Strange bedfellows: a network analysis of Mali’s northern conflict

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch18 Dec 2015Antonin Tisseron, Olivier Walther

Unravelling the Malian puzzle requires looking at the way in which relations between antagonists explain the political violence in Mali. Building on previous work in which we applied social network analysis to West Africa’s conflicts1, in this research article we will map the alliances and conflicts between groups involved in the Malian conflict. This map will allow us to formulate some principles to explain the apparent unpredictability of many of the contemporary conflicts in the Sahel-Sahara.

Much ink has flowed during the last four years to describe the relationships between state and non-state actors involved in the Malian conflict. In a region transformed into a battleground for rebels, terrorists and traffickers, armed groups split and coalesce unpredictably, change names as new opportunities arise, and morph into transient coalitions between tribal and ethnic groups.

For example, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, itself a splinter group of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, rebranded itself as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Some of its members broke off to form the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which then merged with a splinter group called Al Moulathamoun to form Al Mourabitoun. Al Mourabitoun was then briefly renamed Al-Qaeda in West Africa before re-joining AQIM.

A similar volatility characterizes commanders and rank-and-file fighters who frequently shift allegiances among regular forces, rebel movements and violent extremist groups. A man like Iyad ag Ghaly, for example, has been a fighter in the Islamic Legion of the late Colonel Gadhafi, a rebel in multiple rebellions, a government negotiator and a consular officer for the Malian government, before founding the Islamist group Ansar Dine.

Conflicts and alliances

The groups currently in conflict in Mali form a rather compact and dense cluster of enemies. This is illustrated in Figure 1, which maps the relations between 15 belligerents in 2015 using a social network analysis methodology. This figure shows that the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imhad et Alliés (GATIA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Malian military are simultaneously involved in many conflicts and tied to other actors that also have many enemies. Islamist groups have a significant number of enemies, but fewer than many rebel armed groups.

Figure 1: Alliances and conflicts between selected organizations in Mali, 20152

In purely network terms, having a high number of enemies and being connected to parts of the network that have the greatest degree of warfare is a structural constraint. Such negative relationships adversely affect organizations’ military operations, reduce their ability to coordinate activities across the region, and limit the number of allies with whom they can cooperate to achieve their political goals.

Considering the high number of conflicts between organizations in the region, it is not surprising that the structure of the network of allies contrasts strongly with the structure for the network of enemies. Instead of forming a compact and dense cluster, this network of positive ties is fragmented into several sub-groups. The first cluster connects Al-Qaeda affiliated organizations and the newly-created Macina Liberation Front (FLM). This cluster is isolated from both government and rebel forces. Government forces can mainly count on support from the pro-governmental militia GATIA and from the United Nations Mission in Mali. On the rebel side, organizations that are part of the separatist Coordination of Movements of Azawad (MNLA, MAA, HCUA) form a triad separate from those that belong to the pro-government Platform of Algiers (CMFPR, CPA).

The fragmentation of the network of allies highlights the lack of broad coalitions among rebels and the relative isolation of the government. The contrast between the high density of conflicts and the sparsity of alliances is even more visible when both negative (enemies) and positive (allies) ties are represented simultaneously in a third graph in Figure 1. Government forces, rebels and Islamists form three components of a political environment with relatively equal structural constraints. Consequently, none of them is capable of rallying support from the rest of the network and building a broad and sustainable alliance.

Is the enemy of my enemy really my friend?

In a political environment as uncertain as Mali, the only certainty is that alliances will be renegotiated and that new conflicts will arise. But how exactly? On the basis of the above analysis we can formulate three general principles characterizing the northern Malian context. These apply not only to terrorist groups and rebels, but also to the Malian state itself which, since its independence in 1960, has been one of the main architects of the power relationships forged in the North of the country.

First, any alliance or conflict is possible. Any state or non-state actor may at one time or another be allied with, or the enemy of, another. This applies to both organizations and individuals, further complicating peace processes in the region. The alliance between the secular MNLA and religious extremists at the beginning of the Malian conflict in 2012 illustrates that there is no fundamental antagonism between the actors currently in conflict in the region. Even the state itself can ally with armed groups and tolerate religious extremists, as happened during the presidency of Amadou Toumani Touré (2002–2012). At the individual level, the Malian conflict shows that the same individuals can pass from the ranks of the army to the rebellion, from the rebellion to religious extremists, and from religious extremist groups to rebel or pro-government groups if circumstances are favourable. For example, a few weeks after being arrested by French soldiers, the former chief of police of MUJAO, Yoro Ould Daha, was released by the Malian government and decided to join a pro-government faction of the MAA.

Second, many conflicts have their origins in the balance of power between the various segments that compose local societies in the North of the country. Conflicts reflect tribal, regional and social fault lines within these societies and their inability to unite at the national or supranational level. Tuareg and Arab societies are still divided into confederations, tribes, factions and sub-factions that may ally against segments of the same order and unite with these segments against wider segments. Former Tuareg noble tribes, such as the Ifoghas, for example, have conflicting relationships with former vassal tribes and with other noble tribes from other regions. Another fault line can be observed between countries: Tuareg rebel movements from Niger and Mali have never merged despite a common cultural heritage and similar grievances with their respective governments. Tuareg and Arab societies are also internally divided between those who migrated to neighbouring countries due to the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, and those who stayed in their own country. Finally, economic inequalities are rising within both Tuareg and Arab societies, between those who profit from the trade of illegal goods and people across the Sahara, and those who rely on pastoralism or tourism, two industries that have been hit by recent droughts and political insecurity.

Whether such internal divisions can eventually be overcome by a more ideological project, such as the restoration of a theological order, remains a matter of scholarly debate. The creation of the Islamist group Ansar Dine – whose name means Defenders of the Faith – for example, was motivated both by religious factors and internal power struggles among Tuareg tribes. More recently, the Macina-based FLM is seen by many as an attempt to restore the Caliphate of Hamdullahi formed in the 19th century in the Inner Niger River Delta by Shekou Amadou. Both Ansar Dine and FLM – which claimed responsibility for the attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako in November 2015 (also claimed by AQIM and Al-Mourabitoune) – seem to have developed a religious and political project that does not exclusively rely on tribal and ethnic alliances against a common enemy.

Third, there is no durable alliance between groups. Because alliances result from a temporary agreement among local actors, they frequently dissolve when a better deal comes along or when a common enemy disappears. Continuing mergers and divisions between groups should, therefore, be considered a normal state. When the French offensive started in 2013, for example, most of the fighters from Ansar Dine joined the MNLA or the newly created Islamic Arab Movement (MIA) founded by Alghabass Ag Intalla. A few months later, MIA integrated the new HCUA, headed by Alghabass Ag Intalla’s brother Mohamed. During the same period, fighters of the MUJAO also created their own movement, the MAA, arguing that their goal was now to reach a peace agreement. While peace negotiations are usually favourable to the creation of new coalitions, the signature of peace agreements frequently leads to the fragmentation of armed groups, as when the Tuareg rebellion divided into multiple tribal-based movements in 1991. The lucrative business of trafficking drugs and arms across the Sahara is also a source of versatile conflicts and alliances, which transcend political and religious boundaries between groups. Money flows generated by trafficking explain many episodes of violence between armed groups that compete for control of key trans-Saharan roads. Occasionally, alliances of convenience can also be forged between groups that temporarily agree on stability in order to conduct their business and maintain their influence, as in the recent local peace agreements between northern businessmen and warlords in Anéfis.

Which way North? Two scenarios

The reason why the Malian crisis is so complex is because the two most obvious strategies that could contribute to easing political tensions in the northern part of the country are not feasible at this moment.

The first option would be to invest heavily in transport infrastructure, telecommunications and local government services beyond the Niger River Bend and physically secure the North with substantial military and law-enforcement forces. However, such a regional strategy comes up against two significant obstacles, the first one being that rebel groups in Northern Mali demand more decentralized investments, but also more political autonomy, while the interest of the Malian government is to invest where it can project its power and to restore formal political control in the North. The fact that over 50 years after Mali’s independence there is still no paved road connecting Timbuktu and Kidal to the rest of the country gives some idea of the challenges ahead.

The other option is to use local tribes and govern the North by delegation which is how the French ruled during the colonial era. Allied to the Tuareg Ifoghas and Arab Kounta tribes, the French let them weaken the Iwellemmeden confederation and establish their political dominance in the region. Like the French before them, presidents in the post-colonial era have sought to support one or other of the northern tribes in order to govern. This principle, which temporarily buys the loyalty of certain groups, does not guarantee political stability in the long term, as evidenced by the four major rebellions in the last 50 years.

In a political environment in which political alliances can be forged between any kind of groups, but only for a limited time, neither the state, the rebels nor the terrorists are capable of building a large coalition that would transcend social and religious divisions. The inability to govern northern Mali other than through local tribes has never been so obvious, both for the Malian government, which reproduces a political system born during the time of colonization, and for the international community, whose resources are stretched to the limit after several years of conflict in what is probably one of the world’s most inhospitable places for Western armies.

So which way North? A possible compromise would be to reconcile regional development and state consolidation in the North. This strategy – which would lead to better integration of the North with the rest of the country in exchange for the restoration of state authority from Sévaré to Taoudeni – is a fine line to walk, but possibly the only one that could ensure lasting peace in the country.


  1. Walther, O; Christopoulos, D (2015)’ Islamic terrorism and the Malian rebellion.’ Terrorism and Political Violence 27(3): 497–519; Walther, O; Leuprecht, C (2015) Mapping and deterring violent extremist networks in North-West Africa. Sønderborg, Department of Border Region Studies Working Papers 4.
  2. Source: Authors. Figure is based on a selection of academic and policy articles and press reports from French and English-speaking media published between 2012 and 2015. Note: Alliances are defined as formal agreements, joint political events or military operations. Conflicts are defined as notorious avoidance, hatred publicly expressed, political violence or military confrontations.