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Jihadist groups operating in northern Mali - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Since early 2012 the West African country of Mali has been locked in a political crisis as various insurgent groups have sought to launch attacks against the government and seize control of northern regions. The rebellion initially began as a drive for independence launched by the country’s Tuareg population; however over the course of 2012 several Islamist groups became increasingly involved and influential.

At present, the regions of northern Mali and the major cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, which together represent more than half the country, are controlled by Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). These allied groups are also joined by a handful of militias, including the Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Mulathameen Brigade.

Earlier this month the French president Francois Hollande confirmed that France would intervene, at the request of the Malian government, to confront the Islamist groups in control of northern Mali. The following is an introduction to these groups and the regions over which they hold sway: Ansar Dine is an armed Islamist group with a Salafi orientation that seeks to impose Islamic law on the entire country of Mali. Contrary to the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which desires to secede from Mali and establish an independent Azawad state in the north, Ansar Dine has no aspirations regarding independence.

Its founder, Iyad Ag Ghaly, is a son of one the Ifogas tribe’s leading families. He is a former soldier and prominent figure, having led the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. He comes from a long-established Azawadian family in the Kidal Region in Mali’s extreme northeast.

Ansar Dine is northern Mali’s largest and most significant group. It is often considered the Taliban of Mali because, like its Afghan counterpart, its fighting force and leadership are nearly entirely home-grown.

Ansar Dine has managed to assert complete control over the historic city of Timbuktu in northwest Mali. Subsequently, it has set about demolishing the Sufi shrines there, declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1988, which has provoked fierce reactions from both the international community and UNESCO.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is an offshoot of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, which itself has its roots in the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA). AQIM launches its attacks from the bases it established years ago throughout the greater Sahara region, including northern Mali.

It is the longest-running and most experienced militia operating in the region, and enjoys long-established ties with tribal elders. Led by Abou Mossab Abdelwadoud, also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM is closely linked with the region’s Tuareg and Arab populations and is keen to maintain its strong relationship with them. The organisation claims to strive for the liberation of the Islamic Maghreb from Western influence (namely that of France and the US) and from the apostate organisations loyal to them. It seeks to protect the region from foreign ambitions and to establish a powerful state governed by Islamic law.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) is one of the most prominent armed Islamist movements active in northern Mali. Mainly Arab in composition, it is an offshoot of AQIM and is led by Mohammed Ould Nowimar. It calls for jihad across West Africa and its stronghold is based in the city of Gao, located on the Niger River in northeast Mali. MOJWA previously shared control of the city with the MNLA after successfully repelling the Malian Army, but later expelled the MNLA as a result of the escalating conflict between the two parties that has lasted for around two months.

MOJWA has begun to assert its control over a growing number of northern cities, imposing Islamic law as it does so. Yet the movement stresses that it does not have ambitions on the capital city of Bamako.

MOJWA had previously stated that if it wished, it could seize control of the Malian capital within 24 hours. In support of this claim, it referred to its formidable military arsenal that it claims could capture Bamako and defeat any opposing army in the event of a military confrontation.

Like its insurgent allies, MOJWA adopts a tactic of kidnapping diplomats and foreigners. The movement has kidnapped Algerians in the past, as evidenced by the events of April last year in Gao. The group also executed an Algerian diplomat after Algerian authorities refused to release Islamist prisoners and pay a ransom estimated at EUR 15 million.

In recent days, MOJWA has announced the formation of four militant cells: the Abdullah Azzam Cell, the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Cell, the Abu Laith al-Libi Cell, and the Martyrs Cell. The movement said in a statement that this restructuring stems from the expansion of its influence and its growing numbers of fighters. MOJWA stated that the new cells will be deployed in accordance with the challenges the region faces, both internally and externally.

Another militia known as the Osama bin Laden Brigade affiliates itself with MOJWA and is led by a member of the movement’s Shura Council, Ahmed Ould Omar.

Ansar al-Sharia was founded by Omar Ould Hamaha; a man who has previously identified with all Mali’s other Islamist militias, most recently MOJWA. From the very beginning of the Islamist takeover of northern Mali, Ould Hamaha has been a prominent feature. He is known as ‘the man with the red beard’, and by others as ‘the charismatic man’, because of his powerful presence and his remarkable fluency in French, which surpasses that of any another Muslim leader in the north.

Ansar al-Sharia is a new militia that has been able to convince most of the Azawad Arabs from the Arab tribes of Timbuktu to join it, after they had been marginalised from the ongoing conflict for nearly a year. In turn, this helped the group gain the support of the Arabs in the Gao region.

Finally, the ‘Signatories in Blood’ is a militia group led by the Algerian-national Khalid Abu Al-Abbas, also known as Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He formed this militia after AQIM removed him from the leadership of another group known as Al-Mulathameen. At the time, Al-Qaeda described his dismissal as merely an organizational procedure upon which Abu Musab Abdul Wadud had decided. Belmokhtar left to form the ‘Signatories in Blood’, although he remained active in a decision-making capacity with regards to other armed militias. The day before yesterday, this group claimed responsibility for the assault on a gas plant in Algeria and the subsequent kidnapping of Western hostages.