Mali: Jihadist Wives

Read the news out of Mali and you will hear almost exclusively about men. That’s one reason I was struck by this (ultimately somewhat thin) article from France 24. Another is the issue of how Islamist groups interacted with local communities in northern Mali. An excerpt:

FRANCE 24 met with the wife of a jihadist leader from the Gao region.

Mariam moved back to her mother’s house in this peaceful village near Gao, in northern Mali, when her husband left the area.

She won’t say her husband’s name, but everyone in town knows he is Abu Dardar, one of the most brutal and feared jihadist leaders in the region.

He saw Mariam in the market one day and decided he was going to marry her. He liked the way she was dressed. He hated women who wore shirts or dresses but she was veiled and already a devout Muslim. Mariam had become a radical when she married her first husband, whom she had three children with, before he abandoned her.

Slippery terms like “radical” hinder analysis more than they help in this case – what does it mean that she “became a radical”? – but the story gives a glimpse into how the Islamist coalition in northern Mali was partly localized.

I do not have much on Abu (also spelled Abou) Dardar. One Malian source (French) states that he is Algerian, as many senior leaders in the Islamist coalition are/were. After the Islamist coalition – Ansar al Din, Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – gained control of northern Mali in the spring of last year, Abou Dardar appeared frequently in the press as a spokesman. Usually news sources identified him as a MUJWA leader, but sometimes as a leader of one of the other groups (this trend, which has appeared with press coverage of other leaders, suggests either fluidity of membership between these groups, or confusion in the media, or both). We find Abou Dardar speaking to the press after reported clashes between MUJWA and the separatist northern group the MNLA in November, after Islamists’ destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in December, after the French intervention began in January, and during continued combat in the far north in February.

If Abou Dardar is indeed Algerian, his marriage to this Malian woman may fit part of a broader pattern mentioned in sources like this 2010 analysis (French) by Le Figaro of how AQIM developed local ties in northern Mali. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the former AQIM commander reportedly killed this month, was one AQIM leader who allegedly married a Malian woman (from Timbuktu, in this case). A Malian source quoted by Le Figaro called such marriages “a true social intermingling [which] offers real protection.”

The marriages also make defining “local” difficult in the context of the crisis in northern Mali. Some observers are quick to depict AQIM and MUJWA as “foreign” to Mali. But the ties these groups have developed in northern Malian communities, and the fact that some members of these groups are Malian nationals, points to a more complicated reality.

Basic Reported Information on French Operations in Mali

This post attempts to sketch out basic information about the ongoing French military intervention in Mali. The rapid pace of events, starting with an attempt by the Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali to capture strategic areas in the Mopti region, has left observers struggling to distinguish between fact, spin, and falsehood. So some “facts” rest on shaky foundations. But here is what international and local media are saying:

French aircraft have reportedly bombarded at least five towns (map below) These include:

  1. Konna, a town in the Mopti region which Islamists reportedly took from Malian soldiers on January 10. By Saturday, Malian forces stated they had retaken the town.
  2. Lere, a town near the Mauritanian border which the Islamist group Ansar al Din captured from the ostensibly secular, Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) in late November (more here), and which may have been the site of a training camp (French);
  3. Douentza, which the Movement for Unity/Monotheism/Tawhid and Jihad (MUJWA) took in September from a local militia;
  4. Agharous Kayoune, about which I could find basically no information; and
  5. Gao, a MUJWA stronghold and one of three northern provincial capitals.

USA Today reports that over 400 French troops are in Mali. Britain and the United States are providing equipment and logistical support. The Washington Post puts the numbers at over 400 in Bamako, and some 150 in the Mopti region. That article adds, “Mirage aircraft currently involved in the operation have been flying from nearby French bases, including one in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but some helicopters and other aircraft have been flying from a Malian air base at Sevare.”

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland took questions on Mali on Friday, and the British Foreign Office posted a roundup of official statements yesterday.

Different sources have also analyzed the perspectives of regional actors such as Algeria (French). Mauritanian activist Nasser Weddady wrote yesterday, “The view in Mauritania seems to be: ‘Dear France, good luck in Mali, keep us out of this mess. Thank you.”

Finally, here is a map showing four of the five towns reportedly bombed by French aircraft:

 

What is your perspective on all this?

Roundup on Reported Battles Around Mopti, Mali

Since Monday, there have been reports of fighting in Mali around Mopti (map), Sevare (map), Konna (map), and Gnimignama (map, possibly inaccurate) between the Malian army and fighters from the Islamist coalition that includes Ansar al Din. These reports suggest an organized push southward by Ansar al Din and its allies. I had hoped to write an analysis of these events for today, but the situation remains too murky for that in my view. As the journalist Peter Tinti remarked on Twitter yesterday, in a comment that eloquently characterizes the reaction to many unfolding news stories, “Lots of people buy account X, others Y, all are peddling educated guesses and calling them certainty.” So instead of aiming at certainty I’ve rounded up some relevant stories that give a partial picture of the competing accounts.

  • BBC: “The army used artillery [on Tuesday] against the Islamist fighters in the village of Gnimignama, 30km (19 miles) from army positions, according to army sources.”
  • Al Jazeera: “Rebel fighters in Mali have captured at least 12 government soldiers along with their vehicle and equipment, reports say. The incident on Monday took place during a government patrol outside the town of Kona and near the city of Mopti, as fears rise that the rebels, who seized vast swathes of Mali’s north, are moving increasingly closer to areas under government control.”
  • Reuters has a brief quotation from the Malian Ministry of Defense, saying, “The armed forces have driven off this attempted attack.”
  • WSJ: “The Islamist rebels on Tuesday took new positions near the outskirts of a Niger River trading town that marks the south’s last outpost under government control, Mali’s army spokesman Lt. Col. Idrissa Traore said. The rebels entered the area around the sparsely populated town, Mopti, on Monday, he said.”
  • Al Akhbar (Arabic) describes an Islamist attack on a Malian military unit and says, “Prominent leaders from Al Qa’ida are taking leadership of the ongoing military operations at present.”
  • ANI (Arabic): “The Malian Army Fires Warning Shots in Konna.”
  • Al Akhbar (French): Islamists attempted “to take control of the airport situated around twenty kilometers from the entrance to [Mopti]…the international airport of Mopti could serve as a forward base for African forces in case of intervention in northern Mali.”
  • Sahara Medias (Arabic, from Monday) on fighting in Konna between Ansar al Din and the Malian army “without losses.”

Also of interest is an IRIN report from Sevare published January 3.

For updates I recommend following Bate FelixBaba AhmedPeter TintiAndrew LebovichHannah Armstrong, Baki 7our MansourTommy MilesPhil Paoletta, and Dr. Susanna Wing on Twitter.

Mali’s New Old Cabinet

On December 11, Mali’s Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra resigned under pressure from junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo. A new interim Prime Minister, Diango Cissoko, took office. On Saturday he announced the names in his new cabinet. Maliweb has the full list here (French). The government is meant to represent the country politically, regionally, and socially.

Most press outlets are stressing that the new cabinet contains many of the same faces as the previous cabinet, which was formed in August and itself partly overlapped with the cabinet that preceded it. RFI (French) calls the newest cabinet a “government of continuity.” Key ministers – Tienan Coulibaly at Economy, Tiemam Coulibaly at Foreign Affairs, Malick Coulibaly at Justice, General Yamoussa Camara at Defense, General Tiefing Konaté at Interior Security, and Colonel Moussa Sinko Coulibaly at Territorial Administration - remain unchanged. The last three (all military men) are “seen as close to the former junta,” AFP reported in August. Dr. Yacouba Traoré (bio in French here), head of the recently created Ministry of Religious Affairs, also retains his position.

The biggest changes, RFI suggests, are (1) the departure of people close to ex-PM Diarra and (2) the addition of “three new Songhai, Arab, and Tamashek (Tuareg) ministers,” i.e. representatives of northern Malian communities. RFI goes on to list reactions by Malian political actors. AFP (French) suggests that the addition of northern ministers could boost the government’s efforts at dialogue with Ansar al Din, part of the Islamist coalition that controls territory in northern Mali.

The shake-up in Bamako has left many people wondering about the prospects for political stability there as well as for a planned armed intervention in the north. Bruce Whitehouse takes on those issues in this piece, which I highly recommend you read.

Map of Recent Islamist Coalition Aggressions in Mali

Plans for an external military intervention in Mali are moving forward. Negotiations between regional mediators and the northern Islamist faction Ansar al Din continue. At the same time, the Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali – which includes Ansar al Din, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) – has continued aggressive actions.

Specifically:

In the case of both conquests, Islamists were driving back forces from the ostensibly secular, Tuareg-led Movement for the National Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA). The MNLA launched the northern rebellion in January, but lost control of the uprising during the spring.

The northern provincial capitals of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao have been the strongholds of the Islamist coalition – with MUJWA having a strong presence in Gao, while Ansar al Din has a strong presence in the other two cities. A leader from Ansar al Din, which has demanded the implementation of shari’a across Mali, recently even stated in preliminary talks in Burkina Faso that “we are waiving the application of sharia law across the entire Malian territory except in our region of Kidal where sharia will be applied.”

The Islamist coalition, however, has not confined its activities to these three capitals. In September, MUJWA fighters took Douentza from a local militia, and now there are the recent conquests. I would not say that there has been a steady geographic expansion by the Islamists, but they have shown an ability to periodically project their presence into new towns. The kidnapping, finally, is not unprecedented for that region – an Italian couple was kidnapped on the Mauritania side of the border near Diema in 2009 – but in the context of the war in northern Mali, MUJWA’s capacity to carry out a kidnapping in southwestern Mali has raised eyebrows.

With the thought that visualizing all of these developments can help make sense of them, I’ve made a rudimentary map showing Menaka, Douentza, Lere, and Diema. I’ve used red for MUJWA, and yellow for Ansar al Din.

Mali and Multi-Level Negotiations

On November 6, two meetings – one in Ouagadougou, one in Bamako – brought developments that could portend changes for the situation in Mali. If taken at face value (and there are reasons to do so), the results of these meetings point toward two very different paths the crisis in northern Mali could take. Those paths are negotiation or war. If the meetings themselves are viewed as gambits in a deeper, less explicit sort of negotiation, then they communicate something different about the positions of the key players who will shape the future of northern Mali.

The meeting in Ouagadougou was between representatives from the Islamist movement Ansar al Din, which controls part of northern Mali, and regional mediators led by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore. Following talks on Tuesday, Ansar al Din’s delegation “agreed to commit to peace talks with Mali’s government and observe a ceasefire,” and also pledged to allow aid agencies into territory the movement controls. As AFP has reported, mediators have urged Ansar al Din to cut its ties to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is part of Ansar al Din’s Islamist coalition in northern Mali, and Ansar al Din’s actions on that front could determine the viability of negotiations. While the delegates in Ouagadougou made no commitments regarding AQIM, they did stress their group’s “independent” nature, which AFP calls “a signal” of their potential willingness to abandon AQIM. As AFP notes in a separate article, Ansar al Din also has envoys in Algeria for talks.

Ansar al Din has offered to negotiate with authorities in Bamako before (French), but the movement’s demand for the country-wide application of shari’a seemed to make the idea a non-starter. Malian Foreign Minister Tiéman Coulibaly (French) has said that “the territorial integrity, secularism/laicite, and republican character of Mali are not negotiable.” Shari’a has, from what I have read, not come up yet in this round of talks, except perhaps through veiled references.

The Tuareg-led, ostensibly secular rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to northern Mali) has a presence in Ouagadougou, and welcomed Ansar al Din’s willingness to negotiate.

In Bamako, meanwhile, military commanders from member states within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have developed a “military blueprint” for retaking northern Mali by force. The plan goes next to presidents from ECOWAS members, and then to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on November 26. On October 12, the UNSC “held out the possibility of endorsing, within the next 45 days, an international military force to restore the unity of the West African country.”

As AP notes, however, any military offensive in northern Mali is unlikely to happen before 2013. The deployment of troops may be contingent on the completion of new elections for a national Malian government – a process that will pose its own severe logistical difficulties.

So who is serious, and who is bluffing? Is everyone bluffing? And who speaks for whom?

If we take things at face value, Ansar al Din is ready to talk, and ECOWAS is ready to fight. Perhaps ECOWAS’ threats have scared Ansar al Din into coming to the negotiating table, and perhaps ECOWAS doubts Ansar al Din’s sincerity. ECOWAS leaders such as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan have expressed their preference for talking rather than fighting. But perhaps ECOWAS’ leaders hold little hope that Ansar al Din will repudiate AQIM, or that talks will materialize, or that talks will get past Ansar al Din’s insistence on shari’a – and so ECOWAS continues to mobilize, or give the appearance of mobilizing.

One can read the whole process, then, as a form of negotiation. In this view, all parties expect the conflict to end at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. And so ECOWAS mobilizes in order to strengthen its hand at the table, and Ansar al Din hints at future concessions while the Islamist coalition still makes sure to demonstrate its capacity to strike at “border” towns like Douentza, all more or less as a form of positioning. I’ve even heard the theory that the war as a whole started off as a bid for a strong negotiating position – ie, that the MNLA never expected matters to go this far, but rather hoped to win concessions from the new president of a post-Amadou Toumani Toure Mali.

Ansar al Din, of course, does not demand the break-up of Mali, but its (deeper) Islamization. Are the cooler heads in the Islamist coalition, then, looking toward a future, reunited Mali, and angling for a) a say in determining the role Islam plays in government at the national and local levels and b) continued political influence, official and unofficial, in northern Mali, even beyond religious affairs?

The danger with all the levels of negotiation taking place, or potentially taking place, is that the various sides may well misread each other’s signals, with the result that more blood is shed. Even if all sides proclaim a desire for peace and a willingness to talk, there are so many sticking points – shari’a, elections, etc. – that the conflict seems likely to endure for quite some time.

Mali’s Islamist Coalition Responds to External Intervention Discussions

Plans for an external military intervention in war-torn Mali are gathering momentum. Mali’s interim government has agreed to allow the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to base a 3,000-strong force in Bamako. The European Union is “considering requests to support West African-led military intervention in Mali and to restructure the country’s beleaguered army.” France and the United States have urged the United Nations Security Council to approve ECOWAS’ plans, and France and the African Union have said they will support ECOWAS logistically. Even Algeria “may have to accept the deployment of West African troops in its crisis-hit neighbour Mali contrary to its traditional stance against foreign intervention and focus on internal security, analysts say.”

As Reuters points out, uncertainty about who really rules in Bamako – coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, civilian President Dioncounda Traore, or Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra - could efforts to retake Mali’s Islamist-held north. But many powerful actors are pushing for a military campaign of some kind.

These developments have not gone unnoticed in the north. The Malian press has transcribed a phone interview with Oumar Ould Hamaha, a commander within the Islamist coalition that rules northern Mali. I have not been able to find an in-depth profile on Hamaha, but this comment on him from AFP is notable:

Malian national Omar Hamaha, one of the main Islamist commanders in the north, is a case study in the bridges between [Ansar al Din, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, the main players in the Islamist coalition].

He is known as the second-in-command to the AQIM boss in charge of Gao. But during the seizure of Timbuktu in April, he referred to himself as the chief-of-staff of Ansar Dine, and now says he holds the same position in MUJAO.

“Remember, we are all mujahedeen. Whether a fighter is from MUJAO, Ansar Dine or AQIM, it’s the same thing,” he told AFP.

“We have the same ambition, the application of sharia. Whenever there’s an attack on one of us, it’s an attack on everyone.”

Hamaha is frequently quoted as a spokesman for the coalition in local and international media (see here, for example), where his rhetoric often emphasizes the coalition’s embrace of violence in the service of its determination to impose shari’a across Mali. In the aftermath of the Malian army’s killing of sixteen Muslim preachers earlier this month, Hamaha expressed the Islamist coalition’s rejection of mediation efforts and its objective of capturing Bamako:

He warned that the Islamists would one day attack the south. ‘‘We will plant the black flag of the Islamists at Koulouba,’’ he said, naming the hill on which Mali’s presidential palace sits.

Hamaha reiterated these messages in his recent phone interview (French), in which he expresses defiance regarding the possibility of an external intervention. My translation:

I was contacted last Saturday by the Minister of Defense for discussions. I told him that we are open to dialogue if the government is ready to submit itself to the shari’a. Plainly speaking, if the authorities are ready to apply the sharia. I was surprised that the Minister of Defense spoke to me of secularism (laicite). That impedes all dialogue with them. We are jihadists…We are ready to take the lead and to defeat all armies by the sword, whether they be from ECOWAS or even NATO…Nothing will be able to stop our advance on Bamako and the rest of Mali because we have chosen to die for the religion.

More remarks from Hamaha here (French).

The statement leaves me wondering how seriously to take the threat of the Islamist coalition’s southern advance. The Islamists’ capture of the town of Douentza (map) on September 1 certainly raised some eyebrows, and their repeated references to a southern advance indicates that the threat is not just an offhand comment. On the other hand, advancing into southern areas could stretch the Islamists thin, exacerbate the political backlash they sometimes face, and hand them military defeats. Whatever happens, ECOWAS and other external forces can expect stiff resistance from the Islamist coalition, and external forces may even find themselves initially working not just to retake territory, but to repel new attacks.

Mali: A Backlash against the Islamist Coalition? [Updated]

Saturday, in Gao, northern Mali:

On Saturday night the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa [MUJWA] announced on private radio that they would [amputate a thief's hand] at the square.

MUJWA did not get their way:

“They [Islamists] were not able to take the prisoner to the square to cut off his hand. The residents of Gao occupied the square and refused to allow the thief’s hand to be amputated,” the leader of a local NGO said on condition of anonymity.

According to corroborating sources, the accused was a young [MUJWA] recruit who had stolen weapons to re-sell them.

“We don’t want to know what this young man did, but they are not going to cut his hand off in front of us. The Islamists have retreated and the civilians sang the national hymn as a sign of victory,” another resident said.

This is not the first report of local resistance to MUJWA and the broader Islamist coalition of which it is a part (the other major factions are the movement Ansar al Din and fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Protests in July – to which Ansar al Din responded harshly – also seemed to signal some popular discontent with Islamist rule.

It has been hard to get a clear sense of what is going on in northern Mali, but the recent signs of resistance to Islamist control could mean several things. One widespread interpretation is that the versions of Islam and Islamic law that the Islamists are attempting to impose are foreign and extreme in the eyes of the people of northern Mali. In this reading, conflict between the Islamists and those they are trying to rule is inevitable.

Another interpretation, more complex than the one above, is that the people of northern Mali have a range of stances vis-a-vis Islamism and that the outcome is not predetermined. In this interpretation, the Islamist coalition is facing resistance because it has mismanaged the politics of the situation.

Ironically, the Islamists’ initial rise to power probably came about partly because of their opponents’ political failures. The ostensibly secular National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) originally launched the rebellion in Mali, but the MNLA appeared incapable of providing law and order to conquered areas – which seems to have given the Islamists an opening to establish some form of law and order.

Other forms of politics were also important. Kal notes that in Gao, MUJWA was able to push the MNLA out in part because MUJWA played local politics effectively:

MUJWA appears to have deftly leveraged its local connections in Gao among local Arabs to exploit strong animosity between Songhai armed elements and the Tuareg-dominated MNLA. The MNLA’s pro-[secession] agenda and abuses of the local population on arrival in Gao coupled with long-standing hostility between members of the Ganda Iso and Ganda Koy militia groups (elements of which were involved in atrocities against Tuaregs during previous rebellions) appears to have allowed MUJWA to direct popular discontent with living conditions in the city resulting from the rebellion onto the MNLA, marginalizing it and forcing its members in the city to take flight.

Following this interpretation, I wonder whether Islamists’ political victories over the MNLA contained the seeds of the Islamists’ present political difficulties: without the MNLA around as a contrast, in other words, the Islamists’ political stock must rise or fall on its own and not simply look better than the MNLA’s. Paul Mutter wrote several weeks ago that the Islamists were “less unpopular” than the MNLA – and “less unpopular” does not necessarily equal “popular.”

The Islamists appear to be harming their own political position by making two mistakes. First, their attempts to carry out dramatic corporal punishments are taking attention away from the behaviors that originally made them more popular than the MNLA. The Islamists’ initial (relative) popularity, it seems, came about because they were preventing abuses by fighters, distributing food and aid, and providing rudimentary order. The Islamists seem to feel a religious imperative to mutilate alleged thieves and stone alleged adulterers, but in political terms these moves have probably begun to hurt them.

Second, the Islamists seem to be mismanaging dissent. Their confrontational approach either results in a crackdown, which likely leaves resentment simmering, or a loss of face for themselves, which is what the events on Saturday look like to me.

No one knows what will happen going forward. But it looks like the Islamist coalition will continue to face some resistance, particularly if their response to dissent is uncompromising.

[UPDATE:] MUJWA opts for more repression, generating more dissent.

AFP:

A radio presenter was badly beaten by Islamists occupying the northern Mali town of Gao after he reported on a protest in which they were stopped from cutting off a thief’s hand, hospital sources said Monday.
[...]
Hundreds of people protested on Sunday night in Gao against [presenter Abdoul Malick] Maiga’s detention and demanded his release, setting fire to a car belonging to a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) which controls the town.
The Islamists fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd.

 

“Takfir” Can Cut Both Ways

Youssou Ndour, the Senegalese musician who now serves as the country’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, made headlines in the Senegalese press this weekend for saying (French), “I sincerely think that these people who are destroying the tombs of saints and historic sites [in northern Mali] are not Muslims.”

Statements like Ndour’s, denying membership in the Muslim community to Muslims who practice violence against other Muslims, are not rare. Governor Ibrahim Gaidam of Yobe State, Northern Nigeria, has made similar remarks about the rebel sect Boko Haram:

We cannot call these people Muslims. They are transgressors, who commit heinous crimes, which are totally condemnable. Islam is and will remain a religion of peace and even the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SWA) lived peacefully with followers of other faiths. Therefore, no one can justify attacking places of worship belonging to other faiths as Islamic.

I think such statements merit reflection on two levels. First, these statements challenge us to think about who is and is not a Muslim. As an outsider, I prefer to avoid taking stances on such issues, but we should at least question our assumptions and our habits. It is odd and tragic how we sometimes rush to question the purity of someone’s Islam when they wear an amulet or put up a poster of their sheikh, but we don’t question it when they shed blood.

Second, and closely related to the preceding point, we are reminded that talk of excommunication can cut both ways. Even as the media sometimes presents Boko Haram and Mali’s Ansar al Din as some kind of ultra-Muslims, some other Muslims feel that these groups have forfeited their claims to the faith entirely. One must be careful with terminology, of course: I do not consider Ndour and Gaidam’s statements equivalent to formal declarations of takfir (excommunication). But when analysts use “takfiri” as a synonym for “jihadi” or “terrorist,” they risk implying that such groups are the only ones willing to be exclusivist, and they risk sacrificing historical and contextual depth. Over time, Muslims of many different theological and ideological stripes have been willing to deny the Islam of their rivals – even the Sufis who are so often assumed to be only targets of excommunication, never its proponents.

What is your reaction to Ndour’s statement? What effects do you think it might have on audiences in Senegal and Mali?

Political Shifts in Northern Mali [Updated]

This post is more a roundup of overlapping events than an attempt to produce a coherent narrative about the political situation in northern Mali, but the events do share one broad trait: they all instantiate political change, underscoring how fluid the situation remains.

The rebellion in northern Mali was launched in January by the Tuareg-led group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the three northern regions of Mali). The MNLA’s stated goal has long been independence for that territory. Starting in April and especially since June, the MNLA has lost political and military ground to Ansar al Din (Arabic: Defenders of the Faith), a group that seeks to implement shari’a law across all of Mali. Ansar al Din’s coalition of Islamists includes fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an AQIM offshoot called the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).

One recent political shift has been in the MNLA’s stated goals. On Sunday, the MNLA announced that they were (my term) downgrading their quest: instead of seeking full secession, a spokesman said, they now seek “cultural, political, and economic independence.” Their spokesman referenced Quebec as a model. The MNLA further declared its resolve to fight Ansar al Din. The implications of this change in rhetoric regarding secession may be quite serious. Big questions arise: Would the MNLA help the Malian army or outside forces reclaim the north from the Islamist coalition in exchange for guarantees of future autonomy? Does this change of rhetoric signal the MNLA’s desperation (and decreasing political and military relevance)?

Another apparent political shift could benefit Ansar al Din. In June, a trio of northern Malian militias announced the formation of a coalition to “liberate” northern Mali from the rebels. Now it appears that some fighters from one of those militias, the ethnically Songhai group Ganda Koy, have broken ranks to join Ansar al Din. The reasons for this (alleged) shift are unclear to me.

On other political fronts, Ansar al Din is not faring as well. Throughout the spring and summer, there have been reports of protests in northern cities, but it was not always clear whether the protests were targeting the MNLA or Ansar al Din. Now that Ansar al Din is more firmly in control of key northern cities, it seems clearer that recent protests are against the Islamists. I have long argued that Ansar al Din has gained some popular support from its attempts to establish law and order and to provide aid, and I stand by that, but the protests are a sign that significant elements of the local population want the Islamists gone. Ansar al Din’s harsh response to protests last weekend, moreover, could generate further backlash.

Finally, there are outside attempts to split the Islamist coalition. The African Union stated yesterday that Ansar al Din, in Reuters’ words, “can be part of a negotiated political solution to reunite the divided West African country if it breaks with al Qaeda and its allies.” This offer seems unlikely to tempt Ansar al Din so long as they have the upper hand in the north, but it is possible that continued efforts at putting wedges into the Islamist coalition could induce cracks later on if Ansar al Din finds itself on the defensive. It is also possible that the AU’s talk will fall on completely deaf ears.

[UPDATE]: Peter Tinti (in the comments) provides us with a link (French) to an interview with MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid, in which he denies that the Movement has renounced its goal of independence. He claims the earlier news was misinformation spread by the Movement’s “detractors.” According to him, the MNLA is “ready to have talks with the Malian authorities” under international supervision, but they “have never renounced [their] demand for the independence of the Azawad.”

The spokesman quoted in the piece above on MNLA’s renunciation of secession demands was a different figure, Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, identified by Reuters as “a senior member of the MNLA.” The contradictory rhetoric either indicates that one of the two men (likely Ag Assaleh) does not genuinely speak for the MNLA, or that the movement is divided over how to proceed.