MNLA truly seeks a free and independent state of Azawad for the sake of all the people of the north, they must first be able to demonstrate that the Tuareg rebellion is in the interest of all who feel oppressed or ignored by the Malian government. They must show that such a state would include and benefit Songhai, Fulani, Arabs, and others — not just the Tuareg. While the MNLA gave up their demands for secession in return for internal control in the north, the organization still promotes Tuareg ascendancy, to the detriment of other ethnic groups. Thus, even if the MNLA gain control of the north, it seems unlikely that they will retain control without being challenged.
Before making predictions based on the religious and ethnic makeup of these groups, one must keep in mind that there are many other factors involved in determining who will come out on top. Foreign intervention, military strategy, funding, and connections with the government will all be crucial in determining the outcome of this conflict. However, Ansar Dine and the MNLA appear to be more successful in using indigenous tension to support their aims. As such, it is likely that these groups will outlast the fractured AQIM. Seeing as the remaining major players in the conflict represent conflicting sides of multiple longstanding ideological disagreements, a lasting peace is unlikely. The success of both the MNLA and Ansar Dine now depends on their ability to expand their alliances—to France, to Saudi Arabia, to the Malian government, to the unaffiliated, and to those they have alienated in the past.