Since Mali’s coup in March 2012, northern Mali has become a haven for militant Islamists, as political divides in the capital Bamako stymie solutions.


After a March 22 coup d’état by middle-ranking soldiers of Mali’s army, Tuareg-led separatists gained control over northern Mali, an area the size of France.  Their alliance broke though, after better-armed Islamist militant groups hijacked the rebellion.  One main militant group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, Ansar Dine, took control of Timbuktu.  Ansar Dine and its allies are suspected to have ties to Al Qaeda’s North African franchise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  Among Ansar Dine’s Islamist allies is Al Qaeda offshoot Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and other town militias that Ansar Dine and other groups are trying to incorporate.  To finance their operations, MUJAO and AQIM have kidnapped European aid workers and diplomats, securing millions of dollars for their release.

After kicking out the Tuareg rebels from the regional capitals of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, Ansar Dine militants and their allies have imposed a strict version of Sharia law.  To the dismay of Timbuktu residents used to more secular ways of practicing Islam, Ansar Dine destroyed several ancient tombs and mosques and risk destroying priceless ancient scrolls and manuscripts.  Executions, floggings, rapes, and child conscription have prompted protests in Timbuktu and in Goundam southwest of Timbuktu.  Wanting to flee these brutal crackdowns, nearly half a million Malians have migrated to Bamako and other parts of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger.  The refugees (along with the entire West African Sahel) are seeing worsening famines and mounting food prices caused by drought, risk of locust infestations, and cholera outbreaks.

There exists some armed resistance to the Islamists.  At least six Malian militias have joined forces numbering several thousand men determined to resist the Islamists.  They call their force the Patriotic Forces of Resistance (FPR), and are training in their central Mali bases.  The largest resistance force is the Tuaregs’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), but after being ousted by Ansar Dine they took refuge in Mauritania, awaiting diplomatic guarantees from the international community before moving against the Islamists.

There is mounting pressure for international intervention.  Commentators on Mali are warning that Mali is fast becoming a new Somalia or Afghanistan.  Foreign government officials also warn against the Islamist threat.  On July 12 France’s Foreign Minister said that foreign military intervention was probable “at one moment or another,” adding that any intervention would have international support but be African-led.  On July 26 a U.S. military official said the United States is currently weighing military options and ways to work with Bamako to combat Islamist militants.  International groups considering intervention include the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the European Union, and the United Nations.  Timbuktu mayor and regional Malian governments submitted an appeal late-July for the UN Security Council to issue a mandate for UN troops to assist Malians in ousting the Islamists.

West African heads of state are urging Mali’s politicians to form a national unity government and formally request a U.N. mandate to send ECOWAS troops to assist with its operations in northern Mali.  The United States urged Mali to accept this force, and E.U. foreign ministers expressed their support.  On July 4, ECOWAS published that it no longer recognized junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo as Head of State.  The only reason ECOWAS had granted Sanogo this status (in May) was to persuade him to allow an interim government.

Meanwhile, interim President Dioncounda Traore (a Malian-American) has returned to Bamako after recovering for two months in Paris from injuries sustained when protesters stormed his office in May.  His government is perceived as weak and subject to Sanogo’s whims.  Before his return, Mali’s military chief of staff reversed an earlier position, welcoming foreign troops to help oust the northern rebels.

Traore is engaged in bolstering public support by forgiving his attackers and asking Malians to support foreign military assistance.  He also outlined his plan to form a unity government and created a committee to negotiate with the northern Islamists, but he condemned the recent stoning deaths of two people accused of adultery.  The deadline for Traore to form a unity government already expired, but ECOWAS extended it by 10 days.

Unrest in Bamako is mounting.  In April, Malian Colonel Abidine Guindo and his group of elite Red Berets attempted a countercoup, but he and his soldiers were arrested.  Many of the ousted military have disappeared, prompting protests by over 300 military wives demanding to know their husbands’ whereabouts.  Human Rights Watch finds that Sanogo forces have disappeared 20 Red Berets and also tortured, harassed, and abducted journalists critical of Sanogo.  To protest, Mali’s independent press corps staged a nationwide media blackout.

There is also resistance to international intervention.  The United Nations (UN), ECOWAS, and the African Union (AU), the International Crisis Group (ICG) are all showing restraint.  The UN is reluctant to back the proposed ECOWAS force.  The AU sees military intervention as a “last resort,” and the ICG cautions against hasty military deployment in the absence of political unity in Bamako.  Most ECOWAS member-states are responding tepidly to Laurent Fabius’s advocacy for international intervention; Niger is an exception, and it is very worried about AQIM’s growing presence within its own borders.


[-]  Despite international pressure for unity in Bamako, political disunity hinders solutions.  Sanogo and his supporters continue to undermine Traore’s legitimacy in spite of Sanogo’s agreement to step down.  Because of this, political tensions are mounting amid Traore’s stalled efforts to create a unity government.  Abductions, harassment, torture, and mounting unrest among those critical of Sanogo illustrate an increased risk of more widespread civil conflict in southern Mali.

[-]  The threats posed by AQIM and other Islamist militants are legitimate.  We are seeing a growing haven for militant Islamists in northern Mali, and this haven could potentially be a springboard for terrorism in West Africa or even in Western Europe.  Although these threats are legitimate, they should not be overestimated, considering the Islamist groups’ varying agendas.  It could be that some groups are concerned solely with parochial interests and with financing their territorial gains, at least in the short term.

[-]  Mounting food prices, locust infestations, and quickly growing refugee camps are sparking widespread hunger and cholera outbreaks affecting Malian refugees perhaps more heavily than citizens of other countries of the Sahel.

[+]  President Traore’s efforts are commendable.  Should he meet ECOWAS’s new deadline to form a unity government, he will have shown effective leadership in moving the Mali government closer to a negotiated solution with the factions vying for control of Mali’s north.

[+]  Northern Malian groups’ protests and resistance against Ansar Dine and MUJAO suggest that Ansar Dine is unlikely to gain control of all of northern Mali at least in the short term, which will give Bamako more time to reach a consensus.

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