Origins of Mali's Islamist Occupation

Origins of Mali's Islamist Occupation

Origins of Mali's Islamist Occupation

Origins of Mali's Islamist Occupation


5 min read

In April 2015, the Malian government and various, predominantly ethnic Tuareg, armed groups finalised the 'Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali from the Algiers Process' after months of negotiations in Algiers. This thirty page document calls for three things: the reconstruction of Mali's national unity while respecting the country's territorial integrity and ethnic and cultural diversity; the creation of elected regional assemblies and greater representation of the northern populations in national institutions; and the transference of 30 per cent of budget revenues from the state to local authorities. It is hoped that this deal will end the past three years of violence in the country. What, though, are the causes and events of the 2012 occupation of northern Mali; and why does reconciliation still seem far away?

"Tuaregs view themselves as racially and culturally distinct."

The origins of the most recent conflict are complicated but, at the risk of oversimplifying, can be traced back to colonial and post-colonial structures that privileged the south while alienating the north. Many northern nomadic groups resisted French colonial dominance and inclusion in 'French Sudan' (colonial Mali). Most of these groups were Kel-Tamasheq, what many call 'the Tuareg.' Many Tuaregs view themselves as racially and culturally distinctfrom the more agricultural and urban(ised) communities of southern Mali.

Consequently, few Tuareg elites actively participated in French Sudanese or early Malian politics. Indeed, the first political parties in Mali were largely driven by French-educated southern elites who promoted southern-centric Malian nationalism. These nationalist and political maneuvers, and perceptions of disproportional lack of investment in the North further alienated most Tuareg groups from the Malian state.

Tuareg nationalists, mainly based in the mountainous Ifoghas region of Kidal, demanded independence from southern Mali in the first and second Tuareg rebellions in the 1960s and 1990s. Peace accords affording increased autonomy to Kidal and government positions for rebel leaders led some groups to partially disarm, but tensions with Bamako eased only slightly and flared up briefly in 2006 when many northern families complained that the provisions of the 1996 Tamanrasset Accords remained unfulfilled.

The occupation of northern Mali in Spring 2012 was the result of a perfect storm of political and military missteps and Machiavellianism. Following the 1996 Accords, many rebel fighters became mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began moving south across the Sahara Desert, establishing firmer positions in southern Algeria and northern Mali. Later, in the mid-2000s President Amadou Toumani Touré appointed Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of the Second Tuareg Rebellion, as a member of Mali's diplomatic staff in Saudi Arabia. There, Ag Ghali supposedly experienced a religious 're-birth' and met with unnamed militant jihadis.

In October 2011, various nationalist groups based out of Kidal organised into the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The MNLA remains predominantly Tuareg, despite claimed attempts to convert into a multi-ethnic movement. It seeks the independence or autonomy of Azawadover which Tuaregs assert a historical claim. The movement gained battle-hardened and fully armed mercenaries recruits from Libyafollowing the death of Gaddafi.

At the same time, Ag Ghali, angered over his inability to assume the leadership of the MNLA, announced the formation of Ansar Dine, in many ways the Islamist version of the MNLA. Just as the MNLA claimed numerous non-Tuareg members, Ansar Dine claimed the objective of spreading sharia across Mali. Ag Ghali successfully enlisted some disenfranchised individuals, attracted to his discourse of salvation. Simultaneously however, many doubted Ag Ghali's religious convictions, interpreting his rhetoric more as a recruitment tool. Indeed, most Malians view the MNLA and Ansar Dine as predominantly Tuareg organisations, separated by inter-ethnic feuding not ideological differences. Ansar Dine's ties to AQIM amplified its Islamist credentials, but many saw this as a relationship of convenience rather than shared ideology; of all of the groups, AQIM had the greatest access to weapons and finances.

"Ansar Dine is in many ways, the Islamist version of the MNLA."

Starting in November 2012, the MNLA, either unaware of or resigned to Ansar Dine's connection to AQIM, formed a loose alliance with Ag Ghali and began attacking towns and villages throughout northern Mali. The aim was to liberate the region from Malian control and establish the independent state of Azawad. However, kidnappings, executions, and other brutal methods towards civilians and Malian soldiers caused mutual trading of blame, revealing a lack of unity. These methods also outraged most Malians who criticised the government for underfunding the army and for not having a genuine military strategy in the north.

Then, on 21 March 2012 with many northern towns already occupied, mid-level Malian officers took over the government in what many have called an accidental coup d'etat. They chose Captain Amadou Sanogo as their leader. Sanogo ousted President Touré and dissolved the Malian constitution. Meanwhile, officers in the North either fled their positions or joined the MNLA or Ansar Dine, creating a power vacuum the armed groups quickly filled. In a single weekend (Friday 30 March to Sunday 1 April 2012), separatist fighters occupied northern Mali's three main towns Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. It would be too deterministic to suggest that the coup d'etat caused the occupation of the north – the Malian military had already been failing to adequately resist the armed offensive. However, the coup accelerated and likely broadened the occupation.

As the Malian government struggled to re-stabilise itself, the occupiers struggled to strengthen their respective footholds in the north. The MNLA declared Azawad's independence on 6 April 2012. In June 2012 the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of AQIM, drove the MNLA first from Gao, and then from Timbuktu and Kidal. Immediately afterward, Ansar Dine — in cooperation with MUJAO — announced it controlled of all three northern towns, though the MNLA affirmed that it maintained control of the rural areas. However, the MNLA espoused secularism, whereas the other two groups argued for sharia. Before long the two ideological camps turned against one another. By this time, over 300,000 northern Malian residents had been displaced.

Ansar Dine and AQIM established their harsh brand of sharia in Timbuktu and Gao. This was less successful in Kidal, though, where the MNLA retained influence and the jihadis' control was more fragile. However, after AQIM moved further south and threatened central and southern Mali in January 2013, the French military, which was shortly followed by United Nations and West African troops, intervened and 'liberated' the region's main towns, sending AQIM into the desert and mountains to the north and east. The rural areas largely remain outside the reach of the Malian government and the UN. In the absence of these influencers, the political influence of the MNLA and, to a lesser degree, Ansar Dine has reasserted itself, and continues to cause unrest in the country.

The Return of the Malian Islamists?

The Return of the Malian Islamists?

Extremist Ideologies

Find out more

Join us

Be the first to know what we’re doing – and how you can get more involved.