By Scott Stewart
Mali has experienced perhaps the most significant external repercussions from the downfall of the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Stratfor has discussed the impact of the conflict in Libya on the wider region since international intervention began in March 2011. Instability in Libya due to that country's deep internal fault lines meant that re-establishing a government would prove difficult. As we pointed out, that instability could spread to neighboring countries as weapons and combatants flow outward from Libya.
Reports now indicate that thousands of armed Tuareg tribesmen who previously served in Gadhafi's military have returned home to Mali. The influx of this large number of well-armed and well-trained fighters, led by a former Libyan army colonel, has re-energized the long-simmering Tuareg insurgency against the Malian government. These Tuareg insurgents have formed a new group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In mid-January, they began a military campaign to free three northern regions of Mali from Bamako's control.
The government of Mali has claimed that the MNLA is aligned with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MNLA, however, has strongly denied any link to the group and said it will serve as a bulwark against AQIM. Given the U.S. and European interest in preventing the strengthening of AQIM, both sides have considerable incentive to take their respective positions. These developments make it an opportune time to examine the MNLA, its current offensive and the potential implications for Mali and the region.
The Tuaregs and the Origins of the MNLA
The Tuaregs are a semi-nomadic people who inhabit the interior of Africa's Sahara region, including parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger and Libya. (Click here for background information on the Tuaregs.) Tuareg militancy extends to pre-colonial times; the current conflict is merely the latest manifestation of a longstanding struggle between the Tuaregs and their ruler of the moment. In modern times, Tuareg insurgencies seem to occur almost every decade. They have fought the governments of Mali, Niger and Algeria since those countries' independence from France. Major Tuareg rebellions occurred in Mali from 2007 to 2009 and from 1990 to 1995.
During these rebellions, Tuareg militants typically exploit their mountain bases in Mali's northeast to launch hit-and-run guerrilla attacks against military targets across Mali's vast northern region, leaving the Malian armed forces spread thin.
The Tuaregs are a tribal people. Some Tuareg tribes in Mali — such as the Oulemedens, Ichnidharans and Imgads — tend to be more closely aligned than tribes such as the Idnans, Ifoghas and Chamanesse, which tend to be involved with armed opposition to the government.
Traditionally, the Tuaregs controlled caravan routes across the Sahara. In days past, those caravans carried gold, spices, salt or dates. Today, contraband including weapons, untaxed tobacco and even narcotics traverse the desert routes. Banditry remains common in the region.
The MNLA emerged against this backdrop on Oct. 16, 2011, four days before the killing of Moammar Gadhafi. Its leader is former Libyan army Col. Ag Mohamed Najem, who hails from the Ifogha tribe, at present the most radical tribe of the Tuareg opposition in Mali.
MNLA's website notes that the group is composed of remnants of former Tuareg opposition movements such as the United Fronts of Azawad, which led the 1990s uprising, and the Tuareg Movement in Northern Mali led by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who spearheaded the 2007-2009 rebellion. A cousin of MNLA leader Ag Mohamed Najem, Ag Bahanga died Aug. 26, 2011, in what some reports call a car accident. Other reports indicate he may have been killed in a strike by a U.S.-trained Malian counterterrorism unit. At the time of his death, he was trying to return to Mali from Libya, where he had fled in 2009 after a failed offensive into southern Mali.
Najem reportedly rose quickly among Gadhafi's ranks to become colonel of a unit of the Libyan army stationed in Sabha, in central Libya, making him quite familiar with the tactics of desert warfare. He reportedly deserted the Libyan army in July 2011 and, according to media reports, now holds at least two camps in Tigherghar and Zakak in the Tin-Assalak hills of northeast Mali, an area where Ag Bahanga established bases in 2007.
Najem is not the only MNLA leader with significant military experience. Experienced defectors from the Malian army including Lt. Col. Ag Mbarek Aky and Col. Ag Bamoussa reportedly have bolstered the organization. The presence of experienced military leaders gives the MNLA an increased ability to organize and mobilize its units across a broad swath of territory in northern Mali.
According to the group's website, their long-term demands include the liberation of the Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal regions in northern Mali. Previous Tuareg opposition movements have demanded reforms including decentralization and regional military integration. Notably, the MNLA does not seek control of all of Mali, just the northern regions.
The MNLA's website also goes to great lengths to distance the MNLA from the Gadhafi regime, but its claims that its Tuareg fighters fought alongside the Libyan rebels against Gadhafi are highly dubious. Indeed, many of Gadhafi's Tuareg troops supported the regime until his death and the capture of his son Seif al-Islam. But no matter which side they fought on in Libya, the arrival of a large contingent of heavily armed Tuareg fighters (reportedly numbering between 2,000 and 4,000) poses a significant challenge to the government of Mali.
Current MNLA Offensive
On Jan. 16-17, MNLA militants attacked a military barracks and a national guard base in Menaka, Gao region. A government helicopter forced the attackers to retreat. The Malian Defense Ministry stated that one soldier and several assailants were killed, but the actual number of casualties is thought to be higher. According to media reports, Tuareg rebels led by Malian army defector Ag Assalat Habbi may still be in the Menaka area.
On the morning of Jan. 17, the MNLA continued attacks against the northeastern cities of Aguelhoc and Tessalit in Kidal region. Witnesses reported that approximately 20 vehicles drove through the town of Aguelhoc to the military barracks before firing on the army with small arms and heavy weapons. Throughout the clashes there were contradicting claims over who controlled the cities, but by Jan. 20 the Malian government released a statement indicating that the three towns of Menaka, Aguelhoc and Tessalit had been reclaimed, indicating the rebels had held them for at least a short period. As Mali is very large and has poor roads and limited air assets, it can take the Malian military quite some time to reinforce units overland from southern Mali.
The rebels reportedly returned with reinforcements to Aguelhoc and, after cutting off supply convoys for nearly two days, launched an assault on the city early Jan. 24. According to one media account, the army had to abandon Aguelhoc after troops ran out of ammunition; another report says they staged a tactical retreat to reinforce the larger city of Kidal nearby. Following the retreat, the Malian government conducted airstrikes on Aguelhoc using fixed-wing Malian aircraft (likely MiG-21s), reportedly destroying some 40 rebel vehicles and killing dozens of fighters. The MNLA posted a photo on its Facebook page it claims shows a MiG-21 that MNLA forces shot down, but the photo is actually of a destroyed truck. On Jan. 25, government troops recaptured Aguelhoc. Subsequent reports suggest control of Aguelhoc has passed back and forth more than once since then.
The MNLA continued its series of armed assaults Jan. 26 on the towns of Anderamboukane in Gao region and Lere in Timbuktu region. While reports from Anderamboukane, near Menaka, have conflicted — as have almost all reports regarding the fighting in the region — it appears that the rebel assaults were similar to those launched against other towns and that the military used helicopters to disperse the attackers.
Lere, a small town, is approximately 320 kilometers (about 200 miles) west of the towns previously targeted. Local residents reported that MNLA fighters arrived in a dozen cars after a military unit had left the town so the militants faced no resistance. According to Reuters, military reinforcements were deployed in the direction of Lere on Jan. 28, but the present status of the town is unclear. Although tactically simple, this assault displays the geographic reach of the rebel movement and its intent to make government forces deploy across Mali's expansive north.
Lere is just south of Lake Faguibine, an area frequented by AQIM convoys. In June 2010, a joint Malian-Mauritanian force chased AQIM fighters into the Lere area after it attacked AQIM camps located in Wagadou Forest, on the Mali-Mauritania border.
On Jan. 31, the MNLA also reportedly attacked Niafunke, in Timbuktu region, in the far west of northern Mali. We have also seen an unconfirmed report of a purported MNLA attack in Ntilit, Goa region.
MNLA and AQIM
Mali is poor and its troops are poorly trained and equipped. Historically, the government has not demonstrated the will to seriously tackle Tuareg militants — or AQIM for that matter. As noted above, the influx of thousands of armed Tuareg fighters poses a significant threat to the Malian government's ability to control the north of the country. The number of Tuareg fighters now reportedly engaged in the insurgency is considerably larger than the number involved in the 2007-2009 uprising. And the MNLA is not the only threat Mali faces. Like other nations in the region, the presence of AQIM threatens Mali, and in recent years the United States, France and the European Union have all provided funding and training intended to assist the government of Mali in countering the AQIM threat. Matters become murky at this point.
The government of Mali has publicly claimed that the MNLA is associated with AQIM to draw even more support from the United States and the Europeans. In fact, if not for the AQIM threat, the Americans and Europeans would not be inclined to pay much attention to the happenings in Mali: The AQIM card is really the only one the Malian government has to play to induce Western involvement. Given the grave Tuareg threat they face, the Malians are attempting to hype the AQIM-Tuareg relationship.
Certainly, U.S. and European air assets could provide a dramatic boost to the efforts of the Malian military, not just in terms of strikes, but also in terms of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Such assets could provide an elevated sense of battlefield awareness that could permit the Malian government to deploy its limited resources in a decisive manner. It could also help them know when not to engage. Likewise, as seen in Libya, even small teams of Western special operations forces working to advise and coordinate close air support for local forces could provide a tremendous boost to their combat capability.
Because of these factors, it is in the Malian government's best interests to paint the MNLA as associated with AQIM — and of the MNLA to deny such association. The MNLA vociferously has denied ties to AQIM and even claims that once it controls the northern part of Mali, it will serve as a buffer against AQIM. The truth probably lies somewhere in between these statements.
In the past, Tuareg opposition networks have had varying degrees of involvement with AQIM. For example, former rebel leader Ibrahim Ag Bahanga (the deceased cousin of MNLA leader Ag Mohamed Najem) is thought to have maintained close associations with AQIM for financial reasons. Arab smugglers are known to pay large fees for protection as they run drugs, fuel, arms, cigarettes and migrants across Tuareg territory. There are also reports that Tuareg tribesmen have kidnapped Westerners in the Sahel and that those Westerners somehow made their way into AQIM custody, perhaps after being traded or sold.
The nuances of the relationship between AQIM, the Tuareg insurgents and smuggling networks in the Sahel are complex but appear to be linked primarily to the economic needs of the Tuaregs. Ag Bahanga clearly appears to have been plugged into these smuggling networks and to have used them, along with the patronage of Gadhafi, to fund and support his rebel movement.
With the cessation of supply lines from Libya, the MNLA must have a stream of income, food and ammunition if it is to sustain itself for the long term. Despite the MNLA's claims that it would clean up smuggling in the north, it would not be difficult for the MNLA to look to traditional smuggling networks as its principal source of revenue in much the same way AQIM currently does. We are unsure of how closely the MNLA will work with AQIM. Logically, it would likely cooperate, or not cooperate, with AQIM as best suits its cause.
As the MNLA continues its efforts to establish control over northern Mali, and the Malian government works to prevent that from occurring, we will be looking at a number of factors to help determine which way the struggle is going.
First, the Libyan weapons currently under MNLA's control give it an ability to support itself in the short term, but it will need to find alternative sources of supply if it is going to be able to sustain its offensive operations. One option would be to re-establish Libyan lines of supply through a new relationship with the black and gray arms market there.
This means we will also need to watch for more defections from the Malian government and army — especially units deserting with their equipment.
Second, the MNLA will need to win the hearts and minds of the people if it is to succeed in its insurgency. We will need to watch for indications that other tribal groups are jumping on the MNLA bandwagon and for the reaction of local populations to MNLA activities. So far, local populations have fled the MNLA. They also have conducted demonstrations in some places, demanding that the government take action against the MNLA. Alternatively, the MNLA could seek to drive opponents out of the regions it seeks to control, so we also need to watch for indications that it is driving civilians who do not support it out of the areas in which it operates.
Western help could dramatically change the situation, especially in areas like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources and strike aircraft. We need to watch carefully for the increased deployment of such systems or of special operations forces to Mali and their use against the MNLA and not just against AQIM.
Algeria is positioning itself to serve as a neutral mediator, as it has in past confrontations between the Malian government and the Tuaregs. Algiers has temporarily frozen its operations and training with the Malian military and withdrawn its advisers from the northern states to avoid being caught in the middle of the clashes. Algerian diplomats reportedly have reached out to Tuareg tribal leaders in Algeria's own southern desert to pressure their counterparts in Mali to return to talks. The Algerian government has refused to treat wounded MNLA fighters, instead insisting on maintaining its neutral stance in the conflict, meaning that it is unlikely that the MNLA will be able to turn to Algeria if Malian forces push it into a corner. Like Algeria, Niger and Libya have their own Tuareg populations and internal stability issues and thus are not likely to take risks for the MNLA. This could put the group in a very tight spot, so we need to carefully watch the Algerian mediation efforts.