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Making Sense of Mali’s Armed Groups

Al-Qaeda gets the most attention, but local groups and ethnic fighters are part of a complicated mix of instability

By May Ying Welsh

Malian soldiers stand guard as Mali’s President Dioncounda Traore speaks to French troops at an air base in Bamako, Mali January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

French planes have bombed targets in Mali in what they consider a fight against al-Qaeda-linked fighters. But the region is a cauldron of instability with a diverse blend of religious fighters, ethnic militas and secularists.

After spending weeks reporting from the country’s restive north, Al Jazeera’s May Ying Welsh reviews some of the different groups and what they want.

MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad)

The secular separatist Tuareg rebel group wants an independent state in northern Mali called Azawad. MNLA say they want this state for all the peoples of northern Mali (Tuaregs, Songhai, Arabs, and Fulani are the main ethnic groups). They have some token members from the Songhai ethnic group, but the fact is that 99 percent of MNLA fighters are Tuaregs whose motivation is to have a Tuareg state.

The leader of MNLA is Bilal Ag Cherif, an Ifoghas Tuareg, and his deputy is Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, who is a Songhai. The group which once controlled the cities of Gao and Kidal has largely melted back into the population awaiting its next chance.

The MNLA is generally disregarded and underestimated because it has receded and allowed al-Qaeda-linked groups to take over the field. But it’s important to remember the genesis of this crisis was an action by the MNLA to take over northern Mali, and all that is happening can be seen as a kind of reaction. The aspirations of the MNLA are deep-rooted going back to the first Tuareg rebellion in 1963. Their demands are not going to go away and those demands will continue to be the deep root of the northern Mali crisis.

FLNA (National Front for the Liberation of Azawad)

This is an Arab group loosely allied to the MNLA which wants the people of northern Mali to have the right to self-determination. They want northern Malians to be able to decide whether they want to be autonomous, independent or to be a part of Mali, possibly through a referendum similar to what happened when Southern Sudan voted for independence. The FLNA is not asking for the implementation of Sharia law.

Ganda Koy

Ganda Koy (Masters of the Earth) is a Songhai ethnic self-protection militia which has been around since the second Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. Ganda Koy has in the past fought alongside the Malian Army against Tuareg rebels. They have allegedly committed massacres against Tuareg civilians.

Human Rights Watch recently put out a report warning that ethnic self-protection militias like Ganda Koy and Ganda Izo are compiling kill lists of members of MNLA, Ansar al Din, other groups and their collaborators. One can assume that many of the names on these lists are of Tuaregs and Arabs.

Ganda Izo

Ganda Izo is a Fulani ethnic militia that was formed in 2008 to perform a similar function to Ganda Koy—providing self-protection to the local Fulani populace and countering Tuareg rebellion. Ganda Izo has now expanded to include more than just the Fulani ethnic group. They have training camps in Mopti.

The “religious” coalition includes three main groups:

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

AQIM is a mostly Algerian and Mauritanian group that has been present in northern Mali since 2003 and which has kidnapped and held more than 50 European and Canadian hostages for ransom in the last ten years earning what is estimated to be well over $100m.

Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum recently said that AQIM’s presence in northern Mali was part of a deal between the group and the deposed President of Mali Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), a deal brokered by ATT’s close political associate Iyad Ag Ghali. Hostage ransom money from European governments was allegedly spread around to Malian officials while AQIM was given free rein in Tuareg areas, with a wink and a nod from the Malian Army.

AQIM is currently holding at least nine European hostages in northern Mali.

Over the last decade a few local Ifoghas, Tuaregs and Arabs joined AQIM in Mali, and their members also inter-married with the community. However now that AQIM are openly circulating in the main cities of northern Mali, and thanks to its association with local groups like Ansar al Din, the group has become more mainstream. Now youths from southern Mali, Senegal, Niger and other countries have come to join them under the rubric of the Islamic Police which AQIM has a direct hand in running.

AQIM’s top leader is the Algerian Abdel Malek Droukdel aka Abu Musab abdel Wadoud, although it also has an Emir for the Sahara named Yahia Abou Hammam, and a number of brigades headed by famous Saharan characters such as the one-eyed Algerian trafficker Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Hamid Abou Zaid, another Algerian. The exact leadership structures in the Sahara are not clear.

Ansar al Din

Ansar al Din is a group of local Ifoghas Tuaregs, Berabiche Arabs and other local ethnic groups who want Sharia law implemented everywhere in Mali and across the Muslim world.

The founder and head of Ansar al Din is Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg former leader from the 1990s. Over the past ten years Iyad worked closely with the former president to try and put an end to simmering Tuareg rebellions and to negotiate hostage ransom deals with AQIM.

Ansar al Din’s spokesman is an Arab from the Timbuktu area named Sanda Ould Boumana who was incarcerated in Mauritania in 2005 for being an alleged member of al-Qaeda.

The majority of Ansar al Din fighters are Tuaregs from Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ifoghas tribe and Berabiche Arabs from the Timbuktu area. Ansar al Din avoids fights with the MNLA and FLNA so as not to shed blood of relatives and tribal cohorts which would be de-legitimising. They tend to leave that job to MUJAO and AQIM.

Although Ansar al Din denies any links with al-Qaeda, it effectively functions as a local umbrella under which members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) can operate. The relationship between the two groups is analogous to the association between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghainstan, with Ansar al Din playing host. The two groups work together running the religious police, for example. Ansar al Din keeps its membership Malian, thus keeping their future options open within Mali.

Ansar al Din can be found in all three main cities of the north: Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa)

MUJAO is the most opaque of the al-Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali. It is supposedly a dissident group which split off from AQIM, but they told Al Jazeera that they’re proud of working with AQIM in Gao to fend-off mutual enemies.

MUJAO says like Ansar al Din that they want Sharia law everywhere in the world. Unlike Ansar al Din the group incorporates both locals and foreigners from the Sahel region and North Africa.

MUJAO has been the most aggressive in attacking MNLA elements as well as Arab groups who want self-determination for northern Mali. When the MNLA gain a foothold in a region, MUJAO are known to harrass them until they leave.

Tilemsi Arab drug lords from the Gao area are alleged to be involved in funding MUJAO and some of their young people have joined.


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