On April 6th, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mnla) declared the independence of the Republic of Azawad. This new country, not recognized by the international community, comprises the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu; regions that the French colonizers annexed to Mali at the time of independence. The Mnla stressed that it wants the new nation to be secular, multicultural and republican. This project is not shared by many other groups. Some are fighting for independence and gather support n Mali and Niger as well. All of them want to expel from their territory Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi). The Tuareg believe that Aqmi has entered the area in agreement with Malian authority to destabilize their political achievements. They do not agree with Aqmi’s illegal dealings: drug trafficking, weapon smuggling, trafficking in clandestine migrants. Aqmi has cultivated strong relations with Arab tribes like the Ould Milah and the Berabish, clans who live around Timbuktu and control drug trafficking across the Sahara. Here following a short description of the main groups fighting for Azawad.
National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mnla) – this movement was formed in early October 2011 thanks to the cooperation of Tuareg military experts who served in Libya in Kaddafi’s army. Two pre-existing movements – Northern-Mali Tuareg Movement and Azawad National Movement– joined and welcomed about 4000 Tuareg returning from Libya. The Mnla aims at recapturing the areas now controlled by the Aqmi and obtain regional autonomy from the central government in Bamako. They accuse the government to cooperate with Al Qaida for financial reasons. Last October, Mohamed ag Najem, former leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, has been elected chief of staff.
Ansar Dine (Guards of the Faith) – Iyad ag Ghali, also a leader of the rebellion in the 1990s, formed this group last March. Iyad has been a rebel, cultural attaché of the Malian embassy in Saudi Arabia, negotiator between the government of Bamako and Aqmi for the liberation of French hostages, and has worked with the intelligence agencies of Mali and Algeria. Ansar Dine wants to conquer the whole of Mali and set up an Islamic State imposing the sharia on all Malians.
National Front for the Liberation of Azawad (Flna) – this small group was born in April to fight against the religious drive of Ansar Dine. Led by Mahamed Lamine Ould Siddatt, mayor of Ber, it has occupied parts of Timbuktu. The Flna refused the sharia and attract mainly Arab supporters.
Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi) – Islam in northern Africa and in the Sahara region has always been close to Sufism or other mystical groups. Local communities have a tradition of tolerance. Yet, in the past decade, Salafist tendencies – Salafism preaches a return to tradition – have emerged. Salafism arrived with charitable agencies supported by Saudi Arabia. The most extreme sects follow Wahhabism, a fundamentalist group hailing at jihad, the holy fight. The followers of Wahhbism refuse Sufism, do not accept the cult of Saints and dislike an intellectual approach to the Curan. They are also affiliated to Al Qaida. Aqmi is an offshoot of the Salvation Islamic Group which fought for the establishment of an Islamic State in Algeria in the late 1990s. When the group was finally hunted down by Algeria security forces, some followed Abdelmalek Droukdal deep in the Sahara. The new group linked with Osama bin Laden and took up the name of Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb. They recently linked with Boko Haram, a Nigerian fundamentalist group. Aqmi runs cigarette and drug smuggling, and kidnaps Westerners for ransom. Their presence in Azawad is of about 500 men.
Movement for Unity and Jihad in Western Africa (Mujao) – This is a smaller but dangerous group. Born in late 2011, it is responsible for the kidnapping of various Western volunteers, a kamikaze bomb in Tamanrasset (Algeria) last March 3rd, and the kidnapping of seven Algerian diplomats in Gao last April.
Boko Haram – this is a fundamentalist group founded by Ustaz Muhammed Yusuf in 2002 in Maiduguri, in northern Nigeria. (For more information on the group, see here). Boko Haram militants have joined Aqmi and Ansar Dine in northern Mali. It is difficult to know the relationship between these terror groups. Their presence, however, poses a serious threat to the Tuareg fighting for self-determination. They have to face the Malian army and these fanatics as well. Certainly, the people of Azawad do not share the fundamentalist vision of Aqmi and Ansar Dine.