On December 21, 2012, the United Nations Security Council approved the use of military action in the country of Mali. The Northern portion of Mali is now in the control of Islamic extremists who wish to establish an Islamic country along the lines envisioned by the Taliban in Afghanistan. On January 11, 2013 the first of an expected 2,500 French soldiers arrived in Mali. West African nations have promised to send more than 3,000 soldiers to help the Malian government fight the Islamic forces. The African forces will be led by Nigeria, which is actively engaged in their own fight with the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. The events in Africa are very confusing to most Americans. Why does anyone care about Mali? Why should anyone care if Mali is controlled by a Taliban like government? Nothing happens in a vacuum. The situation in Mali is easily understood when one looks beyond the borders of Mali.
Mali is a country of approximately 16 million people. It is a former French colony and became an independent nation in 1960. Mali had their first democratically elected government in 1992. As with the country of Mauritania, slavery persists in modern Mali. The group Temedt is a Malian anti-slavery advocacy group formed by Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, who is himself a descendant of a slave, estimates that the country has more than 200 thousand people living as slaves and up to 600 thousand descendants of slaves who in some fashion still tied to a ‘master’. The issue of slavery in Mali is explained further here and here. Slavery can be found in all sections of Mali, however, it is predominately practiced in Northern Mali by the Tuareg.
The Tuareg have been fighting for independence from the moment that Mali was formed. There have been 5 major Tuareg uprisings, the last beginning in 2011 as thousands of well armed and well trained Tuareg militants returned from Libya where they had been fighting for the Gaddafi government. The Tuareg rebels in alliance with al-Qaeda, quickly began seizing control of small Northern Malian cities and soon Northern Mali was in a state of full rebellion. Who are some of the major players in Mali?
Currently, one of the most successful of Tuareg groups is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The MNLA is led by Bilal Ag Acherif. He is a very young (born in 1977) and charismatic Tuareg leader. In November of 2012, he met with French officials in the capital of Burkina Faso to discuss the current situation in Northern Mali. He protested the idea of military intervention by Western and African nations. Instead of invading Mali, he said that those countries should assist the MNLA in ridding Mali of the Islamists. The MNLA is composed almost exclusively of Malian natives and states that they are not operating with the Islamists. The French insisted that the MNLA cease fighting for an independent Tuareg country. The MNLA refused to concede on their demand of an independent Tuareg country and the talks collapsed.
Ansar Dine is the other large Tuareg rebel group. It was formed in 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghaly. He is a mysterious man whose past is quite murky. He is an expert at playing all sides during a conflict. In the mid 1990s he was the undisputed leader of the Tuareg rebels. He was involved in the kidnappings of many Westerners and extorted millions of dollars in ransom payments from Western nations. Kidnapping is often a means of funding a rebellion as well as enriching the leadership. He would often act as a liaison between the kidnappers (with whom he was affiliated) and the Western countries seeking the return of their citizens. From 2007 to 2010, he was a Malian diplomat working in Saudi Arabia. Unsubstantiated reports claim that he was expelled by the Saudis for developing ties with terrorist groups operating from Saudi Arabia. The word unsubstantiated should not be confused with unreliable. Ghaly was never known as a particularly religious man. However, in 2011 after his return from Saudi Arabia he stated that he wished to impose Sharia Law on the Tuareg people. That same year, he made a bid to become the leader of the MNLA but he was rejected. The reasons for the rejection are numerous. Some claim he was rejected because of his ties with al-Qaeda, while others claim that his close ties to the Malian government were the reason. Regardless, his bid for leadership was rejected and he then created his own group, Ansar Dine.
Ansar Dine quickly aligned itself with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM was formed by Algerian Islamic militants in the 1990s. They Algerian militants officially affiliated themselves with al-Qaeda in 2007. Ansar Dine and the AQIM were very successful in quickly taking control of large portions of Northern Mali. They were also successful in establishing Sharia Law in the regions they controlled. As Sufi shrines were destroyed and people stoned, beheaded or their limbs severed for previously unpunished religious infractions, the local populace began to flee. It is estimated that the current fighting has created 800 thousand refugees. With the arrival the militaries of France and other African countries, the fighting will intensify and the number of refugees will increase.
The African forces will be led by Nigeria. Nigeria is dealing with their own Islamic separatist group, Boko Haram. Since its creation in 2001, Boko Haram has killed anywhere from 3000 to 10000 people. The group is affiliated with al-Qaeda and wants an independent Islamic State to be created out of Northern Nigeria. As with the Taliban, they want to rule with Sharia Law. Nigeria is not just on a humanitarian mission in Mali. Nigeria will need assistance in eliminating Boko Haram from their country. It is likely that once operations end in Mali, Nigeria will most likely request assistance in their own fight against Islamic militants.
Britain is sending assistance in the form of ‘logistical’ support. France has troops on the ground. America’s role is not yet defined. The countries of Africa are heavily involved in Mali. From the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the Arab Spring that toppled Gaddafi everything is now meeting in the country of Mali. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The wars of the Middle East have moved to Africa.