The allegedly al-Qaeda-linked faction of the Tuareg rebellion in troubled Mali seems more of an opportunistic break than a real extension of the terror group
Somewhere close to the Algerian border a delegation of Tuareg notables hurried through the desert for a summit. It was mid-March and there was dissension among them. One of their own, a renegade desert warrior called Iyad ag Ghali, had just thrown the Tuaregs’ meticulously plotted rebellion against the Malian government into jeopardy. In proclamations appearing on YouTube, ag Ghali’s spokesman had done everything that the committee behind the two-month-old uprising by Tuareg rebels wanted to avoid. “It is our obligation to fight for the application of Shar’ia in Mali,” the spokesman said. The poisonous phrase, seized eagerly by a Malian government smarting from military defeat, undid months of careful political messaging. Now everyone would think the Tuareg were in bed with al-Qaeda.
How the meeting between the Tuareg notables and the soft-spoken but inscrutable ag Ghali played out is known only to a handful of people. But within hours the rebel Mouvement National pour la Liberacion de l’Azawad (MNLA) broke publicly with ag Ghali, branding him a “criminal” whose efforts “to establish a theocratic regime” were anathema “to the foundations of our culture and civilization.” As the mud flew, ag Ghali struck back, retorting that his Ansar Eddine group (the name means “defenders of the faith”) was the new power in northern Mali. The war of words continued on March 30 as both groups claimed to have taken the strategically important town Kidal, a regional capital of 40,000 people, after days of fighting. “The rebels have been in the town since 11 o’clock. They almost have complete control,” one inhabitant told TIME by phone. “They are all armed in pickup vehicles,” another resident said. “Women uttered cries of joy to greet them at the airport.” With disarray in Bamako, following last week’s military coup, the Tuareg — secular or not — have taken their biggest prize to date and are already attacking the even larger town of Gao, 200 miles to the south.
The vitriolic falling out between ag Ghali and the MNLA goes some way to illustrating the complicated tapestry of interests and tensions within the Tuareg rebellion, a topic that swam into focus first after weaponry from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s looted arsenals flooded into the Sahara last year. With thousands of expatriate Tuaregs who worked for Gaddafi’s military forced to flee Libya amid the revolutionary chaos, much of the hardware is thought to have made its way to northern Mali. Desolate and unpoliceable, this swathe of desert and rocky scrub is also home to the regional terror franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That combination set alarm bells ringing. What, exactly, was the relationship between Tuareg fighters, with access to large quantities of heavy weaponry, and AQIM? Continue reading