Mali: It’s Salafi-Jihadist Insurgency, Stupid!
On January 28, a new report by the Quilliam Foundation warned that the Mali conflict has now evolved into a global security threat. The latest chapter in the half-century old conflict began in July 2012 when Islamic extremists linked to al Qaeda seized control of northern Mali. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been winning recruits since the mid-2000s, rebranding the Taureg nationalist movement as an Islamist one. The following are excerpts from the report co-authored by Noman Benotman, Gioia Forster and Roisin Blake.
The Roots of the Mali Conflict in relation to AQIM
The current conflict in Mali has arisen as a result of decades of rising tension, hitherto neglected, between the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahel region and the national government of Mali. Over the past 50 years, successive Malian governments have engaged in a brutal suppression of the Taureg community in the northern Azawad region, prompting several rebellions and creating a region of disorder where the rule of law is weak.
In April 2012, an independent state of Azawad was declared by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). This nationalist thread plays an important role in the tensions in Mali, with some militant Islamist groups supporting the nationalist movement and others ignoring the wishes of the separatists. Although MNLA was initially backed by militant Islamist rebel groups, in June 2012 the party came into conflict with AQIM, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), all of whom later took over northern Mali, and subsequently advanced south.
It is clear that AQIM and its allies are exploiting the Tuareg conflict for their own ideological aims by ‘rebranding’ the nationalist movement as an Islamist one and using it for their own ends. Herein lies the strength and skill of the al-Qaeda ‘franchise’ Despite being comprised of a large percentage of Taureg, these Islamist groups have no interesting in fulfilling the Taureg separatist aims of an independent state of Azawad or a bid for autonomy. In fact the short-term objective of all Salafi-Jihadist insurgency is to topple local governments, gain power and to expel any presence deemed un-Islamic from ‘Muslim lands’. In this respect, AQIM is no different; having expanded from Algeria into Mali, the group still has strong links within Algeria, and many key members who have North African Arab origins. Such strong ties with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region exemplify the extent to which the al-Qaeda ideology has successfully been exported from Afghanistan through the Middle East to Africa.
Networking for War
AQIM does not act alone - it is part of a network of other militant Islamist groups that cooperate based on the short-term goal of weathering the current counter-insurgency operation. This network consists of several groups, of which the most significant in Mali are Ansar Dine; MOJWA (whose leader is Ahmed Ould Amer); the Signed-in-Blood Battalion; and the Movement of the Sons of the Sahara for Islamic Justice (MSJI). All these militant Islamist groups share some ideological similarities, for instance all of them enforce their interpretation of Sharia on the population. However, big differences between the groups also exist. Such differences are clearly visible between AQIM and Ansar Dine, of which the former fully subscribes to the Salafi-Jihadist ideology, has access to global and ideological fighters, focuses on what it sees as religious struggles and sees the West as it’s enemy; whereas latter does not fully subscribe to a Salafi-Jihadist ideology, has a lot of local non-ideological fighters, is more like a political group because of its links to regional governments including Algeria and Burkina Faso.
AQIM acts as the vanguard, taking the leadership role in the Malian militant Islamist network and acting as the network’s hub. The group employs the tactic of short and mid-term cooperation even if strategic disagreements or ideological differences between AQIM and its affiliated militant Islamist groups arise. An example of this cooperation lies in AQIM’s good relationship with MOJWA which was established by a group of black African Islamists, including Hamad Ould Mohammed al-Khairi. Al-Khairi used to be a member of AQIM but left the group due to a dispute over the predominance of North African Arabs in its leadership. Nonetheless, AQIM continues to collaborate with al-Khairi’s MOJWA to present a united front against Malian and international forces. This willingness to cooperate is a clear departure from the nature of jihadist groups in the 1980s, when ideological disparities were seen as irreconcilable and different groups would therefore act in isolation. AQIM has instead adopted a far more pragmatic approach, utilising other groups to fight alongside them in this Malian conflict rather than exposing the group as a single and therefore vulnerable force. This strategy has so far proven to be very effective in furthering AQIM’s goals.
Click here for the full report.