Potential Hot Spots: The Mess In Northern Mali

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July 20, 2012: In the African state of Mali (population 15 million), several thousand fanatic Islamic radical fighters of the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) have driven the more numerous Tuareg tribal rebels (MNLA, Liberation Army of Azawad) out of the major cities in the north. Ansar Dine and MNLA used to be allies and took control of the thinly populated, largely desert northern two-thirds of the country three months ago. The success of the two groups in chasing the largely black African Mali army out of the north encouraged Ansar Dine to call for more Islamic radicals throughout the region to come join them. At this point, about a third of Ansar Dine fighters are foreigners. Ansar Dine also insisted on imposing Islamic law in the north and MNLA opposed that. This caused a split between the two groups last year, which devolved into fighting between the two groups.

While the MNLA found that their fighters were not as willing to die for the cause as their Ansar Dine allies were, there are still thousands of Tuareg up north with guns who have not been fighting. Ansar Dine is worried about these Tuareg because a growing number of Tuareg (and black African Malis from the south) in the cities are protesting harsh Islamic rule. Men are being whipped for smoking, drinking, not praying, or just protesting. Ansar Dine has also destroyed many Moslem shrines, which were big tourist attractions. Life is hard in the desert north and most people there, especially the Tuareg, want some help, not a bunch of religious fanatics. The Ansar Dine sense that unless they can deal with this growing Tuareg anger they will have a serious counterrevolution on their hands. The Tuareg know the area and they know how to fight. Ansar Dine has had the edge so far because its men are not afraid to die. If the Tuareg get angry and desperate enough, they too will lose their fear of dying and that could mean the end of Ansar Dine rule.

While the MNLA (Liberation Army of Azawad) represents the most militant and heavily armed Tuareg rebels, Ansar Dine is an Islamic radical group containing many former (or current) al Qaeda members. 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.

There are only about 1.4 million people in the breakaway north, and about ten percent of them have already fled the harsh Ansar Dine rule. It's not just the punishments, restrictions, and growing shortages. Ansar Dine is also recruiting local young men, especially teenagers who don't know any better. Families are forced to surrender their young daughters to become "wives" for Ansar Dine fighters. Often this is just a subterfuge for forced prostitution.

Meanwhile, the Mali government is still disorganized and the UN has refused to back a military campaign by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and the AU (African Union) to defeat the rebels up north. ECOWAS has organized a force of 3,300 peacekeepers (from Nigeria, Niger, and Senegal) and Mali has recruited over a thousand young men and is training them for combat in the north. If the new Mali government can stabilize itself in the next few weeks (which is what is expected), then the UN is more inclined to authorize some international military aid to deal with the mess in the north.

July 19, 2012: Three European aid workers (two Spaniards and an Italian), kidnapped last year from an Algerian refugee camp, have been held in Mali by al Qaeda while negotiations took place. Terms for the release were not revealed. It's believed three imprisoned Islamic terrorists in Mauritania were released and a large cash ransom was also paid. All this just makes the terrorists stronger and encourages more kidnappings. But the political and media pressure back in Europe eventually makes these shortsighted deals happen.

July 15, 2012: The MNLA declared that they no longer wanted an independent state in the north but would settle for more autonomy. At the moment the MNLA fighters stand defeated. Recently driven out of the few cities and large towns in the north (by Ansar Dine), ECOWAS and the AU approached MNLA about a coordinated effort to defeat Ansar Dine. But there is still no cooperation from the Mali government or the UN.

July 12, 2012: France said it was probable that Western states would intervene in northern Mali. At the same time, the U.S. offered $10 million in food and other aid for refugees. The U.S. and France have been cooperating in northeast Africa for a decade and both nations maintain special operations bases in Djibouti (northwest of Somalia). In West Africa the U.S. has its new AFRICOM operation that is assisting nations there to fight Islamic terrorism. Whatever Mali-oriented cooperation France and the U.S. (and other NATO countries) may be planning they are not discussing openly. But counter-terrorism experts agree that northern Mali is turning into another Islamic terrorist sanctuary.  

July 9, 2012: Mali's new government is trying to form an elite force of 1,200 troops, to protect the senior government officials from another coup or attacks by Islamic terrorists.

 

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