Islamists played a part in the Tuareg rebellion that captured northern Mali in a lightning advance, but experts say al-Qaeda’s local franchise cannot expect to benefit greatly from the revolt.
The ethnic rebels have clearly been the big winners in the recent fighting, taking advantage of a power vacuum that emerged after soldiers in the capital, Bamako, toppled Mali’s democratically elected leader on March 22.
“For the moment, this is all about the rise of the Tuaregs. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is only a secondary player,” Dominique Thomas said of the EHESS social sciences school in Paris.
The biggest rebel group is the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which denies any links with AQIM, and wants independence for a region it calls Azawad and considers the Tuaregs’ homeland.
It has said it wants to kick al-Qaeda fighters out of the region in the wake of the most tumultuous events to have gripped the landlocked desert country since it got independence from France in 1960.
However, the reality is less clear-cut.
“There are links between AQIM and the rebels, but they are not necessarily central,” said Thomas, adding that both groups profited from the collapse last year of -former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
Mali’s rebellion began in January, after Tuareg fighters who had been in Qaddafi’s militias returned to their homeland, well-trained and armed with plenty of heavy weaponry from their Libyan barracks.
AQIM, whose members range over a vast swathe of the Sahara that takes in parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is involved in terror attacks, kidnappings of Westerners and various types of trafficking.
It was also able to recruit new members and stock up on the weapons that flooded the region in the wake of Qaddafi’s downfall, observers say, who add that the group has always sought to cultivate Tuareg support.
“In order to set up in the region, to benefit from sanctuary there, the jihadists had to develop ties for protection with the various Tuareg groups,” Thomas said.
Within AQIM, one fighting unit is widely known to be led by a Tuareg.
Relations between AQIM and a smaller Tuareg rebel group, the Islamist Ansar Dine (“Defenders of Faith,” in Arabic), are more complex. Ansar Dine, which has up to 300 fighters compared with the MNLA’s 2,000 to 3,000, is not seeking a separate state, but wants to introduce Shariah, or Islamic law, across the whole country, which is mostly Muslim.
Its leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, a figurehead of the Tuareg revolt in the 1990s, has long been a Salafist, following a strict form of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia.
“He sought to approach the MNLA, but got a scathing refusal because of his religious positions,” Boilley said.