Why is Mali in the eye of a West African storm?

Mali was once the seat of a commercial and intellectual empire that controlled most of West Africa. But since 2012, a crisis in Mali has been brewing that features rebel forces, the French, Al Qaeda and the United Nations.

Reuters: AFP/Reuters
Reuters: AFP/Reuters

Al Qaeda affiliates have led an insurgency in northern Mali beyond causing a West African regional security crisis.

"There is no conflict in Mali," the Office of the president of Mali told TRT World. Here's a detailed explainer why that might not be the case.


How did Mali fall from grace?


The main languages spoken in the country include French, Arabic, Berber, Bambara, Tamasheq, Fula and Songhai. The capital of the country, Bamako, is a renowned metropolis located in the south.

In 2012, Mali entered a crisis that has continued into the present. The large landlocked West African country that is home to 17.5 million people witnessed a Tuareg rebellion in the North.

That led to a mutiny of Malian soldiers in January 2012, who were angered by the central government’s mishandling of the rebellion.

In March, soldiers attacked several locations in the capital including military barracks, the state television and the presidential palace, successfully ousting then-president Amadou Toumani Toure who resigned from office in April.

Toure said before leaving office, "More than anything, I do it out of the love I have for my country.”

"There is no conflict with the Tuareg. We have some rebel groups that took arms. We signed a peace agreement two years ago. We are implementing this peace agreement," the deputy secretary general of the office of the president, Republic of Mali told TRT World.

A history of revolt

Mali has a rich history dating back to the eleventh century, when the Malian Empire was a dominant force in the world. The nation had been invaded by France in 1898, making it part of French Sudan. Mali gained independence in 1960 with Modibo Keita as president.

Mali is situated in the Sahel which is an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean until the Red Sea by East Africa. It’s often thought of as an invisible line separating North Africa from the rest of the continent.

Mali then became a one-party, socialist state. After 62 years of colonialism, French continues to be the official language of the country.

But after 1960, the nation struggled. The country suffered from several droughts, separatist rebellions, and a military coup which led to 23 years of dictatorship until democratic elections were held in 1992. The 1990’s saw rapid economic growth and relative social stability. 

Captain Amadou Sanogo was the Junta leader who orchestrated the coup. At 35 years of age he had previously received military and intelligence training in the US. He was known for his charisma.

What was so important about the 2012 coup?

The coup plotters had, in fact, scored a spectacular “own goal” in the country’s history. The international community unanimously condemned the coup plotters. Mali’s neighbours, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — an equivalent of the European Union in West Africa — imposed harsh sanctions on the Sahelian state.

The coup that was supposed to stop the Touareg rebellion did the exact opposite, as Northern Mali fell to the separatist Touareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) forces. 

The Djingareyber Mosque in Timbuktu, is a UNESCO world heritage site that has attracted pilgrims from across Africa and the Middle East.

Why did the Touareg rebel against the Malian government ? 

Mali’s Toureg’s are more than a 1980s Rowan Atkinson advert.

The Touareg are a nomadic Berber ethnic group living in the Sahara desert. 

The Touaregs, who are often referred to as the ‘blue people’ due to the ink on their bodies from their attire, have a very prominent history of controlling ancient trade routes across Africa and participating in post-colonial struggles.

The nearby Touareg live in southern Algeria, Niger, northern Mali, Burkina Faso, and northern Nigeria.They are separated into clans which hold various social standings.

But having a distinct history comes with baggage. 

Since 1916, the Touaregs have mounted multiple insurgencies against successive governments. 

Their aim? To gain independence and liberate what they refer to as the Kingdom of Azawad, an area in northern Mali that they traditionally think of as their ancestral homeland. 

The Touaregs claim that they are discriminated against because of their light skin from the central government in Bamako. 

In 2011, the Arab uprisings erupted, reaching the shores of Tripoli in Libya. It’s leader at the time, Col. Muamar Qadaffi didn’t have a large military, so he armed and employed mercenaries — many of whom were Touareg — to put down the uprising in his country.

That failed, leaving the Touaregs with a big weapons cache — and no one to stop them from using it.

The MNLA soon mounted an insurgency to challenge the Malian government’s control of the north.

As chaos spread from North Africa, Al Qaeda’s affiliate groups — as was the case in Syria and Iraq — saw this as an opportunity to consolidate their presence in the region. 

How did Al Qaeda rise in Mali?

Despite the initial hesitance from Al Qaeda’s leadership, extremist groups entered the conflict in the summer of 2016 and played a major role in the Touareg rebellion.

Al Qaeda’s main wing in the region is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Its leader Abdelmalek Droukdel has global ambitions and calls for attacks on international targets. He fosters an anti-western sentiment that targets French interests in the Sahel region and beyond.

The ‘Pablo Escobar’ of terrorism in North Africa, Abdelmalek Droukdel was born in Algeria and is also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. His mentor was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the ideological founder of Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

The group has a mixed membership with Mauritanians, Moroccans, Algerians, Malians, Nigeriens and Senegalese terrorists. 

Its mode of operation is kidnapping-for-ransom, particularly targeting westerners, thought to be a principle source of income for the group.

The group is also directly involved in drug trafficking. In Mali, the group had a key role in the takeover of the north, spreading their interpretation of Sharia in rebel-controlled territories and branding the rebellion as the liberation of Malians from French colonialism.

Iyad Ag Ghaly was a former Malian diplomat. He is a Touareg born known for his astute strategic know-how that has earned him the nickname "the Strategist."

Ghaly was unable to assume a leadership position within the mainstream MNLA rebel group and created his own movement Ansar al Dine. The group established close ties with AQIM and is part of its Sahelian network. 

Other parties that weighed into the conflict include:

Ansar al Dine or "the defenders of the faith" is a Malian-borne movement founded by Iyad Ag Ghaly. 

Al Mourabitoun, or Signed-in-Blood Battalion, is a splinter cell of AQIM and is led by well-known Algerian criminal Mokhtar Belmokhtar. 

Nicknamed Mr Malboro and the One-Eyed, Belmokhtar was born in Algeria and is one of the most known faces associated with Al Qaeda. Western forces have tried to, and have claimed, to kill him many times, but he has always managed to elude arrest.

Belmokhtar played a key role in the Touareg rebellion but fell out with AQIM’s leadership and made his own group. 

He is nothing like Osama Bin Laden from an ideological perspective — but rather fits a criminal profile being heavily involved in drug and arms trafficking. 

He has orchestrated several high profile attacks in the region including the Amenas hostage crisis in January 2013, which cost the lives of more than 60 people.

Why did France intervene in the crisis?

Soon after declaring the new state of Azawad, the MNLA failed to gain international recognition and after running out of money, many of its fighters defected to Al Qaeda linked groups. 

As a result, they were driven out of many northern cities including Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu by Ansar al Dine and AQIM.

Meanwhile, the interim government in Mali requested that France intervene and after a UNSC 2085 was passed, Paris received the official green light for a military intervention.

ECOWAS also deployed a large contingent of West African forces known as the the African-Led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA). Named after an African wild-cat, Operation Serval was launched. Within a year the north was declared free of terrorist forces and the rebellion had been squashed.

In 2014, the French replaced Operation Serval with Operation Barkhane which is aimed at countering terrorist forces across the Sahel through its bases in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.

In 2014, the French replaced Operation Serval with Operation Barkhane which is aimed at countering terrorist forces across the Sahel through its bases in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad. 

In 2015, a peace deal was signed in Algeria between the Malian government and the Touareg armed groups and pro-government militias in what was set to be the official end of the crisis.

But did the Mali crisis actually end?

No. The crisis continues to this day. 

Four years on, the international terrorist group AQIM and its main affiliates Ansar al Dine and Al Mourabitoun have expanded the insurgency to the central and southern regions of the country and have orchestrated high profile attacks in Mali, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

Consecutive attacks claimed by Al Qaeda from November 2015 - March 2016 signify the regional dimension of the current security crisis in Mali.

The group is focused on targeting Western interests at large, including oil companies, hotels, UN peacekeepers, French and Malian forces. 

In some cases unarmed civilians have also been casualties of attacks perpetrated by the Al Qaeda network.

The Touareg rebels and pro-government militias have also not been faithful to the Algerian peace accords, as they continue to clash over the administration of key northern territories such as Gao and Kidal. 

The UN’s Role in Mali’s Crisis

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) established by the Security Council resolution 2100 in April 2013 has had 184 of its peacekeepers killed in the past 4 years.

It is currently considered the most dangerous UN mission in the world.

For the first time, China is contributing soldiers to a UN Peacekeeping mission in an effort to invest in regional security.

The mission is vastly unpopular among the local population in northern Mali, and suffers from a lack of resources.

Peacekeepers are often targeted by Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and have not managed to guide the political process in coordination with the Touareg rebels.

How did Al Qaeda expand the insurgency in the north of Mali?

The new player to look out for in Mali is the Front Liberation Macina (FLM) which started off as a separatist group from the central region of Mopti in Mali. 

Front Liberation Macina had also claimed responsibility for its participation in the Radisson Blue attack in Bamako in November 2015.

Their objective, similar to the Touaregs in the north, was to emancipate the Fulani people, revive the ancient Macina Empire and liberate their people from what they see as the oppression and mistreatment of the central government in Bamako. 

But in 2015, they started collaborating with Ansar al Dine and operate under the name of the Ansar al Dine South. Why was this important?

The crisis is no longer confined to an insurgency in the north, but is now dangerously close to the capital of Bamako itself. 

More importantly, with its diverse membership and extended outreach, the Al Qaeda network,  has successfully penetrated the Sahel’s porous borders creating a regional crisis. The immediate future of Mali is uncertain at best.

TRTWorld and agencies