Activity in recent weeks indicates that outside actors may be increasing their involvement in northern Mali's Tuareg rebellion, which has seen nearly half the country fall under the control of rebel groups since March. On June 29 and June 30, two Islamist militant groups separately issued threats against West African nations currently debating whether to form an intervention force. On July 1, Malian Foreign Minister Sadio Lamine Sow arrived in Algiers for a two-day visit to discuss the crisis in northern Mali. This followed visits to Bamako earlier in June by Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) envoy and Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole and the United Kingdom's Africa minister, Alistair Burt.
One of the Islamist groups responsible for sending the warnings, Algeria-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has reportedly been supplying and possibly training the two ascendant Islamist groups active in Mali's rebellion. The third main group involved in the rebellion, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), is secular-oriented. While it also has fought against the Malian government in its push for regional autonomy, ECOWAS likely views it as a potential proxy and has provided MNLA aid in extreme circumstances to prevent it from being completely defeated by its Islamist rivals. At present, ECOWAS and other concerned parties in Africa and the West appear unlikely to directly engage in the conflict and commit troops, but by ramping up surveillance and communication they are facilitating a stronger response in the future if the threat posed by Islamist militant groups in Mali increases.
The rebellion in Mali was ignited by the outpouring of men and weapons from Libya after the fall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and it was facilitated by the withdrawal of Malian forces from the north after the March 21 coup in Bamako. Mali's rebel movement is far from monolithic, with various groups possessing different goals, ideologies and geographic areas of operation, but when gauging the prospect of outside intervention, the most important distinction to consider is the threat posed by Islamist versus non-Islamist elements.
Islamists and AQIM
AQIM and its predecessor groups are based in the loosely controlled Sahel region of southern Algeria, Mauritania and northern Mali. Though the group has devolved since the peak of its operational capabilities and activity in 2008 and 2009, it is still able to offer Islamist groups in northern Mali the arms and training they need to sustain themselves or even make themselves into a force capable of threatening transnational targets in southern Mali or neighboring countries.
Mali's two most active Islamist militant groups are the Timbuktu-based Ansar Eddine and the Gao-based Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The groups' tactics and intent differ, with the former apparently more concerned with claiming territory while the latter appears more focused on attacking Algerian targets in southern Algeria and northern Mali, but signs of a loose alliance have emerged. On June 28, the groups issued a statement saying they jointly control Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu — the three main towns in northern Mali — indicating they have some type of strategic partnership. Both reportedly have links with AQIM for arms supplies, but the behavior of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa suggests a closer relationship with the al Qaeda franchise.
The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa shares AQIM's target set and tactics, and reports have emerged that the Algerian government has retaliated against the group's attacks by attempting to intercept or launch airstrikes on its convoys in northern Mali. As Stratfor has noted, it could be an indigenous group working as part of the AQIM network, or a splinter group off AQIM's southern command surfacing from underground smuggling activities to compete more openly with other commanders in the region. The group could even be AQIM operating under another name in order to cause confusion and conceal its involvement in the area, a tactic militant groups have used elsewhere. Indeed, Algeria has been engaged in an aggressive crackdown against AQIM in their traditional core in the Kabylie Mountains, which may give the group a reason to move operations southward.
By becoming dependent on AQIM's supply and logistics networks, Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa also risk attracting further attention from the West. Indeed, reports of airstrikes and surveillance in the area suggest that the West is already engaged in the conflict at a low level. The United States, France and other Western countries have a history of counterterrorism activity in the area, and those efforts are likely ongoing. Still, AQIM's support could be enough to enable the Islamist militant groups to maintain control of their territory unless or until a viable counterforce emerges.
ECOWAS Keeping Options Open
A third group, the MNLA, initially appeared to be the dominant rebel group in northern Mali, but it has gradually lost control of Kidal and Gao and is now on the defensive against the Islamist militias. Despite its losses, a possible lifeline for the group has emerged. After a clash with the Islamists on June 27 in Gao, the MNLA's injured leader Bilal Ag Acherif was airlifted out of the country for emergency treatment in Burkina Faso. Since the MNLA does not even possess aircraft, an outside power — likely ECOWAS — would have been responsible for the medical evacuation. Though ECOWAS has not confirmed any role in the incident, the regional bloc is likely trying to prevent the MNLA from being completely crushed as a way to maintain its options.
ECOWAS may want to use the MNLA as a proxy through which to contain the Islamists if they become a transnational threat. Under ordinary circumstances, the MNLA itself would be considered a threat because it advocates regional autonomy, a sensitive issue for pan-African states that frequently deal with secessionist movements. However, because external intervention is not currently a feasible option and the Islamist groups are gaining influence, the MNLA is considered the less pressing threat.
Burkina Faso is the primary mediator for ECOWAS in the Mali crisis and has previously served as a haven for injured West African leaders, most notably in the case of former Guinean junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara, who survived an assassination attempt. Burkina Faso is likely serving a similar function to ensure Acherif's recovery and possibly offer him an increased media presence in the weeks to come.
For now, however, the option of using the MNLA as a proxy in the north will remain a lower priority — ECOWAS is primarily focused on seeing civilian power restored in Bamako. To this end, ECOWAS ordered 3,000 troops to Bamako on July 2 to assist with the political transition in the hopes that after the civilian government reasserts control over the military, Bamako can take on the responsibility of securing the north.
ECOWAS and the West do not want to become entangled in the situation in the north themselves, but they will continue to engage in discussions and covert activities on the ground to monitor, contain and respond to threats as they arise. There are, however, threats incubating in northern Mali's desert that have the potential to spill over into the borders of ECOWAS states or Algeria — or to target transnational interests — and the growth of those threats will determine if or when outside powers become more actively engaged in the conflict.