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Militant Groups Gain Ground in Northern Mali

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By William Tucker

Two weeks ago I stated the military led coup against the Malian government did not bode well for counterterrorism operations in North Africa. That now seems to be an understatement. The head of the Malian junta, Captain Amadou Sanogo, ordered the military to back off fighting in the northern city of Gao for fear of endangering the civilians in the city. But in doing so, the junta has left Gao to the Tuareg and Islamist rebels. Of course, this move by the junta stands in stark contrast to the claim that the previous government was not doing enough to combat rebel forces in the north. At present, Tuareg rebel groups, most notably the al-Qaeda linked Ansar Dine and the MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, a faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have also seized control of Timbuktu. By holding these cities, the rebel groups now control a large swath of the Niger river allowing them to completely cut off northern Mali from Bamako’s control.

Further complicating the situation is new sanctions levied against Mali by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Additionally, the U.S., and other western nations, have suspended aid to Mali following the coup. The current dynamic poses a severe problem not just for Mali, but also for the wider region. The military, which claimed the coup was in response to poor government support in the fighting against the rebels in the north, now has even less to work with given the suspension of foreign aid. The rebels on the other hand, have the advantage of new weaponry from Libya along with experienced fighters that recently fought against the Qaddafi regime. There is no guarantee that the rebels will stop with their recent gains, nor that the fighting will remain within Mali’s borders. Tuareg fighters may seize upon their recent successes and challenge governments in neighboring nations that have sizeable Tuareg populations. Although Tuareg tribesman have legitimate grievances against some of the north African nations, it the al-Qaeda factor that is most worrisome. It is exactly this type of situation that groups such as al-Qaeda love to exploit.

Outside of the local governments there are international players that have a stake in the regions stability. France and the U.S. have put a lot of money and training into regional forces to battle AQIM. Algeria has been fighting the group largely on its own for years and the influx of western support has helped; however the main factor that is starting to reverse the successes made against AQIM is the availability of weapons from Libya. Foreign assistance, at least at the current level, seems inadequate now that the Tuareg’s have taken a more active role in the regional fighting. This puts the U.S. in a quandary, it can sit back and withhold aid while al-Qaeda exploits the situation, or it can support the military junta to roll back the rebel gains. As the fighting continues, and the Malian junta’s inability to effectively respond, Washington may have to bite the bullet and begin supporting a regime it has only recently condemned.

Map: Wikipedia, although Wikipedia is a poor source, the provided map does accurately represent rebel gains.

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