MINUSMA "Pro Azawad Graffiti in Kidal" / via flickr

Rebels and extremist stories from northern Mali

Paul Mben | 08 March 2015

During the most serious crisis in Mali, which began on 17 January 2012, extremists pushed the Tuaregs and the Arabs into the front line to show the Malians and the world that this was an autonomy problem. In July, however, the extremists took control of all northern Mali to accomplish the Al-Qaida project.

During the French intervention, most extremists were dislocated but the local members of each group remained in Mali. Most of them were from Ansar Dine (an all-Malian group now known as Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad/HCUA), Al-Qaida and the Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Djihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO). Kidal is not free and is today the place you can find all these extremists. The few extremists in Timbuktu and Gao are connected with those in Kidal.

As long as the northern part of Mali is not occupied by armed troops, it will remain insecure and dangerous. This also means that Bamako and other large cities in the Sahel will stay insecure, because of their connections with the extremists.

A history of rebellion

The rebellions in northern Mali first started in the 1960s. Until the 1990s, they were necessary because there was no development in this part of the country. But, with the advent of democracy in 1992, the authorities tried to put money into many projects to improve the standard of living in the region by building roads, hospitals and schools and providing a safe water supply. In addition to those projects, the first democratic government of president Alpha Oumar Konaré tried to integrate minorities into government. Nowadays, there are no workplaces in Mali where you cannot find Tuaregs or Arabs. It was a good idea, but over time, Tuaregs in particular have come to think of it as a ’must’. In northern Mali, there are at least five ethnic groups: Songhaï (75%), Peuhls (18%), Tuaregs (5%) and Arabs (2%). But the Tuaregs and the Arabs have been most vocal.

The new rebellion which began on 23 May 2006 started as a movement of a few Tuareg people with limited communications with other ethnic groups, limited coherence and changing composition. This was reflected in the change in the organization’s name. At first it was called Réseau pour le Plaidoyer, la Sécurité et le Développement des Régions Nord du Mali, but a few months later – with the end of the conflict in Libya and thus to the supply of arms from Libya, and internal conflict – this changed to Mouvement national pour la liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the concept of Azawad was born.

About ten different ethnic divisions can be distinguished within the Tuaregs. During the crisis, each of these groups wanted a large share of power. And many decided to create new movements, resulting in MNLA and the Front Patriotique de l’Azawad (FPA). Many others decided to integrate within the Islamic movements like Ansar Dine (led by former rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly), MUJAO or Al-Qaida. Importantly, Tuaregs who integrate into the Islamic movement, except Iyad Ag Ghaly himself, are not extremists and are not ready for the Jihad. They just use the movement to cover themselves and gain support in the event of the conflict escalating.

The arrival of extremists groups

In Mali, there are generally no religious conflicts. Muslims (who make up 95% of the population) and Christians live in harmony. Even in the predominantly Muslim north, there are Christian churches. In the northern part of the Kidal region, on the border between Mali and Algeria, the first extremist group –  former members of the Front Islamique pour le Salut (FIS) – arrived from Algeria in the beginning of 1994. In mid-2004, former president of Mali Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) failed to respond to repeated warnings from the people living in this part of the country about emerging extremism. He and some of his advisers were implicated in drug and human trafficking. One day, during a meeting in his palace in Bamako, ATT told one of his advisers: “Those people are Muslim like me. If they don’t attack us, we don’t have any reason to tell them to go away. They are just preaching the Koran”. However, this allowed the extremists to advance their Jihad in the largely uncontrolled north. The region became a major traffic avenue for drugs, weapons and people. Meanwhile, the extremists collaborated with Tuaregs on logistics and with Arabs on money transactions.

During my stay in Tegharghar, in Kidal province near the border with Algeria, in 2005, I witnessed training camps, Madrassa (Koran schools) and tunnels. It appeared a very well organized system, with connections to the capital Bamako. I learnt how the extremist recruited people, fitted to their specific work needs. I also learnt that they had a deal with Djandjawids (fighters from Sudan), Al-Qaida, Ansar El Sharia, Saharaoui Democratic Republic fighters and the Boco Haram group. Boco Haram has nowhere to train in Nigeria. Thus, the group was permitted to train in the north of Mali, in exchange for reinforcing the extremists if they needed help. That is what happened in Kidal and Gao in February 2012, at the beginning of the most severe crisis.

Photo credit main picture: MINUSMA "Pro Azawad Graffiti in Kidal" / via flickr

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Paul Mben

Paul Mben is a Malian journalist and specialist of northern Mali

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