Mali: Islamist Politics in Gao and Timbuktu

The term “Islamist” has become so broad as to be meaningless, but for the present we are stuck with it. A simplified definition for “Islamism” might be an ideology that seeks to bring Islamic values into policymaking at the micro level – ie, not just saying, “The spirit of Shari’a guides our constitution,” but rather, “X, Y, and Z law, regulation, or policy will be explicitly grounded in perceived Islamic doctrine/s.”

If we count groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah as Islamists, which most standard definitions would, then we could say that many of the most famous Islamist groups in the world have built much of their popular support by providing services to ordinary people: health care, food, etc. Islamists have sometimes attempted to step into the gaps left by various states – as do many other different kinds of religious actors – and meet people’s needs, whether out of religious conviction, political calculation, or both.

In attempting to understand what “Islamism” is we have an important case underway right not in Gao and Timbuktu, northern Mali. The situation in northern Mali, since the outbreak of a Tuareg-led rebellion in January of this year, has been complex. The Moor Next Door and Andrew Lebovich have recently analyzed the proliferation of armed groups in the region, and I suggest reading their work for more background information. To cut a long story short, Timbuktu and Gao are two of the three regional capitals of the “Azawad,” the territory that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) claims to have liberated. Yet it appears that Ancar Dine (Arabic: “Defenders of the Faith”) and even Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have the greatest sway in Timbuktu at the moment, and perhaps in Gao as well. Ancar Dine in particular is establishing a political administration based heavily on offering services to civilians, especially but not only in the realm of security.

The Washington Post reports:

[Ancar Dine] is stepping up efforts to provide law and order as it tries to gain recruits and the support of local residents.

They’ve even set up a telephone number that residents can call in case of an emergency.


When bus passengers called the emergency telephone number in Gao a week ago after attackers attempted to rob their bus, the Islamists came, repelled the attack and cut the throat of one of the bandits.

From Timbuktu, there have been reports of Ancar Dine distributing food and offering care (French; h/t Andrew Lebovich).

How these efforts fit with the larger aim of instituting “shari’a” in northern Mali remains to be seen; the immediate aims seem to be (1) recruitment, (2) staking out political turf, and (3) attempting to establish long-term relationships with local populations. Imposing law and order is, of course, not just a means of outreach to locals but also a requirement for solidifying control over an area.

The next step the Islamists want to take seems to be fleshing out their administrative structure. Magharebia reports that Ancar Dine “plans to install Algerian national and al-Qaeda emir Yahya Abou Al-Hammam (real name Jemal Oukacha) as the local governor.” From the rhetoric quoted in the article, it sounds like law and order will continue to be the emphasis for both groups.

Ancar Dine, according to almost every report, has a real partnership with AQIM. But in light of the efforts at law and order and providing services, how compatible are the two groups, really? And how compatible is the goal of establishing political control with the goals of a terrorist organization? As Magharebia points out, AQIM still holds several Western hostages. On top of that, a Swiss woman was kidnapped over the weekend in Timbuktu by unknown gunmen. Ancar Dine may find that such incidents threaten its political aims. Perhaps hardliners would argue that kidnapping outsiders has no bearing on the security of locals or locals’ perception of the would-be administrators, but it seems to me that the violence, secrecy, money, and outside attention associated with kidnapping could easily disrupt larger efforts at stability. Ancar Dine may well be quite unhappy with the kidnappers, whether they are AQIM or not.

Stepping back, Ancar Dine certainly has a strategy for establishing a durable presence in northern Mali. One of their biggest problems, though, is time. The Malian national army or an outside military coalition hope to return to northern Mali at some point soon, while MNLA hopes to establish its own supremacy. And locals may soon – or already – be disillusioned with the fighting, the uncertainty, and the attempts to turn ideology into policy.

11 thoughts on “Mali: Islamist Politics in Gao and Timbuktu

  1. With the lack of credible reporting from the ground both in Gao and TImbuktu, I don’t think we know how successful the islamists of Ansar Eddine really have been so far. Media are as always focused on reports of looting, rape, murder and Al Qaeda presence, failing to report other more important developments that need to be told.
    Obviously the local population wish to live in peace and be able to go about their daily activities without fear of crime and violence. The malian army presence didn’t provide that either, so a return to status quo is not what people want.
    Iyad Ag Ghaly has been the driving force as the front man of Ansar Eddine and I think that coming profiling of him will give another picture of what he is really after.
    MNLA is at the moment pondering their best options for handling both the jihadists of Aqim and the islamists of Ansar Eddine.

  2. The next few years will decide a lot. Who wins what, who feels what actions threaten their policies and who provides what services will determine what Mali and possibly West Africa look like. It’s entirely possible that infighting between Tuareg groups will cause their efforts to crumble or advances made by Mali and Ecowas might force Ancar Dine into a long term partnership with AQIM.

  3. Popular oppositon aside, I think that time is the current enemy of Mali’s government and foreign powers. Whatever their level of interaction and popularity, the MNLA and Ansar Dine are reacting quicker than the government and laboring to solidify their authority. Dealing with both groups is equally challenging from the political or military perspective, and this delay is giving them more time to entrench themselves. Internal conflicts over demands and objectives have already surfaced, but the intensity and length of a disjointed insurgency could also exceed regional projections. Political options should be exhausted with MNLA before launching an organized counteroffensive into all of northern Mali.

  4. Today the marabout Inatllah Ag Attaher, former mayor of Kidal and the most powerful man in the region called for all to stand up against islamists and Iyad Ag Ghaly whose quest is for empowering and enriching himself and nothing else. Some of his wordings are interesting – co-habitation with Mali is “difficult” – but not impossible? “qui rendent tout cohabitation avec le Mali difficile sinon impossible.”
    From my biased viewpoint it is simple – international community should rush in with economical and military (in some form) support to MNLA to rid the region of jihadists, with a proposal for autonomy.

      • Therefore autonomy (to some degree). Borders may be redrawn some other day.
        But there is an opportunity to do something now. These problems will not go away by themselves and will only get worser – so why wait?

      • In the eyes of the center, autonomy could easily be one short step to independence. In the eyes of the periphery, autonomy is still living under the rule of the people they hate.

  5. Yes that is he essence of compromise – noone’s happy.
    Word from the front today is that the problem for MNLA is not equipment or motivation – but finance. They need to re-organize before they can take on Aqim.

  6. Pingback: Mali: More on Law-and-Order Islamism | Sahel Blog

  7. Pingback: Mali: More on Law-and-Order Islamism « tamoudre

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