Will Mali become the Next Terrorist Sanctuary?

In the aftermath of the Mali coup, northern secessionists have declared an independent Islamic state. With verifiable links to Al-Qa'ida, there is a real risk that 'Azawad', as it is known, will become the next wellspring of instability and terrorism in Africa.

The proclamation on 26 May of an 'Islamic state of Azawad',[1]  in the northern region of Mali,  came only two months after a military coup that forced former president Amadou Toumani Toure to flee the capital Bamako, plunging the country into a political crisis. The power vacuum left was swiftly exploited by rebel forces to seize a territory the size of France, turning such a crisis into a security and humanitarian emergency. The 26 May announcement indicated that the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Dine (also spelt as Ansar Eddine) had apparently been able to reconcile divergent, if not clashing, ideological positions on government. An independent Azawad was first unilaterally declared by the MNLA in April but not backed by their Islamist allies, keen instead on pursuing the more ambitious aim of imposing Sharia law across the whole country. Yet, early attempts to do so immediately after the seizure of key towns in the north were met with firm opposition by the moderate Muslim local population, with MNLA also mostly hostile to the idea.[2]

Thus, last week's joint declaration seemed to represent a 'reasonable' compromise between the Tuaregs' quest for independence from the south and the Islamists' desire to create an Islamic state. There was no doubting the opportunistic nature of the deal, with each side trying to secure their grip on power in a shared settlement that, although not ideal, must have been viewed by both at least as an acceptable outcome. Yet, its long-term sustainability is already in question, after 'fundamental differences' were blamed by the MNLA for the collapse of the deal only a few days later.

Indeed, in what appears as an attempt by Ansar Dine to have the upper hand over their accidental allies, the final accord was said to envisage the application of 'pure and hard' Sharia law across the northern area. This was fundamentally at odds with earlier reassurances that such law would be applied moderately [3] in order to avoid upsetting the moderate, but nevertheless religious, population.

Yet, since seizing joint control of the area, the Islamist group has hardly made the effort to tolerate the different interpretations of Islam embraced by the locals. In line with key tenets of fundamentalist Salafism, they destroyed the tomb of a Sufi saint, forbid music and TV in public, shut bars and nightclubs and introduced a summary judicial system.[4] Women have been forced to wear the veil and boys and girls must now sit separately in schools.[5]

Ansar Dine and AQIM

A few days before the MNLA-Ansar Dine unity bid was announced, a video surfaced online in which the leader of Al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, advised the Islamist group on how to effectively pursue their 'Sharia-implementation' project.[6] He particularly stressed the importance of imposing Islamic rules, gradually as well as the need to adopt a collaborative stance towards the Tuareg rebels. Crucially, he also openly encouraged AQIM militants to rally behind and support Ansar Dine in Mali, while continuing to devote efforts and resources to the mission of global jihad.[7]   

Significantly, it was the first time the Al-Qa'ida affiliate openly addressed their counterpart, thereby confirming previous claims that the two Islamist groups were closely connected.[8] Viewed in light of the 26 May declaration, it also seems to reveal AQIM's significant ascendancy over Ansar Dine - arguably the early promise of a moderate and tolerant form of Islam which would respect local religious practices was to reflect this.

Meetings between Ansar Dine's leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, and AQIM commanders had reportedly taken place in the aftermath of the rebels' advance in the north; and only a few days later, Abou Al-Hamman, an Algerian AQIM emir, was appointed governor of Timbuktu, as part of an alleged partnership deal between the two factions.[9]  

Such links are hardly surprising, driven - as they are - by ideological proximity as much as by operational necessity. Yet, for the time being, the two organisations remain separate entities and an eventual future merger is all but straightforward.

Ansar Dine closely reflects the peculiar nature of his leader, a somehow opportunistic character who has been a significant player in Mali's politics over the last two decades. After having fought as a mercenary for the Qadhafi's regime, Ag Ghaly returned to his native country in the 1990s where he led a Tuareg rebellion against the central government. He was later involved in negotiating a peace deal between the two opposing factions, and then sent to Saudi Arabia in 2007 as a consul. While there, he allegedly became closely connected to Salafi circles. By the time he returned to Mali, he had turned into a committed Islamist.

Some doubt his ideological commitment, rather pointing out Ag Ghaly's fascination with power as well as his long-standing leadership ambitions.[10] Such attitude has already led him in the past to favour opportunistic, ad hoc, alliances and to switch side as he deemed personally convenient.[11] It has also been suggested that Ag Ghaly has strong connections with Algerian intelligence services, which - if true - would further complicate power dynamics in the area.

Accordingly, this would make Ansar Dine a rather volatile player in the current Malian crisis. Backing the Tuareg rebellion must have been viewed by the group as an opportunity to position itself as a leading player in any future decisions concerning Mali's post-crisis political reconfiguration.

At the same time, the ideological chasm with MNLA is likely to have led Ag Ghaly to regard AQIM as a valuable complementary partner, one that could not only support its long-term strategy for an Islamic state but also provide immediate material/military assistance. Thanks to its 'kidnap economy', the AQ affiliate has been able to collect roughly $130 million in less than a decade and its involvement in illicit trafficking means that it has easy access to weapons smuggled across the region. Its seizure of one of the largest arms depots in the city of Gao last week is said to have made AQIM 'more armed than the combined armies of Mali and Burkina Faso', giving it even more leverage on its Islamist ally.

The fact that Ansar Dine now appears to be militarily stronger than their secularist counterpart is probably due in part to AQIM's material and financial support. Yet, coherently with its strategy of counter-balancing partnerships, the former has so far refrained from publicly attributing AQIM any significant role, instead emphasising the local character of their 'holy war', as opposed to AQIM's transnational ambitions.[12] Ultimately, this allows Ag Ghaly's group to officially maintain strategic and operational autonomy. It also further reinforces the assumption that power aspirations - rather than ideological commitment - are driving Ag Ghaly's strategic calculus.

What Prospects Ahead?

This is not to deny AQIM's ability to take advantage of the volatile situation in the region. In what appears to be a deliberate attempt to boost its ranks, regroup and secure a stable foothold, the group is reportedly bringing in hundreds of fighters from neighbouring Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Nigeria. Experienced Pakistani militants are also said to be in the area to provide terrorist training to new recruits, some of them young Malians who view joining AQIM or Ansar Dine as the only immediate alternative to starvation.[13]

There is little prospect of AQIM being denied such operational freedom unless the current state of political and institutional chaos is resolved. The worst case scenario of a 'pre-9/11 Afghanistan-style' situation is all but unrealistic, although it is far from certain that a secularist force in power would allow its newly independent state to be turned into a terrorist safe haven.

As already pointed out, reconciling the Tuaregs' nationalistic cause with the Islamists' 'sharia project' has certainly served the short-term objective of seizing physical control of the territory. Yet fundamental differences remain which could well cause the rebels' front to disintegrate soon.

The other possible scenario is that Ansar Dine, with AQIM's support, will be able to sideline MNLA to a point where the latter will be the minor player within a potential ruling coalition - too weak to effectively object to most of its partner's decisions. Amongst these, allowing the Al-Qa'ida affiliate to freely operate on their territory.

 Arguably, none of these options is remotely desirable and in fact all would have great implications for regional stability and international security. The symbolic condemnation of the secessionist bid by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should be read more as a sign of increasing frustration with the political impasse in Bamako; at the same time, the commission's own inability to agree on some kind of intervention strategy is further reducing the window of opportunity to restore some degree of institutional order in the country. The African Union's proposal of referring Mali's crisis to the UN Security Council is a welcome development. Yet, the hope is that, on this occasion, a strategy of action will be agreed swiftly enough to prevent Mali from becoming the next terrorist sanctuary. 


[1] Mike Pflanz, 'Islamists Declare North Mali an Independent State Governed by Sharia', The Sunday Telegraph, 27 May 2012

[2] David Lewis 'Analysis. Mali: from Democracy Poster Child to Broken State', Reuters, 24 April 2012

[3] 'No Strict Sharia in Mali's North - Rebels', Reuters, 28 May 2012

[4] Anne Look, 'Mali Rebels Merge, Plan to Create Islamic State', Voice of America, 27 May 2012

[5] Robin Banerji, 'Life in Timbuktu Under Islamist Rule', BBC World, 23 May 2012

[6] 'Qaeda Leader Tells Fighters to Support Mali Rebels', Reuters, 25 May 2012

[7] Ibid.

[8] 'Mali Unrest Creating 'Al Qaeda Safe Haven'', Sky News, 5 April 2012

[9] Bakari Gueye, 'AQIM Leader Named Timbuktu Governor', Magharebia, 14 April 2012

[10] Jemal Oumar, 'New Groups Change Mali's Ideological Landscape', Magharebia, 3 January 2012

[11] Martin Vogl, op.cit.

[12] Jemal Oumar, 'Al Qaeda Draws Maghreb Militants to Mali', Magharebia, 11 May 2012

[13] '"The Bearded Men Are the New Masters": Observers in Timbuktu Describe Life Under Radical Islamic Rule', France24, 9 May 2012


Valentina Soria

Associate Fellow

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