This post is part of the “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me?” series.
Reader JCB asks: “How did what was original an ethnic Toureg uprising taking advantage of a Malian coup and Libyan weapons end up as al-Qaeda sympathizing Salafists controlling Timbuktu? Does anyone know who’s in control of northern Mali outside of Timbuktu? Could this be a new (Islamist? Toureg?) state in the making? Would that state be viable?”
- Al Qaeda-affiliated groups have a long-established presence throughout the Sahel, stretching across western Libya, western Niger, southern Algeria, and northeastern Mali. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, initially formed in Algeria, has since developed into the pan-Maghreb group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After their unsuccessful fight to defend Qaddafi against Libyan rebels, the Tuareg rebels returned to Mali to re-ignite their own war of independence for a distinct Tuareg territory. To do so, they appear to have enlisted the help Ansar Dine, a Tuareg group with Salafist persuasions and ties to AQIM. That temporary alliance was probably one of convenience rather than one of converging ideologies. The secular Turaegs appear to have miscalculated the intentions of these Islamist groups, however, realizing after the fact that these groups were uninterested in independence and more interested in establishing Salafist rule. Hindsight is 20-20.
- I don’t see Mali’s army re-establishing control over northern Mali, owing to an overall lack of capacity. (This lack of capacity, by the way, pre-dates the coup). The military appears hopelessly underequipped to re-establish sovereignty without help from neighbors and allies; the interim government formally requested such help via foreign military intervention last week.
- On the other hand, I also do not see a new Islamist state emerging, much less becoming viable. At most, we might see continued Salafist and Taureg efforts to establish local authority, increase regional support for Salafist beliefs, and maintain smuggling routes. This would be like the Taliban of the Sahara — brutal but wildly unpopular. So although I don’t anticipate seeing any state or even quasi-state structures emerging in Timbuktu, I do expect an amassing of weapons and cash — and continued abuses of civilians — if the situation goes on unabated.
Note: The Guardian has a valuable interactive map of separatist movements in Africa.