On March 30, a driver for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was fatally shot outside Gao, northern Mali. The attack was quickly claimed (French) by the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, or MUJAO in French). MUJWA, an offshoot of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, was a key participant in the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012-2013. MUJWA and other jihadists have continued to trouble Mali since the French-led military intervention swept the jihadists out of power – though not entirely out of Mali – in 2013. MUJWA was a dominant player in Gao during 2012-2013.
One immediate effect of the killing will be a partial withdrawal by the ICRC. In a statement, the ICRC expressed concern over “the rise in violence against humanitarian workers, which is preventing them from coming to the aid of individuals and communities in dire need.” The humanitarian group has now suspended travel (French) in the north. The chilling effect of violence on relief operations is bad news for Mali, particularly for the approximately 100,000 Malians who remain internally displaced.
The attack also calls attention to MUJWA’s complicated trajectory. Since 2013, some fighters from MUJWA have joined the al-Murabitun network, named for an eleventh-century northwest African Islamic empire (al-Murabitun recently claimed an attack on a nightclub in Mali’s capital Bamako). Others have joined the Arab Movement of the Azawad (French), one of the non-jihadist northern rebel movements opposed to the national government but participating in intermittent peace talks. As the former MUJWA fighter interviewed at the link explains, some northern Malian Arabs looked to MUJWA to protect them from the Tuareg rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, another key northern rebel faction but an enemy of the Arab Movement of the Azawad. The point is not only the astounding complexity of the landscape of armed groups in northern Mali (which there are many experts who can explain better than I can), but also the way in which so many of the major actors from 2012-2013 are still influential, albeit often in different ways and venues than before.