Mali: Al Qaeda’s New Stronghold

The recent attacks on Western diplomatic posts in North Africa have seen a flurry of media coverage in the past few months. With the deaths of Western diplomats, the most notable being the US Ambassador to Libya, public discourse has begun to shift to incidents of fundamentalist Islam in North African Arabic states. Yet a few hundred miles south of Tripoli and the Mediterranean Coast lies the state of Mali, a state that has become a lawless region predominately run by Al Qaeda sympathetic groups, imposing interpretations of Sharia law and amassing large amounts of land, weapons and political capital.

Image courtesy of Magharebia ©2012, some rights reserved

With the pro-democracy uprisings in the rest of the Arab world (colloquially known as the Arab Spring), Al Qaeda lost a great amount of its support base. One of the dominant rallying cries of Al Qaeda was to overthrow the western-supported dictatorships in the Arab world and create a new Caliphate under Sharia law. However, when groups driven by democratic ideals overthrew the most oppressive dictatorships in the Arab world, Al Qaeda was left with a fraction of its political identity. Coupled with the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and many of his cadre as well as the increasing military capital being poured into Afghanistan by NATO, Al Qaeda has, until recently, been forced into survival mode. That is until the organization decided to move back into Africa and take advantage of the political vacuum in Mali.

While Mali used to be the most stable democracy in the region, deep ethnic and cultural rifts have always been prevalent. An ethnic minority known as the Tuareg in the north[1] has been vying for independence since Mali’s inception and has had violent clashes with national security forces on multiple occasions. Finally, on March 22, 2012, a military coup overthrew the democratic government on the grounds that they were not doing enough to exterminate the Tuareg rebels and seized control of the capital Bamako, declaring martial law and universal conscription. The Tuareg took advantage of the political instability in the south and seized the entire northern section of Mali, which including the two largest northern cities, Gao and Timbuktu.

However, it is difficult to maintain control over an area roughly the size of France, especially when the terrain is predominantly desert. The Tuareg, being a nomadic people bound together by ethnicity rather than religious ideology, did not have a firm hierarchical structure and quickly splintered into sub groups vying for control of the major cities. Al Qaeda and it’s affiliate the Islamic Maghreb seized this opportunity to back groups with Islamic sympathies, quickly gained superiority, and pushed the dissident Tuareg factions out into neighbouring Mauritania and Niger.

Now Al Qaeda and its affiliates have gained a tight control over the majority of the region. Gao is currently controlled by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a group that has instituted strict Sharia laws on the citizenry, such as the removal of hands for drinking and the public stoning of adulterers. The group Ansar al-Dine who now controls Timbuktu and who, while taking a slightly more moderate approach to local leaders, has banned tourism from the city and began destroying centuries old UNESCO world heritage sites on the grounds that they do not keep in line with Islam

The instability in Mali poses a danger not just to the region, but also to the world at large. The Sahel region of Africa,[2] housed within it countries such as Sudan, Niger and Somalia is one of the most lawless areas on the planet. As seen in the events of the Arab Spring, political instability has a tendency to spread across borders.  Al Qaeda, while weakened by the events of the Arab Spring and the continual persecution of NATO forces, has found a refuge to rebuild in a state refusing any form of aid or intervention.[3] Given enough time, Al Qaeda may be able to retake the world stage as a force of instability and violence.

[1] The Tuareg are a nomadic people of Berber decent that live predominantly in the deserts of Mali and Niger. They have rebelled against the Malian state on numerous occasions seeking to claim the northern desert region as their own autonomous state, Azawad.

[2] The Sahel region is a biogeographic region between the Sahara Desert to the North and the Savannah plains in the south.

[3] The military junta in Bamanko has refused aid from both the UN and AU, claiming that the matter is an internal and sovereign affair.