Mali – Can Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Be Stopped?

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Mali begins Touareg dialogue. Image by Flickr user Magharebia (CC BY 2.0).
Mali begins Touareg dialogue. Image by Flickr user Magharebia (CC BY 2.0).

A solution to the crisis in Mali seems to be vanishing as time goes by. It is now five months since the country was divided into two parts: southern Mali is ruled by a fragile [fr] government whereas the north, which includes the historic cities of Timbuktu and Gao, falls under the influence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb‘s (AQIM) and their expansion across the Sahel.

Northern Mali indirectly in the hands of AQIM

In April 2012, after the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal had fallen, the Tuareg rebellion group National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) unilaterally proclaimed the secession of the northern part of the country.

Currently, the region is under  the influence of four [fr] different groups – the MNLAAnsar Dine, which defines itself as Salafist, the Movement for the Unity of Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), and AQIM. However, a report [fr] by AFP, suggests that it is actually AQIM that coordinates and funds the three other organizations, a suspicion that is reinforced by the alleged presence in Mali of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a founding member of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC), which became the AQIM.

In March 2012, wrote about Belmokhtar’s visits to Libya, while also raising concerns over the possible expansion of AQIM across the Southern Sahara:

According to Mali’s security sources, the leader of al-Qaeda’s North African branch, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has been in Libya for several weeks with the goal of procuring arms. (…) Malian security sources claim that Belmokhtar’s activities in Libya confirm the premise that AQIM intends to extend its sphere of influence and that “terrorists will do anything to create a sweeping network in the Sahel and the Sahara.”

Political and diplomatic deadlock

It appears that AQIM is consolidating its grip on Northern Mali. On August 9, reported that members of the Mujao cut the hand [fr] off of an alleged thief in the city of Ansogo. This followed the July 30 stoning of an unwed couple in the region of Kidal.

To date, regional responses to the crisis have been muted. While West African leaders appointed Blaise Compaoré, President of Burkina Faso, as a mediator [fr], the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has yet to send military forces to restore the territorial unity of Mali.

And while [fr] reports that the de facto Malian government and ECOWAS have reached an agreement aimed at resolving the crisis, military intervention remains the preferred option of many netizens. Thierno A. Diallo from neighboring Guinea writes on his blog [fr]:

“What happens in Mali is serious. Our country, bordering the south and not so far from this zone of lawlessness has everything to lose in the case of the victory of these fanatics at our doors. Guinean politicians with their heads in the sand due to the endless parliamentary elections wanted by Alpha Condé [President of Guinea] may have a sudden and very painful awakening. The area closest geographically and therefore being increasingly threatened is Upper Guinea.”

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:

Regional Security Cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel: Algeria’s Pivotal Ambivalencefrom the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), Washington, United States.

The Evolving Threat of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,  from the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), Washington DC, United States.

The Many Faces of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrebfrom the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), Geneva, Switzerland.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan Dossiers.

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