The Sahel: Fertile Ground for Al-Qa’ida Terror

The Sahel region is host to some of the poorest countries in the world. The ongoing crisis in Mali adds another layer of insecurity in an already fragile region and leaves neighbouring, weakly governed and impoverished states unable to secure their borders in an area where thousands of nomadic people roam across the deserts of West Africa. The crisis has reached new heights in recent months, beginning with the declaration of independence by Azawad, a landlocked region the size of France and comprising two-thirds of Mali’s territory, on 6 April.

This ‘virtual’ independence has been condemned by neighbouring countries, and is unrecognised by the international community; but for AQIM (Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb), it presents a great opportunity. Since the ‘liberation’ of Azawad by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a secular separatist group made up primarily of nomadic Tuaregs – the AQIM-related Salafist movement Ansar Dine (‘defenders of faith’) has become a potent force in the region. Whilst the MNLA and Ansar Dine share a common desire to carve out a new state, their newly formed relationship has now become increasingly volatile: their history, goals and motives are in complete opposition, and this does not bode well for the future of this troubled region.

Tuareg Dream, Regional Nightmare

The Tuaregs are some of the few remaining nomadic inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, who, since the independence of Mali in 1960, have struggled for recognition. Aware of the wider marginalisation of these ‘masters of the desert’, the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi began recruiting in African states such as Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan to assemble groups of young Tuareg fighters who were paid, trained and armed to fight in the Chadian-Libyan conflict between 1978 and 1987 and, later, to protect the Great Leader himself. The use of such mercenaries – a phenomenon still on the increase – represents a real threat to governments in the region and to the pursuit of regional co-operation.

The conflict between tribalism and national identity has long been a risk to the stability of West African states, with this sort of ‘identity disorder’ further aggravated by the lack of dialogue between the French and British colonial powers during the decolonisation process. Thus, for ethnic groups such as the Tuaregs, the established borders have never reflected their nomadic reality, and their feelings of marginalisation and exclusion from their ‘host’ countries over the years have strengthened both their ethnic identity and their aspirations for an independent state.

While Tuaregs represent only 1.7 per cent of Mali’s population, their success in recent months could spur separatist sentiments across the region. Nigeria, for instance – the continent’s most populous state – is composed of more than 250 tribes. The Tuareg dream, if realised through undiplomatic means, could set a precedent for the future balkanisation of a region home to a rich diversity of ethnic and cultural groups, but also to simmering conflicts.

The Bitter Fruit of the Libyan Spring

While some would consider the events as isolated, the chaos in Mali is, in fact, one of the first direct repercussions of the Arab Spring in North Africa. Reports from the International Organisation for Migration and Amnesty International reveal that following the international intervention in Libya in 2011, Qadhafi’s loyalist Tuareg fighters were being tortured, abused and massacred by forces of the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC). The escalation of violence in Libya and turning of the tide against Qadhafi led many Malian Tuaregs to flee, but not empty-handed: by the end of 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 2017 had underlined the risks posed to the stability of the Sahel region by the large numbers of weapons flowing out of Libya, while it also called for co-ordination with the NTC to ensure the destruction of the chemical weapons that remain in the insecure southeast of the country.

The conflict in Libya therefore exacerbated tensions in northern Mali between the army and returning Tuareg fighters, with Qadhafi’s defeated African nomads riding out of Libya with heavy artillery, including advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles, later to be used in the successful rebellion in northern Mali. As a result, years of peace efforts and a ceasefire with the northern rebels were suddenly brought to an end; since 2006, a status quo with the Tuareg had been maintained on the basis of the Algiers Accords, with then-Malian President Amadou Touré acknowledging the improvement of the situation and declaring the end of the chronic northern rebellion in a US diplomatic cable leaked in December 2009.

The tensions resulting from the power vacuum in Libya have exacerbated the situation, in particular in the (now-occupied) northern regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Yet the Malian government, located in Bamako in the south, took little to no action to protect citizens in the north from the inflows of armed Tuareg fighters (most probably due to President Touré’s decision not to run for another mandate in the April 2012 elections). Concerned by such inaction, Malian troops from the green berets, led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, a US-trained soldier, ousted the president (the so-called ‘soldier of democracy’) on 21 March 2012. This coup d’état meant that the elections were never held, and was condemned by both the international community and ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States). After several days of mediation in Burkina Faso between ECOWAS and Mali’s new military junta, the coup leaders were asked to step down and hand over power to an appointed interim president. This new president, Dioncounda Traoré (an ally of Touré), was violently attacked in his palace, on 21 May by protesters opposed to his appointment, with the implicit complicity of the revolutionary military junta.

The precise logic behind Captain Sanogo’s decision to overthrow the president one month before he was supposed to step down anyway remains unclear but, without doubt, it is a dramatic setback for one of West Africa’s few established democracies. In southern Mali, the constitutional crisis resulting from the military coup and the bypassing of democratic elections, combined with the emergence of muscular opposition to the interim president, has left Bamako with no legitimate leadership, and with tensions within the military between the green berets and the red berets (the presidential guard). At the same time, in the north, the secessionists continue to make rapid advances to realise their aspirations for an independent state.

Ansar Dine: The African Taliban

Since the declaration of independence in northern Mali, the Tuareg movement has been further strengthened by volunteers from the various other ethnic groups of northern Mali (including the Songhai, Fula and Moor). On 26 May, furthermore, the secular movement announced a merger with the Al-Qa’ida-affiliated group Ansar Dine to form a state based on the Salafist branch of Islam, in which Sharia Law would prevail.

Since 90 per cent of the Malian population is Muslim, the Islamic cause adopted by the secessionist leadership may be a strategy to unite as many voices as possible beyond those with a solely ethnic motive; as the French ‘Islamologue’ Olivier Roy explains, the use of religion to define a community can provide a more ‘stable’ alternative to an emphasis on its ethnic character, which is ‘transitional and metaphorical’. And it seems this move to take advantage of the secular group’s gains in northern Mali was always Ansar Dine’s intention, with the group agreeing to the ‘unholy’ union with the MNLA only days after a twelve-minute audio recording of AQIM’s emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel – calling for a gradual implementation of Sharia Law in Azawad – was posted to the Sahara Media website based in Mauritania.

Ansar Dine’s religious stance is personified clearly in its leader, the enigmatic Iyad Ag Ghali. Once a fervent Tuareg combatant against the Malian army, Ag Ghali was appointed as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia after the 1996 ceasefire between the rebels and the Malian government was established. While previously noted as a ‘great fan of cigarettes, booze and partying’, he experienced a religious rebirth in Saudi Arabia – from which he was expelled after his lifestyle changed from that of a secular liberal to that of an extremist Salafist.
The Salafi ideology imposed in northern Mali has certainly been extreme. An Algerian emir of AQIM has been appointed governor of Timbuktu; sports are now banned, as is shaving and chatting with the opposite sex; and the fifteenth-century mausolea of Sufi saints have also been destroyed in acts of cultural vandalism. Despite the recent outcry in response to the destruction of the country’s unique cultural heritage, the international community has been relatively silent vis-à-vis the wider situation in Mali and its effects on the region; it is no surprise, therefore, that Al-Qa’ida has not sought to hide its close ties to the Salafist Ansar Dine.

Fleeing this gradual talibanisation of the north, over 300,000 refugees have poured into neighbouring countries.[1] But beyond a probable future humanitarian crisis – the arid region is continually afflicted by drought and famine – Mali’s state failure offers optimum conditions for terrorist groups to recruit and train new members, and to spread terror, all only a few hours’ flight from Europe. Validating fears of Azawad’s status as a new magnet for jihadists, the AQIM emir Droukdel and his fighters were spotted in the area on 23 May, while seizing a Malian arms depot in the occupied town of Gao. Also, on 9 June, a report from the Algerian newspaper Echourouk El Youmi revealed the presence of Pakistani and Afghan Salafists among the ranks of Ansar Dine. At the same time, a British woman, known as ‘Umm Abdullah’ (‘mother of Abdullah’), was videotaped in Azawad calling for jihad and attacks in Europe along with eighty other ‘ready’ suicide bombers. Such examples certainly suggest that Ansar Dine has established a foothold in the troubled area.

A Permanent Al-Qa’ida Base?

Will Ansar Dine be able to solidify its gains in northern Mali? The prospects of this appear to be diminishing, particularly with the secular Tuaregs’ recent reconsideration of their merger with the group, which they consider to have permanently tarnished their long-standing aspiration for independence, and turned Azawad into an extremist, terrorist sanctuary. As a result, these two ideologically opposed groups have recently split, and are now engaged in a bloody Saharan power struggle.

The independent state may well also feel the effects of international sanctions imposed on Mali; ECOWAS has imposed an embargo on Mali, the US and France have frozen their aid to the state and the British government has withdrawn its embassy staff from Bamako. However, sanctions alone may not be sufficient to tackle the Salafist threat in the Sahel. The ongoing constitutional crisis resulting from the coup in Bamako has prevented any co-ordinated regional policies to fight the threat. At the same time, while the increasing number of Malian refugees in Niger and Mauritania offers another clear indication of the violent tensions within the country, this is apparently ‘insufficient evidence’ for the international community to take any further measures to address the situation: the UN has not called for action to help the Malian population under the principle of the Responsibility to Protect.

In May, as part of its Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, the EU announced its support for the ECOWAS proposition of a military intervention in Mali, provided a UN resolution authorised the action, with the president of the organisation, Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo, also confirming the need for UN approval. Yet questions also arise as to whether the African force is capable of successfully engaging in such a conflict. While the estimated 3,000–5,000 troops required could well have an impact upon the constitutional crisis in the south, the real danger lies in the north, where a long campaign is to be expected against two well-trained forces: the Tuaregs have extensive experience fighting in the harsh conditions of the Sahel, while Ansar Dine enjoys military and financial support from both AQIM and the Unity Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

The complexity of the situation in Mali therefore poses tough challenges for policy-makers, particularly owing to the internationalisation of the long-standing Tuareg rebellions through the growing involvement of the Al-Qa’ida-affiliated Ansar Dine. Avoiding the radicalisation of the Tuaregs and ensuring human security in the north as well as restoring constitutional rule in the south should therefore be central goals for international efforts in the region.

Sara Mokaddem

1 Marine Olivesi, ‘North Malian Refugees Flee Islamists’, RFI, 7 June 2012, <>, accessed 18 July 2012.

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