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.

Northern Mali: Tuareg Rebellion State of Play and Map

A few days ago, IRIN posted a useful backgrounder on the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. Read it and it becomes clear that the rebels – the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad or MNLA – have, at least in the short-term, achieved some of their top military priorities:

When the MNLA began hostilities with the attack on Ménaka on January 17, it announced its main targets as Kidal, Tombouctou and Gao, the three provincial capitals of the “septentrion”, or far north, all of which would be part of a “liberated Azawad”.

Azawad refers to the idea of an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali.

The rebels were scoring victories even before the coup in southern Mali on March 22, but confusion in the south has helped the MNLA rapidly conquer their main targets. Kidal fell on Friday, Gao on Saturday, and Timbuktu some time between Sunday and today (on a side note, I really appreciate that the BBC refers to Timbuktu as “the last northern army stronghold,” highlighting its current significance, rather than as “the fabled ancient desert blah blah blah,” as many other outlets are wont to do).

The dynamics of the rebellion in the north are complicated by the fact that several groups are operating at once. There is the MNLA, which wants independence. There is Ancar Dine (Arabic: “Supporters/Defenders of the Faith”), which says it wants to impose shari’a in Mali. There is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which may see the rebellion as an opportunity to deepen its presence in the region. Such hopes on AQIM’s part may be in vain. Kal – who writes, “Northern Mali is not fated for AQIM to make it its home or be a major player in the region’s internal politics” – analyzes the interplay between those groups here. Ranked by size, the MNLA is the most important force.

Even these few paragraphs should hint that the politics within and around the rebellion going forward will be quite complicated. This complexity makes it important to take things one step at a time.

First, it remains to be seen exactly what will shake out in southern Mali. The junta in the capital Bamako has agreed to reinstate the constitution (it had briefly substituted a new one) and return power to civilians. So the coup is over, right? Well, not yet. As the BBC points out, “They have not stepped down and there are no clear arrangements for a transition of power.” More clarity will come today, as the Economic Community of West African States decides what sanctions to impose on the junta, and how the junta responds – especially what kind of timeline it proposes for a civilian handover. Many details must still be ironed out before anyone will know clearly who rules in Bamako.

Second, it remains to be seen whether rebels’ military victories translate into lasting political control. Fragmentation within the rebel camp, and confusion about which political vision will be imposed, could make administering newly conquered territories difficult or lead to infighting, which could turn large number of civilians against the rebels. Another question will be whether the rebels receive much international recognition, and my feeling is that they will not. Both African leaders and outside governments have been reluctant to see any re-drawing of maps in Africa – South Sudan fought two civil wars over a period of fifty years, and endured a six-year transition process, before achieving independence, while the proto-state of Somaliland has been functioning (without the international recognition it craves) for two decades. It’s hard to get recognized if you’re a wannabe new state.

In this case, I do not believe Mali’s neighbors will be keen to recognize the Azawad. As Peter Tinti writes, the MNLA says its territorial ambitions are limited to Mali but “the prospect of a rebellion that crosses several borders” – ie, into other areas with Tuareg populations, such as Niger, Algeria, and Libya – would “freak out the international community.” There are a lot of forces, in other words, that militate against international recognition for a state called Azawad, even if the rebels are able to control the area de facto in the coming weeks (months? years?).

Events in Mali have moved very quickly and are continuing to do so. Once again, I recommend turning to Twitter for the latest, especially the feeds of Martin VoglMartin Plaut,Peter DorrieHannah ArmstrongTommy Miles, and Andrew Lebovich. I leave you with a map below, highlighting (from west to east) Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal, and with a link to a much nicer map at Wikipedia, that gives an overview of major battle sites.

Mali: Quick Items on Elections, Protests, and the Northern Rebellion

Two brief observations about Mali:

  1. Some northern Malians do not want the country’s presidential elections, scheduled for April 29, to go forward (Fr) while the rebellion in that region is still active. But there is still a lot of pressure on Mali and in Mali to hold the elections. This week, the Economic Community of West African States urged Mali to move forward with the vote “at all costs.” Major candidates also reportedly oppose any delay. And, of course, the current government has said the elections will take place.
  2. The protests that Mali saw earlier this year over the alleged mismanagement of the war are not over. This week students marched in Kati (Fr; map). They were “worried about the insecurity that prevails in the north, especially in Tessalit” and hoped to meet with the president to discuss the crisis. There is also reportedly discontent within the army (Fr), amid losses to the Tuaregs and accusations of corruption (h/t Martin Vogl).
  3. There has reportedly been a split within the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), the Tuareg-led rebel army in the north. Specifically, the group Ancar Dine (Ar: “Supporters/Defenders of the Faith”) has called for an Islamic republic and the application of shari’a in Mali. One Malian source (Fr) says (my translation), “Taking this radical position signals a rupture with the MNLA.” After a meeting between MNLA leaders and Ancar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali failed to resolve the difference in position, the rupture deepened. MNLA released a statement on Monday affirming its desire for a republic “based on principles of democracy and secularism.” Ancar Dine now claims to control northeastern Mali.

What do you make of these items, particularly the last one?