Since Mali's coup in March 2012, several militant groups have exploited the resultant power vacuum to establish bases in the country's north. Three such groups are notable terrorist organizations: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known commonly as MUJAO.
Assessing the state of jihadist activity in northern Mali requires the best practices of intelligence estimates. The region is remote, opaque and complicated by ethnic rivalries, and its militants conceal their activities. Moreover, terrorists and counterterrorism officials alike have been known to inflate information to serve their respective interests. Still, when U.S. officials tied the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi to the North African jihadists, they directed the world's attention to militant groups in northern Mali. These groups need to be examined accordingly.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is the successor group to Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which split from the Armed Islamic Group in 1998. Currently, the group's leader is Abdelmalek Droukdel, aka Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb primarily operates in northeastern Algeria — its stronghold is in the mountainous Kabylie region — but the al Qaeda franchise has also developed a network of southern brigades in North Africa's Sahel-Sahara region.
The leadership of these brigades change frequently. Brigade commanders, or emirs, are not assigned to permanent bases of operations and can be transferred, promoted or demoted within the hierarchy of their respective groups. Commanders nonetheless operate with a degree of autonomy and have been known to conduct attacks motivated by personal rivalries and individual ambition.
Currently, AQIM brigade commanders include:
- Khalid Abu al-Abbas, aka Laaouar and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, leads the el Moulathamoune brigade, which consists of an estimated 100 to 150 men. Al-Abbas' location changes regularly, though he has previously led attacks in Mauritania and has operated from Algeria's mountainous Tanezrouft region. There have also been conflicting reports that the commander was killed in Mali's Gao region in June.
- Hamid Essoufi, aka Abdelhamid Abu Zaid, leads the Taregh Ibn Ziyad brigade, which consists of an estimated 100 to 150 men.
- Yahia Djouadi, aka Jemal Oukacha or Yahia Abu Ammar, leads the al-Furqan brigade and has reportedly become the emir in Timbuktu.
- Abu Amr el Tarik, aka Abu Abdekerim Tarki and Abu ab-al-Karim al-Tarqi, leads the al Ansar brigade, the operational status of which is unclear.
MUJAO is commanded by chief of staff Oumar Ould Hamama, aka Abdul Hakim, Oumar Hakka and Senda Ould Bouamama — a leader with strong ties to all of northern Mali's major jihadist groups. Other MUJAO leaders include Benmessaoud Abdelkader, aka Oussama Ould Abdel Kader and Abu Daoud, a former senior al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb member who reportedly defected from the group in 2007, and two MUJAO spokesmen: Walid Abu Sahaoui and Mohamed Ould Hicham, whose roles and influence are unclear.
Since the coup in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has become the region's dominant armed group. Its relationships with Mali's two jihadist groups, Ansar Dine and MUJAO, are deep and interconnected. In fact, it is often unclear where one group ends and another begins, and leadership among the three groups tends to be interchangeable. However, Ansar Dine's activity takes place perhaps most heavily in Mali's Kidal region, whereas a greater balance of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO activity takes place in Mali's Timbuktu and Gao regions, along the border with Algeria and in southern Algeria.
Unlike other armed groups in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb conducts transnational attacks throughout Africa's Sahel and Maghreb regions. The al Qaeda franchise also focuses more on state targets, such as army outposts and government personnel, or foreign government targets, such as embassies and diplomatic personnel. The organizations regularly conduct kidnappings to raise funds through ransoms or to free their members through prisoner exchanges with regional authorities. For example, MUJAO reportedly received a ransom of 15 million euros ($19.3 million) for three European hostages — one Italian and two Spaniards — it kidnapped from a Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria.
In contrast, other Tuareg militant groups in Mali are more nationalistic. Though such groups have been known to partner with Tuareg in Niger or Mauritania, the scope of their activities tends to be limited primarily to defending their smuggling and supply lines and the autonomy of their home territory.
The Struggle for Timbuktu and Gao
In Timbuktu, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb reportedly is headquartered at what was once the Malian army's barracks at the city's airport. Early in Mali's rebellion, the barracks were seized by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, which was defeated and pushed out of the region by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in July. Similarly, the MNLA occupied Gao and used the Malian army armory there as its headquarters. In June, however, MUJAO forces under Hamama's command ejected the MNLA from the city. MUJAO forces have also spread to nearby towns, including Douentza, Ansongo and Tangara.
The fluid and oft-combative leadership structure among northern Mali's militant groups is perhaps best demonstrated in Timbuktu and Gao regions. Al-Furqan brigade leader Djouadi reportedly has been appointed "governor" of Timbuktu — Hamama is his deputy. Hamama, a cousin of Ansar Dine's leader, reportedly serves as spokesman and military commander for Ansar Dine and as military chief of staff for MUJAO. Hamama also serves as MUJAO's emir for Gao.
While MUJAO may currently control Gao city, Abu Zaid's AQIM brigade appears to be challenging it. Indeed, Abu Zaid has reportedly been appointed governor of Gao. Zaid's deputy was Nabil Makhloufi, aka Nabil Abu Alqama, a leader in al-Abbas' brigade and in AQIM's predecessors, who reportedly died in a car crash Sept. 8 while traveling from Gao to Timbuktu. (The death may have been the result of sabotage.) Hamama was reportedly resisting Abu Zaid's attempts to install his brigade leadership in Gao, though Hamama himself was reportedly wounded, or even killed, while traveling from Timbuktu to Gao in late August (his death has not been confirmed).
Ansar Dine, which means "supporters of religion," consists primarily of ethnic Ifoghas. In April, the group claimed an association with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but it has since distanced itself from the al Qaeda franchise, indicating a weakened alliance between the two groups. Ansar Dine operates principally in Kidal region, and it has successfully fought for control of regional cities such as Kidal, Aguelhok, Tinezawaten and Tessalit.
In Kidal, Ansar Dine forces defeated the Malian army garrison, forcing the military to abandon the town and its defenses. The group likely occupies the same garrison, and weapons seized there were likely used in its attacks on Timbuktu and Gao.
Ansar Dine is commanded by Iyad Ag Ghali, a long-standing Tuareg rebel leader, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb facilitator and former senior commander in the Alliance for Democracy and Change, a Taureg insurgent group. Ag Ghali possibly served alongside Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who was killed in a car accident in August 2011 while returning to Mali from Libya, where he received support from the regime of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Ag Ghali has commanded Tuareg rebellions since the 1990s, and Malian government efforts to co-opt him have been successful for only brief periods of time. The leader has facilitated ransom payments to secure releases of European hostages held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and has negotiated cease-fires between the Malian government and other Tuareg rebel groups. He also served previously as Malian diplomat in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he reportedly became a fervent jihadist and developed his affinity for al Qaeda.
As mentioned, Ansar Dine's leadership also includes Ag Ghali's cousin, Hamama. Other leaders include Alghabass Ag Intalla, aka Sheikh Abbas Intallah, whose father is the patriarch of Ifogha ethnic group. Despite its strained relations with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine's control over Kidal has remained unchallenged by the al Qaeda franchise. It is possible that the degree of interaction between Ansar Dine, MUJAO and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has afforded Ag Ghali a prominent position among the more prominent brigades in Timbuktu and Gao.
Pro-Government Armed Groups
National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad
Lesser armed groups in northern Mali include the MNLA, which is led by Chief of Staff Col. Mohamed Ag Najim, a former Libyan army commander and ethnic Ifogha. The group's political wing is led by Secretary-General Bilal Ag Acherif.
The MNLA rose to prominence at the same time as other armed groups in early 2012, but it has since collapsed and no longer controls any meaningful territory. The group once boasted an estimated 10,000 members, but the defeats by MUJAO and Ansar Dine in Timbuktu and Gao hurt the group significantly. Ag Acherif was wounded during clashes with MUJAO in Gao in June and was taken by aircraft to Burkina Faso.
Since then, the group has sought to avail itself to the government as it tries to retake northern Mali. Members of the MNLA have also been involved in mediation efforts with Malian and neighboring government officials.
The Republican Movement for the Restoration of the Azawad
With an estimated 500 to 1,000 troops, the Republican Movement for the Restoration of the Azawad is led by Col. Elhadji Ag Gamou, an ethnic Tamashek and reportedly a long-standing rival of Ag Ghali. Ag Gamou was the commander the Malian army in Kidal city that was defeated by Ansar Dine. Since fleeing the city, Gamou has not mobilized any new offensives. The group has discussed forming an alliance with the MNLA, but this has yet to materialize.
The National Front for the Liberation of Azawad
The National Front for the Liberation of Azawad formed in April under the political leadership of Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidatt, an official from Timbuktu region. The group's military commander is Lt. Col. Housseine Khouilam, aka Mohamed Ould Abdarrahmane, and it boasts a membership of 500 men. However, apart from a single attack from western Mali on Timbuktu that was quickly repelled by jihadist forces there, the organization has not made any notable advances.
Popular Front for the Liberation of Azawad
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Azawad is led by Col. Hassan Ag Mehdi, aka Jimy Rebel. Ag Mehdi is a former member of the MNLA and, prior to the coup, the aide-de-camp in the office of the Malian prime minister. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Azawad comprises ethnic Chamanama from the Gao region. The group broke from the MNLA on Sept. 24, and it has not yet conducted any operations. It is positioning itself as a pro-government tool to collect intelligence and disrupt rural supply lines in Gao region. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Azawad also maintains lines of communication with mediators from the Economic Community of West African States.