Items About Areas That Could Break Out Into War
July 4, 2012: In the African state of Mali, the Tuareg tribal rebels (MNLA, Liberation Army of Azawad) that took control of the thinly populated, largely desert northern two-thirds of the country three months ago have been defeated by their smaller, but more fanatic, Islamic radical allies, the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith). The success of the two groups in chasing the largely black African Mali army out of the north three months ago encouraged Ansar Dine to call for more Islamic radicals throughout the region to come join them. Meanwhile the MNLA found that their fighters were not as willing to die for the cause as their Ansar Dine allies were.
The MNLA (Liberation Army of Azawad) represents the most militant and heavily armed Tuareg rebels, but they have not been able to stand up to its smaller, less well equipped ally Ansar Dine, an Islamic radical group containing many former (or current) al Qaeda members. Islamic terrorists from Algeria, Nigeria, and other areas are coming to northern Mali to join Ansar Dine. The leader of Ansar Dine (Iyad Ag Ghali) is a local Tuareg tribal leader who has always been active in Tuareg separatism efforts and is adept at playing Tuareg tribal politics. Ghali has always been seen as an opportunist, and now he is making a violent attempt to establish his own Tuareg religious dictatorship in northern Mali. Most Tuaregs oppose Islamic radicals but support an independent Tuareg state. Ghali is playing on this division to keep the more numerous Tuareg from uniting and destroying Ansar Dine. If the northern Tuareg did unite, they could turn out over 50,000 armed and angry men, if only for a short period. Ansar Dine has only a few thousand armed men and many of those are Tuaregs who recently joined.
A growing number of Tuareg see Ansar Dine as an invasion, and this caused quarrels among MNLA leaders. Islamic terrorist control in the north was spotty at first because they did not have as many followers (armed and unarmed) as the MNLA (who comprise most of the northern population). The north contains only about 12 percent of Mali's 15 million people and is largely barren desert. The Islamic terror groups made themselves unpopular in the north by forcing everyone to obey strict (no tobacco, alcohol, music, video, shaved men, and unveiled women) Islamic lifestyle rules. This ran into a lot of resistance, and Ansar Dine backed off, for the moment, from seizing all TVs and video games. Meanwhile, Ansar Dine makes no secret of its ultimate goal, turning all of Mali into an Islamic religious dictatorship.
The Islamic radicals also damaged some cultural sites that were seen as unclean by the Sunni Islamic conservatives within Ansar Dine. There were a few anti-Ansar Dine demonstrations, which were put down with gunfire and threats of more violence. Ansar Dine may be able to control most of the north for a while but can they maintain that control for any length of time? Aware of their weakness, Ansar Dine has appealed to Islamic terrorists throughout the world to come to northern Mali (not easy to do). Because Islamic radicals are currently being defeated in most of the world (Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and so on), the Ansar Dine appeal is motivating a lot of Islamic terrorists to head for Mali. Will that be enough? ECOWAS is offering to make peace with Ansar Dine and MNLA if Ansar Dine will rid itself of known Islamic terrorists. This is something of a mad gambit, as the government in southern Mali will not agree to partition of their country and Ansar Dine depends too much on the experienced Islamic terrorists in their ranks, who are the most deadly fighters and quick to kill anyone who opposes them. Then again, just the news that this sort of thing is under discussion causes some tension within Ansar Dine.
France has taken the lead in organizing international (and UN) backing for an armed intervention in northern Mali. ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has organized a force of 3,300 peacekeepers (from Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal) but wants UN backing, and Western cash, before these troops are sent into Mali. The UN is discussing the matter and Western nations are willing to pay up if the UN approves of the operation. But there is doubt that these 3,300 troops and a thousand or so from Mali could defeat a nearly equal number of Tuareg and Ansar Dine fighters. The Tuareg and Islamic radicals are tough fighters. Many in the UN are seeking larger troop commitments before they OK an invasion in their name. One thing the UN has agreed on is not to recognize a partition of Mali.
The MNLA is now at war with Ansar Dine and is appealing to northerners (especially Tuareg) to work with them against the "foreign invaders" (Ansar Dine). Most civilians in the area have more urgent problems, like how to get food. The unrest in the north has disrupted the movement of food and other goods into the area. People are getting hungry and Ansar Dine is often preventing foreign food aid from reaching civilians. More and more people are fleeing the north. So far, over 300,000 have fled to the south or neighboring countries. Many more are planning to do so if the food situation does not improve.
In the southern third of Mali, where 88 percent of the population lives, life is also hard. The March army coup disrupted the economy and foreign aid. The coup leaders, and many of their armed followers, are still around and able to seize control again. In the north it is worse. In addition to the loss of foreign economic aid, the tourist business has also dried up, leaving thousands of northerners jobless.
Neighboring states, especially Algeria, as well as most nations in the West, fear that if Ansar Dine is left in control of northern Mali (even if subordinate to the Tuareg majority up there), the place will become a base for Islamic terrorist operations. This is what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia in the last decade.
July 2, 2012: Ansar Dine announced that it had planted landmines around the city of Gao and are prepared to defeat any MNLA attempt to retake the place.
June 30, 2012: Ansar Dine gunmen in Timbuktu (population 54,000), the oldest city in the north, began destroying the dozens of ancient tombs of Moslem clerics and scholars worshipped by Sufi Moslems. To conservative Sunni Moslems, Sufis are heretics and their shrines are to be destroyed whenever possible. The destruction of the tombs was condemned by many Moslem leaders worldwide, and the ICC (International Criminal Court) declared it a war crime. This did not discourage Ansar Dine, which threatened to destroy dozens of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu. So far they have not energetically followed through on this threat.
June 29, 2012: Ansar Dine declared that it had expelled Tuareg (MNLA) gunmen from Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu. MNLA admitted they lost control of the three cities but insisted they still controlled 90 percent of northern Mali (which is mostly desert). The fighting between Ansar Dine and the MNLA has been escalating for weeks and became more widespread in the last few days. The most intense fighting was outside Gao, the largest city (population 86,000) in the north. There were over a hundred casualties, and the MNLA men usually fled when they realized that the Ansar Dine fighters would keep coming no matter what.
June 28, 2012: Algerian al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was reported killed in northern Mali while fighting for Ansar Dine against rebel Tuareg tribesmen. In Algeria Belmokhtar has earned the nickname "the untouchable" for his ability to escape many efforts to capture or kill him.
June 15, 2012: Ansar Dine and MNLA representatives arrived in Burkina Faso to hold peace talks with ECOWAS. These talks are not expected to go anywhere, but it was considered a useful way to keep in touch with the two rebel factions in the north. ECOWAS is meeting separately with the two groups, as Ansar Dine and MNLA have been increasingly at war with each other in northern Mali.
June 12, 2012: MNLA and Ansar Dine gunmen fought near Timbuktu. MNLA efforts to assert authority over their Ansar Dine allies have failed and Ansar Dine is in turn fighting to show that it is the superior military power in the north.
June 11, 2012: The AU (African Union) has asked the UN for authorization to intervene in northern Mali.
June 8, 2012: In the town of Kidal (population 25,000) in the northeast, MNLA and Ansar Dine gunmen began fighting each other after days of arguing about how to handle civilians who are opposed to the Ansar Dine imposition of Islamic law.
May 26, 2012: MNLA and Ansar Dine agreed to an alliance so they can both jointly rule, and defend, the north. To achieve this compromise, Ansar Dine agreed to recognize the independent Tuareg state of Azawad in the northern two thirds of Mali. In return, the MNLA agreed to allow Ansar Dine to impose a "limited" form of Islamic law throughout Azawad. This agreement quickly fell apart as most people (Tuareg and southerners) in Azawad made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with any form of Islamic law. Ansar Dine responded by trying to impose even stricter forms of Islamic law, and the MNLA gunmen refused to let this happen to them or their families. This eventually led to fighting between groups of MNLA and Ansar Dine gunmen.
May 20, 2012: In the south the army rebels officially returned power to the civilian government. But the coup leaders and their armed followers have not surrendered themselves or their weapons.