Since the March 21 coup forced army troops fighting in the north to return to the capital, militant groups with a wide array of demands and capabilities have surfaced and strengthened in Mali's northern desert.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is a Tuareg militant group that formed in October 2011 and is presently one of the two largest militias in the country, along with Ansar Dine. The MNLA is the most recent manifestation of periodic rebellions by Mali's ethnic Tuareg minority. The group quickly established itself as a secular, pro-democracy secessionist movement. MNLA Secretary General Bilal Ag Acherif leads the group's political wing. Former Libyan army Col. Ag Mohamed Najem, who fought in the 2007-2009 Tuareg rebellion before working in former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's army, leads the military wing.
An influx of armed Tuareg militants entering Mali from Libya after the fall of Gadhafi's regime considerably strengthened the movement. In mid-January, the MNLA began launching assaults on towns in northern Mali (an area the Tuaregs call Azawad) and by early April had seized control of the region's two largest towns, Gao and Timbuktu.
Territorially, the MNLA is based in northeastern Mali around the Adrar de Ifoghas Mountains because of its members' familiarity with bases there and the heavy Ansar Dine presence farther west and south around Timbuktu. Neither the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) nor any international body recognizes the group's claims of sovereignty over northern Mali, and the MNLA lacks the arms and resources of Ansar Dine. The group has also begun to show signs of internal fracturing, with indications of miscommunication and disagreement between its military and political wings. These divisions and the MNLA's other constraints have allowed other rebel groups that had operated on the margins to emerge.
Ansar Dine is a Tuareg Islamist group that had been working under the MNLA starting in January to conduct assaults on key cities in northern Mali. The group has emerged as a significant independent force since the post-coup withdrawal of military forces from the north. Led by Iyad Ag Ghali, a former leader of the 2007-2009 Tuareg rebellion, the group's stated goal is to govern the territory in the north under Sharia. Unlike the MNLA, Ansar Dine does not call for secession and says it would settle for regional autonomy.
Despite the fundamentally different ideologies of the MNLA and Ansar Dine, the two groups have notable ties. Like the groups' respective tactical leaders, Najem and Ghali, many MNLA and Ansar Dine fighters are veterans of the earlier Tuareg rebellion. Rivalries between militant commanders that persist from that earlier conflict may also contribute to the divisions between the two groups.
Ansar Dine's territorial stronghold centers around Timbuktu, but the group also claims to have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda's North African franchise, which, if true, could link Ansar Dine to illicit supply networks that extend across the Sahara.
Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa
Though the MNLA and Ansar Dine are the two largest militant groups and the primary participants in ongoing talks about a rebel alliance, a number of other militias are active in the area, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). MUJAO was formed in December 2011 and, as its name suggests, explicitly embraces jihadism. The group has no known geographic base and little information is available about its internal composition. MUJAO may be an indigenous group inspired by AQIM or may even have splintered off AQIM's southern command. After all, internal rivalries and fractures have been a persistent feature throughout AQIM's existence.
MUJAO's purported attacks bear some hallmarks of known AQIM tactics. The groups have also both targeted Algerian state institutions and personnel, something local Malian militant groups have typically avoided. MUJAO launched its first known attack on March 3 against a gendarme barracks in southern Algeria with a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, injuring 24 people. In Mali, the group attacked Gao on March 31 and on April 5 kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats from the city. MUJAO has promised to launch additional attacks in the future.
There is no evidence that the group commands a large number of militants, but its demonstrated tactical capabilities could draw the attention of other countries in the region worried about spillover jihadist activity. Given the groups' shared Islamist ideology, Ansar Dine may try to bring MUJAO under its expanding influence, if it has not done so already. Ansar Dine, like the other rebel groups, is looking to form alliances to improve its position in the northern desert, and pulling MUJAO into its fold would likely add to Ansar Dine's capabilities. However, MUJAO's possible link with AQIM could make it a liability that Ansar Dine does not wish to take on.
The Tuaregs have historically had hostile relations with other ethnic groups based in northern Mali, including the Songhai, Fulfide and Hausa-Fulani tribes. During a Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s, the Malian government brought together and armed these non-Tuareg elements to form the Ganda Koi militia intended to counter Tuareg activity. With the current absence of a centralized power to support these non-Tuareg elements, they are likely independently forming militias to defend their territory.
The National Liberation Front of the Azawad
Timbuktu-based Arabs formed the National Liberation Front of the Azawad (FNLA) in April. The FNLA's original stated intent was to protect the local population. The militia's orientation was defensive and rejected any explicit secessionist, secular or Islamist ideology. The group controlled part of Timbuktu in April until it was reportedly asked by an AQIM leader to leave. On June 5, representatives of the FNLA at a conference in Mauritania said the group would join the fight for independence in northern Mali, suggesting a shift in intent that may be the product of changing alliances or a result of external influence. The FNLA is reportedly small, so if it has indeed taken a pro-independence stance, the addition of fighters will have a limited effect on the campaign. Still, such a change in stance would highlight the potential for rebels in neighboring countries to enter the conflict.
Front for the Liberation of Northern Mali
The Front for the Liberation of Northern Mali (MNLF) announced its formation May 29, stating that the group intends to end the occupation of northern Mali and fight the Islamist groups that want to institute Sharia in the area. The MNLF claims to have more than 100 fighters, which may make it little more than a village protection force, and said it conducted two recent operations against Islamist elements. The MNLF's geographic base and tribal affiliations are not yet clear.
Even if some of the militant groups are able to agree on a formal alliance, their divergent interests and ideological goals for northern Mali will make any coalition fragile. The groups operate within a difficult landscape that prevents any one group from dominating the area, contributing to the overall fractured nature of conflict. The only event that could credibly unite the anti-government militant groups, even on a short-term basis, would be an external threat such as a Malian military offensive.
The Tuareg rebellion was ignited by Gadhafi's fall and facilitated by the timely coup in Bamako that created a security vacuum in the north. However, the constraints that originally hindered the Malian military's efforts to consolidate the region still exist. The military would have to retake control of a vast desert territory with only pockets of habitable land and limited resources and face armed competition from a number of by now well-entrenched forces. Though the military claims it will begin an offensive soon, it will be unable to eliminate the militant elements without external support from ECOWAS or the West.
Mali's neighbors in ECOWAS have been monitoring the situation carefully and could get involved if unrest begins spilling over Mali's borders or if one of the militant groups makes a serious incursion on the capital, Bamako. The West, especially the United States, has also long participated in counterterrorism efforts in North Africa and will likely continue surveillance and reconnaissance activities, but it will not directly intervene until there are signs of a legitimate threat by AQIM to Western citizens or economic interests.
At present, most of the militant groups are too preoccupied with internal squabbling and consolidating their own power to pose a legitimate threat to the capital, and neither ECOWAS nor the West currently sees a direct threat from militancy in northern Mali. Thus in the near term, the assistance Mali needs to eliminate the militant threat is unlikely to be forthcoming.