Mauritania and Northern Mali

The rebellion continues in northern Mali. The Tuareg-led separatist National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA, where “Azawad” refers to the regions of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu in northern Mali) and the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Arabic: Ansar al Din, “Defenders of the Faith”) recently announced an alliance (Aray al Mostenir says it has the text of the agreement here, in Arabic). In addition to the nervousness caused by the trajectory of the rebellion as a whole, Ansar Dine’s apparent alliance with Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is worrying Mali’s neighbors.

Mauritania seems ready to react militarily. Magharebia reports that Mauritanian troops are drilling near the border with Mali:

Mauritania held extensive military exercises last week outside the city of Bassiknou, located along the Malian border.

The operations were part of efforts to step up border surveillance and prevent the infiltration of terrorists and smugglers, Mauritania’s Aray al-Mostenir reported May 22nd, noting that the country’s security forces were placed on high alert.

The website stated that a heavy artillery bombardment could be heard outside Bassiknou for two days. Meanwhile, military aircraft carried out sorties over the area and bombed virtual moving targets as part of a training drill supervised by French experts.

The Mauritanian army conducted reconnaissance sorties over the Wagadou Forest and the area where most of the past armed confrontations with al-Qaeda and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa took place.

I could not locate the original article from Aray al Mostenir, but you can view a map of Bassiknou here.

Mauritania is undoubtedly concerned about defending its own territory, where AQIM has periodically conducted raids, kidnappings, and bombings since 2005. But it is possible that Mauritania is also considering taking the offensive. In 2010 and 2011, long before the rebellion began, Mauritanian forces entered Mali several times hunting AQIM: in September 2010 (Arabic), in the Timbuktu region; in June 2011, when they reportedly raided an AQIM base in the Wagadou Forest (more here); and in October 2011, when they launched an air raid on the Wagadou Forest. If readers are aware of other Mauritanian operations in Mali, please let us know in the comments. In any case, it is worth paying attention to this show of force from the Mauritanian army.

15 thoughts on “Mauritania and Northern Mali

  1. Would Mauritania launch strikes independent of ECOWAS? I assume that they had some agreement with Mali in the past but entering territory that is effectively enemy-held would be a large undertaking, especially considering the size of just the Tuareg-held Mali.

  2. Pingback: RE: Mauritanians in Northern Mali | The Moor Next Door

  3. Mauritania will probably hit Northern Mali if AQIM makes a move against it, Certain that Aziz is looking for an excuse if AQIM/Mujao/AnçarDine make a move against its territory. For the medium to long term, Northern Mali is a threat for Mauritania. There is no joke about it. People can’ t rely anymore on the US and Algeria. Aziz is stubborn.

  4. Hello Alex, all — theology & politcal theology are not my strong suit, so I’m wondering if you or other readers could help pin down the importance of the “Essential concepts” that preface the numbered points of the AD/MNLA agreement as transmitted in the Aray al Mostenir article above.

    My shaky translation is “essential concepts —
    The concept of blasphemy in idols.
    The concept of loyalty and disavowal.
    And the need to establish an Islamic state in Azawad”

    So idols I imagine to be a reference to saints tombs and other Muslim traditions common to West Africa, Salafist’s dislike of these, and the general abuse of such traditions as witnessed in Tombouctou over the last 2 months.

    But the “Doctrine of Loyalty and Disavowal”: My little understanding of the importance of this in Salafist thought ( eg ) doesn’t help me pin down the background of whomever is pushing these three concepts. I understand that disavowal can mean disavowing all authority thought to be coming from out side the lands of Islam, and some turn this into really radical ends, but one reading seems also to be just disavowing “impurities” (“polytheism”) that have seemed into Islamic practice. This would seem — again a guess — to be something more in line with the Dawa folks that so influenced Iyad Ag Ghali. But does the prominent weight given to this (as a basis of a new political order) actually speak to the more radical reading, whereby everything and all people not of the land of Islam are to be anathema, to be destroyed?

    So Alex: do you or others with a grasp of theological usage in Islamist politics have a reading? What does this tell us about whose agenda is driving the formal politics in Gao?

    Free prognostication on my part: whatever background these people have, neither Salafists nor a group run by Ifoghas nobility will last long in Gao & Tombouctou, unless — like Tombouctou — they just drive out the population and occupy an empty shell.

    • Hey Tommy, I’m not claiming expertise in this sort of political theology since most of my background comes from the “other side,” but at first glance these sort of seem like stock phrases, just like the “amr bi’l ma`ruf wa an-nahy `an al-munqar” which follows them, great to say but complicated to implement in practice. My guessing is leaning in the same general direction I think yours is… 1. Unbelief/paganism through idols (Kufr bi’l Taghut) – certainly has many possible meanings – I think may be partly used, as you suggest, to reference other Islamic traditions in the area (not just tombs but some practices of ‘mystical sciences’) so as to make a distinction between those making the declaration and everybody else, but also just as a baseline premise for a legitimate claim to an Islamic state. Following that, however, once an interpretation of that criterion defines Islamic practice from unbelief, #2 (loyalty and disavowal) would imply that the Muslims must separate themselves (ie politically and economically?) from the others. So that could be seen as legitimating Azawad independence, and (I’m reading loosely here) expelling all the ‘others’, most notably dislodging them from their positions controlling the region’s resources. That resonates with resentment against Bamako (and other ‘occupying others’) and legitimates the coalition’s sovereignty. Refusing to let international NGOs in, like we see below, also follows and again serves both Islamist and nationalist ideologies. But can they plausibly ‘cleanse’ among the population among more radical lines as you ponder, or will they be forced to stop at harassing people – mostly women, shutting down the bars, and making Radio Tisdas and the TV really boring, like what we get from news reports so far? Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but if Ansar Dine really had popular support for their ideology, why did they join MNLA at all, right? In any case, I agree with your prognostication, and hope that the population can encourage consensus and moderation.

      • Thanks Alex & Alex!

        I like the idea — that I overlooked but seems clear now — that these may be stock phrases (like greetings or benedictions) whose ‘meaning’ rests as much in performance usage as in a parse-able text. As you each point out, there are lots of usages of the “loyalty and disavowal” concept and it’s reference doesn’t normally portend anything other than piety & rectitude. It seems — from very brief reading — that Tablighi Jamaat preaching doesn’t load it with any unusual reading, though it’s obviously important to what they’re working for.

        For the record, it’s the ideological background of Iyad’s Ancar Dine leaders I’m trying to trace here: are they influenced by the Tablighi reformation of local practice as I’ve always though? Or as some commentators contend, is the particular political-religious reading of AQIM in evidence in Ancar Dine’s speech and action? I get the impression that some more extreme Salafist readings particularly burden the “loyalty and disavowal” concept with political instruction. But it may be too much to derive that from Ancar Dine’s public statements so far.

        Alex (Zito): I like your possible reading of Azawad / Tuareg nationalists bending that religious concept of “separation from the bad” into separation from the corrupt Bamako government and “their” agents. That of course trips over the facts that Bamakois officials are just as “good” Muslims as Kidal’s ruling class — who now are hip deep in Ancar Dine — and have behaved in pretty similar ways. But nationalist ideology everywhere relies on ethnic difference as a signifier for moral rectitude, however obviously false that may be to outsiders. So why not use shared religious language?

        What would that tell us about the strength of Gao’s MNLA, if they have to slip their nationalist agenda inside a coating of religious language to render it palatable to local Arab militias and even other Ifoghas rebel groups? Nothing good.

  5. Any near-term foreign military action, even in territorial defense, is more likely to snowball than bring resolution to northern Mali. The situation requires a unified and clear strategy between the national government, regional actors and blocs, and Western capitals, but their overall response is much more indecisive and unprepared than various officials are claiming in public.

    • I don’ t know how many years now they are talking about unified forces to engage AQIM (CEMOC, GWOT, CAERT, Flintlocks, etc…). MNLA is a non entity anymore, overtaken by AnçarDine and AQMI. They will make the mistake of attacking Mauritania and Mauritania will retaliate, whatever the consequences. There is no solution to this: the islamists want to take power and there is no discussion with them.

      Read this and it is not a joke. This very serious:
      Nord du Mali: la fusion de deux groupes armés bloquée par des dissensions

      Bamako – Le projet de fusion entre la rébellion touareg et le groupe islamiste Ansar Dine dans le nord du Mali est bloqué en raison de désaccords de fond entre les deux mouvements, notamment sur l’application de la loi islamique, a-t-on appris lundi soir de sources concordantes.

      Nous avons refusé d’approuver le communiqué final, parce qu’il est différent du protocole d’accord que nous avons signé (samedi, ndlr). Toute la journée d’aujourd’hui, nous avons discuté, mais il n’y a pas eu d’entente, a déclaré à l’AFP Ibrahim Assaley, élu du Nord malien et membre du Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), la rébellion touareg.

      Dans le communiqué écrit par Ansar Dine, on parle d’application de la charia (loi islamique) +pure et dure+, on parle aussi d’interdire le Nord aux organisations humanitaires non-musulmanes: ce n’était pas précisé dans le protocole d’accord, a-t-il poursuivi, joint par l’AFP depuis Bamako dans la grande ville septentrionale de Gao.

      C’est comme si on voulait nous dissoudre dans Ansar Dine, a-t-il lancé, jugeant que les exigences du groupe islamiste sont dignes d’une organisation religieuse. On n’a pas accepté ça, a insisté M. Assaley.

      Après le protocole d’accord qui est une base de travail, le chef d’Ansar Dine, Iyad Ag Ghaly, a envoyé de Tombouctou, autre ville du Nord, un communiqué sous pli fermé. Quand on a lu le communiqué, il y a eu des gens du MNLA qui ont dit qu’il faut corriger des choses. Nous avons refusé, a déclaré à l’AFP Moussa Ag Achérif, l’un de ses proches.

      C’est à prendre ou à laisser, a-t-il souligné, annonçant qu’Iyad Ag Ghaly vient à Gao demain (mardi) matin pour régler le problème.

      La rébellion touareg et le mouvement islamiste Ansar Dine, allié aux jihadistes d’Al-Qaïda au Maghreb islamique (Aqmi), ont signé samedi un protocole d’accord sur leur fusion au sein d’un Conseil transitoire de l’Etat islamique de l’Azawad (région nord).

      Ansar Dine et Aqmi sont actuellement dominants, aux dépens du MNLA, dans l’immense Nord malien qui a échappé au pouvoir central depuis deux mois, une partition de fait précipitée par le coup d’Etat militaire du 22 mars à Bamako.

      Toute reprise d’article ou extrait d’article devra inclure une référence à

      Source : AFP via Romandie News (Suisse)

      • Conflict with Mauritania is a probable scenario given Ansar Dine’s absolutist ideology, but it will need help to make any lasting impact. Now the French are openly talking UN-approved military options with ECOWAS and AU. Seems to be a genuine (and private) paralysis in the international response. Whoever is controlling the arms in northern Mali is going to put up a long fight.

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  7. Fully agree with you Gundun. But it takes a week to win over those controlling arms in Northern Mali. I am not talking about the MNLA that has genuine claims. But this AQIM/AnsarDine/Mujo is a real mess

  8. The bigest problems of africa are created the artificial borders traced by the past colonial powers in this case France. The solution would a union between Mali including azawad and Mauritania (if mauritanian accept??). This union would take care of legitimite aspirations of touregs and all nomads in this area. After that the extremist would be force to leave if not mauritanian army could easly wipethem out.

    • I’m always curious when people make arguments about borders being “artificial”: what exactly is a “natural” border?

      Scratch that argument and you have the assumption that states should be mono ethnic / linguistic “nation states”, a concept first invented in Europe in the 18th century. What could be more colonial than to adopt that in West Africa? Maybe forcing others to adopt it by threat of force.

  9. Pingback: Quick Items: Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz on Mali, Goodluck Jonathan Visits Yobe and Borno | Sahel Blog

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